Heated fight for firehouse

Battle: Public housing tenants who want to buy an abandoned city building for a community center face competition from people who would put the site back on the tax rolls.

February 11, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

An abandoned and neglected Baltimore firehouse at 316 S. Caroline St. has become the center of a political tug-of-war between public housing tenants and city officials eager to expand the tax base.

Tenant council leaders of the 688-unit Clarence Perkins Homes complex said they will march on the Department of Housing and Community Development's headquarters today to press their point that they want the firehouse for a community center. The current center, behind the firehouse, is too small for the additional programs they say they want to bring to their East Baltimore neighborhood.

"We need this space in order for our kids to excel. That's what we're talking about," said Bertha McCormick, tenant council president. "This is to give the kids a fighting chance."

Two other bidders for the property, which sits in the middle of the housing complex, say they would renovate the 96-year-old eyesore and move into its second-floor living quarters. Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano is expected to make a decision soon.

The station was sold for $1 several years ago, but the development effort failed, said Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., a Southeast Baltimore Democrat.

The building has been vacant for at least 12 years, and the latest request for proposals went out in the summer. Site visits and community meetings were held during the fall, said housing department spokesman John M. Wesley. City officials are particularly interested in making sure whoever gets the firehouse will be able to maintain it and keep it on the tax rolls.

"That would be a use of the building in line with the mayor's idea of building out from strength," said Wesley.

The sturdy, terra-cotta-and-brick firehouse sits like a solid, square-shouldered giant on South Caroline Street. Built in 1909 for $24,951, it once housed the horse-drawn wagons of Engine Co. 34.

Now the building, 37 1/2 feet by 100 feet, is empty, except for the trash and debris piled inside. The front door is covered with graffiti tributes to "Pole Cat" and others. A side door has been forced open. A hole in the roof and the upper floor are evidence of the past decade's neglect.

"I stumbled across this probably four or five years ago and I thought it was a magnificent building," said John Craig Seiland, one of the bidders.

Seiland has researched the building's history, and found architectural drawings and a list of the 12 men assigned to Engine Co. 34 when it was organized July 1, 1909.

Charles E. Cassell, who designed the once-elegant Stafford Hotel on North Charles Street in Mount Vernon and the now-vacant Brexton apartment building on Park Avenue, also designed the firehouse. Seiland credits Cassell for the stonework and tile mosaic that grace the old fire station.

"You can't replicate it today," said Seiland, whose friend, Carl Stokes, the one-time mayoral candidate and former city councilman, helped him navigate the application process.

Seiland, a businessman, said that if he wins the bid, he would allow the Perkins community to use the firehouse's ground floor occasionally.

"I'm sure Perkins wants it as bad as I do. Of course, I'd be putting it back on the tax rolls," he said. "I don't like hearing that they're not happy because I want a positive relationship."

D'Adamo, chairman of the Council's Budget and Appropriations Committee, said the firehouse should go to the highest bidder.

"I think nonprofits do a very good thing for the city, but I also realize that a lot of nonprofits do not help pay the city's bill," he said. "The days of people, nonprofits or for-profit groups trying to take over city property for zero fees are gone. The city is financially strapped, and we are looking for every dollar we can get."

The Perkins tenants, who are being helped by the East Harbor Community Development Corp., initially bid nothing for the firehouse, then made a verbal offer of $10,000. At present, Seiland's bid of $29,999 is the highest, sources say.

Tenant council representatives say the firehouse would be perfect for a technology center. Hewlett-Packard has awarded a $3 million grant for a computer center in East Baltimore, but the company has not endorsed any specific location. The tenants also dismiss housing officials' suggestion to use nearby community centers that provide similar services.

D'Adamo, whose office received about 30 calls supporting the Perkins proposal, said he would encourage the tenants to look at other city-owned properties if they do not get the firehouse. A former Boys and Girls Club of Central Maryland recreation center around the corner at Bank Street and Broadway has been vacant for years, he said.

Whatever decision Graziano makes, the City Council, the Board of Estimates or the mayor could review it, said Wesley. D'Adamo said it is unlikely that the commissioner's decision would be overturned. The tenants say they will accept only one outcome.

"This is no joke. We want this," said Joe Johnson, tenant council vice president. "I think we deserve it because it's in the community."

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