May 25, 2000 - SBIC approves concept for Port Covington by Steve Purchase

The South Baltimore Improvement Committee convened on Tuesday night for a special meeting to consider the proposed Port Covington retail center that would bring "big box" stores to the edge of the neighborhood.

The $50 million complex, if approved by the City Council, would be built by Starwood Ceruzzi, a development company from Fairfield, Conn., on a 45-acre tract of waterfront property that is close to Locke Insulator company on one side and the Baltimore Sun printing plant on another.

About 40 SBIC members attended the meeting called by Cynthia Griffin, president of South Baltimore's largest neighborhood association. She introduced a task force that was formed to study the Starwood proposal and make recommendations to the city and the developer.

Laura Tillman, who lives in the 1500 block of S. Charles, presented the task force's findings to the meeting. (Other members were Michael Felner, Tom Smoot and Steve Zaleskiwicz.)

"Starwood made a presentation at our last meeting and asked SBIC to approve the concept [of the retail center]," Tillman said, "but we felt we didn't have enough information to make a decision. That's why we are meeting tonight.

"Residents have been in favor of the project in general but they have been worried about traffic, congestion and the type of businesses that would be built."

The task force divided the Port Covington proposal into five parts and made certain recommendations for each part in a five-page position paper that was discussed on Tuesday night.

The first part concerned traffic concerns in light of the developer's estimate of 1,643 daily trips to the retail center, with about 40 percent of that traffic expected to use Hanover Street.

John W. Guckert, the developer's traffic consultant, said: "A center this size generates traffic, but a lot of these cars are already on the road system.

"Not everyone will use Hanover Street," he added.

He said that a "large portion" of the traffic will come from the north, and perhaps drive south on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard to Interstate 395, then to I-95 and the Hanover Street exit.

The SBIC task force said that residents are concerned about the noise created by additional traffic and the impact of even more vibrations on older buildings.

"It changes the flavor of neighborhoods like ours, where children play streetside, the ice cream truck stops frequently and A-rabbers sell produce off horse-drawn carts," the position paper said.

The task force asked city planners and the Department of Public Works to route traffic, especially truck traffic, "around residential communities, not through them," to install larger signs to prohibit trucks over three-quarters of a ton, and to set up regular traffic patrols on Hanover, Light and Welles streets.

"The city's enforcement of current zoning and speed restrictions in South Baltimore is terrible," the position paper said.

"The traffic count was done on Feb. 24," Tillman said Wednesday morning. "It was not a [Orioles or Ravens] game day . . . I think there are very serious traffic concerns."

Plans for the retail center call for two anchor stores, such as Wal-Mart, Loew's or Home Depot, with more than 130,000 square feet each, and some smaller stores ranging from 6,000 to 40,000 square feet.

Kenneth A. Goldberg, a senior vice president for Starwood Ceruzzi, said he hopes to begin construction of the center by the beginning of 2001 and complete it late that year or in early 2002.

The property is owned by the CSX Corporation, which sold about 60 acres of land to The Sun for its printing plant in 1992.

Laura Tillman said that the task force recently talked to about 20 people on the street, just to get some unbiased feedback. "We've found very little negative reaction," she said. "Out of 20 people, only two didn't want the project at all. Most people said that we need more convenient shopping."

he task force also suggested some changes to the planned unit development (or PUD), the technical real estate document that governs the project. First District council members (Nick D'A-damo, Lois Garey and John Cain) introduced bill No. 00-0120 at the City Council on April 17 that set out the conditions of the PUD and amendments wanted by the developer.

The SBIC task force is asking that the council prohibit the following types of businesses at Port Covington: distribution facilities or warehouses, liquor stores, gambling establishments (except the Maryland Lottery), arcades, nightclubs or adult entertainment venues.

The council also was asked to prohibit a liquor license for any business except a sit-down restaurant and to prohibit any live music or dancing establishments.

The third part of the position paper dealt with environmental issues, including the care of wetlands, treatment of stormwater runoff, shoreline stabilization and brownfields considerations.

