Baltimore protects harbor for industry

New law saves waterfront from Curtis Bay to Canton for maritime use until 2014

September 14, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials moved yesterday to prevent the once heavily industrial waterfront from being completely transformed into the high-end housing, shops and restaurants that have produced the gloss of a city on the rebound - halting what they describe as "condo creep."

Under a City Council bill signed into law by Mayor Martin O'Malley, large swaths of the harbor waterfront - from Curtis Bay to the Canton Industrial Area - will be preserved for maritime industrial use for the next 10 years. And in doing so, the mayor hopes to preserve the good-paying jobs such industry provides.

Housing, hotels, offices and restaurants will be prohibited in those areas at least until 2014, when the city will reconsider the boundaries of the new "Maritime Industrial Overlay District."

"Deep-water access is a rare commodity, a finite commodity, and we're doing everything in our power to protect it," said Otis Rolley III, Baltimore's planning director, who led the effort to re-evaluate waterfront land use as part of a citywide rezoning effort.

Baltimore officials said they are by no means against the kind of development that since the 1970s has transformed the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Canton from a collection of rotting piers to popular tourist destinations and upscale residential neighborhoods.

But they want to make sure that gentrification does not continue creeping into industrial areas, pricing the highly competitive shipping business out of the port - and threatening the livelihood of thousands of workers.

"This industrial maritime zone will tell the international maritime community that this city and this region want their business and want it enough to reserve waterfront land," said Kathy Broadwater, deputy executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.

Jobs and industry

While high-end residential and commercial development would contribute more to Baltimore in property taxes, the shipping industry benefits the city in other ways, city officials say.

The port of Baltimore directly employs 15,700 workers, with average wages of $59,000 a year, and helps support about 17,000 more jobs through local purchases made by those employers and employees, according to the city and the state Department of Transportation. Maritime activities generate more than $200 million in state and local taxes.

"Today we're here to protect that industry," O'Malley said at a bill-signing ceremony yesterday at a Locust Point shipping terminal. "We value you. We understand how important you are to us."

Not everyone is in favor of the new zoning.

Edwin F. Hale Sr., a banker and developer who spent 27 years in the truck- and barge-shipping industry, says the city would be better served by allowing housing and commercial development to ring the harbor.

"I think the harbor's changed, and the highest and best use for the beautiful vistas you have on the harbor is for the residential and the restaurants that are popping up around here," Hale said. "Just speaking as a businessman that's been on both sides - developing and shipping - I think this is the trend that's here."

In July 2002, the city agreed to rezone 50 acres with deep-water access for Hale's Canton Crossing project - 1.5 million square feet of office space, 360 hotel rooms, retail, restaurants and 100 housing units - planned for an otherwise industrial area.

Now the city is trying to head off that kind of "leapfrogging" of residential uses into maritime areas - particularly because the dredging required for ship access can be done more affordably if terminals are clustered, Baltimore officials said.

Vital maritime use

The new zoning would preserve maritime uses in Curtis Bay, Hawkins Point and Fairfield in the southernmost part of the city; South Baltimore and Locust Point south and east of downtown; and the Canton Industrial Area in Southeast Baltimore.

"This is what keeps us going," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. "This is what makes us a great city."

Also praising the legislation was Del. Brian K. McHale, a longshoreman whose forebears worked on Baltimore's docks when they arrived as Irish immigrants 100 years ago.

"It's an acknowledgement for the next generation that the city recognizes how vital this is to workers and the economic viability of the area," he said.

The legislation does not convert any property zoned for residential or commercial use to maritime use. It simply preserves existing industrial waterfront - some of which has been used for shipping for nearly 300 years.

Hale would prefer to see shipping limited to a few locations - Seagirt Marine Terminal, Dundalk and South Locust Point - a concentration that he said would be possible because of mechanization of the industry.

But city officials say the port - the nation's third-busiest for auto imports - needs its more than 40 terminals, plus room to grow. And it can't do that, they say, if terminals have to compete with developers for land or contend with newcomers who might think their $400,000 townhouse entitles them to a neighborhood free of maritime noise and grime.

"The traditional residents of Locust Point have always been happy to see us here," said Rupert Denny, general manager of C. Steinweg, a Dutch shipping company with a terminal near Fort McHenry. "The influx comes from a different background."

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