Save Memorial Stadium

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE OUTPOURING of memories about Memorial Stadium, as the 46-year-old monument to war veterans approaches its own D-day --Demolition Day, in this case -- has been prodigious, but certainly not surprising. Generations of Marylanders have invested their lives and emotions in the players and teams that once occupied the place. Memories -- funny, sad, unusual-- are the return on that investment.

Tearing down Memorial Stadium would be more than just emotionally painful; it would be an expensive mistake, a loss for Baltimore and Maryland. It's not too late to re-evaluate the plan. The state Board of Public Works is to consider the $10 million contract for demolishing the stadium Wednesday. Since all of the financing for the project slated to be built on the site is not in place, the board should postpone its vote and urge the city to reconsider proposals for reusing the stadium.

Adaptively reusing the stadium would be a win, not only for the neighborhood and the city, but also for taxpayers across the state who would be footing the bill to reduce this asset to rubble.

This is about economics, not memories, which are wonderful but are rarely reason alone to save an old building. If they were, no one would be talking about tearing down the place Sports Illustrated called "the world's largest outdoor insane asylum."

If memories mattered, The Sun's recent special section that featured recollections of a schoolteacher catching three foul balls in a single Orioles game, John Unitas hitting Jimmy Orr with a game-winner, and City and Poly and Calvert Hall and Loyola facing off every Thanksgiving for decades wouldn't have read like a eulogy.

If memories counted in determining whether a building stays or goes, the ghosts of the world-class athletes -- not just baseball and football, but soccer and boxing as well -- who have competed on the field's distinctive oval would have conferred protected status on Memorial Stadium long ago.

The sturdy brick, limestone and reinforced-concrete building at 33rd Street and Ellerslie Avenue is a huge economic opportunity.

It could be an exciting retail-office complex. It could be a distinctive yet highly practical magnet for research and technology firms. It could even have residential uses, offering those who live there the same wonderful views of the surrounding neighborhoods sports fans once enjoyed. Indeed, respected local development teams have proposed to do these things.

In May 1999, the Schmoke administration rejected a retail and recreation-oriented plan submitted by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and a technology park proposed by Willard Hackerman and A&R; Development in conjunction with Dome Corp., the development arm of the Johns Hopkins University. Both would have reused the stadium.

Instead, the administration awarded the site to a development team led by Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a nonprofit organization proposing to use the stadium's 30-acre site to create an affordable retirement community and a new home for a neighborhood branch of the YMCA -- after the stadium was demolished. While providing affordable housing and recreation are laudable, it's difficult to argue that these uses alone are the best for this site in a city as starved for well-paying jobs and property tax revenue.

Memorial Stadium could be efficiently renovated to accommodate 300,000 square feet of office, lab or residential use (including the proposed retirement community). That's about the same size as the World Trade Center at the Inner Harbor. Renovated, the stadium would have a value of $100 per square foot, or $30 million.

In addition, Baltimore would receive national attention for its creative reuse of an obsolete sports facility, an issue that cities across the country are facing as the stadium building boom continues.

The bottom line is that Maryland taxpayers are being asked to pay $10 million to demolish an asset that would end up being worth three times that if it were adaptively reused.

That's a significant price tag to create a 30-acre lot, which is what the city will end up with if all of the financing for the retirement community is not realized. As of now, it has not been.

It's not as if Baltimore lacks vacant lots; it has plenty.

What Baltimore needs is economic opportunity. It needs the skilled jobs that renovating the stadium would require, and it needs the jobs and the tax base a renovated stadium would provide. An affordable retirement community could certainly be part of that mix, but it shouldn't happen at the expense of a valuable asset.

Disposition of the stadium property from park to private use legally requires approval of the City Council and Board of Estimates. The hearings preceding those approvals could provide an appropriate forum for considering the best use for the site, both for the neighborhood and for the city as a whole.

Right now, with the clock ticking down, Baltimore needs an economic development quarterback with the vision and the courage to create a new game plan for Memorial Stadium.

Tyler Gearhart is executive director of Preservation Maryland. Jamie Hunt is president of Baltimore Heritage Inc.

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