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Commentaryby Gerald Neily8:15 amJun 7, 20160

A victim of Port Covington: the “Other Baltimore” in Westport

Westport needs to be spun-off from Port Covington

Above: The cleared and unused waterfront land at Westport. Port Covington is across the Middle Branch. (Google Earth)

The adverse impact of the Port Covington plan on poor and disenfranchised neighborhoods – the “Other Baltimore” so starkly highlighted during last year’s civil unrest – is not just conjecture or a conflict of values.

The absence of development in one of them, Westport, is proof.

Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, owns the Westport waterfront as a private investment, and he’s already doing to Westport what his Port Covington plan will do to Baltimore as a whole – suck the air out of citywide redevelopment and growth for the benefit of a small isolated area.

Plank is banking the 43 acres of Westport land, with no development plan in sight, so that it won’t compete with his gargantuan dream for Port Covington that will require $660 million in TIF (Tax Increment Financing) bonds from the city and nearly $600 million more from state and federal sources.

Westport is right across the Middle Branch from Port Covington. The only real difference between the two locations is that Westport is far more accessible than Port Covington to regional transportation and commerce, boasting two adjacent highways and a ready-made rail transit line to downtown and BWI Marshall Airport.

As a precondition of any public subsidy for Port Covington, Plank should be required to sell Westport.

The city should then flatten the economic playing field, so that developers and residents can look at various options for the Middle Branch as a whole that could benefit rich and poor alike.

Our Subsidy Addiction

Back in 2008, Westport developer Patrick Turner was the toast of the town. He did all the political things necessary to promote his billion-dollar plan, which included large public subsidies such as Tax Increment (TIF) Financing. That unfortunately also included his contribution of gift cards for poor families that Mayor Sheila Dixon then stole, leading to the conviction that drove her from office.

One of many iterations of Pat Turner's Westport complex that so excited city officials a decade ago. (Brew photo files)

One of many iterations of Pat Turner’s Westport complex that so excited city officials a decade ago. (Brew photo files)

Then came Harbor Point to which the city hype machine turned its attention. Touted as another “transformative game changer,” Harbor Point actually revealed how the powers-that-be felt about giving away public money in the form of TIF subsidies – enthusiastic!

By state law, Exelon Corporation had committed to build a corporate headquarters for its Constellation Energy subsidiary in the city.

The Downtown Partnership publicly lobbied for the headquarters to be located downtown, but the city’s political machinery had been rigged to such a degree for the benefit of developer Michael Beatty – see this Brew story, Beatty lavished funds on mayor and City Council as they lavished tax credits on Harbor Point, for reference – that downtown’s interest was left in the dust.

Massive subsidies have become so ingrained in Baltimore’s economic development psyche that Exelon reaped them despite their being totally unnecessary. At that point, the city lost its leverage to determine where Exelon located. Instead of the city controlling the subsidies as a development tool, the subsidies controlled the city.

A similar example is State Center, where powerful lawyer, commercial real estate owner and Orioles baseball owner Peter Angelos waged a public campaign against the subsidies for another mega-project, State Center, claiming it would hurt downtown.

This battle has dragged on for years, leaving collateral damage that is displayed starkly along Howard Street, once the retail center of Baltimore. The derelict West Side Superblock, the stalled Poppleton La Cite project and the paralysis of Old Town are other highly visible examples of this pattern of mega-projects, mega-subsidies, mega-friction and mega-failures.

Smart Development

Patrick Turner is no longer the toast of the town. Now he’s just toast. His Westport dream went bankrupt, and Kevin Plank picked up the pieces for the bargain price of $6 million.

By all appearances, Plank did this to prevent someone else from buying the Westport site to compete with his primary development playground, Port Covington.

Plank is now able to sit back and bank the land, just as various small-time speculators have grabbed nearby rowhouses to sit and wait for something to happen, thereby allowing the housing stock of Westport to rot away.

With some imagination, Westport could just as easily be a place where the futures of “have” and “have not” Baltimore can line up to mutual benefit.

The demand for new infrastructure there is low compared with Port Covington. The light-rail station is already there. All of the demolition and much of the industrial remediation have already taken place.

Modest development at low capital cost could happen very quickly in Westport, reaping important quality-of-life improvements for this neglected corner of the city.

Tommy Roche sits on the front porch of his house on Sidney Avenue next door to a vacant and boarded house, one of hundreds of vacant houses in the Westport and adjacent Mt. Winans neighborhoods. (Gerald Neily)

Tommy Roche sits on the front porch of his house on Sidney Avenue next door to a boarded-up house, one of hundreds of vacant buildings plaguing the Westport, Mt. Winans and Cherry Hill neighborhoods. (Gerald Neily)

Let’s end the Arms Race

The first step is for the City Council to insist that Plank sell the Westport property to another entity that will commit to its timely redevelopment as a precondition to any city approvals or subsidies of Port Covington.

Plank should be able to make a profit off the Westport sale that can be applied to the infrastructure costs of Port Covington.

Public outlays, including TIF bonds, for both projects should be timed to specific targets, instead of being open-ended goals that stretch out for three decades (in the case of Plank’s plans) and are subject to unforeseen economic reversals.

Freeing Westport from its dormancy could give the community and various business interests, including manufacturers and light industry, a chance to lay out their visions for the area’s future.

And real competition among developers could break the “arms race” of ever-bigger public subsidies for upscale projects that not only reek of favoritism, but cause so much resentment and despair in this city.

Gerald Neily, a planner for the Baltimore Department of Planning from 1977 to 1996, edits the blog Baltimore InnerSpace .

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