Canceling a $1.5 billion economic development project in midtown Baltimore, a city in desperate need of jobs and investment, ought to raise somebody's hackles, or has the city simply run out of defenders in Annapolis? Last month's decision by the Board of Public Works to withdraw leases, and thus cancel, the State Center redevelopment — an ambitious mixed use, transit-oriented redevelopment first envisioned when Robert Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was governor of Maryland — hardly raised a whimper.
Perhaps that was a tribute to Gov. Larry Hogan's last-minute holiday season timing that caught so many off-guard. Maybe it reflected the political clout of the project's opponents, particularly Peter Angelos, who, like other downtown property owners, wasn't wild about the idea of taxpayer-subsidized competition, no matter the obvious benefit to Baltimore or State Center's neighbors. Or it's just possible most people (aside from the developer, that is) had simply given up, the project having languished for so long, the chances it would ever meet Mr. Hogan's approval too slim.
At least the governor and Comptroller Peter Franchot were willing to put on a little show — the governor insisting that some form of State Center redevelopment will move forward some day (as soon as he knows what that might be) and Mr. Franchot throwing out the ludicrous (and that's putting it mildly) prospect of a midtown sports arena to house NBA and/or NHL franchises. Why he didn't simply suggest Santa's workshop be relocated from the North Pole is anyone's guess.
This is the second billion-dollar blow to Baltimore's revitalization, the first having been struck last year with the cancellation of the Red Line, the $2.9 billion east-west light rail system for which there was considerable federal and local support. At this rate, one can only imagine what 2017 will hold. If we were Mayor Catherine Pugh, we wouldn't hold out hope for a new state-financed courthouse, a major boost to the state's public education formula despite continued inequities, or most anything else of consequence coming from the State House. The funding pipeline seems to be going strictly in the other direction.
Indeed, one of the most distressing parts of the board's action was that not one BPW member, not the governor, the comptroller nor even Treasurer Nancy Kopp (the General Assembly's appointee on the board), made a promise that the 3,000-plus state employees assigned to that decaying pile of cinder blocks and steel beams on Preston Street won't eventually be moved to locations outside the city. They didn't announce they would be moving them to Anne Arundel or Prince George's counties, of course, but with no guarantee, that's a distinct, and for Mr. Hogan perhaps politically advantageous, possibility.
Mayor Pugh says she's concerned about the potential job loss and will make it clear to the governor that she wants a state office building of some kind to remain in Baltimore. Exactly where it is located can be open for discussion, she says. But given the conditions at State Center, one imagines some kind of gradual shutdown will take place long before a new building can be built (if one is built at all), with deleterious consequences to the surrounding neighborhoods. The fledgling mayor obviously isn't interested in attacking a popular Republican governor for something he may or may not do. But will she be able to say much more when it's 50 jobs going here or 100 there? Perhaps not.
Does that sound cynical? It should. The chief knock — the public one anyway — against the State Center redevelopment was the cost to the state and the prospect that the lease payment in the private-public partnership would count against the state's debt affordability limits. Those obstacles couldn't be overcome? The developer has promised to file suit, and we believe it — Mr. Hogan has already filed one preemptively. Too many millions have been spent fruitlessly on this project for that not to happen. The dispute could be stuck in court for years. Meanwhile, the cost of doing nothing is pretty high, too — Preston Street maintenance costs have soared, and replacing it outright with state general obligation bonds would probably cost in the neighborhood of $300 million without necessarily spurring all that promised mixed-use, private sector development.