Nailing down buildings' uses

Political, community leaders question futures of Baltimore schools set to close

April 18, 2006|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTER

The little kids who once sat in the classrooms at Park Heights Elementary school are long gone, replaced by much older students who attend a privately-run technical school.

Five years have passed since Baltimore's school system shut down Park Heights and five other school buildings. Now Magna Baltimore Technical Training Center pays the city $1 a year to lease the old Northwest Baltimore school. Four of the other properties also remain under city control while one other has been sold.

In the coming months, city officials will grapple with the problem of what to do with six more buildings. As a cost-savings move, the city school board recently voted to close four buildings this summer and two more by 2008. Gary Cole, a city Planning Department official, said the future of the buildings is uncertain. If they are declared surplus, they could be sold. If they don't go on the market, they could be used as offices for city agencies or could anchor urban renewal projects.

Cole said selling surplus buildings is the best option for the city because it gets the buildings on the tax rolls. "In a perfect world, we'd like to see an asset [go into] private ownership," Cole said.

But Paul Myles, general manager of Magna Baltimore Technical Training Center, said the school has contributed much to the community. Twenty students are enrolled in the tool and die program. Twelve other students have earned their high school equivalency diplomas since the center opened last year.

"Instead of the building being torn down after it closed or turned into a day care center, the building is doing what it was originally scheduled to do," Myles said of the old school.

Magna Baltimore Technical Training Center is affiliated with Magna International Inc., one of the world's largest suppliers of automotive parts. Magna's founder, Frank Stronach, visited Park Heights in January 2004 to launch the $8 million project to refurbish the old elementary school in the 4900 block of Park Heights Ave. Another Stronach company, Magna Entertainment Corp., owns Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, which is within walking distance of the school.

Stronach's visit came while state lawmakers were considering slot machine deals for Laurel and Pimlico. It also came at a time when Pimlico was lobbying the city to allow it to expand into an entertainment venue featuring slots, if the state enacted the necessary legislation. But the legislature has not passed a slots bill.

In 2001, only one property, Charles Carroll of Carrollton Elementary, was sold. Sojourner-Douglass College paid $325,000 for the former school. Of the others, Madison Square Elementary is leased to the Community Initiatives Academy, a private school. Malcolm X Primary and Mildred D. Monroe Elementary are used by city agencies, and Luther Craven Mitchell Primary is a community resource center.

The city school system is shutting down the buildings to comply with a state demand that it operate more efficiently. Many city school buildings have high maintenance costs because of their age and condition. The system also has more space than it needs because student enrollment is declining.

Some political and community leaders are concerned about the effects of the building closures. A resolution sponsored by City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. calls for a moratorium on the sale of properties until city officials have a chance to appraise their worth. Harris wants the properties to be sold at "fair market value," and the money redistributed back to the schools.

"I want to make sure the money goes back into the classrooms and not to North Avenue," where city schools headquarters are located, Harris said.

A few community leaders in the neighborhoods where the schools are closing have already met to generate suggestions for their use.

Highlandtown Middle School is slated to close this summer. Don Arnold, an organizer of the Highlandtown Community Association, says his group wants the city to quickly determine its new use.

"Hopefully they will listen to the community," Arnold said. "I see a need for senior housing. ... I do think it's very important that it doesn't remain vacant. Nobody wants a big vacancy in the middle of the community because you know what ends up happening: fires and vagrants."

City planner Otis Rolley III said officials will carefully consider the desires of a community.

"There will be a very open and public process," Rolley said. "The Planning Department has a history of getting standards and controls, and we're going to continue that history."

The Southwestern High School complex, the Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy, the Dr. Samuel L. Banks complex, Elmer A. Henderson Elementary and Harlem Park Middle are the other schools slated for closing.

Edward Robinson of the Southwest Improvement Association does not expect Southwestern, which will close this summer, to remain unoccupied long. But he says he is concerned that the tenor of the neighborhood might change without the high school.

"It seems to be the trend of redevelopment in the city," Robinson said. "With the property near the Gwynns Falls Trail, I see a housing development for houses of $200,000 or more. I don't see that site being developed for low-price houses."

Most of the school buildings, which house 1,459 students in four schools that are moving to a new location, need major renovations.

Magna's restoration of Park Heights was pricey, but Myles said the impact on the surrounding area has made the expense worth it. Half of his students at Magna come from the Park Heights neighborhood. A laundromat and a community center are nearby.

A recreation center, also owned by Magna, sits next to the training center and was refurbished with a pool and gymnasium.

"What we've built here is having a positive impact on this community," Myles said.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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