Towson Row has been handled badly but still may be a good deal

We get why many Baltimore County residents are skeptical of (if not outright opposed to) the Kamenetz administration’s proposal for public support of the long stalled Towson Row project. It has been four years since County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proudly announced plans for an “urban centerpiece” for the county seat — a massive mixed-use development across the street from the library — and all that we’ve gotten is a hole in the ground and some blocked sidewalks. The original developer, Caves Valley Partners, is tainted in the eyes of many Towsonites for its close connections with the county executive and its proposal to develop a Royal Farms with gas pumps at the north end of town, a project bitterly opposed by many in the community but championed by the Kamenetz administration. The fact that Caves Valley has largely been pushed aside by the new majority partner in this venture, Owings Mills-based Greenberg Gibbons, seems to have done little to quiet the grumbling.

And it most assuredly has not helped that the Kamenetz administration has been far from transparent in its handling of Towson Row. Announcing the possibility of nearly $43 million in taxpayer assistance for the project in a press release on the day after Thanksgiving — Black Friday? Really? — and then subsequently declining to comment on the matter, as Mr. Kamenetz has done, is bound to raise suspicion. County officials say they announced the deal as soon as it was finalized, but the proposed tax breaks aren’t mentioned until the ninth paragraph of a press release titled, “Towson Row Will Generate 5,500 Jobs, $220 Million in Annual Business Sales.” We know already that the developers of the Tradepoint complex in Sparrows Point will likely be looking for tax increment financing some months from now. Could no one have mentioned the possibility of public support for Towson Row at any point in what county officials say was a months-long negotiation?

No question, Towson Row has become to a great degree a proxy for county residents’ other concerns about Caves Valley and Mr. Kamenetz — who, as is typically the case with Baltimore County executives near the end of their second terms, has worn out his welcome with many voters. And politics, whether related to Mr. Kamenetz’s gubernatorial aspirations or those of the people running to replace him, are at work here, too.

Mr. Kamenetz will be gone from Towson soon enough, but unless something changes, the giant hole in the ground at the intersection of York Road and Towsontown Boulevard will remain. Members of the County Council need to step back from the politics and look at the terms of this deal, which appear modest compared to the potential benefits.

This is different from the tax increment financing deals that have gotten so much scrutiny in the city recently, both in terms of scale and design. About $26.6 million of the proposed assistance comes in exchange for the developer’s agreement to forego two lucrative property tax credits, a community revitalization credit that would have wiped out the project’s property taxes entirely for 10 years and a green building credit that would have cut the property taxes in half for another five. The county would provide the payments up front in a series of disbursements linked to particular elements of the proposed development after building permits have been issued. The developer would have to repay the county for any assistance tied to parts of the project that aren’t completed by the deal’s deadlines. It also has to pay money back if the building isn’t certified as green or if the project misses its minority and women-owned business contracting goals.

The only portion of the arrangement that amounts to a benefit the developer would not be entitled to in some form anyway is $15.4 million tied to the construction of a hotel on the site. That amount represents anticipated occupancy taxes it would generate over 30 years (though a consultant hired by the county estimates that the money for that portion of the project would be recouped in 18-20 years). If the hotel isn’t built on schedule, the developer has to pay that money back, too.

Baltimore County doesn’t usually do this sort of thing, and considering the political connections between the original developer and the county executive, we understand the skepticism. But given the direct and indirect economic impacts a project of this size would generate in the construction and operation phases, this deal has the potential to provide the county with a good return on a relatively small investment.

Tuesday’s council work session helped flesh out the details of the proposal, but there are questions that still need to be explored more fully. Does the deal contain adequate protections for the taxpayers? Would this project really not get off the ground but for this assistance? Are the particular forms of public financing the most advantageous? The Kamenetz administration wants the County Council to vote on this Monday. That’s too fast. Greenberg Gibbons CEO Brian Gibbons says time is of the essence because of the exigencies of syncing up the student housing component with the academic year, but even within those parameters, the council can and should delay the vote until January so it and the public can make sure the deal is as good as advertised.

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