Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tradepoint Atlantic - missing an opportunity?

Good old Sparrows Point is now Tradepoint Atlantic, all 3,100 acres of it, except for a small sliver occupied by a shipyard that is still Sparrows Point or at least not controlled by Tradepoint Atlantic. Its a good thing there is a new name because almost nothing is left of the 125 years of steel-making here. In fact, the area looks like a big bomb had detonated and left only piles of rubble and a few fragments of recognizable things.
Sparrows Point in 2015 (BBJ)

Of course, this isn't how the young, energetic and optimistic sales team of the Tradepoint Atlantic group  sees it which consists of the two investment firms Hilco Global and Redwood Capital. They see the brownfield site that is bigger than Port Covington, Harbor East, Harbor Point, Canton Crossing, the Inner Harbor and the old financial district combined as a wonderful resource to capture some of the logistics market here where land normally is scarce. Logistics is distribution warehouses especially for the growing e-commerce market which is very land hungry with warehouses often reaching the size of a million square feet or 20 football fields. That is how representatives Eric Gilbert, Executive Vice President of Development and Justin Dunn, Director of Engineering & Planning explained their project to a recent tour of developers, investors and professionals organized by ULI,

What Tradepoint Atlantic's representatives radiated in personal energy the masterplan itself lacks in imagination, though.
Masterplan (photo: Philipsen)
Really not a masterplan in a strict sense,  the plan has a marine, a land and a rail component. For land it shows wall-to-wall big-box distribution warehouses, bulk storage, shipping containers and yards, in short,  a paved world erected under the flag of e-commerce that looks quite like warehouses have looked for a long time, just bigger.

One needs to only fly into the major airports in America to see the square-miles of warehouse roofs and truck loading docks that surround airports just like they do seaports. The bricks and mortar side of logistics appears to be a world without creativity or aspiration. It isn't enough to build on one of the most astounding sites on the entire east coast.

Sure, old Sparrows Point will be and probably should be mostly an industrial site, after so much industry and so many jobs left. It has railroad access, deep water access and all. But this is a spectacular piece of real estate with historic buildings, with water on three sides, a large environmental burden and huge potential. Even industrial parks shouldn't ignore some basic principles of planning, design, sustainability and place-making. A few obvious items come to mind:
  • Shouldn't a site that operates under EPA oversight for clean-up and remediation include all kinds of best practice tools for stormwater, groundater, soil recovery and adaptation to rising sea-levels especially on a site that in the past contributed so heavily to the pollution of the Bay?
  • Shouldn't the large roofs of warehouses contribute to stormwater mitigation and run-off improvement, or be used as solar farms to create renewable energy on a scale that can hardly be found elsewhere?
  • Shouldn't a gigantic area of 3,100 acres allow a few hundred acres of public access in the shape of a promenade along the water (except at the shipyard and port area) and a habitat restoration project at the edge that can help mitigate continued pollution seeping out from groundwater and run-off and help clean the Bay?
  • Shouldn't employees of this huge site have amenities beyond a traditional open air shopping center planned for the fringe?
  • Shouldn't a site like this be more than a one-trick-pony betting mostly on e-commerce? Trends towards local production, shrinking global trade and "local for local" production (Under Armour slogan) are already on the horizon. Hasn't the steel history shown that a mono-culture for such a large area creates hazardous economic conditions?
  • Shouldn't an entity that just last week opened a discussion of tax increment financed public support be held to preserving some structures such as the old Bethlehem Steel admin building that is still standing in a park-like setting as a perfect adaptive re-use opportunity?
Historic adminstration building (Photo: Philipsen)

Historic preservation, green design, Bay clean-up, place-making, mixed-use and public access seem to be all anathema to the Tradepoint folks. In that they appear to be operating in the Neanderthal age of planning even though they are talking about the long-haul and the future. That is not to say that the economic benefits of their investments aren't sorely needed, and they could be significant. (see Anirban Basu's economic impact analysis released last week).

The challenge for the Sparrows Point peninsula is nothing less than the design of the industrial park of the future. Tradepoint Atlantic can't simply follow a formula that was developed decades ago. Mixed-use came to the office park. It must also come to the industrial park.

The experience with the office mono culture, best exemplified by the Research Triangle in Raleigh/Durham, a  mono-culture that is now desperately trying to develop some urbanity because nobody wants to work there without it. After revamping office parks, the re-invention of the industrial park is next.

In a world in which work, production, commerce, transportation and logistics change at a rapid pace, it would be a travesty to create a development here that just lines up one warehouse next to the other. One wishes that Under Armour's presence there means that business as usual won't be good enough any longer.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Sage Policy Group: Impact analysis



Sales office: Six containers. Design by Gensler (Photo: Philipsen)

warehouse mono-cultures (Jessup)

Sparrows Point before demolition as seen from Fort Howard (Photo: Philipsen)

post demolition (Photo: Philipsen)

Under Armour: planned distribution center at Tradepoint Atlantic