Charles Plaza school erased

Planned high school runs afoul of business community, mayor

Another downtown site eyed

May 08, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Bowing in part to what they called "community reaction," Baltimore school officials have backtracked on a plan to open a new high school at Charles Plaza downtown and are working to complete a deal on a temporary site instead.

Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz said the school system is "90 percent" decided on a site - also downtown - that would accommodate 80 to 90 freshmen studying finance and travel and tourism this fall at two college preparatory "academies."

Smolarz would not identify the site yesterday, but said that, unlike the original location, it is not on Charles Street.

The school system's reversal marks a victory for a group of downtown business leaders, including attorney Peter G. Angelos, who said that a high school at Charles Plaza would be "harmful" to efforts to redevelop Charles Street and, potentially, to students themselves because of traffic and other safety concerns.

David H. Hillman, chief executive officer of Southern Management Corp., which owns Charles Plaza, has previously called those opposed to the school there "a bunch of racists" uncomfortable with having hundreds of Baltimore teen-agers - the majority of them black - downtown.

The issue of where the new high school will be located has dragged on for more than two months.

The city school board approved in February a 12-year lease with Southern Management that would have cost nearly $1 million over the next two years and $1.2 million annually after that.

But, since then, school officials have delayed signing it while they continued to explore alternative sites - at the urging of business leaders and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Hillman said yesterday that he was forced to walk away from the lease himself because the school system wouldn't complete the deal and he "couldn't let my project stand there like a war zone any longer."

Smolarz and other school officials, including Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, were under political pressure not to go ahead with the original plan, he said.

"They had their hands tied," Hillman said. "I can tell when people are distracted. They did the best that they could. I really feel for them. I feel for the schools. They should have this [high school] because this is the right project at the right time."

"It was politics. The NIMBYs won," Hillman said, referring to the so-called "Not In My Back Yard" syndrome.

Smolarz said that the main factors in deciding to locate the school elsewhere were the cost of the lease and "community reaction," though he declined to elaborate.

"We're discouraged that it fell through for the reasons [that it did], but we're going to jump right back, and tomorrow's a new day," he said.

The school system will continue to explore sites to house the programs permanently.

After initially opposing a school at Charles Plaza, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore later changed course and publicly embraced it. Still, some businesses near the school's proposed location - including Angelos' law firm, the Radisson, Wyndham and Tremont Plaza hotels and Harbor Bank - launched a lobbying campaign against it.

They sent two letters to school officials and O'Malley - one in March and another last month - outlining their arguments and offering to help find another site.

They had been pushing to locate the school at the historic Hendler Creamery in Jonestown, which is east of President Street.

Tom Marudas, assistant to Angelos, applauded yesterday the school district's decision to abandon the Charles Plaza site. He reiterated that a high school there would represent a use that is "totally incompatible" with the central business district.

"There may be differences of opinion on this, but we and enough other people who have major investments have not believed that this was an appropriate use in this part of downtown," Marudas said. "It has nothing to do with anything else."

Smolarz said the school system is considering two temporary sites for the school, which will eventually house several hundred students in programs incorporating internships and other hands-on learning experiences at downtown businesses and hotels.

Both locations, Smolarz said, are north of Pratt Street, south of Lexington Street, east of Martin Luther King Boulevard and west of President Street - which rules out the Hendler building.

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