Another Big Redevelopment Project (this One In Baltimore) Bites the Dust

A tip of our hat to Jesse Walker of Reason.com for alerting us to an expose of a major redevelopment project failure in Baltimore. You can find the story in the Maryland Daily Record (Melody Simmons and Joann Jacobson, Daily Record Investigation: A Dream Derailed, January 30, 2011) — go to http://thedailyrecord.com/2011/01/30/daily-record-investigation-a-dream-derailed/

This is one of those situations where one doesn’t quite know where to begin, but since begin one must, let’s start by quoting the opening paragraph of the Daily Record story:

“The nation’s largest urban redevelopment, a projected $1.8 billion effort to transform 88 acres of East Baltimore into a world-class biotech park and idyllic urban community, lies derailed amid vacant lots, boarded houses and unfulfilled dreams a decade after it began.”

It goes downhill from there.

So far, $564 million has “already been committed” (though we are not sure what “committed” means. Like how much has been actually spent?) The Daily Record reports that of that amount, $212.6 million is the public share “more than a third of which is from loans that will take three decades for the city to pay off with diverted property taxes.”

Speaking of which, Baltimore’s former Mayor who was in office at the time in question, is quoted as saying that “she did not know the city sold $78 million in bonds to support the project when she was mayor.” Her Honor appears to have company. Get this.

“The Daily Record’s investigation found that The New East Baltimore’s public funding is so complex and poorly scrutinized that local elected officials, some of whom serve on EBDI’s board, said they had little grasp of the $108.5 million in city funds committed to the project at a time of tax increases, and furloughs and pay cuts for city workers, including firefighters and police.”

But what about all that U.S. Supreme Court palaver about how redevelopment is a legislative prerogative, with the reins being held by the people who elect those clowns who do these things? Get this.

“Although the mayor approves the hiring of EBDI’s chief executive officer as a matter of protocol, according to [a] former Mayor. . . the organization’s nonprofit status shields it from much public scrutiny. It was formed without approval of either City Council or the Board of Estimates, and it does not have to adhere to city rules in areas such as hiring, competitive bidding and salaries.” . . . “As a nonprofit, EBDI is not audited by the city or state government. Officials at EBDI declined to show the Daily Record its internal audits, saying that it is not required by law to make them public.” (Emphasis added).

Got that? So it would appear that if you are a citizen of Baltimore,  your civic duty is to pay your taxes so these clowns can blow them without being accountable, and to keep your mouth shut. You certainly cannot vote them out of office, and there goes the Supreme Court’s fairy tale about the ballot box being a check on abuses. It now remains to be seen if there are any civic and political forces in Maryland capable of dealing with this disaster.

And what about all those jobs that redevelopment projects are supposed to generate? Get this.

“In the early years EBDI [East Batimore Development, Inc. – the nonprofit outfit that’s running this fiasco] received federal money on the premise that the biotech park would create 1750 jobs. As recently as 2009, EBDI reported to the federal government that the entire project would eventually generate 6,500 permanent jobs.”

“Today, more than two years after the lone biotech building opened, there are 422 employees there. An EBDI employment official says she does not know how many jobs were created or simply transferred there when business tenants moved there.”

“None of the permanent jobs, though, were created for East Baltimore residents, as had been promised.”

For this, “699 houses and other buildings have been demolished and another 700 are ready to come down, many of them long vacant.”

And so it goes. Your tax money at work.

As our readers surely know, our admiration for the accuracy of press reports of such matters is — shall we say? — less than unconditional, but in this case, even if only half of this stuff is true, this is a major scandal that cries out for some sort of remedial if not punitive response. But, hey man, this is urban redevelopment. American urban redevelopment. City officials and redevelopers do these things because there is money in them. But what about judges who by and large just rubber-stamp these outrages and their associated looting of public municipal funds, to say nothing of undercompensating the property owners whose land is taken by eminent domain to facilitate all that? What’s their excuse?

Follow up. For the next installment of this fiasco see Joan Jacobson and Melody Simmons, Daily Record Investigation: Jobs Come Slowly in New East Baltimore, Maryland Daily Record, February 1, 2011. Go to http://thedailyrecord.com/2011/02/01/daily-record-investigation-jobs-come-slowly-in-new-east-baltimore/ For another article in this series, particularly noteworthy for its concluding section that provides an insight into the finances of this mess, go to http://thedailyrecord.com/2011/01/31/daily-record-investigation-the-muddled-money-trail/

Related story. See Phillip A. Hummel, East Side Story: The Redevelopment of East Baltimore, 15 U. Balt. Jour. Env. L. 97 (Spring 2008). This is a generally favorable article that tends to extol the virtues of the East Baltimore redevelopment. But even its upbeat author concedes that the project, has been of no benefit to the former residents of the area, and has produced few, if any, new jobs in the area. And of course, it was written three years ago. It would be nice to learn if the author has revised his upbeat assessment in light of the recent revelations.

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