No sale

November 24, 2006

The I.M. Pei-designed World Trade Center is one of Baltimore's most recognizable landmarks, so the Ehrlich administration's recent decision not to rush forward with its sale - particularly at what might have been a bargain-basement price - is good news. Democrats had raised enough objections to cast doubt on the propriety of the sale, at least in the short term. Among the skeptics are current and future Board of Public Works members, state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot. Governor-elect Martin O'Malley is also said to have his misgivings about the sale, but has promised to review the matter fully after he takes office in January.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan wanted to put the building in private hands and argued that it would be a better situation for the state, for the city, and for the Port of Baltimore, which could use the proceeds toward creating a needed 50-foot-deep berth at Seagirt Marine Terminal. He questioned whether the Maryland Port Administration was qualified to serve as landlord to a 31-story Inner Harbor office building. And the move fell in line with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign pledge to sell excess state property.

But how good a deal would it have been? At one time, state officials believed that the building might be worth $80 million, but would likely sell for less than half that amount. The damages inflicted by Hurricane Isabel in 2003 were significant. But even more troubling has been the slow loss of tenants. The state's decision not to renew leases has left the building less than half full. As a result, rental profits have plunged from $1.7 million to $140,000 last year.

Was this just a failed real estate strategy that was supposed to make the building more attractive to bidders? A deliberate effort to drive down the price as a favor to one or more bidders? Or was the sale driven by politics? All are possible justifications but none is acceptable. That's why Mr. Ehrlich's decision to leave the matter to the next administration was prudent under these somewhat cloudy circumstances.

Nonetheless, that leaves the fate of the World Trade Center uncertain. If the building isn't sold, its problems still must be addressed. It will cost the state millions of dollars to restore it to its former condition and attract first-class tenants. But if such an investment ensures a viable trade center, it's the right choice - for the harbor, for the city and especially for Maryland taxpayers.

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