January 28, 2012

Exelon in Westport

Give it up, Downtown Partnership -
Put Exelon in Westport
Patrick Turner's proposed Westport development on the Middle Branch, near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway

It's a municipal wet dream. A Fortune 200 company plans to build a major new office building, an investment of hundreds of millions, and they're only considering one city - Baltimore.

So Kirby Fowler, President of the Downtown Partnership, writes in the Baltimore Sun that the downtown business interests he represents do not want Exelon to build a new building, because there is already a glut of unwanted office space. And failing that, they want only downtown sites to be considered, even though he admits that locating there would require massive tax subsidies as an inducement that Exelon is not even demanding.

Downtown Partnership's worst case scenario would be for Exelon to choose a site somewhere else in the city, even though that would free the city of the burden of propping up the deal with massive tax breaks (euphemistically called "payments in lieu of taxes"). 

Kirby Fowler's pronouncement makes it official. Downtown Baltimore is no longer the purported economic engine of the region. Downtown Partnership needs to give it up. Downtown is just another urban institution that needs to be reinvented, like the schools or the former industrial base.

The city's objective must be to maximize investment, and Downtown Partnership has as much as admitted that this is not going to happen if Exelon is just another blip on the downtown skyline.

Exelon should choose Westport

Exelon should be allowed to choose the best site for them, where they will be welcomed, rather than the one induced by subsidies from the powers-that-be. In my view, the best site is Westport.

It is attractive, accessible and highly visible, where the waterfront meets Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. It's an easy light rail ride away from the airport and the Camden Yards MARC commuter rail station.

Westport would also satisfy the city's objective to maximize the leverage of the private investment. Exelon's new building would spur additional residential and commercial development. This is not just an idle wish. Exelon would no doubt make sure it happened. They don't want to locate in an isolated wasteland.

This would all be in accordance with the ambitious and well-vetted plans of developer Patrick Turner, supported by the Westport community, as well as the city's own plans for the greater Middle Branch, Gateway South, Port Covington and Camden Yards areas.

The economic spin-off would ripple through Gateway South (hey... energy trading is not that different from slot machines), Cherry Hill, Pigtown, Port Covington and yes, even downtown itself, the struggling west side of which is just a short light rail ride away.

Much of the new investment would likely be allocated to Tax Increment Financing of needed streets and other public infrastructure, but this is urgently needed anyway to support the overall transformation of this entire area from "brownfields" to viable communities. We would be able to see exactly where the money is going.

Exelon in Westport would provide far more stimulus for further growth than just another new downtown office tower propped up by subsidies.

Back to the drawing board for downtown

That Fowler's group would resist such private investment in a desperate effort to maintain their own viability shows that downtown is in far bigger trouble than we thought. Downtown needs to lose its delusions of grandeur and reinvent itself. Downtown's overpriced and contrived plan for Exelon is not much different from their proposals for a billion dollar mega-convention arena, the chronically delayed superblock retail complex, Inner Harbor Disneyfication, or the streetcar-on-steroids Red Line.

A strong dose of reality would reinvent downtown more along the lines of a large attractive series of urban villages oriented to the kind of street-level interaction that is increasingly rare in the internet age, rather than expensive megastructures and isolated rail transit lines. The success of Harbor East probably dealt the death blow to downtown's pretensions, demonstrating how well planned street-oriented development can succeed away from the downtown core. This is a model for the future.

The conventional wisdom has traditionally been that downtown is the key to saving the entire city. It's time to wake up to the new reality that the entire city is the key to saving downtown.


  1. Nice post. Why not let the real estate market figure out where the big investments go - and a tall building and traffic/employment generator elsewhere could provide some diversity and distinction to the whole skyline, not to mention spreading out the congestion. Your application of basic Jane Jacobs principles to downtown makes sense too. btw, I believe "payments in lieu of taxes" are more like a TIF, where tax payments are diverted to specific improvements, than just pure tax exemptions...hence "payments".

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