Field of Schemes: A cavalcade of Baltimore projects, done and undone

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 12, 2003

It may sound crass, but development is pure and simple speculation. One can dress it up with high-minded jargon–“public-private partnership” or “urban renewal”–but the game remains a tangled, chancy knot of land deals and debt-fueling projects aided or underwritten by taxpayer dollars.

And so it’s been played in Baltimore since Colonial times, when Baltimore Town, Jones Town, and Fells Point were first laid out in the 1730s. As historian Sherry Olson writes at the beginning of her authoritative tome Baltimore, “the city itself was to be the great speculation,” with its growth driven from the start by the overlapping financial affairs of private and public interests.

Similarly, developers today commonly reduce their risks by relying on public money to build on scarce harbor-front land. This business-government alliance, then-Rouse Co. chief executive officer Mathias DeVito told City Paper back in 1995, “is a part of our culture here.”

Sometimes this development dance has worked, sometimes it hasn’t–and sometimes it turned out differently than intended, or was never done at all. The high-end residences of Mount Vernon Place, built in the 19th century, comprise what many say is the most beautiful urban space in the United States. The high-end condo complex Scarlett Place, on the other hand, looks as much like a Lego creation today as it did in the go-go 1980s, when it rose in the footprint of a closed President Street warehouse. The 6-year-old Columbus Center sits forlornly at the Inner Harbor, an unmitigated failure as a science-based tourist attraction. Next door, though, the brand-name draws at the Power Plant (Barnes and Noble, ESPN Zone, Hard Rock Café) have preserved a striking century-old relic. Harborview Towers along Key Highway broke ground 14 years ago and is only half-built, its lone high-rise bearing a cartoonish resemblance to a lighthouse, but the Howard Street Arts District, meant to revitalize the old west-side shopping district by nurturing the muses, was never built at all.

Successful or not, Baltimore’s drive to build and rebuild has been inexorable, even in the face of the Great Fire of 1904, the Great Depression and other financial disasters, the tenacious flight of jobs and residents to the suburbs, and the riots of 1968. Housing, highways, hotels, industry, office space, public transportation–it’s all gone up, in one way or another, shaped by geography (especially the city’s waterfront and watersheds) and the resolve and resources of the rich and powerful, be they in business or government. And thus we, for better or worse, have places to live, work, play, shop, and travel–places whose stories, sampled below, echo the strains and harmonies of Baltimore’s development.

The Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park 

When Baltimore was awarded a $100 million federal Empowerment Zone grant to boost jobs for poor residents in 1994, city leaders confidently called the proposed Fairfield Ecological Industrial Park the “crown jewel” of the plan. Located on a South Baltimore peninsula far from downtown, the industrial park–a polluting cluster of oil-tank farms, factories, and scrap yards–was to become an economic engine fueled by recycling and reuse; one plant’s waste would be another’s raw material. Residents of the city’s other two Empowerment Zones, one each in East and West Baltimore, were expected to fill the coming jobs, along with the handful of people still living in Fairfield, and businesses would claim tax benefits for hiring them.

Then, nothing really happened. There were planning symposiums, community meetings and strategy sessions–even enrollment in a federal program to make environmental permitting more flexible for businesses there. Much feel-good rhetoric was spun about the eco-industrial park. Then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke and luminaries from Washington used it in speeches as a model for the economy of the future. The city made ambitious promises for capital improvements–new roads, new storm drains, new curbs and lighting. In 1997, the state passed brownfields legislation to make it easier to redevelop abandoned and polluted industrial land, a step that ostensibly would help facilitate the eco-industrial park plan.

Other than the wholesale buyout by the city of the homes of the remaining 300 or so Fairfield residents in 1998, little change came about. In 1999, the eco-industrial park was withdrawn from the flexible-permitting program for inactivity and lack of interest. By 2000, the city was already quieting on the ecological part of the equation, though efforts to bring new business to the area continued. The city has spent about $5.5 million to date on road and drainage improvements in Fairfield. A granite-slab company was enticed with a $150,000 city loan to move there in 2000, the same year that the city forgave $300,000 in debt owed by the Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse development company, which has been trying since 1989 to revive a polluted portion of Fairfield called Port Liberty. In the end, though, the eco-park concept was abandoned, and Fairfield remains the same old petro-chemical industrial park that it’s been for decades.

The Middle Branch Waterfront 

In 1724, just six years before Baltimore Town was founded on the North Branch of the Patapsco River, landowners in the area approached the legislature with plans for a town at Spring Gardens, near where the Gwynns Falls empties into the Patapsco’s Middle Branch in what is now known as South Baltimore. Their efforts were blocked by John Moale, who owned the land and preferred to mine for iron there–which he did until he died in 1740–so a first settlement was chosen instead on the North Branch. Thus, if not for Moale’s self-interest, Middle Branch would be Baltimore’s Inner Harbor today. Instead, it’s Baltimore’s other, overlooked waterfront.

