Mr. Boh’s Neighborhood: Baltimore’s New Master Plan Looks To The Future With One Eye


As of June 15, Baltimore’s Comprehensive Master Plan is a year old and hard at work. Head out to the area just east of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, under the hovering cranes: 2 million square feet of research facilities are in the initial stages of development. A large swath of what used to be Monument Street land has been cleared and awaits construction of some of the 1,200 residential units planned for the area. To the south, the rowhouses lining Wolfe Street have been gutted to shells, plywood neatly hammered over the doors. Turn left on Orleans. There’s a cafĂ©, boldly painted, with ivy guided around the windows. As you walk, a neighborhood sign pops up: brewers hill. Keep going until you hit Patterson Park.

There’s a four-story pagoda at the top of the park. From there, you can see a large chunk of East Baltimore, where the ripples of renaissance are moving in the direction of the water. In the distance, the Key Bridge ferries potential Baltimoreans on their commute to and from Washington. Floating above the labyrinth of rowhouses, visible from a mile away, is a large white circular face with a mustache, a single eye, and a peculiar smile perched on top of a brick warehouse. It’s the National Bohemian beer mascot, Mr. Boh. He’s not only a much-loved local icon but also the uncrowned king of new mixed-use Baltimore.

If you’ve seen “Mr. Boh’s Brewery,” a 30-minute documentary film made by Alex Castro, Harry Connelly, and Lyle Hein that premiered last year, you know the irony of the situation. Natty Boh is Baltimore’s signature beer, but its factory has been empty since 1978, when Natty Boh moved to Halethorpe, later to be purchased by Pabst, outsourced to a Miller brewery in North Carolina, and bottled at Lions Brewery in Pennsylvania. But now, the once crumbling and rat-infested shells of the former brewery buildings constitute a $127 million complex, with 210,000 square feet total of office space, retail space, flex space, and cool space. Still to come: 210,000 square feet of hotel/retail/parking, 135,000 square feet of retail, and 600 market-rate apartments. There are 75 restaurants within walking distance, and plenty of bars. The property values still seem to be rising, and taxes, too. Even the cost of the doghouses is going up: Dogma, the pet store at Shops on Brewers Hill sells its “bow haus” for $450, and a more expensive version for about $550. And to top it off, of course, at the pinnacle of the Natty Boh Tower, hovers the winking, bug-eyed artifact that is Mr. Boh. This is what the Baltimore Comprehensive Master Plan is all about.

Maybe you didn’t even know there was a Comprehensive Master Plan. If you did, you may not have read all 254 pages. You wouldn’t be alone. But it’s out there.

Despite the fact that Baltimore’s charter–Article VII, Section 72–mandates that the city’s Planning Commission “shall adopt and revise a master plan for the proposed physical development of Baltimore,” the last comprehensive plan was developed in 1971. Formulated under Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the plan was largely defined by the last days of industrial Baltimore, with zoning that largely kept residential, retail, and industrial areas separate.

Then, in 1992, Gov. Schaefer signed legislation requiring Baltimore (and other state jurisdictions) to submit plans for larger, environmentally aware Smart-Growth development plans. Baltimore got to work slowly on its own new master plan, and in 1997 it came out with PlanBaltimore. It wasn’t important as a legislative document–PlanBaltimore was never finalized–but it did look at setting some goals for a city that, since the advent of the Inner Harbor, had been gradually rebuilding itself. In 2005, Otis Rolley III, then director of the city Department of Planning, set the current master plan in motion.

Full-page advertisements were run in local newspapers (including City Paper) “to solicit citizen input” for a new master plan. The planning commission received 140 responses. Three open houses were held. A draft plan was released in February 2006. Feedback was solicited for a month and a half. The resulting plan was officially adopted by the city’s Planning Department on June 15, 2006, and the City Council approved it Nov. 13. It’s designed to last us until 2012.

When current Planning Department director Douglas McCoach talks about the process, he sounds exhausted and elated. “We’ve gone through the gauntlet on this,” he says. “What we came out with, we’re very proud of.”

