The Baltimore County Council voted along party lines Monday night in approving more than $40 million in grants and up-front funding for the multi-use Towson Row project.
Greenberg Gibbons, the new developer behind the project, will forego the Commercial Revitalization tax credits it’s entitled to and will instead get a $26.5 million advance from the county.
Additionally, the county will give the developer a $16.4 million grant that will be paid back through the hotel occupancy tax.
Voting for the financing were the four Democrats on the council — Vicki Almond, Cathy Bevins, Julian Jones and Tom Quirk — while Republicans Wade Kach, Todd Crandell and David Marks, who represents Towson, voted against it.
“I guess the concern is that we approve this tonight and we never hear back from the executive branch,” Marks said at the Monday night meeting. “I’m just being very blunt. And we’ve seen it with garages that have been approved and we’ve seen it with other contracts and that’s a real concern.”
At a work session last week, the council heard testimony from numerous residents who felt it was irresponsible of the county to spend its money on the private development when there are other pressing needs — such as school infrastructure.
Jones said he wished we lived in a world where the government didn’t finance private projects, “but we don’t.”
“If this is what it takes for us to be competitive, for us to be a place where people want to come and invest money — after all, the $350 million the remainder of the $16 million that we’re putting in is not small fries — I think this is just something we have to do,” Jones said at last week’s Council work session.
“I think the project is good for Towson, is good for Baltimore County, is going to provide significant jobs, and is going to provide some revenues that we can use to fund other county services that are important. So I’m very thankful, to be quite frank, that this project is moving forward,” Jones said.
Council president Quirk said at the work session that spending about $16 million to attract 2,000 permanent jobs and $200 million in annual business activity and $92 million in employee compensaiton “seems like a pretty good trade off.”
“It’s not my district, but if I’m a Towson resident, I don’t want to be sitting here three or five years from now with an empty lot. I want to see something go,” Quirk said. “And we finally have a developer — who by the way is incredibly well respected everywhere and does amazing projects — willing to take this risk and willing to move Towson forward, so I just hope that all the residents and citizens really think about this because this could be really a great opportunity.”
State Sen. Jim Brochin, who is running for Baltimore County Executive, said at the work session that he doesn’t like the fact that the project was being presented as an indefinite hole in the ground, or tens of millions of dollars for a developer. He said he would have preferred the county’s portion to be a loan and not a grant.
“I feel like my constituents are kind of being extorted,” Brochin told the council. “The previous developer [Caves Valley] put us in this situation with a plan that wasn’t economically viable and they made a big mistake. Which is why they ended up selling 95 percent of their share. They didn’t do their due diligence, there was rock in the ground, and the big question for all seven of you is, Why should we have to pay for it?”
John Olszewski Jr., who is also running for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County Executive against Brochin and Almond, said last week that he would also prefer the financing package to be structured differently.
“I do think we need to find a way to make that project happen. I think it could be transformative and a real anchor for the Towson community,” Olszewski said in an interview. “But in terms of the package itself, I think it sets a precedent that has yet to be established in Baltimore County and I think you run the risk of other developers coming in and saying, I need a similar set of supports.”
The Baltimore Post noted in an article yesterday that the developers involved have been large contributors to many council members.
“A detailed analysis of Greenberg Gibbons’s campaign finance records by The Baltimore Post reveals the Owings Mills-based firm, its affiliates and executives have contributed almost $90,000 to Kamenetz and six members of the Baltimore County Council. Previous stories by The Baltimore Post revealed that CVP, its affiliates and partners have contributed at least $130,000 to county officials and a slate campaign,” the story said.
In a statement on Monday, Almond said that “Baltimore County has a front row view of what happens when a jurisdiction doesn’t re-invest in communities. Where there is vacant retail property, crime and blight are not far behind. Here, we have an opportunity to energize new economic opportunity in Baltimore County and capitalize on $350 million dollars of private investment,” she said. “This type of investment and growth helps provide a vibrant, new center of activity for lifestyle and local business– attracting new residents and revenue for the County, alike.”
Towson Row will be a 5-acre mix of apartments, student housing, a hotel, office and retail space — including a planned Whole Foods. The original developer was Caves Valley Partners, but they ran into issues when they discovered too much rock under the site to allow for their proposed underground parking garage.
In May, Caves Valley — the developer behind the controversial Royal Farms in Towson — announced it was partnering with Greenberg Gibbons on the project. Greenberg Gibbons, who is now leading the Towson Row project, is the firm behind The Shops at Kenilworth, Hunt Valley Towne Centre and Foundry Row.
“Greenberg Gibbons is the right developer to complete Towson Row — and when the project is finished, it will have a transformational impact on Downtown Towson. I believe some form of a financial assistance package is appropriate to jumpstart this project, although I would have preferred a loan than the grant proposed by the Kamenetz administration,” Marks said in a statement.
“Ultimately, though, I had grave concerns about the speed with which this package was presented to the County Council. I also had little confidence that the Kamenetz administration will communicate with the Council once it gets this contract approved,” Marks said. “I am also concerned about how the proposed contract will bind future County Executives and County Councils to financial commitments, particularly if the county runs into economic difficulties.”
The Towson Flyer