Battle over paying for promenade heats up

Some see public funds as way to fix up, finish waterfront walkway

Debate rages over walkway funding

September 03, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A quarter-century after its promising start with the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor, Baltimore's waterfront promenade remains incomplete -- with three large gaps, potholes and a section that has collapsed into the water.

To finish the 7.5-mile walkway that many hope will be the city's most powerful draw for new residents and businesses, some city officials and developers argue that Baltimore should apply to the state for $50 million or more.

But the issue is more complex than winning state money to build a boardwalk and installing a few benches and lamps.

Making the promenade a government program would reverse a more than decade-old city policy of requiring landowners to build 20-foot-wide public walkways along their waterfronts.

The requirement became law in the late 1980s, during a burst of optimism about the profitability of development that followed the opening of Harborplace in 1980. But critics say the law ignores the fact that Harborplace itself was helped by tens of millions in taxpayer dollars.

Requiring private financing of the promenade has put the brakes on development along the harbor since the roaring Harborplace era, critics say.

Supporters of government funding also complain that the city has not enforced its promenade ordinances consistently, with some developers being forced to pay for walkways while the Inner Harbor East project received about $20 million in government subsidies in 1994.

"This is a very timely topic, because the governor is putting his budget together right now," said C. William Struever, whose plans to draw high-tech companies to waterfront office and apartment complexes in Locust Point and Fells Point would be helped by state funding for public parks and roads.

Behind the times

Struever said he finds it "pathetic" and "frustrating" that Baltimore is trying to cobble together a waterfront park system through private funding when cities including Chicago, New York and Providence, R.I., are spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for waterfront improvement.

After setting a national standard for government-backed redevelopment with Harborplace, Baltimore has fallen behind many other cities, Struever said.

"We think that space that is used by the public should be publicly funded," said Struever, who is lobbying for a waterfront development plan that would also include roads and parks extending into the neighborhoods surrounding the waterfront.

"The waterfront is where everyone feels welcome -- black and white, rich and poor, city and suburban," Struever said.

Boardwalks in many cities around the country have been paid for by taxpayers.

Chicago is planning a $300 million federal, state and city-funded project to improve a seven-mile stretch of its 24-mile waterfront bike path and park system.

In Boston, the $13.8 billion state and federally funded "Big Dig" highway project will create five new parks along the Charles River, a waterfront walkway along an inlet from the Boston Harbor and a 105-acre park on a former landfill.

Delaware spent $11.6 million over the past three years to build a 1.25-mile walkway and park along the Christina River in Wilmington.

Andrew Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corporation, the city's development agency, said: "We are making the case to the state that public funding for finishing the promenade is very important to the economic development of the city and the state."

"If the market were stronger in the city right now, developers could bear the cost of building their projects plus the cost of creating public promenades," said Frank. "But in many cases today, the market cannot bear that."

Frank said, however, that the government should not build promenades for all new developments, only those in which a city analysis shows taxpayer funding would be necessary.

Arguing priorities, scope

Opponents of government funding argue that a city as poor as Baltimore cannot afford to spend millions of dollars for jogging paths when it cannot afford drug treatment programs or new schools.

City officials are also debating whether public funding should cover just the promenade, or include the much more expensive rebuilding of waterfront retaining walls, or "bulkheads," which support the walkways. In some cases, the city cannot build walkways without shoring up the bulkheads at a combined cost of about $7,000 per foot, they said.

Some skeptics oppose public financing for fixing bulkheads on private land because the city would be subsidizing private developments by paying for the foundations necessary for apartment complexes.

State Sen. George Della, who helped defeat a $4.7 million city request for state money to improve the waterfront near HarborView apartment tower on Key Highway last spring, said he thinks it's bad public policy to boost the profit of developers by using taxpayer money.

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