Baltimore officials agreed this week to lease a 6-acre waterfront parcel worth nearly half a million dollars to developer Patrick Turner for free for 40 years.
In return, Turner pledged to plant trees, widen a ravine and wetland area, and maintain the land as a public park. The land is sandwiched between the site of Turner's planned $1.5 billion Westport development and an Interstate 95 bridge, according to a lease agreement.
"We're actually saving the city money by taking the liability off of it," Turner said. "We're taking the maintenance off of [the city] and putting it on us."
Under the deal, Turner will not be required to pay property taxes on the land, which state records indicate is valued at $483,000. He will be barred from building permanent structures on the property.
Turner said he plans to begin work on the plot — a former ballfield long in decay — in about two years and could invest more than $7 million in improving and maintaining the parcel. He will place nearly 2,500 trees, shrubs and other plants in the plot, in accordance with a Chesapeake Bay Critical Area plan.
Turner said he hoped to snake the Gwynns Falls biking trail through the parcel, enabling riders to hug the shoreline and eliminating a loop that winds past a sewage treatment plant. The trail would be "quite magnificent" and possibly feature sculptures, he said.
A mayoral spokesman emphasized that no public funds would be used to fix up the now-vacant plot.
"Not one dime of City money is being used for the public improvements," Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said in an email. Rawlings-Blake is a member of the city's spending board, which voted unanimously to approve the deal this week.
The city-owned parcel is just north of the lot where the bright blue and yellow tents for Cirque du Soleil's "Totem" show are set up. Turner said he hopes the show will draw people to his Westport project, which is southwest of downtown.
The economic downturn has slowed work on the Westport development, but Turner said he plans to begin laying infrastructure on the southern edge of his land this summer. Work on the park will take place during the second phase of construction, he said.
Turner said the park will benefit his planned 50-acre development of residential, retail and office space. "It will make the value of the property higher, and we'll pay more property taxes to the city," he said.
The Westport Neighborhood Association sent officials a letter in support of the deal.
But some officials questioned whether the cash-strapped city should give land away — and not require Turner to pay property taxes on the parcel. Rawlings-Blake sliced $65 million from the city's operating budget this year, the third consecutive year of cuts.
City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway said the city should "absolutely" demand some sort of payment from Turner.
"We've asked nonprofits to chip in to help," she said. "I think people who have the means should be asked to help."
City Councilman Carl Stokes said city residents, who pay property taxes at rates twice as high as surrounding jurisdictions, have been forced to pay higher parking fines, income taxes and energy taxes to make up the city's budget shortfalls.
Stokes, who is considering a mayoral run, said developers should be asked to contribute more.
"The city can't afford to keep giving land away," said Stokes. "[Turner] should have to kick in."
Turner's Westport development received an unprecedented $160 million in aid from the city in 2008 in the form of a financial tool known as tax-increment financing.
Under a tax-increment financing plan, developers pay property taxes to the city's general fund on the land's initial value. The taxes on improvements to the property are used to repay the bonds.
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp., which brokered the land lease deal, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Turner has emerged in recent years as one of the city's leading developers and wields considerable political influence. Last month, he threw a birthday celebration and campaign fundraiser for Rawlings-Blake at his Silo Point condominium tower. Tickets cost as much as $1,000.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she thought the parcel should revert to the control of the city's parks department after Turner finishes his work.
"I think it's fine for him to improve his own investment," said Clarke. "But it seems logical that it would be turned over to the parks department to maintain and manage."
But City Councilman Bill Henry applauded the deal because it meant the city would not need to spend money on the property.
"It might as well be someone else's responsibility to maintain," he said.