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What now for State Center site? Anxious neighbors wait for answers

When Janet Allen moved to Baltimore in 2003, she saw herself as part of a bigger mission: rebuilding blocks west of Martin Luther King Boulevard into a strong, mixed income community.

Newly developed Heritage Crossing, where she bought her house, looked like a slice of suburbia, with detached homes and tree-lined streets. Allen was encouraged by pledges that more investment would follow, including at the nearby State Center, an aging complex of state offices that is deserted outside of work hours.

Today, she sounds betrayed.

"This community was supposed to be the renaissance of the new West Baltimore," she said. "There has not been anything in 14 years. That's a long time to make a dream deferred."

Crime persists. Vacant houses mar nearby streets. Then, in December, state leaders pulled the plug on a $1.5 billion plan to turn State Center into thousands of residences, stores and possibly a supermarket.

There's been little talk of a Plan B since Gov. Larry Hogan, State Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp voted to cancel the rental agreements for state offices that would anchor the redeveloped State Center.

Hogan has said he is "absolutely committed" to redeveloping the site and asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to study possibilities.

One proposal, floated by Franchot, would put an arena there. But it's not clear how serious a plan that is. A Franchot spokesman called it just "an idea to be explored." Neighbors oppose the concept, Speaker Michael E. Busch derided it as "the most outlandish thing," and Mayor Catherine Pugh declined to take a position, asserting she wasn't aware of it.

State analysts in 2015 said the state had two other alternatives: renovate the state offices for more than $200 million or relocate workers.

Both possibilities worry neighbors.

"Without [the redevelopment] and with State Center staying the same, then everything stays the same," said John Kyle of Bolton Hill, president of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of organizations focused on the project. "If the jobs get pulled away … and it becomes nothing, that's awful …. That will be worse."

Pugh said she is open to moving workers elsewhere in Baltimore — including downtown or a former Social Security building a few blocks away — but that doesn't preclude redevelopment. She knows neighbors want a grocery store and expects to talk to Hogan about what's next after the legislative session ends.

Some state leaders want Pugh to take a stronger stand.

"You're going to have a desert down there with empty buildings," Busch said.

Few dispute that the 1950s-era complex, located on a snarl of blocks near where Howard Street intersects Martin Luther King Boulevard, is becoming obsolete.

In 2005, state officials broached the idea of working with a private real estate firm to create a mixed-use, transit-oriented development on the site, now home to five looming office buildings and a sea of parking. They reached out to surrounding neighborhoods for input and selected a team led by Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse a year later.

Christopher Patusky, who worked on the project for the Maryland Department of Transportation under former Gov. Martin O'Malley, said the agreements reached in 2010 were complex, but benefited the state .

The rents were comparable to other new construction, but the developer was bound to share profits and pay property taxes (though some tax relief was expected).

But Patusky said the "true value" of the project was its potential to transform surrounding neighborhoods, lifting property values, attracting businesses and providing jobs.

"What you're trying to do with a project like this is not simply provide office space for workers," he said. "You're trying to transform the economy of a city."

Groups with different racial and economic profiles — Bolton Hill, McCulloh Homes, ministers and Pennsylvania Avenue merchants — united around the possibilities, meeting monthly, hosting parties to bring the areas together and pushing the developer for economic inclusion and community benefit agreements with local hiring.

"We've had our differences because we look at things through different lenses … but some kind of way we made it work," said Allen, one of the participants. "We hung in there all that time ... because we wanted something better for our community."

In 2010, neighborhood hopes were put on hold, after nearby businesses backed by attorney and Orioles owner Peter Angelos filed a lawsuit, citing high vacancy rates downtown and a process they said violated bidding requirements. The state's top court threw out the challenge in 2014.

Two more years lapsed, as Hogan took office and discussion about the project resumed. The administration has said the state's need for office space changed during the delay, as did other economic conditions. In December, the governor called it a "flawed" proposal that would burden taxpayers.

"It is obvious to absolutely everyone that the previous proposal makes absolutely no economic or development sense, which is why it has never moved forward and never materialized after all these years," he said.

The state sued to void the contracts.

The lawsuit caught Caroline Moore, CEO of lead developer Ekistics LLC, off guard, coming, she said, during a supposed cooling off period after months of formal mediation. Her team has organized events hoping to galvanize support and persuade the state to restart discussions, avoiding a lengthy court battle.

She rejected characterization of the project as not viable.

"We have plans, we have contracts, we have community approvals, we have City Council approval, we have funding, we have investors, we have tenants," she said. "The only thing that is holding this project up and has held it up since Governor Hogan came into office is Governor Hogan."

The abrupt end to more than a decade of planning surprised neighbors.

Some saw institutional racism in the decision, pointing to a history of major public investments bypassing the west side, even as resources go to other areas, such as Port Covington and the Johns Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore.

"Why is it that nothing in our community is economically viable?" Allen said.

"I feel like it's redlining," she added, referring to practices that denied financial services to neighborhoods based on racial composition. "It's redlining all over again in a new form."

Others were more circumspect. James Hamlin, owner of the Avenue Bakery and a member of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, didn't want to discuss the role of politics and race in the decision.

"What I do know is that West Baltimore and Pennsylvania Avenue have been neglected for over 40 years and that's a fact," he said.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said people in Baltimore "shouldn't hold the sins of the past governor against this one." He said Hogan, who has committed to keeping the current contingent of state workers in Baltimore, is open to "all possibilities" for the site.

"We're going to do something that makes sense for the city, the neighborhoods and all the people that live there," he said. And, he added, "It's actually going to be something that gets done."

Political pressure may be growing. Baltimore's City Council passed a resolution March 20 calling on the state to return to the negotiating table. Del. Bilal Ali also called on members of the Legislative Black Caucus and city's state delegation to raise their voices on the issue.

"The only person who can prevent the governor and mayor and council president from redeveloping State Center is the governor himself. Period," said sponsor, City Councilman Eric Costello.

Neighbors said they don't care who redevelops the site, they just want something to happen. They're hopeful their alliance will stick together and pressure leaders to act. But their optimism varies.

"I guess I believe, and maybe I shouldn't, in those stories of happy endings," Allen said. "I still want to believe that our officials will do the right thing."

Roscoe Johnson III, executive director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp., said he's holding out hope that Hogan will revisit the project and find a way to make it work — potentially winning political support from Democratic Baltimore in the process.

"There's an opportunity here for the Hogan administration to show that they are different than any previous administration, whether they're Democrat or Republican," he said. "If he's the man that I think he is, I think he will come to the conclusion that it's the right thing to do."

"We want to see the State Center project come alive again and that's it," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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