December 7, 2014

Rascovar: State Center boondoggle

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StateCenter.2.MLK+Preston-925x616@2x

Above: State Center area with Howard Street at bottom, Preston Street in middle and armory on the right.

By Barry Rascovar

For MarylandReporter.com

As Gov. Martin O’Malley winds down his second and final term as Maryland chief executive, he owes it to his successor — and to his legacy — not to push for approval of a new plan for developing State Center in mid-town Baltimore.

It’s a boondoggle in both its current form and in its amended form.

With the state facing dire budget deficits for years to come, it makes no sense for O’Malley to saddle the next governor with an inflated lease that will cost an extra $18.5 million per year — rising by another 15% every five years — to house agencies already working in lease-free buildings at State Center.

The only winners in this proposal are the developers, who just happen to include a number of friends and allies of the outgoing governor.

One-sided deal

Going forward with this shell game of a $1.5 billion plan would seriously tarnish O’Malley’s reputation. It would be unfair to pawn such a one-sided deal off on Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and Maryland taxpayers.

The governor should do the wise thing and put the amended State Center plan on hold  until Hogan is inaugurated.

Bringing this matter before the Board of Public Works could set off needless fireworks and disputes over an ambitious development that the Department of Legislative Services has repeatedly called into question.

From the beginning, the State Center plan that O’Malley has backed made little sense.

It was an idea that emerged during boom times and depends on the largesse of the city and state governments.

Ambitious plan

The developers want the state and Baltimore City to underwrite much of the cost for constructing a new building on state land near the existing, aging state office complex.

Then state agencies will move from the state-owned buildings to the new, privately owned office structure — with the developers charging exorbitant rent equivalent to harbor-view rates.

The developers then will gut the 15-story State Office Building and turn it into market-rate apartments. More office buildings and residential units will follow on land leased from the state — with all the profits benefiting the developers.

None of this was realistic, even during good economic times.

The site is not in an appealing location, since it abuts a crime-ridden housing project and an under-achieving hospital. The site is about a mile from the central downtown business district, overlooking a forlorn section of Howard Street.

Appealing alternatives

It would be far cheaper for the state to move agencies into inexpensive, modern office space downtown — either permanently or temporarily while the State Office Building and Herbert R. O’Conor Building are renovated. Or the state might move the agencies into the million-square-foot former Social Security annex near Lexington Market through a private-public partnership arrangement.

The most expensive way to give state workers better office space would be to proceed with the private development of State Center.

Even the developers’ parking arrangement for the office building seems unrealistic.

The state would be stuck with the tab for the expensive underground garage, but there wouldn’t be enough spaces to handle all the workers’ cars — and there would be few parking spaces for people conducting business at state agencies or shopping at the building’s ground-level retail stores.

The initial plan, devised before the Great Recession and championed by Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, was overly optimistic at the time. It envisioned State Center as a great transit hub (Metro, light rail and buses) that would be a natural magnet for new city residents and offices.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

Angelos vindicated

Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos sued the state over the plan, claiming it would be far less costly and far better for Baltimore City if state agencies moved into  vacant space in the central downtown business district.

Angelos won his argument in circuit court but lost on appeal. Time, though, has proved Angelos right.

O’Malley shouldn’t leave office under a cloud.

Citizens owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the way he muscled Maryland through the Great Recession without massive layoffs or harmful cuts to the state’s social safety net.

It would be best if O’Malley left the State Center plan in limbo rather than foist this ill-timed proposal on Hogan.

Given the depressing economic outlook for Maryland’s state government, there’s no way the State Center project should move forward.

It’s a white elephant waiting to happen.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

  • MD observer

    Hopefully O’Malley will follow this advice. If so, Hogan needs to act; this building was a dump 15 years ago and is bad for State workers’ morale.

    I would also point out the contrast between the current Howard Street facilities and comparable Federal facilities. The Feds typically pay top dollar to lease prime space with all the amenities. A stark contrast with the state.

  • Adam Meister

    “bad for State workers’ morale” Poor little babies!!! WAAA WAAA! They are VERY LUCKY they even have jobs. Most of them do nothing. The jobs are useless. There should be no new buildings and all of them should be fired. They serve no purpose.