Brown to Green: A South Baltimore brownfield becomes a rezoning test case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 30, 2003

Race Street in South Baltimore has long been a demarcation line between working-class homes and bygone blue-collar jobs. Classic Baltimore rowhouses, block after tidy block of them, extend to the east of Race Street, while to the west lies the Spring Garden Industrial Area–acres of underutilized industrial land, some still productive, much of it vacant or cleared of structures, and a large hazardous-waste site where hundreds of tons of toxic waste were dumped decades ago.

After an April 24 hearing, the Baltimore City Planning Commission recommended breaching this divide by rezoning a two-acre heavy-industrial tract at Race and Ostend streets for residential development. If all goes as planned, the developers–1300 Race Street LLC–hope a warehouse on the site will be converted to condominiums, and that 18 townhomes with two-car garages will rise along the property’s eastern edge. With the commission’s thumbs-up, the proposal will now go before the City Council for final consideration.

The case is the first application of a developing framework of guidelines the city plans to use evaluate rezoning such brownfields for nonindustrial uses. “It’s an old Baltimore situation where industry and rowhouses come right together,” explained city planner Chris Ryer during the hearing. The quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), which works to spur economic growth in the city, has “started to develop some criteria for how we would evaluate these parcels” for redevelopment, Ryer continued. Known as the “Industrial Land Use Analysis,” the framework is not yet finalized but is far enough along that it could be applied to the Race Street conversion.

BDC executive vice president Andy Frank, in an interview before the hearing, explained that brownfields such as the Race Street parcel tend to lie fallow until moneymaking uses are found for them–and more money can be made from residential uses than from offices, retail, or industry.

“In many cases,” Frank said, “it is not unlikely that an industrial reuse will generate enough revenue to underwrite the cost of redevelopment. Some sites, though, are so dirty that they would never be anything else than industrial.”

At the Race Street property, the developers are seeing green in the potential for more homes in what has long been a hot market for housing in South Baltimore. Stephen Strohecker, a realtor and partner in 1300 Race Street LLC, says the new townhomes will likely sell for about $350,000, a somewhat higher price tag than the $250,000 or so that nearby rowhouses cost.

“Significant changes have come to South Baltimore since 1971, the last time the city undertook comprehensive rezoning,” Ryer told the commission, “but not enough change in the immediate area to justify” large-scale conversion of industrial land. “But BDC’s new criteria did give justification to extend an existing residential zoning category across the street to this property.”

The criteria, Ryer explained, are meant to evaluate the selection of marginal or historic industrial properties for rezoning “as long as the conversion does not compete with other activities in the area,” and, just as important, that it doesn’t start “a domino effect” in which more and more of Baltimore’s industrial land is converted to other uses, leading to a scarcity of industrial zones which might someday be needed again.

“Generally, the economy of Baltimore is changing, and has been over the last 20 years,” Ryer’s boss, city planner Susan Williams, told City Paper before the hearing. “We still have a manufacturing base, but we have other kinds of demand for land use–mixed-use, offices, commercial space. And the old loft-style structures of the past are no longer as useful for the industrial marketplace–they don’t want to build up, they want to build out. So there has been creative reuse of these older buildings.” As examples of this, she pointed to new or upcoming projects like Brewers Hill in Canton, Tide Point in Locust Point, and Clipper Mill in Woodberry.

Actually, as Frank points out, the trend goes back even further. The city’s tourism-encrusted waterfront all used to be industrial land, from Harborview on the south side all the way around the Inner Harbor East and Harbor Point on the north side, and has been converted to other uses since the early 1970s, by which time industry had largely abandoned the Inner Harbor.

“So it is not a new issue,” Frank said. “But it is new in that we don’t have as much industrial property to convert anymore, and there have been worries that there may be none left if we need it. So, about a year and a half ago, we decided to pause and get a good, comprehensive look at the demand for industrial property and determine what factors we should consider in converting more land.”

BDC hired Bay Area Economics, a San Francisco-based economic consulting firm, to come up with guidelines; the company completed a draft set of criteria last fall. “It’s still an evolving policy,” Frank explained. “But we tested the Race Street property against the criteria and we’re comfortable that it’ll be a better use. The main question was, would nonindustrial use negatively affect adjacent industrial properties? And we decided it wouldn’t.”

The surrounding residential community has voiced its support for the Race Street rezoning in letters to the Planning Commission. “The reaction has been positive,” South Baltimore Improvement Committee President Amy Grace says. “Any time we can turn an old, run-down, vacant property into something positive for the community, it’s a good thing.”

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