Comfort station creates unease in Fells Point; Merchants say city failed to provide for repairs, upkeep


The question's grown stale for Denise Whitman, manager of the Fells Point antiques shop Another Period In Time.

Patrons pose it at least a dozen times a day as they wander through the collection of antiques merchants in the 1700 block of Fleet St.

"Is there a public restroom anywhere in Fells Point?"

She hesitates to send them to the comfort station at 1621 Aliceanna St. because, she said, plaster is falling from the walls, only cold water runs from the tap, and there's no soap. The city said it would fix it, but it hasn't.

"This has been so frustrating," Whitman said. "It's been a long, downhill slide."

Now, compounding local merchants' frustration, the city is trying to sell the comfort station, which usually opens from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Local leaders say the city has reneged on a deal.

"I don't know why the city would want to sell it unless they want to get out of the responsibility of fixing it up," said City Councilman John L. Cain of the 1st District.

City Department of Public Works Director George G. Balog sent a letter Feb. 1 to Ira Spector, director of the quasi-private Baltimore Public Markets Corp., offering the property for $1. Balog wrote that the department's funds for Americans with Disabilities Act improvements -- needed to build the wheelchair-accessible ramp at the comfort station -- had been exhausted.

Kurt Kocher, a public works spokesman, said, "The feeling had been for quite a while that this would be more appropriate for the city markets to own."

Spector, reached Friday, said the corporation is not interested in buying the property. "We don't want the added expense of maintaining it," he said.

Cain said selling the property for $1 would probably require City Council approval. But it is not clear if the station will be sold or if the council would support the sale.

The comfort station remains as it has since the city and community started talking about its repair more than two years ago. In November 1996, Whitman said, the Fells Point Business Association met with public works officials to inspect the restroom, and all agreed it needed repairs.

With support from other Fells Point groups, Whitman said, she applied for a city grant that December. The association was informed a few months later that it had been awarded $48,000 and that the city would do the work.

Early last year, Whitman said, city officials notified the association that the project required designs to make the building accessible to the disabled. Then, she said, she thought everything was set.

Nothing happened.

In May, the association contacted Balog. In a letter dated May 15, Balog confirmed that funds for the project were available from the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. He wrote: "As a result, I have instructed the Bureau of General Services, Building Maintenance Division to complete the restoration work on this vital facility to the Fells Point area by the July 4, 1998, deadline."

The deadline came and went.

Joe Frank, president of the Fells Point Antique Dealers Association, said he's been calling officials and politicians since.

"We really didn't know what's going on," Frank said.

Cain said that based on a Dec. 22 meeting between the business association and city General Services chief Robert F. Guston, he thought the renovation was in the works for this spring. "He promised us he had the money and [had] gotten an additional $20,000 to build a ramp."

Guston could not be reached to comment, and merchants aren't convinced the renovations will materialize.

Business owners and residents will meet with Balog tonight at Lista's of Fells Point to discuss the station, said state Sen. Perry Sfikas, who was contacted by constituents and has lent his support to their efforts. The recent uproar over street encroachment violations, for which the city has been citing and fining long-standing businesses and residents, also will be discussed.

"My belief is that this [comfort station] is a community resource, and the community should have input in what happens," Sfikas said.

Added Whitman, "For small-business owners, it's imperative to have to have a restroom facility open to the public. Every mall you go to has restroom facilities."

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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