A Natural Development

Analysis: Ripe for sensible cultivation, the wildlife-rich Middle Branch could - and should - someday be the perfect complement to the Inner Harbor

September 18, 2000|By Edward Gunts | By Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The Inner Harbor has been full of life for more than 20 years. The Fells Point and Canton shorelines are teeming with activity. Locust Point is poised to take off.

But at one of the most picturesque sections of Baltimore's waterfront, the best views still belong to stray dogs and cats, and broken-down vehicles awaiting repairs at the city's Central Garage.

The Middle Branch of the Patapsco River has never been "discovered" the way other parts of Baltimore's waterfront have been, though it's just as attractive and close to downtown.

While city officials strive to complete an unbroken public promenade from Canton to Key Highway, there's no similar plan to provide continuous public access to the Middle Branch shoreline. No high-rise hotels or outdoor concert tents rise from its banks. It's Baltimore's hidden harbor, an untapped resource that few know about and even fewer frequent on a regular basis. But it shouldn't stay that way forever.

Over the past decade, numerous groups have said the Middle Branch could be more of an asset to the city if the public had better access to it. They've said it could be one of Baltimore's greatest and most unusual features, if only it received more attention.

Despite those observations, relatively little has been done to enhance the Middle Branch, for many reasons: The previous mayoral administration didn't make it a high priority. Certain landowners have resisted change. No vocal constituency has fought for funds.

But just as Baltimore's waterfront benefits other sections of the city, the Middle Branch is too valuable to leave the way it is. It may never be developed to the same degree as the Inner Harbor, but Baltimore has a rare opportunity to cultivate it for what it is - a unique natural amenity that can complement the more commercial offerings of the Inner Harbor. After years of dormancy, it's time for this sleeping beauty to wake up.

"We have this magical place that almost nobody else has," said Beth Strommen, an environmental planner with Baltimore's Planning Department. "Find me a place in any city that has the volume of wildlife and shorebirds that this area has, so close to the center of downtown. It could be an Inner Harbor with a green twist, a place where you can still see birds fly in and out. It's a place where people can go canoeing and kayaking. There's incredible potential."

A natural marshland in the heart of the city "is not one of the standard recipes that every city has," agrees Klaus Philipsen, an architect and co-chairman of the Urban Design Committee of the local American Institute of Architects chapter. "It's something different, and you can capitalize on it in a different way."

Ten years ago, the AIA committee suggested that the northern shore of the Middle Branch be redeveloped as a family-oriented recreational area, playing off the two stadiums. Philipsen still thinks that makes sense.

"It's different from the hardscape of the Inner Harbor," he said. "It's a place where the man-made environment collides with the natural environment - the marshes and blue herons and ecosystem of the Middle Branch. It's a wonderful combination, and we need to think about what happens there in the long run."

With six miles of shoreline and 415 aces of water area, the Middle Branch is 20 times the size of the Inner Harbor, also known as the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco. Environmentalists say it has the potential to become the city's most extensive shoreline recreational resource.

But like much of Baltimore's waterfront, the Middle Branch became a repository for industrial uses - power plants, a glass factory, light manufacturing and the BRESCO incinerator, with the "world's largest trash can" in front.

As heavy industries such as the Procter and Gamble soapmaking plant and the American Can Co. disappeared from the Northwest Branch, they've been replaced by housing, hotels and high-tech businesses.

The Middle Branch is in transition, too. One tangible sign of change was BGE Corp.'s decision several years ago to dismantle three natural gas tanks on its Spring Garden property - early 20th-century landmarks that had become obsolete.

But unlike the land-use changes around the Inner Harbor, there hasn't been heavy pressure from private market forces to find new uses for the Middle Branch. Instead, much of the water's edge has become neglected. Vast stretches of marshland are strewn with debris. The water is polluted by the outfall from the Gwynns Falls and several major storm drains. These problems are compounded, planners say, by deep accumulations of silt that restrict the types of development possible along the shore.

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