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As Plank announces Westport acquisition, city's hopes are high

City's hopes are high as Under Armour CEO amasses South Baltimore waterfront

Neighborhood leaders and city officials say they are hopeful now that Baltimore's billionaire, Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank, controls a lot of the waterfront around the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River that isn't a city park.

Plank's real estate firm, Sagamore Development, confirmed Friday what many had long suspected — that it was the mystery buyer of about 43 acres of waterfront property in Westport at a bankruptcy auction earlier this year.

The acknowledgment brought Plank's publicly known holdings in South Baltimore to nearly 200 acres, roughly equivalent to the Cylburn Arboretum, 150 football fields or more than five Harbor Easts. Sagamore and its affiliates have spent more than $100 million acquiring the properties.

The portfolio is prime property in an area the city has called ripe for rebirth. A city plan adopted in 2007 pitched it as a quieter, greener Inner Harbor, while identifying major barriers to redevelopment, such as environmental contamination and deteriorating infrastructure.

Sagamore Development has promised to lay out its vision for Plank's holdings in a master plan, expected to be presented to the city in August. In the meantime, neighborhood leaders and others say they are excited.

"I'm very curious — we all are curious — to see what the conceptual design will be," said Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, who said Sagamore representatives reached out recently. "It's definitely an exciting time to see how their plan will integrate with our plan."

Many said they expect Sagamore to focus first on Port Covington, a peninsula south of Federal Hill where the majority of Plank's properties are and where Sagamore said it is planning a mixed-use development and Under Armour campus.

Sagamore controls at least 148 acres in Port Covington, much of it formerly industrial, including the Nick's Fish House marina, a Wal-Mart and land currently occupied by The Baltimore Sun's printing plant.

Conversions of a closed Sam's Club into Under Armour offices and a former city garage into startup offices are underway. A distillery slated for 301 E. Cromwell Street secured a key city approval last week.

An aging former railroad bridge connects Port Covington to Westport, which comes with different expectations.

Baltimore developer Patrick Turner proposed an ambitious project there in 2006 that included an office tower, hotels, residences and even a stadium. Turner convinced the city to issue $160 million in bonds for infrastructure to support the projects.

The collapse of those plans led to January's foreclosure auction, where a Sagamore affiliate picked up the properties for $6 million.

Speculation about what could go on the land has ranged from a horse racing track — though it's likely too small — to smaller-scale projects, such as waterfront bike and running paths. The properties lie next to a light rail stop, backing onto a residential neighborhood where residents want to see vacant properties rehabbed, better infrastructure and more commercial life on their main street.

"It's important that we think big about the possibilities of what might be there," said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat, who is part of a group scheduled to meet with Sagamore representatives next week. "I am open to all possibilities and just want to find a way that current residents can also be part of the upside."

Planning Director Thomas Stosur said the Middle Branch master plan — which called for mid to high densities, with as much green, publicly accessible shoreline as possible — still guides the city's vision for the area. Sagamore has not met with the Planning Department about its master plan, he said.

If Sagamore were to adopt Turner's plan, it would have access to the tax increment financing approved in 2008, said Susan Yum, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Development Corp. Any changes would require renegotiation of the deal.

"We're excited," said Yum, adding that it would be "premature" to say what the BDC hopes to see happen on the site. "That property is so huge, it has a lot of potential to serve a lot of different audiences."

Sagamore declined to comment for this article.

In disclosing the Westport purchase, the firm said it had not identified specific land-use plans but that the area is "part of Sagamore's cohesive vision for the Middle Branch and vital to the economic development, transportation connections and diverse culture of South Baltimore and the broader region."

Some said they believe just the fact of Plank's involvement is rekindling interest in the area.

Loren Duffey, a real estate agent with Long & Foster who started investing in Westport around 2005, said this spring he has seen signs that faith in the neighborhood is rebounding.

A Live Baltimore analysis of home sales in Westport found that average sales price inched up by about $2,000 to $25,320 in the first six months of 2015, compared with 2014, while the average days on the market dropped from 94 to 70.

"It's been stagnant for a long time … until probably three months ago things started changing," Duffey said.

Plank's involvement was key to Diamond Development's decision to sell 2595 Carroll Street, a roughly 1.4-acre site in nearby Morrell Park that the firm bought in 2007, securing approvals for development of 20 rowhouses, said managing director Jeremy Diamond. An auction is scheduled Aug. 13.

"The timing is definitely now," Diamond said. "You're going to see a lot more real estate development south of Pigtown."

City Councilman Ed Reisinger, who represents Westport, said he was pleased to see Plank become involved.

"He has the reputation that he can juggle more than two balls in the air," he said. "I'm just happy it's happening."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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