Gateway South builders chosen

Team including Ray Lewis to develop city waterfront

December 22, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore development officials selected a team yesterday that includes Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis to convert a blighted waterfront stretch into what could be a $250 million office and sports complex.

However, while making that decision at its second public meeting, the Baltimore Development Corp. board voted on the project behind closed doors, apparently in violation of the state's open-government laws.

Lewis, along with the Rockville-based Cormony Development, is the BDC's choice to redevelop and manage Gateway South, an 11-acre industrial site south of M&T Bank Stadium and east of the 500-acre Carroll Camden Industrial Park. Russell Street's nondescript warehouses and scrub brush hide the site's water views of the Middle Branch.

The developers want to build 600,000 square feet of office space and a massive "sportsplex," 90,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor fields for activities including soccer, lacrosse and football. There would also be a 25,000-square-foot health club and 100,000 square feet of retail.

The BDC's recommendation is subject to approval by the mayor.

"This project will act as an economic stimulator for the entire Carroll/Camden area," said Phil E. Croskey, the BDC's west-side project director. "It's one of the most exciting projects we've seen in Baltimore in a long time."

Samuel Polakoff, Cormony's managing director, said the site's location was irresistible - just off two interstates and mere feet from the city center. With ever more residents moving downtown, he thinks the sports complex will fill the new residents' need for more entertainment options and green space.

"For Baltimore to take the next step," said the developer, who lives in the city, "it needs to have all of the appropriate entertainment venues, recreation venues and open spaces. What we're developing at Gateway South is one of the things Baltimore has been missing."

The expansive sportsplex, which includes two football fields - an indoor one and another to be on a roof - is modeled after the popular Dulles SportsPlex in Sterling, Va., a 79,000-square-foot facility that offers football, basketball, volleyball, soccer and inline hockey leagues.

The plan also includes a 70,000-square foot Greyhound station. Building a bus facility was one of the BDC's requirements for the project, along with creating jobs and incorporating environmentally sound "green" building techniques.

Ray Lewis has a 25 percent equity stake in the project.

The football star plans to use Gateway South to launch what he's calling the Ray of Hope Center, a mentoring program for underprivileged young people. According to Polakoff, Lewis will team with Educate Inc., the Baltimore-based owner of the former Sylvan learning centers, to create a program to tutor kids in academics and encourage them in athletics.

"It's something he envisions as a way for him to really leave his mark on the city," Polakoff said. "He hopes it will help a lot of kids stay off the streets and improve their lives."

The BDC chose Cormony and Lewis to develop the property over Himmelrich Associates, the firm that developed the nearby Montgomery Park office complex. In addition to offices and the bus terminal, Himmelrich proposed a 150-room hotel, a 25,000-square-foot conference center and 100,000 square feet of "destination retail."

The BDC has been accumulating sites in the area to offer for redevelopment since 2002, receiving a federal loan of $13.2 million to purchase properties.

The city plans to use eminent domain to seize the last few pieces of property needed to complete the 11-acre parcel.

"We'd be very foolish if we didn't take absolute advantage of any site that is on the water," said President M.J. "Jay" Brodie.

The BDC board voted to select the Cormony/Lewis team in a closed session, a move that appears to violate state open meetings law.

John J. Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association said he was "dumbfounded" that a public body would conduct business like that.

"The most basic thing that a public body has to do in public is vote," he said. "If it doesn't violate the letter of the law, it certainly violates the spirit of it."

Maryland's highest court ruled last month that the BDC, the city's secretive economic development arm, had to open its books and meetings.

The court's decision capped a battle begun in 2004, when the owners of nine businesses slated to be seized for the BDC's huge west-side redevelopment project called "the superblock" sued the agency. The property owners said that the agency, operating as a "quasi-public" organization, refused to let them into meetings or show them development proposals for the site.

"What was the purpose of court's decision if not to say they were to conduct their business in public?" Murphy asked.

John Murphy, the attorney who represented the property owners who sued the BDC, said yesterday that the agency "has no interest in public meetings."

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