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Commentary: Economist offers advice to Gov. Wes Moore on Inner Harbor development

An aerial view of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. photo by jonbilous.

By Anirban Basu

The writer is chair and CEO of the Sage Policy Group in Baltimore.

Governor — I have met you once and came away very impressed. Like many, my immediate reaction was to conclude that I had just encountered a future American president. You would be Maryland’s first president. Virginia has produced eight.

I would be delighted to see a Marylander in the White House. It would add to our state’s already lengthy list of accomplishments. You have the resume, the charisma, an incredible memory for names, and an intellect that will not only allow you to run successfully for the presidency, but to be a great president.

But to become president, you need to govern Maryland well. Voters around the nation will determine whether you can turn around a state economy that has been moribund for years. They will also look to see if you can help turn around one of the nation’s most troubled large cities.

This letter expresses my concern for you regarding a mistake that is about to be made. You have come out in favor of a proposed redevelopment of the Inner Harbor. According to various sources, the current mayor of Baltimore hand-picked the developer, MCB Real Estate.

I have nothing against the developer, who is rooted in Charm City, but Baltimore deserved an international design competition. As has often been the case, elected officials have fallen short of delivering Baltimore that which it is due through insider dealing and limited vision.

To create the appearance of public engagement, the city supplied $1 million to the developer to manage a process whereby citizens were permitted to indicate what they wanted from Baltimore’s most visible public park. Among other things, the development calls for two massive apartment buildings along Light Street and a reduction in traffic lanes. The developer also requests massive subsidies.

If it is true that the developer took public input into consideration, this is what the public must have said:

“Thank you so much for the opportunity to provide feedback regarding the Inner Harbor’s redevelopment. This is what I think we need. First, I want you to privatize much of the park. And unlike the existing pavilions, which I have been able to enter as a member of the public, I want you to develop massive multifamily structures into which I will not be allowed. It is also important that these apartment towers block views of the water for many, thereby diminishing the value of their investments. I do not want you to create value so much as to extract it.

“Now, to the extent that there is public space left to us, I want you to require the City of Baltimore, with its massive budget and minimal challenges, to subsidize remaining public space. Let’s say the City supplies, oh I don’t know, $400 million in subsidy.

“Now to avoid any unpleasantness, I don’t want much discussion regarding wastewater management.  Yes, it’s been an issue for the city and 900 apartment units have been proposed, but I don’t want to spoil the collective mood. Along those lines, I also don’t want any discussion of what would happen to the Inner Harbor’s water quality when so much construction material is brought to the site.

“Finally, I would really like it if lanes of traffic were eliminated. The intersection at Light and Pratt will be just fine, I’m sure. And please don’t bother conducting a timely traffic study. I prefer my traffic jams to come as surprises!”

So that is what the public must have said for the developer to have proposed that which is on offer. But as you have likely inferred, the public probably did not say that. No one said that. That is the reason for this letter. The proposed project welcomes wealthy renters at the expense of everyday citizens and visitors to our Inner Harbor. It demands massive public subsidy from a poor city. That is not a good look for a Democratic primary.

As importantly, the proposed redevelopment fails to deliver the economic impact that a project of this type should. Imagine if the Inner Harbor redevelopment focused primarily upon shared family experience along the waterfront. How many people would come from Washington, New York, and elsewhere to be able to spend time and money along the waterfront engaged in a variety of family-friendly activities?

That is massively monetizable, but the proposed development leaves much of that dynamic off the table. Governor, for your own sake and for ours, please do not let this transpire.


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Commentary: Economist offers advice to Gov. Wes Moore on Inner Harbor development