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Why Companies Don’t Like Downtown Baltimore

How it's done.

There have been rumblings from real estate brokers and other critics that redeveloping State Center would drain downtown of its vibrancy. This assumes downtown has such a thing as “vibrancy” to begin with. The same arguments are made about Harbor East and how it has made downtown look tired and increased vacancy rates. This is like saying Megan Fox makes Betty White look old. Well, Betty White would look 80 even if she was standing next to Mickey Rooney (no disrespect to Ms. White intended).

Take the intersection of Charles and Fayette. This is pretty much the geographical center of downtown and the intersection of major crosstown routes, and it’s dead.  A vacant, half built hotel, a cafe’ with patio space the owner doesn’t want to use, and an empty storefront which has been dark for a year. This is the gateway to Mt. Vernon from the Inner Harbor and it is sort of the canary in the coal mine for the general state of downtown.

So building owners and agencies are trying to lease vacant office space to bring downtown back to life. This strategy is backwards. Decision makers and corporate heads don’t only look at the numbers. They walk around the neighborhood. They get a sense of the place, the foot traffic, the amenities.  They see if the neighborhood is a place they would want to spend 8 hours a day in. The spark comes from street life, but employment adds limited amounts of it. We need more residents downtown to make it a 24-7 neighborhood and to also make it more attractive to companies.

In graduate school, I read about the 10 year tax abatement program Philadelphia started to encourage redevelopment downtown.  It was responsible not only for filling up vacant storefronts, but getting thousands of new and converted residential units off the ground. Instead of a project-based PILOT program like we have in Baltimore, Philadelphia’s program was more equitable in that it was city wide and that any developer could qualify.

“In the beginning, the abatement program was 100 percent responsible for getting things going,” said Paul Levy, president of Center City District, which was formed in 1990 to address the decline of downtown Philadelphia. “Now there is a discussion going on about whether or not it’s still needed.”

According to a report released [in 2005] by the Center City District, from the time that tax abatements were passed, more than 8,000 converted and new units will have been added to Center City, and half of all new residents benefiting from tax abatements came from outside the city.

Those who lived in the city before the newest influx see a big change in the character of the downtown area.”

We need a net gain in downtown employment, but getting more people to live here would be the less obvious but more effective way of getting more people to work here.  Maybe a similar tax abatement strategy could amplify residential development downtown when the market recovers. Many corporations want to be in active, hip neighborhoods, and increasing downtown’s population would have the added benefit of improving its retail market demographics. Not to mention giving more people transportation options and getting cars off the street – especially those who would move here from the suburbs.

The reasons that corporations move to a place are not so dissimilar to the reasons a person chooses one neighborhood over the other. If the office space is there, create a nice place to work and the workers will come.