GEDCO leader unafraid to fight for his vision of stadium site

Presbyterian minister feels the cause is just

March 24, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Raised in a rough Wilmington, Del. neighborhood, the Rev. John R. "Jack" Sharp's views were salted by experience.

Sharp was brought up by his blind and frail grandmother, and no matter how bad things became, he said, "the church on the corner was there for us."

So it made sense that Sharp - the man shepherding the redevelopment of the Memorial Stadium site - felt called to church service. In what he calls a "justice ministry," he worked for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons in the 1960s and 1970s.

Later, in Baltimore, he led the way in building modest homes for the homeless and mentally ill, which he calls "faith in action."

At 62, the once poor kid from Wilmington is emerging from a dust-up over the demolition and redevelopment of the stadium where the likes of Johnny Unitas and Frank Robinson earned their spots in their sports' halls of fame.

As president and founder of the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., he has faced such political power hitters as Robert C. Embry Jr., head of the Abell Foundation; and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former mayor and governor who is against tearing down the stadium for anything that won't produce significant tax revenues.

Sharp - along with GEDCO's $43 million plan to replace the 33rd Street stadium with housing for the elderly, a YMCA and, at the mayor's suggestion, perhaps a bicycle track to help lure the 2012 Olympics - is making progress.

The leader of Govans Presbyterian Church preaches forcefully about GEDCO's proposed development, which still needs millions of dollars in funding, a financial picture that has skeptics doubtful.

"The heart of our vision is a mixed-income life-care community ... which no one has ever done," Sharp said.

Unlike some others, the retirement community, designed for 500 residents, would charge no entrance fee, he said. Residents would have access to medical care through Union Memorial Hospital, and the housing would be affordable, including federally funded units and market-based owner-occupied cottages.

If the design works, it would be hard to tell from the outside which was which, he said. There's a waiting list for the housing.

"Nobody's advocating for them, older people in isolation with no knocks on the door," Sharp said. "I've heard people say it's too good a site for those people."

Evidently, the community didn't think so. City officials went along with three surrounding neighborhoods when they voted in 1999 for the GEDCO proposal.

Since then, GEDCO has continued to come up against critics of demolition.

Schaefer, one of three votes on the state Board of Public Works, managed to delay the work late last year. Then, Preservation Maryland appealed the demolition permit in January.

When the wrecking ball started swinging last month, Mayor Martin O'Malley stopped it temporarily. He then worked out a compromise in which the 10-story memorial wall would be saved.

Still unhappy, Embry, Schaefer and David S. Tufaro, real estate developer and former Republican mayoral candidate, encouraged Preservation Maryland to challenge the demolition in state and federal court. This month, two judges refused to grant temporary restraining orders against the state-funded demolition.

The bespectacled and gray-haired man of the cloth had prevailed.

Sharp, married and the father of three children, described the battle over the stadium site as "a war of ideas" involving egos, money and the 30-acre parcel.

He continues to pitch the plan, including recently at GEDCO's annual dinner at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street.

The same week, he was host to Protestant and Catholic visitors from Belfast in Northern Ireland. "We talked about bridging gaps, reconciliation and peacemaking," said Sharp.

Those skills - which he could draw upon as the stadium's demolition continues, possibly through summer - were forged as a minister in the streets of Newark, N.J., in 1968, when his idealism and activism took shape.

There, he co-founded a small consortium of churches and was chairman of the city's civil rights commission before coming to Baltimore in 1977.

He did much of the same when he founded GEDCO in 1991 as a coalition of North Baltimore churches, now numbering 25.

"Sharp took the initiative in building a community organization 30 years ago and was very much involved when we had the [1968] riots in Newark," said Burton H. Vincent, a Lutheran chaplain there who worked with him. "It was a real loss for us when he left."

And it was Baltimore's gain, friends said.

"He came to a sleepy church with a tremendous amount of energy," said Philip J. Sorensen, the area's interim presbyter, who has known Sharp for 24 years. "I don't know of any other minister with more energy, which might be one reason why O'Malley risked himself in opposition to Schaefer."

Based on the success of smaller projects along the York Road corridor - including housing for the elderly and the homeless - Sharp offered the city a bid for GEDCO to redevelop the stadium site.

He said he sees the project as the culmination of his life's work. And he's not about to let it go under.

When challenged recently by preservationists, Sharp was unswerving, O'Malley said. "His clarity of vision saw him through the rough-and-tumble of the process," the mayor said. "He was far more flexible than others."

Sharp said he is grateful that O'Malley supported GEDCO.

"We were not going to play second fiddle to the goal of saving the stadium," he said.

Nevertheless, he is conciliatory. "I'm always optimistic we can work something out," he said.

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