The Middle Branch was committed to industrial purposes during Baltimore’s formative years in the 19th century. The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.’s precursor in the 1850s chose Spring Gardens as the site for a gas-making plant, then later chose Westport, across the river, for a giant coal-fired power plant. The Carr Lowery Glass Co., which closed this year, first set up shop on the Middle Branch’s shores in 1889. Rubble from the 1904 fire was pushed into Middle Branch marshland, as was fill from city subway excavations in the 1970s.

The waterway’s other favorite use was recreation, as city dwellers at the turn of the 20th century chose places like Ferry Bar Park and the various rowing clubs dotting the shoreline as weekend destinations. They were always cheek-to-jowl with the smokestacks, but today the BRESCO trash incinerator is the only stack still belching.

Nascent signs of new investment have started to peek through the industrial detritus of Middle Branch. On the former Port Covington railroad yards sits a new Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club that opened in 2002, thanks in part to tax credits. Nearby, at the dilapidated city-owned marina next to the Hanover Street Bridge, a team of investors is planning extensive renovations, including a new restaurant and entertainment venue. The National Aquarium had been planning a $30 million Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation at a 7-acre city park on the west side of the Hanover Street Bridge, but it recently ran into cleanup problems.

Also poking up from the urban detritus–and the refuse and sewage coming into the Middle Branch from the Gwynns Falls and various storm drains–is an ecology of sorts. Herons, kingfishers, and even beavers frequent its shores and rotted piers, which themselves have become vegetated islands of habitat.

For the last quarter century, city planners and local architects have been calling for the Middle Branch to become the city’s “second waterfront” by creating access and amenities along its shores and promoting recreational uses like fishing, biking, and picnicking. As the city strives to solve its extensive leaky-sewer problems and also installs a debris collector to keep trash from entering Middle Branch in the first place, the degraded waterway may yet become a destination again–this time without the heavy industry.

Coldspring NewTown 

Back in 1970, when Abell Foundation President Robert Embry was the city’s housing commissioner, Moshe Safdie captured his imagination. The young Israeli-born Canadian architect had wowed the crowds at Montreal’s 1967 World Fair with Habitat, a complex of modular, mass-produced housing and retail space arranged as a self-contained community for urban markets. With residents fast abandoning Baltimore for the surrounding suburbs, Embry and other city leaders were willing to commit urban-renewal funds to try new things–even something along the lines of Habitat–in order to keep the city’s dwindling middle class. And try they did with Coldspring NewTown.

Located just south of Cylburn Arboretum between Greenspring Avenue and the Jones Falls, the project was initially designed to straddle Coldspring Lane on 370 acres and comprise 3,700 dwelling units for 12,000 people. Some were to live in “deck houses”–raised concrete, aluminum, and-stucco condominium complexes with parking beneath the homes and walkways and green space throughout–and many more in apartment buildings, including a top-entry high-rise to be built down the face of the old Woodberry Quarry. The price tag was $200 million, with $50 million coming from federal coffers. City voters approved a bond sale to insure condo buyers’ mortgages.

In 1977, the first phase was completed: 252 deck houses. They were snatched up by a mixed bag of professionals–including high-ranking city bureaucrats, architects, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and journalists. More public money was spent to lay the foundation for the project’s next phase–the NewTown part of the concept, with stores and community services–when Ronald Reagan became president and nearly turned off the spigot of federal funds that had fueled Baltimore’s urban-renewal gravy train during the 1970s. The project stalled, only a fraction completed.

Until the 1990s, when construction started on a different tack–a hundred or so suburban-style homes along Coldspring NewTown’s boundary with the Cylburn Arboretum–the isolated development was surrounded by vestiges of its failure. Mounds of earth had been moved, sewers and roads installed, foundation work laid down, but much of it was left eerily idle. Almost 900 people, however, now live in what had been uninhabited woodland. Their combined property taxes contribute approximately $500,000 per year to city coffers. That’s not much return for tens of millions of dollars in public investment–unless, of course, you’re one of the original condo buyers who scored unique urban homes for $30,000 to $60,000 with low-rate, bond-insured mortgages.

Inner Harbor East 

Three or four decades ago, Inner Harbor East–a 20-acre parcel around where the Jones Falls empties into the harbor, right next to Little Italy–was slated for a highway interchange. After that proposal crashed and burned, thanks to an epic political battle that spawned several careers (including that of now-U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski), a decade-long community planning process started to create a vision for the property.

What was ultimately agreed upon, in a plan made official in 1990–a cluster of upscale townhouses, a marina, offices, retail space, and an 18-story hotel–was “to balance all the interests of neighborhood life with the interests of commercial developers,” as then-Mayor Schmoke explained at the time. New buildings, all agreed, were to have low elevations and a street-level orientation, so as not to overshadow the rowhouses and restaurants of nearby Little Italy and Fells Point.

With a hard-fought plan in place, community activists rested easy. The city held up its end of the bargain, building roads and water lines and completing marina renovations, and then started to sweeten the deal for the property’s main owner–H&S; Bakery owner John Paterakis.

The favors started with $1.5 million in federal money, which was chipped in for a $9.2 million office and apartment complex where Sylvan Learning Systems is now based. Then the city subtracted first $1.7 million, then another $1 million, from Paterakis’ $4 million share of the costs for infrastructure (roads, water lines, marina renovations, etc.). Then, in 1995, the city gave Paterakis another $1.8 million in financial breaks, and deferred his $6.5 million obligation to purchase two city-owned parcels in the development area. But that was just for starters.

