Government tries again to develop old military base

Vets' community planned for waterfront site in Balto. County

  • The main hospital of the former Fort Howard Medical Center is now mostly an abandoned site.
The main hospital of the former Fort Howard Medical Center is… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
May 08, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

Fort Howard, the once-bustling military hub on a Baltimore County peninsula, saw its last major activity end nearly a decade ago, when the veterans hospital there closed in 2002. Aside from a still-operating outpatient clinic, the 95-acre expanse has been left to time and the elements, and today is a rundown, desolate site — if one with stunning views of the Chesapeake Bay and the Patapsco River.

But if plans by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which owns the site, and private developers come through, Fort Howard will become a veterans community with mixed-income housing, health care and amenities such as restaurants and museums.

"It really takes a marvelous piece of property and continues its veteran use," said Dennis Smith, director of the Maryland VA Health Care System. "We're delighted that even though it's taken a while, that our dream for the Fort Howard property is really now coming to reality."

Earlier plans for a VA center just south of Edgemere collapsed in 2009 after the former developer, Federal Development LLC, had disputes with county government over zoning restrictions and property taxes. The VA canceled the contract with the developer, and veterans looking forward to spending their retirement within view of the bay had to scramble to recover deposits they paid to reserve spots.

Now, the VA has chosen Maryland developers Tim Munshell and Carl Williams, who have presented a $500 million project that would be financed with private equity, loans and tax credits for restoring historic buildings.

Munshell said they plan to break ground this summer and eventually to build 1,300 to 1,500 homes, including apartments and waterfront cooperative housing.

A new, expanded veterans health clinic will be the first structure completed in the development, Munshell said, about 18 months after construction begins.

"The VA gets a 10,000-square-foot community clinic that replaces the existing 7,500 square-foot [clinic]," Munshell said. "The VA pays for nothing on the site. This is all private development."

The developers are also in talks with a "major health care provider," whom they declined to name, to use the old hospital building to house a rehabilitation clinic that would be open to Fort Howard residents and the community at large.

Smith said that with this project, the VA seeks to offer affordable continuing care and housing to elderly veterans.

"This community will give discounts and priorities to veterans, which will hopefully allow it to be affordable to veterans who can't afford these kinds of arrangements now," Smith said.

Besides housing, the new Fort Howard will include a museum displaying military artifacts, an indoor swimming pool, restaurants and stores, and a boardwalk along parts of the waterfront, Munshell said.

Several three-story houses dating from the early 20th century stand next to a grassy expanse where military parades once were held. Pounded by decades of wind and storms, the houses have peeling paint and porch screens full of holes.

The homes, which once served as officers' quarters, will be renovated, Munshell said. The first residents will likely move in 12 to 18 months after the start of construction.

Munshell said he was attracted to the project partly because of his family's military background. His father served in the Marine Corps and suffered from health problems, Munshell said.

"He and his whole battalion ended up dying of cancer," Munshell said. "He could never find good health care."

The area now known as Fort Howard played a key role in the War of 1812. About 4,000 British troops arrived at the peninsula in September 1814 and began to march toward Baltimore, intending to burn it to the ground, said Burton Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society.

A smaller group of American soldiers repulsed the British at the Battle of North Point, which historians believe actually occurred near present-day Dundalk.

"Baltimoreans basically did what Washington couldn't do, and they stopped the British in their tracks," Kummerow said. "When you look out at the bay and think about all those ghosts out there, it's really just an amazing story."

Later in the 19th century, the U.S. government acquired the property and commissioned it as a fort. The VA gained title to the land and established a hospital there in 1943.

A 1951 report from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission mentioned that doctors at Fort Howard conducted research projects on human beings using radioactive materials, at a time when the U.S. government regularly carried out radiation experiments on humans, as revealed later by medical historians and journalists.

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