Hogan urged to reboot State Center

Two years ago, after the smoke cleared from the arsonists' fires in West Baltimore, John Kyle saw a special opportunity for the governor of Maryland to help the city — particularly, a part of the city long neglected — recover from the trauma of the Freddie Gray disturbances.

It was one thing for Larry Hogan to "save the city," as the governor put it, by sending the Maryland National Guard to North Avenue. It would be quite another for Hogan to push for the larger things that could benefit Baltimore, a city he said he loves, for years to come.

As Kyle, a Bolton Hill resident, saw it, all Hogan had to do was support State Center, a 10-year, $1.5 billion redevelopment of the old and cruddy state office complex on the west side of central Baltimore, near North Eutaw Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, just a short march from the sites of the vandalism and arson fires on the day of Gray's funeral.

A developer had been chosen; the project already had been planned and designed, with lots of community input. State Center had survived a long delay caused by a ridiculous court challenge. The state and the developer had been through mediation over elements of the deal, with a retired federal judge presiding. Shovels, it seemed, would finally be ready.

So to Kyle, president of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, this looked like a fastball down the middle of the plate, offering Hogan, a suburban Republican, a keen play against type. Hogan just had to swing. Kyle thought he would.

The 28-acre redevelopment would bring 24-7 life to a desolate 9-to-5 patch of the city far from the Baltimore waterfront. There would be new office buildings as well as retail and residential spaces, and thousands of temporary and permanent jobs. State Center was just the kind of inner-city, transit-oriented project urban visionaries hail. The plans included turning part of the 5th Regiment Armory into a grocery market.

Kyle figured the pro-business Hogan would support State Center. Not only would the large-scale project provide economic stimulus for the city; it would make Hogan look like an action hero compared to his Democratic predecessor, Martin O'Malley.

"Governor Hogan could be a winner with this redevelopment, especially right after Freddie Gray died," Kyle says. "And he could tout that he got the project going in one year, something that Gov. O'Malley couldn't do in eight."

Instead, Hogan backed out of the batter's box. In December, the governor and the other two members of the state Board of Public Works canceled the deal with the project's developer and went to court to affirm the state's right to do so.

Kyle was shocked. He also adds these words to describe his reaction: "frustrated" and "disgusted."

He takes pride in the social, economic and racial diversity of the alliance of nine neighborhoods that united to support State Center — Bolton Hill, Druid Heights, Heritage Crossing, Madison Park, Marble Hill, McCulloh Homes, Mount Vernon/Belvedere, Seton Hill and Upton.

"We forged an alliance of neighborhoods that has continued to hang together despite the passage of time and an ever-changing set of problems in getting the redevelopment underway," he says. "To have [the project] just swatted away ... I was shocked."

At December's meeting of the Board of Public Works, the state comptroller and state treasurer joined Hogan in voting to void the leases for office space that underpinned the state's agreement with the developer. Hogan said of the plan: "It is obvious to absolutely everyone that the previous proposal makes absolutely no economic or development sense."

But it has not been obvious to the developer, Caroline Moore, president of Ekistics LLC and CEO of State Center LLC. In several conversations since the board's vote, Moore told me she has no idea what killed the project. "Mediation, unfortunately, shed no additional light," she says. "No reason was given at any time as to why they rejected the original plan or every proposal [the state] subsequently asked us to present." Hogan, she says, never spoke to her about the project.

Last month, a group of Baltimore legislators urged Hogan to drop the state's lawsuit against Moore and get State Center back on track. ("That's not going to happen," the governor's spokesman responded.) On Monday afternoon, at City Hall, there will be another such gathering and more urging of the governor to reverse his decision.

It occurs to me that Hogan has a great opportunity to respond personally, get out of the litigation and perhaps spare the state a costly settlement. Before he took office, the governor ran a successful company that, according to its website, "completed $2 billion in real estate transactions by bringing sellers and buyers together to create win-win scenarios."

Given that, the governor should strive for a win-win with State Center instead of scrapping a decade of hard work — especially when it includes a chance to show how much he loves Baltimore.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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