Once-polluted site reopens to public

EPA administrator hails cleanup, redevelopment of Fells Point peninsula

April 11, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

With gold-and-blue circus tents topped with flags rising behind them, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman and local officials announced yesterday that a formerly polluted 27-acre peninsula in the Inner Harbor is now open for its first public use: hosting the Cirque du Soleil.

The traveling show -- which features acrobats, trapeze artists and performers in exotic costumes -- will open tonight and run through May 4 on the site of the former AlliedSignal chrome plant at the southern end of Caroline Street in Fells Point.

Over the next several years, developers Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and H&S Properties plan to build a $400 million project on the site, including 1.8 million square feet of stores and offices, an 11-acre park, parking lots and a public promenade along the waterfront.

"We want this site to become a showcase and a model across the nation," said Whitman, flanked by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Mayor Martin O'Malley and others. "Cleanups and redevelopment should be as linked as Maryland blue crabs and Old Bay seasoning."

Whitman helped to open the door to development on the site by approving a federal agreement that protects developers from environmental lawsuits.

From 1845 until 1985, the chrome plant churned out chemical compounds that made fireworks sparkle and bumpers shine. Then in 1985, the Sierra Club filed notice of intent to sue the owner, AlliedSignal of New Jersey, for polluting the Chesapeake Bay, and the company entered into a court-ordered agreement with the federal government to halt runoff.

AlliedSignal, now owned by Honeywell, spent over $100 million during the 1980s and 1990s building a waterproof cap over the site to seal in the cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.

Now that the construction of the cap is finished, the federal government has promised not to sue the developers to pay for more cleanup. Developers C. William Struever and Michael Beatty of H&S signed an agreement with the EPA on Feb. 14 that protects them from federal lawsuits, although the property owner, Honeywell, is still responsible and can be sued, according to EPA officials.

Struever said he hopes the agreement, which was revealed during the news conference yesterday, will persuade banks and the city to overcome earlier fears of paying for buildings and roads on the site because of the potential threat of lawsuits.

"This [agreement] says that as long as I'm doing my thing in a responsible way, and the tenants are behaving responsibly, they don't have to worry about lawsuits over what was put in the ground years ago," said Struever.

As much as $60 million in government funding may be needed to build public roads, walkways and infrastructure on the site, Struever said. Mayor O'Malley said yesterday that the new federal agreement lead him to reverse a June 1999 decision by the city solicitor's office not to allow city involvement in the site because of liability concerns.

Building will begin with a temporary public promenade along the water and a parking lot. Next year, builders may start raising a 220,000-square-foot office building on what is being called Harbor Point, as well as two hotels, several more offices and dozens of stores and restaurants, developers said.

The city hopes to hold more outdoor festivals on the land, as well as a variety of ethnic festivals.

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