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Harbor neighborhood suffers growing pains

The Baltimore Sun

For most of the 45 years that Colleen Rosenbach has lived in Locust Point, her neighbor was a hulking grain elevator that coated her cars and windows with brown dust. Now, that silo is being turned into upscale condominiums.

"I don't like either one," said Rosenbach, 70. "But at least you knew what to expect with the grain elevator."

In a place where houses are passed down through generations and neighbors like to sit on their steps and chat on lazy afternoons, development has been met cautiously.

Locust Point residents at first accepted new townhomes and offices as the price of progress in their working-class community. But townhouses are one thing, high-rises quite another.

When Struever Bros. proposed a 15-story residential tower, along with office, apartment and condominium buildings, residents of this insular South Baltimore neighborhood rose up like the residents who defended nearby Fort McHenry from imperial invaders. Enough, they said.

Meetings were held. Petitions were signed. Statements were drafted. And last week, Struever Bros. backed down and unveiled a significantly reduced plan that would add mainly townhouses that could weave into the existing fabric of the neighborhood.

"I characterized the initial presentation as 'Developers Gone Wild,'" said Del. Brian McHale, a third-generation resident of Locust Point. "There is a point of oversaturation."

Locust Point, tucked away from the rest of the city on its own peninsula, was for years insulated from change by geography. Across the harbor, the gentrification of Canton provided Locust Pointers a lesson in what not to do. Residents say they want to find a balance between old and new. They don't want the area to become so dense that parking becomes impossible or so affluent that their children won't be able to live there.

"We don't want to be Canton," said Maggie Spatarella, who moved to Locust Point from Ellicott City in March. "I'm very much worried about multiple towers going up. I'm worried about the harbor getting sold and having very little [water] access for the folks that live here."

Home to some of the few remaining parcels of undeveloped Inner Harbor waterfront, Locust Point has in the past decade been a target for growth. Hundreds of new townhouses went up. The Tide Point business park took off. And developer Patrick Turner turned that old grain elevator into Silo Point, where 228 condos will go on sale this summer. Prices haven't been set, but they are expected to be higher than the 290-foot silo itself.

"It's not the blue-collar neighborhood it used to be," McHale said. "A lot has changed."

Peachie Provenza, who has lived in Locust Point for nearly all of her 75 years, remembers block parties and church dances. Two of her three daughters still live in Locust Point, and Provenza takes her dog Toby on daily walks through the tree-lined streets, stopping every few blocks to chat with friends. But she feels development encroaching.

"It's filled up, believe me," she said. "And the people aren't as friendly as the old people. I don't know if they're rich or what."

Still, Provenza says she has no plans to move. She says she'll die in her longtime Fort Avenue home. She did move to Glen Burnie once, just after she was married. She didn't even last a year. One day, her husband came home from work to find a "For Sale" sign in the yard.

"He said, 'What are you doing?' " recalls Provenza. "And I said, 'We're going back to Locust Point, where people are friendly and civilized.' "

For years, the people of Locust Point worked and lived in isolation from the rest of Baltimore - and liked it that way. They could walk from their rowhouses to jobs at Domino Sugar, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. The big grain elevator, built in 1923, employed scores of workers who transferred the grain from rail cars to trans-Atlantic cargo ships.

Some of the plants closed, along with the silo, but even as many city neighborhoods lost population, Locust Point thrived. The housing stock has always been well-maintained, with a low vacancy rate and a high home ownership rate (74 percent, versus 50 percent citywide). Crime is negligible, residents say.

"I've never seen people so friendly before," said Barbara Wilson, 30, who moved from Montgomery County to Locust Point nearly three years ago to live with her fiance. The engagement didn't take. But the neighborhood did.

"I've never lived in a city before," Wilson said. "And I don't think I'll ever leave."

She's active in the community association and is leading a drive to raise $25,000 to create a dog park. Wilson, a Realtor, bought and is renovating a house that used to be a check-cashing store. Like many residents, young and old, she likes the idea of a little more retail in the neighborhood but doesn't want it to go too far.

"My worry is that we would lose the charm of the neighborhood," she said. "I like the mix of old and new. I like walking the streets and talking to people who have lived here for 70 years."

A Locust Point master plan adopted by the city in 2004 called for 820 new housing units. The neighborhood will be approaching that limit when the Struever Bros. project is completed and the 228 Silo Point condos come online. They will range from 1,100 to 5,500 square feet, and the building will boast a Sky Lounge on its 19th floor, with 360-degree views of the Baltimore harbor.

Turner, the developer, said the old and new will come together seamlessly. "People come to Locust Point because of what Locust Point is - that close-knit community," he said. "And the people who are moving in are just part of that fabric."

He thinks there is still room for more development - a view confirmed, he says, by the impending opening of a new Harris Teeter grocery store at the site of the old Chesapeake Paperboard Co. "Harris Teeter doesn't come to neighborhoods going in the wrong direction," he said.

Baltimore's director of planning, Douglas M. McCoach III, also doesn't want to close off development in the community, saying cities stagnate if they don't change and grow. But in a healthy neighborhood like Locust Point, he said, the change must come slowly to preserve the sense of place that residents value.

"The thing that Locust Point has is what we want for all communities in Baltimore - that sense of close-knit familiarity and urban fabric," McCoach said. But at some point, he said, master plans can become outdated. "When we say no changes, we eliminate the opportunity to change for the better," he said.

Rosenbach, who has watched the grain elevator become Silo Point from her front porch, decided to move to Middle River two years ago. Bigger house. Greener grass. Better parking.

She lasted six months.

"I had to come back," she said. She missed sitting out with her neighbors at night and the "big, long gabfests" that ensued. Fortunately, she hadn't sold the rowhouse she had bought in 1963 for $6,500, so she moved right back in. She intends to stay.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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