Westport Waterfront

New development aims to knit former industrial site into Baltimore’s thriving waterfront.

by Julia Galef

The shoreline around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is well known for its bustling urban life, but just a mile away lies a body of water with three times the area and none of the development. The Middle Branch waterfront, a shallow estuary south of the Inner Harbor, is an industrial-zoned brownfield dotted with old factories and power plants and cut off from the rest of the city by a highway, a park, a bridge, and some CSX rail tracks.

But when a struggling Middle Branch glass company finally went bankrupt in 2004, local developer Pat Turner saw an opportunity. He purchased the company to get access to its land, and then convinced the city to rezone the neighborhood from industrial to mixed-use as he gradually bought up other privately owned parcels. A longtime South Baltimore resident, Turner had a familiarity with the neighborhood and, more to the point, a stake in it, as most of his prior work is clustered nearby.

The project remakes a former industrial site into a mix of development and expansive open space. Dubbed Westport Waterfront, the project is unusual for more than one reason. Its size alone is unprecedented in Baltimore, a 52-acre site that will include 4.8 million square feet of mixed-use development, with 2,000 residential units, two hotels, 300,000 square feet of retail, and a possible soccer arena, an estimated $1.2 billion all told. While other waterfront developments have a hard time attracting public transit because they are not sufficiently dense, the Westport site already has a light rail stop at its center. Turner plans to use that station as the seed of a dense multimodal network, including wide sidewalks and a link to the city’s bike trail.

Currently, the development team is constructing two thousand linear feet of wetlands along the shoreline using federal stimulus money. By fall, they will be starting on Westport’s streets and public spaces by local design company Parameter and Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, based on a multi-density masterplan by Field Operations. “Field Operations’ low-rise scheme yielded some interesting townhouses and lowrise condos, which we incorporated into the site,” said Chris Pfaffle of Parameter. “The high-density one had too much density, but we took its verticality and organization around a main boulevard.”

The new development is meant to transform a largely derelict piece of Baltimore’s Middle Branch, just south of downtown. Perhaps the most unusual thing about Westport is its scant opposition. To help fund infrastructure on the site, Baltimore issued the largest Tax Increment Financing plan in the city’s history, in anticipation of a sharp rise in property taxes from the current $93,000 per year to the estimated $43 million they will take in once the site is fully developed.

For their part, the adjacent Westport community is enjoying the attentions of Turner, who has been reaching out by planting trees and hiring locals to clean up the waterfront. The development will above all mean new access to the waterfront, which for 120 years has been privately owned and blocked by warehouses and factories. “They’ve lived in the shadows of smokestacks for many years,” Turner said.

The Architect's Newspaper, May 17, 2010