Big changes coming on the Westport Waterfront

Construction begins on $1.5-billion development

A long-neglected neighborhood in Baltimore City is getting ready for a $1.5-billion facelift.

The first sign of that change is the massive blue and yellow tent that's housing the 'Cirque du Soleil' show. It's located in Westport, just East of Route 295, South of Downtown.

The neighborhood sits on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River; and Westport's waterfront is five times larger than the waterfront at the Inner Harbor.

That's what drew one of the city's major developers to the property. ‘From Canton to Fells Point, coming around to Harbor East, coming around to Locust Point and then Federal Hill -- this is just an extension of that,' said Patrick Turner, whose development group acquired the 50-acre parcel in 2005. It used to house a glass company and a BGE power plant.

As businesses left, the neighborhood declined. ‘It was a beautiful neighborhood. You never had to leave the neighborhood for nothing. You had everything around here,' said 57-year-old Joseph Bryant, who spent most of his life in Westport. But now boarded up homes and vacant storefronts can be seen on the main drag, Annapolis Road.

Now, site preparation has begun on the waterfront. ‘We're now at a point where we want to expose Westport to the world,' Turner said.

That's where the blue and yellow tent comes in. Cirque du Soleil spent $1-million to build the parking lot it's using for the show. When the tent is pulled up -- the parking lot will remain.

Turner hopes to lure more concerts, shows and events as construction activity begins to ramp up. ‘We have interest from companies that were thinking about coming to Baltimore but didn't find the right setting. They saw this project and now we're talking deals about moving office buildings down here from Northern Virginia,' he said.

Over the next eight to 10 years, Turner envisions a mixed-use project with 2000 residential units, and two-million square feet of office space, along with shopping and hotels.

The development has acquired zoning for what would be Baltimore's tallest building -- 60 stories tall.

There's even a plan to put a massive 236-foot metal sculpture by Tennessee artist John Henry on the site. That's taller than the statue of liberty, if you don't count the base. ‘You have a world-renowned artist that's going to bring the biggest piece in the United States to Baltimore and to Westport,' Turner said. ‘That's the signature.'

Turner also said if negotiations for a new stadium for the Major League Soccer team ‘DC United' fail, there would be room in Westport. ‘I think if they exhaust all the methods in the DC area, we are a viable alternative for them,' he said.

The project has been financed with what's known as a TIF -- tax increment financing. Baltimore City floated bonds -- then gave the money to the developer, who will pay the city back with money from the tenants expected to move in.

Critics say it's risky, and unfair to the average citizen who could never get such a deal. But Turner said without the TIF, the Westport Waterfront could have remained an empty lot for decades. ‘This property currently pays $95,000 a year in property taxes on 50 acres of land,' he said. ‘When this project is built out over the next eight to 10 years, we're paying $45-million in property taxes.'

Westport residents like Joseph Bryant know what's coming. They hope the new portions will help the old. ‘I feel that it wouldn't hurt if they tried to help out over here, and bring the neighborhood back to something that it used to be,' he said.

Michael Wise, 20, had a specific request. ‘We need recreation centers and new playgrounds and stuff for the kids. That's about it. And just fix it up for us,' he said.

Turner said his group has been reaching out to the community since the project began. ‘We have a facade grant program to help people fix up the facade of their houses. If they're run down, I'll pay for half of it,' he said. ‘We're promoting jobs for the people who live in the neighborhood, housing, fixing up the houses, redoing the streets, lighting and all that so it's really a huge improvement for the neighborhood itself.'

Turner said site preparation, which includes installing utility connections and roads, are just getting underway. Construction on the first actual building on the site will begin next summer.

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