Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Why State Center is a good idea

Not the Hogan Administration all of a sudden deciding to move forward with the State Center project but the developer signing a Community Benefits Agreement last week (of which Hogan's spokesman said he knew nothing) brought the big project back into the headlines.
State Center Diagram included in the initial
strategy report by PB-Placemaking

State Center goes almost as far back as the Red Line, but the wait for the Governor to decide on the fate of this project conceived by his Republican predecessor Bob Ehrlich in 2005 has been much longer.

In early 2005 the State, the City, and communities collaborated on initiatives of bringing development to existing rail stations.

Then Secretary of Transportation, Bob Flanigan (a Republican), was very fond of transit oriented development as a way of making better use of the transportation assets already on the ground (or underground, in is the case at the State Center Metro stop).

State Center seemed like a low hanging fruit: The State owned lots of land there, State departments occupied big buildings which were rapidly becoming functionally obsolete  and the entire about 110 acre area had long been recognized as one of those urban renewal failures where the urban grid had been disturbed, barriers created and the flow between neighborhoods disrupted.
1896 map of the area before urban renewal

The State hired PB-Placemaking to conduct a design workshop (charrette) which included many evenings of gatherings with community representatives and stakeholders .The discussions were not free of tension but ultimately everybody reached agreement, that there was a lot of potential lying fallow and united around a preferred concept. The strategy report states:
State agencies recognized the potential of redeveloping the State Center complex site as a TOD for two primary reasons:
1. Strengthening the quality of the overall community would
increase the value of the State’s assets; and
2. Creating a more community-friendly design throughout would
increase the desirability of transit use in the area.
Both the State of Maryland and City of Baltimore seized the
opportunity to understand how the redevelopment of State Center
might strengthen the community, increase transit access and use, and
increase the land value of their assets by sponsoring the State Center
Transit-Oriented Development Strategy. (
State Center Transit Oriented Development Strategy)
Original State Center planning area and context
After the completion of the development strategy the area was substantially reduced by eliminating the public housing area between Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues because the residents feared gentrification and di not want to be part of the redevelopment. 

A Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for interested development partners was issued in November 2005.  The State and State Center Neighborhoods Alliance  selected the SBER/MBS/Doracon team in March 2006 after a public interview process.  In November 2006 the Democrat Martin O'Malley succeeded his Republican predecessor in the Governor's Mansion. 

Since then a lot has happened but little actual progress has been made. Struever Brothers, a lead team member, withdrew from the project when the company dissolved in the wake of the financial crisis. Team member Caroline Moore and her newly formed company Ekistics took over the project. The site for which the master-developer had been selected was now 28 acres.  The State Center developer was authorized to build 2,000 residential units, 250,000 square feet of retail and 2 million square feet of offices, including 1 million square feet for the state.
Original preferred development concept

Peter Angelos sued the State over various aspects of the project based on his fear that his downtown real estate holdings would suffer from the new development. (The suit was  dismissed after lengthy appeals and delays). He and other parties opposed to the development questioned the subsidies that the State provided by leasing the buildings back for the uses they currently have out there for rents that some alleged to be inflated. Details were still negotiated when Hogan won the elections. In spite of the Governor's assertions of trying to create a business-friendly climate in Maryland, the development team, ready to go on State Center, remained in the dark about what was going on. 
This is still the situation. On January 12 of this year, when Mike Gill, the energetic Secretary of Commerce and Hogan point-man for business development, stood face to face with Caroline Moore of Ekistics, he said only that there would be a decision "this year". Moore says the project is "as shovel-ready a project as one that has ever used that term."

Whatever was right in 2005 is still right. Transit oriented development would still increase transit ridership and make the existing Metro line more useful. State owned surface parking lots surrounding the State offices are still crying out for development. Martin Luther King Boulevard is still a dividing bypass instead of  an urban boulevard, The existing State offices still sit on an island instead of being a bridge between communities and they are still functionally obsolete. 
Ekistics proposed development

Harbor East and HarborPoint developments have shown that development is not a "zero sum game" where office and retail space is simply traded from one area to another. Instead the new areas attracted the type of tenants that old downtown could never get. Downtown saw a lot of class B office space conversions and new tenants looking for more affordable office space. 

The waterfront developments also showed that the City needs to negotiate better deals and that surrounding communities should also benefit. That is why it is so important, that the developer signed a Community Development Agreement last week and that the State Center project is not only a developer's initiative but one that started as a State, City and community partnership. 

Mayor Rawlings Blake and mayoral candidates Mosby and Pugh are on record for supporting the project, so is Council President Jack Young. If the State comes back on board, the originally conceived partnership will remain.  The time is now. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Development rendering looking west across Howard Street