Reading through Mark Reutter’s superb Harbor Point coverage as I worked to make it accessible in one place (see below), I realized it was a great example of what sets The Brew apart from other local journalism.
(Forgive us for tooting our own horn, but we’re pushing ourselves to do more of that with an eye toward expanding our news coverage and growing the operation.)
I was struck by one of our earliest Harbor Point pieces published long before the protesters, City Hall hearings and emotional debates.
Pegged to developer Michael Beatty’s splashy 2012 unveiling of his project to the local media, it showcased the themes we’d be following and the feisty journalistic approach we’d be taking over the course of the next 19 months and two-dozen stories, as the project ignited a kind of proxy fight over the soul of the city.
On that chilly February day when Beatty assembled a few reporters to hear new details about the development – chief among them energy giant Exelon’s decision to locate its Baltimore office tower there – it felt like we were being given the view from 40,000 feet.
It was, to be precise, the 24th-floor penthouse level of the Legg Mason building, which had a panoramic 360-degree view and a Mount Olympus feel.
To read our coverage of Harbor Point and the debate over tax subsidies to developers, see our TOP 30 articles below.
Clutching our notepads as we stood out on the open-air balcony, we looked down at the grayish, scoured-flat, 27-acre peninsula – empty save for a few H&S Bakery truck bodies (and the Morgan Stanley building over to one side).
Surrounding the site were pleasure boats, luxury condos and the shimmering waters of Baltimore’s harbor. Artists’ renderings were propped on easels to show the planned layout of plazas, retail shops, a lacrosse field and office towers.
Down Where the Rest of Us Live
“Can I go out and take some pictures from the other side?” I remember asking before the presentation began.
I went over to the west-facing balcony and looked toward the city’s distant-seeming downtown. Behind it, waaaay, waaaay off in the further distance and rather blurry, were the not so-glittery parts of the city, far from the water. West and Northwest Baltimore. Poor, struggling, a world away.
The story we wrote later was definitely not from the 24th floor perspective and assuredly not what Beatty had anticipated. (He later told us so.) Yes, we had all those paragraphs of background and those square footage numbers, but we also explained that they would all come at a cost to taxpayers.
We wrote about the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) subsidy as well as the Enterprise Zone designation that would entitle the developer to an 80% break in property taxes. (That Enterprise Zone designation “would reduce the amount of property taxes going to the city of Baltimore to virtually nothing for many years,” we wrote, putting its effect in plain English.)
We quoted critics who questioned the millions being diverted from the city’s coffers to benefit a developer and his chief tenant, a Fortune 500 energy company.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Going further, we listened closely as Beatty and the Exelon execs expounded on the waterfront parcel’s virtues (over other sites in the city’s traditional downtown, the Central Business District) and the reasons they believe its adjacent older-brother development, Harbor East, has been a smashing success.
Beatty spoke of “the suburban dream of ‘Where’s my office park?’” and about dispelling the “impression” of urban safety issues. Responding to questions, he said there would be 7,000 parking spaces in all, between Harbor Point and Harbor East.
It was a lesson from a master on the kind of development getting support these days from City Hall and their favored businessmen: high-end, waterfront projects with an aura of gated suburban safety and ample parking.
Actually, there’s no mystery here. It’s something anyone can see who’s checked out the posh and pleasant Harbor East scene, where diners can purchase $523 bottles of Bordeaux and shoppers can snap up $595 spike-heeled designer boots and security guards on Segways patrol the streets.
But here it was from the developer who (as the right-hand man of Harbor East’s John Paterakis) had perfected the formula. In the rowhouse neighborhoods and dowdy-by-comparison “old downtown,” this tutorial in Bmore realpolitik, as we called it, could come off as triumphalist or worse.
The seeds of the ensuing debate were in that story:
Should a project like this get city subsidies? Does it need them? Are citizens lucky to have the benefits of a new upscale community? Or losers whose tax dollars will be diverted into a few swell zip codes? (Beatty, by the way, lives in Ruxton.)
Are we bringing the suburbs to the city,when we should be making the city we have better? Exactly how much are we (the taxpayers) paying for Harbor Point? And how much are contractors, lawyers, bankers and other power players in town making from it? Is the process fair? Is it legal?
