Developer David Tufaro and other members of the Inner Harbor Coalition hope to place a measure on the November ballot blocking the plan by developer P. David Bramble to build two luxury apartment towers along the water at Harborplace.
I’m not surprised that they’re also considering legal action to stop the plan. Last Tuesday, Tufaro told The Brew that “there are a lot of potential legal issues that we’re exploring.”
I don’t know if the coalition’s lawyers will find a legal issue that they can use, but sometimes the odor arising from government actions is so bad that it compels you to search for one.
This is one of those situations.
Upon taking office in December 2020, Mayor Brandon Scott began a clandestine effort to ensure that Bramble’s company, MCB Real Estate, could acquire Harborplace from a court-appointed receiver.
MCB now owns the improvements at Harborplace, while the city owns the land.
Operating outside the guardrails intended to protect the integrity of government actions, Scott effectively selected the developer of a critically important piece of city-owned property in an opaque and non-competitive manner.
By aligning his administration with Bramble, Scott also discarded the usual arm’s-length relationship between the city and a developer of property in the city.
That eliminated any possibility of a credible review by city agencies of the plan for the redevelopment of Harborplace released by Bramble in October.
Little wonder that such a questionable process produced such a controversial plan.
During Scott’s State of the City address in April 2022, we learned that MCB Real Estate had negotiated a deal to acquire Harborplace from a court-appointed receiver and that the deal had Scott’s blessing.
The mayor said, “Dave has my full support and the support of my entire administration as he navigates the receivership process and works to bring hundreds of millions of dollars of investment into this part of our city,” referring to Bramble, MCB’s managing partner.
It wasn’t until last October, however, that we found out – from the mayor himself – that his “full support” of Bramble’s acquisition of Harborplace began the day Scott took office in December 2020.
In a part of his remarks that the major news organizations didn’t quote, Scott said this at the grand unveiling of Bramble’s plan:
I’ve been known to keep secrets, but the hardest one that I had to keep is the work that my law department and BDC [Baltimore Development Corporation] and others were doing from the first day I got in office to make sure that we didn’t let Harborplace stay or get into other out-of-town hands.
We made sure that Harborplace got into the hands of a West Baltimore boy [Bramble] who understands and knows Baltimore like no one else.
You read that right.
Scott admitted that he used the powers of city government to stack the deck in favor of MCB when it came to acquisition of Harborplace, and that he kept those actions secret for almost three years.
Questions for Scott
Now that the secrecy has been lifted, the mayor has a lot of questions to answer. I can think of three right off the bat.
• What was the legal authority that justified the clandestine intervention by his administration on behalf of one potential purchaser over others in the acquisition of property from a court-appointed receiver?
Suffice it to say that a mayor putting his thumb on the scale to influence the outcome of a real estate transaction to which the city was not a party pushes the limits on the proper role of local government.
• On what criteria did Scott base his decision to back Bramble’s effort to acquire Harborplace other than that he is a successful developer who grew up in West Baltimore?
• Did Scott tell Bramble that, if MCB acquired Harborplace, he would support more intensive development on the city-owned land than allowed by current law, including the construction of high-rise apartment buildings?
Harborplace went into receivership in May 2019. The deal between MCB and the court-appointed receiver, IVL Group, was publicly announced in April 2022 and approved by the court in December 2022.
The mayor’s secret support gave Bramble an advantage in negotiating the purchase of Harborplace, especially if it included private assurances that Scott would support more intense (and therefore more profitable) development.
The clandestine support of the mayor and his administration gave Bramble an advantage in negotiating the purchase of Harborplace, especially if it included private assurances that the mayor would support more intense (and therefore more profitable) development by MCB than the law now allows.
Which raises another question: Why the secrecy?
There are few situations that justify a local government operating in secret, and manipulating the outcome of a real estate transaction is not one of them.
If Scott’s motive was simply to ensure that a responsible local developer obtained Harborplace, why not make his efforts to assist Bramble public?
Decisions by local governments create winners and losers among private businesses, such as in the award of contracts for various goods and services.
Such decisions generally must be made on a competitive basis in accordance with a transparent, established process.
Those requirements are guardrails intended to avoid corruption and ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of the public.
By “making sure that that Harborplace got into the hands of a West Baltimore boy,” the mayor effectively selected the developer for Harborplace in an opaque and non-competitive manner, according to a “process” known only to him.
I am not saying that corruption occurred or even that there is any evidence of corruption.
But I am saying that the guardrails intended to prevent it were not in place. Scott invited even more suspicion by keeping his actions secret for almost three years.
Scott will now have difficulty disabusing the public of the suspicion that city support for the apartment buildings was part of his commitment to Bramble from the get-go.
That secrecy also exacerbates doubts about the credibility of city actions that took place after MCB acquired Harborplace.
The mayor’s decision to align the city with Bramble from the outset eliminated the usual arm’s-length regulatory relationship between the city and a developer of property in the city, which in turn eliminated any possibility of an impartial, objective review by city agencies of Bramble’s plan for the redevelopment of Harborplace.
Finally, given his failure to trust city residents with the truth, Scott will have difficulty disabusing them of the suspicion that city support for the two apartment towers was part of his commitment to Bramble from the start, and that their inclusion in the plan released in October was a foregone conclusion.
Mayor Scott may have had the best of intentions when he decided to throw the city’s support behind Bramble back in 2020. But the way he went about things placed not only his administration but also the future of Harborplace under a cloud.
• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @dplymyer.