Freddie Gray

Baltimore's Long History of Failed Development and Urban Renewal

Police abuse might have lit the fuse, but decades of awful top-down planning helped create the explosion.


The riots still raging in Baltimore after protests against the police-custody death of Freddie Gray aren't happening in a vacuum. The violence and destruction are in no way justified but they can be partly explained by decades of failed governmental attempts to rejuvenate Charm City's fortunes. Predictably, these efforts fail, even as they squander public resources and taxpayer dollars on useless projects that benefit well-connected politicians and business interests.

via CBS 13

Like many older American cities, Baltimore's population peaked at about 950,000 in 1950 and since then has settled into a long and virtually uninterrupted decline, even as the surrounding areas gained in people and opportunities. Currently about 622,000 people call Baltimore home and there's every reason to expect more people to move out as a result of recent events.

While Baltimore's police department has a long and sordid history of abuse—and the details surrounding Freedie Gray's death in custody only embellish that history further—the city's misfortunes can't simply be laid at the feet of law enforcement. The simple fact is that Baltimore's city government has made mistake after mistake for decades when it comes to pursuing the Holy Grail of "urban renewal" and redevelopment. In this, as in its history of population decline and tensions with police, Baltimore is less the exception than the rule.

Indeed, even the city's vaunted "Inner Harbor" complex, widely regarded as jump-starting similar projects in cities across America, failed to stem the tide of people leaving the city. If anything, it actually showcases how elites go wrong when trying to make their cities livable. Built on massive subsidies, giveaways, and eminent-domain abuse, such projects routinely divert funds, resources, and energy from the core operations of local governments: providing basic infrastructure, good schools, safe streets, and room for local businesses to start and grow.

In late 2013, Baltimore's leaders pushed hard to start another mega-project that could only happen with massive subsidies, tax breaks, and other giveaways that strongly suggest the project isn't actually supported by real market forces. That project was the subject of a Reason TV documentary that adds meaningful context to eruption of violence and destruction now throttling Baltimore. From the original writeup of Todd Krainin's "Harbor Point and Baltimore's Taxpayer-Funded Edifice Complex":

For 20 years, Harbor Point, a 27-acre site of an abandoned chromium factory, has been a dream in the eyes of developers. It's the last big unbuilt site on the city's waterfront and arguably the most sought-after real estate in all of Maryland.

Yes, developers have lusted after the site, but they just didn't want to have pay the full cost of, well, developing it.

In a city as desperate for growth as Baltimore, they don't have to. Baltimore's political class has committed  $400 million in public subsidies to a controversial plan that supporters claim will generate 6,000 jobs and build a complex of skyscrapers, residences, and public parks that will forever transform the character of the city.

City officials believe the $1.8 billion-dollar project will spark an economic turnaround. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake considers Harbor Point a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to reverse the half-century-long exodus of residents and businesses that have hollowed out Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake and developer Michael Beatty have campaigned relentlessly for the plan, offering promises of urban renewal and jobs in a city with 10.3 percent unemployment.

Yet Baltimore's citizens aren't convinced.

The public hearings and frequent street demonstrations outside City Hall have revealed a tale of two cities: sweetheart deals for the well-connected along the waterfront and decades of neglect for the majority of its blue collar residents. The subsidies are a major sticking point, as is the use of an Enterprise Zone for the benefit of wealthy residents. Tax increment financing, known as TIF, will exempt the developer from taxation for a decade. To many residents, Harbor Point is just the latest example of socializing risk and privatizing gain.

Why are the public coffers wide open to wealthy developers? That's the way business has always been done, in Baltimore and elsewhere. Just upriver from Harbor Point, the city's famed Inner Harboris the result of similar top-down, heavily subsidized development. Decades ago, city politicians spent billions to sweep away Baltimore's crumbling industrial-age infrastructure, replacing it with office towers, popular chain restaurants, museums, and an aquarium, all of which attracts millions of tourists, year after year.

