Op Ed: Walter Vasquez: City officials’ repeated decisions to undercut projects bad for business

As a member of the business community and founder of Annapolitans for Responsible Development, I am extremely concerned that the city’s handling of the Eastport Landing and Crystal Spring projects sends a clear message: Annapolis is bad for business.

Businesses rely on the city to interpret and enforce its laws in a fair and impartial manner. But how can any business make plans when the city can’t be trusted to interpret and uphold the code currently on the books?

With the Eastport Landing project, the city issued guidance on the allowable density for the Eastport Shopping Plaza in 2014. The project partners, land owners, engineers and architects then spent more than two years planning and making adjustments to the project based on that guidance.

Now, after these businesses have invested years of work and likely millions of dollars, the city is retroactively casting doubt on its own interpretation of the zoning code, despite the fact that it reaffirmed this interpretation many times over the years. In fact, that decision was reaffirmed as recently as two months ago during a town hall meeting sponsored by Mayor Mike Pantelides and Alderman Ross Arnett.

The scheduling of a public meeting last week at which residents were given the opportunity to comment on the shopping center’s allowable density was yet another politically driven side step from the normal public process and runs contrary to planning and zoning principles that cities throughout the country follow. Proposed density in any project should comply with the city’s planning and zoning code — not with the opinions of vocal minorities in attendance at public meetings.

How can any business trust a city that pulls the rug out from under a local partnership? If the city fails to follow the process and is willing to reverse its guidance on a project spearheaded by a local development team, including an Annapolis architect and engineer, what message does that send to other companies? How can any business properly assess its investment risks?

Whatever you think of the benefits of the proposed Eastport Landing project, the city is setting a terrible precedent with chilling implications. Unfortunately, the city skirting the process for Eastport Landing is not the exception, but rather the rule. The city has done this in the past and is doing it with Crystal Spring, where the developers have been blindsided and bullied by our city’s elected officials. The abuse of power and disrespect for the process are unconscionable.

If companies can’t trust the administrative process, some businesses in town won’t attempt to expand. If there’s no way to guard against the liability risks when the city totally changes its interpretation of current law, other businesses may choose to leave. And if Annapolis is willing to invite this much confusion and pain on its own business community, new companies simply won’t come here.

As a coalition of business owners and concerned citizens, we know that transforming the vacant shopping center with a mixed-use approach will generate new revenue — it will support more than 350 jobs and create $67.1 million in economic activity during construction and redevelopment. Not to mention the addition of luxury apartments, diversifying our community’s residential options and, as a result, attracting a younger generation with a larger expendable income.

Think of what that means for the city’s bottom line. Instead of two vacant properties that don’t generate revenue, we’d get a mixed-use destination strengthening businesses in the shopping center and throughout Eastport.

Instead, the city’s reckless reversal of its previous guidance almost certainly means that, in the words of the mayor, “somebody’s going to get sued.” With that kind of approach, the mayor and City Council may as well hang a “closed for business” sign at City Hall.

The Capital’s editorial board (May 21) got it right: the city code shouldn’t be “a jobs program for lawyers.” That may be good for protecting politicians, but it makes Annapolis bad for business.

I urge Alderman Arnett and Mayor Pantelides and his administration to stop backroom deal-making and move the Eastport Landing and Crystal Spring projects forward.

Walter Vasquez is an Annapolis-area restaurateur and founder of Annapolitans for Responsible Development. Contact him at wvasquez@a4rd.org.

 

http://www.capitalgazette.com/opinion/columns/ph-ac-ce-column-vasquez-0611-20170610-story.html