"It's in a natural flight path of redevelopment that's sweeping up from the water," O'Malley said, "and then Johns Hopkins pushes that wave still further north."
That is many years away. By then, without major government intervention, there might be little of the brewery area worth saving.
`Talking ... grows old'
With no nearby strengths to build upon, the city intends to manufacture one, again pinning hopes on a revitalized brewery.
"I really don't see a lot happening until the American Brewery project takes off and announces to the market, `This is the place to be,'" said Shea.
In May 2005, the O'Malley administration asked for proposals to redevelop the property. Only one came in. In November, the city selected a proposal from a group led by Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse to turn the brewery into the Baltimore headquarters of Humanim Inc., a social services agency. Final details of the contract with the city are still not worked out.
This marks a milestone, the first time since the brewery's closing in 1973 that an occupant stands committed to move in. The developers are among the biggest cheerleaders for the $21 million project - both for what it can do for the brewery and, more importantly, for the surrounding area. But even they warn that time is running out. The project, they say, will give "what may be the American Brewery campus its best and last chance at new life."
C. William Struever, the chief executive officer of Struever Bros., said the American Brewery redevelopment could be a "terrific icon for that whole neighborhood" and a "catalyst to fix up that entire area."
"Large-scale investments in edge neighborhoods create economic energy," said Struever, who has a record of turning vacant industrial buildings into thriving apartment, office and commercial projects. His past projects include Tide Point in Locust Point and Tindeco Wharf and the American Can Company in Canton.
Humanim promises to provide on-site services. The nonprofit, which will own the brewery building, says it will relocate 250 workers to the brewery and hire 60 more, most of them from the neighborhood. It also says it will offer its expertise in grant-writing to churches and community groups.
"We're meeting with as many people as we can, seeing if we can coalesce to make sure that the neighborhood is vibrant and successful," said President and CEO Henry E. Posko Jr.
Indeed, some urban experts contend that a project such as the brewery revitalization could energize residents in the area.
"If you lived in a neighborhood like this, it's hard to get motivated and excited about change," said Joseph Schilling, a professor at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute and co-founder of the National Vacant Properties Campaign, which provides assistance to Baltimore and six other cities. "If people can galvanize around a project, that in itself can be a tremendous benefit."
Yet some neighborhood leaders, conditioned to disappointment, are skeptical that a brewery-centric approach will spark the kind of renaissance city officials seem to predict.
Ornat Erby, a longtime resident and community activist, questions the extent of the spillover effect of a renovated building filled mostly with office workers.
"What does that do for the community? Nothing," said Erby, who lives in a rowhouse near the brewery. His parents bought the house in the 1950s. What residents need, Erby says, are more services and retail shopping.
The city is taking other steps in the neighborhood.
It has acquired the right to foreclose on about 300 abandoned and tax-delinquent properties in the area, as part of its anti-blight initiative. Also, the city, which owns about 100 properties in the area, has identified four blocks around the brewery as priorities for acquisition.
Still lacking is an overall plan. Broad as well as block-by-block decisions need to be made. How many people can be expected to live in the area? Should blocks of empty lots, such as the 1800 block of N. Castle St., be preserved as open space or offered for redevelopment? Should blocks with mostly vacant houses be torn down or rehabbed? As the city takes title to abandoned properties - a process that could take several months - which ones should it bundle for redevelopment?
Arnold Williams, chairman of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, said, "I think it's clear that the city has neglected [the area]. The city ... has to step up and make this area a priority."
Williams, also a member and adviser to the Southern Baptist Church, which helped develop senior housing across from the brewery, suggests that the city initiate a "conversation of interested parties, led by the religious community, because they stayed."
While many complain about the lack of a comprehensive plan, in some ways that is a red herring. A plan with no money to see it realized is just a bundle of paper sitting on a bureaucrat's shelf.