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Pressure Points

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Condos and coffee shops are fine for much of Fells Point and Canton, but the growing gentrification of Baltimore's former industrial strongholds should stop short of the city's deepwater port facilities, a consultant's report says.

Baltimore Development Corp. and city planners released the long-awaited report at a news conference yesterday in hopes of fueling the continuing debate over the best use of Baltimore's limited supply of industrial development sites, particularly along the waterfront.

"I wanted to first disabuse anybody here that, A, somehow industry is either not around, or, B, that we're not interested in it," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the BDC, the city's development arm.

Bay Area Economics, the San Francisco-based consulting firm that conducted the yearlong study, concluded that there is still strong demand for industrial sites in Baltimore, but that the city should revamp its zoning rules to allow some graying industrial areas to be converted to a mixture of office and residential uses.

The report charts a middle course between residential and office developers who want a bigger slice of the city's prime waterfront property and industrial users who want the city's 300-year-old port left largely intact. In areas with heavy industrial concentrations and access to deep water, the port should take precedence, the report's authors concluded.

"What we're saying is the industry was there first and it's important to the city's economic base, so they need to be careful about letting those uses get too close to the city's economic base," Anita Morrison, a principal with Bay Area Economics who led the study, said in a telephone interview.

Locust Point is a prime example of where the two worlds interact, Morrison said. Domino Sugar, a staple of the city's industrial waterfront, is flanked by the Tide Point office campus, a grain terminal that developers have proposed turning into townhouses, and other creeping residential development.

"We said ... that for as long as [the Dominos plant] continues to operate, they need to buffer it and protect it," Morrison said.

But the report advocates the continued redevelopment of areas around Fells Point, Canton and Harbor East, which have become hot residential and retail properties.

It also highlights eight "unstable areas" where tension between developers and industrial users threatens to change the business landscape. The zones included parts of Canton, Locust Point, Eastern Avenue, Woodberry, Shipley Hill and Westport in Southwest Baltimore. In some cases, the report said, those areas should be converted to a mixture of commercial uses. In others, city planners should revamp zoning categories to make them more attractive to a variety of industrial users.

Morrison said the mostly vacant Clipper Mill building in Woodberry along the Jones Falls is an example of a formerly industrial building that is better suited to a mixture of loft-style housing, offices and some retail. Developers have proposed turning the former factory into a $55 million residential and office community.

In Westport, the study suggested a business or residential use for the idled Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. generating plant and the vacant Carr-Lowrey Glass plant along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco.

"The tension between developers saying we should change it and the current industrial users saying everything should remain industrial is ongoing, and so it was kind of refreshing to get a balanced view on both sides," said Otis Rolley III, Baltimore's planning director, who attended yesterday's news conference.

City planners are working on the first comprehensive rezoning plan for Baltimore in more than 30 years with an eye toward making industrial zones more attractive to potential tenants.

Port officials lauded the report, saying it supports the city's maritime tradition.

"Their conclusion - regarding preserving already zoned maritime industrial areas for future use and industrial activity - we wholeheartedly agree with," said Richard Berkow, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration.

Edwin F. Hale Sr., a Baltimore banker and developer, said it makes sense to keep parts of the port closed off to development. But he added that some prime waterfront locations are going to waste in the port's hands.

"These [piers] are falling in the water, never to be repaired again," Hale said. "Why not make them into housing or some sort of commercial use?"

Hale's waterfront Canton Crossing development has brought offices, a bank and other development to a former industrial area along Clinton Street, which has long been home to private port terminals and storage facilities.

Morrison, the consultant, said Hale's development project is among those that make sense for areas surrounding port facilities.

Tom Koch, a Maryland port commissioner and president of Curtis Engine & Equipment, said one solution would be to allow the port administration to sell certain unused waterfront properties to developers and use the money to improve and expand port facilities elsewhere.

"I just hope that whatever they're doing that there's a common-sense approach to all of it," he said.

That hasn't always been the case, in the minds of some port users. The most celebrated example is the decision to allow Wal-Mart and Sam's Club to build on waterfront property in Port Covington in 2002. Critics say that land should have been preserved for industrial uses.

The consultant's report says there is demand for waterfront property among port users in New York and New Jersey, where development sites are scarce and too expensive. Those tenants could be enticed to relocate to Baltimore, some argue.

"When a parcel is adjacent to deep water, we need to think at least eight times before we dare rezone away from the industrial design," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Optimal Solutions Group LLC, a Baltimore economic consulting firm. Basu called the Port Covington development a "mistake we can't undo."

The consultant's report also recommended the city add four new zones to the city's zoning code to better accommodate modern industry. The city's current M1, M2 and M3 zones are for various industrial and commercial classifications.

Among the additions would be an "urban business" zone to accommodate office and technology uses, similar to the Seton Business Park in Northwest Baltimore. Another calls for a "mixed use" zone for the Jones Falls Valley and historic industrial properties that could be converted to office, light industrial and residential uses.

The report also calls for a "port-compatible development" zone that would preserve industrial port facilities, but allow some smaller sites to be converted to other uses on a case-by-case basis. The zoning classification is patterned after similar zones in other port cities.

"Our concern was that the traditional M1, M2, M3 zones didn't always reflect today's standards and what industry is looking for," Morrison said.

The BDC and city planners are to take public comment on the report for the next month and then schedule a public meeting to discuss the findings. Ultimately, the recommendations will be forwarded to elected officials for consideration, Rolley said.

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