Nonprofit groups give new uses to parks buildings Nominal rent keeps structures occupied

August 16, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

From the late 1940s until last summer, the landmark mansion in Clifton Park served the park's golfers as a pro shop and snack bar.

Today, after standing empty for several months, the once-glorious but now-crumbling three-story brick and plaster building serves a different purpose.

The 19th century mansion -- once the centerpiece of the country estate of famed Baltimore merchant and philanthropist Johns Hopkins -- is now home to a fledgling nonprofit organization that teaches construction skills to young people.

Last month, the city's Board of Estimates approved a five-year lease with the Maryland Student Service Alliance to use the Clifton Mansion for offices and meeting rooms for its Civic Works program for $1 a year. Under the lease, the alliance will pay all utilities and undertake a variety of repair projects.

The lease between the city's Department of Recreation and Parks and the alliance is one of a number of agreements allowing nonprofit organizations to set up shop for token fees in city-owned parks buildings that the department no longer can use nor afford to maintain.

Reached with little fanfare, the agreements are part of a trend toward the privatization of city services and structures that has led to highly publicized arrangements for the management of nine city schools, the Baltimore Arena and the city's golf courses.

Putting tenants in buildings that would otherwise be vacant prevents further deterioration, cuts maintenance costs and results in repairs the city never could afford, parks officials say.

"Occupying these buildings is the greatest thing that can happen to them. People who are tenants fix them up, pay the utilities and improve them. We're just glad to see them used," said Stephanie S. Esworthy, Recreation and Parks administrative supervisor, who negotiates the leases.

Some city officials, concerned about privatization and the way the city manages its properties, support the concept of putting vacant parks buildings to use. But they wonder whether Recreation and Parks is pursuing the idea in the best way.

"I'm happy they have tenants in there, too. But that doesn't necessarily mean you've got the best deal, not only for yourself but the tenant," said Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, who wants to centralize the management of the city's real estate assets.

Besides the deal with the Alliance for Clifton Mansion, recent leases include:

* An agreement with Masjid Walter Omar, a Muslim organization, to rent a mansion on the northeastern edge of Gwynns Falls Park for $1 a year to hold worship services and run community outreach programs;

* An agreement with the Parks & People Foundation, which funds recreational and environmental programs, to rent a mansion and two outbuildings in Leakin Park for $1 a year.

* An agreement with the Baltimore Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America to rent the old Fort Holabird Officers Club for $1 a year to be the group's headquarters.

Recreation centers leased

Recreation and Parks also has leased to community groups five of 10 recreation centers that were closed last year to save money.

These agreements with private groups join long-standing arrangements the city has had with the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in Maryland to run the historic Mount Clare Museum House in Carroll Park and with Banner Neighborhoods, a nonprofit housing organization, to operate out a house in Patterson Park.

But Recreation and Parks has not been able to find tenants for all the buildings it wants to rent out: The large three-story house at the southern edge of Druid Hill Park that was once the home of the park's superintendent has been vacant for years.

Two years ago, the department reached an agreement to lease the house for $1 a year to singer Richie Havens, who said he wanted to use it as the base for an environmental program for city youth. Although Mr. Havens signed a contract, he never took over the building, and Recreation and Parks officials say they have been unable to contact him.

Last winter, fire destroyed the roof and top floor of the vacant house. Calvin P. Buikema, superintendent of parks, said that it would cost $100,000 to repair the damage, adding, "We may end up razing it."

The rash of recent rental agreements reflects the changing needs and economic constraints of the Recreation and Parks Department, whose $33 million annual budget has remained unchanged over the past four years.

A case in point is the Clifton Mansion, built in 1802 and expanded 50 years later. In 1895, 22 years after Johns Hopkins' death, the city bought the property for $700,000, turning it into a park and golf course.

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