St. Agnes Hospital officials said Friday that they are negotiating with the Archdiocese of Baltimore to buy the historic Cardinal Gibbons School, two years after it was shut down amid protests from alumni and parents.
The hospital on Caton Avenue in Southwest Baltimore said it would turn the 32-acre site into a community development with housing and offices that would help preserve the Catholic heritage of the area, where Babe Ruth once attended school and played baseball. Catholic Charities has a senior living facility near the hospital and the archdiocese also owns Seton Keough High School and Holy Angels Catholic School on Caton Avenue.
Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, who was elevated from the position of Baltimore archbishop last month, said deciding the fate of the closed school was one of the last things he wanted to accomplish before leaving for his new job in Rome. He was criticized for closing schools in 2010 and said that it was the most difficult decision he had to make during his time in Baltimore.
The archdiocese received offers from many developers who wanted to add retail, housing and other businesses on the Cardinal Gibbons site, right off of Interstate 95. But O'Brien said a strip mall wasn't appropriate for a property that he thought should honor the mission of the Catholic Church.
"We are so excited about this opportunity to keep Caton Corner a Catholic corner," he said.
Plans are still being worked out, but St. Agnes expects to preserve the original school building and gym, said William Greskovich, vice president of operations and capital projects at St. Agnes. Another structure may be torn down because it has no historic significance.
Plans also include preserving the baseball diamond where Babe Ruth played as a teenager for St. Mary's Industrial School.
The hospital will work with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation to build sports fields on the property as part of the group's national initiative to bring athletics to at-risk youth.
Catholic Charities will also be a partner in the overall development.
"We are fortunate to have a strong relationship with the community at large and are excited about working with them in creating and developing a mixed-use [community] that is consistent with Catholic values and that will complement our community," Greskovich said.
St. Agnes is also one of three finalists in the sale of St. Josephs Medical Center in Towson. St. Agnes is not discussing that proposed acquisition because of a confidentiality agreement, so it is unclear what impact its latest announcement might have on that situation.
Cardinal Gibbons was one of 13 schools that the Archdiocese of Baltimore closed in 2010 as part of a cost-cutting reorganization of the area's Catholic school system. It was the only high school to close and was chosen based on financial considerations and prospects of future enrollment. At its closing, fewer than 300 attended the school, which was designed for nearly 1,000.
Its closing sparked protests from parents and alumni who were concerned about the historic property's future use and about current students having to transfer.
St. Agnes officials met with alumni before making Friday's announcement, and many seemed to embrace the sale to St. Agnes.
"The school is closed, and that is behind us now," said alumnus Wayne McDowell. "St. Agnes has been a good community partner, and I think it is good for them to have control of the property and do something good with it."
Members of the alumni group Gibbons Educational Services Inc. said they were still disappointed Cardinal Gibbons closed but would support the new plans.
"In recent months, it became apparent that the best possible opportunity for the property to maintain a Catholic mission that would serve the community was through St. Agnes, and as an organization dedicated to furthering the original mission of the Cardinal Gibbons School, we feel this plan will preserve our school's memory," the group said in a statement.
Rumors that St. Agnes was interested in the property have surfaced before, but hospital and archdiocesan officials always discounted them. One hospital official told The Baltimore Sun in 2010 that the rumors were "completely unfounded and inaccurate."
Greskovich maintained Friday that the hospital was not interested in the property at that time. It was in the midst of a $200 million expansion that included a 120-bed tower, medical offices, cancer center expansion and parking garage. The financial markets were still weak, making it difficult to take on another big project.
But O'Brien said he always thought St. Agnes would be the best partner and approached the hospital again in December. With its renovation completed and the markets improved, St. Agnes officials thought the hospital was in a better position to become involved.
Development, Greskovich said, "is not what we do. But in this case, it's the right thing to do for the community."