Baltimore council committee backs tax break to spur redevelopment of Northwood plaza

At the request of Morgan State University, a Baltimore City Council committee on Thursday voted unanimously to support millions in tax breaks that officials say will spur redevelopment of the Northwood Plaza shopping center.

The 4-0 vote of the committee — which sends the matter to the full City Council on Monday — came over the objection of local union officials and City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who represents the area.

“Morgan State has asked for the city’s support,” said City Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, chairwoman of the taxation, finance and economic development committee. “I am in full support of the project.”

If approved for inclusion in a state program that permits three tax break areas — called RISE Zones — per jurisdiction, developers of the shopping center say they will embark on a $50 million redevelopment. The RISE Zone designation would mean the developers would not have to pay 80 percent of their property taxes on the improvements at the center for five years.

The tax breaks are expected to be worth more than $4 million over five years. The designation could also be extended for another five years.

“We see this RISE zone as instrumental in the expansion of the Morgan State University and the amenities available to their students,” said Kim Clark, vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s private development agency. “We have always looked at Northwood as being kind of detrimental to that community.”

Developer Mark Renbaum is planning a two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore with a Starbucks aimed at Morgan State students. The redevelopment could also include a grocery store, student apartments, offices, campus police and shopping, the developer says.

The center is owned by the family of Ben Schuster, the major grocer who died a decade ago.

“The shopping center has deteriorated to the point where it is the site of serious criminal activity and it is an eyesore of the highest order,” Morgan State University President David Wilson testified Thursday. “It is literally in Morgan’s backyard. Morgan deserves better. We deserve much better than what we see currently in our backyard.”

The Northwood Commons redevelopment, located along Loch Raven Boulevard and Argonne Drive, is expected to serve as a bridge between Morgan State, which has been constructing new academic buildings next to the site, and the nearby neighborhoods, which have complained for years about the plaza. In 2008, former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was shot and killed at Northwood Plaza during a robbery.

But Dorsey expressed concerns that city officials have not provided specific projections for how much taxes the developers would avoid paying.

“There’s not any question in my mind that this development needs and deserves help and Morgan State is the most qualified institution in the city to be designated as a RISE zone institution,” Dorsey said.

But, he added, “we don’t have a dollar amount. This committee is asked to support a tax benefit and public subsidy in a yet-unspecified amount.”

Representatives from several local unions also testified against the subsidy, urging a delay on the vote. AFSCME union president Patrick Moran, who represents hundreds of Morgan employees, asked the city to hold off on approving the deal until Morgan signs a new contract with some of its lowest-paid workers.

“The workers at Morgan deserve a contract,” testified Jermaine Jones, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of the AFL-CIO.

Along with Middleton, council members Eric Costello, Leon Pinkett and Robert Stokes voted in favor of the deal.

“This project is highly anticipated. This is a project that will reverberate throughout the city,” Pinkett said. “We’re watching. We’re holding this development team to a high standard.”

City Council approval would send the RISE Zone application to state officials for approval.

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