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Aircraft plant in Middle River draws a host of developers


More than 50 developers, including one from California, yesterday toured the historic Middle River Depot, a prime 50-acre property for sale by the federal government at the heart of an area envisioned as the gateway to Baltimore County's revitalized eastern waterfront.

The widespread interest caught even the most optimistic county and federal officials by surprise. But while the property holds promise for developers, some residents and historians remain jittery.

The site contains a World War II airplane plant considered an architectural jewel. Essex and Middle River residents worry that the property's heavy manufacturing zoning could allow for development of a factory.

But the swarm of interested parties yesterday suggests that the region is growing in potential and reputation.

"We were expecting maybe a half-dozen, and we were actually thrilled at the response; ... these were principals of their firms who showed up, indicating the level of interest in the site," said David S. Iannucci, executive director of the county Department of Economic Development. "This morning's turnout exceeded our expectations."

The developers, many sipping iced bottles of water in the wilting heat, were driven in carts around the sprawling site and through the expansive former airplane plant designed by noted 20th-century architect Albert Kahn.

The response was so overwhelming that the developers, including local firms such as Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse of Baltimore, were escorted in three shifts.

Robert J. DiPietro, a consultant to Petrie Ventures Inc. in Annapolis and Irwin L. Greenberg of Owings Mills, said converting old structures can work. He said his former firm successfully redeveloped a closed Ford auto plant outside San Jose, Calif., 15 years ago for mixed use.

"What is a focus for me is the location of this property and how much vigor has gone into reshaping an entire swath of the county," DiPietro said.

Some developers expressed interest, Iannucci said, because the tract is a choice site. Others "waxed poetic at the historic nature of the site, that the bones of the Albert Kahn structure was an opportunity for mixed use like retail, office, residential, a transit-oriented development under one roof," he said. "And there were people in the middle, but everyone pretty much knows that there will be challenges with a 60-year-old building."

DiPietro agreed that development could have the historic anchor, "but you have to look at economic feasibility and current retail demands. If possible, the building should be preserved."

Officials from the U.S. General Services Administration might have assuaged some concerns yesterday for the future of the plant where Martin B-26 Marauders were manufactured.

Gordon Creed, chief real estate disposal officer for the agency, said the government hopes to include a preservation clause that would help retain most of the structure, where military manuals and other government property are stored.

"We hope to strike a balance, interesting developers while protecting historical architecture," Creed said.

Yesterday's turnout was a hopeful sign to Shawn Meyer, president of the Essex-Middle River Renaissance Corp., a nonprofit group of residents and business leaders.

"Because of the type of developers that showed up, people like [the firm] Struever, the tour is nothing but positive," said Meyer, who with his wife and young child lives in one of the new east-side housing communities, WaterView.

A large section of the property is on the Baltimore County Landmark Buildings List and the Maryland Historical Trust's Inventory of Historic Properties. State and federal historic tax credits would be available to a developer who rehabilitates the factory building.

Residents also are asking the County Council to designate the depot a Renaissance Opportunity Area, a move that could speed the project.

County historian John McGrain said Kahn's building "should be retained because he was one of the stellar architects of the modern period. The aesthetics were stunning in the clean lines of his buildings, and he built many excellent plants and factories in America."

Possibilities for the site have included sports facilities such as a swimming pool, an indoor soccer field and a climbing wall. The old factory offers 35 acres for under-roof development - including an expansive floor from which airplanes rolled across the street for takeoff during World War II.

Other suggestions are a branch of a four-year college, retail shops and an aviation museum. Most parties agree on upgrading the MARC station on Eastern Boulevard, now a mobile trailer and parking lot.

Combined with the property's proximity to Martin State Airport and Interstate 95, the spot would be a significant transportation terminus attractive to tourists and business, advocates say. Another element for developers and new homeowners could be a proposed 1,000-acre office and industrial park called Crossroads@95 planned for Route 43, expected to connect White Marsh and Eastern Boulevard early next year.

Officials foresee new pharmaceutical and technology firms along the highway there, creating up to 10,000 jobs.

The highway extension will empty onto Eastern Boulevard, next to the Middle River Depot.

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