The Port Covington development took another big step forward Thursday, with the city Planning Commission unanimously approving the master plan that outlines a street grid, parks, building heights and transit aspirations for the South Baltimore area.
The vote came after about two hours of testimony, in which opponents faulted the developer and city leaders for failing to consider ways to ensure the project includes economically and racially integrated housing and supporters praised the opportunities presented by the estimated $5.5 billion investment.
The project is controversial because Sagamore Development, which is owned by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, has said it wants $1.1 billion in public financing and grants to help build the streets, parks, sewers and other infrastructure in the area, an underused, largely industrial zone south of Federal Hill and Interstate 95.
"If Mr. Plank's going to do this on his own, fine, but if Baltimore is going to sink its financial health into this, this must be visionary," said Dr. Gwen DuBois, an internist at Sinai Hospital who lives in Mount Washington.
Sagamore wants to redevelop Port Covington with a new campus for Under Armour and adjacent mixed-use development, including offices, residences, stores and light manufacturing. The firm plans to work with private partners on the development, expected to include about 15 million square feet of new construction and roughly 40 acres of parks.
Sagamore Development President Marc Weller said he was excited by the Planning Commission's approval for the project, which he called a "one-of-a-kind opportunity" for the city.
"It allows us to move to the next step," he said, adding that he expects many community concerns to be resolved when the City Council takes up the firm's request for $535 million tax increment financing next month.
The $535 million would come from bonds sold by the city and repaid by property taxes produced the project and, initially, a special tax assessed on the developer.
"I feel many of the community concerns have already been addressed," Weller added.
The Planning Department received about two dozen written comments on the plan, many of which endorsed it, but some of which also touched on concerns about too much parking and inadequate transit connections as well as the decision not to include neighboring Westport.
More than 100 people packed into the city Planning Department offices to participate in the proceedings, though the crowd thinned by the time the commissioners made their decision. Some held Port Covington signs as a show of support, while others held signs calling for the city to slow down or stop the approval process.
"Our master plan should not be segregation," one read.
Barbara Samuels of the ACLU of Maryland, which opposes the project and city subsidies it says would exacerbate the city's racial and socioeconomic divisions, said the Planning Commission approval was "what we expected." The group will continue to press its concerns over fair housing next month, she said.
"We're going to [the] City Council with it," she said.
Commissioners said many of the critiques of the master plan were unreasonable, unfairly making the Port Covington development shoulder the burden of the city's systemic racial and economic divisions or coming too early in the course of the multi-decade project.
"The details we have seen so far are tremendous. … It's of a standard we haven't really seen in Baltimore, and I think it's something that should be a source of pride for all of us that this kind of investment is going to be coming," said Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur. "On an equity standpoint, there's no doubt that we as a city have a long way to go. … We can't expect one particular development to all of a sudden solve all these problems and challenges that have been issues for generations."
Some argued that such development would generate the activity that lifts the city's economy.
"Folks who are criticizing growth have lost vision of what is best for Baltimore," said Wayne Frazier Sr. of the Maryland Washington Minority Companies Association.
Michael Middleton spoke for a coalition of South Baltimore neighborhoods including Cherry Hill and Westport that have been negotiating with Sagamore over how to ensure their neighborhoods see benefits. He said Sagamore has spent more time talking to community members about their concerns than many advocates have.
"The coalition at this point supports the development, because it is nothing more than a master plan," he said. "This is a plan and opportunity for the South Baltimore area, one that rarely has happened."