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The Inner Harbor has been full of life for more than 20 years. The Fells Point and Canton shorelines are teeming with activity. Locust Point is poised to take off.

But at one of the most picturesque sections of Baltimore's waterfront, the best views still belong to stray dogs and cats, and broken-down vehicles awaiting repairs at the city's Central Garage.

The Middle Branch of the Patapsco River has never been "discovered" the way other parts of Baltimore's waterfront have been, though it's just as attractive and close to downtown.

While city officials strive to complete an unbroken public promenade from Canton to Key Highway, there's no similar plan to provide continuous public access to the Middle Branch shoreline. No high-rise hotels or outdoor concert tents rise from its banks. It's Baltimore's hidden harbor, an untapped resource that few know about and even fewer frequent on a regular basis. But it shouldn't stay that way forever.

Over the past decade, numerous groups have said the Middle Branch could be more of an asset to the city if the public had better access to it. They've said it could be one of Baltimore's greatest and most unusual features, if only it received more attention.

Despite those observations, relatively little has been done to enhance the Middle Branch, for many reasons: The previous mayoral administration didn't make it a high priority. Certain landowners have resisted change. No vocal constituency has fought for funds.

But just as Baltimore's waterfront benefits other sections of the city, the Middle Branch is too valuable to leave the way it is. It may never be developed to the same degree as the Inner Harbor, but Baltimore has a rare opportunity to cultivate it for what it is - a unique natural amenity that can complement the more commercial offerings of the Inner Harbor. After years of dormancy, it's time for this sleeping beauty to wake up.

"We have this magical place that almost nobody else has," said Beth Strommen, an environmental planner with Baltimore's Planning Department. "Find me a place in any city that has the volume of wildlife and shorebirds that this area has, so close to the center of downtown. It could be an Inner Harbor with a green twist, a place where you can still see birds fly in and out. It's a place where people can go canoeing and kayaking. There's incredible potential."

A natural marshland in the heart of the city "is not one of the standard recipes that every city has," agrees Klaus Philipsen, an architect and co-chairman of the Urban Design Committee of the local American Institute of Architects chapter. "It's something different, and you can capitalize on it in a different way."

Ten years ago, the AIA committee suggested that the northern shore of the Middle Branch be redeveloped as a family-oriented recreational area, playing off the two stadiums. Philipsen still thinks that makes sense.

"It's different from the hardscape of the Inner Harbor," he said. "It's a place where the man-made environment collides with the natural environment - the marshes and blue herons and ecosystem of the Middle Branch. It's a wonderful combination, and we need to think about what happens there in the long run."

With six miles of shoreline and 415 aces of water area, the Middle Branch is 20 times the size of the Inner Harbor, also known as the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco. Environmentalists say it has the potential to become the city's most extensive shoreline recreational resource.

But like much of Baltimore's waterfront, the Middle Branch became a repository for industrial uses - power plants, a glass factory, light manufacturing and the BRESCO incinerator, with the "world's largest trash can" in front.

As heavy industries such as the Procter and Gamble soapmaking plant and the American Can Co. disappeared from the Northwest Branch, they've been replaced by housing, hotels and high-tech businesses.

The Middle Branch is in transition, too. One tangible sign of change was BGE Corp.'s decision several years ago to dismantle three natural gas tanks on its Spring Garden property - early 20th-century landmarks that had become obsolete.

But unlike the land-use changes around the Inner Harbor, there hasn't been heavy pressure from private market forces to find new uses for the Middle Branch. Instead, much of the water's edge has become neglected. Vast stretches of marshland are strewn with debris. The water is polluted by the outfall from the Gwynns Falls and several major storm drains. These problems are compounded, planners say, by deep accumulations of silt that restrict the types of development possible along the shore.

Over the years, the city has developed plans that call for the Middle Branch shoreline to be reclaimed as a softer-edged alternative to the densely developed Inner Harbor. The city's vision, first spelled out in a 1977 report, is a park system with facilities for boating, fishing, biking, hiking and picnicking. The idea was to create a passive recreational area where people can enjoy the waterfront in its natural state.

"It's meant to complement the Inner Harbor's harder edge - a place for fishing, crabbing, bird-watching," Strommen said. "We don't see it as a place for active recreation, like ball fields."

