The Failure of Baltimore’s Taxpayer-Funded Building Bonanza

“Harbor Point and Baltimore’s Taxpayer-Funded Edifice
Complex,” produced by Todd Kranin.

The original release date for this documentary was January 8,
2014, and the original writeup is below:

In Baltimore, a small, toxic spit of land that juts out into the
Patapsco River is the latest battleground between the free market
and government subsidies.

For 20 years, Harbor Point, a 27-acre site of an abandoned
chromium factory, has been a dream in the eyes of developers. It’s
the last big unbuilt site on the city’s waterfront and arguably the
most sought-after real estate in all of Maryland.

Yes, developers have lusted after the site, but they just didn’t
want to have pay the full cost of, well, developing it.

In a city as desperate for growth as Baltimore, they don’t have
to. Baltimore’s political class has committed
$400 million in public subsidies
 to a controversial plan
that supporters claim will generate 6,000 jobs and
build a complex of
skyscrapers, residences, and public parks
 that will
forever transform the character of the city.

City officials believe the $1.8 billion-dollar project will
spark an economic turnaround. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
considers Harbor Point a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to
reverse the half-century-long exodus of residents and businesses
that have hollowed out Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake and developer
Michael Beatty have campaigned relentlessly for the plan, offering
promises of urban renewal and jobs in a city with 10.3 percent

Yet Baltimore’s citizens aren’t convinced. The public hearings
and frequent street demonstrations outside City Hall have revealed
a tale of two cities: sweetheart
deals for the well-connected
 along the waterfront and
decades of neglect for the majority of its blue collar residents.
The subsidies are a major sticking point, as is the use of an
Enterprise Zone for the benefit of wealthy residents. Tax increment
financing, known as TIF, will exempt the developer from taxation
for a decade. To many residents, Harbor Point is just the latest
example of socializing risk and privatizing gain.

Why are the public coffers wide open to wealthy developers?
That’s the way business has always been done, in Baltimore and
elsewhere. Just upriver from Harbor Point, the city’s famed Inner
 is the result of similar top-down, heavily
subsidized development. Decades ago, city politicians spent
billions to sweep away Baltimore’s crumbling industrial-age
infrastructure, replacing it with office towers, popular chain
restaurants, museums, and an aquarium, all of which attracts
millions of tourists, year after year.

More than just creating a pleasure for daytrippers, the
development of the Inner Harbor set a precedent for the nation, as
other cities rushed to make their own versions of the scene. In
Baltimore, developers lobby politicians for special deals. If they
don’t get what they want, they give themselves a tax cut by moving
their business to the surrounding county, where property taxes are
much lower than in Baltimore proper. It’s
a dynamic
 that’s left large sections of the city
abandoned, with only a few tax-exempt institutions such as Johns
Hopkins University and the Catholic Church continuing to

Even the
widely praised Inner Harbor has failed
 to stanch the
flow of 300,000 residents who’ve left Baltimore since 1960. Instead
of revitalizing the city’s fortunes, the rise of the waterfront has
paralleled the decline of basic city functions. Violent crime
remains high, public schools underperform, and the cityscape is
blighted by the presence of tens of thousands of vacant

Ironically, the Harbor Point project has overcorme every
political obstacle in its way only to be put on hold pending an
environmental review of hexavalent chromium in the soil. Despite
that delay, developers and their friends in City Hall remain
confident that the project will soon be moving forward and that it
will both revive Baltimore’s fortunes and the reputation of
planners who push corporate welfare. It will likely take a decade
before the project is up and running and the rest of us learn
whether Harbor Point is just another tax-aided mega-project that
fails to provide the economic stimulus its backers promise.

from Hit & Run

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