The brewery and beyond

May 20, 2007

The developers who have taken on the old city-owned American Brewery in East Baltimore are going to save an architectural colossus of the city's past. This is not a project for the faint of heart.

The ornate, five-story complex on North Gay Street has been vacant for 34 years, its cavernous interior in such disrepair that a city appraisal put its worth at zero. And the area around it resembles a wasteland of vacant, lead-poisoned rowhouses. Even at the $5,000 purchase price, the brewery was hardly a bargain.

The brewery's revitalization brings the promise of renewal for the troubled East Broadway neighborhood. But for that promise to be realized, City Hall will have to increase its commitment to the project and marshal other public and private resources to support the venture.

Baltimore's Struever Brothers, Eccles and Rouse has teamed up with Gotham Development of Washington to renovate the American Brewery into offices for Humanim Inc., a Columbia-based nonprofit social services agency. A $35 million project, the venture will bring 310 employees to the neighborhood. As part of the deal, the city is going to raze a nearby block of vacant properties it owns to provide parking for the company - and that should be just the start of its investment there.

The developers will derive the most benefit from $7.5 million worth of federal and state historic tax credits for renovating the 19th-century buildings, and they might also receive some city tax relief because the two-acre site is located in an enterprise zone. But this project represents substantial investment in an area of the city that has little going for it - and City Hall, which owns more than 1,500 vacant houses and lots in the area, should capitalize on it.

The Dixon administration ought to renew plans for an improved Gay Street corridor, and discuss with the state a mass transit extension to the Johns Hopkins Bayview complex, which would serve the brewery's East Broadway neighborhood. This area is in desperate need of attention, and is a classic example of where the city should be providing resources and incentives, rather than in already heavily sought-after neighborhoods.

The brewery project should be a great beginning, not an end in itself.

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