Future springs from old factory Renewal: Neighbors can see the payoff for their fight to save the American Can Co. building.

November 06, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

American Can Co.'s parking lot in Canton is a contractors' traffic jam as the days grow short for the grand opening of the $27 million complex that has made the technological leap from clanking machines to computer screens and their Web pages.

The project is the finale to a 10-year story wherein one of Baltimore's oldest manufacturing plants shut its doors a decade ago, only to be reborn as a new, computer-based workplace made into dozens of offices for 800 workers.

In addition to the eight floors of office space, the stoutly constructed American Can site, in the 2400 block of Boston St., also houses several restaurants, a bookstore, coffee shop, gourmet food and wine bar and other retail establishments. A handful of the businesses are open and most of the eating places and shops are scheduled to debut this month.

"I'd always wanted to do this complex," C. William Struever, its owner, said. "It's the fifth cannery in Baltimore that I've developed."

Struever, 46, is a builder-developer who began restoring the city's dollar houses (the then-rundown downtown rowhouses the city sold for a token $1) 25 years ago and now heads a company that has specialized in the reuse of aged industrial sites, including the Inner Harbor's Power Plant, Hampden's Mill Center and Canton's Tindeco Wharf.

"There is quite an eclectic group of new business thinkers in this area. I like the relations that are starting to happen on this little corridor," said Craig Ziegler, 37, president of Gr8, a computer communications firm that employs 55 people in stylish offices on the can plant's third floor.

Ziegler sees these blocks of Boston Street as mushrooming with cyber talent, not only at American Can, but also at the Broom Factory, another Canton industrial building several blocks away that is the home of young businesses.

"This is a technology byway. We're getting some national recognition and attracting young talent," Ziegler said.

The concrete and brick former can company, which sprawls over 4 acres, overlooks the harbor and has expansive views of Boston Street marinas, Fells Point and Fort McHenry, has been refurbished.

Many of the buildings have been painted a ketchup-colored red, a tone that Struever calls "red red." It's a color that was associated with the old plant: "Whether it's the same red I'm not sure."

About $24 million of the can company conversion has been privately financed. The state, through its Department of Economic Development, has financed a $3 million computer-based jobs incubator called an Emerging Technologies Center.

While this is a state-of-the-art center, artifact displays and murals show Canton's role in the canning industry.

"It's a statement of respect for the community," Struever said.

A small army of electricians, plumbers and drywallers are hurrying to have the place ready for tenants.

"I fought long and hard to save that building," said Lillian Sims, 71, a Kenwood Avenue resident who was permanently laid off by American Can in 1982. "I started work there when I was 18. Worked all the jobs -- running a press that made the can ends. I even loaded boxcars."

She and other Canton residents battled city and federal officials to spare the plant from demolition by developers. They were successful, but it took a decade for American Can to reopen.

Several days ago, Sims was delighted to observe that several neighborhood teen-agers got part-time jobs at the American Can's card store, one of the shops that has opened.

On Wednesday afternoon, workers placed live waterlily plants in a circular pond bordered with sedum, ornamental grass and flowering annuals. The round pit had once been a collection point for dangerous lead used in the manufacture of tin cans.

"This is the first brownfields site in the state to be cleaned," Struever said of the pool, which will have goldfish.

One of the complex's new star tenants is the national headquarters for DAP Corp., a company that makes household sealants such as the caulking used in bathroom shower enclosures. It is housed in a stylish office with windows overlooking the water.

"Getting the DAP headquarters to Baltimore is the kind of home run in the baseball game of community development," said Ken Strong, director of South East Community Organization. "This is our little corner of the Silicon Valley. It's the cutting edge."

The anticipated success of the project is causing some worry from neighboring residents who fear that parking spillover might claim spaces at their front doors.

Struever said he wanted the can company to have a welcoming heart where people could drop in, have a cup of coffee and read a book. "We worked hard to put a Bibelot's Books here. We see it as an anchor for the whole community," he said.

"It's amazing," said the Bibelot store's floor manager Stephen Cocker, whose shop is slated to open this month. "I live on Wolfe Street in Fells Point and people don't know we exist. They will, though."

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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