Take the ramp onto I-395 near Camden Yards and in moments you’ll overlook a wide, seemingly empty stretch of water known as the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. Compared to the Patapsco’s long South Branch and its Northwest Branch (which includes the Inner Harbor), the Middle Branch seems more like a lake than a river. It flows, very slowly, south from the mouths of the Gwynns Falls and several other culvert-bound streams that drain West Baltimore; tides permitting, it oozes under the Vietnam Veterans/Hanover Street Bridge and joins the Patapsco’s much busier main channel. Aside from the green swath of Middle Branch Park on the south shore, the waterfront west of the bridge is a patchwork of industrial sites, scruffy woods, and brownfields, interspersed with unglamorous public properties—the BRESCO incinerator, the city Animal Control headquarters, the Department of Public Works garage. All these enterprises turn their backs to the murky river, as do the nearby neighborhoods of Cherry Hill and Westport. Despite five miles of shoreline, nearby freeways, and a five-minute drive to downtown, Middle Branch has remained a secluded backwater, home to wading birds and rowing teams.
But this dingy, peaceful waterfront is set to undergo a radical makeover. A handful of private developers have bought big chunks of Middle Branch real estate, setting off a ripple of investment buying in the nearby neighborhoods. Some of the remaining industrial parcels lining the water are just waiting for good offers. Five or six years from now, if all goes as planned, the riverbanks will be crowned with glittering condominiums, townhouses, shopping arcades, and entertainment venues. Where factories once belched smoke, well-heeled taxpayers will be stacked 10 stories deep. The homely Middle Branch will become, of all things, a prestigious address; the names “Harbor West” and “Inner Harbor West” have been floated and quoted in promotional fliers and business media.
But developers and planners alike insist that this won’t be the Inner Harbor all over again. For 25 years, city agencies and nonprofit groups have been planning and pushing to make Middle Branch a model of environmentally sensitive urban design, entirely different from what architects call the “hardscape” of the William Donald Schaefer-era harbor. Key to this vision is the recently completed Gwynns Falls Trail, which winds along roughly half of the Middle Branch shoreline, linking parks and neighborhoods as it reaches from Harbor Hospital to the Inner Harbor and seven miles north along the Gwynns Falls. The “green harbor” concept, enshrined in the city’s master plan for the area, has already been endorsed—with certain exceptions—by two key private developers, Patrick Turner of Henrietta Corp. and A. Rod Womack of CIMG Corp. Fortunately, the roar of backhoes and jackhammers doesn’t seem to disturb the resident population of herons, ducks, and coots.
For now, at least, this vision of an upscale, eco-friendly waterfront has achieved an almost unheard of degree of consensus among the disparate interest groups that ring the water. Environmental advocates and community leaders, who might be expected to fret about possible negative impacts, voice sentiments that range from cautious optimism to outright cheerleading. K Thompson, president of the Westport Community Council, says Turner’s grand-scale plan for the area is “a win-win situation if he can even hold up his end.” Yet there are bound to be losers, as there have been in every neighborhood bordering the Inner Harbor. At the greatest risk are the lowest-income renters who, if displaced, will have the hardest time finding decent housing elsewhere.
In the end, the most daunting problem with the heralded Middle Branch renaissance might be the river itself. Middle Branch is fouled by sewage, choked with trash, and laden with toxic silt washed from a watershed that totals over 70 square miles. As real estate, Middle Branch is getting ready to soar; as a body of water, it has nowhere to go but up.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that new development would come to Middle Branch. Andrew Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., sums up the location’s appeal as “water and access”—access, that is, to freeways, light rail, and the Ritchie Highway corridor. Proximity to downtown Baltimore, Frank says, is less important than nearness to what he calls “the East Coast’s spine”—that is, Interstate 95. If you contemplate the mere geography of the place, building condos here seems like a no-brainer.
In fact, the economic revival of Middle Branch has been attempted before. In 1988, when The Sun purchased 61 acres for a new production plant in Port Covington, northeast of the Hanover Street Bridge, the city expected other industries to follow. Land was cleared, new roads were built, but nothing happened. Not long before, Constellation Real Estate Group, then Baltimore Gas and Electric’s real-estate arm, had bought more than 100 rowhouses in the Westport area, speculating that the Middle Branch area would soon take off. But when the savings-and-loan system collapsed at the end of the ’80s, it took the real-estate market with it. Some of Constellation’s investment properties were renovated in the early ’90s, but even some of these have been abandoned since then, succumbing to the general decline of the Westport area.