Unearthing New Facts
If our early posts helped set the table for the debate, Mark Reutter’s subsequent reporting served up a banquet of startling new facts and analysis, which were quickly set upon by citizens, public officials, community activists, radio talk show hosts and business leaders (not to mention other media).
Some of his scoops came from digging painstakingly through the documents and adding up the numbers.
Reutter discovered, for example, that taxpayers are actually on the hook for much more than the $107 million TIF. An additional $95 million in federal highway funds – funds that would have gone to citywide bridge and road repairs – are to be diverted for new roads, a Central Avenue bridge and other Harbor Point infrastructure needs.
The same sort of dogged number-crunching turned up some more startling expenditures.
For example, taxpayers’ themselves were going to have to finance the parks and pay for the promenade Beatty had earlier promised to mollify the Fells Point community.
Reutter figured out that the city plans to spend $59 million over 10 years on public parks at the development (That’s roughly the same amount the city historically spends on capital improvements for its entire 7,000-acre park system, he told readers.)
Likewise, he had to dive pretty deep to find out that Harbor Point won’t start paying property taxes to the city until 2025. That factoid was buried in a 107-page report by the city’s financial consultant. Perhaps he was spurred on by the sunny mayoral press release that used some shaky math to come up with $19 million in annual revenue from Harbor Point. (They averaged out revenues through 2049, he determined.)
In other cases, Reutter’s coup was simply ferreting out the documents themselves. He exclusively obtained, for instance, the 12-page draft drawn up by local ministers asking Beatty for $25 million in “local benefits” payments in return for their support.
Asking questions, digging deep, doing the math, looking out for the interests of the taxpaying citizens who never make it up to the 24th floor, recognizing a potential civic moment-of-truth when we see it.
That’s what we do at The Brew.
And since Harbor Point is still in the news and a host of other murky areas in city government are in desperate need of journalistic light – such as sewer contracts and minority participation rules – that’s what we’ll continue to do.
“THE TOP 30″
Stories since 2011 about Harbor Point and Related Developments:
Consultant for Harbor Point threatens to “go after” Stokes 8/14/13
Inside City Hall: First slug of Exelon merger money coming to City Hall 8/13/13
Council suspends rules, approves Harbor Point TIF subsidy tonight 8/12/13
About $95M in federal highway funds will be used at Harbor Point 8/12/13
Council “humiliated” by “arrogant display of corruption,” Stokes says 8/8/13
Council panel approves Harbor Point TIF as chairman storms out 8/8/13
Downtown opposition to Harbor Point TIF carries real weight 8/7/13
Fells Point group withdraws its backing of Harbor Point 8/7/13
Clergymen seek $25 million from Harbor Point developer for “community benefits” 8/5/13
Citizens are starting to question Harbor Point TIF subsidies 8/3/13
No affordable housing planned at Harbor Point 7/18/13
“Gold-plated” parks for Harbor Point? City is budgeting $59 million for them 7/17/13
Harbor Point hearing tomorrow expected to draw a crowd 7/16/13
Harbor Point developer is a no-show at hearing 7/11/13
Harbor Point won’t start paying property taxes to city until 2025 6/10/13
Harbor Point: Do we really need $89 million in bells and whistles? 6/7/13
Major tax break for downtown developers set for approval today 4/8/13
BDC staff recommends $107 million TIF tax break for Harbor Point 3/28/13
Ready or not, Central Ave. is destined to be our new main street 10/4/12
City Council approves tax-break plans for two harborfront developments 9/11/12
Paterakis group seeks to restore a lucrative tax break for Harbor Point 8/2/12
Paterakis wants to boost size of Harbor Point by two-thirds 7/5/12
Proposed Under Armour TIF financing violates city’s own guidelines 5/22/12
Why Exelon chose Harbor Point over downtown – more like suburbia 2/9/12
Eastward ho! Baltimore business marches away from the Inner Harbor 2/1/12
City pushes ahead with Paterakis’ Harbor Point 11/23/11
A taxing tale of two Baltimore hotels 11/15/11
Behind the dry debate over tax breaks: juicy political maneuvering 11/11/11
Subsidies to developers should be prioritized and better monitored, task force says 11/9/11
Tax breaks for developers – economic development or corporate welfare? 7/14/11