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Baltimore's Harbor Point becomes a Cinderella story for an industrial site people once avoided

Baltimore's Harbor Point becomes a Cinderella story for an industrial site people once avoided
At Harbor Point construction of Wills Wharf, to include a hotel and offices, is proceeding. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

The pages of an old Arrow street directory state the precise location of a new harbor hotel and office building. The directory locates Wills Street “From Dock [Street] south and east of Eden.” The $117 million development there rose from its formidable foundation in the last few months, and the structure’s shape is easily visible. A line of concrete trucks assembled along the harbor and a tall construction crane also mark the spot.

Christened Wills Wharf, it is this year’s component of the ambitious Harbor Point, the 27-acre neighborhood rising between Fells Point and Harbor East. It’s a part of Baltimore that changes before your eyes. A park that was new and pristine just two years ago is now well worn and used. A once-empty building now has tenants. This once little-known location is now full of cars, scooters and bicycles.

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Wills Wharf is described as a mixed-use office and hotel. The hotel is the Canopy by Hilton brand, and the tenants are WeWork and Jellyfish. Anyone working in this building, literally located on the waterfront and on an old wharf site, will be treated to some sweet views of the harbor.

Harbor Point is a neck of land off the western flank of Thames and Caroline streets. It was once a no-go place — at least for Sunday strolling — the forbidding heavy industrial side of Fells Point. It was an ancient part of Baltimore, inhabited in the 18th century, with streets named Block and Philpot. The site became industrialized with the Lacy Foundry and industries that made shellac and paint. It was literally off to one side, mostly surrounded by water and not friendly to anyone who did not work there.

You could spot this little peninsula from the promenades around the Inner Harbor. A grey corrugated steel building carried the name “Baugh Chemicals.” The last industrial owner was Allied Signal, which operated a chromium plant here. Considered an industrial brownfield, it required environmental remediation before it could redeveloped.

It also took money. The city of Baltimore granted the developer a $107 million subsidy to get the Harbor Point project moving. Now in its ninth year, it began with the Morgan Stanley building (1300 Thames) and the anchor structure, the Exelon office tower.

This neighborhood shares a similar scenario with Harbor East, which itself rose out of abandoned railroad yards belonging to the the old Northern Central and Pennsylvania railroads. There were industrial lumber yards too. This part of the city was once popular with lumber shippers from the Middle Atlantic who could send their cargoes of pine and other woods up from the Carolinas and deposit them conveniently along the bulkheads and wharves that now hold Marriott and Four Seasons hotels.

It’s an urban Cinderella story. Who would have thought that such retailing marquee names as Brooks Brothers and Warby Parker would be doing business in a spot people once avoided?

Look for Liberty Harbor East, an apartment building with a new Whole Foods store, to open later this year at Lancaster Street and Central Avenue.

This key intersection — complicated by the reconstruction of Central Avenue — remains a work in slow progress. A new bridge over a finger of the harbor is a crucial transportation artery into the expanding area. While the span itself is finished — and well used by pedestrians — getting to it remains an issue because Central Avenue remains uncompleted.

It’s all a reminder of the amount of infrastructure upgrading — and years of hard labor commitment — it takes to make an old lumber yard into a Lululemon.

“The completion of Central Avenue and opening up the rest of the bridge is going to be a game changer for the area,” said Chris Seiler of Beatty Development, the firm creating Harbor Point.

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