State Center unbound [Editorial]

Our view: With a legal roadblock set aside, Baltimore's showcase $1.5 billion transit oriented development project can at last move forward

March 29, 2014

A decade ago, the redevelopment of the state office complex in midtown Baltimore — now known as State Center — looked like a no-brainer. Built in the 1950s and 1960s, the five buildings in the 28-acre complex, which hadn't exactly been architecturally inspired to begin with, needed to be replaced. And the site's access to Baltimore's Metro subway system suggested great potential for transit-oriented development.

But wait, it was even better than that. State Center is also convenient to the city's major cultural attractions and to the light rail line as well as MARC commuter rail, so state and city officials thought big — a $1.5 billion mixed use project with apartments for a variety of income levels, a grocery store and shopping as well as a parking garage and office space for state employees, all of which could be accomplished as a public-private partnership.

It was ambitious, it was bold, and it was one of the best examples of state government truly steering development toward public transportation and revitalizing a neglected urban center, the fundamental goal of "smart growth." But it was also seen as a threat to landlords of downtown office space who subsequently sued to block the project in 2010 — and succeeded in doing so until last Thursday when the Maryland Court of Appeals tossed the case.

We sympathize with opponents — to an extent. The 162-page opinion ("novella length" as its author acknowledges) turns legally on matters of process, in particular of how late the suit was filed as the project was planned and moved forward in the procurement process. But, on balance, we have always believed State Center offers an exciting opportunity to increase investment in Baltimore, stimulate the economy, create jobs and capitalize on transit access in a way that the city and the suburbs have often failed to do.

Opponents have long expressed fears that State Center will lure existing office tenants from downtown and leave landlords with high vacancy rates. Such a "hollowing out" of downtown (made possible by favorable long-term contracts with those state agencies) would, indeed, be unacceptable. But so would rejecting new development — or the principle of a public-private partnership — out of hand in order to spare owners such competition.

This has dragged on long enough. State Center is exactly the sort of project that Baltimore must pursue, one that plays up its greatest assets, and does so in a way that encourages private investment and not just taxpayer subsidies. It isn't a sure thing, of course, but the alternative of simply tearing down the office buildings and leaving the site vacant, a hole in the ground bordering Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon, would have been far worse.

But here's one point with which we agree with the plaintiffs in the case. The state and city governments also have a responsibility to make sure the downtown does not suffer as a result. As the chairman of the Coalition to Save Downtown Baltimore observed shortly after the unanimous Court of Appeals ruling was made public, they should commit to programs and policies that "reinvigorate the downtown business district." That would surely include not relocating state government offices that are currently downtown tenants.

Such a renewed partnership for downtown can begin with a commitment from the landlords to invest in their properties, too. As a recent report from the Downtown Partnership on the state of the downtown observed, the potential for growth is there. Employment in the business district grew by 8 percent last year despite job losses in other parts of the city. The office vacancy rate remains high at 16 percent, a bit higher than pre-recession levels, but there are hopeful signs of improvement.

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