GlobeSt.com: Union Wharf Wraps History in Modern Package

October 14, 2014

As published on GlobeSt.com.

The focus this week in GlobeSt.com’s ongoing coverage of NAHB Pillars of the Industry Award Winners brings us to a project that manages to blend community, history and forward-thinking amenities.

Winning Project: Union Wharf

Category: Best Rental Apartment Community, Non-Garden, Five Stories or Less

Other Winning Category: 2014 Community of the Year

City: Baltimore

Developer: The Bozzuto Group

Architect: Hord Coplan Macht

Interior Designer: RD Jones & Associates

The Mission: There’s a long industrial history in the Fells Point section of Baltimore. In fact the site in question had a varied past, serving as a canning factory, a shipbuilding site and concrete plant. According to Hord Coplan Macht, director of design Chris Harvey, the developer, Bozzuto, and the architect wanted to create a unique presence in the inner harbor, “push the envelope,” as Harvey says, and embrace the area’s past in a thoroughly modern project.

Pushing the envelope, of course, was a risky proposition considering that the plan was set into motion right on the heels of the economic recession.

In Fells Point, “the streets are cobbled,” Harvey explains. “Old tracks are still embedded in the road right in front of Union Wharf. This history, the atmosphere and character, really guided our design.” But so did the local community board, which is very active and passionate about keeping the area “the way it is.” Quite a challenge when the project, which was to be constructed on a brownfields site, called for a substantial 281 market-rate units and a 500-car garage.

And there was one other requirement, this one from the developer: “They wanted the coolest pool in Baltimore.”

Execution: “This is a modern interpretation of what Fells Point was about,” says Harvey. “It’s a podium building, so you experience concrete in a number of places. We took inspiration from the ship-building history without making it look like a ship. And since it’s a waterfront site, we used glass throughout to tie the whole thing together and to bring the outside in.”

Says Chris Harvey, “This is a unique place that embodies the DNA of what Fells Point was about.”

Working with the community leaders, the team developed a plan to encase the massive garage totally in the building, the result being that none of the structure is visible from the street. What is visible is plenty of sky, since by dictate of the local urban renewal board, the massive building had to be set back after the third floor. The designers used the setback to create terraces for residents. Harvey says the setback also helped to reduce the mass of the building.

And the pool? It is cool, a 120-foot strip with an outdoor amenities area adjacent.

End Game: Union Wharf opened in October of 2013, after a two-year construction process. “We don’t like creating themed buildings," says Harvey. “This is a unique place that embodies the DNA of what Fells Point was about.”

In the NAHB presentation the firm pointed out that the Maryland Department of Economic Development provided a $275,000 grant, “recognizing the significant public benefits achievable through redevelopment of this highly visible brownfield site.” It was also honored with a USGBC Maryland Wintergreen Award and recognized by the Urban Land Institute.

And in terms of the financial risks of such a build when the industry was still reeling from the slowdown, Harvey reports that Union Wharf is leasing up very well. But one of the biggest reactions to the project is the often-asked question: Where is the historic part of the building? An ironic testament to the success of a new construction that pays homage to the past.