South of the busy highway that severs Port Covington and its littered shoreline from the rest of Baltimore lies land largely left empty for decades despite promises of development.
A new promise emerged Thursday when the real estate firm owned by Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour, presented plans to the city to transform the area with a major mixed-use waterfront development costing billions of dollars over the next 20 years.
Anchored by an Under Armour campus where empty parking lots now surround a Wal-Mart, Sagamore Development's project would establish a new neighborhood and skyline with up to 13 million square feet of offices, homes, stores and restaurants, and a shore remade with parks and running paths.
"We've been waiting a long time to start revealing some of the exciting development plans and ideas that we have for Port Covington," said Marc Weller, Sagamore Development's president.
The plan, presented to the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel, would radically alter the 266-acre area, now mostly open or industrial sites that include the large NGK-Locke insulator factory and the building The Baltimore Sun leases for its printing presses.
The proposal envisions relocating The Sun plant. It would lower an elevated portion of Hanover Street, clean up the shoreline and add new streets, utilities and transit, including a light rail spur.
"We're really creating a destination within the city of Baltimore," said David Manfredi, a founding principal of Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects, which is working on the master plan. "We're not making an amusement park. What we're making is part of the city."
Sagamore, which owns about 160 acres in Port Covington, expects to spend at least a year getting the master plan approved. The firm intends to seek financial support from the federal, state and local governments but has not submitted any formal proposals, Weller said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expects Sagamore to ask the city to create a district that would make the project eligible for subsidized financing, but spokesman Howard Libit declined to say whether she would back such a plan without specifics. She has seen drafts of the master plan and is broadly supportive, he said.
"The mayor recognizes that this redevelopment project is important to the city's future," he said.
At Thursday's presentation, which drew more than 50 people to an often sparsely attended UDARP meeting, Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur called the project "probably one of the biggest opportunities ever to come to Baltimore," saying Sagamore is setting "incredibly high expectations."
"I feel very confident that it is going to be spectacular in every sense," he said. "I also want to make certain on behalf of the city that it is something that is, as you say is your intent to be, very publicly accessible and also that the community itself that you're building is one that is inclusive and mixed income and has lots of opportunities for a diverse set of populations to be a part of it from the start."
The plan calls for a new Under Armour headquarters campus clustered on about 50 acres that now contain a Wal-Mart and former Sam's Club that Sagamore started converting into offices for the growing Baltimore-based sports apparel brand last year.
The eastern waterfront, where Plank is building a whiskey distillery, would be reserved for a shopping district with restaurants, entertainment such as a possible music venue, and hotels.
To the north, buildings with ground-floor retail topped by residences would fill parts of the space, creating areas akin to the pedestrian-friendly streets of Europe, said Manfredi, whose firm also is working on a $1 billion plan that Corporate Office Properties Trust is developing for a waterfront site in Canton.
West of Hanover Street, where Sagamore has converted a former city garage into a maker space, would be a mix of offices, homes and larger retail spaces. Some buildings, such as the brick Schuster concrete factory, would remain beside newer, modern architecture. Sagamore said it also hopes to restore access to a former railroad swing bridge that connects Port Covington to Westport, where Sagamore also has acquired land.
Panel members, who will review smaller sections of the site in more detail in the coming months, praised the firm for its commitment to open space and making the waterfront open to the public. They said they hope that extends to the Under Armour campus, which is being designed by a different firm and will be considered separately.
"The devil's in the details in these things," said panelist David Haresign. "It's a great first-pass overview."
Once a busy railroad and shipping terminal, Port Covington has long been eyed for redevelopment. The relocation of The Sun's presses there decades ago was supposed to jump-start a new "Hunt Valley by the Sea." Other proposals have come and gone, leaving odd remainders such as the Wal-Mart.
Caroline Paff, a vice president at Sagamore who previously worked at the Baltimore Development Corp., told the panel that she is aware of the earlier false starts and that when she first saw Sagamore's vision, she thought the firm was "overreaching."
But she has been convinced.
"Port Covington is going to be the future home of the Under Armour global headquarters, and that's the key ingredient," she said. "That's what was missing from those other proposals. That's the driver of how this is going to happen."
Access to Port Covington, which spans about a mile from east to west, is now limited, dominated by Hanover and Cromwell streets and tricky exits off Interstate 95.
Architects said they hope to tie Port Covington into the fabric of the city, despite such barriers as I-95 and the CSX railroad tracks at the site's northern edge.
Early drawings show long blocks radiating from a new park and curling toward the water. Backing away from the shore toward I-95, building heights would rise "similar to a wedding cake," Weller said.
Representatives for Sagamore say they hope people drawn to Port Covington will rely less on cars. The company has met with the Maryland Transit Authority about routing additional bus lines to the area and hopes to add a new light rail spur as well as new water taxi stops.
"We are going to have a lot of jobs and a lot of opportunity, and we need to make sure that people can get here from the neighborhoods that need the jobs," Weller said.
Sagamore is talking with the city and other groups about management and maintenance of the open space it plans to add to Port Covington's existing 40 acres of public parkland.
Other parts of the peninsula remain in private hands, such as the NGK-Locke plant. Weller said Sagamore is not in discussions to buy the 26-acre NGK-Locke property and that he does not expect The Sun printing plant to move soon, citing a long-term lease.
"We anticipate a long-term relationship with them," he said. "Our path to transformation for Port Covington will accommodate Baltimore Sun's continued occupancy and operation. So we have no intention of moving them."
David Gillece, who heads the Baltimore office of Cushman & Wakefield and worked on plans for Port Covington for a city economic development agency in the late 1980s, said market demand will regulate how fast the plans for Port Covington become reality. New office projects outside of downtown in areas such as Locust Point and Canton have not had problems finding tenants, he said.
"It will be wait-and-see, but having Under Armour as an anchor for a development is a pretty good start," said Gillece, who has not seen the master plan. "The city's vision of Port Covington being an office-use, mixed-use environment goes back 30 years, and the city was never able to deliver on that vision. ... For me, it's an absolute home run."