State officials and the developer say the project is moving ahead, but the recent events — including a lawsuit — could at least delay commencement of the massive, five-phase, transit-oriented project, officials acknowledge. The complex is supposed to be constructed over 15 years.
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Critics, however, say the project is ill-advised at a time when the state is financially strapped — and when empty downtown office space is going begging (and is cheaper per square foot than the offices to be built at the State Center).
Here are the recent headlines:
•Early this month, the Maryland Public Policy Institute issued a report criticizing potential taxpayer costs associated with the project, which the conservative-leaning group estimated at $127 million for the first phase.
•Next, a judge cleared the way for a lawsuit brought by commercial property owners challenging the State Center project because they worry it will drain tenants from downtown, where vacancy rates are already high.
•Then state Comptroller Peter Franchot withdrew his long-standing support for the State Center, saying in a July 15 letter to the secretaries of the state Department of General Services and the Department of Transportation: "I simply do not believe that we can risk the possibility of 'maxing out the State's credit card.'"
Despite the downpour of bad news, state officials associated with the project and the developer vowed to push ahead.
"The project is still on," Michael A. Gaines, assistant secretary in the Department of General Services real estate division, said Friday.
State officials say the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to proceed because the project will not only provide much-needed office space for 3,500 state agency employees but will also return state-owned land to Baltimore's tax rolls, create jobs and reconnect historic neighborhoods separated by what some have called a 28-acre "wasteland" of 1950s-era structures.
Despite the lawsuit plaintiffs' fear that the sprawling project could destroy downtown Baltimore's commercial district, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is in favor of the new State Center, a mayoral spokesman said last week.
"Her thinking is, Good projects have a way of continuing to move forward despite difficulties," Ryan O'Doherty said.
O'Doherty continued, speaking of the downtown property owners' lawsuit: "[There is] this notion that you can continue to threaten viable projects by constant, ongoing litigation. … She's of the belief that you can have two successful areas of the city or more moving forward."
The developer plans to start the first phase of development — some 500,000 square feet of offices in two buildings for three state agencies, as well as a garage, a grocery store, shops and 100 apartments — "at the earliest possible date," said Caroline G. Moore, chief executive officer of Ekistics, the lead developer, in an interview Friday.
Moore said she could not give a more specific time frame because of the pending lawsuit, but she said the state was on track to move agencies into their new buildings by 2014.
Work on the initial, $200 million phase is moving forward, Moore said, including design work and planning.
The first element of the new construction — a garage to be mostly financed by the state through a planned $33 million bond sale that has been delayed by the pending lawsuit — "is not in jeopardy" and will proceed according to plan, Moore said.
Preliminary work is also progressing on the later stages of the project. All told, the five phases are to contain some 6 million square feet of space.