Baltimore lawmakers press Hogan to get State Center project on track

The following article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun on April 7th: 

Baltimore lawmakers called on Gov. Larry Hogan Friday to drop the state's lawsuit against the developer of the $1.5 billion State Center project and come to the table to discuss how to get the midtown development plan back on track.

Members of the city House delegation were joined by state Sen. Barbara Robinson at a meeting called to rally support for the stalled project, which the Board of Public Works scuttled in December after more than a decade of planning, negotiations and litigation.

When the Republican governor led the board in canceling the leases at the heart of the project, he pledged his support for the eventual redevelopment of the aging state government office complex. But he said the project he inherited from former Gov. Martin O'Malley "makes absolutely no economic or development sense." Critics of the project contend the state agreed to pay higher than market-rate rents for the agencies that were supposed to anchor the redevelopment.

Soon afterward, the Hogan administration launched a pre-emptive legal strike, suing developer Ekistics LLC before the company could sue the state for breach of contract.

Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the Baltimore House delegation, urged Hogan to reverse course.

"I'm absolutely asking the governor respectfully to drop the lawsuit and come back to the table," he said. Anderson, like all members of the city delegation, is a Democrat.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer rejected that advice. "That's not going to happen," he said.

Mayer blamed Ekistics for holding up redevelopment.

"The only thing preventing that from happening at the current moment is the group of developers that refuse to get out of the way and let this new project move forward," Mayer said.

The State Center project was conceived under the administration of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and was carried forward under O'Malley, a Democrat.

The plan developed after lengthy negotiations with surrounding neighborhood organization envisioned a mixed-use development with state offices, retail stores and residential units. At the heart of the concept was a much-coveted supermarket in an area that has been described a a "food desert."

The existing government complex was built during the 1950s and 1960s and is now in a state of disrepair. Employees who work at the complex have complained about vermin infestations, among other problems.

While thousands of employees work there during daytime hours on weekdays, the 26-acre site is largely deserted on weekends and at night — something officials sought to change with the redevelopment plan.

The lawmakers invited Caroline Moore, chief executive of Ekistics, and John E. Kyle, president of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, to present their case for moving forward with the project.

"We're ready to get the project done. We're ready to get shovels in the ground," Moore said. "The legal process could go on for five-to-seven years and that wouldn't serve anyone well."

Kyle complained that the neighborhood group's repeated requests for a meeting with Hogan had been ignored.

"We're beyond frustrated," he said.

Spotting Hogan aide Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. in the back of the room, Anderson put him on the spot by asking him to explain the governor's position.

"At this time, it is in litigation so I'm not authorized to comment," said Mitchell, a former city delegate. He promised to convey a request for a meeting back to Hogan.

With the General Assembly's 2017 session in its final days, the lawmakers acknowledged there are no legislative moves they can make now that could help jump-start the project. However, they vowed to make State Center a priority through the rest of the year and into the 2018 session.

Del. Bilal Ali, a newly appointed city delegate who has adopted State Center as his top issue, said the two Democrats on the Board of Public Works, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, share in the responsibility for derailing the project.

He also criticized Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat, for pursuing the litigation against the developer, saying he wanted an explanation for why Hogan put $900,000 in his budget to conduct the legal battle.

"I'm not letting anybody off the hook," Ali said. "This is a game-changer for the city of Baltimore. ... We're going to continue to fight to get the stakeholders back to the table."

Del. Robbyn T. Lewis, another recently appointed lawmaker, tied the governor's decision on State Center to the $3 billion Red Line light rail project, which she said Hogan had "whimsically canceled" in 2015.

Robinson, whose district includes State Center, expressed concern about the state's decision to move almost 100 employees from State Center to Crownsville last year. She said that if the remaining 3,000 state jobs at the complex follow, the area could be deserted.

While Robinson said Mayor Catherine Pugh, her Senate predecessor, fully supports the project, others suggested the Democratic mayor should make that case more forcefully.

"I'd like her support to be a little more rowdy and a little more raucous," Kyle said.

A spokesman for Pugh could not be reached immediately for comment.

Melissa Heuer