ANNAPOLIS -- For 10 years, black community leaders have fought to save the old Wiley H. Bates High School in Annapolis. Early today, their latest and most controversial plan failed.
The Annapolis City Council, while emphasizing its commitment to renovating the school, overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to pay for the project by developing the grounds.
In an emotional vote following five hours of testimony, Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins and six council members sided against rezoning the 15-acre site to permit 86 townhouses. The city's two black aldermen, Carl O. Snowden, D-Ward 5, and Samuel Gilmer, D-Ward 3, supported the zoning change.
When Alderman Ruth Gray, R-Ward 4, made a motion to deny the request at 12:30 a.m., Alderman Gilmer leaped out of his seat and denounced the proceedings.
"I have flashbacks," he shouted, describing how he lost sleep over the Bates plan, which divided the city, pitting the black community against environmental activists.
"When are we going to be people? Is this America or what is it?"
The other aldermen countered that they fully support converting Bates into a community and senior center, but could not endorse the rezoning request.
"All we're saying tonight is we do not believe there was a change or mistake in the zoning," said Alderman Gray, whose ward includes the red brick school. "Tonight is a beginning. Now the city is involved."
A handful of Bates supporters muttered that the city hadn't done much in the past. Several hundred people sporting "Save Bates" buttons came to plead for the rezoning during a 7 1/2 -hour hearing three weeks ago. Critics testified that the project would damage the environment and warned the developer was no "knight in shining armor."
The mayor and council pledged that the city would search for state and federal funding, or float its own bond, to pay for renovating the asbestos-riddled school.
Once Anne Arundel County's only high school for blacks, Bates was closed 26 years ago and turned into a middle school at the end of desegregation. The school was abandoned in 1981.
Bates graduates and community leaders want to preserve the school as a community center. One wing of the school was to be developed as elderly housing under an ambitious plan by two non-profit groups and Baltimore developer Leonard Frenkil.
Mr. Frenkil promised to subsidize the asbestos removal with proceeds from townhouse sales. The project hinged on the rezoning.
Jean Creek, head of the Bates Foundation and the county NAACP, left City Hall this morning charging that the vote was "racist" and vowing to move ahead with the project. Up to 61 single homes can be developed under the current zoning, she said.
But K. Gray Gentil, the project planner, expressed doubt and said "the program as suggested cannot go forward."