Efforts to create a cleaner, greener Middle Branch have experienced similar starts and stops. A century ago the shoreline was largely devoted to boating and recreation, but industry encroached in the 1920s and kept encroaching; by 1970, nearly the entire waterfront west of Hanover Street was industrialized or consigned to wasteland. A reclamation plan was published by the city’s Planning Department in 1978; in 1980, the city cleared out a huge auto graveyard on the river’s south shore and created Middle Branch Park and later the Baltimore Rowing and Water Resource Center. In 1989, the state of Maryland dedicated the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial on the eastern end of Middle Branch Park, near Harbor Hospital. The park, however, remains an isolated amenity, best known to rowing teams and powerboaters.
The budding green-tinted real estate boom in Middle Branch is the result of several factors that came together about five years ago. After a more than a decade of stagnation, the city had started retaining young professionals and attracting new upper-middle-class residents from surrounding counties. Fells Point, Federal Hill, Canton, and Locust Point saw (and still see) massive construction of upscale housing and office space. Ultimately, developers pushed so far into traditional port territory that port interests pushed back: In 2004, the City Council created the “Maritime Industrial Zoning Overlay District,” defining a limit to residential development along a line that jogs from the east side of Canton, across the harbor to Locust Point, sidestepping sites that have already been claimed for condo and townhouse construction. The city had pretty much run out of Inner Harbor waterfront, forcing developers and planners to look again at the homely Middle Branch.
Coincidentally, the Gwynns Falls Trail, which began construction in 1998, entered its final phase of development in 2002, extending from Carroll Park through Pigtown to Middle Branch Park and the Inner Harbor, and was officially declared complete in June 2005. The product of a 15-year collaboration between city agencies and two nonprofit groups, the local Parks and People Foundation and the national Trust for Public Land, the trail is the backbone of a broader “greenway” composed of parkland and playgrounds.
From the outset, the trail’s boosters touted its potential contribution to economic development, both as a transportation route and as an attractive urban amenity. The claim seemed far-fetched at the time. City planners, however, saw the hike-and-bike path as a key to reviving long-neglected plans for Middle Branch. “It’s the organizing principle of the whole thing, like the promenade is to the Inner Harbor,” Chris Ryer of the city’s Planning Department says. Ryer, whose résumé includes stints with the Trust for Public Land and the Washington Village/Pigtown community center as well as an earlier planning job, has been involved with the trail project since the mid-’90s.
A small number of urban naturalists had always recognized the Middle Branch’s value as a unique natural resource. Despite pollution, the shallows swarm with fish and creatures that eat fish, including snapping turtles and several species of heron. Human beings, too, angle for the branch’s fish and crabs (a practice that’s fraught with hair-raising health risks—but more on that later). Water birds rarely seen elsewhere in Baltimore are attracted to the Middle Branch’s solitude.
Only recently have development officials and entrepreneurs recognized the market value of this accidental wildlife sanctuary—especially when packaged with the convenient hike/bike route and that $500,000 skyline view. “We used to think that economic development was a matter of opening the checkbook and [saying], ‘How much do you need to make this work?’” says BDC’s Frank. “Now we realize it’s about ‘live, work, play.’ What matters is having places where the companies and their employees want to be.”
The “new” Middle Branch was born and took its first awkward steps in 2000, when the Starwood Ceruzzi development firm proposed building a “big box” retail campus—now occupied by Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart—on the vacant southeast corner of Port Covington. After nearly a decade of inactivity on the site, BDC was all too eager for the retailers to move in. “It’s still seen as the poster child for how not to develop the waterfront,” Frank acknowledges. “We’re constantly reminded [by urban planners] that the way we did it was wrong.” One piece of the final development deal, however, was a requirement that the developer create a buffer of vegetated shoreline around the site instead of an Inner Harbor-style bulkhead. Besides being more attractive than concrete, the parklike border is designed to absorb runoff from the site’s vast roofs and parking lots.
If any one local business pioneered the “new” Middle Branch, Frank says, it was Nick’s Fish House, which opened in the spring of 2004 after two years of intensive renovation, investment of more than $2 million, and what part-owner Dick Leitch sums up as “a lot of red tape.” Tucked into the shore between the Hanover Street Bridge and Locke Insulators, the former Dead Eye Saloon has been restored to evoke nostalgia for the bygone maritime Baltimore, with awnings, ceiling fans, and retro graphics. Unlike Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart, the restaurant relates naturally to the water; there’s even a small marina on the site.
