Changing view of river

Waterfront: Marina operators, residents wonder where they fit into Baltimore County plans for Middle River-Essex.

January 08, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Anna Mueller remembers a time when boaters signed a waiting list for slips at her family's marina on the banks of Middle River. Now, she presides over half-empty piers where boats are vandalized. Some nights she shoos away men who park at her marina with "the ladies who do business on the road."

If that's not enough, even the water is lacking these days at Buedel's Marina.

"After a rain, you can walk across the river on the paper cups and the mud that come down," Mueller says, stretching the truth just a little to make her point. To these problems she adds the competition from marinas closer to the Chesapeake Bay and concludes, "We certainly need a boost."

Baltimore County officials agree. They say the area surrounding Buedel's Essex boatyard needs a face lift. Earlier this week, they unrolled an ambitious blueprint to bulldoze the blight along Old Eastern Avenue and create a waterfront village that could draw boaters from across the Chesapeake, generating hope among marina owners like Mueller -- but raising questions.

"It reads like a dream," Mueller said after learning of the plans through news reports. "The only thing I'd like to know is: Where do we fit into the plan? Or do we?"

The plan is to do nothing less than fundamentally change the landscape of 400 acres of Middle River and Essex. Recognizing that the county has for too long squandered the assets of 175 miles of shoreline, officials are banking on a radical transformation to stir economic growth in the county's depressed east side.

They want to tear down dilapidated housing and rundown businesses and replace them with parkland and single-family homes. They want to realign roads to present an image of a waterfront haven. They want to replace the shacks dotting the shores of a rural peninsula with a modern housing development -- complete with a bed-and-breakfast as its centerpiece.

The county wants to commit $30 million in taxpayer money to the project and hopes for private investment of more than $70 million.

Tom Wood pays $300 a month to live at the southern tip of the peninsula, sandwiched between Hopkins Creek and Middle River. He has the water, his 26-foot sailboat named Marilyn, and his seven-room home. He's been there for 15 years, but he knows it's too good to last. He sees the proposal as progress.

"It would be good for the community, bad for me," the 46-year-old railroad conductor said. "I've been expecting this for years. It's been a nice run down here. We've had a lot of fun. When the time comes, I'll go back to Fells Point."

For the time being, the shacks will share the peninsula with Hopewell Pointe, a 221-unit housing development with a marina and waterfront restaurant, scheduled for construction in the summer. Also on the peninsula are three marinas -- including the one the Buedel family opened more than three decades ago.

Mueller, 70, wears a necklace with a small gold propeller because her marina specializes in props. Fritz, part black Labrador retriever and an aging but still effective watchdog, prowls the shop. Propellers, from small plastic models for trolling boats to large, brass models for inboards, hang from the walls.

Mueller says the 10-acre property has been in the family since 1912. It runs from the water to Old Eastern Avenue. There, a bar called the Commodore has been serving drinks since Prohibition was repealed.

Early prosperity

Along the driveway to the marina, renters live in a couple of bungalows. Blanche Walsh, a 66-year-old widow on a fixed income of $710 a month, pays $225 in rent to live there. She's been there since 1981. "For me to go somewhere else would be almost impossible," she says.

Mueller's uncle opened the marina in 1967, and it thrived in an era when a family could buy a decent cabin cruiser for as little as $12,000. But the price of boating increased even as the area deteriorated. Fewer people with the means to enjoy boating wanted to drive through blight to get to their vessels.

Few boaters from other areas choose Middle River as a destination. Why should they when they could dock in Rock Hall or Chestertown or Havre de Grace and walk to a restaurant?

Mueller says she is lucky to fill half the marina's 130 slips. Buedel's Marina is at the head of Middle River, near the Eastern Boulevard Bridge and the "triangle" formed by the boulevard and Old Eastern Avenue. Nearby is The Main Event, a nightclub that was the scene of a shooting last month. The nightclub and other businesses near the bridge would be acquired by the county and razed to make way for a realigned road with a better view of the water.

"This changes the fundamental character of how people will experience the area," says Judy London, the county's waterfront development coordinator. "The obvious asset is the water. The irony is: You can't see the water."

Land condemned

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