Concerned in Canton Upscale development may hurt blue-collar residents, some fear

July 29, 1996|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

It doesn't have a Mount Vernon Place address or a tile roof, but the abandoned American Can Co. complex on Boston Street in Canton qualifies as a landmark -- a monument to the tin can and Baltimore's industrial past.

A proposal to convert the site's remaining buildings to shops and offices could unify a community divided over commercial and residential growth, or it could widen the gulf between the neighborhood's working-class and upper-income residents.

"The last thing we need is more restaurants, or another Harborplace," said Anna Stoffregen, 63, a lifelong resident of Canton. "I'd like to see retailers that will meet our basic needs -- perhaps a post office or a pharmacy, maybe some clothing stores."

But Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc. of Baltimore, the development company that has an option to buy the triangular property bounded by Boston and Hudson streets and Lakewood Avenue, hopes to persuade trendier, high-rent tenants to set up shop.

"A post office would require too much parking," said Struever Vice President Mark Shapiro. He added that the company would like to attract such upscale retailers as a Bibelot bookstore and Donna's Cafe, or a lunch and dinner restaurant like Linwood's, before renting space to smaller stores.

"We recognize that this is a diverse area, and we're reaching out to a broad spectrum of tenants," Shapiro said, "but for the economic feasibility of the project, we're looking for larger, higher-rent paying tenants. We may fill in with smaller, service-oriented tenants later."

Initial plans for the 4.3 acres seem to cater to the waterfront's upper-income residents, leaving Canton's blue-collar community in the lurch.

"People in this neighborhood certainly don't have the money to support that kind of development," said Stoffregen husband, Bill Stoffregen, a retired employee of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

The Stoffregens grew up in Canton -- he on Elliott Street, she on South Curley. They married Feb. 8, 1953, and moved into their two-story Formstone rowhouse on South Potomac, about a block from their childhood homes. They have seen their neighborhood change dramatically in recent years, and, like many of their neighbors, they don't like the transition.

Canton is a 19th-century neighborhood of brick rowhouses and churches, canneries, factories and light industry. It survived the Great Fire of 1904 and a proposed superhighway in 1966 that would have gone through the center of the community. In 1979, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Developers' dreams to turn Canton into a "gold coast" during the 1980s never became reality because of a national recession, but new projects have been steady. Upscale waterfront condos including Canton Cove and apartment complexes like Tindeco Wharf have been attracting a younger group of people to the old neighborhood. Many of the new residents support development.

"I think it will attract more residents to the area and build a stronger community," said Jim Pomfret, who has lived in Canton for nine years and is a member of the board of directors for the Canton Square Homeowners Association. "Canton could become a model for the rest of the city, for how it should develop."

The increased traffic along Boston Street and in the working-class neighborhoods north of the American Can site has long been a source of aggravation for some residents.

"It's not as quiet as it used to be, and the taxes keep going up," Anna Stoffregen said. "You buy a house and struggle with the mortgage, hoping to have a quiet place to retire. Now there's all this construction going on. It's constant noise until 5: 30 or 6 p.m."

Development along the waterfront, including construction of houses and a marina recreation area on Boston Street, has been a source of tension for more than a decade.

Young professionals and empty-nesters started moving to Canton about 15 years ago. By 1990, there were 12,803 people living in Canton -- up 26 percent from 1980. The arrival of the newcomers spurred development of the waterfront and caused dramatic changes in the income and educational attainment levels of area residents, census figures show.

Median household income on the Canton waterfront increased from less than $15,000 in 1980 to nearly $33,000 in 1990 -- even after adjusting for inflation. The number of adults who completed four years of college also increased -- up from 2 percent in 1980 to more than 30 percent a decade later.

"Parking has become a hassle. You have to drive around the block two or three times before you can find a spot," said Bill Stoffregen, "and some of the young people who visit the local bars, they have no respect for other people's property. The only positive thing I can say about all this development is that it might bring jobs to the area."

Merchants in the recently revitalized O'Donnell Square -- a former farmer's market two blocks north of the American Can complex -- worry that the project may create more than jobs: they fear competition.

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