“It’s a road map,” McCoach says, a vision for the city. When its proposals are finally realized, the city’s partitioned patchwork zoning regulations will be replaced by a more dynamic approach. In addition to a basic overview of the city as it exists today, the plan includes about 110 recommendations for the city’s future: bike paths, a new subway line, reinstatement of the Shuttlebug buses, a dozen community school centers, and about 100 other proposals for a growth-friendly town. They all fit into a vision of Baltimore’s physical transformation into a larger city, where you can, as the title of the plan puts it, “Live. Earn. Play. Learn.”

Maybe you thought you were doing all that already. But “Live. Earn. Play. Learn.” isn’t just a catchy slogan. It’s a development strategy already in effect that focuses private and public resources on very specific areas in the city. On a map titled “Proposed Future Land Uses,” on page 166 of the Master Plan, the former warehouse on which Mr. Boh perches is designated by a blue dot as a “nodal point.” It’s a term worth keeping in mind, because Baltimore City, once divided into neighborhoods, is now sprinkled with these nodes. These are the focus points of future development, areas that may change so quickly, even though many of the buildings will be preserved, as to be barely recognizable within a few years.

The Master Plan signals a change in strategy for the city, and for the Department of Planning. In the opening page of his introduction, former planning director Rolley puts it about as clearly as possible: “At the end of the day, Baltimore is a corporation. A public corporation. It is a non-profit corporation, and you are both a customer and an investor.”

If Baltimore is a corporation, it’s searching for a brand. It may have one already. The Mr. Boh sign isn’t original; it was paid for and installed in 2004 at the behest of William Struever, whose Struever Bros., Eccles, and Rouse (SBER) construction and development firm created the brewery redevelopment. See, the Master Plan isn’t just about rezoning–although that takes up a large portion of the nuts and bolts. It’s also about marketing what’s special about the city or, more bluntly, its idiosyncrasies to younger people and empty nesters who may want to make Baltimore their home. What makes Baltimore different from any other city in the world? Which brings us back to the beer of choice.

If you’ve got a problem with outsourced beer, you may find something odd about the Comprehensive Master Plan, too. Baltimore’s signature brew isn’t the only thing that comes from Pennsylvania these days.

On page 224 of the plan, a map lays out what is called “Baltimore City’s Housing Market Typology”–basically a vision of how the city views each of its properties in terms of its value and potential. The map bears a small trf, which is the stamp of the Reinvestment Fund (TRF), a Philadelphia-based for-profit development financier with an office in downtown Baltimore. TRF’s role in the Master Plan is more important than a first glimpse might indicate.

It’s just a map, but when planners boast of a sea change in Baltimore’s approach to urban revitalization, this is where it starts. Baltimore City, lest you forget, is a corporation. TRF is an investment manager. Investment managers don’t distribute funds according to need; they distribute them according to growth potential. Baltimore’s new typology measures housing according to marketability. As TRF’s web site trumpets, Baltimore is using TRF’s signature brand of market analysis “to forge its future.”

Since the federal “war on poverty” ran out of steam in the early 1970s, private enterprise and nonprofits have gradually moved in and taken over the complex business of negotiating between developers, private investors, nonprofit organizations, and local governments. Neighborhood revitalization has become a big business: Since 2000, community development venture funds, which provide equity financing to small businesses, have more than doubled their capital, from $400 million to $900 million in 2005. TRF, which was founded in 1985 as a community development corporation, has become a leader in this emerging market. The company gained national recognition when it played a large role in financing and consulting on the renewal of a once-desolate area in West Philadelphia. The strategy was simple: Since the area had no major industries, TRF focused on the University of Pennsylvania campus as an anchor for development.

To date, TRF has funded more than 2,000 urban revitalization projects, delivering over $550 million in capital in Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and elsewhere along the East Coast. Urban Growth Partners and DVCRF Ventures–both TRF-related private equity firms–manage about $60 million in funds. TRF’s Sustainable Energy Development Fund also manages state funding for the financing of clean energy in several states. TRF has bid–without success, so far–to manage Maryland’s sustainable energy fund.