Starwood Ceruzzi has said it plans to improve tiny Ferry Bar Park, a city-owned park near the retail center tract.

"We call on Starwood Ceruzzi to substantially enlarge the park area [it's less than one-half acre], incorporate walking paths, add sports fields, create picnic areas and include fishing and crabbing piers," the task force document said.

The fourth part concerned aesthetics and the task force asked the council to limit the maximum building height to 60 feet, rather than the current ceiling of 230 feet, "which is inconsistent with a big-box retail center."

Additionally, the task force recommended that the developer conceal loading docks and trash containers with natural screening, to consider turning the buildings toward the water instead of the highway, and to share information about signage and construction materials with SBIC.

Finally, in part five, the task force urged the developer to give hiring preference to city-based construction crews and, once the center is built, to hold annual job fairs that would give South Baltimore workers a chance to apply for pre-screened jobs before other applicants.

Members at the meeting voted on each part of the position paper, and after a lot of discussion and some changes, the document was approved.

"More people liked the concept than disliked it," said Laura Tillman. "We did not do justice to the environmental concerns [because of lack of time], but we are going to stay involved."

She said that SBIC would send the document to Charles Graves, director of the city's Department of Planning, to the developer and to the City Council. A planning de-partment meeting was scheduled today and there is a council meeting to discuss the Port Covington PUD scheduled on Friday, June 1.

"We will send representatives to both meetings," Tillman said. "We wanted to engage the developer and the city and make this a win-win situation if at all possible."

Although the project generally got favorable reviews at the SBIC meeting, not everyone was thrilled with it.

Rosie Andrews, who is buying a house in the 1500 block of S. Hanover Street, said: "I am totally opposed to the idea. Big stores like Wal-Mart snuff out places like Singer's Hardware, Herb's Bargain Center and other smaller stores in the neighborhood. It's not just Wal-Mart, it's all the big box stores.

"Soon all the neighborhood stores will disappear and there will be just one place, called STORE, that will sell everything.

"Big stores are dehumanizing, they are demoralizing, they divide us and keep us apart. I prefer to shop in the neighborhood. That's why I oppose the Port Covington project."

Meanwhile, Sonny Morstein, president of the South Baltimore Business Association, said that Sen. George W. Della Jr. wrote a letter on May 18 to Charles Graves, asking the planners to minimize the number of small stores in the retail center and to prohibit liquor licenses, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and gambling establishments.

In another matter, he said he was excited about the new Ad Hoc Committee for Small Business that was recently set up by the City Council.

"We will report directly to the City Council on a regular basis on all issues that relate to small business in the city. There are 11 members from all over the city. We have a voice for the first time," he said.

Morstein also was completing the 30-page Main Street application for South Baltimore and he said he was confident that South Baltimore would be chosen for the National Historic Trust program.

Five Baltimore neighborhoods will be chosen for the Main Street program; up to 16 finalists will be announced on June 22.

On July 27, Mayor Martin O'Malley will announce the winners; other neighborhoods can apply for another Main Street program that will begin in four years.

"This is a very exciting . . . only five neighborhoods will be selected. South Baltimore has a very good chance," he said.

"It's a long, complicated process. They [Main Street] are great but they will not organize your community for you. You have to do it yourself. We are fortunate in having so many dedicated people helping us in South Baltimore."

Morstein also said that the bids are out for the new parking garage on West Street. "We are still on track to open in August 2001. The zoning is done, the hearings are over . . ."

Also on the drawing board is a major renovation for Cross Street Market, he said.

"This would not be just a paint job, but a major redesign that would fit into the Main Street program and possibly have special access to the new parking garage.

"This is a very exciting time for South Baltimore. We have waited a long time but many things are coming together now," he said.

Call the foundation at 302-429-7447 or go to www.kalnyc.org for more information. A color brochure that explains the construction process is available.



The developers of the Port Covington retail project that is home to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Sam's Club are bailing out of the project after nearly four years of failing to turn the South Baltimore waterfront area into a bustling shopping hub.

