Gov. Larry Hogan said on Tuesday his plan to permanently relocate roughly 3,300 employees from the State Center complex in Baltimore to space downtown clears the way to redevelop that property with a project that can be backed by surrounding neighborhoods.
State agencies, he said, will start work immediately on moving employees from the 12 departments at the aging complex in the Madison Park neighborhood. Planning the new development will involve significant community input, he said, and while the new development may not include state workers there’s potential to include affordable housing, retail and community amenities sought by residents.
“But the current plan is to move the offices downtown, and maybe the possibility of an agency or two (coming back) in the new development process, but it’s not the plan to keep all the agencies here. It’s not really what the neighborhood redevelopment wants to see,” Hogan said.
Conspicuously absent from Hogan’s announcement, which was held at 301 W. Preston St., were elected city officials, such as Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, and community advocates for a redeveloped State Center. A spokesman for Young did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
John Kyle, president of the State Center Neighborhood Alliance, was one the notable absences from the announcement. No one from Hogan’s team contacted him or his organization about the event, he said.
“I have to say the relationship between the neighbors and the Hogan administration has essentially been nonexistent,” Kyle said.
The State Center Neighborhood Alliance, the nonprofit umbrella group representing communities around the office complex, has worked to shape redevelopment proposals that have dragged on for roughly 15 years and largely been stymied by legal fights. The organization led efforts to force the most recent previous master developer, State Center LLC, to sign a community benefits agreement, which it did in March of 2016.
After agreeing to the benefits agreement, State Center Neighborhood Alliance endorsed State Center LLC’s proposed overhaul that included state offices, a grocery store at the Fifth Regiment Armory, residential units and underground parking.
But in December 2016 the state Board of Public Works, which includes Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, voted to nix leases for state offices at the proposed $1.5 billion State Center overhaul. Maryland and the developer have remained locked in a contentious court fight ever since.
Kyle said Hogan’s proposal is vague, and he disputed the assertion he and his neighbors don’t want state offices included in a redeveloped site. In fact, residents in surrounding neighborhoods worry that moving state employees hurts the potential for the significant redevelopment they envision.
There’s also lingering concern that relocating state workers paves the way for the Hogan administration to pursue development plans antithetical to strong urban design. Those concerns stem from an alternative land use study released by the Hogan administration in early 2018.
That report, the Baltimore State Center Site Alternative Land Use Study, found the most likely uses for the land include a strip retail center between 5,000 and 9,000 square feet, fast-food establishments, low-rise office space and park land.
“(Residents were) disappointed. The kind of project they’re talking about is not the best use of the property,” Kyle said.
Sen. Antonio Hayes, who represents communities around State Center, wrote in a text message that community engagement is an important facet that so far’s been lacking from the Hogan administration. But he also expressed optimism about the governor’s proposal.
“I applaud the governor’s efforts to keep these jobs in Baltimore City, reinvest in the central business district and surrounding communities in places like … Metro West, formerly (the) Social Security Administration building … and Montgomery Park in the Morell Park Community, formerly the Montgomery Ward building,” Hayes said. “The employees in the current facilities at State Center have endured sub-standard conditions long enough.”
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said his board has remained neutral on proposals to redevelop State Center. It’s also a policy of his organization, he said, not to actively attempt to lure employers from other city neighborhoods.
“It’s our belief that State Center’s worthy of investment and reinvention,” Fowler said.
Adding 3,300 employees to the 120,000 people already working within a one-mile radius of Pratt and Light streets, he said, does provide the neighborhood a substantial boost, particularly its office market. The relocated state agencies expect to lease 1 million square feet of office space downtown, where by one estimate the office vacancy north of Lombard Street is 32%.
“This is an important announcement, particularly for some of our older office towers that could use a boost,” Fowler said.