More than just creating a pleasure for daytrippers, the development of the Inner Harbor set a precedent for the nation, as other cities rushed to make their own versions of the scene. In Baltimore, developers lobby politicians for special deals. If they don't get what they want, they give themselves a tax cut by moving their business to the surrounding county, where property taxes are much lower than in Baltimore proper. It's a dynamic that's left large sections of the city abandoned, with only a few tax-exempt institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and the Catholic Church continuing to thrive.

Even the widely praised Inner Harbor has failed to stanch the flow of 300,000 residents who've left Baltimore since 1960. Instead of revitalizing the city's fortunes, the rise of the waterfront has paralleled the decline of basic city functions. Violent crime remains high, public schools underperform, and the cityscape is blighted by the presence of tens of thousands of vacant buildings.

Ironically, the Harbor Point project has overcorme every political obstacle in its way only to be put on hold pending an environmental review of hexavalent chromium in the soil. Despite that delay, developers and their friends in City Hall remain confident that the project will soon be moving forward and that it will both revive Baltimore's fortunes and the reputation of planners who push corporate welfare. It will likely take a decade before the project is up and running and the rest of us learn whether Harbor Point is just another tax-aided mega-project that fails to provide the economic stimulus its backers promise.

Original release date was January 8, 2014. For full text and more links, go here now.

NEXT: Freddie Gray and Police Brutality in Baltimore

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  1. Since we have a mass media class that is utterly partisan and craven and tried to make up for it by being ignorant, we will never have the national conversation about what exactly liberal policies have done to the black community. We took blacks and walled them up in ghettos, paid them welfare which rewarded every kind of anti-social and destructive behavior. Put corrupt bureaucracies in charge of the cities and schools such that it is virtually impossible for anyone living there to get a decent education or have any economic opportunity. We then passed the world’s most draconian drug laws and turned thousands of militarized police lose on their community making war on the one form of commerce that is often available. Lastly for good measure, we passed all kinds of draconian nanny state laws, like speed cameras, loitering and traffic laws, car registration and licensing, criminal child support laws and such that do little beyond fining and imprisoning people for the crime of being poor or having bad luck.

    And then we wonder why we get riots. It clearly must be the result of all of those racist Republicans or something.

    1. Shhh, you’re not supposed to empathize with the rioters. It means you condone their behavior.

      1. I know you are breaking balls, but how could you expect people who are abused at the hand of government to use proper government channels to resolve their grievances? That said, looters should be shot in the face on site by store owners.

        1. The general “you” not dweebston.

          1. No, I agree. I tried to get at this point last night. These people have no representation in cities dominated by a party that claims to speak for them. Their biggest proponents are racialist shitheads whose primary beef is securing more of the same:subsidizing poverty, growing the police state, and enriching themselves. Rioters should be shot on sight, or at least strongly dissuaded, but it’s not difficult to see why the pressure gets released this way. The normal avenues are completely broken.

            1. These people have no representation in cities dominated by a party that claims to speak for them.

              In what way? By race? The mayor is black. More than half the city council is black. The city council president? Black. The police chief? Again, black.

              Maybe you mean something other than race. But, it would be nice to understand what you mean by “no representation”.

              1. By class?

              2. As individuals. Racial politics has clearly been a disaster for blacks as a class, even while it empowers some shills. You and I have little representation as individuals, but we also enjoy the opportunities afforded by living in prosperous cities. By and large we don’t need political means. Politics is a terrible substitute for education or career. Inner cities offer little of that, and their political representatives are horrendous abusers.

                1. Fair enough.

                  The thing is, it almost strikes me that the entire game is rigged to ensure that political means are the only legal vehicle for a lot of inner city blacks’ success. They’re given lousy schools that serve as little more than a sinecure for incompetent teachers. They’re arrested and rendered unemployable as a matter of course for minor, non-violent, infractions. The formation of families is discouraged by a “social safety net” that prizes single mothers.

                  And all of that is on top of issues of regulation that effectively lock the poor out of mainstream society and make the normalization of property rights nearly impossible.

    2. Republicans are their own unique mess of bullshit, but, clearly, Maryland is the land of the Leftist conundrum and every fucking time I read or hear some snot-nosed motherfucking Socialist crying about race, poverty, and goddamn social justice and the progressive agenda and its deified ability to bring equality to the rabble I feel the urge to projectile-vomit hate rockets right into their shitholes.

