Community leaders differ on new plan to reopen school instead of selling it

Monroe Elementary was target for renewal

March 25, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's decision not to sell a vacant school in the renewal area around Pennsylvania Station, even though three developers are eager to recycle it, has drawn sharply divergent reactions from community leaders working to turn the area into the city's next arts and entertainment district.

The property that was taken off the market, the former Mildred D. Monroe Elementary School at 1600 Guilford Ave., is one of three for which the city housing department sought bids in the fall.

When city school officials disclosed this month that they want to reopen the school for a diagnostic center for 50 to 75 pupils, though they closed it last year, the housing department rescinded its offer to sell the school. It is working to choose developers for the other parcels.

Supporters of a $70 million plan that calls for all three parcels to be awarded to the same developer, T. Conrad Monts of Annapolis, say the school was a key piece in his vision to create a "critical mass" of offices, housing and shops around the train station and that giving it back to the school system would undermine efforts to create a thriving arts district.

Charles Smith, operations director for the Midtown Community Benefits District and a backer of Monts' plan, said he thinks it's counterproductive to keep nearly a full city block off the tax rolls when Baltimore is trying to build its tax base. He would like to see the school system find another location for its diagnostic center.

"The city is starving for tax revenues," Smith said. "Here we have someone who wants to invest in a development that will generate taxes and we're saying, no, let's put 60 students in there. Where's the logic in that? ... This neighborhood has had enough bad decisions."

Monts proposed to save the oldest portion of the school for a community center and tear down the rest to make way for a 700-car garage with 162 apartments on top. The garage was to provide parking space for office tenants of two other parcels that Monts wants to develop, the former Railway Express building at 1501 St. Paul St. and a vacant lot in the 1700 block of N. Calvert St. Monts said he is working to identify other locations for parking.

Other bids for the school came from Greenmount West Community Development Corp. and a nonprofit group called Labourers for Jesus, both of which proposed community centers. Greenmount West wants to use part of the school to house a program that would teach people to restore old buildings.

Representatives of the Greenmount West Community Association said they would not be upset to see the school system reopen Mildred Monroe, especially if parts of the school such as the auditorium and gymnasium could be made available for community use.

Dennis Livingston, an association board member and part of the group that submitted the proposal to create a home for a program in restoration arts, said his organization strongly opposes a 700-car garage.

"Baltimore is the last city in the world that's still building big parking garages," he said. "This is going to be very good news for this neighborhood."

Mark Smolarz, chief operating officer for the school system, said officials considered a number of sites but concluded that the Mildred Monroe property was the best to house a citywide diagnostic center because it's centrally located, close to the school administration headquarters, owned by the city and not awarded to a developer.

Smolarz said that the building will cost about $1 million to prepare for its new use and that the school system would like to open the diagnostic center by fall.

JoAnn Copes, assistant city housing commissioner, said housing officials must decide whether Baltimore's zoning code permits a developer to create offices in one location, such as the Railway Express building, and provide parking several blocks away, as Monts proposed to do.

Two other proposals for the Railway Express building, one for an arts center and one for housing, called for all parking needs to be addressed within the property boundaries. Final decisions about developers for the other two Station North development parcels are expected this spring.

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