HCFA decision slighted the city

THE General Services Administration's decision to build a major government headquarters in suburban Woodlawn instead of downtown Baltimore is a triumph of technique over policy and technicians over policy-makers.

The issue is not only about the location of the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration. It is also about urban policy, regional progress, public leadership and the role of the GSA (the government's real estate agency) in matters of fundamental importance to this nation's cities. As the GSA's regional administrator said recently, the decision was made by "technical experts" and was based on "technical factors." One has no reason to doubt the GSA team's expertise -- only to regret its myopia. Instead, one must challenge the decision process and the criteria the body used in its deliberations.


When our government -- federal or state -- invests scarce resources in major projects, we taxpayers have a right to expect decisions in the broad public interest, not the narrow self-interests of local politicians and government employees who, after all, are there to serve the public.

In the HCFA case, the GSA evaluated traditional -- and essential -- site-related criteria, such as employee access, building quality and builder qualifications, as well as price. But it reputedly dismissed the appeals of city officials to help the city's struggling inner-city economy.


The public interest demands a different philosophy on government's part that is geared to the city's place in the region, the government's role as strategic investor as well as employer, and the links between public decisions and private initiatives in our market economy.

Consider the HCFA decision in this light:

* Baltimore's downtown is the heart and soul of the Baltimore region, but in common with other urban centers, the city's heart has been severely weakened and its soul demoralized in recent years by a loss of businesses, jobs, residents and federal subsidies.

* Federal and state projects can be important catalysts in reversing this cycle of decline and in fueling urban economic growth because they signal commitment, as well as bricks and mortar, that may inspire private investors to risk their capital, time and effort. This leverages limited tax dollars through the private market. The HCFA decision is not about new spending; it is about the effective redirection of existing budgets.

* HCFA is one of the easiest types of public projects to relocate because it is meeting an objective, factual need to accommodate basic government operations, and its impact is straightforward. It is not a risky, unproven or innovative concept, as Harborplace was at its inception. Nor is it a complex decision with major political overtones like opening a military base or relocating a plant. It entails more basic trade-offs between community benefit and agency and employee convenience.

* Public funding for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the light rail and the $37 million City Crescent office building has helped cement gains already achieved by the Inner Harbor's development but has helped revitalize the Howard Street corridor. HCFA would stimulate investor confidence as well as capital to further this effort, much as Oriole Park already has become an excellent example of commercial spin-offs from well-targeted developments that Memorial Stadium never could generate beyond its boundaries.

The HCFA decision, in short, should not have been based mainly on technical criteria nor on parochial politics, but on this )R project's impact on the heart of the Baltimore region.

Because it is not too late to reverse this decision -- the partners in the Inner Harbor West Joint Venture have appealed it -- our leaders should consider how well-managed corporations and other governments, particularly in Britain and France, would address the HCFA issue.


First, regional vision and policy objectives would drive the analysis of alternative sites, not be defined by them. The main objective in this case is to promote a strong and vibrant city that can sustain the economic, civic, educational, cultural, health, sports and entertainment institutions which benefit the entire region.

Second, the criteria for evaluating alternatives should flow from such policy objectives, not from technical factors. What impact would HCFA have on containing the flight of jobs from downtown and on attracting new businesses and jobs? What leverage would be gained for the city's life sciences strategy in spawning the growth of health care, administration and specialized suppliers such as private insurance carriers? What demand would be generated for light rail, retailing and consumer services? What financing and environmental costs could be reduced through reuse of existing infrastructure compared to increased growth in the suburbs? The definition and measurement of criteria like these are considerably more challenging than analysis of the technical criteria used by the GSA. Yet policy-makers, both in government and business, need such support if they are to achieve broad consensus among their many constituencies.

Third, policy-makers should make the decision, and technical experts should advise them. It is unthinkable that a corporate board of directors and chief executive would delegate the major decisions on a new plant or headquarters building to the facilities department. Yet that is what the governor, the mayor, two senators, several representatives and Baltimore's business leadership have allowed to happen in the HCFA case.

It is equally unlikely that a member of the British Parliament or the French National Assembly would demonstrate the strident advocacy of Rep. Helen Delich Bentley in favor of a suburban site at the expense of her own region's downtown. This is because both countries have adopted regional policies to direct public investments to inner cities -- policies which both conservatives and liberals support. Corporate strategy and public policy both begin with a vision of the enterprise and the statesmanship to go beyond parochial boundaries, be they political, geographic or bureaucratic.

The HCFA decision should indeed be reviewed and revised. But what the decision really cries out for is an affirmative policy that focuses scarce resources where they will make a difference to the American city at its moment of greatest need.

Mahlon Apgar IV heads Apgar & Co., a Baltimore corporate real estate counselor. He has no affiliation with the parties in the HCFA siting decision.