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Rawlings-Blake says she will bypass City Council, approve plan to sell Baltimore parking garages

In what would be one of her last acts in office, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday she plans to bypass the City Council with a proposal to sell four of Baltimore's downtown parking garages to raise up to $60 million for recreation centers.

The plan, blocked for two years by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, has stalled in a council committee long enough, Rawlings-Blake said. She said she is convening a little-known body called the Off-Street Parking Commission that will be mostly filled with members of her staff.

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Having that committee pass the measure, she said, will eliminate the need for the City Council to approve the plan.

"I have no desire to do an end run around the council," the mayor said. "I've been pushing for over two years to simply ask for a hearing. I wish that hearing could have happened. It didn't. ... We found a way to push forward."

The Off-Street Parking Commission hasn't met since 2007. The mayor said she will appoint six members of her staff, including Finance Director Henry Raymond, to the panel.

The group has scheduled a meeting for Thursday, when it is expected to authorize selling the garages. The council is welcome to appoint a member to the commission, Rawlings-Blake said.

The vote would clear the way for the city to begin negotiating with companies to buy the garages. That process will not be finished before Mayor-elect Catherine E. Pugh takes office Dec. 6, so she would make the final decision on the deal and how any money is spent.

Rawlings-Blake said she spoke with Pugh about the idea. She has pitched spending money made from selling the garages on a $136 million multiyear plan for park, pool and rec center improvements around the city.

Pugh said she will have her economic development team study the "feasibility" of selling the garages.

"I won't make that decision before a careful evaluation of the economics," Pugh said.

Young called Rawlings-Blake "unscrupulous" during the City Council meeting Monday.

"This is the last couple of weeks of her administration. I don't think she should be tying the hands of the new mayor by selling a city asset that's really, really generating revenue for the city," Young said. "This mayor, in my opinion, has been backroom dealing, because I don't know who she wants to sell the garages to."

Young said Rawlings-Blake should spend her last month in office focusing on signing a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to address discriminatory practices by the Baltimore Police Department.

He said the garages are owned equally by the mayor and City Council — so the council must be involved in their sale.

"We don't have time for this nonsense," he said. "I think the citizens of Baltimore deserve better than a lame-duck mayor who engages in shady behavior."

Young has fought the sale of the garages for two years. He said last year he would not give the mayor's bill a hearing unless he received assurances that the money would be used to build "super" recreation centers in east and west Baltimore.

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Young wants the centers modeled on the 135,000-square-foot Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, Va.

The Rawlings-Blake administration has argued that smaller neighborhood recreation centers are a better fit for Baltimore than more arenas the size of Du Burns Arena in Canton.

Rawlings-Blake proposed selling four of the city's 17 parking garages — on Eutaw, Paca, Gay and St. Paul streets — to get a quick cash infusion for rec centers. But Young noted the four garages are moneymakers, and questioned the wisdom of forgoing future revenue.

The city has unloaded 14 of its 55 rec centers since 2012 as part of Rawlings-Blake's overhaul of city recreation programming. The mayor said the idea was to offer stronger programs at better, if fewer, centers. Four centers were closed. Ten others were transferred to private organizations or the school system.

The city has since pledged to conduct a campaign of renovating and building new centers.

The Rita R. Church Community Center opened in Clifton Park in 2013 in a renovated historic pavilion. The city opened a $4.4 million rec center in Morrell Park in 2014 that city officials call "state of the art." The administration plans to open a new facility in Cherry Hill.

The mayor's plans include rehabilitating or building 11 fitness and wellness centers that would cater to people of all ages at a cost of $84 million.

Another $20 million would pay for renovations at five community centers, and $20 million more would go to upgrading four outdoor sports centers.

Upgrades to four existing outdoor pools and three "spray pads" would cost roughly $13 million.

Rawlings-Blake said Monday the sale of the garages is not about creating a stronger legacy before she leaves office next month. She did not seek re-election after seven years in office.

"I promised myself and the public I was going to work hard — every hour — until the last hour," she said. "This is just another example of the progress I've been pushing for.

"I believe these [garages] could turn into assets for Baltimore's families if the city were to sell them. ... It was very unfortunate that this issue became politicized. I'm really not interested in that. I'm interested in pushing forward."

City Councilman Brandon Scott said he tried to get the mayor and council president to work together on the issue, but "we all know that's not going to happen."

"I don't care if we go with the president's idea or the mayor's, or some combination of both; I just want to build the rec centers," Scott said. "All the other stuff really doesn't matter to me. I want the issue to come to some resolution."

The money from the sales could provide significant opportunities for young people, he said.

"It could be transformational," Scott said. "We could build rec centers across the city — big, regional, great centers with the stuff the children want to use, not the same ones, the outdated ones."

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