Two faces of a rundown building

A neglected building, now in demand

Neglected building suddenly in demand

July 10, 2005|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

There was a time, not so long ago, when the only ones vying for the hulking old brick building at the corner of Pratt and Calhoun streets were the pigeons and the vandals.

That was before the former Southwestern District police station became the subject of a bitter struggle between adversaries who could not be more different: a multiracial church group that believes the building is a gift from God to save a struggling neighborhood, and a multimillion-dollar company that sees the building as a smart investment in a changing city.

The clash has its roots in a routine bureaucratic mix-up.

The city accidentally sold the vacant building twice at tax auctions, and the second buyer leased it to a church group a few months before he learned of the mistake. The first buyer bought out the church's landlord. But the church refuses to leave, saying the building should rightfully belong to it because of the time and money it has sunk into the deteriorated building.

The fight for 200 S. Calhoun St. has spiraled into an unlikely property dispute - a heated battle for a neglected building in a beleaguered corner of the city. The case is in the hands of Baltimore Circuit Court, in filings that pit citations of property law against invocations of the Lord. It could be headed for a forced eviction.

It is a story of two clashing perspectives on a changing city - between those wanting to address the troubles they see around them today and those banking on improvements that could be coming tomorrow.

The church, a nondenominational evangelical congregation of about 75 that calls itself Metro Ministries, dreams of turning the 17,000-square-foot building into a community center for the impoverished Southwest Baltimore neighborhood that surrounds it. Already, the group draws dozens twice a week to its distributions of food and clothes, basketball and support groups for teenagers, and arts-and-crafts activities for children.

The building is so suited to the church's vision, and the congregation has invested so much in renovating it, that the group can't help but feel that it is meant to remain there for good, said its pastor, Mike Kemper.

Transforming the building into a busy community center "would teach people that even if your life's broken, you can still change it," said Kemper, 45, a charismatic, Catholic-born South Baltimore native who was trained in a Baptist seminary. "If you can do that to an old building, just think what you can do with a life!"

A lawyer for the owner, the Virginia-based Mooring Tax Asset Group, said the company admires the church's good works and the effort it has put into the building. But the fact remains that the building is owned by Mooring, which hopes to sell it to a developer of low- or moderate-income housing once gentrification emanating from downtown marches westward, said the lawyer, David Daneman.

"My client says, `Look, we feel bad for these people - they're trying to start something good in the community.' But that doesn't mean they should be able to take away this valuable asset from my client," Daneman said. "What's wrong with my client being in business to make some money?"

It was May 2004 when Kemper, who now lives in Linthicum and works at Home Depot, signed a lease to rent the stationhouse for $1,500 per month with an option to buy it for $350,000.

Kemper had assembled the congregation two years earlier, after, he says, homesickness and religious mission called him back to Baltimore from South Carolina, where he had lived for 10 years. Lacking a building, the group, mainly Southwest Baltimoreans with a few suburbanites, had been bouncing around - borrowing space in other churches, meeting in Carroll Park and, for a while, in a neighbor's rowhouse.

When the group learned about the stationhouse's availability, its members felt they had finally come home - even though the 120-year-old building was in terrible shape. It had stood empty since 1996, the property of developers who bought it in 1983 but had never proceeded with their plans for it.

It was still crowded with furniture and remnants from its previous roles - as police district headquarters until 1958 and, later, as home of the police dog unit, a police boys club and a social services office. The floors were ankle-deep in pigeon droppings, the windows were broken, the roof was caved in.

But "Pastor Mike" and his group saw huge potential. The police dog kennels in the basement would become computer rooms; the former garage would house a machine shop to train teenagers in the trades; the lobby would house a small museum on the history of the Southwestern District; old administrative offices would hold support-group meetings; the high-ceilinged gym on the top floor, with its terrific views, would house Sunday services.

The group set to work.

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