Baltimore officials are paving the way for an extensive mixed-use project along the eastern shore of the Middle Branch with a plan to acquire the mostly industrial property and offer it for private development.
A proposed urban renewal plan for West Covington, bounded by Interstate 95 on the north, Hanover Street on the east and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River on the west, would enable the city to acquire about 50 acres in a part of the city targeted for redevelopment.
But industrial businesses that would be displaced are fighting the plan, saying they already provide the jobs and economic development urban renewal is designed to bring.
Officials of Schuster Concrete, a ready-mixed concrete supplier that employs 900 people overall, said its West Covington facility is an essential cog in an operation that supplies concrete to many of the city's biggest new construction projects, such as the Ritz-Carlton Residences at the foot of Federal Hill.
In testimony before the city's Planning Commission yesterday, Baltimore planners and economic development officials said the plan would enable the city to make the most of its valuable waterfront and embrace a future that will rely increasingly on the creation of clusters of homes, workplaces and shops and less on an industrial base.
Redevelopment is occurring along the Middle Branch.
On the opposite shore of the tributary in Westport, a $1.4 billion project to replace shuttered factories with offices, shops, homes and a hotel is in its early stages. Just east and across Hanover Street in Port Covington, the owner of a waterfront shopping center wants to transform 59 acres into a $2 billion community that could include homes, offices, shops and a hotel.
"This is one of the most important property decisions affecting the economic development of the city that has been brought before this commission," M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., told the Planning Commission yesterday.
He said the city's determination to move forward on the development despite opposition would pay off in the way that the creation of Charles Center and Harborplace had decades earlier. "The future of Baltimore is not the same as the past," Brodie said. "We can't re-create the industrial base of the Baltimore of the past."
Officials say the plan will enable the city to carry out the goals of a recently adopted Middle Branch Master Plan. The city envisions a project that could encompass homes, shops and offices, preserve the city-owned 11-acre Swann Park, create an environmentally sound promenade along the water's edge and help conserve the Middle Branch, said Kim Clark, BDC executive vice president.
The project would mean acquiring property from seven homeowners with properties near Swann Park and three large industrial businesses, including Schuster's site, the 13-acre Atlantic Forest Products site and Allied Waste Services' 11-acre site.
Businesses that would be displaced are questioning the city's tactics.
"It's unusual to displace active, profitable job-supporting business," Douglas N. Silber, an attorney representing Schuster, said in an interview. "We don't believe this is a blighted area. This is the opposite of a blighted area. The jobs are there. They want to take the properties out and remove the jobs. Why, we don't know."
He suggested in testimony to the commission that the city should let the existing property owners work together to come up with their own redevelopment plan.
Daniel Schuster, owner and president of 35-year-old Schuster Concrete, asked commission members to "have the courage to look to protect my company and others that are vibrant, successful companies." He said his company bought the building five years ago.
"We could never replace that facility and the advantages that building and the physical site give us," Schuster said before yesterday's hearing.
D. Dusky Holman, an attorney with Gildea & Schmidt representing Baltimore-based homebuilder Ruppert Homes, said his client signed a sales contract three years ago to purchase the Atlantic Forest Products site and has been working with the city for much of that time to make sure its plans for new homes fall within the guidelines of the Middle Branch Master Plan.
"We were asked to hold off ... and now we're being told the property will be condemned," Holman said.
Donald J. Neukam, a district manager for Allied Waste, said the company has had its recycling facility at the West Covington site for 12 years and that 180 people are employed there.
"We're quite concerned about the timing of this process and the valuation of the property," Neukam said. He said BDC had shown the company a potential new site in the Fairfield industrial area but that proved "inadequate and not central."
Planning Commission Chairman Peter Auchincloss said he would grant requests to continue the hearing next month so BDC and property owners could try to work out a resolution before the measure goes before the City Council.