Questioning role of government on waterfront

November 25, 1999|By James S. Keat

MAYOR Kurt L. Schmoke's cancellation of a plan to spend some $27 million on the proposed HarborView development's waterfront shouldn't end public discussion of what would have been a blatant giveaway of public funds.

After all, the project will probably come back later in another form. And there are still questions about how the city got involved in helping to make millions of dollars in improvements for developers wanting to build a 250-room Ritz-Carlton hotel and dozens of apartments near the 27-story HarborView apartment tower on Key Highway.

While Mr. Schmoke is correct in laying the blame for initiating the plan to subsidize a private development on Gov. Parris N. Glendening, top city officials were willing participants in the deal.

The role of Public Works Director George G. Balog deserves more scrutiny. As reported, the outgoing city administration was planning to buy a 20-foot-wide strip of land along the privately owned development's waterfront and extend the promenade that is to skirt the Inner Harbor from Canton to South Baltimore.

The brick sidewalk, they said, would cost about $10 million. The rest of the money would rebuild the bulkheads along the waterfront.

How much of this work is really necessary for a public purpose, and how much is a gift to a greedy private developer whose appetite for the taxpayer's money is insatiable?

Raiding city funds

The proposal that the city pay $5.6 million for the promenade right of way was nothing less than a raid on the city treasury. The land has no market value, because legally it can be used for no other purpose than a public promenade along the waterfront. In fact, HarborView was required by law to pay for its portion of the promenade, not just provide the land.

Mr. Balog blithely brushed aside the developer's legal obligation to pay for the promenade. A law, to Mr. Balog, is simply "conceptual." Mr. Balog's measurements are also faulty. He describes the length of the walkway section as about a mile. Actually, it's a couple of football fields short of that. At about $1,900 a foot, that's more than a million bucks.

More important, about 40 percent of this section, from the existing apartment tower to the HarborView Marina building, is already completed -- brick sidewalk, bulkheading and all. So where is the $10 million going?

A case can be made for some public contribution toward the construction of the promenade. Hardly anyone questions the value of an attractive path along the waterfront connecting Canton, the Inner Harbor and the underappreciated Museum of Industry on Key Highway.

The city and state have already chipped in millions of dollars for the walkway elsewhere. But what part of the price tag is caused by HarborView's special needs?

Unmentioned is the developer's need to get automobiles across the promenade to the town houses it is planning to build on the old shipyard docks adjoining the apartment tower. The cars can't drive across the walkway, so the promenade would have to rise over an underpass for cars, or walkers would have to pass through a tunnel.

Bridges that would be accessible for the handicapped and for parents pushing strollers could be a very expensive add-on. A financially beleaguered city with a crumbling infrastructure needs to examine its priorities carefully.

For $10 million, the city recently rebuilt an approximately equal stretch of Key Highway into a concrete, four-lane boulevard with a median, new street lights, traffic controls and some underground utility work. That makes the initial planned investment in the walkway appear irresponsible.

Mr. Balog said the bulkheading the city proposes to construct is necessary for, among other things, the proposed second apartment building at HarborView. As an engineer, Mr. Balog must know this is absurd.

The existing apartment tower and marina -- which have new bulkheads -- would stand between the new building and the harbor. The foundation and underground garage for the new building are already in place.

Luxury at what price?

What else is the bulkheading needed for? The proposed Ritz Carlton hotel at the north end of the HarborView tract, perhaps. Granted, the luxury hotel would be a welcome addition to the Inner Harbor. But at what public cost?

Neil Fisher, the hotel's developer, has told community leaders he could not afford to build the hotel without some tax relief. What other subsidies will he seek? Shouldn't all his cards be on the table, face up, before this plan is implemented? How much of the bulkheading would be for the sole benefit of HarborView?

The developer plans to build townhouses on the old docks north of the existing tower. HarborView officials have admitted in past meetings with South Baltimore neighborhood representatives that they were seeking public funds for the necessary site preparation.

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