TRF calls its targeted growth strategy for investment “market value analysis,” and it involves intricately linking possible investments by a city in its neighborhoods to trends in the real-estate market. Since 2002, TRF has consulted Baltimore City, and in 2005 it spent several months with the city Planning Commission working on establishing an intricate housing typology for the Master Plan.

You may think you know your own neighborhood, but in many ways TRF knows it better. As part of the contract signed in 2005 between the Baltimore City and TRF, the company was given exclusive access to extensive data to map potential growth spots. Data given by the city–under a nondisclosure agreement designed to protect citizens’ privacy–included property values, assessed values, mortgage foreclosure filings, code violations, real-estate transaction files, and more.

TRF isn’t paid by the city, but the contract gives TRF permission to use the data to target its own investments in the city–specifically in the East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver. TRF is a paid consultant for a low-cost housing development in that neighborhood in conjunction with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a coalition of local churches, schools, and neighborhood groups involved in community revitalization.

TRF Private Equity currently has investments in two Baltimore businesses: $1.5 million in Baltimore Dredge, a small and growing harbor-dredging company, and $1.75 in MidAtlantic Broadband, a niche telecommunications company. TRF’s $48.5 million private-equity Urban Growth Partners manages the $15 million Baltimore Development Fund, which was initiated by the Soros Foundation in 2002 and includes matching grants from Johns Hopkins and local businesses. Last year, TRF partnered with Patterson Park Community Development Corp. to guide investment strategy. Presumably, what’s good for TRF is good for Baltimore.

Speaking by phone from Philadelphia, TRF Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Nowak readily agrees that the relationships get complex. “If there’s one word I can use to describe the approach, it’s `fluidity,'” he says. “If you’re going to invest in neighborhoods, you`ve got to get in at all levels.”

Baltimore City planner Peter Conrad worked on the collaboration between TRF and the city, and he’s enthusiastic about the results. “The bellwether change has been to build from strength,” he says. “The old approach was to build according to need. But if you try to reconstruct according to need, you find that you need 10 times more than you have.”

Nowak agrees. “Asset preservation is a key issue,” he says. “Market value analysis helps us figure out how to preserve blocks.” Instead of simply putting money into destitute neighborhoods–a strategy that Baltimore used in its Sandtown project with limited success–TRF prompts the city to focus on rebuilding neighborhoods that border more economically solid areas.

As in West Philadelphia, Baltimore’s universities provide that stability. “Businesses and city governments come and go,” Nowak says. Johns Hopkins University, for one local example, gets $870 million in federal research funding, and if the biotech industry heats up, it’s going to get a lot more. So Baltimore in the future, Nowak hints, may very well be a college town.

The relationship between TRF and the local entities it deals with is convoluted and takes strange turns. For instance, in 2002, Johns Hopkins Institute donated $500,000 to the Baltimore Fund, which TRF manages. TRF’s market analysis strategy focuses on universities, such as Hopkins, as centers of economic stability. The Baltimore City Planning Department, which has used TRF as a consultant, considers the area surrounding the University of Maryland Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions “biotech districts,” which means they qualify for special city funding and zoning privileges.

Neighborhood activists, meanwhile, fear they are losing their sphere of influence on their own city. According to the market value analysis–no longer measured by neighborhoods, but by blocks–you live in a zone. An economically stable zone might be targeted for rehabilitation. A depressed zone, according to the typography, could be targeted for large-scale repossession or even demolition.

Remington neighborhood advocate Joan Floyd says she recently realized that, according to the Master Plan map, her side of North Howard Street was labeled “distressed,” while the other side of the street was labeled “stable.” Floyd says she wonders if this kind of piecemeal assessment of value will have a “divide and conquer” effect on previously unified neighborhood coalitions. But then, she says, that’s part of a pattern she senses in the plan: Strategy is being planned from above, according to complex data that most Baltimoreans have no access to, with economic return in mind. “In the business world, that’s insider trading,” she says. “I don’t know what it means here.”

