The old motel on Park Heights Avenue has been nothing but trouble.
Once a Holiday Inn, then apartments, the old hulk at 5430 Park Heights Ave. in Pimlico has been vacant for more than two years. Stripped by vandals, this northwest Baltimore building has become a familiar haunt for vagrants, housing inspectors and rats.
The owner hasn't paid the mortgage for eight years and doesn't pay any property taxes.
The building is now the biggest obstacle to plans to revitalize Park Heights Avenue's commercial corridor. And the people who live and work nearby have been begging the city to do something about the building for years.
The city has held the mortgage on the building for eight years -- through three mayoral administrations -- but has never foreclosed on the property, even though the owner hasn't made a single mortgage payment.
And the owner, a local church headed by a politically influential bishop, pays no property taxes because the property is officially tax exempt -- even though no church-related activities have ever taken place there.
"It's frustrating for a community trying to move ahead to have such barriers in our way," said Marianna Donisi-McCann, executive director of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., the umbrella group for the area's neighborhood organizations.
"We have been urging the city to move with this property for years," she added.
The building's troubled history began in 1979 when the city's quasi-public loan bank, known as the Trustees for the Loan and Guarantee Program, gave a $525,000 mortgage to developers Wilbur O. Reich Jr. and Theo C. Rodgers to convert the motel into an apartment building.
Two years later, after the owners defaulted on the loan, the city took control of the property.
In 1983, the city sold the building to First United Church of Jesus Christ (Apostolic), a West Baltimore church whose president is Monroe R. Saunders, who also holds the title of bishop.
Saunders served on the city's school board and Urban Services Commission when William Donald Schaefer was mayor.
The city trustees sold the building to the church for $828,797 and took back a mortgage for the entire amount, according to land records.
A covenant requires the church to keep the building, renamed the Pimlico Center, "in good order, condition and repair."
Four years went by without the church making any mortgage payments.
Nevertheless, the city Board of Estimates in 1987 forgave one-third of the mortgage, reducing the balance to $550,000 to accommodate the church's plans to convert the building into a health-care facility. The city also reduced the interest rate on the mortgage from 10 percent to 8 percent.
Still, no mortgage payments were made. And no health care facility ever materialized.
Saunders declined to comment on the building and so did the city officials who administered the mortgage.
Meanwhile, city housing department spokesman Bill Toohey confirmed that "The church has not made any payments to date," and that no foreclosure proceedings have begun.
"This administration thought it would be better to keep it in the hands of a private owner than to have city take it over," said Toohey, who explained that the Schmoke administration hopes a developer can be found to purchase the Pimlico Center property.
But he said the city is "not abandoning hope" of eventually collecting the mortgage.
In 1988, the last tenants moved out of the building which housed apartments, offices and a cocktail lounge.
Left vacant, it soon became a haven for the homeless and a gold mine for vandals, who stripped plumbing, air conditioners, windows and even knocked out walls.
Last winter, the body of a homeless man was found in the building. Police say he died of exposure to the cold.
The church is now apparently in violation of the covenant that requires the building be kept in good condition.
Earlier this year, city housing inspectors pressured the church to put up a fence to prevent further vandalism.
Now community leaders worry that the old Pimlico Center building has so deteriorated that it might have to be razed.
Russell Kelley, president of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., said he believes the unusual sale and mortgage of the building from the city to the church has served as an obstacle to rehabilitating it.
"With all the politics that go behind the special arrangements, it seemed to be difficult to move [the building] from Bishop Saunders' hands," said Kelley, who is also a biology professor at Morgan State University.
Kelley and others said they have been frustrated the church has been unable to sell the property because the asking price "was so phenomenal. The price has been so high . . . that no takers would stand up."
Johnny Clinton, president of the Pimlico Merchants Association, said he sees the vacant Pimlico Center as the biggest eyesore in the commercial corridor, which stretches from Garrison Avenue to Slade Avenue at the city line.
"It's the biggest vacant building in the commercial district," said Clinton, who has operated the Park Heights Barbershop for 17 years. "The mayor has made a promise to do something about it."