Private schools make run for real estate

Fields are added, commutes increased, neighbors annoyed

October 02, 1999|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Flush with money but short on land, some of North Baltimore's private schools are leapfrogging into surrounding neighborhoods for the athletic fields and other amenities they hope will cement their future success.

The real estate binge -- begun more than a year ago -- is stretching the traditional boundaries of the schools while increasing parents' driving times and straining the schools' relationships with neighbors.

The Friends, Bryn Mawr and Roland Park Country schools have developed plans or closed deals for land to accommodate their teams -- at prices that reach into the millions. In addition, administrators at Boys' Latin acknowledge the pressure to find more space.

"We would always be looking to buy land for fields," said Dyson Ehrhardt, development director at Boys' Latin, which has no immediate expansion plans. "We've got three fields, and children are on them all day, from 10 in the morning on. [The fields] really take a beating."

"It's happening everywhere," said James T. Kaull, director of business and development services for the National Association of Independent Schools. "Many schools are expanding, not to accommodate more students but to improve themselves.

"There is more of an interest in having more athletic fields, and schools are adding performing arts centers. The economy is good, and they are able to get gifts to take on these projects," Kaull said.

Friends, Bryn Mawr deals

Last month, the Friends School of Baltimore announced an agreement with the Baltimore Country Club to buy 18 acres of land in the city.

The price tag: $5.1 million for property about a mile from the school, to be used for tennis courts, a baseball diamond and two soccer or lacrosse fields.

Friends outbid Roland Park Country School for the parcel. Also badly squeezed, Roland Park Country relies on nearby St. Mary's Seminary for borrowed athletic fields, and has angered neighbors with a plan for a four-level addition on a steeply sloped, tree-filled corner of its campus -- an area that many prefer would stay undeveloped.

Earlier this year, the Bryn Mawr School bought the Mount Washington Club lacrosse field and clubhouse for its sports programs, a more modest $250,000 acquisition.

Importance of athletics

The plans of all three schools illustrate the importance of athletics for boys and girls.

"It seems to me that the interest in providing good facilities and equal participation for girls is a direct fallout of a process that started 20 years ago," said Bryn Mawr head Rebecca Fox. "In the 1970s, when Title IX [a federal anti-discrimination law] went into effect and the transformation of women's athletics in colleges took effect, there was obviously a trickle down to high schools, and then elementary schools."

Most of North Baltimore's private schools are in their second homes, having relocated between 20 and 80 years ago -- when the demand for athletic programs was not so great. With readily available land consumed over the years, the schools now face expensive options: Buy more nearby, or relocate.

"When you compare the cost of relocating vs. the cost of expanding with a piece of property, it's a big savings," Timothy Hearn, a former Friends trustee and past head of the school's property committee, said of the latter option.

But it's still not cheap.

"The mountaintop was reached when Loyola College paid $7.7 million for the Boumi Temple property and knocked down all the buildings," said Hearn, a commercial real estate broker. "That pretty much set the stage for any types of assemblages. This is demand-driven. All of the schools have full enrollment; all of them need more land."

Waiting lists

Despite high land prices, the thirst for expansion remains unquenched. A combination of a healthy economy and continued national hand-wringing over the quality of public schools has led many parents to consider independent schools.

As a result, elite schools have fat waiting lists.

And while Baltimore's top private schools say they have no plans to increase enrollment, they realize that now is the time to grow physically.

Wealthy donors can afford contributions, and land prices will probably mushroom.

"Schools by their nature are expansionist," said Bob Condin, a University of Maryland law school professor who was waiting recently at Friends to pick up his daughter from a field hockey game.

"If anything, this school has not been fiscally aggressive enough. You go forward, or you die," Condin said.

Keeping pace

Another factor is at play: When one school announces improvements, the others feel additional pressure to keep up.

Tracy Savage, assistant head in charge of development for the National Cathedral School in Washington, says her school's $10 million plan for a below-ground athletic complex topped with a playing field is just part of what's needed to remain cutting-edge.

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