When Fairfield, Conn.-based Starwood Ceruzzi Inc. announced plans in 2001 to redevelop Port Covington, it envisioned a strip shopping center with 10 to 15 tenants in addition to Wal-Mart and Sam's. But the strip center was never built.

Starwood is now in negotiations with Bethesda-based Finmarc Management Inc. and Kodiak Properties to sell the 52-acre development, according to Finmarc.



Developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse hopes to transform 17 acres in South Baltimore's Port Covington into a community that could include homes, shops and offices, along with a promenade and even a trolley.

Struever Bros., working with the owner of the adjacent Tidewater Yacht Service Center, envisions a 2 million-square-foot development with 2,010 housing units, some of which could be built on reconstructed piers.

Early concept plans, presented yesterday to the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel, shows three residential towers, one as tall as 38 stories, as well as smaller housing units that wrap around parking garages. The project also includes retail outlets on the street level and a waterfront promenade for pedestrian and recreational use. The yacht service center, with its 400-slip marina, would remain.

The developer also re-imagines Cromwell Street as a four-lane boulevard with parking on both sides and a median for a transit line, possibly a trolley.

"We believe Port Covington is an absolute jewel for Baltimore's future and a key to revitalization," said Tim Pula, senor development director at Struever Bros. "Port Covington is a magical site in Baltimore."

City officials have been pushing to transform vacant or unused swaths of the formerly industrial Middle Branch of the
Patapsco River. A master plan for the Middle Branch, adopted late last year by the city's Planning Commission, designated Port Covington as a high-density development area. Projects along the Middle Branch include a massive mixed-use redevelopment of the Westport waterfront, on the opposite side of the water, with the first buildings to get under way next year.

Struever Bros. owns about 10 acres at Port Covington, while Tidewater's owner Bob Brandon owns 7 acres south of Cromwell Street and east of a faltering shopping center where a Sam's Club recently closed and a Wal-Mart remains.

Other property owners at Port Covington include Locke Insulators Inc., a manufacturer of porcelain electrical insulators; Tribune Co., which owns the 60-acre site of the Baltimore Sun's printing plant, and Finmarc Management and Kodiak Properties LLC, which is seeking to redevelop the shopping center.

Finmarc and Kodiak hope to remake their 56-acre retail site into a $2 billion Harbour East-style community and want to work with adjoining property owners on a cooperative plan.

Marc F. Solomon, a Finmarc principal, said yesterday that redevelopment at the Port Covington site should be reviewed comprehensively "as opposed to piecemeal."

"It's such a wonderful opportunity to have the premiere development in the East Coast," Solomon said.

Struever Bros. previously had been in talks with Finmarc and Kodiak about possibly forming a joint venture or putting together a combined master plan, Pula said. The Baltimore developer plans to meet with the owners of the shopping center possibly Monday, he said, noting that it considered how its project would fit in with the rest of the Port Covington site.

Members of the urban design panel expressed support for some ideas, including reconfiguring Cromwell Street, but they encouraged Struever Bros. to come up with alternative plans with less density and work with other property owners.

Struever Bros. did not give a timeline for its project, saying it largely depends on a rebound in the real estate and credit markets. The amount of development and mix of uses would be dictated by the market, Pula said.

"There is no immediate plan to put a shovel in the ground," Pula said in an interview. "We're in a down cycle of the real estate market. It's not necessarily the time to break ground on this type of stuff. ... We're trying to get approval for the overall structure of something that could come to fruition in the future."

Several development projects in the city are in limbo or have been recast amid the nationwide housing slump and economic slowdown, including a Struever plan for a luxury condo building in Charles Village, which is on hold and likely to switch to apartments.

The Port Covington site is part of a 130-acre parcel formerly owned by CSX and previously used as a rail yard by Western Maryland Railway.

In the mid-1980s, the city had envisioned the area as a future home to about 3 million square feet of offices, with a hotel and some retail. But the office market faltered, and those plans never materialized. About 60 acres were subsequently sold for The Sun'sprinting plant, which opened in 1992.

The city is looking at options for mass transit ranging from a trolley to a water taxi service in the area to handle growth and connect with downtown.


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