Housing backers rally for stadium demolition

Gathering pushes for retirement complex to be built at the site

January 08, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Hoping to keep momentum on their side, more than 150 supporters of a project to turn the site of Memorial Stadium into a retirement community and YMCA branch rallied yesterday in front of the vacant former home of Baltimore's Orioles, Colts and Ravens.

Organizers were quick to point out that despite being held during the Ravens' playoff game, yesterday's gathering was 10 times larger than a demonstration last month by preservationists and other neighbors who want to save the stadium - or protect at least the structure's landmark facade honoring war veterans.

Supporters hope the retirement project will beat Wednesday's deadline for inclusion on the agenda of the state Board of Public Works meeting this month. The board must approve the state funding required for demolition of the 47-year-old stadium to proceed.

"We ask you to continue to work for us, to pray for us and to talk to your community," the Rev. John R. Sharp told the crowd, circulating clipboards for supporters' signatures and checking out a model of the proposed complex. "We've experienced some delays in Annapolis, but we're still moving forward."

That pronouncement from Sharp, president of the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a consortium of churches that won the right to develop the stadium site into a $43 million retirement community, drew a round of "amens" from the crowd and praise from Hattie Brown.

Brown, 76, who has lived in the neighborhood around the stadium in North Baltimore for almost 20 years, skipped church yesterday. Instead, she donned her Sunday best and made her way to the 33rd Street entrance of the stadium, where she catches the bus on a regular basis.

"I've been praying for this place," she said. "Everyone says it isn't going to happen, but I've been praying over it. I'm planning to live here, so you can put my name on that list twice if it will help."

Brown is one of 275 people who have expressed interest in living at the proposed Stadium Place, GEDCO representatives said.

She said she has sold everything she had stashed in her basement. She's also sold furniture and items that wouldn't fit into the much smaller retirement unit she hopes to move into. She has recruited several friends to sign up as interested future residents, and she's vowed to write to any politician standing in the way of the community she hopes to call home.

"Today has only made me more interested," Brown said. "I'm going to keep talking to people to tell them about this beautiful program for anybody who wants to live in a good neighborhood."

Once regarded as a nearly done deal, the proposal to build 320 apartments, 80 assisted-living units and 30 cottages that was approved in 1999 by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ran into trouble in November. Just weeks before the wrecking ball was to swing, two of the three members of Maryland's Board of Public Works - state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - indicated that they would not sign off on the $2.6 million demolition contract.

The project was taken off the board's agenda, and those who want to save the stadium were given new hope.

Schaefer favors a development proposal that was not selected when bids were submitted two years ago: a plan to use the property for a high-tech research park with offices, laboratories and stores that would be housed in preserved parts of the stadium. Dixon has said he wouldn't vote for the demolition contract because of some state legislators' concerns.

But supporters of the retirement complex, which would include a doctor's office and snack shop, a community playground and a softball field situated roughly where the Orioles diamond was, are standing firm.

They face another deadline this week: the Maryland Stadium Authority has until noon Wednesday to get the demolition contract on the agenda for the Board of Public Works' Jan. 24 meeting. Otherwise, the project will be delayed at least another month.

For a few hours yesterday, those who want the project completed got a chance to complain about their opponents, meet fellow supporters and imagine a day when they could bring their families to a 30-acre campus that would meet the needs of young and old, prevent some families from moving out of the city and perhaps attract a few more.

"This stadium was built as a memorial to people who fought in World War II," said Mandy Knittle, a program assistant with GEDCO. "But if they tear this down, it can be a place for those people to retire. Why have this inanimate memorial when there are waiting lists all over the city for people who want to live in a place like this? This could be a living memorial."

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