Port Covington: What Went Wrong?

| February 24, 2012 | 17 Comments

Imagine you are driving over the Hanover Street Bridge and you see a bustling shopping center with a casino, Home Depot, Staples, Sam’s Club and  Walmart, in addition to a handful of restaurants, specialty stores, cruise ships and more. Well, you don’t.  What you see is a tragically failed development that has transpired as a result of the perfect storm of bad politics, bad ideas, a bad economy, desolate foreclosures and stubbornness regarding a one-of-a-kind Baltimore City waterfront property.  Of course we are talking about Port Covington.

The south peninsula of Baltimore, home to Federal Hill, Locust Point, Riverside, South Baltimore, and the Key Highway waterfront, is arguably the nicest stretch of real estate in the city.  Closed in by water, the peninsula is separated from most of the crime and blight that penetrate many of the other neighborhoods in Baltimore.  It’s an incredibly vibrant place and, despite a bad economy and complete overhaul of the mortgage industry, the development and revitalization has been non-stop for the last 15 years.

The south peninsula is home to hundreds of businesses including bars, restaurants and retail.  Some of the city’s most notorious companies make their home here including Under Armour, Domino Sugar and AOL Advertising.  Fort McHenry National Park, the birthplace of the National Anthem, is also on the peninsula.  The south peninsula is the perfect picture of urban revitalization and success until you get to its southern tip – Port Covington.

If you’ve ever been to Port Covington, you probably couldn’t enter the Walmart without thinking, “What the heck happened here?” The shopping center on the southeastern tip features an incredibly bland Walmart blocking an incredible view of the Patapsco River, as well as an enormous out-of-business Sam’s Club blocking another great view of the Patapsco River.  The rest of the shopping center includes stop signs with no reason to stop, parking lots filled with grass and the occasional tumbleweed that blows by.  To put it politely, it’s a disaster!

So what happened? In 2000, the Baltimore Development Corporation sold the 45 acre plot of land to Starwood Certuzzi of Connecticut, who planned a $50 million box store development.  The development was approved and construction began.  (We’ll get to better ideas for the site later.)

I was joined by a manager in the planning and building of Port Covington, who’s name we’ll keep anonymous, and he gave a great description of why things fell apart. “The shopping center was really going to be something great. It was going to include a Home Depot, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Staples, Ruby Tuesdays, several restaurants and much more.  They were also hoping to use a waterfront section for  a casino and possibly cruise ships.”

So what went wrong? “The developers and Walmart Stores Inc. were hoping to get large signage visible from I-95.  They where also willing to build an exit off of I-95 and the city said no to both.  Convinced they would be in a shopping center that no one knew existed and no one knew how to get to, businesses began to withdraw from the shopping center and things fell apart,” we were told.  I can’t tell you how many times I am walking my dog and people driving down the street ask me how to get there!  Sam’s Club and Walmart were completed in 2002 and not a single other business ever joined them.  In 2007, the Sam’s Club also closed their doors, leaving Walmart with 45-acres to themselves.

Also hoping to integrate gambling into Port Covington, Maryland’s gaming law was not passed until 2007.  The investors had already given up on the idea for a casino as it was too little too late and Port Covington was already deemed a failure.

In 2008, there was a glimmer of hope for Port Covington.  Baltimore-developing legends, Streuver Bros. Eccles & Rouse, pitched 2 million square feet of residential, retail and office space adjacent to the shopping center.  The pitch included 80,000 square feet of retail space, 64,000 square feet of office space and 2,010 residential units.  Those hopes where dashed as Streuver Bros. shut their doors in 2009, leaving many Baltimore developments in limbo.  That site went to foreclosure and went to auction this fall.

Over the years there has been no lack of ideas and projects dreamed up for Port Covington.  There is really no limit to the amount of great things you could build on a waterfront peninsula on such prime real estate.  They have included a Seacrets Resort, a new horse racing complex, a soccer stadium and training complex and an Arena.  I also found great renderings and site plans for Port Covington on websites from architecture firms Design Collective and  Brown Craig Tuner, but both firms told me that none of those great ideas were ever used and nothing is moving forward with them.

Adjacent to the west of Port Covington Shopping Center is a large plant for NGK-Locke and to the north is the printing facility for the Baltimore Sun.  Real estate professionals in town have often predicted NGK-Locke’s site could be available at the right price and the future of print media is hanging on for life.  If those properties were also redeveloped, Port Covington could butt up to the South Baltimore neighborhood, with I-95 and CSX likely always creating a barrier.

To the west of Port Covington is a stretch called West Covington.  West Covington is home to Allied Waste Services, Atlantic Forest Products and Schuster Concrete.  The BDC was hoping to relocate those companies to make way for a brand new campus for Under Armour, but the companies resisted and Under Armour has now been approved for a 400,000 square foot expansion to their current campus at Tide Point.   If you’ve driven south on the Hanover Street Bridge, you’ve also seen a “Reclaiming this Waterfront” sign on the plot of land just to the west. That is the site of National Aquarium of Baltimore Center for Aquatic life and Conservation, but I have not seen a shovel in the ground in at least two years.  Update, 11/12/13:  Work has been underway, and a new park will open at this site in Spring 2014.

So how can Port Covington move forward and live up to its potential?  Kodiak Properties of Bethesda purchased the shopping center property in 2005.  Inquiries to them have not been returned, so we are not positive if they still own the land or who does and whether Streuver Bros. site was transferred at auction in the fall.  The most important thing is that these properties are put in the hands of a great development team so that living up to its potential can start to become a reality.

So, what are the best ideas for Port Covington?  While inquiring about renderings for Port Covington, I had a great conversation with Bryce Turner of Brown Craig Turner.  We both agreed it would be a great idea to organize a charette, an intense brainstorming session that would include leaders, experts and residents in the area.  After gathering more information about the land, we’ll hopefully be able to bring that to fruition.

If I had a million dollars, or more likely a billion dollars like Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars sing about, I would certainly have great plans for Port Covington.  I would aim to build a brand new community featuring waterfront homes, single family homes, duplexes, town homes, apartments….all with roof decks of course.  The community would also feature a few restaurants and stores.  The community would be similar to Uplands, which is currently being constructed in southwest Baltimore.

I think this would be a success because people always seem to be making that decision between the space of the suburbs and the conveniences of the south peninsula.  At “my” development you could have a waterfront spacious feel, but still be steps away from Cross Street, downtown and the stadiums… maybe even a Circulator route or street car could be added?   Many of us moved to SoBo in our early 20s and would hate to give up all the amenities just to find a little bit more space.  Imagine standing on your roof deck and seeing the water on one side and the skyline on the other… okay, I’ll stop dreaming.

Will this idea come to fruition? Not with my money, but who knows.  I don’t know what is going to happen with Port Covington, but I do know that anything is better than a Walmart and out of business Sam’s Club blocking waterfront views next to parking lots filled with grass.

A discussion about Port Covington with Councilman Bill Cole

About the Author:

Founder and Publisher of SouthBmore.com, longtime resident of South Baltimore, and a graduate of Towson University. Diehard Ravens and O's fan, beach volleyball enthusiast, dog lover, and "bar food" foodie. Email me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter at @SoBoKevin.
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