Jonestown site offered for high school

Selection expected by week's end from 3 prospective locations

May 01, 2002|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The local developers who proposed turning a former East Baltimore ice cream factory into offices as part of a four-year, multimillion-dollar commercial revitalization effort, now say it also would make a good city high school.

Martin P. Azola and his partner Kenneth R. Banks, president of Banks Contracting Company Inc., had planned on bringing architects, lawyers and other professionals to the historic Hendler Creamery in Jonestown when they bid on the city site last year. The city selected the team, which also includes investors Sylvia and Eddie Brown, to overhaul that building and two others.

As controversy erupted over a downtown site for a new high school and training center, the partners decided to offer the Hendler building to the city school board. They submitted a proposal to the board last month, but acknowledge that their site is just one on a list and have continued to pursue office tenants.

The school system's initial choice, Charles Plaza, drew criticism from business leaders, who say they don't believe that teen-agers belong downtown among white-collar workers. The school is expected to bring 80 to 90 students in the fall to study such things as finance, travel and tourism.

"Some of the [business people] may be pleased there are alternatives," said Azola, president of Azola & Associates Inc. "We think we have a good one. ... Jonestown has taken off, and this could be part of the resurgence."

Jonestown is east of the core business district so, from Hendler, students would have to cross the Jones Falls Expressway and walk a number of blocks to the employers expected to offer them training.

Mark Smolarz, chief operating officer of the Baltimore school system, said, "We have assessed every building downtown." Officials plan to choose from a list of three sites under serious consideration by week's end.

The Charles Plaza site is owned by developer David H. Hillman of Southern Management Corp., who said yesterday that he is no longer pursuing the school.

"I can't lose any more money on this," said Hillman, who was critical of some city leaders for delaying the decision since March. "The school administration went the extra mile, the superintendent went two extra miles and the school board has gone backward."

The Hendler building had been considered by several developers for a variety of commercial uses.

It was one of dozens of mostly small and vacant buildings for which the city paid $3.5 million in 1998. Officials have been luring developers and businesses to the Jonestown area, a federal empowerment zone, through a combination of marketing and incentives. The neighborhood so far has landed a Bank One check remittance center, which opened in 2000, and a Chesapeake Advertising printing facility, which is under construction.

The three-story brick Hendler building - once a power plant and later an ice cream factory and city job training center - is one of the last in the city's program to be prepped for new tenants.

Azola said the buildings, in the 1100 block of E. Fayette and E. Baltimore streets, seemed like a sure bet. Growth surrounds the small neighborhood, which is largely devoid of residents since the old Flag House Courts public housing project to the south was leveled last year. Nearby, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the city are building a biotech park; two museums are planned; and the public housing is slated to become a mixed-income community.

Azola said he would finance the $13 million in renovation costs privately, although he is depending on state and federal historic tax credits to defray the amount.

"We're not really pioneering anymore," said Azola, who also plans shops and parking in his buildings. "This area will fill in rather quickly in the next two or three years."

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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