Top developer lawyers helped vet city’s new development chief

Brenda McKenzie gave few hints about her priorities for the city's development arm, but pledged transparency.

mckenzie bdc

Brenda McKenzie addresses the media, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos look on.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Baltimore got a glimpse yesterday not just of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s new development chief, a 45-year-old economic development official from Boston, but also of the cadre of real estate attorneys, downtown businessmen and civic power players who helped the mayor select her.

Brenda McKenzie was announced as president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) after closed-door interviews with a panel that included representatives of some of the city’s biggest developers who have won lucrative tax breaks from the BDC.

A top banker and several business lobbyists were also on the interview committee, but no representatives of Baltimore communities or the City Council.
The Brew’s Mark Reutter will discuss the McKenzie appointment with Sheilah Kast on “Maryland Morning” at 9 a.m. today, WYPR 88.1 FM.

At a City Hall press conference, Rawlings-Blake couched the appointment of McKenzie as a victory for Baltimore neighborhoods, saying, “To begin growing again, we need to create new, good-paying jobs for residents and strengthen our communities.”

The agency is tasked with aiding the city’s 225 neighborhoods through such programs as Baltimore Main Streets, Westside Initiative, Facade Improvement Grant Program and Brownfields Initiative.

The mayor described McKenzie’s four years as economic development director for the Boston Redevelopment Authority in glowing terms, saying she “successfully facilitated $15 billion in private development” there. In Chicago, where McKenzie was deputy commissioner for the Department of Planning and Development, she oversaw $1.8 billion in residential and retail development, including 7,000 new housing units.

Summoned by Rawlings-Blake, several business leaders came to the microphone to laud the choice of McKenzie. Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a member of the interview committee, said McKenzie’s 19 years of experience gave her a unique appreciation of the importance of neighborhoods to economic development.

To Listen and Learn

In the past year, the BDC has faced mounting criticism from citizens’ groups and faith leaders for what they see as favoritism toward glitzy waterfront projects and tourism – at the expense of existing neighborhoods and longtime residents.

Winning the approval of the BDC is the first step toward starting a major development project in Baltimore, and the quasi-public agency has the power to recommend different types of tax breaks to the mayor and City Council.

Among those who helped with the selection process, Tom Noonan and Jon Laria (left) and Don Fry and Kirby Fowler (right). (Photo by Fern Shen)

Among those who helped with the selection of the BDC chief was real estate attorney Jon Laria (second from left), who attended yesterday’s announcement at City Hall. Also pictured: Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore (far left), City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership (far right). (Photo by Fern Shen)

Picketers (including the Rev. Heber Brown, the group “Another BDC is Possible,” union representatives, youth advocates and others) have gathered outside the BDC offices, protesting city development policy and closed-door meetings to discuss development deals. A panel formed by City Councilman Carl Stokes, chair of the Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, made a series of recommendations last year to open the agency to greater accountability.

McKenzie’s predecessor, M.J. “Jay” Brodie, whose retirement created the vacancy, was the face of the city’s economic development policy which he vehemently defended as bringing tens of millions of new revenue dollars to the city.

In her brief remarks yesterday, McKenzie gave little indication if she planned to make any substantive changes to the agency. Asked about the criticism of BDC, she said she was new to the job and wanted to listen and learn.

“My main priority at this point is to be open . . . transparent and collaborative,” she said.

Superblock and Harbor Point

The members appointed by the mayor to interview about a dozen potential candidates for the BDC job included two of Baltimore’s leading real estate lawyers – Jon M. Laria and Mark P. Keener.

Laria, managing partner of Ballard Spahr’s Baltimore office, represents the 25th Street Station Wal-Mart project in North Baltimore and Under Armour in its planned expansion of its Locust Point headquarters. He is also counsel for State Center LLC.

His partner, Mark Pollak, represents the developers of the Lexington Square “Superblock” project. The BDC board recently recommended to the City Council that the long-stalled retail-and-apartment project be awarded a PILOT tax break conservatively estimated at $22 million.

Mark P. Keener

Mark P. Keener

Keener, a partner at Gallagher Evelius & Jones, helped the University of Baltimore obtain a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) subsidy for the University of Baltimore’s Fitzgerald housing project and parking garage.

More significantly, Keener is the real estate lawyer for H&S Properties and its prominent baker-developer John Paterakis.

On his firm’s website, Keener says he was directly involved in negotiations with the city for the development of the Legg Mason Tower, Marriott Waterfront Hotel and Spinnaker Bay Apartments at Harbor East that received more than $8 million in property tax breaks in fiscal 2010.

Keener reports that he currently represents the Paterakis Group in its negotiations with the BDC over the disposition of Harbor Point, in particular an initiative pushed by the developer to reinstate an “EZ” (Enterprise Zone) tax credits worth tens of millions of dollars.

