Justice, oft-delayed

Courthouse: After a 15-year wait, residents are skeptical about new plans for a District Court in southern Baltimore's Brooklyn area.

March 21, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Southern Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood has a street that leads nowhere, built by the city a decade ago for a long-promised District Court facility the community is still waiting to see.

The road is just a stub of a street, an extension of Garrett Street off Potee Street, that runs through a trash-strewn field. Nothing lines it but weeds, a few candy wrappers and other assorted garbage.

It has been a symbol of government misspending and delay, a constant reminder that the city's revitalization plan for the neighborhood has been stuck in red tape for 15 years.

"I call it the road to hell," said longtime Brooklyn activist Doris McGuigan. "This road is nothing but a place for people to come and dump stuff."

So when state officials met with community groups March 1 to tell them that - once again - plans are moving forward for an $18.4 million state-funded District Court facility a few blocks from the road stub, they were skeptical.

"When I see it, I'll believe it," said Christopher Crocetti, who owns Cristoforos Castle, an Italian restaurant next to the dead-end road.

For part of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, his parents owned the Castelle d'Abruzzo restaurant on the site, and they, too, waited for the courthouse, hoping it would anchor the neighborhood's revival. They have since died.

The newly proposed South Baltimore District Court, on Patapsco Avenue and 7th Street, would serve the southern end of the city with three floors and five courtrooms.

It would take the place of the one-room courthouse now located in the Southern District Police Station in Cherry Hill and would be an addition to the city's three existing District Court facilities.

Groundbreaking could take place as early as May, with an opening date at the end of 2003, state officials said.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr. a Democrat who represents South Baltimore, said for the past 15 years, he's had to face community organizations and bear the bad news each time plans fell through.

"I felt very foolish having to go back and inform community groups the project was put off for some new reason. It was one reason after another after another," Della said. "It got to the point it was embarrassing.

"There are some people who won't believe it until the building is there."

That's because they know the history.

In 1985, the city purchased the 16-acre junkyard at Potee and Garrett streets for $1.4 million, for a District Court site. In 1987, it sold 6.3 acres to the state for the court building for $500,000.

The city built the road in 1991 for courthouse access, complete with sidewalks, street lights and fire hydrants. It cost taxpayers $590,000. After the road was built, the city and state concluded methane gas on the site would make occupants of a new building sick.

"It was a joint decision [between the city and state] that it was not in the best interest to build the building there, no matter what was done for remediation," Della said. "We would run the risk of it being a sick building."

The road has been a thorn in the side for some Brooklyn residents, who pass it every day and know that nearby, vacant homes and empty storefronts would benefit from the traffic a courthouse would bring.

Meanwhile, a McDonald's, CVS drugstore and Royal Farms convenience store have opened in the past five years near the intersection of Potee Street and Patapsco Avenue, within a square block of the road stub, in anticipation of the original proposed courthouse.

The court would handle cases such as motor vehicle violations, minor criminal cases and civil cases in which the amount does not exceed $20,000.

The 85,000-square-foot building is expected to help ease a tremendous caseload. Over the past five years, the District Court has seen a 6 percent rise in filings statewide, said Lisa I. Ritter, assistant chief clerk for Judge Martha F. Rasin, chief judge of the state's district courts.

During the same time, Baltimore experienced the greatest increase in filings. Motor vehicle cases alone jumped almost 25 percent, with the courts handling 125,786 cases in 1999. "We desperately need a new courthouse," Ritter said. "Baltimore City's caseload is ever-increasing."

The Patapsco Avenue courthouse is planned for 5.5 acres of land, sold to the state by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse for $427,000, according to David Humphrey, spokesman for the Department of General Services.

The new building would have offices for public defenders, clerks and a detention area. It would also have 148 public parking spaces.

Although residents hesitate to pin hopes on the courthouse coming their way soon, many believe it will be a much-needed lift for the struggling area.

"The courthouse is going to bring jobs here. Some of those people might want to live in the area. It could turn around a lot of houses and shops on Patapsco Avenue," McGuigan said. "It will also bring a police presence in the area. It will be a big boost for the community."

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