By Len Lazarick
A coalition of Baltimore community groups has written to Comptroller Peter Franchot “to express our dismay and disappointment” that he has yanked his support from the $1.5 billion State Center project, despite his votes for the project in the past.
The State Center Neighborhood Alliance of a dozen community groups characterized Franchot’s change of heart as a “political move” designed to curry favor with the downtown landlords who are suing to block the project, according to the letter from John Kyle, president of the alliance.
“The wealthy businessmen with whom you now side have dismissed this project and our working-class community as undeserving, and our very worthwhile project has been tossed around as a political convenience,” the letter says.
Two weeks ago, Franchot wrote a letter to the cabinet secretaries in charge, urging them to abandon the project. Franchot cited the high costs of the project, the increase of state debt, and the higher rents the state would pay compared to commercial buildings that could be purchased in Baltimore at much lower prices.
The State Center developers would demolish several aging office buildings owned by the state connected to nearby Metro and light rail stops. The state would lease the land now occupied by the buildings and parking lots for state workers to private developers, who would construct new office buildings along with residential and retail space.
In a lawsuit that is moving forward, the downtown landlords say the state did not follow its own procurement rules in awarding the project. They also say they have vacant space that would rent for far less than the rates has agreed to pay for 20 years.
In an interview, Kyle said the community groups are not affiliated with the team developing the site, and “we’ve been holding the developers’ feet to the fire on some issues,” such as employment of local residents.
Asked for a response to the group’s letter, Franchot spokesman Joe Shapiro said, “While the comptroller can no longer support the project for the reasons stated in his letter, he values and respects the opinions of those community stakeholders who have worked on its behalf.”
The comptroller did not say what configuration of the project he could support, as the letter from the community groups requested.
The neighborhood alliance also cited the example of the successful revitalization of downtown Silver Spring as an example of a successful public-private partnership. However, that redevelopment was done mostly with funding from Montgomery County taxpayers, and there was much higher private sector investment and employment than is envisioned at State Center.
The Maryland State Center project was always a bad deal for Maryland’s taxpayers. I am glad to see Comptroller Franchot change his position on this boondoogle. The State deserves a better deal. We provide valuable property, invest in expensive infrastructure, and then pay exhorbitant rent.