      1. We talk about Republican responsibilities the day we have riots in a jurisdiction where Republicans have any sort of political power. If the Mexicans start rioting in San Antonio, lets have that conversation. When riots are happening in places like Baltimore, then it is the Democrats who should have to answer for why.

        1. Oh, they’ll answer. It’s because Republicans cut funding to this or that welfare program, or something.

          1. Every Baltimorean talking head on the news last night delivered a variation on the theme of “We’re poor so of course our kids steal cars and burn shit.”

        2. San Antonio is a conservative, city where most of the population is Hispanic. Working hard is highly prized, as is the idea of people in neighborhoods taking care of their property and neighborhood. The neighborhoods here are very stable, often with whole families owning houses within blocks of each other – grandparents, uncles and extended family occupying an entire block of houses. It is easy to live here, and easy to start a business here. The cost of living is low. Why would we riot? 🙂

      2. That said, the Republicans certainly supported a good number of the policies I list. We need to have a national conversation about the whole lot of them. Both parties and the black community itself should be called to account for why it is that 50 years after the end of Jim Crow, the black community is worse off than it was before. That of course will never happen because the last thing anyone wants is to be held accountable for their behavior or the policies they helped get enacted.

        1. I wish we could resurrent Moynihan’s corpse and have it kick-start that conversation. Because that is the last time I heard anything honest out of a leftie.

          1. I wish I could spell, too.

        2. That said, the Republicans certainly supported a good number of the policies I list. We need to have a national conversation about the whole lot of them.

          Probably true. On the other hand, I’ll say the Republicans’ failure was one of omission more than commission. They didn’t look at blacks as a significant constituency and disregarded the consequence of the policies they supported for a lot of black people. The Democrats, I’m increasingly inclined to conclude, really are guilty of a sin of commission. I’m increasingly of the opinion that what they want isn’t for blacks to move into the world most whites enjoy (work hard, save, get an education, build a life of your own, etc). They really do want them right where they are, dependent on the largesse of Democratic patrons.

      3. Agile Cyborg you are the shit. I love it went you go coherent.

    3. John, sometimes you absolutely nail it.

    4. the world’s most draconian drug laws

      Nice rant but to be fair we’re not even close when it comes to “most draconian drug laws”.

      1. There are places like China that kill you for drug possession. That is true. I would be surprised however if those countries put the same massive effort into enforcing those laws that the US does. Sure, if you are caught with drugs in those countries you are fucked even worse than in the US. I am not sure the government goes to quite the efforts to find you though.

        1. That’s a good point that I hadn’t thought of. We may not have the most draconian laws on the books but we do have zealous enforcement. Our spending proves this.

          1. Yeah, agreed.

    5. Posted my comment below without having read yours. You nail it much better than I do.

  2. So failed government programs is a partial explanation for riots?

    Yes, much money and stupidity were expended on failed development projects and yes, Baltimore’s citizens are rioting. But Mr. Gillespie forgot to show the connection between those two facts

    1. The failed programs created a permanent under class of people with little family structure, economic opportunity or ability to change their situation. Create a large class of people like that and you are going to end up with thins like riots. That of course doesn’t excuse the riots or the people who are engaging in criminal behavior. It just explains what is happening.

      1. I don’t think the failed development projects caused the problems. Yes, the welfare system, drug war, and a education system contributed heavily, but not the development boondoggles.

        1. That’s “a dysfunctional education system”

        2. He seems to be using them as an example of failed top-down planning – and handily there was a pre-existing article on it.

        3. I don’t think the failed development projects caused the problems.

          Depends on how the project was carried out. If eminent domain was used, or the area was declared “blighted”, or in any way shape or form the government fucked with property owners, then I’d say the project played a part.

        4. Urban renewal through eminent domain of homes owned by poorer people and the constructions of projects and concentration of poverty and other problems on top of them…

    2. He also points out the diversion of money to fund luxury projects on the waterfront tends to starve more, er, legitimate functions like schools. At the very least it creates tax sumps and drives out productive enterprise to friendlier cities.

