O’Malley Keeps a Political Promise

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By Barry Rascovar / May 30, 2013

IT WILL BE COSTLY for Maryland taxpayers but never let it be said Gov. Martin O’Malley reneges on a political promise.

This time he rewarded Prince George’s County politicians for their support during his initial run for governor in 2006. They wanted a state agency to relocate to their county and now they’ve got it — at a price to taxpayers of $60 million over the next 15 years.

As for politicians in Anne Arundel County (mainly Republicans), the Democratic governor gave them the political shaft: 380 employees of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, two-thirds commuting from Anne Arundel or the Baltimore area, will be forced to drive to New Carrollton starting in mid-2015.

Even worse, they will vacate a state owned-and-operated building on the grounds of the former Crownsville State Hospital outside Annapolis that is in fine shape.

Instead of paying $1.5 million in current operating costs, the state will fork over to a landlord 60 percent more — nearly $4 million annually. That equates to $40 a square foot — more than what it would take to lease premium water-view offices in Baltimore.

The state also is footing the bill for $357,000 worth of parking spaces for HCD workers for the first five years. Parking is free at Crownsville.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who revels when shams such as this pop up at the Board of Public Works, rightly compared the situation to a home owner with no mortgage suddenly moving out and renting similar space for an outrageous sum. It makes no sense — unless you’re a politician.

The excuse for this move is “Smart Growth.” Prince George’s County holds vast potential for “transit oriented development.”  Yet unlike neighboring Montgomery County, there are no large-scale TODs in Prince George’s. O’Malley wants to jump-start that process with a state-supported building at the New Carrollton Metro-Amrak-MARC hub.

Plans to do the same thing a few years ago fell apart because of the state’s poor choice of a developer. The entire procurement process was re-started.

What has evolved is a wonderful concept for the New Carrollton station in which the state plays the role of catalyst. That guaranteed $4 million a year in rental money will subsidize 40,000 square feet of retail space and 250 apartments, plus a second phase essentially doubling those components.

Whether any of this peripheral activity becomes reality is the big, unanswered question. If a mixed-use project at New Carrollton or at other Prince George’s Metro station were a can’t-miss proposition, there would be no need for the state to play Santa Claus.

Where the state dropped the ball is in Crownsville. The Department of General Services botched this entire episode first with the flimsily vetted initial procurement  and now with its lack of planning for the fate of the Crownsville property and HCD workers who don’t want to make this long commute.

Why hasn’t O’Malley targeted redevelopment of the 400-acre Crownsville campus as an economic priority over the past seven years? Probably because he didn’t want to help Republican officials who dominate the county. Still, the lack of a Crownsville master plan is a black eye for the governor.

Long before this matter reached the Board of Public Works, the state should have laid out an assistance program for HCD workers. And seven years is plenty of time to put together a comprehensive “Smart Growth” plan for Crownsville. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

In the end, O’Malley delivered on his long-standing promise to Prince George’s political leaders and left unhappy HCD workers wondering about their future. They became sacrificial lambs. As for the future of the Crownsville building and surrounding land, that’s a problem O’Malley is leaving at the doorstep of the next administration.