Gov. Larry Hogan is issuing a new call for developers interested in taking over the State Center project in midtown Baltimore, seeking to advance a long-delayed project that still is tied up in lawsuits.
“After more than 15 years of inaction and failure I am pleased to announce that we are finally able to move forward on the redevelopment of State Center,” Hogan said at a meeting of his cabinet he called together Thursday at the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center in West Baltimore.
But it remains unclear when the project actually will be able to advance past legal hurdles.
Some Democratic leaders dismissed the Republican governor’s announcement as more of a campaign statement than a major step forward for State Center.
Hogan said he expects to resolve litigation soon with Ekistics LLC, the developer that had been working on the State Center project for nearly a decade. His administration has attempted to force the company out of the project, and he said Thursday it offered Ekistics a “very generous” settlement. He did not elaborate.
But a lawyer for the company called Hogan’s announcement “a grand distraction” from the firm’s efforts to resume work on the project.
The 28-acre, 1960s-era State Center complex is home to offices for the state departments of health and labor and hundreds of state workers. Its redevelopment is seen as key in jump-starting investment in nearby, economically depressed West Baltimore neighborhoods.
Ekistics has been involved in the planned redevelopment of State Center since 2009, when the former developer, Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, left the project. Ekistics CEO Caroline Moore had been a project manager on State Center for Struever.
Ekistics’ $1.5 billion plan called for overhauling the area with new offices for state workers, residences and shops.
But Hogan sought to start fresh on the project in 2016, when he led a vote by the state Board of Public Works to void the state’s agreement with Ekistics. The governor cited slow progress and exorbitant costs, and the state sued Ekistics to force it out of its State Center leases.
Ekistics countersued last year, saying the state’s actions were politically motivated. The developer was hired under former Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.
The most recent public filing in the court case is a status report dated May 25. Both sides said they were still working to resolve a dispute about what evidence the developer had to turn over to the state.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, which is representing the state, declined to comment because the lawsuit is continuing.
Hogan said the state has made several settlement offers to Ekistics in recent years, but he called this one final.
“We put a very generous offer on the table just to get rid of these guys,” Hogan said while touring the State Center complex Thursday afternoon.
Michael Edney, the attorney for Ekistics and related business State Center LLC, did not answer questions about the status of the litigation or any potential settlement. He called Hogan’s announcement “a grand distraction from the State Center plan previously approved by Republican and Democrat Governors that is ready to build today.”
“Governor Hogan canceled that plan; Governor Hogan started litigation with the developer who was ready to build it; and it is Governor Hogan who has no desire whatsoever to revitalize Midtown Baltimore, otherwise he would allow the existing plan to proceed,” Edney said in a statement.
Hogan said Ekistics has “delivered no measurable work product to date” and that he wants to move past legal challenges he called “frivolous” as soon as possible.
“As soon as that legal obstacle is out of the way, the next day we’ll be able to move forward,” he said.
State officials expect to complete the process of soliciting interest from developers by September, after which they could issue a formal request for interest or request for proposals for the site.
Hogan told state workers gathered on West Preston Street he hoped to deliver them open-design, high-tech office spaces.
“You guys wouldn’t mind some nice brand new buildings, would you?” he said. One worker shouted: “New toilets!”
And he said the redevelopment also would connect State Center with surrounding neighborhoods and provide jobs and a grocery store. Hogan described the previous plan for a mixed-use development as “more state office high-rises” that wouldn’t benefit the community.
“It’s not what people in the neighborhood want,” he said. “Our proposal is going to actually make sense and be something that they'll love.”
State Sen. Barbara A. Robinson, who sponsored a law passed this year requiring that the redevelopment take neighborhood wishes into account, called Hogan’s actions “incredible.”
“We’ve been working on this for over 10 years,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “It was at a standstill. Nothing was happening.”
But other Baltimore and Democratic Party leaders discounted the impact of Hogan’s announcement as political grandstanding in an election season.
“In less than four years, Larry Hogan blocked both State Center and the Red Line, and he’s hoping that today’s announcement will make Baltimoreans forget,” Maryland Democratic Party chair Kathleen Matthews said. “It won’t.”
Baltimore Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes State Center, said he didn’t think the governor’s announcement was meaningful. Costello blamed the state for stalling the project by initiating the lawsuit against the developer.
Until the court case is resolved, nothing can happen at the site, he said.
“The update is not really an update; there’s absolutely nothing new in that statement,” said Costello, a Democrat. “They’re recapping where things are at.”
Many of the city’s Democratic leaders have pushed for the State Center redevelopment to move forward, hoping it will spark further investment in an area that gets little of it.
Del. Bilal Ali, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the future of the project because of the governor’s attention to it. But he said he would prefer the state move ahead with the current developer, renegotiating parts of the deal if necessary.
“This could be a hell of a game changer,” Ali said. “The current developer is shovel ready and taking steps backwards.”
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh did not comment on Hogan’s action. As she left a meeting with the governor and law enforcement officials, she said the State Center project wasn’t discussed.
John Kyle, a Bolton Hill resident who is president of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, said he was not impressed by the announcement. He said he suspected it was timed to coincide with the first day of early voting in statewide primary elections. He said he was hopeful, but doubtful, that a settlement would soon clear the way for the redevelopment.
“What he announced is what we knew yesterday; it’s what we knew last month,” Kyle said. “Unless there is a real settlement in the offing, I don’t see how anyone can view this as good news and a big step forward.”
Hogan’s announcement came during a day of dozens of events his administration had scheduled around Baltimore. Though the governor officially launched his re-election bid Saturday, the appearances were not campaign events.
He started the day with an appearance on The Larry Young Morning Show on WOLB-AM, and he held a roundtable discussion with members of the Baltimore philanthropic community and spoke at the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s Industrialist of the Year luncheon.
He called his cabinet meeting at the Shake & Bake center “historic.” The Pennsylvania Avenue bowling alley and roller rink was closed for repairs for months before it reopened in March, and with the help of a Maryland Energy Administration grant, it was able to cut its admission price from $5 to $1, Hogan said. He said it was part of state investment in Baltimore that surpasses its support of any other jurisdiction in the state.
“The Bake is back,” he said. “We’re literally bringing the entire leadership of state government right here to historic Pennsylvania Avenue, direct to you here in Baltimore City.”
Some city politicians were less than welcoming.
Despite his hope for the State Center project, Ali derided the governor’s visit, saying Hogan needs to undertake serious community development projects to truly help the city.
"He’s just crusading through Baltimore today, saying he’s going to save us?” Ali said. “That’s so sad.”