AS LOCUST POINT GETS HOT, SOME ARE COOL TO CHANGE
The Baltimore Sun
Plans: A boom in growth in this once-isolated neighborhood is prompting oversight from the city and grumbling from longtime residents.
Future redevelopment in the hot industrial South Baltimore community of Locust Point may hinge on the findings of a pair of city planners charged with creating a master land-use plan.
By year's end, Department of Planning staffers will measure traffic, infrastructure, utilities, parking, zoning, density property values and taxes to determine just how much more development the snug 32-block neighborhood could accommodate if residents green light any of a dozen proposed redevelopment projects.
The quick turnaround for the comprehensive neighborhood rules boils down to simple math: If every proposed townhouse, condo and hotel idea is approved, the number of residents in Locust Point could double from 2,300 to 4,600, said Otis Rolley III, who took over the city's planning office in August. Typically, such rampant growth can lead to overburdened community resources, such as schools and sewer lines.
"We're hoping to set realistic expectations both for the residents and the developers who may come to Locust Point," Rolley said. "Absent a plan, development will happen willy-nilly or based on the whims of the market - and that can be daunting on a community."
The comprehensive plan, conducted over six weeks, will recommend uses for 140 nonresidential properties sprinkled over 30 acres in Locust Point, as well as solutions for problems such as a shortage of street parking and green spaces.
Foremost among the latest proposals are blueprints to convert the vacant ADM grain elevator into luxury condominiums, offices and a hotel, and to erect 120 townhouses on a barren adjacent lot. Another proposal would replace a parking lot, warehouse and green space facing the Inner Harbor with 70 houses. A third concept would convert three Tide Point parking lots into dockside housing.
Much of the development hinges on a newly green-lighted extension to Key Highway that would improve access to the isolated, culturally homogeneous blue-collar enclave to the rest of South Baltimore. Currently, the main entrance into Locust Point is along East Fort Avenue, which runs through South Baltimore and ends at Fort McHenry. Trains frequently block a small secondary road that enters the neighborhood from the south.
Isolation has helped the neighborhood preserve qualities that set Locust Point apart from the rest of the city: Crime is negligible. Neighbors are close-knit. Alleyways are uncluttered. Residents walk home for lunch. And when school lets out, children roller-skate up and down the sidewalks.
"It's a little like Mayberry out here," said Locust Point native Bruce Culotta.
Make that Mayberry Inc.
The neighborhood's industrial roots are everywhere: Train tracks encircle the residential streets. The scents of molasses, from a manufacturer of livestock feed, and beans from a coffeehouse roaster, waft through the air along with the noises of machinery - idling refrigerator trucks, uncoupling train cars, steam whistles and nearby freeway traffic. Squat factories shape the skyline and the most notable landmark remains the back side of the red neon Domino Sugars sign.
Industrial structures began to entice developers over the past five years, none more than Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, which converted a former truck yard into the 36-townhouse Whetstone Point community, the old Coca-Cola bottling plant into the headquarters of Phillips Seafood, and a 1867 foundry at the mouth of Locust Point into a office and retail space with a 19,000-square-foot athletic club.
At a recent community meeting that drew more than 100 residents concerned about unfettered growth, a man posed a question that seemed to capture residents' fear of change:
"Suppose nobody down here wanted any more development here in Locust Point. Would the city let it stay exactly what it is?"
Rolley, the city planning director, politely responded by noting that residents have choices about selling or staying as well as the power to hold elected officials to their word. But his short answer was "no," and the man walked out of the meeting in a huff.
"Development is coming," Rolley explained later. "It's already there. The question is, how do we protect the investments of the residents and the people who want to move there?"
Sen. George W. Della Jr., who represents South Baltimore in the General Assembly and attended the community meeting, has watched working-class community frustrations grow as development crept south from the Inner Harbor to reshape the peninsula.
