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Anne Arundel delegates press for answers on DHCD HQ move

At a hearing Monday, Anne Arundel County delegates had hoped to learn more of the dollar figures justifying the proposed move of the Department of Housing and Community Development from its state-owned headquarters in Crownsville to rental space at the New Carrollton Metro.

But what they got from Michael Gaines, assistant secretary for real estate of the Department of General Services, was little more information than had been had already been published.

“There are many details that we’re not able to go into at this time,” since negotiations are still going on, Gaines told the four delegates at the hastily called meeting.

“What are they hiding?” delegation chair Bob Costa asked after the meeting.

It was up to Costa to press Gaines on some of the questions from legislators who couldn’t make the hearing.

What’s the rent going to be in the new space? What’s the move actually going to cost?

Gaines said he’d get back to them in a future briefing. When would that be? Not sure.

The decision to move the agency to New Carrollton was announced in September as fulfillment of a promise by Gov. Martin O’Malley to move a major state agency to Prince George’s County. It would be near a Metro stop as part of his push for transit-oriented development.

How involved was the governor’s office in the decision? Costa asked. It was part of the regular analysis of space used by state agencies, Gaines said.

How come the governor’s office or General Services didn’t contact the county executive or the delegation about the move? Costa wondered. Sorry about that, Gaines said.

Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold — speaking at the hearing before Gaines made his presentation — called it “the most egregious example of politics driving public policy.”

About half the 330 employees at the housing department currently live in Anne Arundel County. “It’s not smart growth to have these employees make this long drive,” Leopold said. “My major concern is these employees.”

Leopold again speculated that the space in a new building would cost $48 million over the next 15 years — using a rent and utility estimate of about $32 a square foot.

“It doesn’t make sense from any angle,” Leopold said.

Gaines said that the state estimated the current building — built on 64 acres of the former Crownsville state mental hospital — would cost $22 million to operate over the next 15 years. That works out to about $15 per square foot. He wouldn’t speculate on what the rent at the new site might turn out to be.

The current facility also includes free parking, but the new building would have a parking garage.

The state would occupy about 100,000 square feet, about one-sixth of the new building that would also include 400 apartments — 20 percent of them at below-market rates — and 30,000 square feet of retail space.

Gaines said the net public benefit of the move would be $12 million, including taxes generated from construction, property taxes and income taxes from 80 jobs that will be created.

Del. Steve Schuh pressed Gaines for how he could count the total “public benefit” of a project that might get built anyway when the state was taking up only one-sixth of the new space.

“We were looking for a project that would not only be a benefit to the state, but to the citizens of Maryland,” said Gaines.

The move and the contracts to make it happen still must be approved by the Board of Public Works chaired by the governor. “At this point, we’re not sure” when that might happen, Gaines said. But it would not be in the next 30 days. There is currently no contract and no lease to be approved.

He promised another briefing when he could discuss all the figures involved in the move.