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Mobtown Beat

Red Scare

Scarlett Place Residents Go to War Over Garage Plan

By Molly Rath | Posted 4/11/2001

On Feb. 7, Carrie Johnston, owner of a condominium in Scarlett Place at East Pratt and President streets, was chatting up the bartender at the Purple Orchid restaurant on the building's first floor. That, Johnston says, is when she learned a three-story parking garage would be sprouting up next door, thereby obstructing the binocular-aided view of National Aquarium dolphin shows her eighth-floor balcony affords. A few weeks later, in similarly casual circumstances, she learned from the parking-garage developer, the Cordish Co., of its plans to extend Eastern Avenue through what is now Scarlett Place's backyard.

In weeks since, Johnston, chairperson of Scarlett Place residents' community-relations committee, and a small army of her neighbors have organized to fight the latest chapter in the Cordish Co.'s ongoing bid to build up the Inner Harbor and what appears to be the predetermined fate of the last wedge of undeveloped waterfront along Pratt Street.

Baltimore-based Cordish--which revamped the Power Plant and is readying to cut the ribbon on yet another incarnation of the perennially failed Brokerage and Market Place across Pratt Street--plans to build a six-story office building where the former Chart House restaurant now stands, and it needs parking for tenants. The 600-car garage would replace what is now a city-owned, 230-car surface lot between Scarlett Place and the Columbus Center. At a meeting they arranged late last month, residents say company vice president Blake Cordish told them the garage would stand 33 feet tall (with 45-foot towers at each end) and be situated 10 feet from the Jones Falls' edge. Cordish also said the company was talking to the city about extending Eastern Avenue to the aquarium, creating easy access to and egress from the garage via a direct connection to Pratt Street.

Scarlett Place residents contend both projects would worsen what is already a major traffic tangle on summer days and evenings when the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion is hosting shows and minivan-loads of tourists flood harbor walkways. They worry about the effect increased car fumes might have on the Jones Falls waterway that runs into the harbor, and grouse about the loss of views on Scarlett Place's west side--a big reason many bought their $160,000-to-$250,000 condos in the first place. Then there's that nagging thorn that creeps into the side of so many downtown developments: The affected residents say they were never directly notified of the plans--which in this case have been in the works since February 2000, when Cordish Co. announced the garage proposal to the local business press. What's more, the residents assert, those plans fly in the face of previous design blueprints calling for brick promenades and green space alongside Scarlett Place.

Andrew Frank, executive vice president of the quasipublic Baltimore Development Corp., says Cordish submitted its unsolicited proposal for the parcel about a year ago. The city subsequently issued a request for proposals for developing the site, Frank says, but in the absence of any responses Cordish was given "exclusive negotiating privilege." Those negotiations are nearly complete, he says, but adds that nothing is "set in stone." Frank won't reveal the terms of the deal but says Cordish will pay the city to lease the land--and, unlike the developer's Power Plant deal, it "will not be [$1,000] a year."

As for the Eastern Avenue extension, Frank says it's one of several options being floated to "improve [traffic] circulation at that end of the harbor." He adds that sometime before Cordish presents its garage plan to the city's Design Advisory Panel (scheduled for later this spring) and, subsequently, to the Department of Planning and the Board of Estimates, the public will get some kind of say.

But the Scarlett Place brigade isn't waiting for the public hearings. Residents sent a blistering four-page letter to Mayor Martin O'Malley on March 14, and the condo board is considering hiring a lawyer to advise on fighting the garage; it has also given the green light to hiring an independent appraiser to assess the effect the loss of the view will have on property values. Blake Cordish, who could not be reached for comment by press time, has tried to broker peace by offering to make design concessions, such as lowering the garage to 28 feet.

The residents haven't heard back from the mayor's office, and numerous attempts to meet with BDC, which will make a recommendation, have failed, Johnston says. "This piece of property is owned by the city, but where it the city?" she asks. "Am I supposed to play city planner, go to all [the stakeholders] and say, 'What do you want?' I don't know." The residents do, however, have the ear of City Council member Nick D'Adamo (D-1st District), who says he's asked Department of Public Works Director George Winfield to notify him of any advances on the garage or Eastern Avenue extension.

D'Adamo contends the real estate in question is too valuable to be used for parking. More important than that, he says, Cordish isn't playing by the rules.

"I'm not too damn happy, to be honest," D'Adamo says. "It shows disrespect . . . when a developer has an idea and doesn't share it with the elected officials representing that area. It's sad when you have to hear about it from constituents rather than the developer first."

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