Public fears losing role in hospital plan

Financial, local issues clash in Arundel project

July 15, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

The way many residents of historic downtown Annapolis see it, it's payback time.

During the past 100 years, the state and county have donated money and land to help the Anne Arundel Medical Center grow. So as the medical center makes plans to move and select a builder to transform its 5-acre Annapolis site into houses and stores, residents want a say in how that land is developed.

For almost two years, the hospital has agreed. It formed a committee of local residents to give input and took the unusual step of letting the public help draw up guidelines for how the land will be used.

But as the deadline for choosing a redevelopment plan draws near, some residents have begun to worry that behind closed doors, the hospital's financial interests -- not community sentiment -- will drive the decision-making.

"It's been perfectly clear they've been happy to listen to us," said Gilbert Renaut, who has lived near the hospital for 24 years. "But it's also clear we won't have any say in what finally goes on that land, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable."

It has shaped up to be a most unusual development skirmish in a city where such battles have become something of a pastime. The nagging question: Does the hospital owe special attention to its neighbors because of the public investment it has accepted over the years?

"This requires a delicate balancing act," said Del. Virginia P. Clagett, a Democrat representing Annapolis. "The hospital will have to choose what's best for them financially, but also satisfy their substantial debt to the community."

Medical center leaders have consistently said that they want the public involved.

"The hospital does feel it has a [responsibility] to the community at large and a special responsibility to its neighbors," said Florence B. Kurdle, who chairs the hospital's board of trustees.

Residents say hints that the hospital has more compelling motives came late last week, when four developers competing for the project outlined their plans.

When developer Bill Struever proposed turning the hospital's eight-story tower into a condominium and expanding the parking structure, several people were alarmed at the scale of the proposal. When he explained that his goal was "to maximize the hospital's financial investment," they were stunned.

"I don't know what the hospital's investment in that property has been over the years, but I do know there has been a serious investment by the public," said Sandy Cohen, who serves on the hospital's site reuse advisory committee.

Records show that the state donated some of the hospital's land at Cathedral and Franklin streets, and county officials said the county has given the hospital several sizable grants.

But perhaps the more significant sacrifice, Alderman Louise Hammond said, was in the city's willingness to bend its strict zoning rules to let the hospital build the tower and the five-level parking garage.

"The hospital would never have been allowed to do that, had it been anything other than a hospital," said Hammond, who represents the 1st Ward.

Mayor Dean L. Johnson notes that the hospital must think beyond the neighborhood. That, he said, might mean selling the property for as much money as possible so the hospital can reinvest in better medical care, treating the indigent and serving the wider community.

"I think this is a tough situation for everybody concerned," said Minor Carter, the president of the Ward One Residents Association. "We understand they have a fiduciary interest, but we also know it's probably the largest piece of property that's going to be built on in Annapolis for generations."

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