Nowak acknowledges that as TRF cooperates with various city governments the company gains a privileged perspective of where the market is headed. “[Personal] credit ratings are one variable we use,” he says, though he notes that they are aggregated to protect individual privacy. Such information helps TRF diagnose problems that others may not detect. “In Baltimore,” he adds ruefully, “it’s amazing what the ratio between subprime vs. prime debt is.”

According to TRF, its market value analysis plays the role “of a powerful and proven guide to both daily operations and long-term planning” for the city, with its statistics backed up on the ground, with meetings on the local level. But it troubles Floyd that number-crunching done out of state and filtered through perceived market fluctuations may cause a shift in planning that leaves neighborhoods and their residents out of the decision-making process.

“People on the inside know what’s going to happen in 10-12 years,” she says. “The rest of us are buying and selling houses, planting gardens, thinking [something else]. When push comes to shove, and you have to create a master plan, you have to tell people what you`re going to do. But if it’s as vague [as this plan], you’re back to square one. We don’t know. We just get uncomfortable feelings from what we see.”

The influence of companies like TRF is strengthened by the new plan, but developers are going to be happy, too. Baltimore is betting on an increasing population and is looking for new condos and offices to keep them here. The deck of the Joy Building at Tide Point, across the Inner Harbor from downtown, offers one of the city’s premier views of the rapidly ascending skyline. To the left is Domino Sugar, one of the city’s last operative major industrial plants. Scattered across the pier below, office workers from Struever Bros., Eccles, and Rouse and other white-collar employers relax in the late spring breeze. A small fleet of kayaks stands carefully piled up at the docks.

Leaning back casually in a wooden lawn chair, sporting a crumpled plaid shirt and a haircut that could easily turn into a mullet, developer William Struever, 55, might pass for an electrician on his lunch break. He actually is a master electrician, and was when he arrived in Baltimore 33 years ago with his brother Fred, his friend Cobber Eccles, and a bachelor’s degree in urban anthropology from Brown University.

Asking Struever what he thinks about the new Comprehensive Master Plan is a little like asking Al Gore what he thinks about the internet. He may not have invented it, but he may as well have. Struever has been using marketplace strategies to transform neighborhoods for decades. If you live in Baltimore–or Durham, N.C., or Providence, R.I., or Yonkers, N.Y., or Boston, or Southwest Washington, or Nashville–you’ve probably seen the SBER logo, which bears the slogan transforming america’s cities.

The waiting room at SBER catalogs the firm’s work in Baltimore behind dozens of Plexiglas frames: Annie E. Casey Foundation, Belvedere Square, Bond Street Townhomes, Brewers Hill, the Can Company . . . you get the idea. The buildings, though, are only part of the vision. When Struever first came to Baltimore in 1974, the middle-class population was rapidly abandoning the city in the wake of the social upheaval of the late ’60s. He had read Life and Death of American Citiesby Jane Jacobs, the 1961 book that has become a bible to urbanites in the post-industrial age. Jacobs’ book celebrated city living at a time when Americans were fleeing to the suburbs and urban planners were shredding cities with interstates and housing projects, but eventually her vision began to resonate.

After starting their company in 1984, the two Struevers and Eccles got to work, rebuilding a house they’d bought. But William Struever learned some painful lessons. “That’s how I lost my nail,” he says, looking at his finger without showing it. “I hammered the wrong nail.” It also taught him that you can’t rebuild one house at a time in a deteriorating neighborhood and sell for a profit. “You’ve got to bring the whole block back,” he says. Thirty years later, his macro approach has caught on, but it’s not just a matter of bringing back a stretch of rowhouses anymore.

Despite his past use of historic preservation tax credits to help fund his projects, Struever isn’t really a preservationist; he’s a transformer. He wants to re-create cities from the ground up. So zoning–dividing cities up in micro-neighborhoods designated for this use or that, and no other–makes him impatient.

“Zoning is anti-city in many respects,” he says. “It comes from a suburban nature. The idea of separating uses, separating retail from housing and office and industrial, is just a wrongheaded notion. The kind of eclectic, idiosyncratic nature of a city’s history as they grow across time is so essential to their spirit and character.” He stops. “Zoning tries to put things into boxes. Thirty-three years I’ve been here, everything you try to do is anti-zoning, because zoning makes no sense.”

