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Wave of development hits waterfront area


Where a dilapidated, crime-ridden apartment complex once stood, new houses are selling fast. On a quiet and largely undeveloped peninsula jutting into the Chesapeake Bay, workers are stabilizing the shoreline for a colony of mansions with seven-figure price tags.

Construction crews are pouring cement for a $65 million highway leading to a planned business park that would provide thousands of jobs. Nearby, a giant corporation envisions a tourist destination with a hotel and a promenade lining a deep-water lagoon. An aging veterans hospital is set to become a $100 million senior housing complex.

Eastern Baltimore County -- just a few years ago a struggling rust belt community with an uncertain future -- is quietly becoming Maryland's new waterfront promised land.

Development on the county's east side is "really exploding," said Bryce A. Turner, a Baltimore architect and chairman of the Urban Land Institute's local district council. "There is new affordable housing, retail shops, marinas and other creative growth, while treading softly on the land."

To Cindy Ariosa, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, what is happening in Middle River and nearby areas is reminiscent of some of Baltimore's celebrated rebirths.

"They are having a stimulation -- the kind Canton and Fells Point had 10 years ago," she said.

Across the nation and the world, waterfront communities in heavily industrialized areas have faced up to the need to reinvent themselves, say experts in economic development and urban policy.

But Baltimore County officials faced a daunting challenge: selling revitalization to a blue-collar constituency wary of government-sponsored change. Residents' attitudes hardened after decades of having such projects as the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant forced on them.

Winning over critics

Now, even some of the harshest critics of redevelopment are starting to see things differently.

One sunny afternoon last week, Bill Wright put on his favorite baseball cap and strolled along rural Bird River Road. He took measure of a bridge under construction that will carry White Marsh Boulevard through his community -- and to 1,300 acres of undeveloped land. The county hopes a planned business park will attract biotech companies and create as many as 10,000 jobs.

Later, Wright explored Hopewell Pointe, a creekfront, $34 million work in progress that will feature more than 200 homes, a restaurant and a marina.

"When I think of developers, I think of big profits for pals of the politicians," said Wright, a retired steelworker and union leader who years ago helped defeat proposals for a theme park and auto speedway for the area. "But some of these ideas have bloomed into pretty nice concepts, in my mind."

The genesis of the east side's new identity might be traced to a 1995 meeting in Middle River, where County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said crime-ridden apartment complexes were turning that section of the county into a "ghetto." Most of the properties, built to house workers during World War II, were falling apart.

"The problem seemed insurmountable then because of the significant amount of housing that really wasn't suitable for human habitation," Gardina said last week. "It was impacting the surrounding communities in a monumental way, and we felt then a massive change would not be easy to do."

Meeting the challenge

Planners around the world have faced the challenge of revitalizing fading industrial areas -- in some cases coming up with surprising answers.

Jersey City created a loft and crafts district on the Hudson River. Academics marvel at efforts in places like Germany's steel and coal region along the Ruhr River, where mountaineers practice on brightly painted smokestacks. In Montreal, a waterfront grain elevator has been converted into an oversized musical instrument.

When officials in Buffalo, N.Y., launched that city's waterfront revitalization more than a decade ago, leaders were careful not to insult the cultural sensibilities of longtime residents, said Robert G. Shibley, director of the Urban Design Project at the University of Buffalo.

"Here were these people who broke their backs in steel and grain," Shibley said. "One guy in particular comes to mind, saying how he so resented old wooden molds used in steel mills now hanging on the walls of rich people's homes."

Regional identity

Hard work is central to eastern Baltimore County's identity.

The Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. once employed 53,000 people in Middle River. Employment at Bethlehem Steel -- the nation's top war contractor a month after the Pearl Harbor attack -- peaked at 35,000 employees in 1959. Another 6,000 worked at the company's affiliates, including its shipyard.

But most of those jobs are gone now. And many of the sons and daughters of the airplane makers, World War II veterans and steel workers moved to places like White Marsh.

Attempts to build tourism -- including an Asian theme park and trade center proposed in the early 1990s and an auto speedway proposed several years later -- fell to community opposition. In 2000, Senate Bill 509, a revitalization proposal that would have allowed the government to condemn east-side property, was defeated in a county referendum.

But the spirit of revitalization took off, and the Tall Trees and Riverdale apartment complexes were demolished to make way for a park and for WaterView, a housing development near the headwaters of Middle River.

Community partnership

The momentum has carried on from the administration of then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to his successor, James T. Smith Jr., who said: "We had to make the residents partners in what we accomplished, and I think that has happened."

"We got some control of the situation after 509," said Jackie Nickel, a third-generation Turkey Point resident and community leader. "And let's face it, some of the younger people will take better care of the waterfront than the old timers did."

Since the 1995 meeting, more than $800 million in county, state and federal funds have been spent on the east side's renaissance -- from repaving alleys to relocating thousands of displaced residents, officials say.

A streetscape project is under way on Dundalk Avenue and several revitalization plans, linked to that community's past, are in the works as part of a $25 million effort.

On the tip of Holly Neck peninsula, work is beginning on the shoreline where an enclave of $1 million mansions and lesser-priced villas will eventually stand.

In recent months, aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. has been briefing community groups on plans for a tourist attraction on Dark Head Cove, near Martin State Airport. The project would include a 200-room hotel, stores and a museum.

The buyers of the defunct Sparrows Point shipyard plan to redevelop the 250-acre facility into an industrial park, leasing space to businesses such as barge building and ship repair companies and for use as warehouses and distribution centers.

And, this month, a developer from Washington announced plans for a facility for senior citizens at the Fort Howard Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which closed last year as an acute care facility but remains open as a clinic. The reworked 95-acre campus is to have a health care facility for veterans and the elderly, apartments, waterfront rental homes, a marina and shops.

Still, the promise of progress comes at a cost.

Cost of progress

James Harris, a disabled 63-year-old who lives with his family in the 60-year-old Villa Gardens apartments in Middle River, is not happy with the changes. This month, 400 residents of the complex were notified their aging buildings will be torn down to make way for new homes by the end of the year.

"We have to move and I don't like it," said Harris. "It feels like you don't matter."

But young homeowner Shawn Meyer likes what he sees unfolding from his family's $215,000 home in WaterView.

"We hope to see a small-town atmosphere that welcomes all incomes and races into one tight-knit community," said Meyer, a computer engineer. The Dundalk native moved into the home with his wife, Linda, and baby son, Thomas, in April.

Wright, the former steelworker who had opposed early revitalization proposals, shares that brighter view.

"Big pieces of Essex and Middle River were dangerous slums," he said, looking out over Hopkins Creek as a tangerine sunset gathered in the west. "Now, that seems to be turning around, and that's something I never thought I would say."

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