A sprawling paint factory in industrial South Baltimore might be the last place you'd expect to attract hummingbirds.
But Sherwin-Williams might now start drawing nectar-loving birds and more with native wildflowers, American beautyberry and pine trees it's planting at its manufacturing complex on Hollins Ferry Road. The effort is aimed at creating a more pleasant workplace, enhancing the neighborhood and helping clean up the harbor.
Sherwin-Williams is one of a handful of companies — some with checkered environmental records — that have signed on to spruce up their properties, part of a new initiative to enlist businesses, nonprofits and government agencies there in helping to boost the city's anemic tree canopy, attract more wildlife and restore its degraded urban waters.
The Second Harbor project focuses on greening industrial lands in the lower Gwynns Falls, which flows into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, the less developed, grittier adjunct to the Inner Harbor.
"What we're trying to do is enlist particularly the industrial properties in the Middle Branch ... to look at how they can manage their lands to improve wildlife habitat as well as to address stormwater quality issues," said J. Morgan Grove, a research scientist in the U.S. Forest Service's Baltimore field station.
The effort is a partnership between the Forest Service, Baltimore's Parks & People Foundation and the Wildlife Habitat Council, a national nonprofit based in Silver Spring that encourages corporations to undertake voluntary conservation projects on their properties and in adjoining communities.
The habitat council, which is holding its annual symposium in Baltimore this week, sees the effort as a potential model for environmental restoration in other urban areas.
"Once we start working in Baltimore, we can reiterate this in Denver, Philadelphia and Miami and other areas that have similar conditions," said Jeff Popp, the council's land restoration manager.
Other companies involved include:
•Maryland Chemical Co., which is creating rain gardens at its Childs Street site, and planting trees and other vegetation to attract bees and butterflies.
• Vulcan Materials, a producer of stone, sand and gravel, plans to put floating wetlands in a stormwater pond bordering its Middle Branch compound, to provide wildlife habitat and reduce the flow of sediment into the harbor.
• Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is planting shrubbery and creating a butterfly garden along the Middle Branch at its Spring Gardens complex, where the company once manufactured and stored gas for heating the city's homes and businesses.
•The Baltimore Community Toolbank, a nonprofit "lending library" for tools, plans to install rain gardens around its building on Wicomico Street and a cistern to capture rooftop runoff.
Some of the companies have had toxic legacies in Baltimore.
BGE spent tens of millions of dollars to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater discovered in the 1980s at its Spring Gardens site.
Maryland Chemical had operated at the South Baltimore site where a casino is now under construction. The Maryland Department of the Environment has approved the developer's plan to cover contaminated ground there with new buildings, pavement and clean soil. The state ordered the developer to install a system for venting any vapors from the ground that might enter the casino building.
Sherwin-Williams has paid $600,000 to federal and state regulators in the past two years to settle waste-storage and air-pollution violations at its Baltimore plant.
The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing what might be done to clean up groundwater beneath the plant that was contaminated decades ago with toluene and other petroleum compounds.
Mike Levitsky, the plant's manager, said the company considers those issues behind it and has joined this effort because "it's the right thing to do," not to comply with any regulatory mandates.
"It's a great thing," he said, "not only for the neighborhood but for the employees, to come into a plant that's green." He said he hopes the plant's 118 workers will take breaks outside and use the hiking trail planned along the back of the 23-acre tract.
"We just want to make it as green as possible," Levitsky said.
This summer, the company removed about 4,000 square feet of asphalt from its parking lot to make way for switch grass and blue and red wildflowers — Sherwin-Williams' colors, not coincidentally — in a bid to soak up some of the rainfall washing off the pavement before it can get to storm drains.
Sherwin-Williams also adopted a two-acre vacant lot across from the plant, where plans call for a "Maryland-in-miniature" park, with native trees and plants from across the state lining a walking path. Company officials hope the park will beautify the adjoining Mount Winans neighborhood and screen residents from truck and rail traffic.
Ann Robinson, president of the 350-household Mount Winans Community Association, said "there have been some challenges" living so close to the paint factory, but she said residents are looking forward to having the park and walking trail.
"We're real pleased with what they're going to do," Robinson said.
"We're trying to get a few early adopters, do some projects and then show other businesses what they could be doing," said Guy W. Hager, a senior director at the Parks & People Foundation.
Some environmentalists have been skeptical of such efforts. The Wildlife Habitat Council has been accused of enabling corporations to "greenwash" less-than-savory environmental records.
But Margaret O'Gorman, the council's president, said the group works with any business willing to do a conservation project, as long as the effort isn't being done to satisfy a regulatory requirement.
"We are not qualified, nor do we seek, to judge a company's overall environmental record," she said. "We don't certify a company, we certify projects."
David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, said he's concerned about stormwater runoff and other impacts on the lower Gwynns Falls from the industrial properties that drain into it. He welcomed the initiative, saying that "any restoration activities in the area are definitely needed."