Mayor fumbled ball on stadium

March 15, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

MEMORIAL Stadium, long may she stand!

That should have been the stance of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. It should be Mayor Martin O'Malley's stance as well.

But it wasn't - and it isn't.

So that grand old sports stadium on 33rd Street is being smashed and pulverized. All that will remain - perhaps - is the picturesque, 10-story memorial facade with stainless-steel lettering.

Former Mayor Schmoke let his powerful housing czar, Daniel Henson, turn this valuable site over to a nonprofit group intent on building subsidized housing for low-income elderly. Part of the plan calls for a YMCA there, too.

Ignored were the dynamic and creative proposals from other groups. Mr. Henson opted instead for the wrecking-ball approach - and for a plan that lacks synergy or any big infusion of tax revenue - and jobs - for a city desperately short on cash.

Now, Mayor O'Malley has compounded his predecessor's bad decision.

His lack of leadership on the stadium issue points to an executive overwhelmed by his daunting job. He's so consumed by the demands on his time that he fails to grasp the possibilities.

Think of it: He could have turned Memorial Stadium into a preservation gem - a novel reuse of a famed sports structure.

"It's something that Baltimore could have become nationally known for," said one planner. "It could have been unique, dramatic, exciting and put us on the map - instead of something of marginal value."

But City Hall had a bad case of tunnel vision. The mayor acted like a parochial councilman unable to see the big picture.

A March 1 evening meeting in the mayor's office crystallized the problem. Some of the best minds in the city were there, eager to brainstorm about exciting uses for the abandoned stadium.

They never got the chance. The mayor listened for a while, then announced he had to leave and that he'd decided to stick with the earlier decision. He apparently wasn't interested in taking the time to hammer out a win-win solution.

One participant called it "the worst meeting of this sort I have ever sat through."

Another termed the meeting "insulting" and said that it reflected the mayor's inability to understand the power and potential of a recycled Memorial Stadium.

This could have been Martin O'Malley's signature project.

William Donald Schaefer will be forever linked to Harborplace; Mr. O'Malley could have been remembered for turning a baseball/football stadium into a one-of-a-kind mix of offices, stores, apartments for the elderly and sports facilities.

That opportunity - a gift literally dropped into Mr. O'Malley's hands - was ignored. Too messy. Too complicated. Another tough problem to be solved in a city beset by intractable problems.

The mayor lacks visionaries on his staff. He also lacks doers. And he's focused almost exclusively on the city's crime problem, not on economic development.

And yet the city's future could be undermined by poor planning and development decisions.

Look at the bungled west side renewal efforts under Mayor O'Malley. His giveaway of millions in relocation funds - with bond money that city taxpayers will be paying off for years to come - points to ineptness or incompetence.

His stubborn refusal to stand up to black politicians demanding an outrageous sweetheart deal to relocate a strip club into the heart of an emerging business and entertainment district is appallingly shortsighted.

What signal does this send to Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, a neighbor of the relocated strip club?

What signal does the mayor send to wary suburban legislators - and a wary governor - in Annapolis about the city's ability to use state funds responsibly?

Mr. O'Malley could have made a loud statement at Memorial Stadium had he opted to save it from the wrecking ball. It could have symbolized this mayor's vision of Baltimore - a vibrant, innovative blending of old and new.

Instead, we're left with a planned YMCA that lacks $10 million for construction; a subsidized low-income senior-housing project that's also short on funds; and a stadium facade that stands as a Potemkin village.

There's also serious doubt that Stadium Place will help nearby areas. Several planners and housing experts note it could end up destabilizing communities by emptying apartments and rental houses as seniors rush to fill those subsidized units.

What an uninspiring way to develop this wonderful location.

"Thirty-acre sites like this don't just come along every day," noted one urban expert. "It could have been part of an overall city strategy. Instead, the mayor looked at it as just another piece of land in a neighborhood."

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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