1999 air quality report intensifies debate on proposed Charles Plaza high school

Study found high levels of carbon dioxide at site

March 11, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Debate over a downtown high school in Charles Plaza escalated last week after a 2-year-old report of air quality problems surfaced, raising questions about the safety of the building.

The report, written by the Johns Hopkins University's Office of Safety and Environmental Health in September 1999, said the classrooms in a Charles Plaza building had higher-than-acceptable levels of carbon dioxide that could result in headaches and lethargy.

But the building's owner says those air quality claims are irrelevant because the building will be renovated and retested before students enter the school. Critics are raising the issue as a last-ditch effort to derail the project, said David H. Hillman, chief executive officer of Southern Management Corp. and the owner of the building.

Baltimore school officials plan to open a small high school on the second floor of the building with 80 to 90 students in the fall. The air quality report fueled an argument between school leaders and businesses over whether the city's main artery is an appropriate place for a high school.

The high school plan gained support from hotels and banks, institutions that employ and train many of the students as part of their school day.

Last week, however, a group of businesses and institutions near Charles Plaza wrote a letter to the school system, saying they believe in the concept of a downtown high school but that a group of teen-agers coming and going from school in Charles Plaza each day would be detrimental to the effort to redevelop Charles Street.

Mayor Martin O'Malley also entered the debate last week, saying he hoped another location might be found, particularly if there are health concerns about the site.

The health issues were first raised in 1999 when Eva Lane, director of Johns Hopkins' downtown center, requested an air quality test. She worked for the center for 10 years and said "there were air quality issues when we worked there."

By the time the air quality report was done, she said, Hopkins was beginning to move out of the building. The university did not request changes to the building to alleviate the problem.

The center has since moved to a nearby building owned by Peter G. Angelos, who is protesting the high school at Charles Plaza.

"Clearly, Johns Hopkins has no idea what the current conditions are there or what the plans are for dealing with any issues. Any experience we had clearly is potentially irrelevant to the future development of the space," said Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for the university.

Hillman, however, claims that Johns Hopkins had its report concocted several years ago to get out of a lease so the center could move into Angelos' building. O'Shea denied that allegation.

City schools chief Carmen V. Russo said whatever health issues may have existed in 1999 will be corrected during renovations, which will have to be finished before the school opens. The ventilation system and ducts will be replaced, according to Russo.

"All codes and requirements for schools will be met," Russo said. "Certainly we wouldn't put any adults or children in a building that couldn't pass scrupulous testing."

Hillman also sees another motive behind dredging up the 1999 report.

"This is just an amateurist attempt by a bunch of racists to screw up a deal," Hillman said. "The majority of the high school population is African-American. They are not comfortable with all those kids downtown. It is nonsense."

One of the opponents of the plan, Thomas N. Marudas, representing Angelos' law offices, responded by saying: "That doesn't merit a comment."

The 12-year lease with Southern Management Corp. approved by the city school board Feb. 26 clears the way for a finance and travel and tourism academy in a second floor of Charles Plaza.

The students, who would come from all over the city, would have to have a C average and 90 percent attendance in middle school to be accepted into the program.

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