State Center developer rallies support for reeling project

The following article first appeared in the Daily Record on Feb 8th: 

Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., pastor at Union Baptist Church, was born on the same block of Druid Hill Avenue where he now preaches.

The 65-year-old said it’s been roughly 40 years since a full grocery store served the Upton community. Prospects of a new store opening at the nearby Fifth Regiment Armory as part of a $1.5 billion State Center overhaul, he said, excited his congregation and the neighborhood.

But now the development is on the ropes as developer State Center LLC and Maryland, the would-be lead tenant, prepare to duke it out in court after the state rescinded lease agreements, basically killing the project. While Hathaway said he deals in hope it’s disheartening to see the development potentially disappearing.

“To be able to lift up the people, that redevelopment is on the rise, that the rebirth of a community on the rise, and then not see that happen … we should not foster in people’s minds that it takes years, and years, and years for progress to happen. … We need progress in west Baltimore,” Hathaway said.

On Wednesday, Hathaway along with Caroline Moore, CEO of Ekistics LLC and a managing member of State Center LLC, and members of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance held a community meeting to show support for the redevelopment, especially of a grocery store.

The redevelopment of the state’s office complex in the city has dragged on for roughly a decade. The initial proposal dates to the administration of former Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. Progress was slowed by a legal challenge backed by Peter Angelos questioning the state’s process for selecting a developer. That challenge eventually failed in 2014.

After more delays the state and developer started mediation over the project last July. The process was expected to last for 30 days but dragged on for months before collapsing. In December, the Board of Public Works, controlled by Gov. Larry Hogan, terminated the deal. Both sides have since filed lawsuits in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Chris Coffey, a consultant with State Center LLC, said the state’s chosen mediator, retired District Court Judge Frederic Smalkin, suggested a compromise that State Center LLC would’ve accepted but the state walked away.

Moore also said the state kept shifting what it wanted out of the plan, making it impossible to come to an agreement. If the state wants to negotiate, Moore said, State Center LLC is more than willing to do so.

“We’re not a money-hungry developer with a Washington, D.C., lawyer or whatever the tagline (from the Hogan administration) is. If we were we would’ve been long gone,” she said. Moore said Wednesday’s event was intended to show public support for the project and display enough momentum for the redevelopment that it brings the state back to negotiate.

She also said the redevelopment of the armory into a grocery store would not happen unless the full redevelopment of the State Center complex goes forward. A planned unit development guiding the project allows for up to 2 million square feet of office space, 250,000 square feet of retail and 2,000 residential units at the site across North Howard Street from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

“The end goal is to not take no for an answer… the state is entitled for 5 million square feet of mixed-use buildout, it’s on top of a Metro stop, and all nine neighborhoods, and churches, and institutions around said, ‘We want this plan.’ We have documents in place in the state to solve their failing office complex with private dollars. So what’s wrong with this plan?” Moore said.

Neighbors from the surrounding community, such as John E. Kyle, president of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, called the development a necessity for their neighborhood’s future.

He also rejected the idea the site would be suitable for a new arena in the city. Hogan directed the Maryland Stadium Authority to fast-track a study that includes the potential for a new arena at the site.

“I yelled at the TV screen (when the arena was mentioned). I think it’s a ridiculous idea,” Kyle said.

Melissa Heuer