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Council expected to OK USF&G; parking garage


USF&G; Corp. is expected to gain the City Council as an ally today in the turf war with Mount Washington residents over the insurance company's plans for a large expansion of its campus in the North Baltimore neighborhood.

The council, by all indications, will approve the first part -- a multilevel, 925-space parking garage at Mount Washington -- of the company's four-part plan, says Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, whose district includes the neighborhood. The plan has sailed through on preliminary council votes.

Approval would bring the company a step closer to being able to shift 800 employees quickly from its soon-to-be-abandoned downtown tower.

Approval also would signal that the council has taken a position, residents say.

Battle-scarred but not yet battle-weary, Mount Washington residents are talking tough and making their point with all the robustness of a neighbor scorned. Last week, fliers were circulated throughout the neighborhood calling for a City Hall protest shortly before the 5 p.m. council meeting.

"We are going to be there to physically show our displeasure at the upcoming vote," said resident John Mack. "We are not optimistic but we are pursuing this as far as we can."

That dogged determination is not good news for USF&G.; Company officials say the residents have stymied their efforts far too long. When company administrators in January announced the move from downtown, they expected to have accomplished more by this time.

USF&G; wanted the City Council and residents also to sign off on the other three components of its plan -- a 144-room conference center, another 276-space parking garage and expansion of a parking area -- in time for them to be built by late 1996, when the company is scheduled to leave its tower at 100 Light St.

But residents maintain that their venerable neighborhood would be altered forever by traffic congestion, noise and air pollution. Residents also say the value of their homes would plummet.

With the help of Mr. Ambridge, USF&G;'s original plan was broken into parts, allowing the council tonight to consider only one of the projects.

The council will consider the remaining three -- which neighbors also oppose -- later.

"It just seems that no one is listening to us," said resident Mary Ellen Acey. "Our biggest fear is that this is the first step."

USF&G;'s Raymond C. Celli fears the council action today will be the only progress for a long while.

The expected council action "makes me feel a little better, but not optimistic," said Mr. Celli, the company's assistant vice president for real estate services. "This is one step in a foreseeable arduous journey. I bet we have another 100 meetings before this is all done."

On the table after today is whether the City Council will allow the conference center and parking lots to be built. Meetings are scheduled to begin within two weeks.

Already both sides have had dozens of meetings to no avail.

"I keep wondering what we could have done differently," Mr. Celli said. "Could we have told more people, met with more people? I don't know."

Each side contends it has been characterized unfairly. USF&G; officials say they have been accused of being corporate monsters, and residents say they've been labeled obstructionists.

It seems the only thing the two sides can agree on is that this war is far from over.

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