Its always safe to assume that when elected leaders have something happy to report, they proudly announce it themselves. And when the news is not so great, or potentially controversial, the duty is handed down to an underling. That was the first clue that last week’s decision to hand over State Center to the city of Baltimore for redevelopment — as revealed by Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford at the Aug. 31 Board of Public Works meeting — was not all lemon drops and sunshine.
The cancellation of the $1.5 billion State Center redevelopment project, along with the abrupt discontinuation of Baltimore’s $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project in Gov. Larry Hogan’s first term, are his chief legacy to Maryland’s largest city. How many thousands of jobs were lost by those decisions? How much better might the city’s economic outlook be right now had he allowed them to move forward?
And yet it might have been worse.
The State Center proposal to transform the 28-acre West Preston Street property into a mixed use development with both private and public investment dates as far back as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and it nearly came to fruition under Gov. Martin O’Malley. If there’s anything to be gleaned from the odyssey, it’s that thousands of state employee jobs are remaining in Baltimore. Workers in dozens of state agencies will be transferred elsewhere, with most headed to the central business district at a cost of $50 million under an appropriation approved just last year by the General Assembly. Downtown’s pandemic-stressed core can use the boost.
But let’s not pretend that this is making the city whole. The governor’s choice to transfer State Center to Baltimore is, at best, a mixed blessing. City officials will surely have a greater impetus to put the land to better purpose, but who is going to pay to remove the existing asbestos-laden structures? Redevelopment was possible in the original plan only because of those state leases. How will Baltimore attract developers now? Who will foot the bill? Perhaps neither Mr. Hogan nor Mr. Rutherford has noticed, but Baltimore has the greatest concentration of poverty in Maryland, the highest property tax rate, and a history of redlining and underinvestment from both the public and private sectors. And now we’re handing over white elephants from the state to the city?
If one thing is certain, the State Center saga is not over. Governor Hogan’s indifference to the surrounding at-risk neighborhoods like Upton or Madison that stood to benefit from the original design was bad enough — as were all the lawsuits and countersuits that enrich lawyers but surely no one else — but how awful to see the sheer waste of a golden opportunity. If State Center has anything going for it, it has been the employment center’s transit connections including Baltimore’s light rail, subway and MARC commuter rail lines. Not to mention transit buses. To envision such a well-connected area being left to rot is not just deeply disappointing, it’s disgraceful.
What’s needed now is for the next governor and Maryland General Assembly to take up this cause and truly be a partner for Baltimore. The original State Center plan can’t simply be revived. That’s water under the bridge. What’s needed is an all-in approach where the State House, City Hall and local business leaders are on the same page working toward the greater good. Workforce housing that might provide apartments for teachers, social workers, police officers, firefighters and other workers of modest means along with retail, post-pandemic flexible work spaces with state-of-the-art technology, restaurants and entertainment areas — nothing should be left off the table. Nor should any funding sources, from direct grants, tax-abatements, public subsidies, nonprofit involvement and beyond.
The project was once a source of pride for the city but was allowed by the state to fall into disrepair and a plan to revive it sabotaged by those in power in Annapolis. We hope one day soon, Maryland’s top civic leaders will stand at its doorstep to announce a plan for a well-considered redevelopment that serves the best interests of us all.
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