Views polarized over plan for Port Discovery building

Developer suggests more profitable use than a tourism high school

July 27, 2002|By Andrew Ratner and Meredith Cohn | Andrew Ratner and Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

A plan to save a children's museum and provide training for future workers for Baltimore's hospitality industry?

Or a public boondoggle that would place a city school in a viable commercial property near bars that hold "bikini contests"?

Those are the polarized views of a plan that has been developed out of the public eye to move the Port Discovery children's museum to the empty marine biology exhibit space at the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor, and to create a new tourism high school at the current Port Discovery location.

Proponents, including Mayor Martin O'Malley and school leaders, say the idea would solve a handful of public quandaries - improve prospects for the underused children's museum, find a spot for a new tourism high school and put empty spaces at the city's tourism core to more productive use.

Opponents, including the city comptroller and a religious leader, counter that the school plan would place teens too close to adult bars and restaurants, and doesn't fulfill the property's tax potential.

David Cordish, a developer who is bidding against the school system for the children's museum space, contends that the city would lose millions in potential tax revenues by maintaining its $1-a-year, 99-year lease with Port Discovery, which will sublease the property and keep the proceeds to run its museum nearer the waterfront.

His view is backed by commercial real estate brokers, who believe the museum property has gained in value as the Inner Harbor area has grown.

Cordish remade the Power Plant into an entertainment complex on the city's waterfront and is attempting to do likewise at the Power Plant Live, a commercial property near Port Discovery. He was among the first to urge the children's museum to move to the empty hall in the Columbus Center and made the initial bid for the children's museum space, with the intent of reconfiguring it for commercial use.

In recent years, Cordish has made a success out of a series of city-owned buildings that had been vacant by filling them with restaurants and bars catering to conventioneers and young urban dwellers. Buildings he leases or owns generate millions of dollars in real estate, sales and food taxes, and bring people downtown, he said.

If Port Discovery abandons its city-owned building, Cordish said, city officials have a responsibility to explore gaining potential income from redoing the building commercially. He will fight the school placement, by legal means if necessary, he said.

"Aside from the appropriateness of putting high-school students next to bars and restaurants - where we have wet bikini contests - no one wins financially from this plan but Port Discovery," Cordish said.

Entertainment zone

In letters to the mayor and the schools chief, City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel AME Church also raised concerns about the school's proximity to the entertainment zone.

Douglas L. Becker, chairman of the Port Discovery board and chief executive officer of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., expressed irritation that Cordish was attempting to tar the school proposal so that the children's museum might consider only his interest. "David has put more of his time into trying to torpedo the school use than in refining his offer. We consider both his use and the school use to be viable," said Becker, adding they are comparable financially. "If what he was offering was much more than the school is offering, we wouldn't be having this" discussion.

Cordish estimates, based on sales figures from tenants at Power Plant Live, that the city could reap $3 million to $4 million in taxes from redeveloping the site commercially. He said he hasn't developed a formal proposal. "Port Discovery pays zero taxes. A school would pay zero taxes," he said. "With an entertainment theme, [the building] immediately goes on the tax rolls."

Economists and urban planners say the museum switch and the placement downtown of a tourism academy might make sense from a long-term perspective. The children's museum would move from a place where it hasn't worked well to a more visible site beside the National Aquarium, one of the most popular attractions in Maryland. Moreover, the tourism school would be near employers who might provide jobs and training.

But they also said Port Discovery shouldn't rush to find a tenant.

Susan B. Anderson, a retail real estate broker and vice president with Timonium-based H&R Retail Inc., said she believes a developer could make a success of the Port Discovery building as an extension of Power Plant Live.

"No one [retailer] wants to be the first one there. He's got Power Plant Live pretty well leased out and others would follow," said Anderson, referring to Cordish's investment. "And he'd be the one to do it. You want to control everything so you don't get two Italian restaurants and two Thai restaurants. You want a leasing plan. It makes all the sense in the world."

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