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Baltimore County gets state approval for massive redevelopment of former Martin Aircraft plant in Middle River

The Baltimore County Council voted Monday to accept the state’s designation of the former Martin Aircraft plant for so-called transit-oriented development, which will support plans for a mixed-use project there that one council member said could be a “game changer” for Middle River and the eastern part of the county.

Blue Ocean, a Baltimore-based real estate firm, bought the Middle River Depot in 2019 with plans for what it called Aviation Station, a project that would include an indoor sports facility, a Tru by Hilton hotel, apartment and retail space at the intersection of White Marsh and Eastern boulevards near the MARC commuter train station.

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The state transit-oriented development designation will open up funding streams and planning resources for the project. The designation is reserved for developments within a half mile of a transit station that include residential, office and retail space in a pedestrian-friendly design.

The Maryland Department of Transportation’s Smart Growth Subcabinet recommended the site for the designation in October.

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Currently, the county’s only other designated transit-oriented development is Metro Centre in Owings Mills, with more than a million square feet of office space, shops and mixed-income apartments built in a suburban area near the Owings Mills Metro station, bus lines and Interstate 795.

County Council chairwoman Cathy Bevins, whose district includes Middle River, wants to see Metro Centre’s momentum replicated at the former Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. plant. Built in 21929, the sprawling 1.9 million-square-foot structure once employed as many as 53,000 workers during World War II when it built the B-26 Marauder bomber.

Middle River Depot, a former plant where WWII B-24 Marauder bombers were once built, is proposed to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project called "Aviation Station" by developer Blue Ocean Realty. John Olszewski Sr., the father of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., is a lobbyist for the developer. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 2/6/20
Middle River Depot, a former plant where WWII B-24 Marauder bombers were once built, is proposed to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project called "Aviation Station" by developer Blue Ocean Realty. John Olszewski Sr., the father of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., is a lobbyist for the developer. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 2/6/20 (Kenneth K. Lam)

The now-vacant factories are “a blight to the community” despite various plans to revitalize the area over the past decade, Bevins said. Previous proposals included a Super Walmart, an indoor sport and fitness facility, a music venue and a mixed-use project that languished after the federal government sold the property in 2007 for $37.5 million to Middle River Station Development LLC.

Blue Ocean acquired the property in October 2019 for $20 million.

The company’s concept is to build out a “family activity center” expected to open late next year, said Sandy Marenberg, Blue Ocean’s director of land development.

Declining to offer more detail on prospective tenants, Marenberg said Blue Ocean already had executed a lease with a gas station chain, and that letters of intent had been received from coffee, doughnut and burger chains.

The sports complex, dubbed SPIRE East, would include space for volleyball, rope-climbing, basketball, soccer, ice hockey and rock climbing, Marenberg said.

The SPIRE Institute, based in Geneva, Ohio, was purchased by Owings Mills-based investment firm Axxella last year, which is partnering with Ocean Blue to build out the sports complex.

Prior to the pandemic, Marenberg said there had been negotiations to bring a locally established brewery to the property. But many local businesses that had once expressed an interest in leasing space have, amid the pandemic, “gone into survival mode,” so retail growth may be slow, he said.

Blue Ocean is refining a concept site plan for mixed-use development at the property that already was approved by the county, Marenberg said, meaning that community input meetings are not required for the project as it moves forward.

The property was designated last year as an Opportunity Zone, a federal designation that gives developments a break on capital gains taxes for new investment in such zones. It also sits in a Baltimore County Enterprise Zone.

John Olszewski Sr., a former county councilman who is the father of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., lobbied the General Assembly on Blue Ocean’s behalf this year to approve a tax break for the project. While experts said the arrangement doesn’t appear to violate any ethics laws or restrictions on lobbying, they did note that it was unusual.

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Middle River Depot, a former plant where WWII B-24 Marauder bombers were once built, is proposed to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project called "Aviation Station" by developer Blue Ocean Realty. John Olszewski Sr., the father of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., is a lobbyist for the developer. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 2/6/20
Middle River Depot, a former plant where WWII B-24 Marauder bombers were once built, is proposed to be redeveloped into a mixed-use project called "Aviation Station" by developer Blue Ocean Realty. John Olszewski Sr., the father of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., is a lobbyist for the developer. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam 2/6/20 (Kenneth K. Lam)

Previous redevelopment plans had been made difficult by the property’s status on the Maryland Register of Historic Places, which significantly limits the type of construction permitted because the factory’s structure cannot be substantially overhauled, Bevins said.

“It’s such a unique spot,” said Bevins, noting its proximity to the water, the MARC train station and the joint civil-military Martin State Airport.

Its redevelopment “would not only be a game changer for Middle River, but something for all of eastern Baltimore County,” she said.

In a news release, Olszewski Jr. said the project would create jobs and bolster new business as part of “smart, thoughtful growth that brings new opportunities to our communities that maximize access to transit while minimizing the impact on the environment.”

Bevins envisions a commercial destination that remains true to its history.

Blue Ocean’s plans include a new space for the small Glenn L. Martin Aviation Museum, now housed within Martin State Airport, to continue showcasing the story of Glenn L. Martin, whose aircraft manufacturing company played an integral role supplying the military during World War II and later became part of Lockheed Martin, the nation’s top defense contractor.

“At one point, everybody’s grandfather or uncle worked at [the aircraft manufacturer],” Bevins said.

The company founded communities such as Aero Acres and Stansbury Estates to house its workers as they produced Navy seaplanes and B-26 bombers.

“It was a real job generator, just like [General Motors] and Sparrows Point,” she said.

Councilman Todd Crandell, whose district abuts Bevins’, thanked her for her advocacy to move development forward and offer “a ray of hope to what was kind of a wasteland there at the end of Eastern Boulevard.”

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