The Maryland Jockey Club is planning to sell part of its Pimlico Race Course property in Baltimore to Sinai Hospital, a deal that comes amid questions about the future of horse racing at the site.
But the Stronach Group, which owns the Jockey Club, and city officials moved quickly to rein in speculation that the sale might be a sign that the company intends to scale back its presence in the city.
LifeBridge's Sinai Hospital, which has used the property for employee parking for more than 10 years, will gain a roughly 20-acre parcel, with the new address of 5400 Preakness Way, according to subdivision documents submitted to Baltimore's Planning Department.
Tim Ritvo, the Stronach Group's chief operating officer, said Sinai has been using the site for free. After considering its finances, Stronach decided to rent or sell the property, said Ritvo, adding that it was not related to questions about moving the Preakness.
"In reality, we're talking about two separate issues," he said. "The one small, minor subdivision has nothing to do with the big picture."
Stronach representatives have said previously that it might make sense to move the Preakness, the middle jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown, to its larger property in Laurel, while consultants for the Maryland Stadium Authority have started to analyze the options for the track's future, including the costs of building a new facility.
It is "almost impossible" to renovate Pimlico, which opened in 1870 and has had plumbing and electrical problems, Ritvo said. The Jockey Club wants to add skyboxes and to avoid spending millions of dollars each year to create an infield village.
William H. Cole IV, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which is helping to fund the stadium authority's study by Crossroads Consulting Services, said he is not concerned that reducing the size of the roughly 140-acre site might limit options.
"I've asked the question very directly and been assured repeatedly that it does not in any way affect the future of Preakness or Pimlico," Cole said. "If I thought for one second that it would have an adverse impact on the future of Pimlico, there's no way that we'd be standing by idly, letting this happen."
The Jockey Club and LifeBridge declined to disclose the terms of the sale, which includes two smaller parcels as well as the roughly 20-acre parking lot site, bounded by Northern Parkway, Belvedere Avenue, Pimlico Road and Preakness Way, according to Planning Department documents.
Sinai has sought for years to acquire the property, where about 600 employees park on weekdays, wrote Sharon Boston, a spokeswoman for LifeBridge Health in an email. The "only plan" is parking, she said.
The hospital has agreed to vacate the lots during the Preakness. Should the hospital eventually build on the lot, it is bound to help find adequate parking elsewhere, Ritvo said.
"We looked at it with long-term plans," he said.
City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents the area, said she believes the deal is a "win-win," enabling Sinai to secure control over the parking and keep cars off neighborhood streets, without affecting Pimlico's future.
"Sinai is a major employer in our area and they needed that employee parking," she said.
As the horse racing industry has declined, proposals to redevelop the Pimlico track have circulated for years, with neighbors calling for better uses than parking lots that sit empty aside from the relatively few racing days each year.
The city's Park Heights master plan, adopted in 2006, proposed an urban office park, residential development or reorienting the track and adding mixed uses to the site, including the parcel affected by the sale.
Some neighbors said they are open to a future without the race course.
The importance of the track has diminished, said Cardenia Giles, 69, who has lived nearby for more than 40 years. She said she is not concerned about what happens.
"They're not doing anything for the neighborhood like they used to," she said. "It really doesn't make ... any difference whether they stay or go."
Many believe it is important to keep the Preakness in Baltimore for its economic impact and the image boost it offers each May.
To keep the Preakness in the city, it is clear Pimlico needs upgrades, said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg. But he said it is not clear how to finance them.
How much the public should contribute is one of the key questions for the consultant's study.
"You can't continue to kick the can down the road ... so it's a question of how do you finance a new building?" Rosenberg said. "It's expected that unlike the two stadiums downtown, that this will be a significant private contribution."
Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, a former city councilman and chairman of the Planning Commission, said he does not want to hurt the chances of the Preakness remaining in the city and wants to know more.
"I think they have some questions that need to be answered related to the possible rehab and how the sale of this lot would affect that in the future," he said.