Ruled out

A plan to raze a city eyesore and replace it with a gym is strangled by red tape

December 27, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,

Walking through a blighted East Baltimore neighborhood on a recent snowy morning, Del. Talmadge Branch pointed at an empty, boarded-up warehouse on Biddle Street and shook his head.

The building should be a multimillion-dollar gym called Hoop City, he said. Children from the neighborhood and members of nearby Israel Baptist Church should be dancing and practicing karate in its studios and kicking soccer balls on indoor courts.

That was the vision Branch sold to his pastor at Israel Baptist and the pitch he delivered to colleagues in Annapolis seven years ago.

It seemed like a good idea then, and state lawmakers secured $800,000 in two state bond bills to pay for the gym. The administration of then-Mayor Martin O'Malley got on board, buying the building for $200,000 in taxpayer dollars in 2002, selecting Ronald H. Lipscomb as the developer. Over time the city spent an additional $411,000 - including $75,000 in state money - for studies and architectural drawings.

But nothing was ever constructed, or even demolished. Instead, neighborhood youths hang out in clumps on street corners and residents continue to scowl at a hulking brick eyesore surrounded by a rusted fence and filled with trash.

"This thing has been a nightmare," Branch said amid the snowflakes. Over and over he has asked: "What makes this project so un-doable?"

The answer is complicated, but it should serve as a cautionary tale to those navigating city bureaucracy and trying to pull public money into a private enterprise.

Looking back, city officials acknowledge that the idea of building a private, for-profit gym at 2101 E. Biddle St. using taxpayer money was ill-conceived.

Over time, construction estimates ballooned, making financing flaws even more clear. Yet the city continued to pump money and time into the project, until credit markets became tight.

In September, Lipscomb, who is part of a wide-ranging investigation by state prosecutors looking into this project and others, left the venture.

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, in an interview this month, said he would be "very leery" of entering a similar deal again.

For the foreseeable future, it seems that the city-owned property will stay vacant. The exit of Lipscomb leaves the city out hundreds of thousands of dollars and the influential pastor of the nearby church fearful that the community will have little input on the ultimate fate of the building.

It also leaves a prominent city lawmaker embarrassed because a pet project that he believes is sorely needed in his community has failed.

"Those kids," Branch said, gesturing toward a group of young adults wearing black puffy jackets gathered near shuttered corner stores, "they don't have a place to go."

In 2001, when Branch secured an initial $500,000 chunk of state money, the project was one of many development ideas percolating around the Broadway East and Collington Square neighborhoods.

Hundreds of rowhouses were slated for destruction as part of the East Baltimore redevelopment project a few blocks away, and it seemed feasible that residents moving there would want to join a new gym.

The Rev. H. Walden Wilson II, the Israel Baptist pastor who built a reputation in the 1990s confronting drug dealers in the neighborhood, thought a gym would complement the social work his church was doing by providing a way for an underserved population to become healthier.

The pastor also had plans for a new 2,000-seat sanctuary and was eyeing a paved lot on the east portion of the 2101 E. Biddle St. property. With the new church built, he still is.

"We would love to use some of that land for off-street parking," he said.

With the first installment of state money on the table, the city in 2002 bought the building, using its assessed value as part of the matching funds required by state lawmakers and then adding the balance.

The deal was approved by O'Malley and the City Council, led by then-President Sheila Dixon, who is now mayor.

In May 2004, the city asked for proposals from real estate developers to turn the site into a gym.

But the request included a twist that officials said was not typical and made it difficult to meet conditions for using state bond funds: Instead of the city controlling the land, the property at 2101 E. Biddle St. would be "conveyed at a nominal cost to the developer selected."

The city's offer, outlined in the formal request, included the promise that state and city grants were available for the project but also said that private money would have to be used.

Lambda Development, a firm controlled by Lipscomb and former City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, was the only bidder and won the development rights for Hoop City. In their proposal, Lipscomb and Ambridge praised the public-private partnership, saying it would "set an example across the city and state as one to be emulated for the betterment of all."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.