A hit and a timeout at stadium

Demolition halted after neighbors deluge City Hall

March 01, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A wrecking ball slammed into Memorial Stadium yesterday, prompting neighbors to flood City Hall with calls and spurring Mayor Martin O'Malley to suspend demolition pending a meeting this morning with site developers.

While state officials said the work was proceeding according to a plan known to city officials, O'Malley issued a written statement in which he said he stopped the project "to preserve all options for future development of this area."

It was not clear yesterday what the mayor's intent was, nor was it clear when demolition would resume. The mayor has been a lukewarm supporter of the plan of the city's chosen developer to build senior housing and a YMCA on the 30-acre North Baltimore site.

Before they were ordered to stop yesterday, a crew from Potts & Callahan, the Baltimore company awarded the $2.6 million contract to clear the area, had used a wrecking ball for the first time at the site and destroyed a row of concrete bleachers on the stadium's left-field side.

Preservationists applauded O'Malley's action to stop the demolition, but developers said they still hope to take down the entire structure.

The state Board of Public Works ended a months-long deadlock in January when it approved a contract to demolish the 47-year-old stadium.

The Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a church-based consortium, proceeded with its plans to build a national model of affordable senior housing on the site and the city's largest YMCA.

A month ago, it appeared GEDCO might change course on clearing the site completely when it agreed to consider an offer from the Abell Foundation to study ways to save part of the stadium.

Both sides informally agreed demolition would wait until they decided on the study. But neither, it turns out, had the authority to stop the demolition.

At the stadium yesterday, where all that was left of the toppled bleachers was rebar and electric wiring, GEDCO's president, the Rev. John R. "Jack" Sharp, held an impromptu news conference. "They picked a bad day to start ... Ash Wednesday," he said.

Sharp said he plans to meet with Mayor O'Malley at 10:30 a.m. today at City Hall to find out whether they can move ahead with the proposal. Among the subjects discussed will be the proposed Abell-sponsored study and a velodrome for bike racing on the site, to improve the city's chances for a 2012 Olympic bid. Sharp and two City Council members said O'Malley is interested in the velodrome, but the mayor would not confirm that.

"The Stadium Authority is moving ahead with soft [preparatory] demolition. We're not in the driver's seat for the demolition," Sharp said. "Until today, the city didn't order the demolition stopped. It was scheduled, and no one gave them a stoplight."

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who had opposed demolition, said the plan was never to save the entire stadium. "Nobody ever contemplated that the bleachers would be saved," he said.

Julia Pierson, GEDCO's executive director, said she hoped today's meeting would allow the project to "move forward, with a final decision. There's been enough delays." She said the project's critics could have gone through the public process.

Almost two years ago, with little fanfare, the nonprofit group - and its $43 million plan - was chosen by then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration to redevelop the site.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has supported demolition, said yesterday that he supports the mayor's actions on the stadium.

Meanwhile, stadium preservationists denounced yesterday's demolition work. Michael D. Golden, spokesman for state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, said the former governor and mayor was "furious" at the Maryland Stadium Authority, which is supervising the demolition, for allowing even a peripheral demolition to take place.

In response, the stadium authority yesterday released a series of letters to city officials detailing the "soft strip" work and the bleacher demolition planned for the first month.

One letter, dated Feb. 5, refers to the study of a partial demolition and states that a written order from the city would be needed to halt work by the contractor.

Still, Sharp and others could hardly ignore the flap caused by the discord between the work schedule and the volatile politics of the demolition. "This is not something we caused," Sharp said. His concern now, he added, is fighting the sense that "no compromise is enough until the seniors are pushed off the site. We have to maintain integrity of affordable housing."

Anna Mae Becker, a pediatric nurse who has circulated a petition to save the stadium, said she wants no part of the concept. Peering over the fence at the demolished seats yesterday, she added, "It looks terrible. It's sad to see it like this."

Sun staff writers Allison Klein and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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