Cleanup of terminal opens possibilities Redevelopment: A state-backed effort to reclaim polluted sites, or "brownfields," has put new life into the Highland Marine Terminal. Developers hope the state will expand the program.

November 05, 1996|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The Highland Marine Terminal was one of those dark, creepy, forgotten urban corners that seen from a highway or airplane seemed to symbolize the decay of American industry.

Rusting metal warehouse roofs were falling in. Sewage flowed straight into the harbor. There were piles of trash, dirt roads, muddy warehouse floors. Scavengers rummaging through the sprawl of worn buildings had long ago pulled out anything that they could use or sell, including copper downspouts.

But somehow Thomas Obrecht saw opportunity. And through a sometimes difficult process of environmental cleanup and bank financing, the Baltimore commercial real estate developer is turning the 33 acres in Canton into clean, cheap warehouse space for port-related businesses.

But businessmen and environmental regulators say Highland Marine Terminal is more than just a redevelopment project. It is a prime example of the need for legislation that will make it easier to turn the state's worst industrial eyesores into useful redevelopments that bring jobs and tax revenues.

The project is the first so-called "brownfields" site to be developed in the state. While other environmental cleanups have been done, this was the first time that the state Department of Environment released the developer from liability, on condition certain cleanup of the property was completed.

Even Obrecht seems surprised at the project's success so far. "I was going to tear that building down," said Obrecht as he pointed to a dilapidated brick building across from the bulldozers. "But someone came to me and said he loved it. So I leased it to him."

Last week, a workman was tearing out a rusting workers' locker room in a building that will get new electrical wiring, plumbing and a roof before it is turned into offices.

Since Obrecht began the project in April, 100,000 square feet of buildings have been razed and 250 truckloads of trash, everything from abandoned cars to Christmas trees, have been hauled away.

A 5-foot layer of contaminated soil over 2 1/2 acres was dug up and mixed with a substance that turned it into concrete. Asbestos, lead paint and PCBs also were removed.

After roofs were reconstructed on two large warehouses, 10,000 gallons of paint were sprayed on the walls and metal beams. Soon, the rail lines that run by the warehouses will begin carrying freight again.

Already, 95 percent of the 733,000 square feet of space and 7 acres of outside storage have been leased, in some cases to tenants who were there before the renovations and have renegotiated leases. In one case, a manufacturer of trash bins has been able to expand his business because of the cleanup.

City officials believe there are 1,000 acres in Baltimore that could be called brownfields sites because they are either vacant or underused. Often they aren't polluted, but because developers fear they may be, they haven't been redeveloped.

But those sites could be a tremendous source of new tax revenues and generate jobs in a city with almost no undeveloped land left.

"The city's ability to sustain itself is based on its ability to reuse the land," said David Levy, Baltimore's brownfields coordinator.

So the city supports state legislation that failed last year in the Maryland General Assembly but that will be introduced again next year to encourage redevelopment projects such as the Highland Marine Terminal.

One of the biggest obstacles to the Highland Marine Terminal site was financing. Obrecht said he was only able to do the project without legislation because almost half of the $11.3 million needed came from an unnamed private investor. Two banks turned the proposal down, but Mercantile Bank finally agreed, providing $5 million, $3.5 million of which was guaranteed by the state. Another $2 million in loans were put in by the state, half of which was designated for environmental cleanup.

"It is important the state makes it easier for banks," Obrecht said. "If the state exonerates them from liability, then banks will start to get involved in the redevelopment of these areas. I think [the legislation] is critical."

While environmentalists support the concept of legislation as well, they are concerned about several issues, particularly that pollution cleanup not be reduced.

Robert DeMarco, the state's administrator for environmental restoration and redevelopment, said the department will not ease pollution regulations for these sites. However, the assessment of environmental risk will take into account the fact that a site would be developed for heavy industry rather than houses.

But government officials aren't the only ones betting on brownfields this year. Environmental businesses, such as Hunt Valley-based EA Engineering, Science and Technology, Inc., see them as a source for future business.

"It seems ironic that we are always packing our bags to do work on brownfields [in other states]," said Loren Jensen, chief executive of EA Engineering, speaking at a recent breakfast he sponsored to try to encourage discussion of brownfields legislation.

The Maryland Environmental Business Association will hold a meeting soon to decide how to best support the legislation this year.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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