Proposal to put waterfront condos at Canton park faces uphill battle

Prime property is near Korean War Memorial

March 31, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

A developer wants to build a seven-story condominium building on Canton's waterfront, atop one of the last remaining open spaces along Baltimore's crowded Gold Coast.

Savannah Development is proposing 74 high-end condominiums for a 2.5-acre portion of the city-owned Canton Waterfront Park, an area that's now used for parking. The development would come to the edge of the more traditional park space, land that's home to the state's Korean War Memorial.

The plan, even in its preliminary stages, appears to be in for a rough ride. Nearly everyone who has heard of it - from city development officials to community advocates to protectors of the memorial - says condos are the last thing that area needs.

Savannah principal BettyJean Murphy, however, is undeterred. Murphy said yesterday that she's determined to convince the community that the development will enhance Canton.

"Our primary, primary goal is to get the community to buy in," Murphy said. "We really just want to have the opportunity."

Yet when she ran the project past the Canton Community Association's economic development committee this month, Murphy conceded, "I wasn't welcomed with open arms."

"We were stunned. We were flabbergasted," said Steven Strohl, president of the Canton Community Association. "There's so precious little land left along the waterfront. To take away public parking and to ask to build on that land, it seems rather selfish."

Murphy is likely in for more cold receptions. A landmine of obstacles stands between Murphy and her condo project breaking ground.

First, there's the issue of the city relinquishing prime waterfront open space. Even if that would happen, Murphy wouldn't automatically get the property - it would be placed up for bid and open to anyone.

Assuming she won the bid, Murphy would then have to win over community and city leaders, both parties who are increasingly reluctant to see more residential development on increasingly rare waterfront land.

Because this is parkland, with a veterans memorial on it, that battle could become even more emotional.

If that all worked in Murphy's favor, because the city acquired the 9-acre park with state money through Maryland's open space program, Savannah would be required to give the city another equally valued property to use as open space to replace it - a costly proposition when talking about Canton waterfront property.

City Planning Director Otis Rolley III called Murphy's obstacles "huge."

"It's very difficult for the city to consider giving up parkland, particularly in a relatively dense area and in a key area of the waterfront, for a structure," Rolley said. "We'd be hard-pressed to do it."

Parks Director Kimberley A. Flowers said that because Savannah's proposal involves a park parking lot rather than traditional parkland, she's willing to listen - with reservations.

"I would not support any sort of development displacing green space," Flowers said.

Even though the development would steer clear of the green part of the park and the Korean War Memorial on it, veterans advocates worry the condominiums would overshadow the park and spoil the memorial's peaceful ambiance.

The memorial, completed in 1990, honors the 527 Maryland citizens who died fighting in the Korean War.

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who fought to get the memorial built while he was governor, said that a development so close would be "a disturbance."

"We should show as much respect for the veterans as we can," Schaefer said, adding that he could not support the project "if it in any way would affect the sanctity of the memorial."

Murphy is offering to take over maintenance of the park and the memorial.

She said she would also enhance it with more plantings.

No matter how much landscaping Murphy adds, she won't be able to sell her project to Carolyn Boitnott, coordinator for the Waterfront Coalition, which monitors downtown development.

"We would vehemently oppose it," Boitnott said, adding that the development would not only consume waterfront open space, but a public boat launch. "I can't imagine there'd be any support for that by anybody."

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