Project proves hard to unlock

Effort to develop Key Highway takes many routes


As they attempt to craft a plan for how the last undeveloped stretch of Key Highway will evolve, city planners will walk a tightrope this month between a community afraid of losing its charm and developers afraid of losing the best deal.

The effort follows months of awkward mediation games and tense meetings. City officials did anything they could think of to get business and community interests to see eye-to-eye since their first try, a proposal that would have traded muddy waterfront lots for high-rise condos, jolting nearly every South Baltimore neighborhood association into near revolt.

But diplomacy has played hard to get. A city-convened task force this fall yielded as much sarcasm and suspicion as ideas. And the Planning Department's call this summer for residents and developers to sit down together and mold visions for the area in clay? As one developer's putty work inched increasingly skyward, an appalled resident reached over and smashed it.

With interests so at odds, when the Planning Department releases a Key Highway urban renewal draft plan later this month, with consideration by the City Council coming early next year, it's hard to imagine a please-all scenario. Inevitably, someone's going home disappointed.

"Sometimes," says Andy Frank, vice president of the city's development arm, the Baltimore Development Corp, "you know you're doing a good job because no one is happy."

At stake is a swath of real estate running along the Inner Harbor roughly from the Little Havana restaurant to just past the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Smack in the middle of one of the city's priciest residential markets, it's a forlorn jumble of empty lots and repair shops, property with profit potential that can't be maximized unless it's rezoned to allow for homes and retail.

No one disputes the value in that. It's the fine print that has people nervous: How much development can fit? How high can it rise? Will there be public access to the water and enough parking to go around?

Those on both sides of the issue who spent the better part of the year brainstorming, drafting guidelines and molding clay hope the city proposal showcases their views - as officials promise it will.

"I hope to God they use what we spent so much time on," says Little Havana owner Tim Whisted. "Hopefully they'll listen. If they don't, they're going to have every aspect of this community mad at them."

Spurring their push for change, planners say, is that despite proximity to the Inner Harbor, Key Highway is underachieving and uninviting. Their basic urban renewal strategy is to boost population with big residential buildings, introduce retail to give others a reason to go there and soften the highway's harsh lines into a greener, more walkable boulevard.

They also want top dollar for the former Fire Department repair shop, which at 1407 Key Highway, sits squarely in the rezoning area. Investors are already salivating over the property.

Generally, residents are hoping for the best but bracing for a letdown. "Every time I convince myself we're OK," says Paul Robinson, founder of Friends of Federal Hill Park, "I get slapped upside the head with reality: It's about greed, ambition and politics."

Despite all the developer/community confabs, the task force assigned to draft guidelines for the city couldn't agree on volatile topics like parking and density. And the group's draft appears remarkably similar to the one residents flipped over last April.

Yet the task force did devise a rough "trade" formula that would force developers to provide certain amenities in exchange for extra height - a concept planners say has the potential to create the harbor's most vibrant residential nook.

As a base, all projects, on both sides of the street, would start at six to seven stories, or between 65 to 80 feet. Each would also be required to have commercial space on the ground floor.

Then, if that commercial space is retail - a store or a restaurant - the developer could get 20 or 30 extra feet.

On the harbor side, developers would also have to allow a 30-foot easement for the waterfront promenade. If they provide additional open space, they'd be eligible for much more height - all the way to 290 feet.

"The crux of the agreement," says D. Christopher Ryer, Baltimore's deputy planning director, "is open space is something people are willing to give something for."

As many as five 290-foot towers are possible in the renewal area using the task force's recommendations, Ryer says.

There would also be room for a few mini parks and "access corridors" - public walkways leading to the water from Key Highway.

Though Key Highway could end up boasting more condo towers than anywhere else on the waterfront, Ryer says the area might also enjoy better public access to the harbor.

The intent of the trade-off, he adds, is avoiding another Canton or Harborview, where there's little at the water aside from private homes.

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