Monday, July 18, 2016

When exactly were things better? Part 2: Baltimore's Waterfront Fights

At a time when a significant amount of Americans likes to make "America Great Again" one has to wonder to which time the clock should be turned back to. The sentiment that there have been better times than the presence is strong even among liberals and it is often applied to Baltimore as well.
When we still had nearly a million people, when Pennsylvania Avenue was flourishing, when people still cared for each other in the community, when Baltimore still had streetcars running in every block; there is no shortage of nostalgic rear-view mirror longings.
This year is my 30th year in Baltimore, just long enough to look back some distance and explore, if things were really better in the past. At least the recent past going back to 1986 when I started by work in this city.
This is part of a multi-part look-back in no particular order meant as light summer reading. I will try not to slip into the typical view through the aging eyes of one who confuses the vigor of the younger self and the heroic deeds done as a younger man with the condition of society at the time.
Part 2: The Waterfront Fights

Canton and Fells Point were always pretty well organized as communities, their resolve to fight sharpened in the famous freeway wars from which Fells Point emerged fully victorious and Canton slightly wounded with some areas north of Boston Street cleared for the freeway.
The abandoned American Can Company in 1980

So when Louis Grasmick came along to build the Anchorage and then Bill Struever to do Tindeco, Canton Cove and later The American Can Company, these developers were not exactly greeted with open arms by groups like the Waterfront Coalition which had been formed to protect historic neighborhoods and the working class neighborhoods from the effects of gentrification. Activist Barbara Mikaulski went on to become famous, Another activist was John Cain who in 1991 won the District 1 nomination for City Council. One of the more colorful characters was Steven Bunker who eventually left Baltimore for Maine. SUN wrote on occasion of his 1999 departure to Maine:
He has consistently and tenaciously fought for the integrity of Fells Point as "a mixed-use, small-scale historic community" against big developers, big political contributors and indifferent city administrations. A dozen years ago he helped form the Waterfront Coalition of community groups from Little Italy to Canton "to keep the neighborhood from being condominium-ized."
"Every two-bit hustler ... was coming to town with a grand scheme of building a condo-tower on the waterfront," he says. "We gained some notable victories."
The can company and the Tyler Lumber Yard in a map from about 1876
In the case of the Can Company Struever was actually some kind of savior after a protracted battle with developer Michael Swerdlow about his American National Plaza development that ended with Swerdlow  giving up on Baltimore and moving to Florida, a second victory for the community after defeating the freeways.

What did Swerdlow's plans in, was that he wanted to completely demolish the historic Can complex to erect a dense mixed use development including a 22 story condo tower. The problem was that the developer wanted to do this with federal funding from a City managed UDAG community block grant which raised the famous Section 106 issue which forbids the destruction of historical assets in any project where federal funds are used. A historic review determined that the Can Company was a historically contributing structure and that the developer had not studied the option of adaptive reuse sufficiently.

Emboldened by the impasse on preservation, community activists collaborated with the Neighborhood Design Center to produce a report about their vision. It included demands for adaptive reuse and affordable housing. Understanding that this combination wasn't attainable without additional resources, the community insisted on the introduction of a council bill which would have leveraged impact fees on higher end waterfront projects to support affordable housing, an approach that resurfaces today with community benefits agreements funded by "luxury" developments such as the Casino, the UM Biopark or the proposed Port Covington redevelopment.
The American Can Company and the lumber yard 1934 (source: Ziger Snead
highlighting the Starbucks "pad site"

However, the 1990 impact fee bill failed. Al Barry, then Assistant Director of Planning, explained that such a fee would "discourage development and force builders into the suburbs". (Baltimore SUN, Nov 2, 1990), a few that also prevailed in the Council.

The American Can fight absorbed the energy of the communities and allowed Struever to complete his Canton Cove project without too much opposition except for some concern about the added three floors piled onto the original can building adjacent to the Tindeco apartments.
From MDE brochure about brownfield clean up program

When Bill Struever turned his attention to the American Can, his purchase saved it from Chertow's threat of tearing down the Old Can complex without rebuilding it. Struever proposed adaptive reuse and instead of residential use a business incubator, the Baltimore DAP caulk company, restaurants and a a bit later added a Starbucks. The Canton Safeway was retained from the Chertow plan ending the area's longstanding status as a supermarket desert.

