New road may make two points neighborly

August 14, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

It's like that sign you see in some bars, eternally promising, "Free Beer Tomorrow."

"We've been hearing next week, next week for the last two, three months," Charlene Gilbert, a Locust Point resident, said. "I don't think next week is ever going to come."

It's coming tomorrow, the city promises, at 11 a.m. to be specific. Not free beer, but something even better (which is saying a lot in this neighborhood where the main drag, Fort Avenue, seems to have a bar on every corner): the opening of the Key Highway extension.

Just a quarter-mile long and two lanes wide, the extension looms large in this South Baltimore enclave. It's been talked about for more than 20 years, and under construction for the past two, and now, $20 million in property acquisition and construction costs later, the ribbon is about to be cut. By extending Key Highway past the Domino Sugars plant and into the Tide Point office park, the road should divert much of the traffic that has clogged Locust Point's narrow residential streets in recent years.

"See," Gilbert said, nodding at a line of cars streaming up her one-way street on a recent morning. She lives on Haubert Street, which offers a quick -- too quick, she says -- shot to Tide Point. "There's even a guy who goes the wrong way every afternoon, 3:15 or 3:30, Monday to Friday."

Without the extension, Tide Point workers generally have had to take Key Highway to Fort Avenue, then turn up one of the residential streets, such as Haubert or Hull, to get to their offices. It gave the neighborhood something of a morning rush hour, and then an afternoon one.

"We tell everyone, don't make deliveries between 8 and 10 in the morning, and 3 and 5 in the afternoon," said William Bruce, whose family's machine shop on Hull Street has been in business in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. It was started by his now-86-year-old father, who still lives in Locust Point.

Bruce, who grew up in the house that the shop is attached to, has watched the neighborhood change over the years, with new condominiums and townhouses bumping up against the traditional rowhouses and the influx of white-collar businesses replacing the old blue-collar ones that used to dominate the industrial waterfront. It's affected his business, which is down to eight employees from a high of 30 at one point, because there isn't as much call for the machine parts that his shop makes.

"Things wear out; we remake 'em," he said of the work his shop used to do for Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and other plants that used to be in the neighborhood. They've been replaced in part by the advertising, architectural and high-tech firms at Tide Point, which is built on the site of the old P&G soap factory, and now, much of Bruce's business is with companies outside the neighborhood.

Bruce and others in Locust Point don't necessarily believe Tide Point is a bad neighbor -- in fact, they like that the office park's management sends a plow into nearby streets after a snowfall, clearing the ones that tend to get bypassed by the city as it works on the larger thoroughfares.

No, when they talk about the Tide Point traffic, and all the new housing developments, what they're really talking about is a sense of loss for their neighborhood's past. People see a new development, and they see their father's long-gone tomato patch, squashed somewhere under some newcomer's Sub Zero-equipped kitchen.

Even in a city of many tightly defined neighborhoods that tend to cling to the past and look askance at change, Locust Point stands out for its intense provincialism. Maybe geography is destiny -- it's on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, and its main residential area is circled by train tracks -- but residents here have grown accustomed to their isolation from the rest of the city. The old-timers have lived here not just for years but generations. For some, a big move is one that takes you to a different house on the same block rather than to one across town, let alone out of it.

But as other sections of the city's waterfront have been discovered and developed, Locust Point has been having its turn -- a reluctant one, to some -- as the hot neighborhood. This is one of those places in town where old Baltimore bumps directly into its newer incarnation. Narrow rowhouses, some clad in Formstone, share streets with new townhouse developments with names that tend to add a "u" to "harbor" or an "e" to point (or both, as in the case of one called Harbour Pointe).

It's too late to turn back -- you've really reached the point of no return when a former grain silo is being converted into a glossy, glassy condo tower -- but maybe a road like the Key Highway extension will help ease the old-versus-new tensions. On the other end of Locust Point, improvements to Andre Street, which should be finished in November and ease passage to Interstate 95, also will ease traffic woes in a neighborhood that used to have just one way in and out.

Maybe a new adage will result: Good roads make good neighbors.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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