Fire Department's harbor site could be sold to developers

ARCHITECTURE

February 28, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

A familiar feature of South Baltimore's landscape may soon be demolished to make way for new, unspecified waterfront development.

Baltimore's Planning Commission this month approved a City Council bill that would allow the city to sell the Fire Department's repair facility at 1407 Key Highway - a complex that occupies more than an acre of prime waterfront real estate between the Inner Harbor and Locust Point.

The land is one of the few city- owned parcels along the South Baltimore waterfront and has been used as a vehicle-repair facility for decades. It is on a once- industrial stretch of waterfront property that has changed in recent years to include the HarborView condominiums and townhouses, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Tide Point office center, the Baltimore Museum of Industry and, under construction, the Ritz Carlton residences.

The tract at 1407 Key Highway includes 1.54 acres above water - as much as a standard city block - and .87 acres of submerged land. It's currently zoned for industrial use.

If the City Council approves the property sale and the city changes the zoning to permit commercial development - an idea under study - 1407 Key Highway could be the setting for housing, offices, restaurants and other uses that take full advantage of the waterfront setting. It also would generate property taxes (it is currently off the tax rolls).

"This property has been talked about for years as a potential development site," said Andrew Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "There are a lot of people who have expressed interest."

Frank said he envisions the property becoming a "non-industrial site," but is open to ideas about the best use.

"It's not a good use to have a non-tax-paying repair garage on the waterfront," he said. "There could be a use that's more sensitive to the environment and that also pays taxes. It could be housing. It could be commercial. It could be offices. We want to hear what the community's interests are."

Paul Marks of Marks, Thomas Architects, a design firm with offices at 1410 Key Highway, said the offering represents an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive vision for Key Highway and enhance the image of Baltimore's waterfront.

"It's an important gateway site," he said. "Whatever goes there needs to respect the needs and desires of the community. The stakeholders are already here. The hot buttons are views and public access to the waterfront, the history of the area and the ecology of the bay. And parking is always an issue."

The property is available for sale because the Fire Department repair shop is being incorporated into a new facility being constructed at 3800 E. Biddle St.

The $15 million Biddle Street project also will be the new home of the Central Garage and Fleet Maintenance facility that the city is moving from Dickman Street to make way for a satellite of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, called the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation.

According to city officials, money from the sale of 1407 Key Highway will be used to help build the Biddle Street project.

Frank said the Baltimore Development Corp. plans to seek proposals this spring from groups interested in redeveloping the Key Highway property. But before it does, he said, his agency and the city's Department of Planning are completing a study to determine what the zoning should be and what design guidelines should be in place for several properties along Key Highway, including the repair shop.

As long as 1407 Key Highway is zoned for industrial use, Frank said, no one can build housing or offices there. But if the zoning is changed to permit commercial uses, he said, the city needs to establish design standards and controls to address height limits, setbacks and other building-related issues.

In addition, he said, because the property fronts on a section of the shoreline where the city is working with private-property owners to create a continuous 7.5-mile waterfront promenade, the city will want any new development to provide public access to the water's edge. Operation of the repair shop does not permit that kind of public access to the shoreline at present, he said.

The Baltimore Development Corp. will use the findings from the Key Highway study and the planners' recommendations to draft a "request for proposals" that will be issued to developers.

Frank said the city does not envision that the repair shop building would be preserved as part of a new development but would not prohibit that possibility, either. He said city officials will select the winning team after considering a variety of factors, including proposed use, design and price offered for the land.

Because the property is being sold to raise funds to construct the Biddle Street facility, Frank said, the price offered for the land will be an important factor in the decision - but not the only factor.

"We're going to balance good urban design and planning with the need to raise funds to proceed with construction of the garage on Biddle Street," he said. "Money is not the tail wagging the dog."

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