Leitch, one of “a half-dozen” partners in the project, credits co-owner Tom Chagouris, owner of Nick’s Inner Harbor Seafood at Cross Street Market, as “the guy who first paid attention to this area. . . . When the Dead Eye Saloon went out of business, we’d just stand around and look at it and see all the potential it had. The biggest reason we wanted it is because of the natural beauty of this location.” Other than the Sam’s Club/Wal-Mart site, nothing else was happening on the Middle Branch at the time, but Leitch says he and his partners had “the feeling that this area would eventually thrive.”
While the seafood restaurant was taking shape, a different kind of fish house was being contemplated for the other side of Hanover Street. Prior to 2000, the National Aquarium, faced with an expiring lease in Fells Point, had begun scouting a new waterfront location for its animal storage and care facility. Encouraged by BDC, the Aquarium favored the site now occupied by the Department of Public Works’ central garage, immediately northwest of the bridge. Two obstacles nearly killed the plan: Years of garage use had left the site tainted by automotive wastes, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency refused the Aquarium’s request for clean-up funds. The city, meanwhile, didn’t know where to relocate its garage, which services the DPW’s entire fleet. Rather ingeniously, the Aquarium got around the soil-pollution problem by opting to redevelop the existing garage building, thus avoiding the need to disturb the tainted ground beneath. The local architectural firm of Ayers Saint Gross is now in charge of converting the vast shed into a “green building” that incorporates passive solar energy design and other features to save energy and water. The DPW garage operation will relocate to Monument Street in East Baltimore.
The new facility, called the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, will store “reserve” stocks of fish and invertebrates and house sick or injured animals. Although DPW hasn’t yet vacated the site, Aquarium spokeswoman Molly Foyle says the project is still on target for the 2008 deadline imposed by the expiring lease. The waterfront’s promoters are already pointing to it as a sign of things to come. “The Aquarium gives [Middle Branch] a landmark, marquee value, like a major tenant,” Cherry Hill businessman Alvin Lee says. Although the Center for Aquatic Life will not be open to the general public, the National Aquarium is doing its bit for the green shoreline by establishing an educational park on what is now a weedy, unbuildable peninsula made of material dredged in the construction of the Harbor Tunnel.
The tall sign for Nick’s Fish House, facing the Hanover Street Bridge, is still the most visible physical evidence that things are about to change around Middle Branch. Relatively few drivers see the trailer parked on Waterview Avenue, promoting the future WaterView Overlook’s “119 townhomes and luxury condominiums.” Fewer still detour through Westport to watch the demolition of the former Carr-Lowrey glass factory. The property is part of Henrietta Corp.’s plan for a 30-acre mixed-use complex that developer Pat Turner plans to call, simply, “Westport.” More than anything else on the drawing board, these two projects promise to alter the sleepy character of Middle Branch.
WaterView Overlook is the brainchild of Rod Womack, a real-estate developer and former restaurateur, who three years ago partnered with Philadelphia-based Pennrose Development Corp. to renovate what is now called the Chateau, a mixed-income structure on Druid Park Lake Drive. Two years ago, a real-estate broker suggested that Womack take a look at a steep wooded hillside on Waterview Avenue, adjacent to Cherry Hill. “I didn’t see it at first,” Womack admits. “But then I drove back and saw the view . . . [and] I realized how close we were to 295 and 95. And how many places in the city can you live . . . where you could actually fish, right across the street?”
Womack’s zeal for the Middle Branch area is partly based on his advance sales: About half of his 119 units are committed, he says, many of them to buyers from the Washington area. When the halfway point was reached, Womack adds, he stopped preselling. Assuming 60 units priced upward of $300,000, that’s at least $18 million. According to the CIMG web site, the WaterView complex will cost $35 million to create. “At first, I was a fool,” Womack smiles. “And now they’re saying, ‘You’re a visionary.’”
Womack, who is African-American, acknowledges that race was probably a factor in his acquisition of the hillside, simply because potential white developers might have been leery of working so close to Cherry Hill, which is predominantly black and lower-income. Womack began courting the community even before getting his development permits. This past Dec. 9, he invited local businesses and nonprofit groups to an informal first meeting of what he calls the Harbor West Business Alliance. His agenda: strategies for “security, cleaning up the waterway, and ways to increase retail.”