Other Panel Members

The other members of the panel that interviewed candidates for the BDC post – assisted by the Florida headhunting firm of Gans, Gans & Associates – were insiders in local business and political circles:

• Kaliope Parthemos, deputy chief of economic and neighborhood development, who is the closest advisor to the mayor on all development matters.

• Harry Black, director of finance for the city.

• Atwood “Woody” Collins III, president of M&T Bank’s Mid-Atlantic Division and member of both of the Baltimore Development Corp. and Greater Baltimore Committee.

• Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, an advocacy group for downtown and Inner Harbor interests.

• Donald Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the city’s premier business lobby since 1955.

• Karl Gumtow, founder and CEO of Cyberpoint, a cyber security firm, and board member of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

• Bert J. Hash Jr., president of the Municipal Employees Credit Union (MECU) and member of the BDC board.

• William L. Jews, former CEO of CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield.

• Tom Sadowski, president of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, an off-shoot of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

• Arnold Williams, an accountant at Abrams, Foster, Nole & Williams and long-time chairman of the BDC.

Ten of the 15 members of the BDC board. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Ten of the 15 members of the BDC board. From left: chairman Arnold Williams, Maria E. Beckett, Gilberto de Jesus, Deborah Hunt Devan, Bert J. Hash, Armentha Cruise, Paul Graziano, Sharon Pinder, Harry Black and Brian K. Tracey. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Readers: Suggest a Neighborhood

At yesterday’s press availability, McKenzie raved about Baltimore’s neighborhoods to reporters and, saying she was new to the city and still learning about it, asked, “What’s a good neighborhood” to move to when she begins her job next month.

Told by The Brew that “we could ask readers to suggest one,” she said, “I’d like that.”

After Kaliope Parthemos came over and told the media that McKenzie had other obligations and needed to leave, a reporter asked her one last question: “How old are you?”

“Oh, now I really do need to leave!” she said with a smile, refusing to give an answer. A mayoral spokesman later e-mailed the information that she is 45.

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  • cwals99

    People who are dismayed by the lack of transparency in these agencies must make ridding the city and state of the designation of public/private or quasi-governmental.  This categorization is simply done to provide just these conditions.  We have Maryland non-profits that have the same agenda…..rather than having a public agency doing work that is community directed and transparent, we have non-profits with hired directors who come with the agenda of someone else.  The people in these private non-profits are not bad, but the model is one to create the very issues the public fights…..lack of community input and no transparency.

    So, please make the focus on the policy of public/private and quasi in general and not only focus on one agency.  This is a Third Way corporate democratic policy issue and as such, simply voting incumbents out and candidates that shout against these types of organizations into office!

  • Mark Adams

    In re: Suggesting a Neighborhood. She could move to BelAir, where Don Fry lives.

    • Jan

       Mark Adams completely misses the target in his shot at Don Fry, the head of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) .  First, the GBC is a regional organization incorporating  the City and surrounding counties,  including Harford County, hence Fry lives in the GBC region.

      Second and more importantly, it is critical that Baltimore City have advocates for it, who  live in the region but outside of the city.  We can not remain isolated without the knowledge and support of non city residents.  Fry has been a tireless advocate for the region and understands the centrality of the health and well being of Baltimore City.  Having someone knowledgeable who lives outside of the city advocate for the city is a GOOD THING in the face of much hostility directed towards us from non city residents..

      Finally, as someone who has worked at The Leadership Program at GBC,  I can attest that Don Fry is usually in the office in the city by 7AM and heading home longer after most people have left their jobs.

  • Gerald Neily

    Ms. McKenzie: To immersively experience first-hand the past, present and future of Baltimore redevelopment, you should move to Franklin or Mulberry Street adjacent to the “Highway to Nowhere”. There are plenty of houses available for practically nothing, since the community has been mostly abandoned over the last 40 years due to the useless one-mile Interstate highway, which the city stubbornly refuses to close in order to accommodate another pipe-dream boondoggle, the Red Line. Putting the Red Line in the isolated highway median strip is one of the few ways of limiting the cost of the project, but it’s spiraling out of control anyway due to extensive difficult tunneling, just like the $15 Billion Boston Big Dig. The Franklin-Mulberry community has been promised “transit oriented development” as part of the Red Line, but no reasonable person believes the city or the MTA after seeing their failures on Howard/Lexington, State Center, Westport, and near other transit stations. The root problem is that Baltimore is known far and wide for having one of the worst major transit systems in the world. But Ms. McKenzie, if you moved to Franklin/Mulberry, you’d get instant credibility as the person who would actually fix all this.

    • Evan

      I would have said the luxury that only Oliver (convenient to Penn Station!) can provide but Franklin-Mulberry or Sandtown-Winchester would be a close match

  • Alexis Green

    “A top banker and several business lobbyists were also on the interview committee, but no representatives of Baltimore communities or the City Council.”

    I would consider Kirby Fowler to be a representative of Downtown, which is a thriving neighborhood.

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