So if the city is finally looking at the big picture, Struever’s all for it. “The Master Plan is a call to rethink a lot of things,” he says. “Our attitude toward height, toward mixing units and density, our attitudes toward mixing incomes, our attitudes toward public investment.”

Population density and height are two notions that are obviously on his mind. “I think [the attitude toward height] is changing dramatically,” he says. “For a long time there was an automatic reaction that height is antithetical to the nature and character of Baltimore.” Now, he hopes, those days are over, as 30-floor mixed-use office buildings and hotels sprout up around Harbor East: “I give Otis Rolley a lot of credit for this–that there is nothing wrong with height, because height is density.”

Density, after all, is what makes a city a city–a place where you live, learn, play, and earn in the same place. Struever seems almost impatient for Baltimore to cast aside its past and embrace high-density mixed-use development.

A hundred yards away from Tide Point, a crane guides a huge cargo container from the adjacent Domino Sugar refinery onto a barge. Struever says he loves the history of Domino, loves the huge neon sign on top of the plant, and hopes “they stay here for 100 years.” But he doesn’t like the zoning regulations that Domino uses to protect the tip of Locust Point from the encroachment of mixed-use developers such as himself. Specifically, he has a problem with “having a molasses tank farm, um, with [its] six jobs, on more land than we have at Tide Point–we’ve got 1,500 [employees] and climbing, you know. And we pay taxes. Port doesn’t pay takes. And they’ve got six jobs. And there’s plenty of room for them. So where’s the mixed use? That’s the driver for the city.”

But this sort of vision depends on robust earning, and the building boom has been dogged recently by talk of a bubble that has burst. A few days before the interview, The Sun reported on SBER’s revamping of plans for the $83 million, 12-story Olmsted Condominiums in Charles Village to include less pricey units and office space alongside the luxury digs. The story referred to the developers “scaling back” in response to a slowing housing market. The story also reminded readers that the 68-unit Village Lofts across the street–also developed by SBER–had sold only 28 units.

“You use that [term] because we’re doing mixed income and we’re creating housing for nurses at Union Memorial so they can afford to live there?” Struever counters. “You want to call that `downscaling,’ go ahead and say it. Disgrace on The Sun, because these are working people that deserve to have housing opportunities in Baltimore City.” Struever argues that rather than scaled back, the project is now much more “dense”–there’s that word.

At the same time, a Master Plan provision designed to encourage “inclusionary housing”–developers receiving tax breaks must price a significant portion of their units for low- and moderate-income residents–is the kind of nitpicky stipulation, Struever says, that “could stop development in its tracks, if the environment, instead of rational planning and approval processes, becomes one of chaos and conflict and irresolution.” In short, it wouldn’t help the city, much less developers like him, to replace one set of inhibiting rules–the zoning laws–with others.

“The world’s a fragile place around us,” Struever says. “With increasing costs and the softening of the for-sale market, nationally, a lot of projects are swinging in the breeze . . . We’re starting two kinds of towers [with condos], but there are not going to be a whole lot more, I don’t think anytime soon. But I could be wrong.”

He pauses to watch the containers being lowered onto the barges. It seems as if he’s gently prodding you, along with the rest of the city, to see what he sees. A place that can be marketed and attract the new urbanites: empty nesters, bohemians, long-distance commuters, and the suburban middle class.

“Suburbs are fake, they’re made out of whole cloth,” Struever says. “A significant part of the future of cities is recognizing that incredible value that comes from the unique and idiosyncratic nature that brands the city and makes it different. In this truly global competition, ultimately, we’re competing with cities around the world, and ultimately, one of the great things those cities have going for them is history.” Tide Point, Clipper Mill, Brewers Hill, and the Can Company, he says, are icons of that history. And so is Natty Boh.