For their part, Cherry Hill leaders and activists hope the new wave of development will bring jobs, new investment, and a more positive image to their neighborhood. Cathy McClain, executive director of the umbrella group Cherry Hill 2000, says that since her organization started in 1994, overall crime in Cherry Hill has dropped by 38 percent, “and it’s going down about 2 percent a year.” An entire block of gang-infested buildings has been demolished. “It’s now so rare to hear gunfire,” McClain adds, “that we get immediate police response.”
Alvin Lee has previously served as board chairman of Cherry Hill 2000 and the Gwynns Falls Trail Council. He has met both Womack and Turner and is generally positive about both men’s schemes for the area. The prospect of a property-value shock does not worry him. “My neighbors have lived here 30, 40, 50 years. Very low turnover,” he says. “The fear was always that Harbor Hospital would be the 800-pound gorilla [affecting property values], but that’s never happened.”
If Cherry Hill leaders seem less than panicked about displacement issues, it may be because so many local residents are shielded from the direct effects of property-value hikes, at least in the near term. Only 27 percent of the local households own their homes; most of the rest are renters receiving some form of housing subsidy. According to McClain, the neighborhood has “the largest concentration of public housing east of Chicago.” To protect homeowners living on fixed incomes, McClain’s organization and other neighborhood groups are working with City Councilman James Kraft (D-1st District), to pass a targeted 3 percent ceiling on annual tax increases.
Gregory Countess, a housing advocate at the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland, warns against complacency. “You’ll have people in Cherry Hill that say, ‘This is great, it’ll bring money into Cherry Hill.’ But the question is, down the road, what pressures will it put on public-housing stock? Where do people who need that housing go?” He adds, “I hear there’s already a sizable population of homeless in Cherry Hill.” Given the stark economic disparity between Cherry Hill and the future residents of WaterView Overlook, Countess predicts that a stout fence will guard the latter.
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle to Womack’s vision may prove to be his closest neighbor. Dr. Charles Cao owns Middle Branch Marina, directly across the street from the WaterView Overlook site. A retired physician and boating hobbyist, Cao bought the marina in 1999 for “a very good price” at auction. At the time, he says, he was just looking for waterfront property; he had no idea that Middle Branch would catch fire as real estate. Now he’s eager to get in the game and has been working with a developer on a plan to put some kind of residential structure, possibly a condo tower, where the marina now floats.
On the surface it would seem that such a project would be prohibited by Maryland’s Critical Areas Act, which, in essence, restricts construction within 1,000 feet of the waterline throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters. Cao, hinting that his rights to the riverbed pre-date the 1984 Critical Areas law, points out that there has been a marina on the site since the 1920s. Even so, he would have to get approval from both the City Council and state Critical Areas Commission to proceed with his plan.
The other objection to Cao’s idea comes, naturally, from Womack. Townhouses might not be a problem, Womack says, but a tower would block WaterView Overlook’s raison d’être, the panoramic view. Womack says his attempts to talk business with Cao have been fruitless.
Womack has far better relations with fellow developer Patrick Turner, whose massive Westport project will be part of Waterview's panorama. “We’re pretty much on the same page as to what needs to happen to turn this area around,” Womack says.
Tall and rangy, with long hair and a beard, Turner looks more like an aging rock star than an urban empire builder. A developer since the mid-’80s, he’s amused to hear that some development watchers say that he “came out of nowhere”—he explains that he has preferred to “stay under the radar.” Nonetheless, some of his recent projects in South Baltimore have generated buzz and controversy: his stillborn proposal for a disaster-themed “Crash Café” on Key Highway, his conversion of the beloved Southway bowling alleys to loft apartments (where wood from the bowling lanes has been turned into countertops), and his eyebrow-raising plan to turn the old Archer Daniels Midland grain elevators in Locust Point into the Silo Point condominiums. His less visible projects include conversions of the old McHenry movie theater into high-tech offices and the South Baltimore General Hospital building into 67 condos.
Turner says that he’d had his eye on Middle Branch for several years when, in 2003, the bankrupt Carr-Lowrey glass factory finally closed its doors. The property went to auction in October 2004, and Turner bought it for nearly $7 million. A year later, Turner bought the long-abandoned former BGE generating station, just north of Carr-Lowrey; the final cost, he says, is “a moving target” because of site’s many environmental and logistical challenges (such as the railway on top of the building, complete with 23 wooden cars that were used to shuttle coal).
