State Center redevelopment is long overdue in Baltimore

Op-ed: Baltimore neighborhood group calls for State Center redevelopment to go forward.

The state of Maryland and the State Center developers officially begin mediation this week aimed at resolving their long-held differences over proceeding with the redevelopment of the State Center complex in West Baltimore.

Our State Center Neighborhood Alliance, Inc. (SCNA) — composed of nine diverse communities working together — has been engaged in every step of this project for over 10 years, through three different governors. We were on board before there was a development team and even participated in its selection. We believe that the time for redevelopment is overdue, and we look forward to a positive outcome — positive for the state, positive for the project and positive for our neighborhoods surrounding the site.

A truly creative and robust plan is ready to break ground. There are approved development agreements in place, along with leases and zoning regulations. The neighboring communities support it. There is too much investment, too many promises, too much need, and too many opportunities to be realized for this to be delayed any longer. This project deserves to go forward on its many merits.

The State Center complex is located between our nine neighborhoods. It is 26 acres of large, mostly unattractive buildings and parking lots — a typical government compound that is empty outside of weekday, 9-to-5 business hours. There are no amenities to serve our neighborhoods and the people who live in them. This complex divides us and deters cross-community interaction and collaboration. There is hardly any reason to visit unless to conduct business with the state.

Much more could be done with the property, both to help the surrounding neighborhoods — which are in great need to combat some of the highest rates of crime, vacancy and unemployment in the city — and to take advantage of the property's assets, including transit infrastructure. State Center has access to a light rail stop, a metro stop, buses, Martin Luther King Boulevard and, a few short blocks away, Penn Station.

The state recognized this over 10 years ago under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The state put together a plan, convened stakeholders and solicited developers to turn an aging and failing office complex into a new, vibrant, mixed-use community. Such a community would not only retain current state office workers with modern work spaces, but also draw new businesses and their employees; sustain new shops, restaurants and a grocery store; and attract residents with new housing. The goal: a true neighborhood with life 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Under Gov. Martin O'Malley, the planning for the project continued and matured. Thousands of residents participated in discussions to refine and shape the project. Plans were made, revised and improved. Community members executed an "Economic Inclusion Plan" aimed at both job training and short- and long-term jobs. A Community Benefits Agreement was signed with enforceable provisions that both include and support the nearby neighborhoods.

And the development team won a time-consuming lawsuit that delayed progress. Today, the project is still stalled under the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan, who has not offered a public opinion on it.

We urge the current state administration to deliver the positive impacts this project will have on our West Baltimore neighborhoods. Under the agreements, the development team will involve the community in planning, designing and implementing the redevelopment; improve access to transit; generate community jobs and leverage job training for local residents; provide environmentally sensitive construction and design; and help finance additional community-led projects. And, at the same time, bring new tax revenue to the city.

Many of our residents are long-term — even life-long — Baltimore residents. We have watched as other areas in the city — Charles Center, Harbor Place, Harbor East, Harbor Point, Locust Point, Canton, Remington, Federal Hill and now Port Covington — proceed with strong public support and often with public investment. Our West Baltimore neighborhoods have worked hard for over a decade to achieve the same kind of economic transformation that these other communities have gained. And we are still waiting.

We urge the state to resolve its differences with the developers and proceed as intended in 2005, contracted in 2008 and litigated in 2014. We are ready for groundbreaking in 2016.

John E. Kyle (kyleje@gmail.com) and James Hamlin (james_hamlin@comcast.net) are the president and vice president respectively of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, Inc., representing the communities of Bolton Hill, Druid Heights, Heritage Crossing, Madison Park, Marble Hill, McCulloh Homes, Mt. Vernon, Seton Hill and Upton.

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