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FORT WORTH-Using a residential component to help offset the cost, Omni Hotels Inc. will begin excavation Wednesday on a privately financed, $170-million convention center hotel with 97 condos. The long-awaited landmark project will be ready to light in December 2008.

More than 300 onlookers braved the sweltering Texas heat for yesterday’s ceremonial groundbreaking at 1300 Houston St. And, several in the crowd already were asking for details about placing deposits on the Omni Fort Worth Hotel’s condo units.

The Omni Fort Worth is the North Texas-based hotel company’s first convention center-condo project. It does hold a partnership stake in a combo property–511 hotel rooms and 35 high-end condos–across the street from the San Diego convention center, but “it’s not ‘the’ convention center hotel,” says Scott Johnson, Omni’s vice president of development and acquisitions.

“So many projects that we’re looking at have condo components,” Johnson says. “With construction costs spiraling, it only makes sense. I think it’s going to be an important piece for us going forward.”

The 604-room convention center hotel will have 19 floors of high-end condos, with a separate entrance and address on Throckmorton Street. “It’s important the owners feel like it’s a residence,” Johnson tells GlobeSt.com. The condos, which have yet to be priced, range from 783 sf to more than 3,000 sf and are designed so they can be combined. Condo owners also will have a separate valet service, elevators, pool and fitness center.

Johnson says a condo model and sales office will be open by January. “We’re pretty confident they’re going to be highly sought after,” he says, adding several individuals inquired about the condos at yesterday’s groundbreaking. “We’re finding the Omni Hotel flag has tremendous appeal with hotel guests and people wanting to live above it and experience all the services and amenities that Omni has to offer.”

The hotel’s main floor will be all retail, restaurant and lobby space. The city-owned garage, set to rise right next door, also will have street-level retail that will be under the hotelier’s control. To date, Dallas-based Bob’s Steak and Chophouse and Starbucks have preleased space. The retail component also calls for a wine bar, sports bar, museum store and shop space.

“It’s really a rebirth of this side of the Downtown,” Johnson says. “It bridges Sundance Square to the Lancaster Street Corridor.” The Omni Fort Worth Hotel will top out in June or July 2007. “It will move quickly,” he says.

Dallas-based HOK designed the glass-skinned hotel, which represents $115 million of the total project cost. Looney & Associates, also from Dallas, is the interior designer. The hotel will feature a 19,000-sf ballroom, the largest in the city, 40,000 sf of meeting rooms, 10,000 sf of outdoor meeting space, full-service spa and 550 underground parking spaces for guests and condo owners. “This is uniquely Texan and uniquely Fort Worth,” Johnson says of the design.

Omni won the project rights by putting a privately financed proposal on the city’s table although it was a long and arduous battle to cross the finish due to the competition and public debate about the need for more hotel rooms. The city, in keeping with today’s climate, kicked in development incentives. “It’s a unique model that cities across the country are going to be looking at to finance their convention center hotels,” Johnson says.

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