Perfect match was premature

Urban Chronicle

Idea: Two developers thought expanding a special tax district into parts of Fells Point was a winner for all, but business and community groups rose up against it.

Urban Chronicle

April 03, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

IT SEEMED like a perfect match of a desire and a willingness to accommodate it.

Influential developers John Paterakis and C. William Struever wanted more security and street-sweeping for their properties at Inner Harbor East and at the old Allied Signal site and other parts of Fells Point. The Downtown Partnership, with more than a decade of experience providing such services to the central business district, was agreeable to extending its reach. And state legislators representing the city's waterfront shepherded through bills to expand the boundaries of the partnership's authority to impose a tax surcharge.

The problem is, no one bothered to consult beforehand with Fells Point business and community groups that, it turned out, were vigorously against any expansion into the area.

As a result, lead sponsors of the bills to alter the boundaries of the downtown district say they are going to let the legislation die.

And those sponsors, the developers and the Downtown Partnership were left with some explaining to do.

Community opposition to the expansion of the tax district, which had been percolating since word came out that enabling legislation had passed the General Assembly, boiled over at a meeting last week of the Fells Point Task Force, a coalition of business, community and preservation groups.

Kay Hogan, head of the Fells Point Homeowners Association, was upset that neither Paterakis nor Struever came before the group to outline the desire to have their properties included in an expanded downtown benefits district.

"I think that's an arrogant assumption of power," she said.

It wasn't mere pique that was behind Hogan's comments. She and other task force members worried that adding security to the western edge of Fells Point could push more vagrants into the heart of the community. They also objected to including just part of Fells Point in the new taxing district - a move that would reduce the potential tax base if the community later wanted its own benefits district.

"This city needs to respect some basic boundaries," said Jennifer Etheridge, board president of the Preservation Society of Federal Hill and Fells Point. "My personal opinion is it's all or nothing for Fells Point."

Struever apologized for any slight, and said the intent of the proposed expansion was to open a discussion about how best to manage the area along the water.

"We believe the promenade and the waterfront are an enormously important resource," he said this week. "It needs more attention than it's getting."

Besides approval of the General Assembly, consent of the City Council and property owners was needed before the expansion could become a reality. That's why the legislation's lead sponsors, Sen. George W. Della Jr. and Del. Peter A. Hammen, initially felt there was ample chance for further review. But once they got wind of the feeling of Fells Point leaders, they were quick to withdraw their support.

"Those folks say they don't want it," Della said. "Guess what? I'm down there to represent them."

Michele Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership, said at the Fells Point Task Force meeting, "I feel like a ping-pong ball."

"I don't think it was intended to be underhanded," she said of the partnership's proposed expansion.

Whelley was asked if the Downtown Partnership would be willing to expand its services to take in all of Fells Point. Her answer: Logistics made that solution impractical.

Downtown became the city's first special benefits district in 1992; benefits districts for Midtown and Charles Village followed three years later.

State legislation in the mid-1990s allowed for the creation of several more community benefits districts, subject to City Council and property-owner approval.

Although benefits districts were discussed several years ago for Park Heights and Fells Point, they never mustered adequate support.

Despite the fate of this year's legislation to allow the Downtown Partnership to extend its boundaries, the last word on the subject of some sort of benefits district encompassing the Fells Point waterfront likely has yet to be spoken.

Community leaders say they must decide whether to revive the idea of a benefits district for all of Fells Point. And Struever said the expansion of the Downtown Partnership was just one option - although in his view the most logical one - for improving services along the water. Other options, he said, include creating a waterfront benefits district that would go around the harbor or creating a series of smaller districts.

Sooner rather than later, he said, some action will be needed. "It is something that does need to get done," he said.

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