There was a time when Baltimore's Port Covington neighborhood was bustling. The Western Maryland Railroad opened a terminal there in 1904. Facilities included coal, grain and merchandise piers, as well as a machine shop, 11 rail yards, warehouses and other amenities. But those days are long gone, and today, little remains of the region's lively past.
Now, Baltimore has the chance to recreate Port Covington as a modern, multi-purpose, waterfront economic center and neighborhood. Currently, Baltimore businessman Kevin Plank's Sagamore Development — which my company, Sage Development Inc., is working with — owns most of Port Covington. Ambitious plans for the region, already anchored by the first phase of Under Armour's new corporate campus, are taking final form. In its present incarnation, the project would establish a new Baltimore neighborhood featuring a 21st century skyline offering as much as 13 million square feet of residences, stores, offices, restaurants and, at long last, a shore remade with parks and running paths.
Soon the city will take up the issue of what type and level of public support should be offered to secure Port Covington's future. Undoubtedly, this will trigger the usual rhetorical flourishes from critics who don't support public financing associated with private projects, but rational considerations suggest that Baltimore should do all that it can to encourage this opportunity for the good of the city.
The original Port Covington facilities were privately financed, but they might not have been built without public sector support. For example, in 1898, the city of Baltimore financed railroad infrastructure, specifically the creation of the Western Maryland Railroad, in order to compete with the Baltimore & Ohio line's high prices. The B&O had been co-founded by the city roughly seven decades earlier, in part to compete with emerging infrastructure capacity in New York and Philadelphia.
According to urban designer and environmental planner Eric Leshinsky, who has written extensively about the Port Covington area, the two rail networks born from public-private partnerships ran side by side without overlap to terminals on the South Baltimore peninsula, where they both unloaded Appalachian coal to ships that transported it up and down the Eastern seaboard. Mr. Leshinsky also indicates that "then, as now, the spaces on the ground between these lines of connection and transfer were largely forgotten and undeveloped ... this was a place for recreation and storage, commingled with trash and half-completed projects."
In 1983, the B&O bought out its competitor, the Western Maryland Railroad, which shut down soon after. The Baltimore Sun acquired a large piece of land in Port Covington on the south side of I-95 during the 1980s, and printing presses were moved there.
In 2000, the city of Baltimore accepted a proposal from Starwood Ceruzzi for the site. According to Mr. Leshinsky, Starwood promised to attract a mix of retailers and to consider community recommendations to orient the buildings toward the water. The company said it would significantly expand public access and other community amenities. At one point, this was destined to be the Hunt Valley of the Patapsco, but that somewhat dubious vision was not meant to be. Despite city support, Starwood constructed only a Walmart and Sam's Club, both positioned facing away from Baltimore's waterfront.
In 2007, the Sam's Club closed. A Baltimore Business Journal article dated in March of that year quotes Starwood executive Arthur Hooper as stating that the "final phase of the development isn't something we were interested in doing. We're not long-term holders of projects. We brought in the big boxes." Earlier this year, Walmart announced that it was closing its store in Port Covington as part of a global effort to close 269 of its stores.
Then along came Sagamore Development.
Baltimore Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur has been quoted in The Sun as indicating that the project is probably "one of the biggest opportunities ever to come to Baltimore." He said that he feels "very confident that it is going to be spectacular in every sense."
After years of neglect by both the private and public sectors, Port Covington is ready to take its place among Maryland's premier neighborhoods. The city will need to help with investment to build the area's needed public infrastructure, which right now simply does not exist. In anticipation, city officials have already indicated that they want the neighborhood to encompass a mix of incomes and provide opportunities for diverse populations. They also want the site to be "very publicly accessible."
The history of Port Covington is instructive. Whenever the area has met with success, two factors have been at work. First, private enterprise with sustained interest and a sustainable business model has been present. Second, the public sector has provided necessary support, including financial assistance when appropriate. There is no reason to deviate from that formula now.