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Activists seek real input on the plan to revitalize Old Town Mall, which might be the next battleground for developer tax breaks in Baltimore

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TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. I’m standing in Old Town Mall, a once vibrant outdoor shopping center, all but abandoned to urban blight. But the city has big plans for redevelopment here and soon this desolate piece of property could be the next battle ground in the fight in how to fairly revitalize Baltimore City and more importantly, who benefits. The Old Town Mall was a once thriving retail hub in the heart of the city which provided a place for middle and low income city residents for decades. But now abandoned store fronts serve as a haunting reminder of the area’s storied past and another vacant eyesore that belies the city’s effort to revitalize neighborhoods beyond the inner harbor. But that may soon change. The Baltimore Development Corporation, the quasi-public agency tasked with promoting economic growth in the city has awarded the firm, BD Development, with the right to come up with a plan for the future. However, it’s a decision fraught with concerns of the city’s past deals and current controversy. CATHERINE BENTON-JONES: The Old Town Mall project is one that must and definitely had to include the Old Town community. GRAHAM: That’s because BD was awarded a 106 million dollar TIF to redevelop Harbor Point just down the road. A deal which was controversial. And just two weeks ago the city voted to approve a 660-million-dollar tax break for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank to build Port Covington, a planned city within a city on roughly 150 acres of underdeveloped southwest waterfront. Both deals are a point of tension for the communities that feel left out. Heightened by the reality that big tax breaks for wealthy developers only exasterbates the city’s entrenched poverty. Case and point is what’s known as EBDI or the East Baltimore Development Incorporation. It’s a massive sprawling attempt to transform the community surrounding John’s Hopkins Hospital in part underwritten with a tax break known as a TIF or tax increment finance. A TIF allows a developer to invest future property taxes in infrastructure. But Marisela Gomez an activist and scholar who has studied the impact of TIFs says EBDI has fallen short. MARISELA GOMEZ: We haven’t done the analysis. For example, just again take EBDI. We haven’t looked at how much money was put in and how much money is going back into the community. So unless we know what happens, TIFs might be a, there might be a wonderful deal if there’s a benefit on the other side for community. GRAHAM: And failed to benefit the people of the city most in need. She’s also critical of the hastily announced 100 million dollar give back deal negotiated by developers to clear the way for the Port Covington tax break. GOMEZ: I would say that we have a pattern of uneven development. We have a pattern of territorial accumulation by the rich and wealthy and then we have talk by them and the government that it’s going to trickle down and benefit the larger community like communities outside of the EBDI footprint and then when that doesn’t happen we make sure we have guards. GRAHAM: And her concerns are echoed by some city leaders and activists. The Real News was there when protestors disrupted a presentation by Sagamore development at City Garage to promote Port Covington. And later when councilman Carl Stokes railed against his colleagues after they pulled the bill to approve the TIF from his committee before he says major issues with the deal were addressed. CARL STOKES: One we had no third party analysis of the bill which is totally crazy of the TIF rather. It’s totally crazy. Nobody does that. In Howard County they have a big TIF before them. Calvin Ball, their president said we’re not moving the TIF until we do a third party analysis. GRAHAM: So the question becomes is there another way and what can be done to ensure that the Old Town avoids the pitfalls of previous tax break deals? The East Baltimore community organization called Change4Real in conjunction with the [Agoma] Foundation think they may have a solution. Along with a group of residents and community groups, the organization has been working on their own vision for Old Town Mall for over a decade. The idea not to wait until the developer sets the agenda or ask for subsidies. PAOLO GREGORY HARRIS: We’ve tried to institute a real different kind of development here which we call holistic development which goes beyond the traditional bricks and mortar development to create human development opportunities and also economic development opportunities that are sustainable. GRAHAM: Which is why they constructed a detailed plan for the mall that includes community input and amenities. Retail stalls for small local businesses to flourish, a job center to help residents find work, and more affordable housing. And they’ve taken this strategy a step further. Rather than wait for the developer to request a tax break, this group is already meeting with BD Development. The idea? To be part of the process. BENTON-JONES: And the East Baltimore Community because they are the heart and the city, because they are the urban community, because they are the builders and molders of the East Baltimore community, they desire reestablishment. GRAHAM: And not just react to it. HARRIS: The community they might get a kind of chunk of cash like is happening in Port Covington but they’re not really woven into the development process so you’re really reengineering in a sense, the capacity of communities to actually grow. GRAHAM: It’s an alternative route to revitalize a city they say without excluding the people who live here. BENTON-JONES: We want to make sure that the East Baltimore Community is not pushed out of their existing environment but they’re able to build, they’re able to become home owners, they’re able to become entrepreneurs and to [decent] their own business, their own talents. We want those that are yet in the community to become successful, to become achievers, and thus would change for real and bring us into this project. GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.


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Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.