Hundreds of Baltimore County officials, civic leaders and east-side residents celebrated yesterday the long-awaited groundbreaking for WaterView, a project designed to replace a crime-ridden apartment complex with quaint homes and a sense of community.
Gathering in a large tent near where drug dealers once ruled in the old Riverdale Apartments, government leaders appeared buoyed by the festive mood of the crowd. Those attending carried tote bags bearing the WaterView logo and nibbled on catered fruit and mini-muffins.
"Did you ever think it would happen?" asked County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, referring to the demolition of Riverdale and the plans for 175 single-family homes and a commercial center to be anchored by a Mars supermarket and a day care facility. Home prices will start at $165,000.
County officials see WaterView -- funded with $40 million in private investment -- as a cornerstone for east-side revitalization efforts. The project is aimed at reversing the decline of older neighborhoods in the Essex-Middle River area that are reeling from the loss of tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs and an exodus of young families.
The residential community will rise across Eastern Boulevard from the commercial waterfront destination, set for the headwaters of Middle River.
Also in the works are $5 million in streetscape improvements on Eastern Boulevard and plans to attract light industry that officials say could generate 10,000 jobs when a Route 43 extension opens in 2005.
Nearly $90 million in state and county funds have been invested on the east side in seven years.
"We never took our eye off the ball," Ruppersberger said yesterday amid cheers, some coming from people who had attempted to block the county's overall revitalization plan.
The executive acknowledged that revitalization efforts, which have spanned his two terms in office, created "a lot of issues. We had our ups and downs, but I am proud and excited about the place we see today."
The excitement generated by yesterday's ceremony was infectious.
"This day is a real symbol of hope for the people of this community," said the Rev. Robert Hartnett, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Roman Catholic parish across Eastern Boulevard from the WaterView site.
Hartnett's church was an effective advocate for poor residents of Riverdale and for tenants at the Villages of Tall Trees, which is next to the Mount Carmel campus. Tall Trees, another World War II-era apartment complex racked by crime, will be demolished this year to make way for a 50-acre public park.
"When Riverdale stood here," Hartnett said, "it was a place that came to represent hardship, struggle and poverty. The community feels the county has done the right thing. Today is a new day."
The WaterView Joint Venture, headed by developer Larry Rosenberg of Owings Mills, includes two local real estate firms -- Mark Building Co. of Owings Mills and Enterprise Homes Inc. of Baltimore.
While Rosenberg was embracing the day, he was also looking ahead to further investment in and development of the county's 175 miles of shoreline.
"The WaterView project can be a catalyst for other things," he said. "We can take advantage of the value we are creating with WaterView."
Rosenberg said he will build four homes on a recently acquired 6-acre tract near the Baltimore Yacht Club on Sue Creek. He remains interested in purchasing the proposed site of Hopewell Pointe, a planned waterfront development on Hopkins Creek.
The area's proximity to numerous rivers and creeks is reflected in the names for WaterView's six lanes: Blue Heron, Duckling, Mallard, Osprey, Ruddy Duck and Widgeon.
In addition, six of the seven streets will be named after aircraft, some produced at the old Glenn L. Martin plant in Middle River: Canberra, Catalina, China Clipper, Commodore, Mars and SeaMaster.
"I loved the entire ceremony for WaterView," said Sandra Schmidt, a resident of nearby Wilson Point for 25 years. "It might take 20 years before it all comes to fruition, but it will improve life in the entire area.
"Riverdale was quietly rotting before our eyes," said Schmidt, who lives on Middle River with her husband. Robert. "Nobody should have lived like that in those tiny apartments. It had gone way too far.
"To Riverdale, I say good riddance."