Glimmer of hope for Rosemont's future

Coppin State has plans for old Lutheran Hospital

January 16, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

In 1989 when Lutheran Hospital closed its doors in West Baltimore's Rosemont neighborhood, no one thought the building would still stand empty 14 years later, becoming one of the city's largest symbols of blight and community decline.

"That hospital was a mainstay in this neighborhood. And, when they pulled out, it sent us into a tailspin," said Robert Hunt, president of the Rosemont Neighborhood Improvement Association. "People moved out, and we've had deterioration ever since."

While the hospital's demise was viewed as a catalyst in the once-desirable middle-class neighborhood's deterioration, Hunt and others believe that same 6-acre parcel could become Rosemont's greatest asset - if only someone would keep the promise to redevelop the site.

The latest bidder for the property at Ashburton and Lanvale streets is Coppin State College, which wants to demolish the complex and construct a building for its teachers program.

But like other encouraging ideas for using the former hospital which have faded away, the college's plan is vague and in need of funds.

Still, any idea with half a chance of succeeding here is a sign of hope, say Rosemont residents, desperate to reclaim their once-thriving community from drug dealing, abandoned homes and an overall downtrodden appearance that starts with the former hospital.

The site appears more typical of a business park than a residential area. It takes up an entire city block and is encircled by a worn fence. A catwalk across Ashburton Street connects to another part of the building, which is also dilapidated. A drug treatment program still operates in a portion of the complex.

Weeds and brush have sprouted in doorways and over a paved lot. Trash is strewn around the building. There's an overturned couch, broken toilet and rotted, broken tree limbs on the ground. Windows are broken but, oddly, curtains still hang.

It is quite a contrast from when the hospital was open, and Rosemont was an exalted African-American enclave, residents say.

"When I was growing up here, every fourth or fifth house wasn't empty and run down like it is now," Hunt said. "It was a good place to live and raise a family."

It can be again someday, said 4th District City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who represents the area.

"I really believe, once that [Coppin] project gets anchored into the area, we'll see a dramatic turnaround for Rosemont to come back to where it should be," Mitchell said.

Coppin has a deal

A deal enabling Coppin to buy the property from a board representing the former hospital has been struck for $680,000, plus closing costs, and will go before the state Board of Public Works on Wednesday, said Maqbool Patel, the college's associate vice president for capital planning and facilities management.

The General Assembly gave Coppin $800,000 in 2001 to acquire the property.

The college's timetable for using the space has been delayed since an independent commission report in 2001 found that the state shortchanged the school by $300 million in capital improvements over the past two decades and that Maryland should make it up to Coppin over the next 10 years.

That means Patel now has a myriad on-campus facility projects - a health and human services building, a dining hall and a science and technology building - to plan for, before he can focus on the off-campus hospital project.

"The biggest problem for the college is that you acquire the [hospital] land but don't have the money for immediate investment or for demolition," Patel said. "Then the property stays like it is."

City asked to help

The school originally hoped to start developing the property as soon as this year. Demolition will cost between $1 million and $1.5 million and the college has asked the city to help pay the cost.

"The city should be doing something to help, for leaving this building like this for so long," said Phyllis Green, president of the Alliance of Rosemont Community Organizations. She chided the city for not doing more over the years to address the abandoned hospital.

Further complicating matters is that Coppin now has other proposals from within the college for use of the land: a law enforcement program and a nursing school have been suggested. Nothing will be determined until the college's new president takes over in March.

None of this is particularly heartening for Rosemont.

In 1995, a contractor announced a $7 million plan to renovate the building into 153 apartments and office and retail space. It fell through. Two years later, the United Baptist Missionary Convention also planned to turn the complex into apartments as part of a community revitalization plan. That, too, fell through.

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