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Point of Departure

Imagining a new future for Sparrows Point

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Sparrows point was once the site of the largest steel factory in the world.

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A modern Coney Island style amusement park with water on three sides dominates Brown Craig Turner’s vision of the point. The technology parks behind it would be on stilts for flood protection and to avoid disturbing possibly contaminated soils. a 750-foot-wide forest would separate the recreational and industrial sides.


See the architects' visions for Sparrows Point

With RG Steel’s bankruptcy and the sale of the iconic steel-making facility to two companies—Environmental Liability Transfer, which owns the land, and Hilco Trading, which is liquidating the machinery—the long decline of the largest steel factory in the world is all but complete. Rather than just mourning the plant’s demise, City Paper contacted planning and architecture firms, along with politicians, asking them to imagine what Sparrows Point should be in the next five to 10 decades, what the area could be and look like, unconstrained by budgets, politics or other concerns.

Sparrows Point itself is quite big. At approximately four square miles, if Sparrows Point were laid on top of Baltimore, it would stretch from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Broadway, and from Pratt Street nearly to North Avenue. Imagine building a new downtown and then some—a process that took Baltimore 100 years, even as the steel-mill operators built the mills and filled in the land on Sparrows Point. A development the size of a city is the opportunity afforded by the demise of RG Steel.

And the people we contacted imagined a broad range of possibilities for the massive space: stately dockside homes near the bay beach and cruise port, a biotech and amusement park with hydrofoil links to the Eastern Shore, a new town center with dense housing and mass transit, and a logistics center serving half the country are among the ambitious dreams our local planners came up with.

Here, we present their ideas along with the thoughts of some other thinkers and stakeholders, including the Baltimore County-created Sparrows Point Partnership, which is planning within a shorter time frame.

Jim Wheeler of Ayers Saint Gross coordinated a team of designers to look at the site and its history to try to divine its future. They decided to put environmental remediation at the center of their plan while expanding the port and building human habitation around the shoreline. They presented their ideas to City Paper in a slide show on Oct. 9 in their Tide Point office.

Much inspiration comes from Landschaftspark in Duisberg Nord, Germany. It’s a steel-making site that was converted into a park but with many of the abandoned industrial structures left in place. The land can be reclaimed over decades by planting the correct trees and flowers, which will absorb or neutralize the toxins, says Matthew J. Sickle, one of the firm’s architects.

The exact boundaries of the various plantings are still to be determined. “We have no foot-by-foot analysis,” he says. “We do know that every possible pollutant from steel manufacturing may be present on the soil on site.”

So-called phyto-remediation is the solution at Duisberg Nord, which was planted in the early 1990s and has become a hiking destination in its own right. This kind of cleanup is far more cost-effective in the long-term than the cap-and-slurry wall systems that dominate smaller waste sites. “There are cities that have really significant concentrations of park space that become amenities,” says Scott Vieth, a firm principal.

But an all-park plan would not do.

The ASG group had six goals: create positive economic impact and a more livable city; improve the environment; enhance the quality of life for nearby residents; strengthen surrounding neighborhoods; improve access to the site; and enhance visitors’ experience.

With the huge park in the center of the plot taking care of the environmental aspect, the team reached for the other goals on the shoreline perimeter. Studying old maps, they noticed a long-gone bridge that used to link to Dundalk from what is now the Broening Highway. Rebuilding that would reduce the trip from downtown, from 14 miles to something closer to 10 miles, they reasoned.

Expanding the Port of Baltimore makes sense, the group says—the port needs to expand and Sparrows already has provisions for deep-water ships—plus it’s beyond the Key Bridge, easier to navigate to. An old rail spur could be revived for freight, passengers or both, and a ferry line could operate from the Inner Harbor and other downtown locations.

What follows would likely be a second cruise port with a luxury hotel and its trappings.

“We want to enhance visitors’ experience,” Vieth says, pointing to the marina and hotel at the Point’s apex. “Visitors could make it a destination or city residents could use it as a weekend getaway.”

A wide, sandy beach curls around to a small marina and then a series of other coves where houses would nestle among the trees, a bucolic—and doubtless expensive—waterside neighborhood backing up to a massive park.

”We left the L furnace standing on the south part of the park there as an artifact,” says Sickle.

