Plans for high school downtown gain support, move ahead

Group changes course and supports opening site at Charles Plaza

February 28, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore school system is going ahead with a proposal to open a high school at Charles Plaza downtown after winning the support of at least one of the plan's major critics.

The school board approved Tuesday a 12-year lease with Southern Management Corp. that will cost nearly $1 million over the next two years and $1.2 million annually after that. The high school, to be on the second floor of Charles Plaza adjacent to Charles Towers, will house two academies - one for finance and another for travel and tourism - and will open in September.

Schools Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz told the board that officials had met with downtown community members and tried to address their concerns about the 500-student school's potential impact on Charles Street corridor revitalization efforts. Rather than open in the fall with 125 to 150 ninth-graders, it will begin with 80 to 90, he said.

Michele L. Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, testified at a public hearing several weeks ago that she opposed a high school at Charles Plaza because of concerns about loitering, transportation and projected enrollment.

But school officials invited Whelley to speak again at Tuesday's board session, during which she offered new support for it. She said the Downtown Partnership considers the downtown area to be another Baltimore neighborhood and realizes that it cannot operate as an "island in the city."

"If we're going to build a neighborhood ... that [neighborhood] has to include our city children," she said.

Members of the group's board, she said, will "roll up our shirt sleeves" and work with the school system to iron out as many potential wrinkles as possible before the school opens.

David H. Hillman of Southern Management Corp., which owns the building, said, "We're satisfied that it's an acceptable use for the space and compatible. The commercial tenants are real excited about it because it means more business for them."

After some initial concerns, tenants in the residential towers also look forward to it, he said, because the school will help the area seem more like a neighborhood.

Kemp Byrnes, president of the Historic Charles Street Association, who had earlier expressed concerns about the plan, said yesterday that he felt comfortable with it after speaking to Hillman.

The school, which will be launched in 11,000 square feet of space, will eventually take up a 60,000-square-foot area. The school will open with ninth-graders and add a grade a year.

Students must have a C average and 90 percent attendance in eighth grade to qualify for the college-preparatory program, which will have strong academics, career classes and internships.

It is unclear where other early critics of the plan stand now. Jimmy Rouse, vice chairman of the Charles Street Development Corp., and Thomas N. Marudas of the law offices of Peter G. Angelos did not return calls for comment yesterday.

School board Vice Chairman C. William Struever applauded Whelley's endorsement. "It just is so important for the business community to embrace what we're doing," he said. "The [Downtown Partnership] board did the right thing in this particular case."

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