Baltimore's deal with Port Covington's wealthy developer acknowledges two Baltimores, separate and unequal
Donald Trump is scheduled to come to Baltimore on Monday, the same day the City Council is expected to take up the humongous Port Covington deal, and while I once thought the city needed a large-mouth shark like Trump to sweeten that deal, it appears the city has managed just fine without him.
Thanks to the swan-song efforts of outgoing City Councilman Carl Stokes and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the city has a deal that looks better than any I've seen in 40 years of watching developers walk all over local officials.
It's certainly better than the stupid-huge tax break the city gave Big John Paterakis two decades ago to build a convention hotel a mile from the Baltimore Convention Center. It is gobs better than the deal the City Council made with Beatty Development for Harbor Point in 2013.
I know: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But this time, the city appears to have been negotiating with a developer — Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour, and officials of his development company — who listened to the pastors and neighborhood leaders and responded with concessions and benefits that far surpass any giveback City Hall has ever managed to exact from these deals.
That might be because Plank has deeper pockets than any of the tycoons who asked the city to forgive taxes or issue bonds. But it's all relative. We've never seen a development of Port Covington's scale, and there probably hasn't been one since Eddie Gallagher started building rowhouses around Patterson Park in the 19th century and ended up with some 8,000 to his credit. The city has been asked for hundreds of millions in special financing for infrastructure at Port Covington because the project is estimated at more than $5.5 billion over the next couple of decades. (The land includes the site of The Baltimore Sun's printing plant, for which the newspaper has a long-term lease.)
Going back five mayors, city officials have often appeared desperate for development, even submissive, and they never seemed to act from a position of confidence and strength when it came to Baltimore's waterfront. People who know the real estate market have said that post-industrial Baltimore offered some of the most lucrative opportunities for waterfront homes and office space on the East Coast, and yet city officials acted as if developers were doing us a big favor by acquiring land and making plans here.
People who have to deal with bankers argue otherwise. If property taxes were not so high, they say, developers would be less greedy for breaks. But when it comes to land at the edge of the harbor — Baltimore's golden miles — we seemed to have a problem with that vision thing. We sold ourselves short, and I'm convinced that stemmed more from low municipal self-esteem than from the harsh realities of the marketplace.
Kevin Plank bought so much land at Port Covington, this deal had to happen. I never believed he was taking Under Armour out of the city. The fact that his Sagamore Development agreed to local hiring and affordable housing mandates, and then added $100 million in benefits for neighborhoods near Port Covington and the city generally — it's time to stop, recall the recent history of big redevelopment projects and consider how unusual this one is. I mean, it's almost shocking.
Despite efforts, I've been unable to get an interview with Plank. I have not spoken to him directly in about six years. (He's apparently kinda busy.) But from his actions and published words, it appears that Plank understands the importance of being rooted. He's rooted in Baltimore, and he has a long list of investments to show for it. I give him credit for not being some tone-deaf CEO oblivious to what's happening 10 flights below him. Plank is a global merchant; he travels in fast company. And yet he clearly appreciates what's going on in Baltimore and the role he can play here at this time. He must not have been totally surprised that, post-Freddie Gray, no request for help from City Hall would be easy. The stepped-up commitment to local hiring and affordable housing in the Port Covington deal attests to that. That he and his Sagamore Development officials listened to BUILD leaders attests to that.
But right now, on paper, Port Covington acknowledges that two Baltimores have existed, separate and unequal, for too many years. And so, by agreement, it resists becoming an affluent, all-white enclave, a safe city-attached-to-a-city appealing to millennials who, having rejected the suburbia of their childhoods, want city life without actually living in or near Baltimore's old rowhouse neighborhoods. Port Covington could easily have become that. But, with this deal, it looks like it could become more than that. Potentially, it could become a diverse, inclusive, thriving place — and with a great view of the harbor.