Wow, the drama of exploitation does not seem to end here in Baltimore. This most recent one shows billionaire developer Kevin Plank coveting-a-ton of our tax dollars in the guise of Port Covington. This time it’s 535 (or 660, the directors have not quite settled on a nice round figure yet) million dollars in tax increment financing (TIF) to develop a 7,500-unit housing complex, retail and office space. Wish as it may the city can’t afford to lavish such benefit on Mr. Plank-owner of Under Armour-, whose wealth accumulation is championed by Sagamore Development in this drama. So the state has stepped up to accommodate his continued accumulation of asset, by guaranteeing the bonds on the backs of the people. Oh yes, and exempting him from city law requiring affordable housing.
Never mind we’re still recovering from the exploitive drama (in laywoman’s term, recent injustice) that occurred in 2013 in and outside of city hall when City Council member Carl Stoke’s Taxation and Finance Committee attempted to stop this coveting-of-a ton by millionaire, Michael Beatty. But the committee’s hearing and decision was usurped by private dollars and government cronies to grant Mr. Beatty subsidies for his Harbor Point Development. This one granted subsidies in the amount of 120 million dollars. It followed on the heals of Paterakis’s development in Harbor East, also heavily subsidized (with TIFs and PILOTs) by the government. This continued ‘theater of exploitation’ (in layman’s term, neoliberalization- or letting the market determine what’s best for the citizens- of urban spaces) of Baltimore by private developer’s greed for wealth accumulation, whether in the form of universities-Johns Hopkins – or individuals, seems unstoppable.
Many thought this macabre theater would end with the killing of Freddie Gray and the uprising by Baltimore citizens calling for an end to the roots of systemic racism and systematic economic exploitation-uneven development. But the wheels of capitalism, set in motion the development of Baltimore, and didn’t ever decide that black and poor lives matter. So while lip service about acknowledging the history of disinvestment of the poor and wealth accumulation of the rich trended for a moment, the movement from above continued. This is the movement of continued exploitation-carried out by public and private partnerships.
This has been the pattern with development in our city: inequitable and unsustainable. In the 1960s when the the city exempted developer’s of the Charles Center and Inner Harbor from a competitive bidding process amidst black residents protesting their lack of black employees, the justification was that it would serve the public. In the 1950s the city and state granted subsidies to Johns Hopkins university and hospital for expansion into 59 acres in East Baltimore, displacing more than 1000 mostly black families. It served itself while the surrounding community continued on a road of poverty and neglect.
But large scale uneven development seems to have been put on fast forward starting in 2002 when the Johns Hopkins university and hospital targeted another 88-acres in Middle East Baltimore for a Science and Technology Park. The city, state, and federal government again stepped in to assist this private developer with bonds, subsidies, and grants, using eminent domain to uproot another 700 black families and acquire the land. Like Port Covet-a-ton, Hopkins’ expansion also announced it would benefit the public, with jobs and affordable housing. Fifteen years later, and in light of legislation demanding 1/3 affordable housing (both rental and ownership), no affordable ownership housing has been built. Instead, luxury townhomes for upward of $250,000 will be constructed next and more government subsidy was recently granted for building out a pizza restaurant in the first floor of Johns Hopkins student housing-(you ask, is this theatre or reality?)
This may all seem like a really bad mafia movie, one in which greed, wealth, and corruption rules the land in the form of a development gang gone awry (Mad Max gone corporate? comes to mind) and the poor remain hidden in bombed-out spaces, disinvested by the state. Unfortunately it is not a bad drama, or temporary theater of the macabre. It is life in Baltimore.
What to do?
Well we voted a couple weeks ago, but for whom? Some changes on the city council and we’ll wait and see if they have any substantial action to support the words that got them into office. It looks like a new democratic mayor will be voted in in the fall, what will she do? In light of the lack of support by the city council for more equal sharing of economic power between the executive and legislative branch, it’s not clear that much will change with this new mayor. It’s like holding tickets for a show that had good and bad reviews: will we be happy with the performances?
We have been waiting on government for too long, even as they continuously neglect the most vulnerable amongst us, in favor of the rich. The surest path seems to be in our own two hands. When we organize and demand change and accountability and transparency to the people, when we protest and have sit-ins, when we “shut things down” we send a message: enough is enough. All that’s good but something is even more near, something we can do to send a strong message to Mr. Plank’s new Port Covet-a-ton deal before the city and state. Each of you advocating for change, send him a polite and personal message: ask him how much wealth is enough; AND stop wearing Under Armour clothing and buying the paraphernalia that sends the message that you support his continued exploitation of our city dollars.That’s right, boycott with your money and insist that the exploitation of the vulnerable and growing gap between the rich and the poor will not happen on our watch. Those of you who are U of Maryland-College Park student/staff/faculty and alumni (Mr. Plank’s alma mater) ask the university why someone who is willing to exploit our state and city would be invited to address graduating students at a commencement ceremony. And do smile as you stand up for justice!
Draft of a letter to Mr. Plank:
1000 E. Key Highway
Baltimore, MD 21230
Dear Mr. Plank,
We are happy that your headquarters for Under Armour is in Baltimore. We hope that your assets are sufficient to comfortably take care of your family and friends. In an attempt to prevent continued exploitation of our public assets, we politely request that you reconsider demanding such large tax breaks from our city. As you are aware, such public subsidies exploit the citizens of Baltimore by re-directing the funds that could serve our most vulnerable communities and widens the gap between the rich and the poor. Addressing the legacy of uneven development requires that we reconsider “business as usual” which grants the rich access to continued wealth accumulation while the needs of the less well-off are ignored. Growing the city toward sustainability and equity will assure everyone benefits, not just a few.
Your Charm City sister/brother