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Building a more equitable Port Covington

Op-ed: How to build a more equitable Port Covington


“We will build it together”’ is the Port Covington claim. Indeed, with proposals for massive city, state and federal public subsidy of nearly $2 billion over the next 50 years we are all investors with a stake in the proposed development. Because more than three-quarters of the money budgeted for the development’s infrastructure phase comes from all of us as taxpayers, we should have a historic opportunity to build it together — and to get it right.

It’s time for the Baltimore City Council to ensure that the massive, publicly financed Port Covington project is re-aligned with a new paradigm to realize equitable growth for all the residents of the city investing in it and sharing it’s risks over the next five decades.

As it stands now, the Port Covington Tax Increment Finance (TIF) proposal offers a prime example of structural racism in the way that public resources flow to communities in the city in amounts disproportionate to the areas’ needs and are cut, for the most part along, racial lines. Take the master plan’s proposal for new high-end open space areas on site, amenities that will help the developers market planned offices and luxury apartment towers in a city that has been closing recreation centers and can barely afford to maintain the parks it already has. The “infrastructure” work in the first series of TIF bonds that the city is rushing to authorize, is solely for building two new parks and an “archaeological pier” at a cost of $49 million. For context, $49 million is more than three times greater than Baltimore’s entire annual capital budget for parks and recreation facilities city-wide.

Also typifying the structural inequity of Baltimore’s development process is the question of whether the full spectrum of taxpayers and workers employed at Port Covington will be able to afford to live in the new community, including the low-wage retail workers, restaurant servers, security officers and clerical office workers who will make Port Covington tick. Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano waived the affordable housing requirements of the city’s 2007 Inclusionary Housing Law, which mandates 20 percent of the units to be affordable at a range of incomes, with no review by the city’s Inclusionary Housing Board. Instead, the city negotiated a vague memorandum of understanding in which the developer pledged to make reasonable efforts to obtain funding from affordable housing programs to include a small number (10 percent) of housing units affordable to households making 80 percent of the area median income ($46,000 for a single person or $65,750 for a family of four) — way above the $26,750 that Sagamore estimates full time retail workers at Port Covington will earn.

To build a vibrant, inclusive community, Port Covington should be designed so that 25 percent of its residential units are affordable at a variety of income levels below 80 percent of the area median. The City Council should mandate that 20 percent of the TIF proceeds be used to help underwrite the costs of the affordable housing at Port Covington.

If we are to “build it together,” then Baltimore officials also should require strong and legally binding local hiring and training commitments to city residents, instead of the vague promises made in another memorandum of understanding to “strive” to employ 20 percent city residents. At least 51 percent of jobs at Port Covington ought to go to city residents. The project also should not just meet, but exceed, the city’s usual standards for minority and women-owned businesses in the development phase.

Let’s think even bigger. City officials could build on the vision for Port Covington by pressing for an Under Armour factory or warehouse in or near West Baltimore. That kind of middle-wage job creation plan would replace the loss of industrial-zoned land at Port Covington and create lasting opportunities for workers in communities like Sandtown, Harlem Park and Carrollton Ridge.

The developer, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and his Sagamore Development Corporation, have entered an agreement with six neighboring communities to ensure that they will join in the benefits, and not just the burdens, of the massive development on their borders. But the sheer magnitude and amount of public financing sought to build this new “city within a city” impacts residents and communities city-wide and raises larger policy issues about Baltimore’s future.

Since the much criticized Harbor Point TIF, the City Council has been trying to claw back some of the public financing in TIF deals, as they started to do with the University of Maryland BioPark TIF, to benefit communities and the public good. Now with Port Covington, let’s show that Baltimore has learned a hard lesson from the uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray: that the existence of two Baltimores — one empowered and thriving, the other disinvested and marginalized — is no longer sustainable.

Barbara Samuels is managing attorney for fair housing at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland; her email is

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