Waste site awaiting a top-tier fix

Offices, apartments proposed for where chrome plant stood

Harbor Point project

Hurdles remain before 27 acres can be useful again

On the waterfront

July 09, 2000|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

It's the most prominent hazardous waste site on the harbor and in the city. And a couple of Baltimore's big-name developers think it's perfect for apartments and offices.

A group of development and financial experts say it can be done.

But the nascent project to redevelop the site of the former Allied Signal chrome plant will require more government check-offs, constant monitoring and more money than other real estate developments.

That's on top of normal requirements from lenders and city officials.

And that's assuming people will want to live and work on the Fells Point peninsula that's been fenced off and empty after 10 years of cleanup work.

The 27-acre site housed the Allied factory until 1985. Allied spent $100 million from 1989 to 1999 cleaning it and installing a multiacre clay cap to seal in toxic waste produced there.

Allied, which was bought by Honeywell last year, had been planning for someone else to redevelop it. The company hired a team of consultants to study the site for five years to see what was possible.

Now, H&S Property Development Corp. and Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse are talking with Honeywell about taking over. An agreement is expected in the next three months.

If developers build the proposed 1.8 million square feet of offices, apartments and shops, it could be one of the nation's largest undertakings of its kind.

"Our immediate goal is to examine what the public wants, what the site allows and what the marketplace calls for," said Janet Marie Smith, who is spearheading the project for Struever Bros. They're calling it Harbor Point.

Returning the land to productive use was Allied's objective all along, said Martin Millspaugh, vice chairman of Enterprise Real Estate Services Inc. and one of Allied's consultants on the project.

Millspaugh said once-contaminated sites that have undergone a cleanup often become parks, parking lots or golf courses because of lingering environmental concerns.

But with little desirable land left downtown for development and even less on the waterfront, it makes little sense to either abandon the Fells Point site or underuse it, he said.

Millspaugh said he and the other consultants hired by Allied laid the groundwork for the new developers.

"There was much thinking and prognosticating," he said. "There were no definitive answers although we were convinced a project was feasible. And for the city's sake, it should be done."

Top-tier space needed

Baltimore needs more top-tier office space to lure businesses and their high-paying jobs, said Richard C. Mike Lewin, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development. Such office space is scarce in the city, with large blocks for new or expanding companies basically nonexistent.

Lewin has been searching for companies that may be interested in anchoring the site.

He wants a high-tech company for the waterfront building. He might be willing to sweeten the offer with money for a parking garage, among other things.

"This ought to be a signature location for an important corporate presence," he said.

But not just any building can spring from the new layers of soil that top the hazardous waste cap.

The city approved a plan for the site in 1993 that restricts the height and width of the buildings and calls for a public promenade. The development should have a wedding-cake look, with the edges of the property low to blend with the neighborhood.

The development also will require approvals from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Maryland Department of the Environment and possibly the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

None have received applications yet.

According to an agreement signed by Honeywell in the late 1980s, the company must monitor the ground forever.

The company also must continuously pump out groundwater so leaked waste won't flow into the harbor.

Any holes punched in the waste cap for pilings must be resealed.

Other restrictions possible

Butch Dye, administrator of the state's hazardous waste program, said he'd have to evaluate a specific plan to determine other restrictions.

"They can build, but whether it can be the size of the World Trade Center, I don't know," he said. "I know they can't screw up the work that's already been done."

Experts say the developers can learn from others who have redeveloped toxic waste sites.

Tom Obrecht, president of Obrecht Realty Services Inc., is developing his fourth contaminated site.

He said construction is much the same once the foundation has been carefully set on top of contained waste.

Workers do have to wear protective clothing and the site must be fenced off from the public.

As for extra costs, Obrecht said environmental testing for each site runs him about $30,000 - which he called "peanuts" on a project of the scale envisioned for the Allied site.

It's the cleanup costs that usually chase developers away. And potential liability.

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