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State workers union upset over plan to move Maryland Department of Health offices to Metro West

A union representing state workers is upset with the decision to move the Maryland Department of Health — and about 1,200 employees — to a vacant complex north of downtown Baltimore called Metro West.

The federal government spent about $92 million building Metro West for the Social Security Security Administration. The complex opened in 1980 but has sat vacant since 2014 when the agency left. Two years later, Towson-based Caves Valley Partners bought Metro West from the federal government at auction for $7.1 million.

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Under a proposed contract, the Maryland Department of Health would be its first tenant in a decade, with a 15-year lease starting in 2024 that would cost more than $12.1 million annually.

Patrick Moran, president of the Maryland council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said health department employees are concerned about the condition of Metro West, its location and access to public transit, and that employees were not engaged in the decision to relocate.

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“We’re going to continue to demand transparency,” Moran said. “[State workers] need a safe, clean, healthy place to work … They should be included in the decision making.”

Caves Valley Partners, which is handling leasing of the complex through a joint venture with B&B Realty, did not respond to a request for comment about the current state of building.

Nick Cavey, a spokesman for the Department of General Services which oversees procurement and leasing for state agencies, said his agency and the health department reviewed offers and jointly recommended Metro West.

As part of the lease, Cavey said, the complex will be renovated to meet state standards.

The state health department is planning to use approximately 500,000 square feet at Metro West, a 1.1-million-square-foot complex just north of Lexington Market that stretches two blocks along North Greene Street, with a pedestrian bridge over West Mulberry Street. The agency already leases a parking garage at the complex, using it as a makeshift, temporary morgue for the State Medical Examiner’s Office.

The health department and other state agencies are currently located at a complex of aging buildings near Midtown called State Center. Moran said the buildings, which are about 70 years old, need to be renovated or rebuilt, but noted the area is conveniently located near subway, light rail and bus stops, as well as Interstate 83.

There was a $1.5 billion plan to redevelop State Center, add commercial and residential space and create a vibrant community, but the administration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan nixed the controversial deal in 2016, citing its high cost.

Hogan said in April 2021 that the state would move 3,500 employees from a dozen agencies into office space elsewhere in the city.

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Last month, health department employees learned they would likely be moving to Metro West after the details of the proposed deal were included in an upcoming agenda of the Board of Public Works for approval.

The board, made up of Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Dereck Davis, briefly discussed the project at an October meeting, but postponed voting on the matter until its Nov. 16 meeting.

Davis said he had concerns about some terms of the lease, including the need for a 2.5% rent escalator and whether the state could adjust its rental rate based on deals struck by tenants that might come in later.

“We want to make sure the state is getting the best deal it possible can get on this,” Davis said. “I am not opposed to the project at all.”

The board already has approved similar deals for other agencies to relocate from State Center, but Moran was hopeful that there would be some pushback on this one.

“The [Hogan] administration is hellbent on making it an eyesore and a deadzone,” Moran said of State Center. “I think the administration is more willing to reward some of its developer friends.”

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State lobbying reports show Caves Valley Partners, which owns numerous properties across the region, paid $22,500 this year to lobbyists from Perry White Ross to advocate with the state government on matters related to real estate.

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Moran said it would have been more financially responsible in the long term to invest in state-owned property at State Center, rather than pay rent to landlords.

The state announced plans in late August to give the State Center site to the city for redevelopment.

“It’s an anchor of the city and the state seems to be dumping it on Baltimore City without any plan,” Moran said. “Instead of driving funds toward expensive private buildings … the administration should be investing in state offices and worksites.”

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the $1.5 billion plan to redo State Center was not feasible.

“The previous administration’s plan was an albatross around the state’s neck that would have broken our debt ceiling,” Ricci said in an email. “We now have a plan in place that provides an unprecedented influx of jobs to the central business district in modern, efficient, and transit-oriented workplaces, while allowing city leaders to determine the best use for the current property.”

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When asked whether Mayor Brandon Scott agreed with Moran’s characterization that the state is “dumping” the complex onto Baltimore, spokeswoman Monica Lewis did not use that term.

“The Scott Administration welcomes the opportunity to further explore this matter with Governor Hogan and looks forward to discussing how the state will provide the resources to cover the expenses associated with demolition needs,” Lewis said in an email.


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