Turner pooh-poohs rumors that he plans to extend his holdings north and south to control the entire Westport waterfront. He confirms, however, his plan to buy the derelict turnstile bridge that extends across Middle Branch just south of the I-95 ramps. He wants to extend the hike/bike trail across it, past the proposed Aquarium park and over the Hanover Street Bridge to reconnect with the Gwynns Falls Trail.
Drawings for the Westport site are “in the works right now,” Turner says, but he confirms that the project will involve a combination of housing, retail, and office space. An effort will be made to preserve the enormous BGE building. The Gwynns Fall Trail, which now follows Kloman Street through Westport, will be moved over close to the water. “We’re selling a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s an urban neighborhood, but it’s going to feel like a mini Chesapeake Bay.”
Working with a team of environmental-minded architects and landscape designers, Turner says Westport will be “a model for the country” in the way it reconfigures the post-industrial waterfront. Runoff from paved surfaces be channeled into “bio-swales”—catchment areas that filter water into the soil instead of pouring it into storm drains. Along the Carr-Lowrey frontage, which abuts a protected heron rookery, the Turner team intends to create a wetland planted with native vegetation. “It’ll look phenomenal,” he gushes.
The sheer ambition of Turner’s enterprise and his lavish promises to the community have prompted some observers to question whether—and how—he can deliver. Turner points to his track record and says that he’s “spent 20 years becoming highly bankable.” He laughs, “They said I’d never convert those grain elevators into condos, either.” (The future Silo Point building is still at a very early stage of redevelopment.)
Turner, like Womack in Cherry Hill, has put considerable effort into wooing neighborhood groups. He has promised to build an all-new community center on Annapolis Road, proposed widening Wenburn Street to connect the Westport neighborhood with the waterfront, and warned residents local residents not to sell to speculators.
His efforts have been so successful that he has won over the leaders of two community groups representing factions that often don’t see eye to eye. Linda Towe, who volunteers with Project TOUUR, a group uniting Westport, Mount Winans, and Lakeland residents, praises Turner’s “innovative ideas” and his engagement with the community. Says K Thompson of the Westport Community Council, “I think he’s the best thing since bubblegum.”
Speculation, however, appears to have swept through Westport regardless of multiple warnings. “A lot of boarded-up homes were auctioned off for $11,000 or 12,000 when nobody knew what was happening,” Thompson says. Towe tells of homeowners who have sold their homes for “a little bit of nothing—most of them under $30,000.” In at least one instance, Towe says, an owner wound up renting her house back from the people she sold it to.
By this point, BDC’s Andrew Frank says, “If you want to find investment property in Westport, you’re probably a year too late.” For better and for worse, it seems, change will come to this scrappy neighborhood more dramatically and more rapidly than in the more organized, institutionalized Cherry Hill.
The Westport enterprise may mark the climax of Middle Branch development, but it won’t be the end of the story. More projects are in the works. Struever Bros., Eccles, and Rouse has bought 6.5 vacant acres at Port Covington to be used for townhouses. And at the north end of the branch, adjacent to Russell Street and south of M&T Bank Stadium, BDC has exercised eminent domain over an 11-acre parcel dubbed “Gateway South,” presently occupied by Maryland Chemical Co. and the nonprofit architectural salvage company Second Chance Inc. Earlier this month, BDC issued a “request for qualifications,” seeking development firms capable of carrying out the sort of large, mixed-use project that BDC thinks is right for the area. The winning proposal will have to include a permanent bus depot to replace the temporary Greyhound station.
Directly in back of the Gateway South parcel, the narrow, swampy northern neck of Middle Branch provides a microcosm of what’s best and worst about this urban waterway. While waterfowl thrive in the marshy environment, shoals of floating trash have accumulated around the outfalls of multiple storm drains. Yellow plastic booms, installed to strain floating debris at the mouth of Gwynns Falls and in one of the outfall canals, appear to have been overwhelmed by their duties. On the shore, planners have opted to preserve the wooded areas that took root here over several decades of neglect. Up to the end of 2004, this obscure patch of greenery hosted a tiny population of squatters who had built themselves huts from scrap lumber and packaging materials. The squatters moved out as the Gwynns Falls Trail moved in. Prefab steel bridges across two of the outfall canals here created some of the final links in the trail system.
