Bankruptcy suit reveals details about Turner's tries to develop Westport waterfront

Group from Nevada attempted to buy loan secured by 43-acre tract

  • Former industrial land that Patrick Turner planned to turn in to Westport Waterfront remains undeveloped.
Former industrial land that Patrick Turner planned to turn… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
March 02, 2013|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

The only residents of the Westport waterfront last week were a gaggle of geese that commandeered a large puddle amid the brush and broken asphalt. The only structure was a battered chain-link fence, capturing wind-blown litter along the perimeter.

By now the 43-acre tract, assembled and cleared over several years with millions of dollars and personal resolve, was supposed to house hundreds and bustle with office workers. There should be a towering skyscraper and a stadium.

Instead, the development company that was going to make that happen is in bankruptcy and the future of the $1.4 billion Westport Waterfront project, thought of as a potential "Harbor West," is uncertain.

But Patrick Turner, the man whose idea it was to remake this industrial waterfront as a vibrant mixed-use community, is fighting to keep the project alive — and in his hands.

Turner and a partner, Towson-based developer Thomas B. Fore, are accusing investors they thought might save the project of acting as a Trojan horse. Invited into the development's inner circle, according to court filings, the investors really intended to acquire rights to the land and make off with millions of dollars.

"We are confident the legal hurdles will quickly disappear so we can ... finally put our shovels in the ground," Turner said in an email

Assembling the land

Turner methodically collected the land along the Westport waterfront until he controlled every inch from Waterview Avenue to Interstate 95.

"When we started the project ... most people in Baltimore had never heard of Westport," Turner said. "We spent years assembling the real estate, developing a relationship with the community, the city and other stakeholders."

Sheila Dixon, who was president of the City Council and then mayor during Turner's planning phase, said she supported bringing retail and commerce to an underserved community.

"That was an area that had really been deprived," Dixon said. "It took a lot of work to consolidate. A lot of businesses had to be relocated."

The Westport Waterfront rectangle is roughly six-tenths of a mile long and 500 feet wide. The west side is bordered by a street that runs parallel to the light rail line, which has a stop at the site.

Between 2004 and 2011, Turner assembled the land from more than a half-dozen parcels — a former power plant, a shuttered factory and other businesses — at a cost of more than $13 million.

"We ... have invested great amounts time and money into the project," Turner said.

Vision needed funding

Turner's ambitious plans for the site — 2,000 residences, stores and offices, a hotel, bicycle trails and a beach, plus a 65-story skyscraper — were revealed in 2006 to members of "Old Westport," the small, increasingly blighted and crime-plagued community across the tracks. The first buildings were to open in 2008.

Turner's undertaking follows in the vein of his earlier projects — the conversion of South Baltimore General Hospital into residences called 1211 Light Street and the transformation of a grain elevator in Locust Point into luxury residences overlooking the harbor and downtown.

But Westport Waterfront would be adaptive reuse on a grander scale, not just the makeover of one building but of a whole section of the city. If successful, Turner would make his mark on Baltimore's skyline.

"It was really a cutting-edge development for Baltimore," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, who headed the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, when Turner proposed Westport Waterfront.

Excitement about the project abounded, apparent from the incentives approved related to the environment, transit and even the military.

In 2008, the City Council and Mayor Dixon approved the issuance of $160 million in bonds to pay for roads, sewer and water lines and other infrastructure at the site. It is the largest such deal the city has ever authorized, said Kim Clark, executive vice president of the BDC.

The arrangement, called tax increment financing, would allow the city to pay for the construction work and then repay the bond holders with property taxes generated by the development. If tax revenue from Westport were inadequate, Turner's development company would be required to supplement the payments.

But the city could not find anyone to buy the bonds.

"It ran smack into the recession," Brodie said. "The TIF market absolutely dried up."

Without the infrastructure, development partners who planned to build structures at the site began to drop off, Brodie said.

"Sometimes, it's purely timing," Brodie said. "It should happen at some future date. ... I'm not less excited about it today."

Neighborhood leader Keisha Allen said members of the Westport community hope Turner can resume his plans but they're more focused on getting the city to resurface their main thoroughfare, Annapolis Road, and improve lighting, landscaping and signage.

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