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With reaction divided, Planning Commission to vote on Port Covington

Natalie Sherman reports that the Planning Commission is slated to vote on the Port Covington master plan. (Caitlin Faw, Baltimore Sun video)

With the redevelopment of Port Covington facing a key vote before the city Planning Commission, the comments submitted to the panel were sharply divided on the proposal's benefits and whether it will usher in a new era of prosperity for Baltimore or perpetuate the racial and economic divisions that afflict the city.

The master plan before the commission would guide construction over the next few decades on a roughly 260-acre peninsula in South Baltimore where Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank wants to build a new headquarters for the sports apparel company, adjacent to other mixed-use development.

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His private real estate firm, Sagamore Development Co., has said it expects the $5.5 billion project to need about $1.1 billion in public investment, a request that has stirred public debate about the proposal.

Supporters packed an earlier public hearing on the project. They outnumbered critics in the almost two dozen comments submitted to the Planning Commission as well, urging commissioners to move forward because of the project's potential to spur job creation, environmental improvements and new life in the long underutilized district south of Interstate 95 and Federal Hill.

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The nine-person Planning Commission is slated to vote on the plan Thursday.

The "Port Covington project is exactly what this specific area needs," wrote Jane Goodrick, who identified herself as a longtime Baltimore resident who has lived in Otterbein, Federal Hill and Brooklyn. "I selfishly can't wait to be able to take the Circulator or perhaps cycle to the area to do some shopping and hang out with friends and family. We need more than just [Harborplace] and Harbor East."

But prominent advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Maryland and the Public Justice Center, urged commissioners to reject the plan, saying it lacks sufficient detail, will create a "new racially and economically segregated city within the city" and is an example of an "economic development paradigm that has failed our city."

"The city's fair housing and Title VI obligations require it to create inclusive, integrated communities — and do not permit the City to provide financing and zoning approvals to create another segregated white enclave," they wrote. "While 'big and bold,' the vision is decidely limited and old school trickle down economic development."

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The groups also said they are concerned there is no information about the planned uses in the area or a market study showing demand for the new construction, especially the residential units.

They raised questions about the public benefits of the roughly 40 acres of parks expected to be built as part of the plan and argue that the city incorrectly exempted Sagamore from a law that requires developers receiving subsidies to build affordable units.

Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University, said the project will "intensify segregation" and is inconsistent with master plans already on the city books, which call for affordable housing to be included in large projects.

"We do not need to feel guilty for enforcing the law and doing the right thing. We will be boosting Mr. Plank's bottom line," he wrote.

The bicycle advocacy group Bikemore said it shared the ACLU and Public Justice Center's concerns. It is also worried that the planned investment in parking and highway infrastructure dwarfs bicycle, pedestrian or transit investments, pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars need to change I-95 exits and build the thousands of parking spaces contemplated in the proposal.

Bikemore urged the Planning Commission to waive parking requirements for the site.

Marc Weller, president of Sagamore Development, said in a statement that the firm is proud of its efforts to encourage public participation, including meetings with "over fifty faith-leaders, over forty-five local non-profits, over thirty-five community groups, and over thirty work-force development organizations."

The firm is still hammering out an agreement with neighboring communities, including Westport, he added.

"We were pleased the Port Covington Master Plan received an overwhelmingly positive response at the first Planning Commission meeting and we're confident the redevelopment is a great transformational opportunity for Baltimore and its residents," Weller said.

The Planning Commission is expected to vote in favor of the master plan, which establishes a street grid as well as loose rules for building uses and heights. The city's design panel backed the plan last month. Federal and City Council decisions on public funding are expected later this year.

Cheo D. Hurley, who sits on the Planning Commission and supports the project, said Thursday's vote is just the first step and a lack of specifics is to be expected, given the long timeline of the project.

But he said he would be concerned if there were less interest, given the project's scale and the speed at which it has moved through city approvals.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime project that a lot of people are interested in," he said. "People are taking this very seriously."

Jose Dory, 33, who has lived in Westport for four years and works as a federal contractor, said he doesn't typically comment on plans, but this one hit home. He told commissioners the plan should include Westport, where Sagamore also owns significant land, and asked whether the changes contemplated to I-95 would serve to further isolate his neighborhood.

"The land in Westport needs to be developed in conjunction with Port Covington," he wrote. "If Westport's waterfront sits, Port Covington, a land that has zero residents, will prosper at the expense of an existing, languishing adjacent neighborhood to its west."

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