Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Westport: What is left of the big dreams

The Middle Branch, long a forgotten stepchild in Baltimore known for a giant casino garage, an animal shelter and Nick's Fish-House and numerous derelict industrial sites, has been the target of ideas and plans since at least 1990. It became a field of dreams when investors commuted Westport and Port Covington into the canvas of their ambitious . But as it often happens in Baltimore, really big dreams often evaporate and the pioneers are not rewarded while those who come in after them reap the benefits.

Initially proposed Stonewall Westport development

What is on the table now for actual development is neither Pat Turners multi billion Westport plan nor Kevin Plank's Under Armour International Headquarters. Both projects went poof, the one a victim of the financial crisis and the other a victim of flying just a bit too high. 

First to deflate was Baltimore developer Pat Turner's Westport., He had successfully converted an abandoned Locust Point grain silo complex into a gleaming condo tower. In Westport he scaled his ambitions up: Silo Point's architect Parameter together with the nationally renowned environmental green consultant Field Operations (The High Line, NYC) designed a development with 2 million sq. ft. of office space, 300,000 sq. ft. of retail, and 2,000 residential units. Turner spent a lot of money on clearing the land of the old Carr Lowry glass factory and the BGE substation. It all went up in smoke when Turner couldn't secure enough funding to even hold on to the cleared site. Under Armour's ambitions at that time were still high enough that they not only wanted to develop all of Port Covington but also purchased the Westport land in a foreclosure sale.  Likely as an expansion site. 

As in the story of Icarus, who flew to close to the sun with his waxen wings, Under Armour came crashing back into reality when the company was battling slumping sales and an investigation from the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission. The so far most recent reality check came when the all out last ditch effort of attracting Amazon's fable second headquarters at Port Covington fizzled so badly that Baltimore didn't even make it to Amazon's shortlist. Social impact investment had not been what Jeff Bezos had in mind.

Pat Turner's Westport development 

The current reality is more modest: Spearheaded by Weller Development construction activity right now is limited to a single block on which to date mostly underground utilities have been placed. The proposed new buildings have been already postponed a few times, certainly COVID didn't help. Originally announced as "Cyber Town USA" the block now is now simply a 400,000sf mixed use project still looking for tenants. Meanwhile Plank Industries has liquidated Westport.

That brings us to the second more modest proposal reality, the redevelopment of the Westport site by Ray Jackson's Stonewall Capital which has won the bidding war for the Westport site for which it currently holds an option. Jackson started about 17 years ago with small rowhouse rehabs in Baltimore's trendy neighborhoods of Federal Hill, Fells Point, Locust Point and Canton which he flipped from his space in Sparks. His work scaled all the way to a 600 acre greenfield development called Southfields, a "Transformational Development for the Town of Elkton" which is supposed to convert rural Cecil County "into an industrial, commercial and residential base" as the BBJ put it. The project with its 250-acre industrial park, 1,000 residential units, 250,000 square feet of commercial/retail space and a 50-acre sports complex is underway and, according to Jackson, has not slowed down because of COVID. 

Meanwhile Westport's new developer wasted no time and entered the picture with a very practical development proposal that includes 275 garage townhomes; 300 affordable multi-family units, 1,000 market rate units and 40,000 sq. ft. of commercial and retail space and an 100,000 sq. ft. office building. The development  proposes 11.8 acres of open space including a large park in the center of the development. 

Field Operations competition entry: Rendering

That concept was presented on December 10 of last year and promptly experienced its Waterloo in the initial review of the City's design review panel UDAAP. Below a sampling of the comments the reviewers made:

  • it’s difficult to see what’s being proposed, and the poor quality of the graphics (and spelling) detracts from the presentation
  • Information is vague – it’s difficult to assess the feasibility or desirability of proposed moves; e.g. Mobility Framework Plan on Slide 12: the circulation lines overlaid on the aerial image are not in scale and it’s unclear how they actually sit in the landscape. Also, there is missing information in bullet-point #2.
  • Building massing contradicts stated goals of preserving sight lines, connecting to the neighborhood and creating a cohesive connection to water edge
  • Very little relationship among new buildings, between buildings and water edge, and between new and existing development – needs to be developed more purposefully to feel deliberate

Those harsh verdicts presented an interesting situation, given that the design was presented by none lesser than Doug McCoach, the City's former Planning Director who used to sit on the other side at design reviews and held that office when the first official Middle Branch Masterplan was enacted in 2007. McCoach gave the UDAAP panelists an excellent site analysis. But as the comments prove, the suggested plan concept for a cluster of rowhouses on the west end a bunch of office buildings on the east side of the land, both separated by a park, had little to do with the analysis. Especially the 275 townhomes looked like a copy straight out of some high density suburban builder's blueprint, oddly shifted against the rowhouse blocks of old Westport. 

Revised Stonewall plan with parks and critical area highlighted


Unfazed, the design team went back to the drawing board and showed in January a slightly revised plan with streets that are now aligned with the Westport grid and included responses to earlier UDAAP comments regarding connections and circulation. The comments from UDAAP were milder in the second round but still did don't represent a ringing endorsement:

  • Kit of parts – now that the team has mapped strategies for the site, it’s time to go back and build on the idea of assembling the buildings and public spaces from a kit of parts to help it read as a neighborhood.
  • Study the relationship between the Parcels (A, B, C, D, E) in more detail – open spaces are serving as separators between types of buildings (the overlook park, central park, etc.) Spaces could benefit from a cohesion of typology versus a change of typology. Doesn’t currently convey a feeling that you’re “some place” but rather that you’re between places.
  • Team is encouraged to look at precedents outside of Baltimore that have always been waterfront connected 
  • Important to continue to study the site in section; need to see a north-south section through the centralized park from the rowhouses on Parcel B to the mixed-use multifamily on Parcel C to understand the change in scale.
  • With regard to the townhouse community (Parcel B), it seems to be very built-up with only a very narrow strip of green – feels a bit sterile and hard. Team should study ways to include more relief; could be achieved with pocket parks or with widening the landscaped portions, etc.

