Old stadium offers chance to open new possibilities

March 06, 2001|By Michael Olesker

QUESTION: In Memorial Stadium's heyday, was there anything we could count on more than the inevitability of huge crowds flooding the ballpark like the tide coming in each glorious autumn Sunday?

Answer: Yes. We could count on the voice of Harry Shriver, who handled the public address system for every Baltimore Colts game for 15 years, announcing over the loudspeaker that some lunkheads, in their zeal to watch the ballgame, had overlooked one or another of life's essentials.

"People were always so eager to get inside the ballpark," Shriver remembered one recent day, "that there was always some car on the parking lot with its motor running. The announcements became a little tiresome after a while, but I remember one Sunday I hit the jackpot: `Your lights are on, your doors are open, and your motor is running.'"

The memory arrives this morning because Memorial Stadium has begun to feel the pounding of the wrecking ball, prompting preservationists to cry foul, the mayor to reach for compromise, the state comptroller to mutter dark imprecations about the city's future, the courts to join the debate, and neighborhood and civic groups around the ballpark to choose up sides all over again.

In other words, in the current rush, everyone's lights are on, their doors are open, and their motors are running.

The best piece of news coming out of last week's sudden demolition of the left field bleachers was agreement that the ballpark's war memorial faM-gade shall not be touched. That counts a lot -- and not just aesthetically. It means we're a community saying to ourself that certain bargains remain inviolate. The war memorial was a pact we made with ourselves not to forget all the kids who gave up the ball fields of their youth for the battlefields of their death.

By preserving the memorial, today's generation upholds the bargain made with yesterday's generation.

But the most dismaying news last week was the continuing inability to recognize the special nature of this extraordinary real estate. It is not just the hold that Memorial Stadium has on our hearts, though that is part of it.

It is also the sense of possibilities. That stretch of 33rd Street -- or Babe Ruth Plaza, as it's officially known -- is one of the loveliest boulevards in town. Across from the ballpark, old Eastern High School has been taken over by the Johns Hopkins University. Half a block away is the Castle on the Hill, City College, where more than a thousand of the city's brightest and most vital college-bound kids show up each morning.

This is a life force on which the city should build. The ballpark property is an opportunity to bring in fresh energy, fresh enthusiasm and fresh money before it's too late. And it's unclear whether last week's tentative agreement -- scaling back the size of planned senior housing and increasing the retail space -- is the best this city can do.

Around the ballpark, residents of neighborhoods such as Ednor Gardens, Lakeside and Waverly hold their breath while the great downtown thinkers figure it out.

There's still plenty of charm in these residential communities, still plenty of homeowner pride. But a lot of residents go to sleep each night wondering if their property's about to take on added value, or plunge. They only have to look to nearby Greenmount Avenue, with its edgy, undernourished feel, to imagine the worst.

Everyone in the area wonders if the O'Malley administration will show any more intelligence, any more imagination, than the Schmoke administration did when it gave approval to a nonprofit corporation to raze the ballpark and build a big senior citizen complex.

The move felt like a couldn't-care-less gesture by an exhausted City Hall administration paying only slight attention to what it was doing. Everybody was too busy packing their bags to take much notice. The new administration has no such excuse.

In Annapolis, state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has been hammering for weeks that the city's making a colossal blunder. For this, Schaefer's been branded a malcontent, mocked as someone looking for the attention he's missed since his days as governor.

To see it that way is to miss the thrust of his argument and miss Schaefer's enduring bond with the city: This property means something wonderful for a city just beginning to understand it has begun a real renaissance, something beyond a routine patch-up real estate job.

If only we'll turn off our motors for a while and consider the possibilities.

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