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In State Center Fight, Bill Protects the Community

Office of the Governor

With the state fighting to cancel its agreement with the developer of State Center, it’s not clear what will eventually replace the current 1950’s-era buildings at the 28-acre state office complex just north of downtown Baltimore. Two competing lawsuits between the state and the developer could take years to wrap up, and until they do, the project is at a standstill.

But when the fight is resolved, members of the surrounding communities want to make sure that they get a vote on what gets built.

That’s the primary goal of a bill proposed by state Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the state Legislative Black Caucus.

A coalition of the nine neighborhoods surrounding State Center has been working with the developer for 12 years “to design a major revitalization project that will take a desolate section of West Baltimore and turn it into a vibrant, mixed-use community,” Glenn told members of the House Health and Government Operations Committee on Thursday.

Before the lawsuits, the plan included a large grocery store, state offices, apartments, retail and green space — things the community still wants.

But a state-commissioned study released in January offered markedly different suggestions, including fast food, a convenience store and gas station, and a much smaller grocery store.

Glenn’s bill requires the new development to include many aspects of the existing plan and requires the new developer to sign a community benefits agreement.

“This is a rare case of neighbors fighting for development, and this bill protects the thousands of hours they have put in so far,” Glenn said.

If done right, the development could have major and lasting impacts on the area, said Steva Kormeh, former president of the Historic Marble Hill Association and a 40-year resident of the neighborhood. She compared the project to similar redevelopment efforts in Canton and the Inner Harbor.

“It’s a no brainer, really, because we’ve seen it time and time again throughout various sections of Baltimore City,” Kormeh said. “I just think that it’s our turn.”

Elizabeth Degi Mount, executive director of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, said the development could also address some of Baltimore City Public Schools’ challenges by boosting the property tax base and attracting residents to the city, which would boost enrollment.

But Baltimore County Del. Chris West, a Republican member of the committee, expressed concerns about locking the state into a specific plan for development before the lawsuit is completed.

What if in a few years after the lawsuit is over, “some major American company, like an Amazon, says, ‘We want to come to Baltimore City, we would like to take over that area, and we would like to build a state-of-the-art city of tomorrow in its place. We don’t want a supermarket there, and we don’t want state agencies there. We want to put our stuff there,’” West posited. “If we pass this bill, we have institutionalized in state law specific elements that have to be components of the project. Isn’t that going to deter what might be in the best interest of the city, the state and the neighborhoods?”

But those components — like the grocery store — are what the community has been saying it wants for 12 years, Degi Mount said.

“Seventy percent of the people living in poverty in Baltimore don’t have access to a car,” she said. “Having a grocery store in the middle of Amazon’s world headquarters number three might not make sense to [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos, but it does if you’re a mom like me with a 3-and-a-half year old and you need to get milk sometimes at 7 o’clock at night.”

The Senate version of Glenn’s bill is scheduled to go before the full Senate on Tuesday.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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