Friday, March 22, 2024

The promising new faces of the Middle Branch

Anybody who hasn't recently been to Port Covington (yeah, I know I am supposed to say "Baltimore Peninsula") or who just sees the area from I-95, or who has written the "Plank-town" off as an unattainable or a not even desirable dream, or has forgotten about Port Covington and the Middle Branch altogether over the hoopla around HarborPlace, I recommend a visit. With the below photo-tour one can update the impressions from the sofa. 

The Middle Branch in the back and beyond the water Cherry Hill
(Photo: Philipsen)

No longer are we just talking about Under Armor's much downsized "global headquarters" occupies a total of 50 acres of land and the adjacent 235 acre compendium development is now headed off by lead developers, MAG Partners, MacFarlane Partners, and investor Sagamore Ventures but also 25 acres next to the HQ campus, the Locke Insulator company redevelopment, roughly the land area of HarborPoint.

 Also in design is the Westport waterfront while the beautiful new Cherry Hill recreation center is already in service for a while. All will be connected by a promenade and trail system that will even cross the water on a to be restored railroad bridge.

So far the Sagamore venture team has completed 1.1 million square feet of stuff along with several streets and a small park as well as waterfront green. According to their own report, construction contracts totaling more than $134M have been awarded to minority- and women-owned construction firms which amounts to 35% of contracts that have gone to minority-owned businesses and 13% to women-owned enterprises.  20% of the apartments completed in the first building phase are designated as affordable units. $2.5 million worth of grants were given to SB7 communities (Westport, Lakeland, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay and the Peninsula itself). According to the self reporting, these numbers exceed the minimum required in the community compact.

Port Covington/Pensinsula masterplan (Source: Impact Report)

Together with the previously complete Sagamore Distillery and its restaurant now being updated for a new tenant and to be open soon, there are areas where one can feel the beginnings of a new urban section, even though one has to still traverse wastelands to get there. 

A courtyard in Sagamore's development with
a reflection of the distillery's water tower
(Photo: Phiipsen)

Under Armor's headquarter campus is also taking shape with the 280,000 sq. ft. headquarters and fitness building called TMB2, a five-story, 75 ft. high building  currently being closed in with a glass facade. Where the structure is still open one can see the widespread use of heavy timber for ceilings and floors.

 Mark Sapperstein's 28 Walker Development is in charge of Locke's Landing, the redevelopment of the Locke Insulator plant that had been shuttered in 2017. 

Anyone who ever went to Nick's Fish House or the adjoining Marina or has traversed the Hanover Street Bridge with open eyes was familiar with Locke's Insulator 1920s 625,000sf sprawling industrial landmark of Baltimore's manufacturing past. No longer. It took the demolition company a mere 4 months to level, haul off or recycle the entire plant. Not only that, some 50 entirely new townhomes have already risen out of the ground with a dozen or so ready to be occupied next month. An apartment building at the corner of Hanover Street and Insulator drive is also coming out of the ground. 

Mark Sapperstein and Scott Slosson of 28 Walker
Development explaining the Locke Landing project
(Photo: Philipsen)

"This pace is basically insane" Sapperstein says, not without pride about this type of progress on land that he acquired only in 2022 in the middle of a pandemic, sputtering supply lines and inflated construction costs. 

He points out that his team emerged as the winner among the seven bidders for the industrial site mostly because his experience with environmental remediation and because Locke's Japanese owner liked that his team was the only one to clean the site to "residential" standards which are higher than for industrial or mixed use.  This should also be good for the surrounding water.

When it is all said and done, "Locke Landing" will have 904 housing units in a mix of apartments and 393 townhouse units. One cannot help but compare the pace of this project with Madison Park on North Avenue, MCB's project of a similar size and program.  After 10 years it is still stuck on putting pipes in the ground. (MCB's David Bramble points to many external difficulties including the progressing design of the Douglass tunnel under his site which held it up for some time). 

