Remaking Port Covington

Owners of shopping center want mix of homes, offices, hotel

October 23, 2007|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun reporter

The owners of a waterfront shopping center in South Baltimore's Port Covington hope to transform the 59 acres on the Middle Branch into a $2 billion community that could include homes, offices, shops and a hotel.

Owners Finmarc Management and Kodiak Properties LLC are looking for a partner or buyer to redevelop what is now a "big box" center with a Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, a Finmarc principal said yesterday.

Marc Solomon of Finmarc said he envisions redeveloping at least the shopping center property and possibly working with adjacent property owners to create an even larger 140-acre development. Finmarc and Kodiak will consider either selling the site to a mixed-use developer or launching a redevelopment as part of a joint venture.

Redevelopment is being encouraged by city officials pushing to transform vacant or underused swaths of the formerly industrial Middle Branch. Earlier this month, the city's Planning Commission adopted a master plan for the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River that calls for land use changes to the entire Middle Branch shoreline, earmarking Port Covington as a high-density development area.

Such a project would be the first on the north shore of the Middle Branch. On the south side, developer CIMG LLC is building 119 luxury townhouses and condos at WaterView Overlook between Westport and Cherry Hill, and on Westport's shore, Turner Development has cleared shuttered factories to make way for a $1.4 billion community of offices, shops, homes and a hotel.

"This property represents a terrific opportunity for the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland as being potentially combined with some of the other properties," Solomon said yesterday.

Some of the adjacent property owners include Baltimore-based developer Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, which owns about eight acres of vacant waterfront property; Locke Insulators Inc., a manufacturer of porcelain electrical insulators; and the Baltimore Sun Co., which has operated its printing plant on about 60 acres in Port Covington since 1992. The Sun plant is owned by a partnership of Sun owner Tribune Co. and the Chandler Trusts, until recently a major Tribune shareholder.

Solomon said his company has spoken with all the neighboring property owners about the plans. He said Finmarc and Kodiak have been in talks with Struever Bros. about possibly forming a joint venture.

"Some are very interested in doing it, some are not as interested at the moment, and some don't know," he said.

A spokesman for Struever Bros. could not be reached yesterday. A spokeswoman for Chicago-based Tribune had no comment; under a year-old agreement to end the partnership with the Chandler Trusts, Tribune has the right to purchase the property in January.

The shopping center, which was developed by Connecticut-based Starwood Ceruzzi, was the city's first "big box" retail center when it opened in the predominantly industrial area in 2001.

Plans called for other retailers to join Wal-Mart and its Sam's Club warehouse discounter. But customer traffic at the center, which is not visible from main roads, was reported to be below expectations, and additional retailers never materialized. Subsequent plans for adjacent residential development also were dropped.

Sam's Club announced in August that it would relocate to Glen Burnie. Solomon said the owners and Wal-Mart both want the retailer to stay on in the new development. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman did not return a phone call.

The property is one of the biggest urban waterfront sites available for development in the Mid-Atlantic, and could accommodate at least 4 million square feet of new construction, said Joe Ruzecki, a senior vice president with CB Richard Ellis, the commercial real estate firm representing the owners.

The site, "with 59 acres on prime waterfront with terrific [highway] access, will serve as a linchpin for the redevelopment of this entire peninsula," he said.

The amount of development and mix of uses would be dictated by the market, he said. He expects demand to be driven partly by the influx of military-related jobs to the state as a result of base realignment.

The newly adopted Middle Branch master plan calls for the city and property owners to embark on more detailed planning over the next year, said Thor Nelson, a design planner with the city Department of Planning. The city is also looking at options for mass transit in the area to handle the increased growth and connect with downtown, everything from a trolley, to water taxi service, to creating a light rail spur on CSX tracks.

"Basically, we're looking to create communities, distinct villages along the Middle Branch, some being more residential, others places where people work and shop, but each will have a mixed flavor," Nelson said. "Together they will create a charm bracelet of communities and Port Covington will be a major one."

Alfred W. Barry III, a principal with AB Associates, a land planning services firm, said he expects developers to be attracted by a site that offers access to Interstate 95 and views of the water as well as downtown.

"The I-95 corridor will be attractive as the East Coast and Washington region continue to expand," Barry said. "If you look at the growth projected for the Baltimore region over the next 25 years, it's incumbent upon the city and developers to make a play for that [growth]. This site, because of its relative few owners and majority of undeveloped property, represents a significant opportunity."

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