Baltimore’s architecture review panel, elected officials and business leaders Thursday were generally supportive of Sagamore Development Co.’s plans for an ambitious redevelopment for Port Covington.
Officials from Sagamore, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s real estate development firm, Elkus Manfredi Architects and various consultants presented a master plan that would transform the Spartan 260-acre industrial area in South Baltimore to a mix of offices, housing, retail outlets and parks as well as the global headquarters of Under Armour.
Members of the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel expressed excitement about the proposal following the presentation, although some expressed concerns about issues, such as site connectivity. The panelists were not being asked to take action on the plan, and the presentation was described as the start of a long discussion between the developer and the city.
“I can’t imagine a more auspicious start,” said Thomas Stosur, director of the city’s Department of Planning.
A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in an email, reiterated the mayor’s support for the proposal.
“The mayor is very supportive of the concept of redeveloping Port Covington and looks forward to seeing Sagamore takes its plans through the public engagement process,” Howard Libit, the mayor’s director of strategic planning and policy wrote.
Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee and a mayoral candidate, also praised Sagamore’s proposal. But he said any requests for public financing, which the developer has indicated it will seek, will need to be examined.
“I think it’s a fabulous project. I’d love to see it come to fruition. If there’s a request for public financing it has to be coupled with an immediate infusion of resources to the greater community,” Stokes said.
Scope of proposal
The project would transform Baltimore’s waterfront, cost billions of dollars and take up to two decades to complete. And the proposal envisions a wholesale expansion of the city’s transportation grid to make it easier for residents to come to Port Covington — by foot, bus, car or light rail.
While almost all of the details remain to be worked out, it’s clear the proposal has the potential to rival the Inner Harbor project for its impact on Baltimore, its national profile and its economic fortunes.
“One of the most important things to think about when you think about this project, and probably the word that people say to me all the time is ‘transformational,’” said Marc D. Weller, president and partner at Sagamore. “It stands to make a huge difference in many people’s lives and the city of Baltimore.”
Sagamore has been purchasing Port Covington property for years and has been privately briefing elected officials and business leaders about plans for the redevelopment.
Although the master plan doesn’t include specific building proposals, designs or density arrangements, it lays out a starting point for a project that could result in between 9 million and 13 million square feet of building, including about 3 million square feet for the Under Armour campus.
The developers are even considering what may happen to the public space beneath Interstate 95 that cuts the property off from the rest of the city. Although that area is public land, and not under the developer’s control, there is an idea of connecting Port Covington with the city via an “urban playground” that could include basketball courts and skate parks. The development will retain public access to the waterfront, and current plans call for more than 40 acres of public park and green space on the site.
“We are excited by the proposed transformation of Port Covington by Sagamore Development, which will make the most of a highly underutilized waterfront,” said William Cole, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. “The long-term commitment and investment from both Sagamore and Under Armour will help continue Baltimore’s economic growth, create more jobs and provide yet another destination in the city.”
Sagamore would seek public dollars from the city, state and federal government to help offset the costs of building. Weller pointed out that much of that would be needed to build infrastructure on the site, which currently has very little.
“There’s almost no infrastructure on the site to build anything out there beyond what’s there you need significant infrastructure. There’s almost nothing there right now. So, the grid is going to need to be built and access is going to need to be improved off 95,” Weller said.
It’s also likely that additional private investors will be sought to join Sagamore in developing the project.
Some of the ideas floated during the Thursday meeting include possibly building a music venue on the property as well as a stable housing the Baltimore Police Department mounted unit’s horses, which are currently kept downtown. Officials emphasized that those details are not set in stone and that they expect the project to remain in the public design phase for the rest of 2016.
A major goal of the project is to connect areas of Baltimore that have been damaged by disinvestment with other portions of the city.
Part of the master plan includes possible transportation options to get residents to Port Covington, an area that is fairly isolated from the rest of the city and hardly served by mass transportation.
One of the proposals involves building a spur from the existing light-rail line that would extend east to the redevelopment. Another idea in the early master plan includes a circulator bus that runs throughout the development as well as water taxis.
The goal for the development is to have 50 percent private motor vehicles, 10 percent walkers, 15 percent bikers and 25 percent mass transit users.
“One of our goals and focuses is to do everything we can to draw people from East and West Baltimore into here through an easy fashion through transportation projects that make it much simpler than it is right now to get to work,” Weller said. “If I could tell you, there’s probably three or four times in the past week I’ve listened to stories about people going 12 miles and spending two-and-a-half hours to get to their jobs. That cannot be what happens here. We’re going to have jobs, and a lot of opportunity, and we need to make sure that people can get here from the neighborhoods that need the jobs.”
Broader impact questioned
Michael Runnels, a professor at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business, who studies urban development, said he believed the proposal would benefit Baltimore’s economy and that it reflects recent trends in which millennials and others are moving into the city. But he was skeptical of the proposal’s ability to have much of an impact on economically struggling neighborhoods.
“When I look at the [master plan] here… this is certainly in the best long-term economic interest of the city, but it is not in the best long-term interest of those poor black populations in East and West Baltimore,” Runnels said.
Other projects, such as the rehab of a former bus depot into a manufacturing, innovation and entrepreneurship hub called City Garage, emerged earlier. Sagamore Spirit also broke ground on 22,000-square-foot distillery building, a 27,000-square-foot processing center, a visitor’s center, tasting room, restaurant and a 120-foot water tower in Port Covington.
Weller also said the firm is not negotiating to buy the NGK-Locke Inc. property in Port Covington and it expects to continue to accommodate The Baltimore Sun’s printing operations in the area for the long term. He also said the phasing of the project will be dictated by the market, but ideally new development will begin clustering where other projects have already started, most likely closer to the Sagamore Spirit facility.
“We do not want a shrapnel effect to the site. We would much rather have it in a much closer vicinity to what’s already built,” Weller said.