City to lease land for park

$6.2 million deal preserves 48 acres in Mount Washington for 80 years

September 18, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Mayor Martin O'Malley is set to announce today a $6.2 million plan to lease 48 acres of undeveloped land in Mount Washington for 80 years, a deal that adds the most significant swath of open space to Baltimore's park system in decades.

The University of Baltimore-owned park off Northern Parkway near Greenspring Avenue is a popular recreational spot for the neighborhood. But with the school exploring development options, the site's fate has long been precarious.

After nearly a year of negotiations among city, university and community leaders, the deal comes as a relief to neighborhood activists who have feared the loss of fields used for soccer, baseball, dog-walking and golfing. The park will temporarily be called Northwest Baltimore Park, until public hearings determine a permanent name.

"Knowing that those fields are going to be locked away from development is a tremendous boon for our community," said Mac Nachlas, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association. "This is such a good deal for everybody it's hard for me to fathom why anyone would stand in the way of doing this."

The city's five-member Board of Estimates, which authorizes spending and is controlled by O'Malley, is scheduled to vote on the deal Wednesday. The University of Baltimore, as part of the state education system, would still need approval from the Maryland Board of Public Works.

"While we're very optimistic about this partnership ... the university doesn't have the ability to green-light this on its own," said Peter Toran, a university vice president.

In 2004, the university began discussing various developers' requests to buy the property that it has owned since 1952, community members said. The neighborhood association quickly mobilized and made a pitch of its own, imploring university President Robert L. Bogomolny to preserve the park.

"Everyone saw it was a significant asset to the quality of life in the community," said Jackie Carrera, executive director of the Parks & People Foundation. "They did everything they could to tell the powers-that-be that they love this park."

The powers listened. Nachlas credits Bogomolny for heeding the community's concerns.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said university and city officials discussed whether "adding this large piece of land to the city park system was desirable."

"The answer was yes," Tyler said.

Carrera said the project got a great boost when O'Malley threw his support behind preserving the land rather than allowing it to be developed, which could have resulted in more homeowners paying property taxes that finance city services.

"Parkland doesn't appear to generate revenue, but national studies do show that well-maintained parks enhance property values," Carrera said. "It is extremely innovative and progressive."

It also helped that this is a political year. One of the Democratic mayor's biggest criticisms of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is that the Republican governor has not done enough to preserve open space.

But most believe parks, not politics, fueled a deal that has been crafted to satisfy all parties, including the park's neighbor - an assisted-living facility for seniors called the Wesley.

"They could have easily developed those fields," Nachlas said. "This took some real creative thinking."

The city will pay the university $6.2 million, spread over the next five years, to lease the park for 50 years. The additional 30 years will cost $2.

The deal provides a steady revenue stream for the university more lucrative than the money it has made from the fees charged to sports leagues that play there and the golf driving range it operates at the park.

The university will get additional revenue through a provision that authorizes the school to sell its development rights to the Wesley, which is prohibited from expanding on its adjacent 13-acre site. By obtaining the additional building rights, the seniors facility will be permitted to build a much-needed addition, said Sumner Miller, the Wesley's chief executive officer.

"The citizens of Mount Washington will have the open space that they enjoy, and it will enable us to expand our facility and services," Miller said.

He said he is still negotiating how much the development rights will cost but that he expects the Wesley will pay for them over several years.

Nachlas said the community wants the Wesley to remain in the neighborhood, and that his association supports its expansion.

"They are great corporate neighbors," Nachlas said.

The city has also negotiated other provisions that will allow it to make improvements that are standard for any park. And the lease allows the city to block the university from selling the property.

If The Wesley does not purchase the development rights within the next seven years, then the university has the right to market the property for sale. But the city has the right to purchase it first.

If not, the city can nullify the university's right to terminate the lease by paying an additional $4 million. The university, however, has a strong disincentive to sell the land because it would have to pay the city back all of its previous rent.

"This is the first significant acquisition of parkland in about 30 years," said Connie A. Brown, director of the city parks system.

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