Pimlico Center's demolition cheered BALTIMORE CITY


October 01, 1993|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer

A block-long concrete eyesore that community leaders say has stifled revitalization of the commercial hub of Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore is finally coming down.

The long-vacant Pimlico Center, at 5430 Park Heights Ave., is being demolished this week after four years of community pressure on City Hall.

Community leaders now consider the site a symbol of hope for the rebirth of the Park Heights Avenue commercial corridor that stretches from Garrison Boulevard to Northern Parkway.

Russell Kelley can hardly believe it.

As president of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., an umbrella organization for neighborhood groups in the area, Mr. Kelley has spent much of his four years in office trying to persuade the building's owner and the city Department of Housing and Community Development to sell the building to a developer who would rebuild on the site.

"I won't believe anything until I see the first piece of concrete coming down. That building has been a negative drain on the community," Mr. Kelley said just before the wrecking crew arrived.

Mr. Kelley said he was elated that the housing department has finally agreed to demolish the building but wonders why it took the city so long.

"I saw what was going on in [developing] different areas of the city, and I wondered why there'd been no attention given to this," he said.

The city, which is paying $128,622 for the demolition, is advertising for developers who might want to buy the property and build a residential or commercial building on the site. Community leaders say they would like to see a residence for the elderly there.

The Pimlico Center originally was a Holiday Inn, in the 1960s and 1970s, then an apartment building beginning in the early 1980s until it became vacant about five years ago. Vandals have since stripped it of windows and plumbing, and it has been a giant obstacle in the path of efforts to revitalize the area's commercial hub.

The Pimlico Center also has long been a financial burden on the city.

The owner -- a church headed by a politically influential clergyman -- hasn't paid the mortgage owed to the city for 10 years and has never paid any property taxes.

After a previous owner defaulted on a city mortgage, the city sold the building in 1983 to the First United Church of Jesus Christ (Apostolic), a West Baltimore church headed by Bishop Monroe R. Saunders, who was on the school board and the Urban Services Commission under Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

The church wanted to turn the building into a domiciliary care facility, but the plan fell through.

The city sold the building to the church for $828,797 and gave the church a mortgage for the same amount. But city officials say the church has never made a mortgage payment.

A covenant on the property requires the owner to keep it "in good order, condition and repair," according to city land records.

Despite the fact that no mortgage payments were made and the building fell into disrepair, the city never foreclosed on the property through three mayoral administrations.

Until this year, the building was exempt from property taxes, even though it was never used for church purposes.

Early this year, after state tax assessors found that the property was not being used for a religious purpose, the city began sending tax bills to the church. Those bills -- now totaling $52,193 -- have not been paid either, according to city records.

Zack Germroth, housing department spokesman, said the church has agreed to let the city take control of the property, although no formal foreclosure proceeding has taken place.

Bishop Saunders said he was not involved in the city's takeover of the property and referred a reporter to his son, Monroe R. Saunders Jr., who did not return a reporter's call.

Mr. Kelley and other community leaders said that after the demolition, the site will become a symbol of hope and renewal for the commercial corridor.

"We're gaining a lot by tearing it down. If we could get a building on that property, it would be great," said Stuart Macklin, co-chairman of a task force of community leaders seeking to revitalize the corridor.

"Nothing was going to happen in the community unless we did something about this vacant eyesore that was bringing the neighborhood down," Mr. Macklin said.

Johnny Clinton, president of the Pimlico Merchants Association and owner of the Park Heights Barbershop three blocks south of the Pimlico Center, is hopeful that any development of the site will bring in government aid and more business.

"When we get people interested in the community, it will push us forward," he said.

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