A 700-room hotel, theaters sought for Pimlico racetrack

Some neighbors furious at development proposal

`A huge entertainment complex'

October 24, 2003|By Greg Garland and Reginald Fields | Greg Garland and Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Owners of Pimlico Race Course are asking the city for the flexibility to develop a 700-room hotel, large theaters and concert halls in addition to its planned slots emporium, triggering an uproar among some neighbors.

"We're talking about a huge entertainment complex, and that is not what has been fully discussed with the community, nor with [legislators]," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Democrat whose district includes Pimlico.

"People feel very justifiably blindsided," he said.

Walter Lynch, project manager in charge of redeveloping Pimlico, said there are no plans to build a hotel or theater complex in the near future but Pimlico wants flexibility to eventually develop those or other facilities - regardless of whether slot machine gambling is legalized.

While the proposed changes would open the door to a future hotel, banquet hall and other facilities, Lynch said such developments would require separate approval from the city.

"We're forecasting out 10 years," said Lynch, who contends that some area residents are "misperceiving" what track owners are trying to do.

The city's design advisory panel has given preliminary approval to other renovations, such as landscaping, enlarging the track, relocating the grandstand and building an "entertainment center" that could house slot machines.

Those plans were the subject of community meetings over the summer and fall. But talk of a hotel and concert venues was first revealed this week when legislation was filed in the City Council at the request of track owners. Magna Entertainment Corp. of Aurora, Canada, wants to replace a 29-year-old "planned unit development," an ordinance that imposes restrictions on what can be developed at Pimlico.

The development rules have long been a source of contention in the community. Opponents of the latest proposal say track owners should not get a new deal until they have fully complied with the terms of the original agreement.

But Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector introduced a proposed ordinance Monday that would allow a broad range of development at the track site.

The measure would permit slot machine gambling, a hotel, banquet hall, theater complex, child care center, retail shops and up to 10 outdoor concerts a year at Pimlico.

"We introduced it at their request," Spector said. "It's not synonymous with support, it's just to start the process. You introduce it this way and then you fine-tooth-comb it."

Spector said she agreed to support the measure after track owners promised to make $9 million in improvements, such as demolishing boarded-up houses on track property, as stipulated in the original planned unit development, in return for the city approving the changes.

Community meetings will be held and evaluations conducted by city agencies before the full council and mayor decide whether to accept the proposal, which could take until early next year.

Spector said she supports passage of the bill in some form because it might be the only way to keep Pimlico open and the prized Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.

Spector's proposal, which is co-sponsored by the district's other two council members, Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake and Helen L. Holton, has angered some Pimlico-area residents.

Eric Benzer, president of the Cross Country Improvement Association, which represents a neighborhood near the track, said Pimlico's owners appear intent on building a self-contained "major casino entertainment complex" that would provide virtually no economic development benefits to the surrounding community.

"Based on this proposal, there is no reason for a tourist to spend one dime outside of that complex," Benzer said.

Jan Franz, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association, said her group would like to see the City Council remove Spector's bill from its agenda.

"We would like the whole thing to be slowed down," Franz said.

She questioned whether the track could be trusted when it failed to comply with the original planned unit development document.

City Council President Sheila Dixon said early this week that she had reservations about a related request for a zoning change to allow slots at Pimlico.

"This can wait until after we see if something happens at the state level," Dixon said. "What if the state doesn't approve anything?"

Legislation supported by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that would have allowed slot machines at Maryland racetracks failed in the General Assembly this year. Lawmakers are expected to reconsider the issue when they meet again in January.

Some residents and merchants in the depressed Park Heights community south of Pimlico favor the changes.

"I think anything they do to this area will be positive," said Paul Blinken, owner of Cinderella Shoes on Park Heights Avenue near the racetrack.

"I want to see the track prosper," said Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Council. "Anything they can do to improve the track, I'm all for it as long as the hours are conducive to realizing a neighborhood is around it."

Diane Frederick, executive director of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., said the proposal before the City Council probably offers track owners too much leeway to do as they wish.

"I would think that there are going to be some amendments the community is going to want to see for some guarantees, rather than have this be so open-ended," she said.

Sun staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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