Plans for Pimlico put its neighbors on edge

Urban Chronicle

Concerns: Residents once had only the possibility of slot machines to consider, but the proposed demolition and rebuilding of the track leave many unanswered questions.

August 08, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

BEFORE the running of the 127th Preakness Stakes in May, the biggest question facing the troubled neighborhoods around Pimlico Race Course was whether a looming state budget deficit and new governor would usher in slot machines at the track.

Now that the prospective new majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park wants to tear down Pimlico and rebuild it, the Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods around the track also are facing a slew of new concerns.

Some of them are the same ones most everyone in the city and state are asking about the plans of Magna Entertainment Corp.: Namely, how do you guarantee that if the track is demolished, it will be rebuilt? And how do you ensure that the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, which the company wants to put at Laurel during the reconstruction, will return?

Also, there is the question of whether Magna follows through on its proposal - an issue that resonates strongly with leaders of communities around the race course, who for years have been disappointed by the unfulfilled promises of track improvements by the current owner, the Maryland Jockey Club.

"Is this too good to be true? Are we sure it's going to happen?" asks Diane Frederick, executive director of the Northwest Development Corp., who adds that "some real optimism" exists about the plans.

But many of the questions facing Pimlico and Park Heights, and to a lesser degree upscale Mount Washington, are specific to the neighborhoods.

Foremost among these concerns is the community's share of state racetrack impact fees during the time Pimlico is closed for renovations.

Impact fees are state funds that go to areas around tracks to help defray the costs of holding races based on a complex formula that includes the number of racing dates.

In Pimlico's case, the fees amount to about $600,000 a year. Of that, $400,000 goes to the city to help pay for police and sanitation costs. But the rest goes to areas around the track for a wide range of projects, including parks, playgrounds and improved signage and landscaping.

Magna has proposed to begin its project after May's Preakness, and complete it in time for the 2005 race, closing down Pimlico in the interim.

But if the track is closed and there are no impact fees, where will the money for community projects come from? Will the money come from special appropriations from the city, the state or Magna?

The questions become doubly important if, as some in the community fear, the project takes longer than expected.

Then there is the question of how to safeguard the areas closest to the track from the effects of the demolition.

"For me, the No. 1 concern is environmental issues," said City Councilwoman Helen Holton, whose Northwest district includes Pimlico. "How are they going to demolish it - by implosion, or brick by brick?"

Holton also wants to make sure there is a rat eradication program in place before the barns are destroyed.

"You're going to disturb a lot of things that are not good for the community," she said.

Community leaders also have questions about the design of the project. For example, will the track's barns and parking areas remain where they are or will their locations on the parcel be changed? Will the plans for a new Pimlico call for surface lots, as there are now, or a parking garage, which raises questions of views and sight lines?

And if Pimlico is torn down and rebuilt, will the area get additional public money for redevelopment based on Mayor Martin O'Malley's strategy of building on city strengths? And how and where would that money be spent?

Another question is the location for a technical training center that Magna Entertainment Chairman Frank Stronach, who also is chairman of an auto parts supplier, said he wants to build. Park Heights and Pimlico leaders say they want it to be in their neighborhood. Some have identified a potential site, Park Heights Elementary School on Park Heights Avenue, shuttered since last year.

Of course, the question of whether slots will be at the track - and what that might mean for neighborhoods - hasn't gone away with the announcement of plans for Pimlico. If anything, it has become more pertinent, not less, as races for governor and the state legislature heat up.

"I think slots are inevitable," said William H. Engleman Jr., a Mount Washington resident and a Northwest Development Corp. board member, "if not in the first then in the second year of a new [gubernatorial] administration."

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