Revival not easy sell in blighted Fairfield

Proposal: A plan to turn the long-neglected former industrial peninsula into an urban renewal area is met with skepticism from many who live and work there.

April 15, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Fairfield is an industrial no man's land.

Out of the way and often overlooked, this peninsula that juts into the Patapsco River and Curtis Bay at the southern end of Baltimore is a forlorn and forbidding place of petrochemical plants, metal scrappers and tracts of vacant land that are havens for scrub trees and illegal dumpers.

Aware of what Fairfield is but mindful of what it might become, city officials are moving to unlock the peninsula's untapped potential.

They are pushing to turn Fairfield into an urban renewal area, setting design standards for businesses and giving the city the power to acquire underused and empty plots of land and assemble them for sale to new industries.

The immediate effect of the proposed urban renewal ordinance, however, has been to unleash a cascade of complaints from businesses that flow as freely as the water that floods Fairfield's streets after it rains.

They criticize the city for its inability to control illegal dumping that leaves the streets littered with tires, discarded mattresses and broken refrigerators. For its neglect of roads that leaves pavement pockmarked with potholes, some so big they look like junior sinkholes. For its failure to put in a storm-water drainage system, leaving pools of water that seagulls drink from.

"You're down here in hell's half-acre," said David Pitts, owner of Castle Diesel, a truck repair business. "Nobody cares."

"The roads are so bad, my customers come in for an oil change and leave needing spring work," added Pitts, who was lured to Fairfield four years ago in part by promises of improvements he says were never kept. "If you don't have enough money to pave a road, how are you going to come up with enough money to buy properties?"

Officials don't play down the problems with Fairfield, which has the largest concentration of industrial land in Baltimore and is better known to travelers who use the Harbor Tunnel Thruway near its northern edge than to most city residents.

In a glaring admission, they describe one of the main streets in the area as "disintegrating" - but say it's not scheduled to be fixed until next year.

Neville Sinclair, a business recruiter for the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, told a recent public hearing that when it comes to Fairfield, "I don't have a product to sell."

"Most people don't know where Fairfield is," he acknowledged. "A lot of people go there and turn around."

But the city argues that the blighted condition of much of Fairfield - as well as the possibilities for its redevelopment - are the very reasons a renewal plan is needed.

"We see an opportunity for jobs and taxes," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of BDC, which is pushing the renewal plan. "To get to the potential of Fairfield is going to require change."

The renewal plan is the latest - and perhaps last-ditch - effort to reinvigorate Fairfield, which is part of the city's $100 million federally funded empowerment zone. A mid-1990s plan to turn Fairfield into an "ecological-industrial" park, where the waste of one industry would be recycled as the raw materials for another, was abandoned several years ago as unworkable.

Under the renewal plan, which has been approved by the Planning Commission but still must be passed by the City Council, the city would put together eight parcels. Together, they could provide more than 4 million square feet of industrial space - an area twice as big as the proposed biotech park for East Baltimore. Most of the parcels are concentrated in the center of the peninsula known as Old Fairfield - a warren of unpaved roads, vacant lots and abandoned houses.

As part of the plan, penalties for illegal dumping would be doubled and businesses would have to screen materials and equipment from view and plant trees and shrubs as buffers.

The Maryland Port Administration, which has a large auto terminal on the Patapsco River, is among those who support the renewal plan. Creating a renewal plan for Fairfield will "provide standards and controls for development that, hopefully, will improve the visual appearance of the area" and encourage increased business investment, the MPA said in a letter to the Planning Commission.

In looking to "soften the environment" of the harsh landscape that includes oil tanks and a rail line, the city would bring back a small measure of Fairfield's agrarian roots.

In the early part of the last century, Fairfield and Wagner's Point, the community with which it shares the peninsula, were rural areas, dotted with farms and orchards.

Fairfield was forever changed during World War II, when it became home to the shipyards that built the Liberty ships. Workers and residents crowded onto the peninsula, where the population peaked at about 4,000 in 1950.

The shipbuilding industry is gone - and so are most residents.

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