Questioning role of government on waterfront


MAYOR Kurt L. Schmoke's cancellation of a plan to spend some $27 million on the proposed HarborView development's waterfront shouldn't end public discussion of what would have been a blatant giveaway of public funds.

After all, the project will probably come back later in another form. And there are still questions about how the city got involved in helping to make millions of dollars in improvements for developers wanting to build a 250-room Ritz-Carlton hotel and dozens of apartments near the 27-story HarborView apartment tower on Key Highway.

While Mr. Schmoke is correct in laying the blame for initiating the plan to subsidize a private development on Gov. Parris N. Glendening, top city officials were willing participants in the deal.

The role of Public Works Director George G. Balog deserves more scrutiny. As reported, the outgoing city administration was planning to buy a 20-foot-wide strip of land along the privately owned development's waterfront and extend the promenade that is to skirt the Inner Harbor from Canton to South Baltimore.

The brick sidewalk, they said, would cost about $10 million. The rest of the money would rebuild the bulkheads along the waterfront.

How much of this work is really necessary for a public purpose, and how much is a gift to a greedy private developer whose appetite for the taxpayer's money is insatiable?

Raiding city funds

The proposal that the city pay $5.6 million for the promenade right of way was nothing less than a raid on the city treasury. The land has no market value, because legally it can be used for no other purpose than a public promenade along the waterfront. In fact, HarborView was required by law to pay for its portion of the promenade, not just provide the land.

Mr. Balog blithely brushed aside the developer's legal obligation to pay for the promenade. A law, to Mr. Balog, is simply "conceptual." Mr. Balog's measurements are also faulty. He describes the length of the walkway section as about a mile. Actually, it's a couple of football fields short of that. At about $1,900 a foot, that's more than a million bucks.

More important, about 40 percent of this section, from the existing apartment tower to the HarborView Marina building, is already completed -- brick sidewalk, bulkheading and all. So where is the $10 million going?

A case can be made for some public contribution toward the construction of the promenade. Hardly anyone questions the value of an attractive path along the waterfront connecting Canton, the Inner Harbor and the underappreciated Museum of Industry on Key Highway.

The city and state have already chipped in millions of dollars for the walkway elsewhere. But what part of the price tag is caused by HarborView's special needs?

Unmentioned is the developer's need to get automobiles across the promenade to the town houses it is planning to build on the old shipyard docks adjoining the apartment tower. The cars can't drive across the walkway, so the promenade would have to rise over an underpass for cars, or walkers would have to pass through a tunnel.

Bridges that would be accessible for the handicapped and for parents pushing strollers could be a very expensive add-on. A financially beleaguered city with a crumbling infrastructure needs to examine its priorities carefully.

For $10 million, the city recently rebuilt an approximately equal stretch of Key Highway into a concrete, four-lane boulevard with a median, new street lights, traffic controls and some underground utility work. That makes the initial planned investment in the walkway appear irresponsible.

Mr. Balog said the bulkheading the city proposes to construct is necessary for, among other things, the proposed second apartment building at HarborView. As an engineer, Mr. Balog must know this is absurd.

The existing apartment tower and marina -- which have new bulkheads -- would stand between the new building and the harbor. The foundation and underground garage for the new building are already in place.

Luxury at what price?

What else is the bulkheading needed for? The proposed Ritz Carlton hotel at the north end of the HarborView tract, perhaps. Granted, the luxury hotel would be a welcome addition to the Inner Harbor. But at what public cost?

Neil Fisher, the hotel's developer, has told community leaders he could not afford to build the hotel without some tax relief. What other subsidies will he seek? Shouldn't all his cards be on the table, face up, before this plan is implemented? How much of the bulkheading would be for the sole benefit of HarborView?

The developer plans to build townhouses on the old docks north of the existing tower. HarborView officials have admitted in past meetings with South Baltimore neighborhood representatives that they were seeking public funds for the necessary site preparation.

That Mr. Glendening was a prime mover in the negotiations for public funds is not in doubt. He convened a meeting last July with his Cabinet secretaries for transportation and natural resources and high city officials. At that meeting, state officials admitted later, Mr. Glendening approved in principle a state contribution of half the estimated $27 million for the project. The $4 million now being publicly discussed was acknowledged to be only a first payment by the state.

The state funds are earmarked for parks and other open space, and for waterway improvements. If public funds for the sport stadiums caused an uproar among some of Baltimore's neighbors, just imagine the reaction when they discover the diversion of money for their open spaces, silted creeks and trout streams.

There is a broader lesson in this affair. Richard Swirnow, president of HarborView, argues fervently that John Paterakis Sr., another politically well-connected developer, has received similar aid across the harbor, so he deserves his turn at the public treasury.

That argument underlines the fact that each appeal for a public subsidy, whether a direct contribution or tax relief, must be scrutinized in the light of its implications for the future.

Once one developer gets help, the others consider equivalent aid as an entitlement. What are the city's taxpayers and the residents of its deteriorated neighborhoods entitled to?

James S. Keat, a retired Sun editor, is a former president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association.

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