Rebuild Baltimore the right way

July 19, 2011|Marta H. Mossburg

Earlier this month I drove through Chicago after a year's absence. The city's skyline awed me, as always. It captures America's former industrial might and still present drive and ingenuity in its stone, steel and glass skyscrapers.

Each time I fly over New York City, with its lithe towers reaching toward infinity and apartment buildings packed with Lego-like precision row upon row on the 13-mile island, it makes me proud to be an American. Who else could have built this place?

I loved living in both cities for many reasons, not least of which was that the physical environment demanded a harder-working, smarter version of myself. Great architecture, like other beautiful art, is a mirror of our deepest selves and shows us our potential. It also brands a city in our collective imagination.

That sentiment is likely behind many of the massive public-private projects planned for Baltimore, which like 4th generation wealth has lost its way along with most of its money. Wanting Baltimore to be great again is right and good. But it is irrational and immoral for our leaders to force city taxpayers to finance buildings for businesses and people that exist only in their imagination. Ultimately, buildings don't make cities great, people do — which is why our top priority should be figuring out how to bring them back.

For decades, the build-it-and-they-will-come operating principle of the city has failed to produce results. Baltimore lost 80,000 people in net migration from 2000 to 2009 and 53,000 jobs in the past decade. Overall population loss in the last decade was stemmed to 30,000 by immigrants and births.

Despite these figures, elected and appointed economic developers keep telling us to build bigger and more expensive projects, like they did 20 years ago. The $1.5 billion State Center proposal is a recent example of a project that will cost taxpayers millions without generating the promised jobs, bigger population and bigger tax receipts.

The mixed-use development largely for state workers will cost taxpayers $127 million in the first phase alone, according to a July 7 report of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, of which I am a fellow. It is supposed to be built in five phases. The cost is due in part to above market rate leases for state agency occupants, a publicly financed parking garage and tax credits to developers. It will also be built at a time when downtown Baltimore has over 2 million square feet of vacant office space, meaning the project will likely drive down rents for existing property owners.

Benefits are only imaginary at this point, and it is pure speculation to say the project will rejuvenate the neighborhood or attract new private tenants. As a walk around Washington's convention center last week showed, spending billions does not guarantee abandoned buildings, seedy bars and liquor stores will not dominate the surrounding area.

Another paper recently reported that the city has sold $116.1 million of bonds for seven tax-increment financed projects since 2003 and could potentially sell $292 million more for two other similarly financed redevelopments at Westport and Harbor Point. (Tax increment financing, known as TIF, uses hoped-for future tax gains from a redeveloped area to pay for current improvements.)

Where are the new jobs from those projects? Where are all the new people?

The track record is so bad it should make everyone wonder if the real goal of our leaders is to manage decay.

Baltimore boosters hate that "The Wire" defines this place in the minds of so many people outside of the city. But building ourselves out of obscurity with new and massive hotel, condo and other projects has not achieved the objective: growth.

Maybe it is time to remember that entrepreneurs made America's cities and can resurrect them if given the chance. Expecting economic developers, who redistribute other people's money — usually in secret — to save a city is like expecting lobbyists to simplify the tax code.

It's time to stop building a fantasy skyline and start building a city. Everyone knows cutting the property tax is the best way to grow. The hard part is finding a leader with the courage to end the culture of decline.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is

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