Sapperstein earned his environmental chops at Canton Crossing where his shopping center and mixed use development site on a previous Exxon tank farm. He also developed McHenry Row and Banner Row in Locust Point. None of his developments are architecturally earth-shattering with small exceptions: At Canton Crossing his team erected Baltimore's first heavy timber structure. But all of Sapperstein's developments are highly successful and free of Baltimore's usual ailments of rapidly changing retail tenants, long delays in construction or overwrought subsidies. Sapperstein even built tiny homes for Hope Village. In a presentation to ULI Sapperstein sang rare praises of Baltimore's development process and its flexibility and speed. 

1.1 million soft of development waiting for
users (Photo: Philipsen)

Even those who have reservations about the City TIF for Port Covington going to infrastructure, there should be some level of excitement in seeing the drastically transforming Middle Branch shores formerly defined by rail yards and pollution spewing industries. 

Dismissed by some as bland boxes, Sagamore's  residential and office buildings completed to date are not bland but carefully designed and placed to create some interesting spaces far beyond the normal grid of streets and alleys. Their problem is less one of design but more one of lack of demand. As beautiful as the sidewalks, facades and courtyards look, so far, they are sorely missing people, giving rise to the concern how long the joint venture can sustain this, even with a financial partner such as Goldman Sachs. 

Many in Baltimore oppose all the development in Baltimore that is happening along the waterfront in HarborPoint, Canton and Port Covington on the grounds that it cannibalizes downtown, or even more fundamentally, that it diverts funds from fixing up the badly ailing neighborhoods in the disinvested areas of the "Black Butterfly" areas east and west of downtown. Both points of critique seem quite plausible, at least on the face of it, especially in a shrinking city like Baltimore. 

However, there is also a strong argument to be made that economic development is not a zero sum game and that for Baltimore to break out of its cycle of shrinkage and disinvestment it needs to offer commercial and residential real estate opportunities that are competitive with Washington, Philadelphia and even Richmond, all places that are in a constant churn of re-inventing themselves. Even if those new developments are not for all, proponents argue that there is a trickle down into the City coffers that the City can ill afford not to have. 

There is no time in Baltimore's history which one would want to conserve and put into some type of snow cone. Each period has been full of injustices, contradictions and oppressive practices. 

Port Covington's community benefits agreement is in many respects a model for a new paradigm of progress that relies on more than just trickle down. Just go and look at the new Cherry Hill rec center on the other side of the Hanover Street Bridge to see how a gleaming new neighborhood facility can rise from dedicated set asides intended to reverse past inequities (Under Armor and Casino funds). It can be expected that the Westport waterfront developer will fulfill similar agreements with the Westport community. Connecting all these developments is Baltimore's second waterfront, the long forgotten Middle Branch with its masterplan largely funded from Casino proceeds. The plan is well underway towards realization and promises to provide equitable access to water and recreation all along the shorelines, a true second Baltimore waterfront. Not really a bad prospect.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

(this article was updated on 3/25/24 to include the link to the "impact report" and an image of the Port Covington/Peninsula masterplan)

Related articles on this blog:

Big names and ideas for Baltimore's second waterfront

A picture tour at sunset on the first day of spring 2024:

The base of a new apartment building at the foot of Hanover Bridge

The Under Armor TM2 Building from a distance

Sagamore development: More than just boxes 

Sagamore residential development, retail below

Varied fenestration, materials but no variation in height

The Sagamore development pocket park

The Sagamore development pocket park

The Sagamore development pocket park

Green roof

Extravagant streetscape, wide sidewalks, narrow lanes, planting strips

Extravagant streetscape, Wide sidewalks, narrow lanes, planting strips

The development includes several intimate pedestrian spaces

The development includes several intimate pedestrian spaces

Extravagant streetscape, Wide sidewalks, narrow lanes, planting strips

The development includes several intimate pedestrian spaces

Empty streets and sidewalks 

The development still sits pretty isolated

The Locke Landing development consists of townhouses and two apartment buildings

The first homes in the Locke Landing development are sold and almost ready to be occupied

The Locke Landing architecture is predictable, the layout rigid

The Locke Landing development is constructed and marketed by two national homebuilders

The Locke Landing development in the foreground with Under Armor in the back

Locke Landing development: Ready to put up the next townhomes

The Under Armor TM2 Building: Mass timber on five levels
Cherry Hill Recreation Center 

Cherry Hill Rec Center
(all photos copyright Philipsen)

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