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Baltimore planning to sell former Lake Clifton High School; Morgan State University is hopeful buyer

Lake Clifton High School, which opened in 1971, stands at the site of the former Lake Clifton reservoir. The Clifton Park Valve House, right, built in 1887, still stands on the property.
Lake Clifton High School, which opened in 1971, stands at the site of the former Lake Clifton reservoir. The Clifton Park Valve House, right, built in 1887, still stands on the property. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore officials plan to sell the former Lake Clifton High School, paving the way for a development to replace one of several old school buildings closed in recent years as the city’s population declines.

The Baltimore City Council is expected to start Monday a process of authorizing the city to sell the sprawling school site as well as the nearby Lake Clifton Gate House, a stone Victorian structure on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Morgan State University is interested in buying the site, a university spokesman confirmed, but no deal has been finalized.

Carolyn Mozell, deputy chief of staff for neighborhood and economic development, said she can’t provide additional details on the proposal until the City Council moves forward, saying she wants to respect the legislative process.

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Dell Jackson, a university spokesman, said, “Morgan is definitely interested in that parcel of land, but there is nothing definitive and no decision has been made.”

“There has to be a public evaluation and vetting, and that could take up to three months,” he said.

The city housing department in February put out a call for developers to submit ideas for repurposing Lake Clifton and five other former school buildings the city owns. Together, the properties cover more than 60 acres across Baltimore.

Potential uses include market-rate housing, charter schools, community centers and office space, according to city documents. Most of the other properties that the city is looking to sell are former elementary schools with much smaller footprints than the Lake Clifton site.

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In advertising the space, the city wrote that the 1970s-era building could be “renovated or demolished to create a huge redevelopment site.”

Morgan officials declined to share their ideas for the site, which is a couple of miles south of their campus in Northeast Baltimore.

The Lake Clifton Gate House, also called the Lake Clifton Valve House, was built in the 1880s as part of the city water system, according the National Register. The construction involved creating Lake Clifton as a reservoir at Clifton, which had been the summer estate of Johns Hopkins. The area became a city park in 1894. After the reservoir was no longer needed, it was drained in 1968 and filled in to become the site of the high school.

The Baltimore public school system has been closing buildings for much of the past decade in alignment with its 21st Century Schools Buildings Plan. That plan was billed as a $1 billion initiative to renovate and rebuild aging schools, but it came with a requirement to close roughly two dozen buildings and turn them over to the city. The Lake Clifton building was handed over to the city last year, once the district had no further use for it.

Lake Clifton was once the city’s largest high school, before the school system underwent a restructuring. In more recent years, the building has housed several smaller schools.

Baltimore is home to some of the oldest education infrastructure in the state, and cutting back on its stock of buildings allows district to funnel limited resources to fixing fewer crumbling schools. Many of the schools selected for closure were underutilized, serving a fraction of the students the buildings had capacity to hold.

The city school system was built to serve more than 100,000 kids; enrollment fell below 80,000 last year and is expected to continue dropping.

The city’s ownership of these old buildings — some of which sit vacant — creates challenges. There are significant costs to maintain the sites, including for security and maintenance. And it can be difficult to find potential buyers for so many buildings in a relatively short time, particularly because of the unusual infrastructure of schools and the buildings’ condition.

Lake Clifton is the first of the most recent round of buildings to move forward, but Mozell said the city has received requests for some other old schools, as well.

City documents state that it would cost, on average, $9.6 million to renovate the facilities. That’s in 2011 dollars, and without factoring in the additional cost of converting the space to a new use.

Mozell said there are significant benefits to finding buyers, like Morgan State, to buy these empty buildings.

“A lot of them have bond debt associated with it,” she said. “It gets that off of our books to have to pay down. ... The longer we keep them, the longer we have to pay down the debt.”

The council will consider legislation related to the sale at its Monday evening meeting.

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