The project has been presented as to be built "by right", i.e. according to existing zoning. The implied suggestion is that the developer doesn't need anything from the City and therefore could proceed relatively unrestricted. Still, there are potential snags. The current land use law for this site is the Planned Unit Development which was created for Turner's previous Westport plan. Before the underlying base zoning would be in effect again, the PUD needs to be nullified. The plans show a lot of development inside the 100' Critical Area buffer, incursions the team intends to "mitigate" in its proposed parks. Critical area review can be stringent, even for urbanized areas, which is appropriate given the precarious state of the tidal waters of the Middle Branch and the Chesapeake. Even though the site has been cleared of all surface structures, surprises may loom underground for anybody who starts digging. Plus the site needs all new utilities and roads, in short, the same conditions that made Sagamore ask for the largest Tax Increment Financing deal in the history of the City. So far, Stonewall LLC has not indicated they want any public money. 

Rendered revised plan (Stonewall)

The Stonewall plans emerge while the masterplanning process for the Middle Branch is underway. The site sits at the foot of the community of Westport which had its hopes up and down over a long time, dashed by first failing industries and then deflated dreams. Westport is one of the  partners in the  South Baltimore Gateway Partnership that benefits from Casino proceeds and is part of a community benefits agreement with Sagamore where proceeds were expected from the giant Port Covington development. In its delayed and reduced form the agreement has not yet provided the boost the communities had hoped for. 

Clearly communities are weary but at the same time eager to see actual progress.

It doesn't help that Ray Jackson's Stonewall LLC does not intend to stick around to actually build the project but just assembles the "entitlements" thsat come from an approved development plan and then hand the site over to builders. Kevin Lynch's South Baltimore reported that Jackson has selected Ryan Homes as the builder for phase one and wants to break ground in the next 12 to 18 months for the townhomes, the park, and possibly the first apartment building with its 350 market-rate units and some/retail space. 

In this mix the communities, especially the Westport CEDC, the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, the Baltimore City departments of Planning, Parks and Recreation and others are currently trying to figure out how to proceed. 

Especially the  Middle Branch masterplanning effort needs to be fruitfully integrated, it just makes no sense to have such a large part of the shoreline taken up and be spoken for before the masterplan effort has even fully gotten off the ground. The South Baltimore Gateway Partnership is in negotiations how to bring in the highly qualified masterplan designers to have a say in the design of the parks and the waterfront design which could afterwards be deeded back to the public.

To recap: The City and the Parks and People Foundation had looked for big-name designers to update the 2007 Middle Branch masterplan with state of the art greenways, trails, and sustainable resilience features appropriate for the shores of  the Middle Branch. Thinking about this "second waterfront", goes back to a report of the Urban Design Committee of AIA Baltimore in 1997 when they looked at the potential of the Middle Branch and its many industrial brownfields. At the end of the Parks and People design competition, Rotterdam's West 8, Urban Design & Landscape Architecture emerged as the winner among four shortlisted firms with global portfolios and received a $325,000 contract. But this dream almost deflated as well when the design team lost the Dutch lead designer West 8, over a kerfuffle about De swarte Piet, a Dutch blackface figure that had made an appearance at a company holiday party years earlier. 

That, too was a typical Baltimore situation, where the volatile mix of inequity, redlining, and segregation didn't take this flap lightly, even though the loss of this strong design firm looked a bit like  cutting off the nose to spite the face. 

The Middle Branch masterplan design team has now been reconfigured with a number of additional names, including James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), the company that had been on Turner's Westport team before, and had already placed second in NDC's Middle Branch design competition behind West 8. 

The Westport site is a linchpin in a continuous public shoreline along the entire Middle Branch and an associated bike-hike trail system that currently is temporarily placed on the old Kloman Street hemmed in between the elevated light rail tracks and a still active freight rail track. The Westport waterfront brownfield is also a key element in a new shoreline that is built to best practice standards for resilience against rising sea levels, sustainability, stormwater and habitat protection. (Reimagine)

Field Operations Competition entry: Trail network

The site further provides the the Westport community an opportunity to regain access to the waterfront and have some urgently needed parks and green spaces. The potential boost from a major investment needs to be carefully calibrated with the needs of a disadvantaged community so it doesn't result in gentrification and displacement, or the demise of commercial establishments along Westport's "main" street (Annapolis Road). 

For all those goals to be met, Stonewall already had numerous meetings with the community. The design certainly deserves broad public vetting with public workshops, lots of "daylight" in the negotiations of the open spaces, and opportunities for all affected communities and stakeholders to build "ownership" in the new development. It must be ensured that the community's and the stakeholders' long-term interests are not only heard but baked into the plan through oversight and control mechanism that persist, no matter who the builders will be, or what the uncertainties of the residential, office, hospitality and retail real estate markets may be. It is time that Westport can see something good becoming reality on this shore of the Middle Branch.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Slightly modified for clarification on 3/18/21

1 comment:

  1. The project should make more out of its waterfront.

    The irregular shoreline and the setbacks of the Critical Area Zone can be developed as much better greenspace and a model for sustainability.

    Connect views to the water.

    The rowhouse area in the middle misses many opportunities here.

    Many views are blocked and the streets are too regimented.

    Perhaps if these fanned out from a small commons or square at the tracks (with a little mix use there too?)

    Bringing more views and green streetscaping (perhaps rain gardens that connect to the water front too) the interior will enhance the value and sustainability of the whole.

    David Benn, AIA, LEED AP