There is a solution for Crownsville.

The Task Force on the Disposition of the Crownsville Hospital Center property came up with no new ideas on how to dispose of the land and buildings at the site of the former hospital.  There is a way forward, however, if the political will exists, and it begins with an acknowledgment by the State of Maryland that the disposition of the property is a state responsibility requiring state leadership and the commitment of state resources.

A study done in 2005 estimated the cost of preparing the site for redevelopment at $25 million because of dilapidated buildings and contamination. No state or county agency wants the property, and a previous effort to find a private purchaser failed.

If the state decides to look to the private sector for redevelopment, it should attempt to convey the entire 544 acres (or whatever part of the property the state does not intend to retain) to a single owner or group of owners who will develop it in accordance with a single, comprehensive plan.  Development of a large site in accordance with a single plan invariably results in a more functional and aesthetically pleasing product, allowing the individual elements to be properly integrated and the design coordinated. Piecemeal development generally yields patchwork results. Contrast the Annapolis Towne Center with development in much of the rest of Parole.

The state may need to front part of the costs of demolishing buildings and removing contamination. If those costs cannot be recovered when the property is sold, they can be recovered over time as the property is developed. Allowing access to the site from Interstate 97 will be controversial, but it makes no sense to try to achieve any type of significant redevelopment of the 544 acres without access to the highway.

The process for disposition will include inviting redevelopment proposals that describe the nature of the plans; the zoning, water and sewer facilities; and the government financing the developers believe is necessary. The market must be allowed to work; it is futile for the state or county to dictate the precise nature of the redevelopment, because it is the private sector alone that will have to make it succeed.

Once a developer is selected, the sale of the property will be contingent upon putting the necessary zoning in place and satisfying any other conditions to which the state has agreed. It is the satisfaction of these conditions that will give the property its value; no developer wants to buy this property without knowing what can be done with it, especially considering the costs of the demolition and environmental remediation needed before redevelopment can begin.

The state would need help with this process, but it can handle the task by assembling a team and hiring consultants for technical assistance. The team will have to include representatives of the county, because the property undoubtedly will need to be rezoned and plans made to provide water and sewer service.

Special tax districts will have to be formed and tax increment financing approved in order recoup the costs of preparing the site for redevelopment and installing infrastructure. Creating a “local development authority,” as recommended by the task force, would add a layer of bureaucracy and cause further delay without saving money or enhancing the process.

The process sounds complicated and time-consuming, and it is. But it is doable, and it is reasonable to expect that it would result in a sound financial return for the state’s taxpayers and a responsible and beneficial reuse of the property. One thing is for certain: After 10 years of neglect, it is time for the state to make a serious effort to do something with the property.

[Published as a Guest Column by The Capital Gazette on December 12, 2015.  I did not post the piece until June 1, 2016; the date of posting listed above was backdated to place the piece in the order it was written.]

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