Billboard plan leaves Westport in quandary Annapolis man offers swap: youth programs for towering signs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Before he showed up two years ago and said he wanted to help their children, no one in the neighborhood knew the rich man with the Rolls Royces, the successful design career, the beautiful Annapolis home with its own name: Tydings.

Good news doesn't come to Westport often, much less a man like Al Corbi. It's a tiny southwest city neighborhood of 1,600 people, a place you drive through to get somewhere else, split as it is by Baltimore-Washington Parkway. But here was Corbi, well-dressed and energetic at a community meeting, with his "simple and wonderful" vision for fighting drugs and trash and blight. He would start a program to put the children to work for the community, and then reward them for their good deeds.

He would do all this because he and his wife, a television executive, cared about children and because he had made a promise to his mother, who died this year. Soon, his idea had attracted all sorts of notice: from skeptical city officials to youngsters who want a basketball court to an assistant U.S. surgeon general.

However, this being Westport, there had to be a catch. Before he can start the children's group, before he can reward the community work of the Westport kids with tennis shoes and trips and scholarships to attend private schools, Al Corbi said he would need one small favor from the city and Westport residents: their blessing for giant twin billboards he wants to build and rent near the parkway.

Corbi, 46, says the billboards would provide a reliable source of funding for his youth efforts. If he constructs them to full height on a single pole, the twin 14-by-48-foot illuminated signs would extend 130 feet above a hill behind a church, and become the newest landmark in the city's southern skyline. "I can guarantee you that they would be the highest boards in the Baltimore metropolitan area," says Sonny Kuhn of Penn Advertising, the billboard giant.

City planners and the anti-billboard group Scenic America say the billboards also would be an eyesore. So Westport residents are left with the question: fairy tale or Faustian bargain?

Dozens of Westport residents, many of them young black families with children, say Corbi's youth group offers hope. But a small, growing number of community leaders and elderly white residents, many of whom initially supported the idea, now say they are not sure. Their momentum is such that Corbi has moved to withdraw his billboard proposal, which still is scheduled for a hearing today before the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals.

Why, these residents ask, does a wealthy man needs income from giant billboards if his motive is only to help their community and its children? Corbi says his personal wealth should be irrelevant. Why, residents ask, would a professional designer with an expert eye for beauty propose giant billboards? Corbi says he will beautify the billboard lot and build a new basketball court.

"It's all very weird," says Louis Demely, 69, a lifelong Westport resident, who adds that he has no objections to the proposed signs. "I don't understand Mr. Corbi's motivation behind it. He says he's doing this for the children, but he's never worked with children before. And why does it depend on the billboards? And why did he choose Westport?"

The answer lies in a trash-strewn lot that Corbi owns at 2451 Sidney Ave., where three billboards -- none high enough to be seen easily from the parkway -- now stand. Corbi says he would take those boards down, put up the new ones, and use the rent to fund the youth group, which he has incorporated as the for-profit Youth Organized and Administered Happenings, or YOAH.

Members of YOAH (pronounced "Yo") would build up points by doing community work; with enough points, a child could win prizes or travel opportunities. For now, Corbi says he already is funding YOAH, including organizational activities and a trip for seven children to two camps.

Under his plan, a nonprofit off-shoot of YOAH, called YES, would provide scholarships. Westport YOAH, he told the community, would be the first chapter in a worldwide organization; his organizational chart shows future chapters in Italy and Germany.

To skeptics, Corbi talks about his mother. He says that before she slipped into the darkness of Alzheimer's disease in 1994, Joanna Corbi made him promise to watch over the Sidney Avenue property.

"This property meant a lot to my mother," Corbi says. "She left it to me, and I promised I would make it something to be proud of. This is something that was important to my family."

Al's parents, Joanna and Edward, lived there 50 years ago, before the parkway came through and took most of the land, says Ed Corbi, Al's older brother. The lot was the biggest in the neighborhood, says Ed, and the Corbis had a bar downstairs, five bedrooms upstairs and a large backyard.

