Developer reveals plans for Westport

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Baltimore developer who envisions creating a second downtown along the shores of the Middle Branch unveiled ambitious plans yesterday to transform a 50-acre industrial swath of Westport into a $1.4 billion community with 2,000 homes, shops, offices, a hotel, bicycle trails and a beach anchored by a 65-story skyscraper.

Developer Patrick Turner hopes to start next summer on a project that in six to seven years would reverse the blight in a once solidly blue-collar neighborhood. The tower would be the tallest building in the city, but would be among a wave of skyscrapers that have recently been proposed.

While development has boomed around much of the waterfront, from Locust Point to Canton, the Westport waterfront has been overlooked by developers, said Turner, president of Turner Development Group.

When he acquired his first parcel on the waterfront, the abandoned Carr-Lowrey glass factory in 2004, no other local developers showed interest in the gritty area with a fading industrial past and struggling neighborhood.

"It's been a lost city," he said. "There are people who live in this town who don't know where Westport is."

Colleen Van Skiver, owner of Colleen's Corner, a neighborhood tavern in Westport for 25 years, has watched the neighborhood become increasingly blighted over the past decade.

"The community has really dropped down," she said. "As far as this project, if that's what it is going to look like, it's probably going to perk the community up and give it a real shot in the arm, and that's what it needs."

Turner, who owns about 90 percent of the land he needs for the project, said he has necessary approvals from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers and city-approved rezoning allowing the mix of uses. He plans to ask the city to help finance roads and other infrastructure improvements with bonds that would be paid back from tax revenue generated by the project.

Beyond that, he has the government approvals he needs to move ahead; the future of the project depends on market forces.

"I think this is one of the great, exciting potentials for the city over the next decade, without question," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. "It takes advantage of a whole new section of waterfront, which was old industry, almost all of which is gone. Turner has aggressively bought up almost all of what he needs, so I think it's quite real."

Turner says he's convinced that the site, two miles south of the city's business district and its last large piece of developable waterfront, can become a dense, urban neighborhood attracting residents in a range of income levels.

"The thing we love about this neighborhood is that you have 295 here, you have I-95 on the north side, you've got the light rail with a stop dead center in the property," Turner said. "You've got the 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail. You have a 27-acre park adjacent to the property. You can literally walk to downtown. The Middle Branch site is pristine in the sense of the waterways, vistas and views."

For Turner, who has recycled old structures for redevelopment for two decades, the Westport project represents his biggest challenge. Past projects have included apartments in and offices in the Holy Cross School, the McHenry Theater, 1211 Light Street and the Southway Bowling Center. He is transforming the former Archer Daniels Midland grain elevator and silos in Locust Point into high-rise luxury condominiums.

On Westport's waterfront, Turner has been laying groundwork for redevelopment for more than a year. He has acquired about 31 acres, including the shuttered glass factory and a former Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. power plant. He has started environmental cleanup, met with city planners, lined up financing and courted neighborhood groups.

But at a time when many proposed developments across the country are being halted as the housing market has weakened, Turner cautioned that the pace of development would be driven by demand in the housing market and from office and retail tenants.

Multiple builders would likely be involved, but Turner said he has not completed any deals. Turner's broker, CB Richard Ellis, will begin marketing the project to prospective multifamily builders, office and retail tenants, and hoteliers next month, Turner said. The developer will then begin drawing up detailed plans to be approved by the city, in hopes of starting infrastructure work next summer and completing the first buildings by early 2008.

The developer envisions housing for people with a mix of incomes, including teachers, firefighters and corporate executives. Ultimately, about 2,000 to 3,000 people could live on Westport's waterfront, he said.

Homebuyers and renters are increasingly seeking out such mixed-use developments, said Gerrit Knapp, executive director for the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, a land use research center based at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"This is the way the market is going around the country, particularly for residential," Knapp said. "Clearly there's a niche in urban cores for these types of projects, particularly among young people without children and among elderly. It's hip and trendy."

And when former, unused industrial sites get new life, he said, "the mixture of use ... creates additional residential capacity without putting more demand on the capacity of the road networks. Research shows these kinds of developments can help gentrify portions of a city."

Turner's plans have helped boost property values of nearby homes.

Turner met with about 75 residents and business owners Thursday evening to share his plans, and many were encouraged to see connections to the Westport neighborhood, rather than its being gated off, as some had feared. Residents were also happy to see public access to the waterfront and plans to filter the waters of the Middle Branch with "bioswales," rain basins and green roofs.

Van Skiver, vice president of the Westport Improvement Association, raised her children in a stable Westport but in recent years has watched the neighborhood become troubled by slum landlords, drugs and grime. She said she is looking forward to a boost in business at her tavern that she had lost when the glass factory went out of business.

Turner is hoping business comes back to the waterfront as well, and said he plans to market the site to defense contractors seeking a central, but urban location. He plans to invest $800 million in the project, which that would add 5 million square feet of development.

Turner's re-created waterfront would be centered on the light rail station. It would be "environmentally friendly," he said, with acres of new wetlands and waterfront meadows. And it would hope to appeal to urban dwellers and workers seeking nature-oriented perks such as a beach and kayak launch, gardens and bicycle and running paths that would connect to the Gwynns Falls Trail.

Turner plans to build a pedestrian bridge from the light rail station into one of his buildings, for access to the waterfront.

There, visitors would find a bicycle and running loop, a three-tiered system of re-created wetlands and a velodrome, a biking arena that could be used for sports or concerts. Turner plans to buy a former railroad trestle from CSX to continue the bike path across the water.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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