Last September, a DPW-sponsored clean-up drive mobilized 500 volunteers and collected 17 tons of trash from the downstream end of Middle Branch—cups, bottles, tires, plastic bags, and things too nasty to name. The haul was a powerful reminder that this would-be wildlife sanctuary is, in effect, a gigantic collection pond for the storm drains of West Baltimore. Yet generations of Baltimoreans have gone fishing and crabbing in these tainted waters, and in a few years hundreds if not thousands of yuppies and empty nesters may be enjoying the litter-strewn view and, in summertime, Middle Branch’s septic aroma.
Cosmetic improvements will be hard enough to achieve. William Stack, DPW’s point man for stream pollution, notes that booms and experimental “netting devices” installed along Gwynns Falls are “just a tool, just like street sweeping or public education . . . not a panacea like everyone thinks they are.” Rather than focus exclusively on catching trash that’s already in streams, DPW and the Parks and People Foundation are carrying out a pilot program to keep trash off the streets in “Watershed 263,” the section of West Baltimore that drains into Middle Branch behind the Gateway South parcel. Stack says the effort combines regular street sweeping with grass-roots education and anti-litter campaigns. Meanwhile, DPW’s solid waste division is planning to increase its efforts in Middle Branch, eventually deploying a “skimmer” boat like those that ply the Inner Harbor.
Trash removal, however, won’t affect the Middle Branch’s most serious environmental hazard. Like all of Baltimore’s streams, Gwynns Falls and other tributaries are heavily polluted with raw sewage from aged, leaky pipes. The problem arises from Baltimore’s decision, early in the 20th century, to lay sewer lines alongside natural streams, exploiting the slope of the land so that sewage would flow downhill to treatment plants. As those pipes have cracked, many have leaked directly into the adjacent streams. At other points, rainwater pours into the sewers, contributing to backups. Accumulations of grease, hair, and debris also cause backups, which can result in explosive sewage spills during heavy rain.
Sewage in water poses grave health threats to anyone who comes in contact with it, such as the Baltimoreans who still catch crabs and fish in Middle Branch. Ellen Silbergeld, an avid angler and professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, began to study the risks of urban fishing several years ago. Bacteria, she notes, can be killed by cooking, but simply handling fish pulled from the Middle Branch poses dangers. According to Silbergeld’s research partner Kellogg Schwab, disease-causing organisms in sewage-tainted water include not only fecal bacteria, but also viruses and protozoans, small doses of which can cause acute gastrointestinal illness. Some, such as the protozoan cryptosporidium, can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems. Unlike fecal bacteria, which can’t survive long outside of mammalian intestines, hardy viruses and protozoa can linger in water and sediments for weeks or months. Cryptosporidium can even survive in swimming pools.
The only way to end sewer leaks is to replace sewer pipes, at great expense. In 1999, the EPA ordered Baltimore to replace the majority of its sewer lines. The mandate forced a hike in city sewer rates, which is applied directly to the cost of replacing pipes. The total cost of the Gwynns Falls/Middle Branch watershed repairs is $53.1 million.
The deal-makers at BDC like to thank “the market” for the new rush toward development in Middle Branch, and for the subsequent investment, jobs, and tax revenues that may eventually flow to the city. But the character of that development has already been strongly influenced by other forces, particularly the long-haul efforts of park advocates and city planners, and the values and visions of the developers themselves, including the folks at BDC. When times are good, the market may seem like magic; in reality, as the BDC-ers know, it’s a lot of hard work to make that magic happen where you need it.
Market forces won’t mitigate the harm done to those who are too poor or uninformed to survive the domino effect of rising property values. There are no purely market-driven incentives for anyone to build low-cost housing. Michael Sarbanes, director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, now chairs a City Council-appointed task force that’s looking for ways to require developers of upscale housing to build low-cost units, too. “The way it is now, new development actually reduces the amount of affordable housing,” Sarbanes says. “You want it to be the other way—that as development gets rolling, it produces affordable housing.” It won’t happen unless government wields its stick—and/or offers carrots.
And what can the laws of supply and demand do about stream pollution? It took a federal mandate to force the replacement of Baltimore’s decrepit sewers. Cleaning up the Middle Branch’s vast watershed is a social and political problem. Community groups upstream could adopt sections of Gwynns Falls. Well-heeled, highly empowered condo dwellers could become a new, effective constituency for the river. Or not.
Finally, what the market gives, it can also snatch away. Today’s vision of castles on the Middle Branch depends on continuing prosperity, at least for some, and continuing confidence in the prospects of Baltimore City. A new mayor, a shock to the economy, and who knows? The shorebirds and rowing teams could have the river back to themselves.
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