Options running out for old Eastern High

URBAN LANDSCAPE

June 16, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

The sprawling brick high school on 33rd Street, bustling with activity less than a decade ago, stands today as a vision of majestic decrepitude.

The windows that haven't been boarded up are either grimy or broken by vandals. Bricks on the west wall remain charred from the latest of several fires set inside. Pigeons swoop in and out of holes near the roof. Neighbors spread reports of snipers taking potshots at cars passing below.

The last school bell rang in 1986, and Eastern High School today is no closer to gaining a new use than it ever was. Now time appears to be running out for the vacant building, unless an angel emerges in the next few months.

With the CFL Colts about to begin their first season at Memorial Stadium, the high school's condition is no longer a concern just for nearby neighborhoods. It has become a potential embarrassment for the entire city, an eyesore that will be seen by the estimated 25,000 or more visitors who attend Canadian Football League games, starting with an exhibition on June 29. (The official opener is July 16.)

The renewed activity at Memorial Stadium has placed pressure on the Schmoke administration to decide quickly what to do with Eastern High: fix it up, sell it, or tear it down.

Last March, after the Colts signed a lease for Memorial Stadium, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke expressed grave concern about the school's appearance. "The building is in very, very bad shape," he said at a news briefing. "We try to keep it secure, but it's just deteriorating rapidly."

Because there was no time to carry out any of its long-range options before the football season begins, the city is spending $51,000 this spring to board up the school's windows with pink plywood and take other steps to keep out intruders and make it more presentable.

It's a degrading turn of events for the school, once one of the city's best. Built in 1939 for girls only, it was an attractive and successful companion to the venerable Baltimore City College next door. But the building was closed in 1986 as a cost-saving measure.

Since then, suggestions for reuse have included housing, offices, even a retail center like The Rotunda on West 40th Street. But none of the ideas materialized.

Mr. Schmoke said in March that the Johns Hopkins University considered taking over the property to create a social policy research institute. But he said Hopkins administrators decided to pass on the idea, given projected costs of $12 million or more.

At the time, the mayor indicated he was inclined to let it be torn down. But he said one last party was interested and wanted time to seek funding for an idea.

The interested party was city school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey. He envisioned re-opening Eastern High as an "innovative middle school" and training center for principals.

This week, however, Dr. Amprey disclosed through a spokesman that his project would cost up to $18 million and no public funds are available this year.

Kevin O'Keeffe, government relations liaison for the school system, told a meeting of the Greater Homewood Community Corp. that the city could apply for state funds during the legislative session that begins in January. But the surrounding communities would have to be willing to put up with a vacant building until money came through in 13 to 25 months, he said.

Representatives for two community associations said it might be worth the wait. They said they'd rather see the building rehabilitated than torn down and not replaced.

"Dr. Amprey's project would be a wonderful use for the site," said Eleanor Montgomery, co-chair of the Better Waverly Community Organization. "It would be good for the school system and a great benefit to the neighborhood. We're very enthusiastic about it."

Jim Fendler, co-chair of the Waverly Improvement Association, said his group will do whatever it can to support Dr. Amprey's efforts. "I don't think anyone wants to see the building torn down."

Another alternative would be for the city to recycle half the building and for Hopkins to recycle the other half. That would lower the rehabilitation costs for both. It would also provide a better symbol of the city's renaissance -- and a stronger anchor for future development -- than a vacant lot.

One factor working in favor of Eastern's preservation is the estimated cost of demolition -- anywhere from $1.5 million to $6 million. To date, a source of funds has not been found for the demolition work.

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