“In some ways, the smartest and the dumbest investment I ever made was in the Boh-man sign,” he says. “The dumb part was we paid Pabst, which owned the beer, to use the logo. They should have paid us. The sales of that beer have gone up about 40 percent since that sign went up. The smart thing was it became an instant icon for Baltimore.” Other cities, he says, have their defining icons. “Now Baltimore’s got Natty Boh. What power it is!”

“That’s part of it,” says architect Gordon Ingerson, when asked about the resurrection of Mr. Boh. “The most successful cities are the ones that are based on historic fabric. Look at the [major cities] which are most successful. It took a while. They needed a historic basis.”

Ingerson works with Grant Architects, which has reviewed some biotech projects for Johns Hopkins. The phrase that keeps popping up in conversations with area builders and planners about the Master Plan is “new urbanism,” the notion in urban planning that, among other things, cities are no longer centered around industries or companies. “People are beginning to realize how important place is,” Ingerson continues. “Economic development is based now on livability. At one point, industry and that harbor was what attracted people to Baltimore. Now, people come here to live, and the businesses follow.”

That may explain why the Master Plan is more than a set of goals–it’s a marketing strategy. If you can’t make the whole city livable, you have to focus on specific areas. There are several “Growth Promotion Areas” designated on the plan’s map, as determined by the TRF-supplied cluster typology. These include Sandtown, Park Heights, Oliver, Middle East, and the biotech districts on the east and west sides. Listening to Ingerson, the equation works out pretty simply: Baltimore needs to develop where it can or it will be left behind.

“It’s market-driven,” he says. “Now people want to live in New York, San Francisco–Baltimore has to do something.”

Klaus Philipsen, the architect behind the recently opened Station North townhouses, was involved in the initial phases of the plan back in its earliest days, when it was known as PlanBaltimore. He admits he has at times questioned the need for a master plan at all–“who needs a comp plan, because the reality is that life goes a lot faster than these comp plans go?”–and contends that the current plan doesn’t go far enough: “I told [then-Mayor] Martin O’Malley that there needed to be a large goal, which is to grow Baltimore back to 800,000 people. It would be a goal that everyone could get their arms around.” But overall he’s sanguine about the possibilities for the plan and the city. “The big trends are working in our favor,” he notes. Thanks to Baltimore’s central location on the East Coast, “only if we did everything wrong would we not be able to accomplish our goal. It sounds like a negative spin, but we’ll have people who want to live in Baltimore because the Washington market doesn’t allow them to live there.”

But between the plan and the reality it forecasts lies the execution, and that is the next big challenge. “We’re only halfway through the process,” city planning director Doug McCoach says.

The plan calls for comprehensive rezoning that will break up and transform the city’s outmoded division into areas designated “general commercial,” “shopping center,” “residential,” or “industrial.” The new code will theoretically coincide with “21st century land uses and patterns of economic and demographic development” and make it easier to make economic and demographic development happen. Developers will be allowed to mix residential with commercial and office units, and will face a smoother process, no longer having to trudge through Baltimore’s courts on a case-by-case basis for each change to a project. It will also alter neighborhoods dramatically, as offices and entertainment districts merge with residential districts. In the past, McCoach notes, the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. has been the main conduit for approval of development projects, but having the goals of the city made public and explicit in the Master Plan “should change all that” and bring things out into the open.

Changing the zoning code, McCoach says, could take up to two years. Laurie Feinberg, the division chief of comprehensive planning at the city Department of Planning, emphasizes that the changes are in their initial phases. A first draft of the new zoning “should be completed in November 2007, roughly,” she says. McCoach says that for the moment, the city is consulting with outside entities and other cities about the comprehensive rezoning effort. “But we have no intention of giving this to an outsider,” he adds quickly. “The big part is going to be done by the citizens themselves.”

Any revisions to the new code will be made on a case-by-case basis, Feinberg says, depending on the needs of the community and the developers: “We’ve come to the conclusion that there will be quick fixes so as not to stop the clock, but in the end we have to throw out the book and start over. We have to start out with a new vision.”

It’s the quick fixes that worry some people. Federal Hill neighborhood activist and retired Sun editor James Keat calls the Master Plan “window dressing.”

