Homes vs. industry on the waterfront

Face of shore property may be in for change

December 14, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is embroiled in a waterfront battle.

Maritime companies whose livelihoods depend on being near the harbor to ship products in or out want to see most of the city's prime waterfront property remain industrially zoned.

Developers are much more interested in building luxury homes, offices, hotels and retail with a beautiful view - and they're inching farther and farther away from the Inner Harbor, into the aged industrial strongholds.

The city's economic future is likely to be shaped to an important extent by what happens to its 45 miles of shoreline property. From Miami to Boston, cities have used their extensive waterfronts to jump-start renewal and job growth.

In Baltimore, city leaders agree, the successful revitalization of the Inner Harbor has sparked a renaissance. Now they have to decide how far that nontraditional use of scenic property should spread.

Some cast the debate as a struggle over the city's soul: blue-collar jobs vs. white-collar work and gracious living - the industrial port vs. the Digital Harbor.

"You have this encroachment of gentrification," said Tom Koch, a Maryland port commissioner and president of Curtis Engine & Equipment. "We have to be very careful that we don't work ourselves into a corner, where we have a lot of townhouses right up to the water's edge and we have a second-class port."

Developers think the conversion is inevitable and beneficial, and call attempts to stop it misguided.

"Baltimore's changed," said Edwin F. Hale Sr., a banker and real estate entrepreneur who once owned a maritime trucking company. "The industrial component is going to go away from here, from the waterfront. ... The land values are going up. The highest and best use is not for small marine terminals anymore; it's for offices and condos."

Many port cities are struggling with the issue because port and city leaders usually have different ideas about how waterfronts should be used. Only rarely have they worked together on a vision.

"When you have a port, you have the push-pull," said Ann Breen, co-director of the Waterfront Center, a Washington nonprofit that studies waterfront development.

No agency has a master plan to manage Baltimore's extensive shoreline. Officials are trying to look at the big picture, with efforts ranging from an anticipated report on waterfront land use pressures to comprehensive rezoning. A state task force will begin weighing in on port development next month.

"The Ehrlich administration has grave concerns about the overall trend," said Robert L. Flanagan, state secretary of transportation. "We need to ... make Baltimore City more aware of the value of preserving port property. I'm afraid that the vision of leaders in Baltimore City has been blurred by developers' dollars."

The almost-300-year-old port of Baltimore directly accounts for 15,700 jobs - private and public - and helps support about 17,000 additional jobs through local purchases made by those employers and employees, according to the state Department of Transportation. Maritime activities generate more than $200 million in state and local taxes.

The Maryland Port Administration says that fewer ships slide into the harbor nowadays but that they're bigger and carry more freight. Last year it was the third-busiest auto-import port in the nation, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

"I think the port of Baltimore is doing better than it ever was," said Richard L. Sheckells Jr., the state agency's director of planning. "The public terminals hit an all-time high of over 7 million tons of general cargo this year."

As business expands, so does the need for more land abutting deep water to hold the automobiles, paper and other products shipped in. Most maritime operations must sit beside or near watery depths of 30 to 50 feet.

A report prepared for the state's Port Land Use Development Advisory Council two years ago said the Port Administration expected to need about 130 acres over the decade to expand its terminals. Several private operators said they would require 285 extra acres over the same period.

Several terminals sit in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, but most of the activity is in the city, particularly Canton and Locust Point.

Those two communities are also hot areas for redevelopment.

Townhouses are popping up on the Canton waterfront, and Hale's Canton Crossing development has brought offices, a bank and an athletic club to Clinton Street, an area dominated by hulking ships and storage facilities. Construction on Hale's site, a former Exxon refinery, will include offices, hotels, condos, shops and marina slips.

Locust Point has Tide Point, a factory-turned-office-campus that sits in the shadow of Domino Sugar. A developer who bought a nearby grain terminal this year wants to rezone the land for townhouses, condos, offices and a hotel.

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