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Baltimore City

Some skeptical of city's plan to sell parking garages

Several Baltimore City Council members expressed skepticism Monday about a plan to sell some downtown parking garages, while others began lobbying the Rawlings-Blake administration to claim funds from the sale for recreation centers in their districts.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he has concerns about the administration's proposal to raise up to $60 million for recreation centers by selling four of the city's 17 parking garages. Young noted the four garages are money-makers — bringing in $400,000 annually — and questioned whether it's wise to forgo future revenue for a quick cash infusion.

"I would like the city not to sell them, but lease them, and not just give away the cash cow," Young said. "I want to make sure that we're getting our best bang for our buck."

Young's comments came as he toured a new $4.4 million rec center in Morrell Park on Monday morning — the first one built in a decade. After closing four centers and transferring 10 to various operators during budget concerns over the past two years, the city has pledged to embark on a campaign of renovating and building new centers.

The administration plans to submit legislation to the City Council next month authorizing officials to sell garages on Eutaw, Paca, Gay and St. Paul streets downtown to help fund additional projects. Officials would like to close a deal within a year.

The head of a group that represents government and private parking operators in the region said Baltimore needs to be careful. Larry J. Cohen, president of the Middle Atlantic Parking Association, pointed out that a new owner could try to significantly raise rates at the garages. He cautioned against following the path of Chicago, which privatized its entire parking system in 2008 in a $1 billion deal that sparked community outrage about spiking rates and deprived the city of revenue.

Cohen noted, however, that unlike Chicago — which has privatized metered street parking as well — Baltimore is considering selling only four of its garages, and none in residential areas where parking is a problem. The four garages to be sold would face competition from other municipal and private lots, which could hold rates down, he said.

"They've put a lot of effort and thought behind selecting facilities that wouldn't affect the community," he said.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the city plans to propose that developers keep the sites as garages for at least 20 years. He said no restrictions would be placed on rates a private developer could charge because doing so "would lower the sales price for the city and reduce our returns for rec programs."

The mayor told reporters gathered at Morrell Park on Monday that cities around the country are looking to unload assets when it makes financial sense to do so.

"In order for the city to grow, we have to run it like a business," Rawlings-Blake said.

Meanwhile, City Council members were already angling to get funds from a sale to build state-of-the-art facilities in their districts.

Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents Northeast Baltimore, said he will not vote for legislation enabling the garages to be sold unless he receives assurances that future projects will include neighborhoods with the most children. Two such neighborhoods — Cedonia-Frankford and Belair-Edison — are in Scott's district.

"It's a great win for young people," Scott said of the plan to sell the garages. "But the only way that I will support this is if it's done the right way. We should not be doing things haphazardly. We should be building and renovating centers where the kids are."

Councilman Nick Mosby is lobbying for the city to build a "premier" recreation center in West Baltimore, which he represents. He said he wants the city to consider crime and poverty when selecting where to place new project.

"It's important to look at: Where are the challenges in our community? Where is the blight?" Mosby said. "It's not like we have these opportunities often."

Ernest W. Burkeen Jr., the city's director of recreation and parks, said he's anticipating a report this September from a Colorado-based consulting firm the city hired to analyze its recreation centers. GreenPlay LLC is being paid $53,000 to make recommendations about the future direction of the agency.

"I don't think we'll ever have enough money to do what we need to do," Burkeen said of future construction. "All of the centers are so small and outdated. You need to update and that's a substantial cost. ... We're trying to become more efficient."

Since 2012, the city has unloaded 14 of its 55 recreation centers. Four were closed, while 10 others were transferred to private organizations or the school system. The mayor said the idea was to offer higher-quality programs at better, if fewer, centers.

The Rita R. Church Community Center opened in Clifton Park last year in a renovated historic pavilion. Next, the administration plans to build a new facility in Cherry Hill, while a large-scale expansion of the Virginia Baker center in Patterson Park is on hold because of community concerns.

On Monday, Rawlings-Blake called the Morrell Park Community Center a "beautiful, state-of-the-art" center.

"It's something I'd like to see in more neighborhoods across the city," she said.

She defended her decision to close some centers, saying they were dilapidated and unsafe.

"Our children deserve better," she said. "We closed some, but why? So we could have things like this, in Morrell Park."

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