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Where should buildings go?

The Baltimore Sun

Last of three articles on issues in the campaign for mayor Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke provoked criticism but reinforced the fledgling Harbor East development when he chose the site for a convention center hotel.

Years later, former Mayor Martin O'Malley pushed the city to invest more than $300 million on a real convention center hotel - Baltimore's costliest public project ever.

And Mayor Sheila Dixon defied conventional wisdom this year by refusing to support a $75 million high-rise planned for Canton's waterfront.

Baltimore's next leader, too, will likely imprint his or her signature on development issues like these, the ones with the power to reshape the city's skyline, influence the health of its neighborhoods and enrich certain builders.

"The mayor can make a huge difference," says Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and a former city councilman. "The mayor and the Cabinet they appoint can have a very, very big influence on those types of policies."

Eight candidates are vying for Baltimore's top elected job in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary. Of those, Dixon, who took over the position when O'Malley became governor eight months ago, quickly made headlines by endorsing affordable-housing legislation and blocking waterfront high-rises in Canton and Federal Hill.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., the other front-runner, has stood out as well, questioning the convention center hotel deal in 2005 and helping Mercy Medical Center demolish a row of historic downtown houses for an expansion.

Neither Dixon nor Mitchell forcefully objected to the developers of Harbor East getting $33 million in tax breaks to build Legg Mason's new corporate headquarters.

In the next four years, as Baltimore continues to ride its growth spurt, whoever becomes mayor will have to continue weighing the necessity of granting builders financial incentives, keep balancing the value of historic preservation against the value of new construction, and evaluate whether the city is doing enough to ensure that homes stay within reach of the working class.

He or she will most likely also begin wrestling with a huge issue for almost every city property owner: the tax rate.

Dixon has already convened a task force to explore the matter, while Mitchell has promised to cut property taxes by 12 percent if he's elected.

"We have felt for a while ... that we really need to have a focus on how we can get the property tax down," says Landers, whose organization's political action committee has contributed to both Dixon's and Mitchell's campaigns.

"Yes, crime is a factor and certainly schools are, but the property tax has a very negative impact on development in the city. It's one reason you see property values low compared to surrounding [county] subdivisions."

Adds Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee: "A property tax cut is feasible, but it will take some tough and perhaps even courageous decisions on the part of elected officials."

Though Baltimore's crime concerns, particularly its climbing homicide count, have dominated this year's political debate, the candidates have dedicated some time to talking about development. Usually the conversation turns to the inequity between investment downtown and the rest of the city, particularly its more blighted neighborhoods.

At a recent forum, Del. Jill P. Carter pledged that she would "get rid of the Baltimore Development Corporation that's focused only on downtown and nothing uptown."

Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway decried the city's use of tax breaks for developers, saying, "We need to stop giving the rich so many tax breaks."

Schools administrator Andrey Bundley said he thinks the city could be doing more to get Baltimore residents involved in major construction projects like the one set to bring 1,100 new homes to the Uplands community in Southwest Baltimore, or the $800 million biotechnology park growing adjacent to Johns Hopkins Hospital on the east side.

Dixon and Mitchell, however, say accusations that the city is only focused on the waterfront aren't grounded in reality.

"BDC is beyond just Inner Harbor, it's all over the city," Dixon said. "We're working with main streets all up and down."

She also said the city will hire Baltimore workers for the convention center hotel, due to be finished next year, and that officials go out of their way to involve minorities in public land deals.

"The last seven years, every development deal you see going up has an equity minority partner," Dixon said. "It's going to create opportunities for African-Americans that have not been a part of the process - that's not doing business as usual."

Fry said the new mayor must sustain the momentum he sees finally building on Baltimore's west side and with the budding biotech parks on both sides of town. He or she must also deal with the increasingly congested roads, which Fry thinks could soon discourage people from buying homes or locating businesses in areas like Southeast Baltimore.

Additionally, he thinks the mayor must find a way to create developments where working people can afford to buy.

"We need to find a way to create housing between $150,000 and $300,000 price range," he said. "It really helps build your tax base for the city."

Adam Blumenthal, executive director of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, thinks Dixon's choice of Otis Rolley III and Andy Frank - two of O'Malley's top planning and development managers - for key positions in her administration shows her focus on growth in the city.

However, with many in the architecture and preservation communities disgusted by the last administration's acquiescence in the razing of a number of historic buildings, including Mount Vernon's 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building, Blumenthal said he thinks the new mayor must better understand the value of Baltimore's classic buildings.

"The preservation of these buildings is what makes Baltimore unique," he said. "The next mayor has to recognize that."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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