Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Developer holds Baltimore City hostage - can he be forced to develop?

Can a developer be forced to develop a vacant lot? A lot that sits in the downtown of a major city in a strategic position? A lot that is only vacant because the developer decided to purchase and demolish a historic theater venue? A lot that has been sitting in the defunct status for 17 years, ever since the developer acquired it? No? What if the same developer has a second large vacant lot sitting fallow after demolition for seven years? 

The biggest wasteland downtown (Photo Philipsen)

"It’s very disconcerting that he hasn’t performed. It’s time to put up or shut up. And if he’s not putting up, he should be fined." (Courtenay Jenkins, Cushman Wakefield in 2018)

Not in Baltimore, one has to determine. Not these days, anyhow. There is nobody in this City, not at the Mayor's office, not in the Baltimore Development Agency, not in Planning, Housing or the Downtown Partnership who can pick up the phone and force Howard Brown to move off his tush. Or sweet-talk him into doing what he had promised to do with his lots. If any of the folks actually called Brown, it has made no impression on him. Older folks may dream about the "do it now" Donald Schaefer still being Mayor and doing the call. Could he be cussing Brown into action? He was really good at that. 

Even less is there anybody at Code Enforcement  to apply a rule that requires a developer to develop, or else! The same code enforcers that can get on your tail for loose gutters, objects protruding into the right-of-way or keeping a vacant property not well secured. They are impotent when it comes to a whole acre of land looking like it just came out of a Russian bombing raid. Brown knows how to file a lawsuit or appeal, likely code enforcers feel intimidated, especially since the law doesn't give them a strong case.

The property that sits in the southwest quadrant of Baltimore's most defining intersection, the one that divides all streets into north and south and east and west has been sitting as a fallow, derelict, minimal tax wasteland ever since Howard Brown acquired it in 2005 and subsequently duped the historic preservation commission of CHAP into believing that he would develop AND preserve a large part of the former Mechanic

The Mechanic as a ruin: (Photo Mathhew Carbone)

Theatre.  CHAP lost its resolve to create a local historic landmark that couldn't be demolished because the building would be preserved anyway by a artful design that showed old and new nicely coexisting. But they didn't know Howard Brown who has little tolerance for such niceties as historic preservation. Lacking protection, As soon as he had his "entitlements", (no preservation, an approved design) Brown sent out the wrecking ball and modified his design without a trace of the historic modernist theatre. Skeptics who had seen Brown's Baltimore Symphony Center development never believed that Brown really intended to work with a well known and expensive architect beyond creating a few eye candy sketches and renderings that would convince CHAP. 

After a while, frustration about the prominent downtown "bombing site" grew. Two years ago two renowned Baltimore developers piled on what their colleague from Cushman Wakefiled has said earlier, further defying the saying that crows will not pick out crows' eyes and wrote a scathing article in the BBJ titled "Stalled projects — like the Mechanic site — call for more urgency from officials, developers".  Once again to no avail. Neither the City nor the developer budged. The only change was some artificial turf draped over the ruin site as if to make fun of everything. 

But the same Howard Brown can easily tell the Baltimore Business Journal that he needs a tax break or his number don't pencil out. (article). he did so in 2019 and now again.

Approved Shalom Baranes design including the Mechanic

"We would love to do something there, but we need some incentives. We're open to talking with anybody." (Howard Brown)

One also could call this extortion. "Give me money or I won't deliver on my promises and drag property values down all around me". 

The list of Howard Brown's excuses for non action is long. First it was a lawsuit by the owner of the garage under parts of the site, now it is Covid, supply chain issues and inflation. A meeting between the soft spoken Mayor Scott and the hard nosed Brown is hard to imagine and probably not likely. Even less likely that Scott (who is already under fire for offering the police more money in his budget) would offer Brown a payment in lieu of taxes deal called PILOT. Too many other developers are just waiting to ask as well (Just think HarborPlace).

It is hard to say if a "beggar city" like Baltimore (a city that is shrinking and has more buildings than users) has the tools to force a developer to live up to his word or at least to the name of his profession. The “nuclear” option, condemnation is part of the city’s legal arsenal. It has been frequently used in the name of “urban renewal” and against “slum and blight” taking land from small owners. It has never been used to wrestle a large lot from a big developer. 

The Mechanic theater site doesn't hold the record for "demo and then do nothing". That title may go to the News American Site, also downtown, which is still sitting vacant 30 some years after demolition.  Ever after this historic building was lost in favor of a parking lot, planners and urban designers thought about tools that would force a developer's hand. No demo without financing is a

Approved Shalom Baranes design without the Mechanic 

toothless tiger that rests in the current zoning code. Split rate property taxes that would tax land and buildings separately, potentially making vacant lots less lucrative to own  have been batted around for decades, but no such taxing law was passed in Maryland.

 Pennsylvania  taxes land, regardless of how it is used, at a higher rate than buildings, a practice often referred to as the “split rate” or “land value” tax. Pennsylvania is unique in this in some 15 municipalities. Most other states, including Maryland, require municipalities to tax land and buildings as one unit at the same rate. Internationally split-rate taxes are in effect in Australia, Denmark, and parts of Indonesia. (Source).

One would think that an issue like this which has the potential to unite left and right, black and white and rich and poor would have a chance of resolution. But don't hold your breath. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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