Shame on us for Memorial Stadium farce

November 11, 2001|By William Donald Schaefer

THIS IS about shame.

We should all be ashamed for the travesty that has been created out of the opportunity to redevelop Memorial Stadium, a monument to those who served our country in a time not unlike that which we face today.

Last winter, promising and well-thought-out concepts gave way to an ill-advised, under-financed project that is now more in question than ever.

Memorial Stadium is forever gone, leaving a forlorn vestige of the proud landmark - a vestige that now seems threatened by yet another detour on a tortured path to nowhere. Revitalization opportunities have been squandered. People have not been helped. Neither the neighborhood nor the city has benefited.

How was this mess created? What is going on in Baltimore City? What kind of process is being used to set public policy? More important, what can be salvaged that will meet the original goals of reviving a tired neighborhood, serve a broader public purpose and honor those who served their country?

What should have been a process with a positive outcome that would help people, the community and the city has been marked by misrepresentation and irresponsible acts.

Last winter, when controversy raged about the future of the site, preservationists - I among them - lined up against a well-intended collaboration of nonprofit organizations attempting to do what has rarely been done successfully: integrate market-rate and subsidized housing for seniors with recreational and therapeutic services.

"A tribute to the World War II generation - providing a caring home for seniors including veterans and their widows in their retirement years," said a brochure describing Stadium Place.

Despite their inability to obtain funding for the project, backers argued that a cleared site would prompt certain investment. As unmistakable signs of a slowing economy emerged, those of us on the other side argued for reconsidering the site's use, completing a study on its redevelopment potential by those experienced with such projects and halting demolition until those possibilities could be reviewed or funding secured by the coalition that had obtained the development rights.

Legislators huddled and listened to both sides. Other potential developers of the site timidly expressed interest. But nothing happened.

The state, through the Stadium Authority, insisted that demolition proceed, and my colleagues on the Board of Public Works, the governor and state treasurer, voted to destroy the stadium - even though one is a veteran of service to his country and knowledgeable of the importance of sound financial underwriting. Ignored, along with the desecration of a military monument and the project's questionable viability, was the state's previous investment in the stadium and the structure's multi-million-dollar value and reusable condition.

Preservationists and neighborhood groups remained opposed, their legal options nearly exhausted. As the wrecking ball swung, a "compromise agreement" was offered by Mayor Martin O'Malley to save the memorial wall by requiring the developers to incorporate it into the design for Stadium Place, permitting the stadium to be torn down to clear the way for this experiment in human services. The offer was reluctantly - and possibly naively - accepted.

Demolition ensued and continues still. It is not a pretty sight. The real ugliness is not in the landscape but in the failure to find a creative and economically viable adaptive reuse for the stadium.

It should not have taken much imagination to conceive how awkward the remaining facade would appear, looming as it does over the neighborhood. Bold and sensitive thinking could find a way to incorporate all that remains of the honor raised to our World War II veterans. But bold and sensitive thinking seems to be in short supply when it comes to this project.

Now some veterans and others, disheartened by the startling reality of the memorial wall, are calling for a new memorial at a different location, a location associated not with the post-World War II period in our city's history but of the present and one that provides inadequate visibility. Perhaps they should propose the new monument be made mobile so that it can be moved wherever the whim of public officials directs it.

No, "time has not dimmed the glory of their deeds," but we, the stewards of this now-lost monument to World War II heroes, certainly have. Shame on us.

William Donald Schaefer, a former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, is state comptroller.

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