Developers covet Westport shoreline

Waterfront: Many believe the area around Middle Branch could become 'the next Inner Harbor.'

February 28, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

A dying industrial strip between Westport and Cherry Hill has become the latest Klondike for real estate investors looking to create upscale residential communities on Baltimore's gentrifying shoreline.

"The next stop is the Middle Branch," Otis Rolley III, the city planning director, said of revitalization that is leapfrogging from the Inner Harbor to other parts of the shoreline.

This week, private consultants hired by the planning department identified industrial Westport as an area that should be considered for rezoning as a business and residential area.

Rolley said city planners are putting together ideas to achieve that.

He said the shoreline's zoning review - in advance of a citywide comprehensive rezoning process - had gained urgency because of last month's sale of a hilly 8.8-acre parcel overlooking Middle Branch Marina.

The investors who bought the wooded land on the south side of Waterview Avenue, between the Baltimore Rowing Club and the Hecht Co. distribution center, have told the city that they want to redevelop it into luxury housing.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., who represents the area, said the shift of developer interest to the Cherry Hill-Westport shoreline was not surprising.

"Don't think for a moment that this land rush is over with; it's spreading," he said, because developers are running out of waterfront land closer to downtown.

`Land rush'

Dozens of prospects have toured the 18-acre waterfront site in Westport that belongs to the bankrupt Carr-Lowrey glass company. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. reports having received offers for a 12-acre waterfront property that houses a decommissioned steam-generating plant.

Realtor Ben Frederick III declined to identify the people behind Valleybrook Realty LLC, which sold the land overlooking the marina to Waterview Avenue LLC. State tax records described the $825,000 transaction as "not arms-length," a term that usually means that the two parties were linked and the sale price may be lower than fair-market value.

Most of the 8.8 acres that changed hands is zoned industrial. Its main structure is a vandalized brick building that once housed the transmitter for the old WFBR-AM.

While that apparently was not a competitive sale, "four to five dozen" groups have toured the Carr-Lowrey site nearby, according to bankruptcy trustee Zvi Guttman. The 114-year-old glass factory in Westport went out of business last year.

He said a New York real estate disposal expert, Keen Consultants LLC, was marketing the Kloman Street parcel, which is at a light-rail stop and near Interstate 95 and Russell Street, which turns into Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Guttman said that many prospects kept mum about their plans. But others said they would want to convert the old glass plant site into a mixed-use area combining office, retail and residential.

"There are several interested parties," Guttman said.

Real estate sources identified several other parcels on the waterfront that could be redeveloped. They include a concrete-mix plant and a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. steam generating plant that was retired in the 1990s.

Linda Foy, a BGE official, said potential buyers have approached the utility about acquiring the 12-acre waterfront site. "We continue to discuss options," she added.

Area's history

Except for scattered industrial uses, much of the area was sparsely populated farmland until the 1940s. The area started changing during World War II, when defense housing and, later, public housing projects were constructed in Cherry Hill and Westport.

Those communities now offer redevelopment opportunities, real estate brokers say.

Cherry Hill

For the past four years, Loretta R. Johnson, a public housing tenant leader in Cherry Hill, has been predicting that the Middle Branch shoreline would be "the next Inner Harbor."

Her conviction propelled her to stop a commercial development team that wanted to build a homeownership project in Cherry Hill. Instead, Johnson submitted a rival proposal in the name of the public housing residents' tenant council.

She later added plans totaling $173 million, to be bankrolled by outside investors, in a bid to redevelop the impoverished African-American enclave.

Her plans ground to a halt this month when she and her organization were stripped of their right to represent Cherry Hill tenants after a contentious election.

While Cherry Hill is dominated by land and buildings belonging to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City that may be redeveloped at some point, no single owner controls rundown rowhouses overlooking the Middle Branch in Westport.

That neighborhood, which is separated by the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from nearby Mount Winans and Lakeland, has been losing population for years, according to Linda Towe, a community organizer. As a result, many houses are vacant and vandalized.

Residents' concerns

Towe and Ruth Sherrill, another activist, said they feared longtime residents would lose their homes if redevelopment comes.

"I think the city wants to get rid of the people who are here now and do a Federal Hill," Sherrill said, referring to a gentrified South Baltimore neighborhood of upscale homes. "I think it's a lot of political stuff."

She was speaking in a rundown rowhouse on Annapolis Road. From its steps she could see the downtown skyline, just three miles away, and the silhouettes of the Ravens football stadium and Oriole Park.

Alfred W. Barry III, a private development consultant, urged the city and the Baltimore Development Corp. to "refocus on this whole swath."

"The city has to consciously decide what kind of waterfront they want it to be," Barry said.

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