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State legislative analysts have raised some valid questions about the O'Malley administration's plans to move forward with a long-delayed public-private partnership to redevelop the aging State Center office complex into a mixed-use, transit oriented development. In the years that this project has languished due to litigation and other delays, its details have changed and so have the state's finances. Some important elements of the plan, such as the precise size and nature of city tax breaks promised to make the project feasible, remain undefined. Some state lawmakers who were briefed by the Department of Legislative Services last week are questioning whether further decisions about the project should be put off until Gov.-elect Larry Hogan is inaugurated next month.

That has prompted significant concern from the project's backers in the city, including representatives of the surrounding neighborhoods who are justifiably nervous about what could befall their communities if this plan does not go forward. We agree with their view that a redevelopment of State Center is of vital interest to Baltimore, and we share their frustration that this project — initially conceived nine years ago — has not moved forward. But we have confidence that the Hogan administration will come to the same conclusion that the O'Malley administration has: There is simply no better option than to move forward with the current plan or something like it, a fact made evident in the DLS analysis itself.

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The State Center office complex houses about 3,000 state workers, and it is deteriorating rapidly. The buildings are past their useful life, and maintenance costs there have been soaring for years. DLS suggests doing nothing as an option but notes as a drawback that "the state would continue to occupy space that is considered less than adequate, functionally inefficient and in need of substantial eventual investment and future replacement." Just how expensive is it for the state to do nothing? Officials estimated three years ago that they were paying $23 a square foot to operate and maintain the buildings — that's about $12 a foot less than the state would be paying for space in brand-new buildings under the proposed deal. Considering the ground lease the developer would pay, the return of the property to tax rolls and a profit-sharing agreement, and the finances of this deal look a lot more attractive.

Another option would be for the state to handle this the old-fashioned way — that is, by redeveloping the site itself without any private partners of any of the residential, commercial and retail elements that are now part of the proposal. DLS analysts note a 2009 estimate that doing so would cost the state $215 million, but the figure five years later would doubtless be higher. One of the DLS concerns about the existing plan would be whether the annual rent payment, estimated at about $18.5 million, would be counted as an operating expense or as capital debt. If the latter, analysts warned, it could cause the state to violate its self-imposed rule to limit annual debt service payments to less than 8 percent of state revenues. That is potentially a real problem, though floating the bonds necessary to finance a construction project of this magnitude could be as well.

The state could seek to sell the State Center land to a developer and move its workers into existing commercial real estate downtown — no doubt this is the option preferred by Peter Angelos and the other downtown property owners whose lawsuit held up this plan in the first place. But that would put an already vulnerable part of the city at tremendous risk for blight and disinvestment. Moreover, though downtown office rents are generally lower than what the state would be expected to pay at a revitalized State Center, moving to existing commercial buildings would likely force splitting agencies between buildings in inefficient ways. Moreover, leasing 1 million square feet of office space downtown would be bound to drive up rents.

Finally, the state could pursue a new public-private partnership. There's something to be said for that, given that the state has adopted new (and much clearer) rules for such projects since this one was conceived. However, more delays mean more costs for maintenance and higher construction costs for the eventual project, whatever form it might take.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is considering pushing forward with the project by seeking approval for necessary changes to the existing plan at one of the remaining two Board of Public Works meetings of his term. Critics, including Comptroller Peter Franchot, are urging him to leave the issue up to Mr. Hogan as a matter of professional courtesy, if nothing else, but whether he does so is probably irrelevant. What is on the table now is not whether to commit to the project. That was decided years ago. The matter at hand is whether to reduce the number of spaces in a parking garage the state has already agreed to fund in order to make the project fit the amount of money the state has already approved for the purpose. If the state, whether under Mr. O'Malley or Mr. Hogan, rejects that amendment, it creates a problem but doesn't automatically kill the project.

Mr. Hogan may well have other opportunities to influence this project before it breaks ground, but it is worth noting that his lieutenant governor, Boyd Rutherford, was the secretary of the state Department of General Services — and his office was in State Center — when this project was first conceived. He was at the ribbon-cutting in 2006. Circumstances may have changed, but the Ehrlich administration's concept holds: The state needs to replace outmoded and expensive to maintain office space in a way that is affordable, and it should seek to use the project as a catalyst for redevelopment of the surrounding area that takes advantage of its rich public transportation resources. To do otherwise would be foolish.

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