Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Sparrows Point: Buying the future in Las Vegas?

Anybody who ever has been at Sparrows Point or has seen it from Fort Howard can attest to the extraordinary position of this piece of land jotting out into the mouth of the Patapsco River where it enters the Bay.
Sparrows Point before it was all flattened
This 3,100 acre site is one of the premier port sites in the world with one of the big Eastern seaports of the Atlantic coast as a neighbor, especially if one sees it in conjunction with the nearby former GM facility (Now in part an Amazon warehouse) and Fort Howard. Thinking about Sparrows Point, the former site of Bethlehem Steel, has to be big, possibly global, certainly regional.

But what we have here so far is a 300,000 sf FedEx Ground distribution warehouse, an announced Harley-Davidson Riding Academy training center, and now the announcement of a 150 acre shopping center. A shopping center! As if America and Baltimore County weren't one of the most "over retailed" spaces on the planet in terms of square feet of available retail per resident (The US has over 46sf for each resident, the UK 23 and Canada 13). Newsflash: The area of brute consumption is over. On the other hand, old rust-belts can become the new brain-belts according to a new book by the US economist Agtmael. (article). Instead, we here a speaker for Tradepoint Atlantic gush about new fast food places and a gas station as the front door of his 3,100 acre site:
"It's going to be at our front door.... We will have 10,000 to 15,000 jobs here at the end of the build-out in about 10 years and this will be a place for amenities for our tenants' employees". Aaron Tomarchio, Spokesperson for Tradepoint Atlantic 
Targeted for the site, but not signed yet, are potential tenants like Royal Farms, fast-food restaurants, a gym, drug store and a 50,000-square foot grocery store, Tomarchio said. The plans also include two hotels. (BBJ)
Grocery Store and Gas Station
A rendering published in the BBJ shows two hotels, a grocery store, a gas station, restaurants and retail. Another shopping center isn't what the 10,000 anticipated employees will look for.
One has to start somewhere, is what people might say about these beginnings, but the looming question for this big site is: What is the big idea? What is the long range plan? What, in the end should Sparrows Point become for the region?

Sparrows Point should become as important and famous as the Research Triangle Park in North Caroline, Hafen City in Hamburg, The Docklands in London or Kop van Zoid in Rotterdam.
It should not be a piecemeal approach in which piece by piece Sparrows Point starts to look like everything else in Baltimore County.

Port Covington is only a tiny spec compared to Sparrows Point; unlike Port Covington it cannot easily be master-planned all at once in any amount of detail. Yet, Port Covington is nevertheless illustrative: The initial piecemeal approach with a Walmart on the waterfront was an unmitigated failure, not because it was just a first small step, but because it was the wrong use in that location and because there was never a bigger idea for the whole area. With Sagamore, that has changed and the residents of the region can watch a careful public process of planning for the highest and best uses planned along with extraordinary public amenities.
Port sites at the Baltimore harbor.  (Sparrows Pt at bottom

Where is this type of discussion for Sparrows Point? The old steel site has fantastic deep water access. The most obvious thing would be to see how it can work in tandem with the Port of Baltimore. Specifically, which port functions could be removed from places further up the Patapsco which could have better uses in the future.

The Baltimore region needs jobs, everybody has heard that. So what jobs have a future here? What kind of production, shipping and trade will be around in the next 20-50 years? What industries can this region attract with a premier, port oriented waterfront site? And what amenities would these new industries and employees need to be attracted?

The Research Triangle, the central economic engine for Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill,  is currently in a desperate battle of urbanizing itself because the original model of a single use suburban office park has become obsolete. Talent today doesn't want to work in an office mono-culture anymore.  But the economic model of a reserach park that works in tandem with the great universities and corporations of the region was a far reaching futuristic model when it was developed in the seventies and it is still valid today. It is that long range view that is needed for Sparrows Point.

Plans for Sparrows Point need to develop as a comprehensive big picture plan with a future in mind where this site could become the economic backbone for the entire region from Wilmington to DC.
The size of Sparrows Point overlaid with downtown Baltimore:
From Pratt Street to North Avenue and from MLK to President Street

“There are some people who believe that the industrial boat has sailed, that manufacturing has left, we’re losing out to other countries, so should we really be smoke-stack chasing?” I think there is a lot of hope for industrial use in this country. The question is, are we taking the best advantage of the assets that we have?” (Scott Page, Interface Studio, Philadelphia)
Hogan's Commerce Secretary Mike Gill is energetic and he can think big. It isn't enough for him, Tradepoint Atlantic (the company that now controls Sparrows Point) his Governor, Baltimore County's office of economic development and the entire political leadership of Baltimore City to hang out at the retail trade show in Las Vegas to lure another gas station and shopping center into the region. The future of Sparrows Point cannot be bought in Vegas! But while these folks are all out there together, they should come up with a real regional vision for the site. The Sparrows Point site needs to be thought of jointly by the County, the City and the State.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

related article on this blog: Steel and the future of Sparrows Point

BBJ Article 5/23/16

Redeveloping Former Industrial Sites Doesn't Mean Giving Up on Industry
Brownfield projects in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Toledo aim to reimagine what manufacturing means in America

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