Federal judge refuses to halt Memorial Stadium demolition

Hearing on legality of wrecking permit to be held tomorrow

March 08, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm and Gail Gibson | Jamie Stiehm and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A federal judge refused yesterday to halt demolition work at Memorial Stadium, handing another setback to preservationists' 11th-hour efforts to save the North Baltimore landmark.

Activists said they will appeal the ruling by U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis. But as crews tore away the concrete bleachers where generations of fans watched the Orioles and the Colts, opponents acknowledged that time and the avenues for a challenge are limited.

"We're in the process of losing a landmark structure and a great development opportunity," said D. Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, which has led a campaign to save the stadium.

The Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a church-based nonprofit group, plans to build housing for the elderly and a YMCA on the 30-acre site. Opponents say the $43 million project would be a shortsighted use of the rare open space in the city.

The next episode will be tomorrow, when a city administrative hearing is scheduled on the legality of the demolition permit. Friday, a Baltimore circuit judge denied preservationists' request for a temporary restraining order until that hearing, saying they were unlikely to prevail.

Demolition opponents didn't fare any better yesterday in federal court.

They asked Davis to order wrecking crews to immediately stop work, arguing that federal authorities had failed to properly determine whether the city-owned ballpark, dedicated in 1954, was eligible for historic preservation.

Government attorneys countered that officials had taken proper steps when they determined that Memorial Stadium could not be included on the National Register of Historic Places. In court papers, an attorney representing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said the claims by demolition opponents were "premised on a distortion of the record."

In denying preservationists' request for a temporary restraining order, Davis, who did not rule on the merits of the complaint, was strongly skeptical of their claims.

"It's very unlikely the plaintiffs will ever convince anybody that the decision made [for HUD] by the developer here was arbitrary," Davis said.

Tomorrow's hearing will be before a five-person ad hoc panel of city housing officials. Their recommendation will be forwarded to Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, who will have 30 days to accept or reject their finding.

Preservationists are exhausting their legal remedies despite a compromise reached last week - prompted by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - that would save the 10-story war memorial wall. GEDCO officials said they are willing to work around the wall, though it would raise the cost of the project by changing its design.

Preservationists said the compromise doesn't go far enough. They also say they have received mixed signals from O'Malley's office about saving the wall.

The mayor's spokesman denied that. "Absolutely, positively, the memorial wall will be maintained," said Tony White.

As the wrecking balls have gone to work on Memorial Stadium, emotions surrounding the stadium project have run high. Preservationists say the old ballpark on East 33rd Street is an integral piece of Baltimore's collective memory, giving it cultural as well as architectural significance.

"We'll never give up as long as there is an avenue," said Anna Mae Becker, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years and was one of three neighbors named as plaintiffs in the federal court action.

Others are glad to see the stadium go.

"It's nice to preserve the front, but we're anxious for it to come down," said Kerri Buckley, a high school teacher who lives on East 36th Street, across from the stadium. "It's sad to see it decrepit."

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