Surprising to see old city sites being revamped

February 02, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

I'VE ALWAYS been partial to Caroline Street because it was on this long thoroughfare that I was born in the old St. Joseph's Hospital.

So, when I walked to the corner of Caroline and Thames in Fells Point - and found it blocked off and being chewed to bits by heavy equipment - I was a little upset. Any tampering with the city's oldest addresses is bound to push my anxiety button.

After some questioning, I found out the garage that's rising there is meant to serve the new Bond Street Wharf building that is rising across the street.

I was also a little relieved to hear that this concrete behemoth will be faced with rowhouses to hide the mountain of cars to be stacked within. We'll see how it all looks. Given Baltimore's track record of hideous garage construction - I think of the eyesore that rose where we destroyed the old Horn & Horn's downtown - I am not overly optimistic.

Caroline Street, by the harbor, escaped rebuilding for so many years that I thought I'd have its cobblestone and unused railroad tracks to myself forever. It was a delightful urban ruin, a location that the developers had never seized upon to improve. For years, it was the site of an ancient lumber yard that made for a spectacular fire the night it burned. At least during the day, it was a quiet place where you could see a quiet side of the harbor. It didn't generate much in the way of real estate taxes, though.

For more than a few years, the western flank of Fells Point has been in a state of transition, making the change from warehouses and light manufacturing to a bland mix of offices, hotels and restaurants. I'm not sure that what I observe will capture any urban design awards.

I used some of this week's pleasant weather to take in some of Baltimore's ever-changing sites. More is happening, more than you might imagine, even in this economy that we're told is in a mini-recession.

My second city surprise - and it was a big one - came when a friend hauled me around the concrete rollercoaster of I-95, I-395 and other roads that encircle The Sun's printing plant at Port Covington. This is on the opposite side of the harbor from Fells Point, and is actually on the harbor's Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

A huge Wal-Mart has risen there and will be ready to open in the middle of April. Several of my family members, who live in South Baltimore, have reported that their neighbors are getting jobs at this national discounter.

I conferred with my father, who was raised in South Baltimore, about why the arrival of this big store is not better known in Baltimore, a city locked in a twilight zone of retail inertia. He notes that Baltimoreans are not well-versed in local geography and South Baltimore really stymies us. He is fond of saying that most people could never find Fort McHenry. (This is former Western Maryland Railway territory here. It's going to take some getting used to finding which streets lead here.)

I stood there and looked at the looming, aircraft hanger-like store. It's the kind you see in Hunt Valley or Glen Burnie, but not within the city limits. I thought to myself, here is a store that dwarfs many of our old selling temples - the Sears on North Avenue, Hutzler's Palace, maybe even the selling floor of Montgomery Ward on Washington Boulevard. Amazing.

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