Charles Plaza school scratched after objections

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."

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