“It’s a collection of generalizations,” he says. “It doesn’t tell people what they’re going to do in a given location. And that’s the important thing. You’ve got to watch out for the individual zoning bills.”

Keat was still angered about a recent “quick fix” in South Baltimore. After a June 7 community meeting, community leaders complained that, while they were negotiating with city officials to forestall development of two 26-story Harbor View luxury condo buildings, the housing commissioner and McCoach signed off on the deal–which would permit another high-rise–behind their back. “People can smell things like this coming,” he says.

McCoach says that the move “[has] been unfortunately misinterpreted,” and that the Planning Department had been reinforcing a commitment made “in public” earlier with the Planning Commission. “[Mayor Dixon] has met with[the community leaders] since and looks forward to resolving this problem,” he says.

McCoach emphasizes that the Master Plan went through extensive vetting at the community level before being adopted, and he says that the rezoning will be a lengthy process worked out on the community level. Keat attended the first round of meetings, however, and feels that there was little opportunity for feedback. “There were no meaningful discussions or dialogues with ordinary citizens,” he says. “There were wall boards with lots of appealing generalizations. People were allowed to put Post-its up, and that was about it.”

Mike Macintyre, a Locust Point neighborhood activist, takes a similarly apprehensive view of what the plan represents. “It’s a strange dance,” he says. “Following it is a tough process. I looked at some of the language [in the plan]. They talk about `the fabric of the community.’ What does that mean? Are we talking about [zoning] or neighborhoods?”

And all these important decisions, the plan’s critics argue, are being worked out right in front of the noses of ordinary Baltimoreans whose living, learning, playing, and earning may be forever transformed by the plan’s effects, many of whom don’t know or care anything about it.

“That’s the thing about development,” Joan Floyd says. “Most people don’t follow what the Planning Board is doing. And when they find out, it’s usually too late to do anything about it.”

Ex-steelworker Dave Grund feels similarly left out of the debate. He’s seen the new Mr. Boh on top of the brewery. He even drinks the beer. But he doesn’t believe that signage is going to do anything to replace what the shifts in the economy are taking away.

“That’s not authentic Baltimore,” he says. “Authentic Baltimore doesn’t exist anymore. I remember 30 years ago, old ladies would be out there washing their marble steps. These days, no, it doesn’t happen.”

Now 40, Grund moved to Baltimore from Hawaii as a teenager and worked in the late ’80s and ’90s as a steelworker at Sparrows Point. “I was at the tail end of that Baltimore industry,” he says ruefully. “Let me see, Bethlehem [Steel]’s down, GM, Dixie Cup . . . there’s nothing left in industry in Baltimore.” He now works as a bike messenger in D.C. The vision that he has of Baltimore in five years isn’t that different from the one that the Master Plan comes up with, though he’s not very excited about it.

“I see a service industry and a paper empire,” Grund says. “It’s going to be an economy of abstract ideas–abstract concepts and ideas–where nothing ever gets finished.”

Indeed, for all the paeans the plan offers to working-class Baltimore–and there are plenty of tributes–there’s little in the picture specifically for working-class people. The Master Plan identifies the growth industries: universities, biotech, and office space.

The fact is, barring a sudden and dramatic shift in the global economy, industrial Baltimore isn’t coming back. So for the moment, Baltimore is aligning itself with the market. And Mr. Boh is making headway on his comeback. The mustached moon face peers down from the upper corner of the web site of the Baltimore Development Corp. Hovering on a billboard outside Penn Station in midtown, he’s on his knees, offering his hand in marriage to the Utz girl on behalf of Smyth Jewelers. offers people the chance to exchange their own stories and legends on the subject, and National Bohemian the beverage is on sale at Whole Foods. Zippy the Pinhead cartoonist Bill Griffith devoted a strip to him in March, in which his eponymous protagonist stares up at the great white face on top of the Natty Boh Tower and asks if he still sells beer. “That was a long time ago,” Mr. Boh responds. “Now I’m busy selling condos!”