      John makes a better case for it.

      1. But, as every Reasonoid knows, giving more money to a busted education system doesn’t improve it.

        1. No, but even within the spectrum of public education there’s decent and there’s horrendous. Bureaucrats can’t consistently offer decent results across the board, and their work product tends to deteriorate over time. That’s the fallacy of public services. But people promised a first-rate education and given third-world results have a reason to look askance at huge, multimillion dollar giveaways to cronies.

  3. I realize the city has a lot on its hands what with putting out fires, squaring off against rioters, and managing disastrous press conferences, but has anything been said about the cops who have Gray the “rough ride”?

    1. They made it home safely. What more needs to be said?

  4. “City officials believe the $1.8 billion-dollar project will spark an economic turnaround.”

    Whenever I see this claim, regardless of the project, I want to scream, “It’s the other way around: economic turnarounds spark spending on projects!”

    1. Politicians assured me that Baltimore was one taxpayer-funded redevelopment away from an economic turnaround. That was at a candidates’ forum in 1982. What’s that thing called when you keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result? Oh, yeah, government.

      1. ” What’s that thing called when you keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result?”


    2. Even when those sorts of projects work, they never help anything but rich people. In Washington they built the Verizon Center down in Chinatown. In one sense it worked. Chinatown went from being not the best area in Washington to this very vibrant and upscale neighborhood full of restaurants and new offices and such. That sounds great and all and indeed was really great if you owned land down there. The flip side of this “success” is that Chinatown, for all of its faults was one of the few reasonably safe lower middle class neighborhoods in Northwest Washington. The people who cleaned the offices on K Street and did other such jobs used to live there. Thanks to this “success”, they were all evicted from their homes and moved further out to be replaced by upper middle and upper class people.

      1. “Even when those sorts of projects work,”

        But saying that they “work” is making the assumption that development would not have taken place otherwise. And, most important, especially in the case of stadiums, etc. it assumes that the money spent on baseball and football would have been burned in bonfires by the consumers/taxpayers rather than spent on other private sector-supplied entertainment.

        1. When I say “work”, I mean don’t result in complete disaster and empty lots like the infamous project in the Kelo case did. None of them ever work in the sense of making the economy grow or society richer. The sometimes, however, “work” in the sense that the place they plow all of the money into turns out looking better than it did before. Even in those cases, however, it is only the better off and the land owners who benefit. That was my point.

    3. Sure, Chinatown looks a lot better than it used to and if you have money is a much better place because of the Verizon Center being built. That is nice and all but the people who moved in were doing well anyway. They are not any better off, they just have a new neighborhood to live in. Meanwhile, the people who did live there are by any measure much worse off. They had to move and lost one of the few places close in where they could afford to live.

      This is not to say that we shouldn’t let economic factors change neighborhoods or step in and prevent neighborhoods from gentrifying. We certainly should not. The experience of even the “successful” such projects, however, shows that these projects even when they work do very little if anything to benefit anyone but crony landowners and upper middle class and rich people. Yet they are sold as benefiting the poor.

      1. It boils down to the old adage of government picking winners and losers.

  5. Another broken window boarded up by Team Social Justice.…..-sleeping/

    1. Is tonedeaf not in their vocabulary? Or discretion, for that matter?

    2. July 2014…just where have you been, AC? On a Long Trip or sumthin’?

      1. I trusted you, AC!

  6. Don’t you know that “progressives” are never, ever wrong? They’re only ever foiled by nefarious interests and conspiracies.

  7. Nick, graft on Urban Renewal is a feature, not a bug. Otherwise why would we have them?

  8. Even the widely praised Inner Harbor has failed to stanch the flow of 300,000 residents who’ve left Baltimore since 1960. Instead of revitalizing the city’s fortunes, the rise of the waterfront has paralleled the decline of basic city functions.

    I always thought that Willie Don plunging into the harbor at the Inner Harbor opening, was a good start.

  9. A bit off-topic, Ben Shapiro posted some interesting stuffs about the Baltimore riots…..ace-myths/

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