There are any number of ways to view last week's raucous City Council committee meeting, where by a 3-0 vote, members approved a $107 million public financing deal for the Harbor Point development.
It was theater, for sure, with drama and high dudgeon preceding the vote. And it was business as usual, since exactly no one expected the taxation committee to buck the mayor and other powerful interests pushing for development of the city's last big harborfront site.
But for Marc V. Levine, it was another chapter in the book he's been threatening to write for years, chronicling what he calls the Baltimore urban development model. A Baltimore native turned professional observer of his hometown, Levine has been distracted by other research projects in recent years, but the city continues to provide material.
Unfortunately, it's mainly variations on the same theme, he says, whether it's the Inner Harbor of the 1970s or the more recent Harbor East.
"The promise is that it will create jobs, it will trickle down to the neighborhoods," said Levine, a professor of urban studies and director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "That clearly hasn't happened."
Levine said Baltimore's taxpayer-fueled developments tend to succeed within their own "bubbles," yet fail when it comes to spreading the wealth beyond, with entire swaths of the city remaining mired in poverty and unemployment.
"One of the lessons of the Inner Harbor development is that it can be successful on its own terms — you can have a flourishing district, but it's more of a kind of gold-coast, tourist bubble than a linchpin for redevelopment of the whole city," he said. "You have to ask: Harbor East, Harbor Point, where is the overall benefit for the city?"
Questions aside, Harbor Point, whose centerpiece will be the regional headquarters of Constellation Energy's new owner, Exelon, is on course for approval. The full City Council will now consider the $107 million in Tax Increment Financing to pay for roads and other infrastructure for the development, with the strong support of the mayor and council president.
And the TIF is only the first of the gifts that taxpayers will keep giving to Harbor Point. As The Baltimore Sun's City Hall reporter, Luke Broadwater, has tallied it, Harbor Point stands to get more than $420 million in public assistance when you include all the tax credits, interest and such that are part of the proposed package.
Whether it's a done deal or not, at least detractors have put up a surprising and spirited fight. Yes, in the same city where the last municipal elections drew a pitiful 23 percent turnout, opponents put on quite a show Wednesday, when the City Council taxation committee held a public hearing and vote on the TIF.
Protesters descended and actual, impassioned discourse ensued, to the point that the committee chair and leading opponent of the Harbor Point deal sweeteners, Carl Stokes, stormed out in a tiff over the TIF.
The vote went on without him, so the walkout could have been self-defeating if it hadn't ultimately proved meaningless. His lone nay wouldn't have changed anything.
But as is usually the case with big-deal developments, most of the real action happens in closed-door meetings. And the public wrangling over Harbor Point has the whiff of a proxy war, with two longtime power brokers, John Paterakis and Peter Angelos, hovering beyond the front lines. Paterakis' partner in developing nearby Harbor East, Michael Beatty, is Harbor Point's point man, while Angelos, who in addition to the Orioles owns multiple properties downtown, is a supporter of Stokes.
The surprise detractor, or rather mild dissenter, is the Greater Baltimore Committee, which supports the TIF but thinks that $33.7 million rather than $107 million should suffice, at least initially.
Talking to Levine about Harbor Point, which he's been avidly following from afar, it occurred to me that with a few changes in vocabulary, we sounded like people who grouse about welfare — to the poor rather than to corporations. A measure meant to be a temporary boost, until recipients could make their way to independence, somehow becomes permanent.
"There's this self-perpetuating redevelopment machine," Levine said. Ideally, public investment should be the spark for development that wouldn't otherwise happen, with private interests taking it from there; instead, Levine said, it has become an expected entitlement for every major development.
"You have a flourishing Inner Harbor, the baseball and the football stadiums, Harbor East, Canton," Levine said. "Presumably the market is different now from when the piers were rotting in the 1970s. … Why not let the market work?"
His fear is that many of the new jobs promised to spring from Harbor Point will actually be existing ones, moving over from the old central business district. And, already, Harbor Point has tried to lure T. Rowe Price, a downtown mainstay its entire corporate life, as a tenant, much as fellow finance company Legg Mason moved over to Harbor East.
"Look what happened to Howard Street, and even the Charles Street corridor when the Inner Harbor was developed," he said. "Even if Harbor Point like Harbor East is a success, what kind of success is that if it comes at the expense of another area?"
Or to paraphrase an adage, what's new is old again.