Political flap grew out of O'Malley priorities

Mayor's renewal efforts aimed beyond downtown

November 06, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The recent flare-up between Mayor Martin O'Malley and those who say he doesn't concentrate enough resources on rebuilding the west side of downtown highlights a broader issue: His urban renewal strategies differ significantly from those of his predecessors.

O'Malley, as a white leader in a majority-black city, works hard to avoid being perceived as downtown's mayor and a champion of big business interests. Instead, he emphasizes his efforts to boost minority enterprises and lift neighborhoods.

The mayor says he has expanded his focus by creating a "wishbone offense" for the city, a two-pronged development effort that extends beyond downtown and includes a second major project on the depressed east side.

"It would be easy to put all of your eggs in one basket, but that would be foolish," O'Malley said.

"And in a city that is majority African-American, it would be foolish not to increase minority participation," he said.

O'Malley's policies draw criticism from downtown developer David Hillman, who has joined fellow west-side redevelopment advocate Peter G. Angelos in working with former Mayor William Donald Schaefer to plan a fund-raiser Nov. 12 for one of O'Malley's political rivals.

The event for Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery County executive who, like O'Malley, is often discussed as a possible gubernatorial candidate, has brought into public view the mayor's clash with the west-side downtown developers.

Hillman, CEO of Southern Management, a real estate company, said yesterday that O'Malley's development strategies are misguided and failing.

"Schaefer understood something - he understood clearly that for a city to be successful, that things radiate from the center outward," said Hillman, referring to the former mayor's focus on Inner Harbor and downtown reconstruction from 1971 to 1986.

"If the center stinks, the rest of the city won't go anywhere. O'Malley doesn't get this," said Hillman, whose firm has invested more than $100 million over the past eight years buying and renovating seven apartment buildings in the city, including the Atrium on the west side of downtown.

Hillman said that emphasis on minority business development is politically helpful for the mayor but doesn't help the city's downtown.

"O'Malley sees economic development as a campaign tool, to spread money around and get votes," said Hillman, a Republican.

O'Malley's aides said Hillman is wrong.

Instead of focusing the city's limited development money on political favors, O'Malley is trying to build on the city's strengths and Schaefer's success downtown by spreading prosperity outward to the city's neighborhoods, they said.

O'Malley said little is more important than boosting minority business in a majority-black city. During his four years as mayor, O'Malley has directed an unprecedented amount of city spending on contracts - 28.5 percent, or almost $60 million a year - to firms owned by minorities or women, according to the mayor's office.

But O'Malley added that this emphasis has only helped the city's downtown, where he says the west side is being rebuilt in part by black developers.

His administration has worked hard to line up African-American developers to play major roles in building and owning several projects around the city's west side.

These include a proposed $200 million convention center hotel, the planned 21-story Zenith apartment tower nearby on Pratt Street, and the $80 million Centerpoint retail and apartment complex on Howard Street.

Despite a struggling economy on the national level, O'Malley said that the construction in the city is booming, with at least $1.6 billion in projects under way.

O'Malley said he is committed to continuing the west-side downtown redevelopment project, which started near the University of Maryland, Baltimore, under former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke more than five years ago.

But he also has helped to launch an $800 million, 80-acre project to create a biotechnology park near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

This project has among its top priorities not only hiring minority contractors, but also helping to rebuild the surrounding neighborhood and hiring local residents, said Jack Shannon, president of the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc., which is helping to lead the effort.

This is just one example of O'Malley trying to spread prosperity outward to the city's neighborhoods, according to his office. The city has launched millions of dollars in neighborhood development projects over the past four years, including the renovation of Belvedere Square and the installation of streetlights and new sidewalks in several areas.

During O'Malley's term, 17 neighborhood supermarkets have opened, expanded or are under construction, city officials said. His "Main Street" program has helped to start 147 new businesses with 300 jobs in the city's neighborhoods, and it has encouraged $17.4 million in private investments fixing up storefronts.

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