Saturday, June 13, 2015

Port Covington Retail:Could It Be Revived?

Disclaimer!!!!! I had roughly composed this post BEFORE Kevin Plank took interest in Port Covington. I had enough Material to publish it as is.
Do you ever drive through the desolate streets of Port Covington and wonder what went wrong? I have googled earthed it many times and wondered the same thing. Finally I made it out there to take pictures and I wondered what went wrong. This was supposed to be a Mecca for Suburban Style Big Box Retail in the City that was previously unknown to City Residents. The Buildings and infrastructure of Downtown's Westside couldn't and wouldn't support this so Port Covington was hand-picked successor of Baltimore's Retail Future. Yet here we are today.
Port Covington is located at the southern edge of the South Baltimore Peninsula. Before the construction of I-95, this once industrial area was integrated to rapidly gentrifying Neighborhoods of South Baltimore north of the I-95 overpasses. Of course these large intrusive overpasses created a barrier between South Baltimore and Port Covington and the continuing decline of industry only increased the bleak future of the area. At this point in time South Baltimore itself was in decline with exception of Federal Hill and Otterbein.
In the early 2000s, it became obvious that the City needed to be home to the same type of suburban big box Retail that City Dwellers were going to in the County for to keep those tax dollars here in the City and lure more Residents in due to the convenience of big box Retail that's in the City. It also became obvious that the Westside of Downtown, Baltimore's historic Retail Mecca doesn't have the parking capacity, infrastructure, or the type of buildings that are required to host these large chain stores.
Meanwhile the Walton Family (owners of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club) have noticed the increase in population surrounding Downtown and they wanted to get in on it. They also noticed the lack of competition as their main competitors K-Mart and Target were nowhere to be found in Downtown Baltimore or anywhere near it. Now all they had to do was find a site, build on it, and they would be ready to roll and smaller suburban chain stores such as Restaurants or medium sized box stores were sure to follow.
The question now became where can a vacant land parcel that's large enough for a big box center AND is very close to Downtown? At the time the best and perhaps only answer was Port Covington. Although there are a few active uses going on in Port Covington, there was also lots of vacant land especially the land directly overlooking the Middle Branch. At this point, the idea of building luxury Apartments along the shores of the Middle Branch was still a-ways away. 
Long story short WalMart and Sams Club built their stores in Port Covington. No other businesses ever followed suit. WalMart is still open but Sams Club(pictured above) had gone out of business years ago. Although it's close to Downtown it's not convenient to I-95 traffic, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, or any other Neighborhood for that matter. This little island of failed would-be big boxed Retail just exists on mostly in a world of its own. One lesson painful lesson was learned from this little experience; Baltimore just can't support Big Box Retail.
Fast forward to 2013 and another waterfront Community proved the above statement wrong. Canton Crossing (pictured above) opened a big box Shopping Center in (you guessed it) Canton. Canton Crossing comes with a Target, Harris Teeter, Michaels, Old Navy, DSW Shoe Wharehouse, and Five Below. Not to mention a generous selection of Restaurants including Baltimore City's first Chick-Fillet. This time the Center was built in the middle of a densely packed Row House Neighborhood filled with new Apartments, Condos, and Town Homes with many more on the way. In short, Canton Crossing has a critical mass of consumers located within walking distance.
Two lessons were learned from Canton Crossing that could be transferred Port Covington. The first is that Baltimore City CAN in fact support Big Box Retail but that sight must be accessible and on the grid so to speak. The second lesson is that it must be near a critical mass of Residences and Offices who will automatically support these stores. These are both things that Canton Crossing has and Port Covington lacks. 
So, in staying true to the title of this post, how can we revive Port Covington and the Big Box Center that has died before our eyes? To answer that I suggest we would look at the more successful Canton Crossing. Port Covington simply needs a critical mass of Residences and Offices surrounding it. Now what is surrounding the ill-fated Center? Industry. It's no secret that industry is on the decline and has been for quite some time now. It might not be a bad idea to look at the industrial area west of the Center to see full the space is. 
Should this space become available, it would be perfect to redevelop as a mixed waterfront enclave not unlike Inner Harbor East and the soon to be built Harbor Point. Remember this is prime waterfront property granted it's the Middle Branch rather than the Inner Harbor but the Middle Branch is bound to be a magnet for those looking to buy waterfront after the Inner Harbor is built out. There's also the sad truth that the Baltimore Sun may not need a distribution plant as large as the one in Port Covington. If that closes, it can be torn down and redeveloped with Town Homes in a traditional urban grid fashion. 
With Port Covington as a real Neighborhood, the big box center can turn into a community gathering place where Retailers and Restaurants alike can flock to the area and will no longer be off the beaten path.

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