There is a waterfront park in South Baltimore where people go to fish, have picnics, catch some sun, even wade in the water.
“It’s God’s earth and water and fish. It’s a natural place,” said Jeff Robertson, a licensed barber who was taking the day off to fish there recently.
“Even if I don’t catch anything, it’s stress release,” said Robertson, 58, of Pigtown. Further up the shoreline, a half-dozen other people, including two adults with a child, were fishing as well.
The land, a former railroad right of way, has been part of Baltimore’s park system since it was donated to the city in 1979.
It’s a rare city-owned spot that provides public access to the shoreline along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, with sweeping views of the Hanover Street Bridge and boats passing by.
For many years, the park has been the scene of a hip gathering of artists, performers, musicians and skateboarders known as the Baltimore Powwow.
“It’s one of those little treasures that you find in the city,” said Meg Fairfax Fielding, a community volunteer who lives in North Baltimore and takes her dog Connor there. She calls it her “secret beach.”
“There aren’t a lot of places in the city where you can sit on a little beach and fish,” Fielding said. “To the people who use it, it’s important.”
But this tranquil setting, located at the southern tip of Port Covington and officially known as Ferry Bar Park, may not continue in its current state for much longer.
City officials have confirmed that Sagamore Development, the real estate arm of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, has expressed interest in acquiring the park and making it part of Under Armour’s future headquarters at Port Covington.
Also Seeks Swann Park
Ferry Bar Park is one of two city parks that Sagamore has expressed interest in acquiring. The company also is interested in buying the 11-acre Swann Park fronting Middle Branch to the west, according to the Department of Recreation and Parks.
In addition, Sagamore has made inquiries about purchasing other city-owned parcels along the waterfront.
The company has hired Michael Pokorny, a former employee of the Baltimore Development Corp. and Housing Department, who has been making inquiries on the company’s behalf about land owned by the Mayor and City Council.
Sagamore has already assembled 240 acres of land along the Middle Branch, including more than 50 acres at Port Covington that have been targeted for the future Under Armour headquarters campus.
The proposed campus currently contains a Walmart store and a former Sam’s Club store, and is accessible to the public by city streets. Ferry Bar Park is at the very end of Peninsula Drive.
Bill Cunningham, chairman of the Planning Commission and a former City Councilman, said he understands that Under Armour wants to make the campus a “gated community,” with access restricted to the general public.
Under Armour argues that it needs to control who goes on the campus in order to protect its “intellectual property” from corporate spies and competitors, according to Cunningham.
During an Investor Day event last week, Under Armour unveiled preliminary images of its Port Covington campus.
Several of the images showed Ferry Bar Park as being within the boundaries of the campus, even though UA or Sagamore have not acquired it from the city. One of the images showed Ferry Bar Park within an area labeled “FUTURE CAMPUS.”
At a Parks and People Foundation event last Friday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was asked about the status of city parks along the Middle Branch.
The mayor referred The Brew’s questions to the Department of Recreation and Parks.
Greater Recreational Activity
Arli Lima, a Recreation and Parks spokesperson, confirmed that Sagamore has expressed interest in the two parks. “We are aware that Sagamore Development is interested in Ferry Bar Park,” Lima wrote in an email message.
“During preliminary discussions, Sagamore has always made it clear that any outcome of their projects will result in greater recreational activity, not less. They have identified another public water access that they would construct in return for Ferry Bar, and that access point would be larger and better designed to handle the fishermen and small craft boaters that would use it.”
Lima did not say where the other public access point is or whether it is acceptable to the parks department.
As for Swann Park, “Sagamore has also expressed interest in Swann Park, but has not presented a detailed plan to Recreation and Parks,” Lima stated. “They have made it clear, that as with Ferry Bar, another park with comparable or better playing fields would be built beforehand nearby in exchange for Swann.”
There are currently no discussions or negotiations between Sagamore and the agency, Lima said in a follow-up message. “To date we have seen one conceptual drawing. A formal presentation to BCRP has not been made. We will respond to a formal presentation once it’s made.”
Swann Park is well known as the area where Major League Baseball star and Baltimore native Al Kaline played baseball when he was growing up.