The whole neighborhood knew the Corbis. Al's grandfather Pasquale settled in Westport after leaving Calabria, Italy, says Ed Corbi. Uncle Frank ran the local hangout, the Midway Tavern. But about the time Joanna and Edward's second child, Albert Victor Corbi, was born in July 1949, the family moved to Chapel Gate Lane, just inside the city limits near Catonsville.

Al had a pleasant middle-class upbringing. His father owned Corbi's Restaurant and Kathleen's Musical Bar on The Block, which were profitable and attracted luminaries such as Martha Raye, Gene Autry and Mickey Mantle. Edward Corbi, also a bail bondsman, knew many of the city's tougher characters: small-time hoods, gamblers, racketeers.

In the early morning hours of May 9, 1961, a group of thugs who had planned to kidnap Edward Corbi for ransom shot at him outside the Chapel Gate house, with Al, then 11, asleep inside. The thugs missed, but they kidnapped Corbi's lookout, Earl Fifer. The case stayed in the headlines for two years, and led to an investigation of The Block by the state's attorney's office. Several Block figures were convicted on charges related to gambling or prostitution, but not Edward Corbi.

These incidents, and the death of his father in 1966, left deep scars, but they also focused Al's ambitions, his brother says. Al ,, Corbi began doing professional design work in 1971, before he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland. His early designs included a Washington embassy and a house in Annapolis. In 1975, he landed the job he still has, as a designer for the U.S. Justice Department. His annual salary is $67,455.

Work for private clients -- from a Washington bank headquarters to private residences from Austria to Los Angeles -- has provided very fortunate lifestyle," he says. State records show two Rolls Royces and two Mercedes Benzes registered in his name. Tydings -- the Annapolis home he designed and where he entertains a gathering of friends every July -- has six bathrooms, 20 telephones and mammoth windows facing the Chesapeake Bay.

As he prospered, his relationship with his brother was strained. Al Corbi sued his brother to get control of the Sidney Avenue lot.

Corbi then began to introduce himself to Westport. He walked around the neighborhood, recruiting children and dropping by basketball night at the youth center. By early last year, he appeared to have won two important community allies -- community association President Virginia Newcomb and Westport Temple Church of God Pastor David Bowyer.

"I believe he cares," Tracey Malone, 11, says of Corbi. As treasurer of YOAH's youth board, Tracey was impressed by Corbi's handling of children at recruitment meetings. "We've had over 100 kids for one of the meetings. Mr. Corbi is a very nice man, and his wife hugs me every time she sees me."

At the same time, Corbi asked high-powered friends to join YOAH's board of directors, including Assistant U.S. Surgeon General Marilyn Gaston and Frederick Johnson, a Washington radio station executive.

As more strangers entered their neighborhood, though, Newcomb and other residents began to sour on Corbi. Some questioned whether he would take home money from what promises to be profitable twin billboards. (Corbi says he would donate some profits to charity and put the rest in an educational trust fund for any children he and his wife, Lana, have.)

"He's a very good talker; he could sell you anything," says Christine Clark, a Westport resident who has worked as a cashier for 25 years. "But when you see people all the time like I do, you get a feeling about people, good or bad. And my feeling is very bad."

Billboard critics and the city planning department have lined up against Corbi. Planners "strongly" recommend that the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals disapprove the twin-billboard setup because, they say, it "doesn't fit" with the residential character of the neighborhood.

Corbi says he didn't expect this kind of opposition, but his supporters say they will rally to his side at the zoning board today. Several residents say they object to city officials standing in the way of a youth program.

"Mr. Corbi didn't have to do nothing," says Velma Wright, 46, a restaurant worker who has lived in Westport for 36 years. "He didn't have to work with youth. But he decided to do it because he cares. The plans for YOAH are ready. Everything is set. The only thing holding us up is the billboard."

Pub Date: 7/02/96

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