Amid election-year politics, some glimmers of hope for State Center

Gov. Larry Hogan gets huffy when people accuse him of killing the State Center development in Baltimore. He’ll note that all three members of the Board of Public works, including the Democratic treasurer, Nancy Kopp, and the (insert your adjective here — “nominally,” “technically,” “ostensibly”) Democratic comptroller, Peter Franchot, also voted against a modification of the developer agreements that would have been necessary for it to move forward. Mr. Hogan will raise questions about whether the existing plan would have pushed the state over its self-imposed debt limit, and he’ll point to various moves his administration has made to come up with a new plan.

But none of those have been greeted by skeptics as sincere, and his latest, a request for “expressions of interest” from developers, is no different. Three veteran Democratic lawmakers — Dels. Maggie McIntosh, Adrienne A. Jones and Tawanna P. Gaines — called it a “phantom” plan in a letter to the Hogan administration this week and argued that anything other than re-starting work under the existing plan is a recipe for more years of frustration in the community.

Indeed, the fact that one firm has already expressed interest in the project doesn’t mean much. Certainly, David S. Brown Enterprises is fully capable of executing a transit oriented development on this scale — it has already done so at the Owings Mills metro stop. But the state remains mired in litigation with Ekistics, the developer selected for the project nearly a decade ago by Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration, and it is doubtful that the Hogan administration could move ahead until that is resolved. A new “final” settlement offer the state put on the table last month has, so far, not changed anything.

And even if the legal problems disappeared, it’s far too early to say whether Mr. Hogan’s effort would produce anything like what the surrounding communities need. The state says it will ask qualified respondents to the “expression of interest” to answer a “request for information,” and those who pass the second level of screening will be invited to answer a “request for proposals.” All this means we’re a long way off from knowing whether this process would produce anything like the high quality mixed-use development that was on the table before.

In fact, the request the state issued last month includes no specifications for the redevelopment site at all. It doesn’t ask for developers to consider mixed-use development and, most crucially, it doesn’t even mention the question of whether the 3,000-some state workers on the site now will remain. There has been much debate over the years about whether the lease rates baked into the existing development agreement were too high, but it is abundantly clear that without a long-term commitment by the state to keep a significant presence there, the site itself wouldn’t be able to support anything close to the quality of development neighbors have been promised. A study commissioned by the Hogan administration on uses for the site — an inquiry that didn’t include state leases as part of the plan — saw market conditions there ripe for fast food, some strip malls, low-rise offices and a 25,000-foot grocery store, which is about a quarter of the size of the one in the original plan. Governor Hogan has promised to keep the State Center employees in Baltimore, but he has not committed to keeping them on the site.

The General Assembly has done what it can to make sure State Center lives up to its promise. Legislation passed this year requires that any redevelopment of the site include a binding community development agreement, a role for neighborhood groups in picking the developer and various measures to ensure that city residents share in the project’s economic impact. The legislation also requires that state agencies serve as the anchor tenant “to the extent possible,” which is not quite the same thing as a guarantee.

If Mr. Hogan wants Baltimoreans to stop criticizing him for killing State Center, he needs to pledge in no uncertain terms that, whoever builds it, the state agencies will remain. His Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous, has promised to rebuild State Center, and he says step one would be to drop the state’s lawsuit against Ekistics. That’s certainly a good start. He says he would sit down with Ekistics to determine whether it’s possible to move forward with the firm under the circumstances but that in any case, he would maintain the original spirit of the project. That’s sensible, but he still needs to explain how he would get around the objections that scuttled the project in the first place. After all, it appears extremely likely that both Mr. Franchot and Ms. Kopp will remain on the Board of Public Works no matter who wins the governor’s race. We believe the financing obstacles are surmountable, but you can’t promise to redevelop State Center without addressing them.

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