“Building Together” in Baltimore? Corporate Mega-Development and Coalitions for Community Power

By P. Nicole King (University of Maryland Baltimore County) and Meghan Ashlin Rich (University of Scranton)

Hudson Yards in New York City. L.A. Live in Los Angeles. Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. The Amazon HQ2 in Crystal City, Virginia. Cities in the U.S. are competing with each other for corporate investment and population growth, and mega-developments are an increasingly popular way to redevelop distressed urban areas. But can multi-million dollar mega-development projects serve as revitalization engines for cities while building partnerships and neighborhood capacities for economically struggling communities? Our research explores what happens when local neighborhoods organize to build community power and demand community benefits from private developers who make claims of “inclusive” redevelopment.

We studied the Port Covington mega-development in Baltimore, Maryland and the community coalitions that were involved in the approval of public subsidies for the project. Because many mega-projects use public subsidies like Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to partially finance their projects, community approval is integral to the process. A TIF is a way for municipalities to raise tax revenue to fund improvements in a geographic region, often in distressed or underdeveloped areas. Because the municipality shoulders much of the risk should a TIF-funded development fail to pay back the TIF bonds in tax revenue, communities have a strong incentive to demand benefits from developers in the form of a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). CBAs often serve as the “bargaining chip” for communities to negotiate benefits with developers, such as affordable housing units, inclusionary hiring practices, and funds for community-led projects and developments.

Port Covington is one of the largest urban revitalization proposals in the history of the U.S., with an estimated cost of $5.5 billion (including an estimated $1.1 billion in local, state, and federal government support). The redevelopment plan aims to create a new waterfront “city within the city,” with over 1,000 new residences, 300 hotel rooms, 240,000 square feet of retail space, multiple high rises, parks, parking garages, and a new global headquarters for Under Armour. In 2016 it was granted a $650 million TIF, the largest in the history of the city. The initial phase of the development broke ground in 2019, with the first buildings scheduled for occupancy in 2022.

The timing of the 2016 TIF application was appalling to some Baltimoreans still reeling from the 2015 unrest in response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and subsequent demands for equitable social policy and development in the city. A scathing critique of the Port Covington master plan was publicly aired in the letter to the Director of the Baltimore City Department of Planning from the ACLU of Maryland, which called Port Covington “a brand new racially and economically segregated city within the city, a virtual gated enclave, inhabited by millennials and empty nesters making an average income of $100,000” (Samuels et al. 2016).

When the TIF approval was delayed because of activist protest, Plank purchased television, social media, and newspaper ads to promote the development, including an “open letter to Baltimore” in The Baltimore Sun stating that the TIF “can’t wait” for approval and that Under Armour must expand somewhere—not necessarily Baltimore. The City Council was pressured to approve the TIF quickly; community groups slowed the process with demands for a better deal. The push-back provided a moment for community and activist groups to call for benefits.

An activist/nonprofit leader explained the urgency of a strong response to Sagamore’s TIF application: “This is a massive TIF and if we don’t put really strong community benefits, and transparency, and accountability pieces on this mega-TIF, then we’ll never be able to do it on any of the other TIFs that come after” (Interview 2018). Under pressure, Sagamore Development worked behind the scenes with disinvested neighborhoods in South Baltimore to create a $39 million CBA.

The Port Covington area has a long industrial history without a current residential population. So, there is little fear of displacement in the traditional sense of gentrification within the development footprint. However, across the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River from Port Covington lies another Baltimore cut off from downtown and the central business district by geography, water, and a shared history of industrial boom and bust, including post-1960s disinvestment and environmental degradation. The six city neighborhoods, Cherry Hill, Mt. Winans, Lakeland, Westport, Brooklyn, and Curtis Bay (known as SB6 during the Port Covington TIF negotiations), have been dumping grounds for heavy industry, historically ignored by both public and private power brokers focused on downtown Baltimore.

According to those we spoke with, the SB6 Coalition was purposefully formed so that the neighborhoods would not compete against each other for resources. The resulting CBA provides a fund of $10 million for the SB6 neighborhoods for short term local community projects and dedicates at least another $29 million for the next 30 years. We can conclude that the CBA and formation of the “partnership” were good PR for the developer. Yet, a central question in our research was, what did the communities gain?

The shared history of disinvestment prompted the SB6 neighborhoods to collectively organize for community power. The negotiation between Sagamore and community-based organizations suggests that power shifts are occurring in the city. Yet, the continued popularity of mega-developments in large cities, often financed through tax-subsidies, raises concerns that: 1) large, expensive developments may not be worth the public investment in the long run because they don’t result in a tax revenue windfall for financially struggling cities, and 2) the development at best has no positive effect or interaction with its surrounding communities, and at worst, it exacerbates race and class segregation and inequality in the city.

Neoliberal and austerity governance strategies of urban development allowed developers to gain power for many years and now neighborhood coalitions are beginning to hold them accountable. However, these coalitions are forced to work within the neoliberal system itself. Yet neighborhood coalitions have the agency to use the CBA funds in ways that work for them and are outside dominant neoliberal paradigms. One neighborhood leader explained, “We hold the power within ourselves to set those types of limitations so when we can do stuff like community land trust, that ensures affordability and the acquisition of this property and everything we do with the [neighborhood organization]. Houses that are developed will be given to this land trust ultimately to assure that the houses will remain affordable that we direct ourselves” (Interview August 2018).

And in March of 2021, Baltimore City Department of Housing & Community Development (DHCD) announced awardees for the City’s initial $2.25-million investment in Community Land Trusts (CLTs). The South Baltimore Community Land Trust received $750,000 for affordable homeownership in Curtis Bay, one of the SB6 neighborhoods.

This case provides glimmers of hope and the possibility of openings within the neoliberal governing apparatus for neighborhoods’ voices to be heard in redevelopment projects.

Read the full UAR article here.

Photo of building at the Under Armour headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland (2016) by Fredlyfish4, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Author Biographies

P. Nicole King is an associate professor and chair in the Department of American Studies at UMBC. Her research focuses on issues of place, power, and economic development. King edited Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City, a collection on Baltimore’s social history (Rutgers University Press 2019). She co-founded the Baltimore Traces: Communities in Transition public humanities project to work with local partners to research historic neighborhoods undergoing change and redevelopment.

Meghan Ashlin Rich is professor of sociology at the University of Scranton. Her research focuses on neighborhood development and gentrification in cities, with a particular focus in declining cities and arts and culture-based revitalization. Her work has been published in numerous journals and books, including International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Journal of Urban Affairs, and The Routledge Companion to Urban Imaginaries (edited by Christoph Lindner and Miriam Meissner, Routledge 2019).