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Baltimore Developers Say City Should 'Think Boldly' To Spur Transit-Oriented Development Boom

Baltimore is receiving an influx of federal and state dollars for major transportation projects like the Red Line and the Penn Station overhaul, creating the opportunity for a wave of new transit-oriented development in the region.

But to take advantage of that opportunity, city and county governments must adopt pro-growth zoning policies and offer economic incentives, developers and state officials said Monday at the Greater Baltimore Committee's Transportation and Economic Development Summit at the Baltimore Convention Center. 

"If you're not pro-growth and if you're not thinking long-term, we're going to get run by, and we can't afford that," said MLR Partners principal Mark Renbaum, who has had a transit-oriented project in Baltimore County stalled for three years. 

Gov. Wes Moore speaks on Monday at the Greater Baltimore Committee's Transportation and Economic Development Summit.

Gov. Wes Moore said an opportunity exists to invest in these developments throughout Baltimore and vowed to infuse state dollars into projects downtown and in outlying neighborhoods. The governor revived efforts this summer to build the Red Line light rail spur connecting western Baltimore County and East Baltimore that backers believe will prod new transit-oriented development, particularly in disadvantaged communities in West Baltimore

"This becomes a moment for us to be thoughtful," Moore said. "This becomes the moment for us to be intentional. This becomes a time where we're not choosing between this idea of investing in downtown or investing in neighborhoods. We can and we will invest in both and stop the binary because we don't have to choose."

Nevertheless, Cross Street Partners CEO Bill Struever said these projects need more than state and federal dollars to entice the level of transit-oriented development required to spur a local renaissance. 

Baltimore city officials, he said, must invest local tax dollars to effectively leverage the record amount of money the federal and state governments are spending on transit projects. 

"We've got to think of big resources. Because of what costs are today, interest rates are today, we're just not going to be able to move the needle, so we need the public sector to join and think boldly about the funding," Struever said. "We need to do what we all need to do together to create a shared prosperity for Baltimore." 

Equally crucial in attracting new transit-oriented development is rethinking local development requirements, officials said. Maryland Transit Administration Administrator Holly Arnold said for too long, development plans prioritized cars, and as a result, too much space is dedicated to cars, particularly in cities like Baltimore. 

"I think that's been to the detriment of our downtown and the detriment of our cities. So now's a really good opportunity to rethink that," Arnold said. "How can we rethink downtown? How can we rethink and reprioritize and give that space back to pedestrians or bicyclists to transit?"

Lutherville Station renderings displayed during the Greater Baltimore Committee's Transportation and Economic Development Summit.

However, adopting a less car-centric development style faces serious challenges locally from zoning and residents' opposition to denser building. 

MLR Partners' proposed Lutherville Station redevelopment serves as a prime example of how resident pushback and zoning can stymie the development that local and state leaders say they want to encourage.  

Renbaum's firm proposed building 400 apartments, office, retail and green space, replacing a roughly 60-year-old car-centric shopping center within walking distance of a light rail station. 

But a combination of community opposition and zoning that predates the construction of the light rail stop in the early 1990s means the proposal remains in limbo.  

"It's a very, very transformative project, but we acquired the site three years ago, and we've been working very actively with the county council person and the county itself to try and come up with a plan," Renbaum said. "We [still] don't have zoning for the project."

Meanwhile, Struever, through a joint venture between Cross Street Partners and Beatty Development Group called Penn Station Partners, continues to work with Amtrak to redevelop Baltimore's Penn Station.

Penn Station Partners serves as the program manager for the redevelopment. Its responsibilities include coordinating the planning, design and construction of the station's $200M worth of Amtrak-funded improvements. 

Additionally, the development team intends to build up to 1.6M SF of office, residential and retail space on several Amtrak-owned parcels.

Struever said Penn Station holds the potential to connect families without cars to jobs, open up a new gateway to downtown Baltimore and serve as an East Coast hub connecting entrepreneurs, universities and government agencies. Creating that hub, he said, is especially important because "we don't believe that the traditional office market is going to come back in a big way." 

He said bringing that vision to fruition requires taking advantage of a flood of investment, particularly from the federal government. But he said Baltimore must put its tax dollars to work to realize the potential stemming from the federal largesse.    

"Let's capture that dividend of increased federal spending, and let's look at Penn Station as a gateway and a new door into downtown as we think boldly about the future," Struever said.