Parking garage proposal for park sparks Annapolis fight

On a sunny spring afternoon, children continue a tradition in the downtown playground next to Annapolis Elementary School: shooting hoops, kicking a ball around, riding the swings. Adults, meanwhile, pursue another generations-old practice: arguing the future of the little park, long considered the keystone to waterfront revitalization.

"This is as big for Annapolis as Harborplace was for Baltimore," said Alderman Ross H. Arnett III, who days ago joined a 6-3 majority voting to let the city pursue plans to wipe most parking spaces off City Dock and move them to the playground site, enabling the city to make better use of what some say is the most valuable piece of real estate in town, if not in Maryland.

There's no public dispute about wanting to get cars off City Dock. The trouble is finding a nearby replacement for the roughly 200 lost spots. A dispute has grown out of a developer's proposal to build, at his expense, a garage, offices and stores at the site of the park. He would then lease the property from the city and Anne Arundel County Board of Education, which co-own the land.

"There's so much emotion around this," said Arnett. "Nobody on the council is happy about the pressure we're under. I've just gotten through writing to one of my constituents who is asking what the process is to recall me."

The city council meeting on April 20 during which the vote was taken went past 3 a.m., as more than 40 people spoke, most to defend the playground at Compromise and Newman streets. About 2,200 people have put their names to an online protest petition posted in January, declaring their dismay at the notion of doing away with a beloved institution.

"We don't want a war with the city," Chris Stelzig, the petition drive organizer, said of the project he feels is not needed and is being rushed along without proper study of the need for parking and whether the site is archaeologically significant.

He said he's not sure whether opponents will pursue legal action, "but if that's the only way we have to stop this wrong-headed idea, we will."

Stelzig and other opponents are not persuaded by the developer's assurances that his proposal replaces much of the park space and includes a new playground across Compromise Street.

"Compromise" is the operative word here, said Andrew D. Bing, who is acting as community liaison for the would-be developer, Compromise LLC. Bing argues that everyone has to give a little to realize the long-discussed and widely accepted goal of doing something else with an area on the north side of City Dock now used as a parking lot.

"This is about something that could transform downtown Annapolis," said Bing.

He was sitting at a blond-wood conference table on a recent afternoon with J. Jeremy Parks, a principal of Compromise, who had just unfurled diagrams of the plan that has sparked the controversy.

Parks, the executive vice president of Jerome J. Parks Cos., said the rough outlines call for a three-story garage with about 300 spaces set behind a building with stores along Compromise Street and two floors of office space above. He figures it would cost about $25 million to build, using no public funds.

It's a relatively modest proposal, yet history suggests formidable obstacles. The argument about getting cars off City Dock has been going on for at least 40 years, and the playground site has always been seen as the best way of achieving that end, said former Mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

She recalled discussions about an underground garage at the site maybe 50 years ago, but that option was always much more expensive, and federal flood and emergency management regulations enacted since then have only raised the tab.

Bing recalled a downtown Annapolis study in the 1980s that included proposals for a garage at the old recreation center site next to the playground on Compromise Street, an underground garage beneath the City Dock traffic circle and a garage at the playground site.

Complications always arose, said Moyer, and nothing got done. Downtown merchants tended to favor the playground site because it was so close to City Dock, but the Board of Education was not enthusiastic, she said.

"The school board has never wanted to be cooperative with the city," said Moyer.

The board has yet to take a position on the most recent proposal, and this time, there's a further complication. Major renovations are scheduled to begin at Annapolis Elementary School this summer, with the school shut down for two years and students attending classes at Annapolis Middle School. Board of Education President Patricia R. Nalley said garage construction would have to take place while the school is closed.

On May 2, the board is scheduled to vote on the same six-page "memorandum of understanding" that was endorsed by the city council in the recent 6-3 vote. The statement is not binding, does not mention Compromise LLC and does not grant permission to build anything, but it is meant to set conditions "that will govern the lease, design, development, construction, operation and management" of the garage/retail/office project.

Nalley said she could not speak for the other eight school board members, but she's opposed to the developer's proposal.

"I will ask one question: What is in it for the children of Annapolis Elementary School?" said Nalley. She said she has no objection to what the city is trying to do with City Dock, but "I am adamantly opposed to it being done on the backs of our students."

Annapolis Mayor Joshua J. Cohen said when Parks first presented the idea months ago, he thought it made sense and was worth pursuing. The more he looked at it, though, the less he liked it. He joined two other council members in voting against the resolution.

"I think there are too many unanswered questions on how the garage would sit on that site," said Cohen. He noted that there was a fight to get $27 million for Annapolis Elementary renovations, and "if we want to support the school we have to make sure there's enough play area."

He noted that in 2010, he established the City Dock Advisory Committee to look at ways to revitalize the area, which until the 1950s was a seafood marketplace and work area for watermen. Before going ahead with a particular project there, he said the city has to make broader decisions about City Dock's future, including how much parking is needed and how "car-centric" the waterfront should be.

At his conference table, Parks brought out an altered aerial photograph showing that portion of City Dock as a green space. Just an idea, he said, but he and Bing said after so many decades of discussion, they made their proposal in hopes of making something happen.

So far, they have added further fuel to a long-standing argument.

"One thing Annapolitans can do is talk," Bing said.