The smoke bombs of State Center and where to go next

This piece appeared on Community Architect Daily on Wednesday, January 24, 2018.

The smoke bombs of State Center and where to go next

By Klaus Philipsen

Lawmakers had no time to read Hogan’s “fresh look” study because he released it only 3 hours before the joint committee hearing took place on Tuesday afternoon. So they couldn’t find out how flimsy the study is or look at the map to discover where State Center is actually located. Thus delegates were all over the map and sometimes not on any map at all, at least not one of Baltimore City.

The logic that emerged from the "smoke" filled hearing and seemed to prevail was something like this: “The project may have been good at some time but it wasn’t built in 15 years and now it’s time is up because everything is different now." To prove how different, one delegate fantasized about Amazon and how it eviscerates retail everywhere. As if retail was ever the Nadir of the project.

"There comes a time when you say this is a long time. There is no shovel in the ground. We're done." Del. (D) Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George's County 

There was also an alternative, albeit conflicting, theory at hand, namely that the proposed deal was bad from the beginning. For those following that second narrative (chief promoter: Governor Hogan) it doesn’t matter that the deal was originally hatched by Republican Governor Ehrlich or that it entails the public-private model typically much beloved among Republicans nor did it matter that the GSA had validated the lease-back approach as the most cost effective scenario or that no one has yet proposed a better way to provide the over 3,000  State employees with up-to-date work space. 

Hogan and the lawmakers who want to see this project dead would rather deal with stuffed teddy bear than with Caroline Moore, no matter how eloquently she presented her side of the story. Moore’s problem: She stepped in when William Struever left the deal, a guy despised by Republicans as a liberal crony of Democrats, a once powerful developer who had stranded his development and construction business during the turmoil of the financial crisis. Fueling the "kill this project, come hell or high water" posture is the belief that the State Center project had not been properly awarded, regardless that Maryland’s highest court had settled this issue already as unsubstantiated. This legend had once been launched by Peter Angelos who had financed a protracted court battle against the presumed competitor of his downtown holdings until the Court of Appeals finally rebuffed him.

That O'Malley then didn't force the deal through in the remaining four months he had in office after the court ruling, but left it to his predecessor to deal with, is one of two major failings of Democrats who were blind to the possibility that the anointed man, Anthony Brown could not become Governor. (The other blunder, of course, was to not begin the Red Line construction earlier).  The latest State Center related legend is that the developer sued the State for $200 million, money that "could be used in Sandtown". Well, this has it backwards, because it was the State who filed suit against the developer, alleging non-performance as a tool to get out of the contract. The developer then filed a counter suit as a defense. The matter is still in litigation.

So why then not do what was suggested in Annapolis: drop this hot potato and move on? Aren’t there many other pressing things to tend to? Surely there must be other ways to give the State employees a decent place to work, what with all the vacant office space, for example in the defunct nearby Social Security West complex? The rents the State would have to pay in that white elephant may be much lower than the ones in the contract for State Center. It is possible that such thinking is already on someone's mind.

Naturally, for the State Center project to be dropped, the State would have to first withdraw its suit; without the suit, though, the State would be in a binding contract and would have to settle an exit. That would certainly cost money. So, dropping the project like a hot potato may be a dream for some, but it wouldn't even be expedient, not to mention that it wouldn’t be in Baltimore’s interest at all. Especially not, since it would be the second multi-billion dollar project that the Governor would yank from Baltimore without giving any plausible alternative, or even a plausible reason.

A State that turns turns a cold shoulder on a team of private businesses which laid out $25 million private dollars for design fees and approvals over the last 15 years not only sends a message to investors that one can’t rely on this State government to hold its word or treat investors fairly but also would also be a slap in the face of the hundreds of people who worked so hard on making the State Center proposal a broadly supported and City approved "Planned Unit Development Plan".

A plan that was slated to do so much more than give State workers a new place of work. The plan healed a big gaping wound in midtown Baltimore currently separating Bolton Hill and Mt Vernon and isolating the public housing along MLK. The plan brought new use to existing transit and missing services to areas in need of stores and open spaces.

 "We've seen what Harborplace did for the waterfront in Baltimore and a redevelopment of the old Can Company did for Canton. State Center would be the catalyst for similar development in our area," Steva Komeh,resident of Marble Hill at hearing Tuesday.

Moore, for example, described how Harris Teeter had selected the armory as a space for a large scale signature grocery store in the Mid Atlantic. "Show us your signed leases",  one of the delegates intoned, stating his credentials as a real estate negotiator. Naturally, without the final green light from the State Board of Public Works that O'Malley didn't provide when he was still Governor and which Hogan was all along set to stall out, no developer in the world could have signed a lease.

But more than any of these objections counts the fact that the Governor hasn't produced as much as a glimmer of an alternative. Talk about an arena is just as much baloney as the study that was released yesterday. Not even the most ardent Hogan fan can maintain that the Governor has shown any viable path forward that would yield results without going through another decade of planning.
Where to go from here? The Governor says he is committed to developing the site.

"The governor wants to move forward with a sensible redevelopment of State Center," Ellington Churchill, Secretary of the State Department of General Services at Tuesday's hearing

Fine, but if he doesn't build on the plans that have been developed in a democratic and fair participatory process with over 50 signators subscribing to it, then he won't be long enough in office to see anything happen. He doesn't have to buy the current deal lock, stock and barrel. If he doesn't like any of the specifics, particularly the lease-back agreement for the State, he should say what he wants changed, instead of hurling Marxist sounding insults about the developer wanting to "line her pockets". What business-friendly governor talks like that, especially when the party in question is $25 million in the red?  Presumably Hogan could even demand that the developer team which includes nationally known entities such as McCormack Baron Salazar, appoint a spokesperson that is not Caroline Moore. 

It is time that all sides come down from the gun turrets and out of the trenches and figure out how to move forward with all the key planning and urban ingredients that the original plan entails. The Governor had enough time to come up with a plausible alternative. The one-year study revealed yesterday was a chance to develop a new concept, but it was squandered. Nobody who understands planning, urban design, transportation or economic development can call the "study" revealed yesterday a useful document. It is entirely void of any useful idea, let alone a doable implementation path. Any urban design or planning student presenting it would get a failing grade. Luckily that is not a big problem, since an award winning consensus plan already exists.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


Caroline Moore