Hale's Canton plan could be turning point

Baltimore: Reuse of wasteland could bring gentrification to Upper Harbor's industrial shoreline.

April 09, 2001

EDWIN F. Hale Sr. has become what he is - a consequential trucking, banking and sports entrepreneur - because he recognizes untapped opportunities and then forges ahead to exploit them.

Consider his plan to develop a $100 million office tower, hotel and retail complex along Canton's grimy industrial waterfront.

As a key land owner in the area, he is in a position to make the project fly.

He cannot do it alone, though. He will need a variety of planning approvals. Zoning also must be modified from industrial to mixed use.

Are such requests a big deal? They could be.

Up to now, the city government has taken pains to safeguard Baltimore's limited supply of industrial land - especially on the waterfront.

Just over a decade ago, the City Council effectively prohibited condominiums along the Locust Point waterfront between the Museum of Industry and the Maryland Port Authority marine terminal. The reason for this action was the politicians' desire to protect manufacturing jobs.

After Procter & Gamble abandoned South Baltimore, some of those jobs vanished. The plant, and the adjoining deep-water pier, became vacant. Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse now is turning this industrial hulk into incubator office space.

New townhouses are being built on a nearby parcel that previously belonged to a trucking company.

Mr. Hale's Southeast Baltimore plan could start a similar gentrification in the vicinity of Boston and Clinton streets.

To many area residents, including owners of luxury waterfront condominiums, this is a wonderful prospect.

Skeptics, though, argue that if the mixed-use plan is approved, it will be only a question of time before other potentially valuable industrial land is gradually transferred to other uses.

Mr. Hale points out that the 500 employees of his trucking company will stay in the area. And that as a result of a land swap, the neighboring Rukert Terminals Corp. will increase its base for shipping services.

Still, it's clear that the Canton industrial area will never again be the same if the mixed-use project brings a 17-story office-and-condominium tower, along with retail shops, marina and a 160-room extended-stay hotel.

Even more changes could come later.

Mr. Hale, after all, hopes to acquire the 73-acre parcel containing a former refinery and storage tanks that were vacated by Exxon Mobil. A hugely expensive cleanup must be completed, but that site, too, could have a non-industrial future.

Many other nearby industrial parcels are desolate, reminders of the steady decline of Baltimore's port and smokestack industries.

To a city hard-pressed to balance its budget, a proposal to maximize the potential of fallow land is understandably seductive. No wonder M. J. Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., calls Mr. Hale's unsolicited proposal "a fascinating idea."

The Canton plan could be a turning point. It shows how a crafty entrepreneur with an idea can move into a vacuum, hoping to pre-empt any planning notions that the city may have.

Bakery magnate John Paterakis did exactly this in Inner Harbor East a few years back.

Using his considerable political muscle, he persuaded then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the City Council to abandon a concept that would have retained the low-rise appearance of the shoreline. Opponents protested to no avail.

Since no real redevelopment plan exists for the Canton industrial area, Mr. Hale may have an even easier job in selling his concept to Mayor Martin O'Malley.

When Mr. Hale looks out one of his office windows in Canton, he sees rusting tank farms and other industrial relics. Go to the opposite side of the building, though, and a glistening vista of Inner Harbor skyscrapers beckons from across the water.

In the coming months, Mr. Hale will invoke this contrast as Baltimore's choice. He will tell the mayor and taxpayers that if they support his vision, they can turn Canton's industrial wasteland into a showpiece and economic engine.

Mr. Hale may be right. But the city should not embrace his imaginative proposal until firm plans are in place and all the implications of zoning changes are understood.

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