The real surprise at Inner Harbor East didn’t come until 1997. At that point, the city’s $150 million Convention Center expansion was completed, but the center needed about 1,000 more hotel rooms in order to support the expected growth in bookings. Two-thirds of the Convention Center’s cost had been covered by the state, so legislators all around Maryland were anxious to see it succeed.

To the surprise of many, Inner Harbor East–about a mile from the Convention Center–was chosen as the Convention Center headquarters hotel’s home in 1997 over two other closer sites. What’s more, Paterakis’ proposed hotel blew the Inner Harbor East plan out of the water–as initially approved, his hotel was to be a 48-story behemoth, costing nearly $150 million, with a third of the cost covered by public funds.

Ultimately, Paterakis’ Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel rose 32 stories–not quite twice the height spelled out in the 1990 urban-renewal plan–and vocal critics have tempered their complaints since its construction was completed in 2000. After all, with a significant public stake in the project, its success significantly impacts city coffers. And now it is joined by a proposal for a $130 million Four Seasons hotel and condo complex made up of two 20-story towers, also receiving healthy public subsidies. So much for Inner Harbor East having the scale and feel of the quaint neighborhoods surrounding it.

HOPE VI 

President Bill Clinton came and went, but Baltimore will bear the mark of $150 million his administration gave to the city’s public-housing program for years to come. The money came in the form of HOPE VI grants, and they were used to demolish and replace antiquated public-housing high-rises with mixed-income townhouse developments for homeowners and public-housing residents alike. Lafayette Courts, Hollander Ridge, Flag House, Murphy Homes, Lexington Terrace, Broadway Homes–for nearly 50 years, these were familiar addresses and home to thousands of Baltimore’s poor. Now they are all gone, some of them replaced with new housing–but for vastly fewer people, and less of them poor, than were living there before.

“When the towers come down, the tenants have to go somewhere, and what they do is fan out to nearby working-class neighborhoods, using federal housing vouchers to pay the rent,” according to an article in the October issue of Governing magazine. “Most of these are aging, fragile communities struggling to stave off dysfunction themselves. A large influx of welfare families brings increased crime and disorder and sometimes threatens a neighborhood’s very survival.” In Baltimore, a study released this year by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies found this effect to be the main problem with the HOPE VI program.

The critics aren’t saying the old high-rises–which Al Gore called “monuments of hopelessness”–were preferable. But they make the argument that big-money, big-impact moves like imploding high-rises and replacing them with mixed-income townhouses fails to address the complex root causes of poverty and all its ills. In fact, some call the program government-funded gentrification and complain that HOPE VI amounts to little more than a massive dereliction of duty for the nation’s giant public-housing system, which is supposed to support the poor. Residents lucky enough to obtain housing at the suburban-style complexes, though, find a lot to like–they’re new, clean, and generally safer than what they replaced.

The Public Rails 

Controversial highway plans to link interstates 70 and 95 near Fells Point, then build a bridge over Locust Point, fell through in the 1970s–but not before a portion of I-70 was constructed through a slice of West Baltimore neighborhoods. East-west traffic in Baltimore and those West Baltimore communities have struggled ever since. But part of the strain was meant to be relieved by rail-based public transportation, an idea that has never fully blossomed in Baltimore, despite its demonstrable boost to economic development in cities that have extensive systems.

Baltimore’s extensive trolley system had been phased out entirely by the early 1960s, thanks in part to the indirect efforts of General Motors to shut it down. The new generation of rails now consists of the 15-mile Baltimore Metro subway between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore medical campus, and the 30-mile light-rail line between Hunt Valley and BWI Airport. Combined, the projects cost nearly $2 billion in public funds, with construction lasting two decades.

That price tag is nothing compared to a current proposal, announced earlier this year, to create a six-line, 109-mile, 122-station system for $12 billion over a period of 40 years. The extensive, expensive scheme, dubbed the Baltimore Regional Rail System, was cooked up by an advisory committee of the Mass Transit Administration and has the backing of heavy hitters like the Greater Baltimore Committee, a large and respected business group. But Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration is balking at its lofty ambitions, saying a rapid-bus plan may be a feasible alternative, given the tight state budget.

The chilly reception at the State House suggests Baltimore’s rail future, for now, has much more humble possibilities–such as a monorail to carry tourists around the Inner Harbor’s attractions. The idea has cropped up periodically over the last 25 years, most recently in the late 1990s, when then-Mayor Schmoke proposed a $210 million system that officials likened to the one at Disneyland. Others were reminded of the fictional Springfield, where the Simpsons, in a classic episode of the animated show, saw firsthand where monorails lead you–around and around in a runaway train sold to the public by a passing huckster. So, instead of rails for the Inner Harbor, the Greater Baltimore Committee is backing a $26-million electric tram system with dedicated lanes on existing roads. Either way, it sounds like tourists to Baltimore will have their public-transportation problems solved long before Baltimore as a whole does.

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