Wave of development hits waterfront area

Revitalization: New homes and businesses are transforming Baltimore County's east side.

February 24, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Where a dilapidated, crime-ridden apartment complex once stood, new houses are selling fast. On a quiet and largely undeveloped peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay, workers are stabilizing the shoreline for a colony of mansions with seven-figure price tags.

Construction crews are pouring cement for a $65 million highway leading to a planned business park that would provide thousands of jobs. Nearby, a giant corporation envisions a tourist destination with a hotel and a promenade lining a deep-water lagoon. An aging veterans hospital is set to become a $100 million senior housing complex.

Eastern Baltimore County -- just a few years ago a struggling rust belt community with an uncertain future -- is quietly becoming Maryland's new waterfront promised land.

Development on the county's east side is "really exploding," said Bryce A. Turner, a Baltimore architect and chairman of the Urban Land Institute's local district council. "There is new affordable housing, retail shops, marinas and other creative growth, while treading softly on the land."

To Cindy Ariosa, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, what is happening in Middle River and nearby areas is reminiscent of some of Baltimore's celebrated rebirths.

"They are having a stimulation -- the kind Canton and Fells Point had 10 years ago," she said.

Across the nation and the world, waterfront communities in heavily industrialized areas have faced up to the need to reinvent themselves, say experts in economic development and urban policy.

But Baltimore County officials faced a daunting challenge: selling revitalization to a blue-collar constituency wary of government-sponsored change. Residents' attitudes hardened after decades of having such projects as the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant forced on them.

Winning over critics

Now, even some of the harshest critics of redevelopment are starting to see things differently.

One sunny afternoon last week, Bill Wright put on his favorite baseball cap and strolled along rural Bird River Road. He took measure of a bridge under construction that will carry White Marsh Boulevard through his community -- and to 1,300 acres of undeveloped land. The county hopes a planned business park will attract biotech companies and create as many as 10,000 jobs.

Later, Wright explored Hopewell Pointe, a creekfront, $34 million work in progress that will feature more than 200 homes, a restaurant and a marina.

"When I think of developers, I think of big profits for pals of the politicians," said Wright, a retired steelworker and union leader who years ago helped defeat proposals for a theme park and auto speedway for the area. "But some of these ideas have bloomed into pretty nice concepts, in my mind."

The genesis of the east side's new identity might be traced to a 1995 meeting in Middle River, where County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said crime-ridden apartment complexes were turning that section of the county into a "ghetto." Most of the properties, built to house workers during World War II, were falling apart.

"The problem seemed insurmountable then because of the significant amount of housing that really wasn't suitable for human habitation," Gardina said last week. "It was impacting the surrounding communities in a monumental way, and we felt then a massive change would not be easy to do."

Meeting the challenge

Planners around the world have faced the challenge of revitalizing fading industrial areas -- in some cases coming up with surprising answers.

Jersey City created a loft and crafts district on the Hudson River. Academics marvel at efforts in places like Germany's steel and coal region along the Ruhr River, where mountaineers practice on brightly painted smokestacks. In Montreal, a waterfront grain elevator has been converted into an oversized musical instrument.

When officials in Buffalo, N.Y., launched that city's waterfront revitalization more than a decade ago, leaders were careful not to insult the cultural sensibilities of longtime residents, said Robert G. Shibley, director of the Urban Design Project at the University of Buffalo.

"Here were these people who broke their backs in steel and grain," Shibley said. "One guy in particular comes to mind, saying how he so resented old wooden molds used in steel mills now hanging on the walls of rich people's homes."

Regional identity

Hard work is central to eastern Baltimore County's identity.

The Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. once employed 53,000 people in Middle River. Employment at Bethlehem Steel -- the nation's top war contractor a month after the Pearl Harbor attack -- peaked at 35,000 employees in 1959. Another 6,000 worked at the company's affiliates, including its shipyard.

But most of those jobs are gone now. And many of the sons and daughters of the airplane makers, World War II veterans and steel workers moved to places like White Marsh.

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