Faced with an outpouring of opposition by neighborhood residents and citywide civic and conservation groups, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke withdrew yesterday his proposal to sell a nearly 9-acre tract of historic Druid Hill Park to a church that planned extensive development of the property.
The mayor's decision to scuttle his plan came less than 24 hours after the planning commission postponed its vote after a hearing in which speaker after speaker derided the plan for breaching a near-sacred trust of stewardship over public parkland and the city's attempt to push through the proposal without adequate prior notice.
It also came hours after disclosure in The Sun that the property's would-be buyer, the United House of Prayer for All People of the Church of the Rock of the Apostolic Faith, had development plans that would consume virtually the entire 8.8 acre parcel on the southern edge of the park.
Schmoke acted after being briefed late yesterday afternoon on the planning commission hearing by Charles A. Graves III, the city's planning director, and Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, the mayor's representative on the nine-member panel.
"It became an emotional issue regarding not taking park property, even though it was a good idea," Graves said after the meeting.
"I think the process works in terms of community input," added Graves, whose staff had recommended that the parkland be sold as "surplus property."
Schmoke's spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman, said the mayor would have no elaboration on his planning chief's explanation.
Community leaders and conservationists, who had vigorously opposed the sale after it was put on an apparent fast-track for approval with the introduction of a City Council bill May 12, greeted the news of the mayor's decision with a mixture of glee, relief and surprise.
"That's great. That's incredible. I think I'm stunned," said Judy Morris, head of the Friends of Druid Hill Park.
"All right!" said Sally Michel, board chairwoman of the Parks & People Foundation. "Good for him."
"Wow! That's excellent," said state Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a West Baltimore Democrat whose district encompasses Druid Hill Park.
"I feel the mayor has listened to the voice of his constituents, and I'm very relieved," Hughes added.
Efforts to reach representatives of the United House of Prayer last night were unsuccessful.
Calls to the church on West Preston Street went unanswered, and a relative at the home of the Rev. W. E. Howell, the church's pastor, said he was out of town and would not be available until next week.
Baltimore state Del. Hattie N. Harrison, an official of the church, also could not be reached for comment on the mayor's decision.
Harrison helped broker the deal for the Druid Hill property by connecting church officers with city officials after her church's plan to build in Ashburton was rejected by neighbors late last summer.
The United House of Prayer has outgrown its longtime location near the McCulloh Homes housing project, church officials have said.
City officials had proposed selling the Druid Hill Park property in part as a way to keep the congregation in the city.
The United House of Prayer had plans to put a 34,000-square-foot church with two sanctuaries seating 800 and a 200-seat social hall, a family life center and multifamily housing on the Druid Hill Park parcel, according to documents obtained this week by The Sun.
Graves, the planning director, pledged that the city would help the church meet its need to expand.
"We are considering other options to help the United House of Prayer," he said.
Those include helping the congregation find more room at its current site, he said.
Graves continued to defend the idea of selling the Druid Hill Park property -- a triangular patch of land, overgrown with weeds, cut off from the rest of the park by heavily traveled roads and containing a vacant, decrepit three-story house that was once home to the park's superintendent.
"The piece of property is sitting there derelict. This is a way to bring higher value," he said.
"But the emotions came into play in terms of taking park property," he said.
Use of parkland -- as with all publicly owned land -- could be taken up as part of the development of a new comprehensive master plan under way for the city.
But opponents of the Druid Hill Park deal had argued that the sale of any parkland should only be done after extensive public review, if at all.
They also pointed to the special place Druid Hill Park occupies as the city's oldest major park and the third-oldest large urban park in America. Rather than being sold off, the parcel should be fixed up and preserved for future generations, they said.
Indeed, the proposal to sell the tract appeared to contradict the recommendations of two recent reports.
The Mayor's Task Force on Recreation and Parks said in a report in March that the "sale of assets will only be appropriate in limited circumstances."
A separate 1995 study on Druid Hill Park zeroed in on the dilapidated superintendent's house. That 1995 study, "Renewing Druid Hill Park," said in work sessions and public meetings that "a strong interest in the building's housing a park-related use was voiced."
Before the mayor's decision was announced, Lloyd Mitchner, co-chairman of the mayor's task force and head of the advisory parks board, added his voice to the growing opposition to the sale.
"I'm against it," he said. "Druid Hill Park is the centerpiece in terms of the city's parkland."
Pub Date: 5/24/97