More recently, it has been the recipient of millions of dollars worth of government funds to clean up contaminated soil.
According to the city, Swann is open seven days a week from dusk until dawn, although signage at the park said it was closed and sports events were scheduled elsewhere.
The other city-owned parcels near Sagamore property range from small oddly shaped lots that are part of public rights-of-way to tracts large enough to support large buildings.
Some of the smaller parcels could be used to “square off” tracts owned by Sagamore or provide better access to them.
Looking at Other Properties
The city-owned properties are 111 West Dickman Street (a half-acre parcel that contains a “salt dome” used to store salt to put on city streets in snowy weather), a 3.3-acre paved parcel partly under Interstate 95 and adjacent to Swann Park, 2400 S. Hanover Street, 55 West McComas Street, two sections of Moale Alley, and the corner of a lot at Hanover and Dickman streets.
Last month, the Planning Commission approved a City Council bill that would permit the city to sell part of the former bed of Dickman Street to Sagamore.
(Sagamore was linked in a conceptual plan to convert West Covington Park, an educational park owned by the National Aquarium, into a future site of the Baltimore Rowing Club. A Sagamore spokesman later denied that it commissioned plans for the aquarium parcel, saying it commissioned a generic set of plans that could be used for fundraising purposes for a new building on any number of sites.
(John Racanelli, the aquarium’s executive director, identified Sagamore as a possible purchaser of the West Covington Park property. But a Sagamore spokesman said the company wasn’t interested in buying the land and wanted to see it open as a public park, which it did earlier this month.)
John Maroon, a spokesman for Sagamore, was asked questions about Sagamore’s vision for city-owned land on the Middle Branch and whether the future UA campus is being designed to be a gated community.
He responded as follows:
“The recent various draft artist renderings that you have seen are artistic and conceptual in nature and do not represent final plans or actual details of the project. Let me stress that everyone involved in the project is interested in an improved public waterfront experience as a benefit for the entire region. We are not prepared to provide further details or concepts until they are finalized at a later date and shared at future public presentations.”
Lack of Information
Some interested parties say they are concerned that city officials could be entertaining the idea of selling municipal property to Sagamore without informing people who use the parkland or notifying community leaders.
Fielding, the community volunteer, said she was appalled when she saw that Under Armour was already representing Ferry Bar Park to investors as being part of its future campus.
“It’s a city park, but it clearly looks like it’s part of their plans” in the images, she said. “Do you think somebody like Under Armour is going to want people going fishing there? So much of the city waterfront is being privatized. It needs to stay city-owned, so everyone can have access.”
A City Council member, who said he was not aware of the Sagamore discussions, said any potential sale of city land should trigger an RFP (Request for Proposals) solicitation open to all. This should be followed by a formal selection process and approval by the Board of Estimates, he said.
Asset of Increasing Value
Chris Delaporte, a former director of the Department of Recreation and Parks, questioned whether any waterfront property should be sold when the Rawlings-Blake administration is trying to get more people to move back to the city.
He suggested that the city should survey current Ferry Bar Park and Swann Park users to see who is going there, how often they go and how the parks are being used, before considering any sales or arriving at values for any parcels.
“When the population is increasing in an area, you want to have more resources available for the public, not less,” he noted.
Delaporte said the city shouldn’t even consider selling public parkland on the Middle Branch without notifying community representatives.
“If the negotiations are underway in secret, that is a mistake,” he said. “These are lands owned by the citizens.”
“But if consideration is being given to this transaction,” he continued, “the city will have to negotiate some type of compensatory action that benefits the public in some comparable fashion in the area – bring new lands on line, or make substantial improvements in existing public lands.”
Issue of Public Access
If Sagamore is “made whole” by these two sales, “that does not address the one overarching issue impacting public use of the water – public access at reasonable points all around the basin,” Delaporte said.
Despite its small size, Delaporte said, the strategic value of Ferry Bar Park is considerable given its easy access to the water and its sweeping views of the harbor.
“You might imagine it isn’t worth much today. Over time, as people repopulate the area and the water quality improves, it will be worth much more,” he said.
– Mark Reutter and Fern Shen contributed to this story.