Church back to square one

City filled in site of long-delayed construction project

`Ran out of time'

Congregation upset

Park Heights leaders had complained

May 17, 1999|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Since opening almost 15 years ago, the close-knit congregation at Park Heights' First New Life Baptist Church has sold raffle tickets, hawked cakes and asked for any size donation to help build a bigger place to worship.

Ten years of fund raising later, in 1994, the congregation had enough money to start building. But, after about two years, funds ran out, and work stopped, leaving only rolls of architectural plans and the genesis of a concrete basement.

Community leaders, frustrated at the church's unfulfilled promise to finish the job, complained to the city that the site in the 4600 block of Park Heights Ave. was becoming a health hazard.

In a move this month that has riled the area's Baptist leadership, the city demolished the foundation and filled the basement space with dirt, which, church officials estimate, destroyed about $250,000 of work.

"I was crushed," said the Rev. Washington Flowers, pastor of First New Life Baptist Church. "It took us that long to save the money and then someone came up in a few days to knock our dream down."

Zack Germroth, spokesman for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said the church's building permit, which was obtained in 1993, had expired, after two extensions. According to records, one-year extensions were granted in December 1994 and then one year later in December 1995.

Two years after construction stopped, the housing department sent a citation notice in May 1998, ordering the removal of "existing footings, foundation, and slab and backfill."

"It just frankly ran out of time," Germroth said. "As lenient as we were waiting for the project to go forward, the community leaders kept calling us and saying they didn't want that hole in the ground."

When church officials have funding in place, Germroth said, they can apply for another building permit.

Health concerns

Jean Yarborough, president of Northwest Baltimore Corp., which includes Park Heights, said the lot drew children and vagrants.

The 2-acre area was unprotected and unkempt, with trash strewn through overgrown grass, she said.

"It's not so much the blight, it's the health concerns," Yarborough said. "Children could fall down into the basement, and it collected a lot of water, which drew mosquitoes."

Anthony G. Lardieri, a lawyer representing the church, said that the city should be held responsible for tearing down the foundation without prior notice and that he is considering legal action.

"The citation was the last communication from the Department of Housing and Community Development," said Lardieri, of the firm of Semmes, Bowen and Semmes of Baltimore. "The next thing was taking down this building."

Flowers said he met with city representatives upon receiving the citation and was granted a "verbal extension." He declined to say with whom he met.

Germroth said housing officials did not remember such a meeting, but he added that they felt the raw construction had been left too long.

Community groups, including United Park Heights Neighborhood Association, prompted the city to take action, he said.

The demolition, Flowers said, occurred within weeks of the church obtaining a loan for the rest of the work. Plans called for a single-story structure, 60 feet by 117 feet, with a basement.

The church would have a capacity for 300 and would provide parking. Its existing building in the 3200 block of Woodland Ave. seats 200 and has limited parking.

The estimated cost is $450,000, Flowers said, adding that the church would have a multipurpose room and music studio.

The extra space would allow more outreach activities, such as an after-school karate class, he said.

"We needed space for more cars and to hold more programs," Flowers said.

`Devastation'

The church has the backing of several clergymen statewide, including the Maryland Baptist State Convention.

The organization's president, Leroy Gillard, said at a news conference at the construction site last week, "I believe we are standing on holy ground and what has happened here is devastation."

Mildred Baldwin, 58, who lives in the 4900 block of Queensberry Ave. and has attended the church for 12 years, said that after years of soliciting donations, the 150-member congregation does not feel defeated.

"It makes you feel a little bad," Baldwin said. "But we'll carry on. This is just a stumbling block."

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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