Prayerful planning wins stadium site for elderly housing

Church-based group helps persuade city to approve project

May 08, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

It wasn't the first place you'd expect to hear a pitch from a developer trying to win a competition for one of the largest available pieces of real estate in Baltimore -- 30 acres of city-owned land including Memorial Stadium.

It was Good Friday in Govans Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. John R. Sharp was preaching about the consideration Jesus showed his mother while he was dying on the cross.

Sharp, a pastor and president of the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., said the nonprofit organization's motive for planning the 472-unit Stadium Place retirement community was similar to Jesus' motive in asking a disciple to care for his aging mother.

"I told the congregation that the care of the aged is one of the oldest missions of the church, and that is why we want their support for the Stadium Place project," Sharp recalled in a recent interview.

By urging their members to express their support to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, the 25 churches and community groups that make up GEDCO pulled off what many considered an upset victory.

City officials announced this week that voices of the GEDCO believers persuaded them to grant GEDCO the exclusive rights to the huge 33rd Street property, rather than give the rights to two of the area's biggest developers.

Groups led by Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. of Towson and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse of Baltimore had proposed projects that would have converted the stadium property into a high-tech research park or a retail center.

Those proposals might have generated more jobs and tax revenue for the city, but Henson questioned whether they would have attracted tenants.

The GEDCO project was the only one that required the city to demolish the vacant, 46-year-old stadium.

GEDCO officials said their member churches used sermons and petitions to counter what they perceived as the political muscle of the other developers.

Some neighbors who opposed GEDCO's proposal said they resented the group's use of church pulpits to beat the competition. Some oppose it because they fear low-income senior housing might hurt property values and bring crime.

"My neighbors and I felt that we were being hustled in a way that is less than I would expect from a church," said Michele Hughes, who lives on 36th Street near the stadium. "It was high-pressure marketing."

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer complained that the city's decision to demolish Memorial Stadium seems typical of what he described as the demolition-happy Schmoke administration, which has flattened thousands of vacant city homes.

Schaefer said that replacing the stadium with lower-income housing will do nothing to boost the city's economy or tax base.

"It's fine to be looking out for the poor, but we also have to bring in people who are going to pay taxes," said Schaefer, a former mayor and governor. "The Lord also said you have to look out for yourself. We've got enough low-income housing now."

Religious organizations have been building retirement homes in Baltimore and elsewhere for decades, according to housing administrators.

The 90-unit Presbyterian Home of Maryland at 400 Georgia Court in Towson has been housing the elderly since Feb. 21, 1883.

Twenty-two faith-based organizations in Baltimore receive federal grants to provide 3,800 units of senior housing, said James Kelly, spokesman for the federal department of Housing and Urban Development in Baltimore.

The role of faith-based organizations has grown since the 1980s as federal government funding for senior housing diminished, said Jerry Lymas, president of Justin Development Group of Baltimore, a 16-year-old company that works with church-based senior housing organizations.

While developers across the nation rush to build upscale retirement communities, faith-based groups are increasingly trying to meet the needs of moderate- to low-income seniors, Lymas said.

"The churches are looking around them and seeing that their members are getting older, and they are trying to meet their needs," Lymas said.

GEDCO's offices at 5513 York Road don't look like the headquarters of a development company launching a $50 million project.

Around the corner from the entrance to Holy Comforter Lutheran Church dangles a pair of hand-painted wooden signs reading "Church Office" and "GEDCO Office." An arrow for both points to the same place, down a set of stairs into the basement.

The 8-year-old organization has 10 full-time staff members and an annual budget of about $600,000. The money comes from philanthropic organizations and the 18 member churches and seven Govans-area community organizations.

Seven founding churches, led by Govans Presbyterian and Holy Comforter, converted a Civil War-era hotel at 5610 York Road into a 33-unit retirement home for low-income seniors in 1985.

Since then, it has opened three group homes for the mentally ill, a 26-unit apartment complex for homeless men and the 40-apartment Gallagher Mansion home for seniors on Notre Dame Lane.

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