City leaders never envisioned the Middle Branch as another Inner Harbor, in part because they want to accommodate the industrial uses as long as they're there, said Charles Graves, director of the planning department. "We've tried, to the greatest extent possible, to provide public access to the waterfront," Graves said. "But we didn't want to displace industrial uses. We didn't want to eliminate hundreds of jobs."

This strategy acknowledges the many impediments that prevent the Middle Branch from being redeveloped to the same degree as the Inner Harbor.

According to city planners, the location and geography of the Middle Branch aren't as conducive to intense development as the Inner Harbor shoreline because the area isn't as directly linked to Baltimore's central business district, and doesn't have the same number of people within easy walking distance. In addition, certain areas will always be off limits to the public, such as BGE's Spring Garden property, a storage area for liquefied gas. Other land is either contaminated by hazardous materials or in a flood plain.

Nor is the area suited for boating on a large scale. The Middle Branch is too shallow, there are too many low bridges, and dredging is out of the question. Planners say it would disturb layers of silt that have been contaminated by years of industrial runoff.

And while plenty of people have been pushing to change the Middle Branch, they haven't necessarily come from the neighboring communities. The Inner Harbor is surrounded by upscale neighborhoods such as Federal Hill and Otterbein, which welcome tourists and businesses. But the Middle Branch is bounded by two less-affluent communities, Cherry Hill and Westport. Many residents are leery of any plan to redevelop the waterfront because they fear it will lead to gentrification, forcing them out. Finally, the city hasn't had a strong parks department for many years, and much of the land controlled by the city, such as Reedbird Park, has been allowed to deteriorate.

But changes are on the horizon. The past five years have brought a slew of projects, large and small, that promise to be catalysts for developing the Middle Branch:

PSINet stadium, home of the Ravens, has brought thousands of people within yards of the Middle Branch shoreline. The city has explored the idea of building an arena south of the football stadium, and the Ravens at one point considered building a training facility there as well.

The third and final leg of the Gwynns Falls Trail, a pathway from Leakin Park to the Inner Harbor, will bring hikers and bikers to the Middle Branch shoreline when it's completed in 2002.

Starwood Ceruzzi, a Connecticut-based developer, plans to build a 400,000-square-foot "big box" retail center on a 45-acre parcel at Port Covington.

The former Montgomery Wards catalog distribution center on Monroe Street is being recycled as a high-tech office park that will bring 2,000 workers to the area.

Anticipating these changes, the Baltimore Development Corp. this year commissioned a local architecture firm, Design Collective, to create a master plan to guide development of a 500-acre district that lies just south of the football stadium - the Carroll/Camden Industrial Park.

BDC president M. Jay Brodie said he wants to take advantage of the location and create a better environment for businesses that want to be close to downtown and highways south of the city. He also wants to make a more attractive gateway to Baltimore for those driving north on Russell Street.

Design Collective's plan calls for the park to contain 1.9 million to 2.9 million square feet of office and industrial space in new and recycled buildings on both sides of Russell Street. There would be room for 3,400 to 10,300 jobs.

Brodie plans to ask the City Council to designate the industrial park an urban renewal area so the city will have legal authority to acquire property and move ahead with its plan. BDC also will seek funding assistance to complete public improvements, including new paving and turning lanes on Russell Street.

That's a good start. But more can be done to take advantage of the Middle Branch.

For instance, the city controls additional property that could be made available for public use, such as the land around the Municipal Animal Shelter on Stockholm Street. Perhaps the National Aquarium or the Baltimore Zoo could be recruited to build and operate a nature center.

And the city should plan better in the future. For instance, there's no compelling reason why the Central Garage off Dickman Street has to be so close to the waterfront. But the city invested millions of dollars to build it there, and has no immediate plans to move it.

And public agencies should do a better job of safeguarding existing resources. For example, more wetlands could be created along the shore. But Strommen said she's reluctant to make that recommendation until the city and state can figure out how to collect the trash filling the Middle Branch after rainstorms, harming the wetlands that are there now.

Nearly everyone agrees that with its rare combination of wildlife and wetlands, the Middle Branch is potentially one of the most valuable resources Baltimore has.

Someone just needs to figure out how to make the most of it.

The first article in this two-part series on the Middle Branch can be found online at The Sun's Web site, at

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