Space for port industries

Waterfront: Vacant land on South Baltimore peninsula is being redeveloped not for pricey condos but warehouses.

August 04, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

A peninsula in South Baltimore that was the site of asphalt refining and storage for decades could, within the next year, become a hub for the type of businesses that are increasingly being squeezed from the shores of Baltimore.

The 60-acre site is among the largest pieces of vacant industrial land in the city. It is also the biggest with coveted access to the deep Patapsco River channel, city officials and the developer of the land said yesterday as they pledged to lease it to port-related and other industrial users.

The announcement by the Cohen Cos. of Rockville was seen as important by city and state officials because it comes at a time when other waterfront tracts are fast becoming communities of upscale condos and townhouses. That's to the delight of homebuyers seeking water views but to the chagrin of advocates for the port of Baltimore, who say it will be unable to grow if the trend continues.

Several high-profile sites were recently swallowed by so-called condo creep. They include a former grain elevator in Locust Point that is being turned into upscale townhouses and the site of a former Bethlehem Steel yard on Key Highway being transformed into Ritz-Carlton Residences. Another major industrial site, the former General Motors Corp. assembly plant in Southeast Baltimore, is expected to become an industrial park, potentially with a mix of port-related warehouses, distribution facilities and offices.

Cohen Cos. generally develops retail, condo and office projects in the Washington metropolitan area and in Ocean City. The company bought the peninsula site in May for $6 million from the petroleum company BP America Inc. on a tip from a broker at Trammell Crow Co., who told Cohen it needed "someone who thinks out of the box."

BP's use of the site dated to 1922, when it was used as a petroleum terminal. In 1925, BP turned it into an asphalt refinery. By the 1980s, it was no longer needed and the property was used for storage. In 1990, the company decided to clean up the pollutants and sell the land.

"It's been 15 years since it was last used, and everyone saw it, but no one could get into it because it was being cleaned," Ronald Cohen, a principal at Cohen Cos., said yesterday during a ceremony at the site. "There's been an amazing response from companies interested in space."

Cohen helped plant a Thundercloud Plum tree to mark a new beginning for the property, which was named Fishing Point Terminal. For now, there is little else on the vast, flat piece of land but some grasses and leftover hunks of asphalt and rock. The occasional tugboat cut through the Patapsco River backdrop yesterday, a reminder of the site's place on Baltimore's working waterfront.

Despite the smells of the nearby chemical industry wafting on the breeze, the property is considered safe and ready for redevelopment, according to the Maryland Department of Environment. Jim Carroll, an agency project administrator, said BP completed cleanup of the soil and groundwater in 2004 under a voluntary program that relieves the company of further liability in exchange for its cooperation. BP spent at least $6 million on cleanup.

Carroll said more remediation would be needed for housing to be considered in the future.

Cohen said he first thought condos would not be a bad idea, given the sweeping view of the river and Curtis Bay and its proximity to interstate highways and downtown. Then he learned of the pent-up demand for space from freight forwarders, cargo handlers, fuel processors and other businesses that need water, rail and road access. He may also seek to use dredge material cleared from the channel to build more land on 12 acres of his shoreline.

Cohen expects to seek building permits within the next six months for warehouses totaling 400,000 square feet, with more to come.

Ben Meisels, a vice president at Trammell Crow, said no leases are signed yet on the site, but he is working with several companies based out of town and in the city that need more space.

There is no usable pier jutting into the water, but one prospective tenant is considering making the projected $15 million investment to build one. For now, smaller ships and barges can use a land-based dock, and the developer is working on a rail spur to come directly to the new buildings.

The land sits on a peninsula dotted with state and private land used primarily by auto importers, petrochemical companies and a wastewater disposal plant. The city relocated about 300 residents from the heavily industrial area beginning in the late 1990s.

Baltimore became one of six cities designated a federal empowerment zone 10 years ago. City records show more than a half-billion dollars invested and 374 jobs created in the Fairfield/Wagner's Point area since then by more than two dozen importers, manufacturers, distributors and other companies. Businesses received tax breaks in exchange for locating and investing in the area.

Larisa A. Salamacha, managing director of industrial development for Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, has been working with BP for more than a decade to clean up the site for new uses.

She touts the site as a unique gem for port-related ventures and other users looking to expand and a testament to the cleanup program that will generate jobs and tax revenue.

"We have our eyes focused on saving industrial land in the right places," Salamacha said.

"Public policy should be balanced. Every day we get requests for rezoning for industrial property to residential, and we really have to study whether it should be rezoned. We never considered it for this site," she said.

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