By Barry Rascovar
Jan. 29, 2018 — Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration last week unveiled a $79,000 “Alternative Land Use Study” of the 28-acre State Center site in Baltimore that merely tells us what we already know. It moves any re-do an inch forward, at best.
On the positive side, Hogan released the 103-page report with laudatory comments about the site’s potential and his commitment to a redevelopment plan that could “have a transformational and lasting impact for Baltimore City and its citizens.”
Yet what might be plunked down on those acres remains pretty much a mystery.
Once thing remains clear. The original development project conceived under former Gov. Bob Ehrlich and propelled forward vigorously by former Gov. Martin O’Malley remains trapped in Hogan’s purgatory.
It would have been a bad deal for the state, Hogan maintains, costing “outrageous sums” to lease state office space the government now occupies for free (minus, of course, operating costs).
The state Board of Public Works unanimously rejected spending money that would have pushed the project ahead but also might have caused Maryland to lose its coveted triple-A bond rating, shattered the state’s debt ceiling and required legislative approval.
Since then, the question has been: What comes next?
Where to Put State Workers
Hogan’s study confirmed the best land use might be turning State Center into a combination of retail space (including a grocery), commercial offices, medical buildings, apartments, senior care buildings and a public park. The only thing that differs from the rejected development concept is that there is no mention of where to move the 3,000 workers in the complex’ state-owned buildings.
It’s curious why Hogan opted to spend $79,000 on this study. It is so limited in scope and the conclusions so predictable that the governor might have been better off requesting conceptual ideas from private developers.
The authors of the study, Crossroads Consulting Services, went to great lengths to explain the limits of its report. It is merely “a cursory market evaluation.” Two state agencies instructed the consultants not to talk with “the outside development community.” Thus, this is not “an in-depth, detailed” market analysis. Nor does the report provide Hogan with “a future development or implementation strategy.”
Crossroads did, though, study similar situations in 11 other “peer cities” and bored in on how Kansas City, Minneapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh and St. Louis have handled similar development planning.
The consultants also zeroed in on a key problem that has gotten little attention — the highly congested and unaddressed road situation surrounding the site. It made suggestions as well on how to erect pedestrian bridges that would safely connect this “island of land” to nearby services and communities.
What is missing from the report is obvious: Input from the private sector, Baltimore City, highway and urban planners. Each group needs to put forth visions for State Center’s future.
Nothing immediate is on the horizon, though: The state and the previous developer group are battling bitterly in court over the state’s refusal to move forward.
Still, Hogan could simply pick up the phone and call Mayor Catherine Pugh so they can start cooperating on a number of State Center questions:
- Where is the best place to move those 3,000 state workers?
The former Social Security annex near Lexington Market, undergoing renovation, might be an ideal site, pumping life into downtown’s west side and linking the state work force to the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus and the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Another option is re-locating workers to the Downtown Business District, which has a high vacancy rate, low rents and needs an economic boost.
Either option would be far cheaper than the now-discarded plan, which called for the state to pay sky-high rents at a new office building on the State Center site.
- What do nearby communities want to see at a re-imagined State Center?
The voices of those diverse neighborhoods need to be heard, not just the carefully choreographed support of residents who have lined up behind the previous developer group.
- How can re-development lift opportunities and the quality of life for lower-income residents in adjacent Upton?
- How can the massive Fifth Regiment Armory — site of the 1912 Democratic National Convention — find a beneficial and practical re-use? The heating and cooling bills alone for this immense structure might sink most commercial projects.
- How might nearby academic and medical institutions play a role?
The University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and UMB all should get a chance to put proposals on the table. For example, why not a joint indoor fitness center/gymnasium that not only serves all three institutions but the community, too?
- Health Care. How can the former Maryland General Hospital, now part of the University of Maryland Medical System, expand its health-care offerings and enhance its campus by occupying space on the adjacent State Center grounds?
- Highways. What can city and state highway experts devise to improve traffic flow on heavily traveled Howard Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard? Where should pedestrian bridges be located to make this “island of land” accessible to all?
- Housing. How can the residential character of Eutaw Street to the north best be extended into State Center?
There’s a prime opportunity for Hogan and Pugh to join hands on this major undertaking. Early planning is a natural next-step even as the court battles rage.