Rejected were ideas for a technology campus, Sickle says: “We wanted jobs, but we didn’t want to pull them from downtown.”

What else?

“Someone came up with a giant amusement park,” Vieth says. “It didn’t seem like the best use of this amazing waterfront property.”

Brown Craig Turner disagrees. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the firm’s proposed plan for Sparrows Point is a giant amusement park on the southern shore.

“What’s shown here is basically a Dubai approach,” says Craig Purcell, the firm’s vice president and director of urban design, pointing to a flower of barges on the water to the right (east) of the peninsula in a big sketch on the wall of his downtown conference room. Then, down south, a big tourist “entertainment-themed-type experience.” There’s a water park maybe, and a pier. “This could have a 500-foot-tall spire on it or something,” Mike Rollison, vice president of planning and design, adds.

This is Big Planning.

In the early version of the plans pictured here, down on the left is a stadium-shaped thing. But at this scale it would be bigger than 20 stadia. It’s a placeholder—an undefined something on the entertainment line.

The vision is ambitious, but even at half or three-quarters of a mile square, the amusement development is just a small fraction of the BCT concept. Running up the east side are a series of football-shaped buildings surrounded by greenery: a marine research and technology campus.

The north and northwest of the peninsula is dominated by an expansion of the Port of Baltimore, an expansion all three of the architecture firms who commented for this piece thought of as all but inevitable. To have a deep-water location like this—and this close to Ohio and other shipping hubs—and not make it freight-friendly would be insane. The port is already expanding and has designs on the future. The port is good jobs and useful work. That the port’s spokesperson, Richard Scher, says “I just want to be sure you’re clear that the Maryland Port Administration’s only interest is in the Coke Point portion of Sparrows. We are looking at Coke Point as a possible future home of a dredged-material containment site” is immaterial to this exercise.

“This is big enough to expand the port by 50 percent,” Purcell says. He points to the rail bed slashing across the peninsula. This design builds around those rail lines as far as possible, while isolating them, and the noise and bustle of heavy industry, from the other uses.

A new I-695 interchange would send traffic through a high-density residential/business district with shops and condos. The Light Rail link could go there too. A hydrofoil could do 45 knots and make the Eastern Shore in 15 minutes, opening up even more possibilities.

“We haven’t talked about the toxic component,” Mark Herbkersman, vice president director of design, says.

The plan calls for the adaptive reuse of a half-mile-long steel building. “Make a mill building,” someone says. “Big-box retail,” one of the other guys says. Parking, business. “Make the whole thing a free-trade zone.”

“We kicked around all these crazy ideas, like a free-trade zone,” Bryce Turner, president and CEO, says. “We settled on two ideas: one, high-rise, mixed-use; and two, port distribution.”

People are buying stuff on the internet, Turner observes. Big boxes are threatened. So what if we created this vertical distribution center? You pick them up with the crane, plug them into a building. Turner describes a distribution center in Virginia with 50 acres under roof. Reinventing that could work or serving that could work. The question of which need not be answered today, he says.

“I’d like to be on record as saying I don’t think this should be another Westport and compete with the city,” he says.

There’s also an angle to the free-trade idea.

Johns Hopkins does a billion dollars a year in research, University of Maryland another $700 million, Turner says. “But it’s not rippling through the local economy,” he says, because Hopkins apparently doesn’t allow patents to be taken out by people in their employ.

So why not make a kind of patent zone on Sparrows Point? Why not say that, on this property, patents can be used for gain. Here and nowhere else. “Why couldn’t this be the Qatar of the East Coast?”

“We always tend to choose pragmatics over idealism,” says Herbkersman. “But our country was founded on ideals.”

Ideals are undoubtedly important, but pragmatic men made steel here, and other pragmatic people are still trying to keep it that way. “We need to be singularly focused on a long-term vision for the entire Sparrows Point peninsula,” Del. John Olszewski Jr. (D-Baltimore County) writes in an e-mail to City Paper. “Such a plan could include a comprehensive strategy for finding a buyer who wants to restart integrated steel-making and has access to natural resources, but who also understands other aspects of the global marketplace and is willing to make long-overdue investments in the property and its machinery.”

Failing that, of course, “there are certainly plenty of alternatives, and we should explore them all: having the peninsula serve as a hub for renewable energy production, industrial assembly, rail and transportation infrastructure, or technology parks and life-science opportunities[, and] , of course, expansion of the Port of Baltimore,” he says.

