Home | BaltimoreBrew.com

Masonville Cove could create Baltimore’s next waterfront hotspot

New urban park promises spectacular birding and views of critters and a working Port. But unless they fix its interface with the community, visitors will miss this gem.

Above: Nature remediation site at Masonville Cove, with a view of the harbor, Port Covington and the Baltimore skyline.

The Port of Baltimore is a huge, but largely mysterious, place for most of us, but that is about to change with the completion of Masonville Cove by the Maryland Port Administration.

Within the city limits of Baltimore, they are creating a 54-acre natural refuge, cheek-by-jowl with the working port. New nature trails will let us experience first-hand the relationship between the city, the natural waterfront and the port from an entirely new perspective. That means the place will feature bald eagles and dredged mud from the Harbor.

Nature trail under construction (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Nature trail under construction (Photo by Gerald Neily)

(Well, first the MPA’s dredge spoil containment facility has to gets its discharge permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment. That was kind of what started all this — coming up with a place to put some of this historically politically problematic stuff. Over 4 million cubic yards of sediment has to be scraped out of Chesapeake Bay every year. The permit, we’re told, is pending.)

Recently, the Port tooted the state’s horn with a press release announcing that this project has won a “prestigious national award” for “Environmental Excellence” by the National Association of Environmental Professionals.

But it’s not just environmentalists and birdwatchers who are excited about Masonville. Those with an interest in neighborhood revitalization and, well, real estate development are quietly paying attention too.

The potential they see, however, will only be realized if they figure out a way to connect this lush and evocative park with the struggling nearby neighborhoods that are pining for some of that waterfront makeover magic.

Not quite there yet

Masonville Education Center

Masonville’s Environmental Education Center was completed and opened to the public last year. But the trails which would provide actual public access to the natural preserve and the waterfront are behind schedule, having been promised for opening “in late 2009” according to the center’s website. (We’re told they won’t be ready until next fall.)

That hasn’t stopped an eager public from speculating and in some cases trespassing on the Cove. These curious types run the gamut. You’ve got local artist and architectural designer Fred Scharmen (whose Masonville blog post begins with a quote from Michel Foucault) and a blogger named Cham (who mapped her exploits with annotations like “more abandoned crap” and “hole in fence.” )

A lot of the mess has been cleaned up since these folks posted a couple of years ago, but their vivid experiences provide an enticing preview of the juxtaposition which await us all when the Port Administration finally fully opens Masonville Cove – a rare brand-new place in our same-old-city.

Until then, the Masonville Education Center will have to do. But this is a bit like being stuck in the Yellowstone or Great Smoky Visitors Center and all you can think is: “I wanna go outside and feel the real thing !!!!!!”

It is one of those state-of-the-art environmentally-correct buildings that only assuages our eco-guilt trips while we continue on our actual trip.

On the other side of the tracks: Nature!

Unfortunately, Masonville Cove is extremely isolated from the city’s neighborhoods, with railroad tracks and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway forming a wall to prevent access from Brooklyn, its closest neighbor. This may enhance the effect of the Center for those who want to pretend to be getting “back to nature,” but bonafide urbanites know that the best way to be sustainable-and-all-that is to fully live in a viable city, not in the backwoods.

Believe it or not, for all its trappings of nature — herons, cormorants, marsh grass — Masonville was once a real urban neighborhood.  Like Old Fairfield or Sparrows Point, it was spawned in the days when worker housing needed to be near work, in this case near the B&O railroad yards. Nearby Fairfield and Wagners Point were perhaps the last of these places in Baltimore to exist as close-knit industrial communities into the 1980s, until the powers-that-be apparently decided that a wholesale buyout and relocation could be cheaper than a class-action industrial-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen. Some ruins of these communities still remain.

Church remaining in Old Fairfield (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Church remaining in Old Fairfield (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The next challenge will be to make Masonville Cove more attached to its closest real neighborhood, Brooklyn, which is now landlocked. Masonville Cove should unleash some real “waterfront-envy” of the type that forever changed the identity of nearby (as the crow flies) Locust Point across the Middle Branch.

Locust Point was also landlocked, until the 1990s when Streuver Brothers developed Tide Point and opened the entire community to a small but eye-opening promontory of waterfront land. After that, the gentrification dominoes fell quickly, fueled by the affluence of nearby Federal Hill.

Brooklyn is much larger, far more diverse and less contained than Locust Point, so don’t just run out and buy up every house on the market. Still, you heard it here first.

Recipe for revival

Brooklyn could be drawn into Masonville by essentially reconfiguring only two land parcels. One is the intersection of Frankfurst Avenue, Hanover and Potee Streets, which is no doubt one of the most absurdly oversized and overdesigned intersections in the universe. It is located precisely at the point where Brooklyn’s waterfront would be if Brooklyn had a waterfront.

Bike route sign at Hanover/Frankfurst (and truck blocking lane chicane) (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Bike route sign at Hanover/Frankfurst (and truck blocking lane chicane) (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The city has lately done some band-aid work on this intersection, planting some trees, repairing curbs and re-striping the lanes in an attempt to accommodate bikes and trucks. But the basic design of the intersection defies any real improvement.

The city had to stripe the bike lane so that it suddenly lurches from the left to the right side of the street right in the middle of the intersection. Yikes !!! And they had to guide left-turning trucks from Frankfurst into community-oriented Hanover instead of its less impacting Potee bypass. This intersection is in drastic need of a complete overhaul to make it far tighter, calmer and more efficient, and in the process, to create an attractive vibrant Brooklyn waterfront district.

The other major parcel between this intersection and Masonville is currently a concrete plant. Concrete plants are well-known to be low-grade nomadic land uses that move away whenever land acquires any real value. This happened relatively recently on the Wolfe Street waterfront in Fells Point and subsequently on the Kloman Street waterfront in Westport. And it should also happen sooner or later between Brooklyn and Masonville. The best use for this property should be identified which takes advantage of its intrinsic value – deep-water access as well as urban proximity.

But, ready or not, Masonville is coming to Baltimore, so we’d all better take notice.

Most Popular