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Dixon backs shore park

The Baltimore Sun

For years, South Baltimore residents have thought a key piece of city property on the Inner Harbor was destined to become yet another high-rise, blocking even more of their shrinking view of the water.

But Mayor Sheila Dixon is changing course, saying that the site will become much-needed waterfront parkland.

The decision ends a plan announced by city officials more than two years ago to offer developers the city Fire Department's repair facility on Key Highway - a plan that set off alarm bells in a community increasingly separated from the harbor by squat townhouses and condominiums.

"At this point, I've decided not to sell it," Dixon said. "We'll use this as open space."

The repair shop at 1407 Key Highway includes 1.54 acres, about as much as a city block.

In 2005, city development officials were rushing to offer it to developers, thinking they needed the millions the sale would raise to help pay for a complicated land deal. A satellite of the National Aquarium in Baltimore was moving to land the city had been using as its main garage, and the city needed the money to replace it.

Though the city still could use the cash, Dixon said that she is committed "to provide as much green space as possible in that area."

If the repair shop site becomes a park, the greenery would be a welcome respite along a corridor that has been essentially walled off from the water.

Alfred W. Barry III, a former Planning Department official who is now a development consultant with clients who own land on Key Highway, said the city's property could be turned into a park as substantial as Canton's Waterfront Park or the spot along Fells Point's Bond Street Wharf.

"It would be very meaningful," said Barry. "When you think of the value, you should base it not on what you're giving up, but what you're creating."

The community balked when the city raised the issue of the sale.

To get the most money for the property, the city would have to rezone it from industrial to something that would permit a mix of homes, stores and offices. And rather than just rezone that property, planning officials were preparing to rezone the entire southern leg of Key Highway - a change they hoped, to the community's horror, would pave the way for a series of residential towers along the rest of the corridor.

The city invited Federal Hill and Locust Point neighborhood leaders and property owners to debate the issue on a task force. The meetings were contentious from the get-go.

At an early meeting, a woman famously told former Baltimore Planning Director Otis Rolley III to "take the plan and shove it."

Many meetings later, the weary task force has yet to find a concept for a Key Highway South urban renewal plan that pleases everyone - though many seem to like a concept in which developers who preserve open space could build taller buildings.

Meanwhile, residents worry that they're about to lose even more of their coveted view, thanks to a proposal by HarborView developer Richard Swirnow to add two condominium towers to his luxury community just north of the repair shop on Key Highway.

Knowing how badly residents want waterfront green space, Dixon and other city officials proposed last week that HarborView agree to preserve about 30,000 square feet of open space near Webster Street on Key Highway in exchange for permission to build the towers.

While negotiating that compromise, Swirnow apparently tried unsuccessfully to get city officials to promise him the repair shop site.

Because Swirnow will have exhausted his construction options at HarborView once he builds the 17-story Pinnacle, to build two more towers he needs the City Council to let him cover more of the lot's surface and to build towers closer together than the original 1980s urban renewal plan allows.

Community leaders love the idea of open space, yet worry that Dixon's offer somehow comes with strings attached.

"It's obviously an attempt at some political damage control," said Paul Robinson, who founded Friends of Federal Hill Park. "But it's a great opportunity to create some great public open space."

Robinson said people on the Key Highway task force are afraid that if the repair shop site becomes a park, other property owners along the southern leg of the corridor won't be willing to swap open space for building height.

"There's a fear out there [that] it will complicate matters and developers will simply say, 'They've already got their open space. We're just going to do a 58-foot wall because there's no incentive to trading height for open space.'"

Deputy Mayor Andy Frank said that part of the reason Dixon isn't selling the repair shop site is because she wants guaranteed open space on Key Highway. She doesn't want to leave it up to developers who might want to build taller.

"That would be our insurance policy for the open space people want in Key Highway South," he said.

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