City is shifting gears to preserve industry

Overhaul: Zoning changes are designed to protect waterfront sites from `condo creep.'

December 02, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

Thirty years ago, when the city last considered its industrial zoning plan, manufacturing was king. Few anticipated that someday people would spend millions to live next to those grimy factories. Or that so many of Baltimore's blue-collar behemoths wouldn't make it to 2004.

Now, as city planners revisit those dusty zoning rules, they struggle to balance the needs of the city's remaining factories and manufacturers, which often awkwardly co-exist next to upscale homes and condos, with the needs of more modern businesses that the city must also attract to stay viable and competitive.

"It's an attempt to stand back and take a new look from a long-range perspective," said Evans Paull, a director with the Baltimore Development Corporation, the agency that drafted the plan. "What is the new reality of the marketplace?"

The old zoning has left Baltimore with a glut of sites zoned for heavy industry, but not enough property appropriate for more modern businesses. By revamping the code, the goal is to make sure both needs are balanced.

Though the guidelines, first released earlier this year, haven't been controversial, they are sweeping. As city leaders work over the coming year to rewrite the zoning rules, these guidelines will serve as the framework. They'll likely form the road map for how and where industry will grow in Baltimore - a loose set of recommendations for the City Council as it makes future zoning decisions.

Today the public will have a final chance to comment on the proposal as it's presented to the city Planning Commission at 1:30 p.m.

More than anything else, the BDC's plan, based on a consultant's analysis, protects Baltimore's historic waterfront industries from "condo creep," assuring maritime interests that the deep-water access their businesses require won't be overtaken by residential and office developments that covet their harbor views.

The plan dovetails with the recently passed "Maritime Industrial Overlay District," which preserves a large swath of the waterfront from anything but maritime development for the next 10 years.

The proposal also recommends new buffering and landscaping standards so that the city's industrial zones better blend with residential and office areas.

Baltimore's shipping companies, which have felt threatened by the encroaching upscale developments, applaud the proposed remedies.

Rupert Denny, general manager of C. Steinweg Baltimore Inc., and the spokesman for Private Terminal Operators, a group representing a dozen private stevedores, said it's "refreshing" to hear city officials acknowledge the vital nature of the ports. And he hopes that better zoning will put an end to what he calls the waterfront's "airport syndrome," or complaints from new homeowners shocked to find themselves living amid the clanks and dust of heavy industry.

"We've been in the port for the last 75 years, quietly keeping to our corner of Baltimore, and you can't just have condos built flat-bang next to it," he said. "Don't put a high-class hotel next to a pile of coal."

John Mitchell is terminal manager for Westway Terminal Co., a Locust Point company that makes liquid animal feed and offers bulk storage. The company, which runs a 24-hour, Monday-to-Friday operation with all the expected smells and loading noise, is next to Tide Point, a new office complex in the renovated Procter & Gamble plant. It will be within shouting distance of Silo Point, a grain elevator being turned into luxury condominiums, offices and stores.

"There's pressure put on industry to quiet themselves down," Mitchell said. "But we were here to start with."

The proposed buffer zones, Mitchell said, will make industry feel more secure about making an investment in Baltimore. No one wants to spend money to develop a property and then be run out by complaining neighbors.

"If companies see a buffer, it's going to make it more beneficial for them to come," he said.

The proposed rezoning rules will dictate industry development standards citywide, not just for the waterfront. The proposal targets 12 "unstable" areas in Baltimore under pressure to evolve from traditional industrial use.

In addition to obvious spots, such as Canton and Locust Point, the plan targets areas such as Falls Road north of the Streetcar Museum, and in southeast Baltimore, at Kane Street and Eastern Avenue.

The plan recommends introducing four new zoning categories to make way for industrial parks, urban businesses, mixed-use developments and port-compatible developments.

Some worry that if the city is too heavy-handed with its new zoning designations, future developers might be as boxed in by outdated rules as today's are.

Mitch Gold, a real estate broker with Business Real Estate Partners, calls the current city zoning "a "checkerboard of sometimes conflicting uses." Though he agrees that an overhaul is needed, he is concerned that the rules will be too rigid to bend with changes in the market.

"Their plans aren't fluid enough," Gold said.

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