By Megan Poinski
The Crownsville headquarters of the Department of Housing and Community Development was formally declared surplus on Wednesday, meaning the state is free to sell it and move forward with plans to relocate the agency to Prince George’s County.
Wednesday’s resolution, passed unanimously by the Board of Public Works, is the next step in the long process to jump-start transit-oriented development in Prince George’s County by relocating the agency to a new location near a Metro station.
The department’s move is part of an initiative from Gov. Martin O’Malley to encourage transit-oriented development, fulfilling his 2006 campaign pledge to relocate a state agency to a Metro station in Prince George’s County.
The nearly 57-acre parcel where the department is currently located was listed for sale in January. Bids to purchase the property, as well as information from developers interested in building a new headquarters for the department, were due in February.
Wednesday’s action was a procedural step to move the plan forward, said Michael Gaines, assistant secretary for real estate at the Department of General Services.
Prior to listing the property for sale, state government officials had done a full assessment to see if there was any other state use for the property. None was found, Gaines said.
“The responses we received are leading us to believe there is private interest in it,” Gaines said, but he would not go into detail.
He said the 55,900-square -foot office building with 606 parking spaces has not been appraised., The state will not pay for the new building to be constructed in Prince George’s County, and intends to negotiate a long-term lease.
Comptroller Peter Franchot said he supports the project and transit-oriented development, but he wants to ensure that the relocation would inconvenience the fewest number of employees. Transit-oriented development is laudable, but locating the office at some Metro stops in Prince George’s County could cause headaches for employees who would have to commute from Anne Arundel County. The New Carrollton Metro station is only 20 minutes away from the current location, Franchot said. However, locating the office near the less developed Naylor Road Metro station would require employees who live closer to Crownsville to either drive to New Carrollton and ride 17 stops on the Metro, or to drive around the already congested Capital Beltway.
“The question is if the arduous or less arduous commute is being considered in the analysis,” Franchot said.
Gaines said he knew that was a factor, but he did not know how heavily it was weighted. The analysis also considers how many non-state jobs might be created by a development, looking at retail or other office developments that could be related, he said.
The proposal to move the department has drawn fire from employees and unions. None of those groups were present at Wednesday’s meeting.
The General Assembly has also been taking a critical look at the move. It withheld $250,000 from the Housing Department’s budget until the department and General Services present a detailed report on the move — including how employees will get there.
Despite the possibility of a longer commute for some employees, Gaines said that the new location will move the department closer to many of the people that it serves. About 30% of Marylanders living in poverty – the people usually receiving the department’s services – live close to the DC Metro, he said.
The question of how the lease for the new office will be paid for also briefly surfaced on Wednesday. Gaines said that the nature of the lease – if it comes straight out of the operating budget or if it counts toward the state’s spending affordability limits – will also be discussed and negotiated as the process moved forward.
“If we really want transit-oriented development to happen, we have to make choices,” O’Malley said.
The Board of Public Works also approved an advisory that will let them ensure that more low-income people get contract work. The advisory, brought to the board by Del. Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City, lets the Board of Public Works direct departments to use some of their contracts and work with the Department of Human Resources to find contract employees. Human Resources would identify people who are utilizing aid programs, and ensure those people are hired for jobs in fields like construction, maintenance and service procurement.
Human Resources will give the Board of Public Works a report on the status of these hiring agreements each year.
The Rev. S. Todd Yeary, senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, who worked with Rosenberg and state agencies on the directive, said this makes a big difference.
“This is an opportunity to re-establish hope in a community that’s often forgotten about,” he said.
Sympathies to public employees now pawns in a social engineering experiment.