As Locust Point gets hot, some are cool to change

Plans: A boom in growth in this once-isolated neighborhood is prompting oversight from the city and grumbling from longtime residents.

December 11, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Future redevelopment in the hot industrial South Baltimore community of Locust Point may hinge on the findings of a pair of city planners charged with creating a master land-use plan.

By year's end, Department of Planning staffers will measure traffic, infrastructure, utilities, parking, zoning, density property values and taxes to determine just how much more development the snug 32-block neighborhood could accommodate if residents green light any of a dozen proposed redevelopment projects.

The quick turnaround for the comprehensive neighborhood rules boils down to simple math: If every proposed townhouse, condo and hotel idea is approved, the number of residents in Locust Point could double from 2,300 to 4,600, said Otis Rolley III, who took over the city's planning office in August. Typically, such rampant growth can lead to overburdened community resources, such as schools and sewer lines.

"We're hoping to set realistic expectations both for the residents and the developers who may come to Locust Point," Rolley said. "Absent a plan, development will happen willy-nilly or based on the whims of the market - and that can be daunting on a community."

The comprehensive plan, conducted over six weeks, will recommend uses for 140 nonresidential properties sprinkled over 30 acres in Locust Point, as well as solutions for problems such as a shortage of street parking and green spaces.

Foremost among the latest proposals are blueprints to convert the vacant ADM grain elevator into luxury condominiums, offices and a hotel, and to erect 120 townhouses on a barren adjacent lot. Another proposal would replace a parking lot, warehouse and green space facing the Inner Harbor with 70 houses. A third concept would convert three Tide Point parking lots into dockside housing.

Much of the development hinges on a newly green-lighted extension to Key Highway that would improve access to the isolated, culturally homogeneous blue-collar enclave to the rest of South Baltimore. Currently, the main entrance into Locust Point is along East Fort Avenue, which runs through South Baltimore and ends at Fort McHenry. Trains frequently block a small secondary road that enters the neighborhood from the south.

Isolation has helped the neighborhood preserve qualities that set Locust Point apart from the rest of the city: Crime is negligible. Neighbors are close-knit. Alleyways are uncluttered. Residents walk home for lunch. And when school lets out, children roller-skate up and down the sidewalks.

"It's a little like Mayberry out here," said Locust Point native Bruce Culotta.

Make that Mayberry Inc.

The neighborhood's industrial roots are everywhere: Train tracks encircle the residential streets. The scents of molasses, from a manufacturer of livestock feed, and beans from a coffeehouse roaster, waft through the air along with the noises of machinery - idling refrigerator trucks, uncoupling train cars, steam whistles and nearby freeway traffic. Squat factories shape the skyline and the most notable landmark remains the back side of the red neon Domino Sugars sign.

Recent projects

Industrial structures began to entice developers over the past five years, none more than Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, which converted a former truck yard into the 36-townhouse Whetstone Point community, the old Coca-Cola bottling plant into the headquarters of Phillips Seafood, and a 1867 foundry at the mouth of Locust Point into a office and retail space with a 19,000-square-foot athletic club.

At a recent community meeting that drew more than 100 residents concerned about unfettered growth, a man posed a question that seemed to capture residents' fear of change:

"Suppose nobody down here wanted any more development here in Locust Point. Would the city let it stay exactly what it is?"

Rolley, the city planning director, politely responded by noting that residents have choices about selling or staying as well as the power to hold elected officials to their word. But his short answer was "no," and the man walked out of the meeting in a huff.

"Development is coming," Rolley explained later. "It's already there. The question is, how do we protect the investments of the residents and the people who want to move there?"

Sen. George W. Della Jr., who represents South Baltimore in the General Assembly and attended the community meeting, has watched working-class community frustrations grow as development crept south from the Inner Harbor to reshape the peninsula.

"Things are going to change; can't stop that. But you don't want people saddled with problems long after some developer has pocketed the money and gone on to the next project," Della said. "The people who grew up in Locust Point are not interested in living here today, selling their homes and moving on. That's where they want to stay, that's where they'll draw their last breath."

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