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The future of Baltimore’s downtown won’t be found in its past | GUEST COMMENTARY

Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has launched a new campaign to try to keep and attract more companies to the core of the city.
Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has launched a new campaign to try to keep and attract more companies to the core of the city. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

It is time for city officials to accept that Baltimore’s central business district (CBD) no longer is the bustling, undisputed hub of commerce in the city. The best hope for its future lies in becoming a more livable mix of high quality residential and commercial uses.

For that future to be realized, however, something else must occur: City officials must stop allowing the voices of the city’s business and financial movers and shakers to drown out the voices of the growing number of Baltimoreans who live downtown. Too often the bottom-line interests of those movers and shakers do not coincide with the best interests of the city.

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The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore recently launched its “Double Down on Downtown” campaign. It also appears to have used its political muscle to fast track a bill allowing digital billboards in a special signage district within the CBD and will receive a share of the revenue from the billboards.

It is unclear how digital billboards comport with the increasingly residential nature of the neighborhood. Did the mayor and City Council bite on yet another idea that benefits a select group of individuals to the detriment of the city as a whole?

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During her remarks at the group’s annual meeting, Downtown Partnership president Shelonda Stokes claimed that the CBD has “all the components of a thriving city.” Perhaps, but Baltimore itself is what economists describe as a shrinking city, steadily losing jobs and population. The high vacancy rates of office buildings in the CBD are largely attributable to the failure of city officials to recognize that Baltimore struggles to hang onto existing businesses, let alone attract new ones.

Ms. Stokes observed that “shift happens,” with businesses leaving downtown for Harbor East, Harbor Point and Port Covington. She stated that “all of that is OK.”

No, it’s not. The city supported the new commercial districts with massive tax subsidies, sacrificing tax revenue needed elsewhere. City officials disregarded warnings that the new buildings would create vacancies in older buildings that landlords could not fill.

Instead, officials clung to the fantasy that the tax breaks would bring new businesses into the city. Developer Marco Greenberg helped develop properties in both Harbor Point and Harbor East. In 2013, he defended the use of enterprise zone tax credits for Harbor East, stating: “It is not about incentivizing development on one piece of land as opposed to one across the street — it’s about attracting investment into Baltimore City and expanding the city’s tax base.”

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Indeed, many existing businesses did move across the street — across President Street and out of the CBD to Harbor Point and Harbor East. New businesses did not materialize in significant numbers, and the commercial vacancy rate in the CBD skyrocketed. It is now an unhealthy 22.8%, and development of Port Covington is just beginning.

Baltimore has difficulty competing for major new businesses not only with nearby cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but also with its own suburbs. Trends — including the pandemic-accelerated movement toward relocating “office work” to workers’ homes — are driving down demand for office space in traditional downtowns nationwide. In other words, the commercial vacancy rate in the CBD is likely to continue to rise, with the transfer of state employees from the State Center slowing the rise only briefly.

The resulting change to the CBD will cause economic challenges for property owners and the city, and managing it requires better planning. First of all, the city must stop ceding control of strategic land use decisions to developers angling for tax breaks for glitzy new developments. Planning must be based on reality, not on promises of new investment and jobs that cannot be kept.

Part of that reality is that downtown already is the fastest-growing residential neighborhood in Baltimore. Residential growth there has the advantage of bringing more affluent residents into the city without necessarily displacing poorer, primarily Black, residents through gentrification of their neighborhoods.

Downtown should be made more attractive to residents by improving its public spaces and walkability. A greener neighborhood bordered on the south by a redeveloped Harborplace that is more open and park-like, as residents and planners have proposed, would go a long way toward restoring downtown’s identity as a “destination of choice,” using Ms. Stokes’ words.

The mayor and City Council must make sure that the interests of current and prospective downtown residents are protected. They should focus on shaping the downtown of the future rather than on trying to resurrect the downtown of the past.

David Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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