"Things are going to change; can't stop that. But you don't want people saddled with problems long after some developer has pocketed the money and gone on to the next project," Della said. "The people who grew up in Locust Point are not interested in living here today, selling their homes and moving on. That's where they want to stay, that's where they'll draw their last breath."
Armed with a digital camera, Della took a walking tour of Locust Point in September and inventoried recent development, proposed projects, and all nonresidential properties that might one day be redeveloped, including operating businesses, churches, parking garages and vacant lots. He found dozens of potential sites, a quarter of which are zoned for light industrial use.
One of them is a noisy refrigerated trucking company facility on the site of the long-shuttered Locust Point library.
Across the street, Marie Oakes is moving into an 84-year-old brick building next door to the narrow rowhouse where her mother was born, and her grandmother before that. "I'm a 15th generation Locust Pointer," she said as she dumped an armload of clothing onto the sofa.
While living with her family, Oakes and her husband, a Baltimore City police detective, bought the print house three years ago for $110,000. They gutted it and created a showplace three-bedroom home with exposed brick, maple floors and flow-through fireplaces on both levels. Wide steps lead up to a front door flanked by flickering gas lamps.
"It's a great community. No wonder people want to move here," said Oakes, proudly guiding visitors on a quick tour. "I say, `come on.' My only issue is parking."
On a given autumn afternoon, curbside parking spaces are scarce in Locust Point. The problem worsens as night falls.
"You go out there any evening and you can not find a legal parking space on those streets," Della said.
Parking is one of the reasons Culotta, 50, opposes development in the neighborhood.
`Feels like we're losing'
Son of the local barber and a former manager at the grain elevator, Culotta collects complaints about residents of Whetstone Point, some of whom turned their garages into spare rooms and park on the street. And he plans to fight a Baltimore County developer's proposal for the grassy area around the corner from his rowhouse - in part because he stands to lose his sidewalk parking spaces.
"But that's not the only reason," he said, staring out over the harbor toward the Bromo Seltzer tower. "That grass is where the people who live here set up lawn chairs and watch the July 4th fireworks. With developers trying to put a house on every blade of grass, it's been a continuous, continuous fight just to hold on to our quality of life - you know, being able to come home at night and park on your own street, or live where your parents lived."
"And it feels like we're losing," Culotta said.
A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Shannon Cavaliere, 36, shares native Locust Pointer's concerns that popularity will steal the neighborhood's charms - but it is the newcomers, not the developers he fears.
"I have a great house that's worth a lot of money now, and that's cool, but I just get the sense all of us new yuppies are going to just do the wrong thing, not get involved, not become a part of the community we moved to," said Cavaliere, who moved to Hull Street five years ago and opened an environmental consulting firm in the old Knights of Columbus building.
Not long ago, some of Cavaliere's newcomer neighbors invited him to join their community group, a splinter organization formed by young homebuyers who felt unwelcome in the Locust Point Civic Association.
He turned them down to spearhead a civic association project to sponsor 50 new benches in Latrobe Park.
"You can just feel the tension here. Are we going to be able to preserve what brought us here in the first place or not?" he said.
Ringing up bubble gum and candy for school kids at the Fort Avenue Market, Hammad Malik said he hopes the area preserves its better qualities - such as safe streets and friendly neighbors - but welcomed development.
"It definitely needs diversity," said the 26-year-old native of Pakistan who has lived in the neighborhood since 2001.
According to 2000 U.S. census data, Locust Point is the whitest enclave in Baltimore, with white residents making up 97.2 percent of the total 2,208 population, and blacks, Native Americans, Asians and Hispanics each representing about one-half of 1 percent. By comparison, whites make up 93.5 percent of the population of Hampden, 91.7 percent of the population in Canton, and 80.9 percent of the population in Guilford. Citywide, about 32 percent of the population is white.
Malik shook his head as he explained that Locust Point children and adults alike refer to his shop as the "Jew's store" because the former owner was Jewish.
"People are good here, but still, I want more different kinds of people to come enjoy our community here," Malik said.
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