Olszewski touts the “Sparrows Point Partnership of sixteen business and private sector leaders charged with developing a plan for the best possible uses of the property at Sparrows Point.”

Dan Gundersen chairs that partnership. Sparrows Point is “an extraordinary, extraordinary, strategic location for business activity,” he says. And so his group is aiming to keep it just that—a 100 percent industrial zone, where big, industrial things happen.

In a phone interview, he said county executive Kevin Kamenetz assembled the group this spring “to think through how we can leverage the trends—particularly the trends put forth by the port’s expansion.”

The partnership’s brief is to develop policies to “support the greatest number of well-paying, family-sustaining jobs,” Gundersen says, “and not incidentally to derive some tax revenue for the county” in a two to 10-year time frame.

“We are very bullish in wanting steel production to continue,” Gundersen says, “though everyone is cognizant that it won’t look like what it is now.”

In the short term he hopes there will be some steel manufacturing from the cold-roll mill “and we think there’s a strong market for the hot mill as well.” Gundersen says “reshoring” opportunities for steel-related industries should be pursued, as should the port’s expansion.

“It needs room to grow,” Gundersen says, adding that Sparrows affords an opportunity to keep the port “globally competitive for decades.”

Another possibility: electric power generation, both conventional and alternative.

One bit of surprising good news: According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, Gundersen says, Sparrows Point “is not as [environmentally] challenged as might be generally thought.” The really dirty spots are relatively small and contained, he says, mainly to the two landfills and Coke Point.

So, Gundersen is asked, what about doing a huge mixed-use redevelopment with entertainment, housing, port expansion, and light industrial/office space?

“We have that in Southeast Baltimore County,” he says. “We have an incredibly vibrant White Marsh and Crossroads we’ve been planning for years with new development along [Route] 43. And Middle River. And the marina use along the rivers.

“You have to look at this in context . . . and that’s why we did this” partnership.

The partnership is looking at all other industrial-zoned areas in this part of the county and how to tie together what already exists in order to make more of what the county needs more of—and will continue to need more of for the foreseeable future.

“What’s needed most,” Gundersen says, “without question—nobody could refute it—are family-sustaining jobs.”

Klaus Philipsen of ArchPlan was involved in the master planning for Harbor Point. In 20 years of planning developments and watching others do so, he’s come to some realizations. Grand ideas and big plans usually don’t pan out, he says, citing the experience of London’s Docklands and Canary Wharf, which he observed closely in the 1970s. The planning was endless, he recalls; then Margaret Thatcher dissolved the planning agency and opened the giant area to speculators and developers. Canary Wharf emerged miraculously after just a few years, then it went bankrupt.

“I am mentioning this much bigger example because it taught me that the right way for redevelopment of large industrial areas lies somewhere between planning and just building stuff,” Philipsen says. “The way that Dundalk transitions into it . . . from a planner’s perspective, it’s possible to have big ideas.”

The problem is that Sparrows is in the county, near White Marsh, a planned “town center” community he criticizes (as with Owings Mills) as too much of a mall and not enough of a community. “The wild idea for the county is build a whole new town center on Sparrows Point,” he says. “But ultimately it would tend to compete with the city.” He says you could put 60-80,000 people there, with water views, “a way of doing White Marsh right.”

But, of course, Baltimore County planners think White Marsh is already right. They’re talking about maintaining and creating industrial jobs on the Point—an idea Philipsen says is outdated.

“That’s yesterday’s paradigm,” he says. “People move to places for quality-of-life issues more than ever before. I had kids who moved to Denver. . . . My son moved there; he did not have a job. I had a daughter move to San Diego because she likes the ocean. She found a job there later. The whole millennial generation works on that—where is something happening? Where is quality of life? And that’s one way we get people to Baltimore, because of the arts scene: MICA and how that’s all happening.”

Philipsen observes that Baltimore County is quickly taking on some of the urban-poverty issues Baltimore City has struggled with. He sees some hope in the National Harbor project. Prince George’s County also wraps around a city (D.C.) and has taken on some of its problems. National Harbor is “now competing directly with Washington and Alexandria, and probably doesn’t do them any harm,” Philipsen says. “And does a lot of good for Prince George’s County.”

Planning, he says, is not a zero-sum game.

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