BALTIMORE (AP) — Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has joined those opposing the $1.6 billion State Center development.

Franchot said he doesn’t believe the state can afford the risks associated with the Baltimore redevelopment project, or justify passing down the costs to taxpayers. The comptroller stated his opposition in a letter Friday to the state’s secretaries of transportation and general services.

“A sagging economy, severe budget challenges and mounting state debt serve as reminders that these are not the best of times,” Franchot wrote. “As both of you know so well, those of us who serve as fiscal stewards of the state cannot establish priorities solely on the basis of what we want, or what we hope to achieve, but rather on what we can afford. For the aforementioned reasons, I do not believe that we can afford the risks associated with State Center, nor can we justify passing down the consequent costs to our taxpayers.”

The project has pitted landlords against politicians.

Supporters want to redevelop a massive state office complex begun in the 1950s that razed neighborhoods. The plans call for a mixed-use development including retail and residences for the area which now empties at 5 p.m. when its thousands of office workers go home for the day. The center north of downtown would include 390,000 square feet of office space, mostly for the state health department.

A coalition of downtown property owners have filed suit against the project, saying it will hurt the city’s downtown business sector. A Baltimore judge ruled earlier this month that the suit can proceed.

Attorneys defending the project say the business and property owners who filed suit in December waited too long to object to a project started in 2005. Plaintiffs’ attorneys say their clients did not have a case until the state entered into definitive agreements in 2009 and 2010. The suit alleges the state did not seek competitive bids for master developers in 2005 and the redevelopment will hurt the central business district.

Franchot said he has been asked to vote on more than a dozen agenda items relating to the project and has voted at times to allow it to move forward. However, he said there have also been times when he cast the sole dissenting vote, noting his opposition to incurring $33 million more in taxpayer debt for the construction of a parking garage on the State Center site.

The comptroller noted the time and effort put into the project, but said he cannot and will not support further efforts to complete the project as currently proposed.

Franchot is one of three members of the state’s Board of Public Works along with the governor and state treasurer. The board, which approves large state contracts, approved the project’s first phase last year.

The Coalition to Save Downtown Baltimore, the group of property owners suing to stop the project, issued a statement later Tuesday saying “Comptroller Franchot is absolutely correct.”

“Times have changed, and in the midst of the greatest recession since the Depression, it makes no sense to squander over $1.5 billion taxpayer dollars on this ill-advised project,” the statement said. “Now is not the time to gamble on speculative and unnecessary ventures that only add more office supply to an already saturated market.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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