Battle brewing along Key Highway Commercial ventures poised to transform gritty waterfront area

September 09, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

When Olympic beach volleyball came to Key Highway this year, the NBC cameras panned west toward the Inner Harbor and east toward Fells Point. But they never faced south to capture the highway's grit: old waterfront warehouses, office buildings and torn-up road.

To a number of entrepreneurs, developers and museum executives, though, the 83-year-old industrial highway is downright eye-catching. In the 10-block stretch between Covington and Lawrence streets, they see the possibility of a Gold Coast of restaurants, bars and stores.

"There's going to be a host of restaurants and retail along Key Highway," says Harold Faircloth, vice president of a brewery and pub scheduled to open this fall.

What also is likely to develop is a battle with local residents. After a year's worth of signs of commercial development, community groups say they are ready to take a stand.

"There is great concern coming from neighborhood groups on the South Baltimore peninsula about Key Highway," says state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a 47th District Democrat. "Everyone's antenna has gone up, particularly with people who want to add liquor licenses there."

The current battleground is 1325-A Key Highway, the site of Little Havana, a proposed Cuban restaurant that may open in an old warehouse this fall. Community leaders are convinced it is a waterfront nightclub in disguise, and have opposed a liquor license. The owners swear it is a restaurant and have circulated a menu designed to recall the salad days of pre-1959 Havana.

"We realize that this is an application for a restaurant license, but it has been our experience that many applicants changed to something radically different after the license was obtained," Mary Frances Garland, a longtime South Baltimore community activist, wrote in her letter to the liquor board. "We want to forestall anything that would allow or encourage the development of megabars."

With the prospect of a fight, the residents and the entrepreneurs are organizing.

Three South Baltimore neighborhood associations are forming an umbrella organization, to be called Peninsula Alliance of Community Associations, which would increase their clout in opposing new bars and the expansion of existing ones.

They worry that new restaurants eventually will spawn bars, bringing young outsiders to the community and creating the nighttime parking problems, noise and public intoxication seen on the waterfront in Fells Point or Canton.

"The way things are getting with bars, Key Highway and everything else, we want to unify," says Jack Williams, president of Riverside Action Group. "We think the Cuban place is the beginning of megabars on Key Highway."

Key Highway already shows signs of the kinds of development that attract outsiders and tourists. In addition to Little Havana and the new brew-pub, the section of the highway south of the Inner Harbor has the new American Visionary Art Museum and the Museum of Industry, which is building a concert pavilion. Industrial and office development includes General Ship Repair and the South Baltimore Business Center.

But HarborView, with its marina, condominium tower and 42 acres of waterfront land, is the dominant force on the highway. It is also a participant in a new business group, Key Attractions, which will hold its first meeting this morning at the Museum of Industry. With representatives from the new restaurateurs, museums and even Fort McHenry, the group plans to promote development of the highway, publish brochures, and push for improved signage directing Baltimore visitors to the roadway's attractions.

"We see the highway helping to flip the emphasis of the harbor from a northern one to a southern one," says Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, president and founder of the new art museum. "The more life we can get down here at night, the better it is for everybody."

The stakes are high because the city is spending $8 million on the reconstruction of Key Highway as a four-lane gateway to Baltimore.

As head of the Museum of Industry at 14 Key Highway, Dennis Zembala looks east to the warehouses of Locust Point, and west toward Little Havana and HarborView. He wants to preserve industrial buildings, but believes new restaurants and similar businesses are needed.

"What you're fighting against is the worldwide containerization of shipping, which means you don't need all these warehouses. And the fact is that in Copenhagen, Sydney, everywhere, these kinds of districts are being commercialized," Zembala says.

It took Baltimore until 1913 -- 99 years after the bombardment of Fort McHenry -- before it named a road for Francis Scott Key. Built in three stages, the street linked downtown with Locust Point, and served a variety of ship repair and manufacturing operations.

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