The Fells Point fire power was brought into position again when Allied Signal began to dismantle its hulking plant, encapsulate the site as part of a clean-up and began to make plans for new development. The Waterfront Coalition had not expected that anyone could build on the chromium saturated site and suggested a 26 acre park. The owners, with the help of a group of consultants (I was one of them), showed that after the area was capped, development was, indeed, possible. After almost two years of wrangling the community agreed in 1992 to a Planned Unit Development that included a 6 acre  park,  1.7 million square feet of mixed use and a maximum height of 180'. (The PUD was modified twice and allows now 2.8 million SF of development and much taller buildings such as the recently completed Exelon tower.)

But before the Allied site agreement was reached, another big development had begun to emerge, not really part of the "Gold Coast" but wedged in between downtown and historic Fells Point, the area that would be later first dubbed Inner Harbor East and then simply Harbor East.

In the late eighties/ early nineties when Canton Cove was under construction, the Chertow had been defeated and the Allied Signal plant was a big empty hulk in the Inner Harbor, Inner Harbor East had yet to be branded as such and was occupied by a sawmill that went up in flames in one of the more spectacular fires ever seen after the Great Fire.
Harbor East layout before development
That fire was a signal for Mayor Schaefer to make his next waterfront move by convincing Baltimore's baker in chief, the lord of all McDonalds rolls east of the Mississippi, John Paterakis, to become developer.

The new town south of Little Italy would be nicely laid out with a circle, a monument, fixed bulkheads, cobblestone streets and Victor's Café. All but the café was built on the City's dime, and all was based on an award winning masterplan developed by architect Stan Eckstut. He had just gained international status with his much published Manhattan urban waterfront redevelopment named Battery Park. Eckstut's plan wrapped structured parking, envisioned mixed use, active street-fronts and tall buildings up to 180' limited to the center of the site with lower structures around the periphery.

The only problem was, one of those regular real estate cyclical downturns brought a marked slowdown, and there was no demand to build on the neatly laid out building parcels, not even without impact fees. The initial exception was the Sylvan Learning Center mixed use complex until eventually the baker came through with the bold idea of a 225' convention center hotel not next to the Convention Center but in Harbor East. The tall hotel would have not only exceeded maximum height limit, it also positioned the tallest guy in the front row. Then Mayor Schmoke liked the idea of a somewhat distant Convention Center Hotel, no matter the rule violations. So new rules were proposed. The AIA's Urban Design Committee brought Eckstut back to Baltimore to defend his plan, to not much avail. Schmoke liked that Paterakis was willing to fund the hotel with his own money even before he had a hotel name brand secured (it later was supposed to be a Wyndham and then became a Marriott). The Mayor liked the hotel plan so much that the project went forward (albeit with a reduced height) and was even awarded a payments in lieu of taxes scheme called a PILOT that made it essentially tax exempt for 25 years.

While the hotel wasn't really a "convention center hotel" (the City embarked years later on its own hotel project right at the Convention Center) but it broke the ice and from there on, Harbor East parcels began to be built out one after the other, including the popular Whole Foods store until the entire new and shiny quarter was completed in its un-Baltimore character that those who look for the gritty authentic Baltimore, find disdainful. To this day the argument continues if the baker got too much of a break on taxes, whether Harbor East sapped energy out of the historic downtown and if Baltimore has any advantage of having developed that part of town. In fact, Harbor East is used as a foil for the debate about Port Covington. It would be a great project for BDC to work out the full cost benefit analysis of this project to move that discussion to a more fact based level.
Harbor East today

The Baltimore waterfront battles about saving working class communities from what were then called yuppies, the worries about gentrification, the concept of benefit transfers (through impact fees) and the discussion about from which point on a developer may be spooked and move to other shores, all this I witnessed over my entire 30 years of being here with the same arguments pushed back and forth year after year and project after project. On the waterfront, except in the victory against the American National Plaza, developer plans usually not only prevailed but also received considerable City incentives. For some the question remains, whether Baltimore got better for it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN Sept 1991, Canton Yuppies
Andrew Merrifield, Aug. 1992, Struggling over place: Redevloping The American Can,