Stadium wall's future in doubt

Deal brokered by mayor seems to be crumbling

November 09, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm and Gady A. Epstein | Jamie Stiehm and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

In what may symbolize a turning point in the saga of Memorial Stadium, top aides to Mayor Martin O'Malley met yesterday with veterans, the site's developer, preservationists and Northeast Baltimore neighborhood leaders to discuss the fate of the dedication wall.

Until recently, it appeared that the 10-story wall with stainless-steel lettering would remain standing as part of an agreement brokered by O'Malley in March between the site's developer and preservationists. The state has since spent $750,000 to reinforce the wall.

But the ground has shifted under that agreement. Some neighborhood activists see the wall as an incongruous eyesore without the rest of the stadium, which was demolished under the March compromise; a statewide veterans group has quietly blessed demolition in favor of a new Camden Yards memorial; and a City Council member is lobbying to tear down the wall, winning support from the rest of the council in a resolution approved Monday night.

"All it is is a wall, technically a plaque indicating that a stadium was there," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat whose 3rd District includes the site. "The wall itself is insignificant."

The latest push to demolish the wall has provoked strong dissent from preservationists and some neighbors, including Terry Koenig and Anna Mae Becker, who feel the wall is a priceless part of the city's collective memory.

"I'm puzzled why we are here, just bewildered," said Becker, who had collected 900 petition signatures in an effort to save the stadium.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, said City Hall and the developer, Govans Ecumenical Development Corp. (GEDCO), should stick to their pact.

"The mayor made a commitment as a settlement of the battle to save the stadium," Gearhart said. "And his office has assured us he would honor the compromise. We're surprised that GEDCO seems to be orchestrating a campaign to take it down."

GEDCO officials, including its president, the Rev. John R. "Jack" Sharp, said yesterday that they would work around the wall to honor the compromise but prefer an empty site.

Neither the city nor GEDCO is eager to take on the cost of maintaining the wall, which is city property. GEDCO officials said it would tower over their housing for the elderly.

A lawsuit by Preservation Maryland was the catalyst for the March deal, under which the faM-gade would remain along East 33rd Street but the rest of the 30-acre site would be cleared for a YMCA facility and a senior housing community.

The stadium's future has been debated since the late 1990s.

In 1999, the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke chose GEDCO, a church-based nonprofit group, to redevelop the site. O'Malley, then a Northeast Baltimore city councilman, supported GEDCO's bid, putting him in an awkward position when the developer came under fire by preservationists and some neighbors for planning to level a beloved Baltimore symbol, finished in 1954 and dedicated to veterans.

But with the rest of the stadium demolished, the wall - inscribed "Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds" - has fewer supporters. Some stadium watchers think O'Malley is inclined to tear down the wall and is staying in the background while Councilman Curran - O'Malley's wife's uncle - and other leaders publicly build momentum on the sensitive issue.

As political barriers to taking the wall down appear to be weakening, Maryland Stadium Authority officials say the wall itself has been strengthened with steel and is more difficult to demolish.

"To tear it down now is much harder than before," Richard W. Slosson, the Stadium Authority's executive director, said yesterday.

O'Malley was not present, but Deputy Mayor Laurie B. Schwartz told participants that the airing of opinions would give the mayor a good basis for deciding whether to give the green light to tearing down the wall.

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