After the chrome, what?

March 29, 1993

So far, so good.

Preliminary plans for the development of the former AlliedSignal chemical plant, perhaps the most attractive -- and certainly the most troublesome -- tract on the Inner Harbor, have been presented to the City Council for approval. Unlike some other major schemes for the Baltimore waterfront, the proposal received largely upbeat reviews from potential neighbors, who have participated in months of negotiations over the proposal. By and large, they like what they see, though some have reservations, and some remain opposed to the planned development of the peninsula that marks the entry to the Inner Harbor.

The AlliedSignal proposal, prepared by local architects and developers, calls for a mixture of housing, offices, shops and public facilities on the 27-acre site. Its most conspicuous feature is a new performing arts center to replace the Morris Mechanic Theatre. Much of the tract would be reserved for open spaces, including a wider-than-required promenade around the water's edge. Building heights would be limited, with the tallest (180 feet) at the center of the tract. Streets feeding into the tract would be straightened and extended, allowing full public access. At first glance it appears to be a satisfactory blend of public interest and commercial necessity.

Access continues to be a problem with the site, however, and it needs further scrutiny by city officials. Only two streets lead into the tract, Caroline Street from the north and Thames Street from the east. Thames Street leads to already congested Fells Point, placing the principal burden on Caroline Street. It is not readily apparent how serious congestion could be avoided at peak hours, for office workers or audiences at the theater, or for that matter in case of disaster.

All of this depends, of course, on a verdict by federal and state environmental authorities that the major part of the site is safe from the highly toxic chromium that has penetrated the soil under the old chemical plant. The chromium will never be removed, but AlliedSignal is investing nearly $100 million to contain the waste material so that there will never be seepage. The capping process can't be completed without a general idea of what will go above the buffer. That is why the company seeks early approval of its preliminary plans.

Now the project needs the scrutiny of the whole community. The tract dominates the Inner Harbor and warrants a spectacular development. What the site contains, what it looks like from elsewhere along the waterfront and how it fits in with its surroundings make the project a city-wide concern. Hearings before the council and Planning Commission may spell out more details. But AlliedSignal and its advisers are off to a good start.

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