June 13, 2016

Build Westport NOW with a Port Covington land swap

Here's the simplified follow-up to the article I wrote last week for the Baltimore Brew, after which I realized I should tighten my points to defend against the diversions cast about by the critics.

The primary point: The vacant Westport waterfront needs to be developed as soon as possible. Patrick Turner was poised to do this when his project went bankrupt. It was then sold to Kevin Plank, who is now poised to develop the even more massive multi-billion dollar Port Covington site just across the Middle Branch.
Westport waterfront property as seen from the existing light rail station,
with Port Covington in the background across the Middle Branch

While is in both Kevin Plank's and the city's interest that Plank's development company focus most intensely on Port Covington and not have his attention be diverted by Westport, the latter remains very important to the city and the local community.

The city and Plank have crafted a very wide-ranging public-private partnership for Port Covington, including $660 Million in Tax Increment Financing and other support totalling over a billion dollars for this long-term effort. They're in bed together. That's not an aspersion. Just fact.

On the other hand, the Westport development shouldn't have to wait. It's an existing community with real live human residents. But many of its rowhouses have been bought up by speculators who have allowed them to deteriorate while waiting for the new waterfront development money. Other commercial sites along Annapolis Road have also languished for lack of a sufficient market with sufficient disposable income to support them.

Meanwhile, the city has another major new development initiative in the "Gateway" corridor between the Camden Yards stadiums and the Horseshoe Casino. The city has become highly dependent on the casino as a revenue and jobs generator, as well as on the surrounding area as an "entertainment district" to provide a place for mega-bars and other compatible uses away from other neighborhoods.

The success of all these initiatives requires that the new developments be well connected into the city, to reinforce their "urban" identities, but not so close that the negative impacts spill over. That's the main reason people are attracted to the city in the first place. The Horseshoe Casino must promote its urban qualities. It cannot compete directly on this basis with the suburban Maryland Live! Casino in Arundel Mills or the upcoming National Harbor Casino in Prince George's County on their own terms.

Westport needs to project a positive urban image on the casino. Right now, too much of the casino's image is defined by being located along the Russell Street gas/convenience store strip, or in some kind of inner city no man's land, or just a bad image of Baltimore in general.

Proposed casino hotel built as a veneer for its waterfront garage facing a new Middle Branch Parkway,
would create an impressive new "urban face" for the casino - as envisioned by Peter Tocco.

Again, the Gateway development can't wait. The casino competition is already well underway. The city needs Westport to be a southern anchor of this Gateway Corridor.

The proposed agreement between the city and Kevin Plank's Sagamore development company is highly complex. But resolving the status of the Westport property would be a relatively minor inclusion, compared to all the extensive financial and property transactions it will contain.

City acquisition may be the solution

There is uncertainty as to whether the private sector is ready to come in and develop Westport. So the clearest and most direct resolution would be to have the city to acquire the Westport property as part of the extensive Port Covington land swaps.

Once the city acquires the Westport waterfront property, it can do with it whatever is in the best interest of the Westport community, which has remained constructively engaged in the ongoing planning process, as well as in the interests of the city as a whole.

The city can then also construct streets and conduct remediation directly instead of as part of subsequent agreements with developers. The city can also subdivide the properties to encourage more broad based involvement by smaller developers.
Proposed Middle Branch Parkway spine road between Westport (upper left, south) and Camden Yards (lower right, north),
with a new North Westport light rail station in the shadow of Interstate 95. Part of Port Covington is shown at the lower left.
In my view, one of the most important elements of the development of this Gateway corridor is to create a spine road extending from the Camden yards area to Westport to unify, enhance and urbanize the development and waterfront open spaces. Another key is creation of a new light rail station in north Westport near I-95 to provide a convenient transfer point between the Port Covington spur and the line traveling southward to BWI Marshall Airport.

Acquisition of the Westport waterfront would facilitate these projects. It is common when building such major projects for larger land parcels to be acquired, with the leftover land disbursed after that.

In the grand scheme of the massive multi-billion dollar Port Covington development project, resolving the status of the Westport waterfront property would be a relatively small part. Issues about interest from other developers and about how much the land is really worth may seem unclear and daunting, but having the city acquire the land would make them more straightforward.

It should be a relatively simple matter to agree that transferring Westport ownership to the city as a part of the big Port Covington land deal is the best and most direct way to proceed.

3 comments:

  1. I like your ideas for Westport. I'm not completely sold on your parkway idea, though it sounds good in theory. I'm concerned it could end up acting as another artery thru Baltimore for sports and commuter traffic, rather than a gateway road with a better sense of place. It would also have to pass over 4 water inlets between I-95 and Stockholm Street, which drives up its cost. Granted, that cost may be justified, but it's just a concern.

    I also read your related post on the Casino district just to the north. Given how much traffic passes by the casino, I think that area is about as important to Baltimore's image as Westport. I agree that for all the "rehab" Russell Street went through, the payoff of gas stations is pretty dismal.

    On this post above, you wrote: "Meanwhile, the city has another major new development initiative in the "Gateway" corridor between the Camden Yards stadiums and the Horseshoe Casino." Could you link/describe what that initiative is? At the very least, the pedestrian crossing should be improved over the CSX tracks. I've seen pedestrians walk on the 295 span multiple times, despite there being a pedestrian walkway on its east side. That walkway has a terrible connection to Ostend Street.

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    1. Thanks for the great points, DAK. A proposed parkway would have to be closed to traffic during stadium events just as Camden and other streets and the Hamburg and Ostand bridges are. I made that point in the first article. As for daily commuter traffic, perhaps the use of the segment around M&T Bank Stadium could be limited. The only segment that would need full-time auto access would be for the casino hotel, if that's ever built. We'll see how things go when the National Harbor casino opens and Arundel Live! gets its hotel. People have started to brag lately about how successful the Horseshoe has been as a dynamic, game changing, world class etc. etc.

      Sorry I wasn't more specific about new development for the vacant lots around Warner and Stockholm Streets. I just Googled it and found this from The Sun last September, which isn't all that helpful, but at least it's something:

      http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bs-bz-south-baltimore-entertainment-20150914-story.html

      And yes, some of the pedestrian conditions around there are pathetic !!!

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