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VA center to undergo transformation


In a project that could serve as a national model, the 95-acre campus of the Fort Howard Veterans Affairs Medical Center in eastern Baltimore County will be redeveloped into a $100 million cutting-edge care facility for veterans, featuring apartments, waterfront rental homes, a large marina and retail shops.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has signed a memorandum of understanding with Federal Development LLC of Washington, which will become the first private vendor in the nation to lease a department-owned tract of this size, officials said. The picturesque site sits on a peninsula that is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay, Patapsco River and North Point State Park.

While the project promises to add to the continuing revitalization of the county's east side, officials emphasized its importance to Maryland's 500,000 veterans.

Dennis H. Smith, director of the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System, called the Fort Howard plan "the first of its kind in VA history, something that could serve as a national model of how to utilize large parcels of our land, make a profit and still cater to our veterans." He added that a lease is expected to be signed with Federal Development in May.

Smith said Fort Howard Senior Housing Associates, a subsidiary of the development group, will build a state-of-the-art continuing care retirement facility for 790 residents. The VA has stipulated that the rental units be offered first to eligible veterans and that they receive a discount on rent.

Negotiations over final details of the deal are continuing, said John Infantino, chief executive officer of Federal Development.

"We want to preserve the tremendous military history at Fort Howard dating to 1903, a background that includes a house where Gen. Douglas MacArthur lived when he was stationed there," Infantino said.

Fort Howard was at one time a plantation. British troops disembarked there to participate in the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. The site was an Army post until 1940, when it was turned over to the then-Veterans Administration. Three years later, the administration opened a hospital there.

The five-story hospital - with 377 beds, dormitory-style bathrooms, little privacy and no air-conditioning - closed in September 2002. It is uncertain whether it will be demolished or rehabilitated as part of the redevelopment project.

Before turning the property over to the VA, the Army razed about 80 buildings, but others still stand. They include a theater, a nurses' headquarters and a mine storage room.

Today, the street names on the Fort Howard property include Gettysburg, McHenry and Antietam, features the developer said he is considering retaining.

"We want to enhance the property while we renovate 27 of the original buildings and complement them with 36 new structures, all of which will either be on the water or have views of the river or bay," Infantino said.

He indicated that the historic MacArthur house will not be rented. The plan also calls for preservation of the sprawling parade ground.

Preliminary plans call for a marina that will hold a minimum of 100 boats, 30,000 square feet of retail space, a boardwalk and a fishing pier, Infantino said.

VA officials said the rental housing will include apartments and a few remodeled detached homes for active seniors, along with an assisted-living component.

The developers must also set aside 10 acres for a possible veterans home to be operated by the state. Maryland's other veterans home is in Charlotte Hall, St. Mary's County.

Under the memo of understanding, signed Jan. 27, Federal Development will get a 55-year lease with a 20-year renewal option.

Elected officials, veteran service organizations and a few community leaders have been briefed about the plan. Details will be presented to the public at a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. March 9 at Sparrows Point High School.

Smith said the Fort Howard project would take 10 years to build. Construction could start this year after county reviews.

"At this stage, there are not many major concerns from local residents but we might hear more about it at the town hall meeting," said R. David Edwards, a VA spokesman in Baltimore.

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