In a sign that a real estate boom in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood might be spreading east into a long-dead industrial area, four developers are looking to transform the vacant National Brewery, part of the adjacent Gunther Brewery and an 80-acre Exxon tank field into offices, shops and apartments.
C. William Struever, the developer who created the American Can Co. retail and office complex on Boston Street, said on Friday he has signed a contract to buy the National Brewery plant, a towering nine-story landmark whose National Bohemian beer gave the Chesapeake region its nickname as the "Land of Pleasant Living."
Struever has hired the Baltimore architectural firm of Cho Benn Holback to study whether he could convert the brew house into 190,000 square feet of apartments and high-tech offices.
"Can you imagine this as a home?" Struever asked as he scrambled through the derelict building recently, skirting holes in the floor where copper brew kettles once sat and looking out through huge, shattered windows toward the harbor. "It would have a great view. And what could be more Baltimore than `Natty Boh?' "
On all four sides of the brewery, along a dead industrial strip of Conkling Street that marks an informal boundary between Canton and Highlandtown, developers are planning projects:
To the south, Obrecht Commercial Real Estate Inc., of Timonium, recently signed contracts to buy and convert part of the empty Gunther Brewery and a vacant vocational school into a 50,000-square-foot retail store and 37,500-square-foot office center.
To the north, developer Mark Hrubar has construction under way to convert a former National Brewery warehouse at 3610 Dillon St. into 60,000 square feet of high-tech offices.
To the east, the Baltimore Development Corp. won a $1 million federal grant and a $5 million loan Sept. 17 to start transforming a field of 19 empty 3-million-gallon Exxon oil storage tanks at 3801 Boston St. into a 1-million-square-foot office park called the Chesapeake Business Center.
To the west, business owners are renovating and plan to reopen a pair of closed restaurants, Gallaghers Bar & Grill at 940 S. Conkling St. and Canton Station at 1028 S. Conkling.
Wells Obrecht, owner of Obrecht Commercial Real Estate, said he decided to take a risk on what looks like a dead industrial area because he's watched the mid-1990s resurgence of Canton spread from the upscale district of O'Donnell Square east and north.
"The positive development cycle in Canton has created kind of a snowball effect, which is now spreading out from the core areas of the neighborhood into places on the edge like this," said Obrecht.
Over the past five years, Canton has experienced a real-estate boom that has almost doubled annual home sales (from 174 in 1996 to 304 in 1999) and more than quadrupled building permits for renovations and construction (from 172 in 1995 to 706 in 1999), according to city records.
All of the projects surrounding the National Brewery face significant challenges.
For example, the ground beneath the proposed Chesapeake Business Park is contaminated by oil spills that date to leaky Civil War-era refineries and their wooden tanks and pipelines.
To clean up more than a century of spills, Exxon entered into a consent agreement with the state in March 1997 to remove more than 700,000 gallons of contaminated underground water, according to Herb Meade, chief of oil pollution compliance with the Maryland Department of the Environment.
It is the largest below-ground oil removal project in state history, Meade said. Exxon has spent some $2 million on pumping out the contaminated water, and it might take another five years and $2 million to finish, Meade said.
"What we are dealing with here is the sins of the past," said Meade.
The future of the National Brewery, which sponsored Orioles broadcasts for decades and was represented by of the one-eyed cartoon beer pitchman "Mr. Boh," is still being studied by Struever's 25-year-old firm, Struever Brothers Eccles and Rouse.
The company has made resurrecting old industrial buildings its trademark.
In addition to turning the American Can Co. factory on Boston Street into offices and shops in 1997, the firm transformed the Tin Decorating Co. plant into the Tindeco Wharf apartments in 1985. It is now rebuilding the Procter & Gamble plant in Locust Point into a 375,000-square-foot office complex.
After signing a contract to buy the National Brewery from the Baltimore-based Berg Group for an undisclosed price, Struever is conducting environmental tests and economic analyses to determine what kind of project might work in the old brewery. Based on those studies, the company may move ahead with the purchase, Struever said.
"This is at a very early conceptual stage," said Struever. "The building could either be high-tech offices or residential. We want to work with the community and the city and see what's possible."