Cooke's ego trip points down the road to environmental ruin

THIS JUST IN ...

March 11, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

Cheer up, everybody. We're all supposed to be happy about this deal with Jack Kent Cooke. If this doesn't put you in a back-slapping mood, what will?

Let's see: An 81-year-old godzillionaire with a Jurassic ego gets to build a football stadium in Laurel, abandoning the District of Columbia, tearing up open space and creating a potential suburban nightmare for years to come. (When a consultant's report predicts two hours of stop-and-go traffic before and after each game, you can count on four hours, and you can count on the state spending millions more in road construction to solve the problem.)

In this supposedly great deal, Cooke's project gets at least $52 million in "infrastructure," though it's likely to get a lot more. (A study the Maryland Stadium Authority conducted a few years ago placed the cost of infrastructure for a football stadium in suburban Lansdowne at $125 million.) Cooke gets this financial support from a state that has already committed itself to $165 million for a football stadium in Baltimore. (Have we got our priorities straight, or what?)

In return for all this help from the state, does Cooke guarantee that he won't try to stop Baltimore from getting a National Football League franchise? Nope. Pardon me; I'll refrain from back-slapping for now.

What we have here is acquiescence in the scheme of an octogenarian who, after a lifetime of power plays, wants one more conquest to ensure a legacy. Powerful men who desire immortality, and who think of it in terms of concrete monuments, do not think unselfishly about the future. That Jack Kent Cooke would even point his finger at open space in Laurel suggests that his thinking is about 30 to 40 years old, stuck in the sprawl-is-good mind-set that created a crisis in land use and abetted the decline of cities.

To be fair, it should be noted that preliminary reviews by federal, state and Anne Arundel County officials show the 80 acres Cooke wants to use for his stadium -- and there may be 100 acres before this is finished -- are free of both major environmental hazards and wetlands. (To make us feel even better about the whole thing, I want you to know that Cooke's project manager, Walter Lynch, has walked the proposed site "hundreds of times" and, from what he has seen, Lynch says there are no environmental problems. Now that's reassurance!)

But look, I'm not talking about wetlands permits here. I'm not talking about endangered salamanders. This is not an anti-development diatribe from the Brotherhood of the Spotted Owl.

I'm talking about this state supporting a high-profile project, in and along the edges of the Patuxent and Little Patuxent River flood plains, that turns back the clock on land use around the Chesapeake.

Does anyone, besides the residents of little ole Laurel, care that, to build this stadium, Cooke must tear up land to provide parking for some 23,000 cars? Does it matter to anyone that one day the state might have to widen the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, one of the most pleasant stretches of road in Maryland? Factor in 32 local "road improvements" and a possible fifth lane to each side of Interstate 95 all the way from the Capital Beltway to Route 216, and you have a thoroughly obnoxious disregard for open space and the idea that we should be encouraging new construction on already-developed land.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is the best evidence of the wisdom of that idea. Its construction was driven, in part, by ego. It ensured a certain degree of immortality for Edward Bennett Williams, the Orioles owner who pretty much forced the state to build a new stadium, and for William Donald Schaefer, the governor who wanted desperately to keep the Orioles from following the Colts out of town. But after all was said and done, after all the arguments against public funding of Oriole Park were rendered moot, we ended up with a nationally acclaimed ballpark in the city, on a tract that was first developed for commercial use nearly two centuries ago. If Baltimore succeeds in getting an NFL franchise, the football stadium will be constructed at Camden Yards, too.

That was not only politically smart, but socially and environmentally so; it was a public investment in a city that needed it and constituted an official endorsement of the policy of recycling land.

Comes now Jack Kent Cooke, and the future-thinking shown in the Camden Yards project has been pretty much trashed.

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