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Debate heats up on Harbor Point parks

In the wake of Wednesday night’s hearing on a $107 million taxpayer subsidy for infrastructure for the proposed Harbor Point development, some of the spotlight has been trained on five proposed parks planned for the 27-acre site.

The parks would be constructed with $59.1 million in tax increment financing, or TIF, bonds, developer Michael Beatty and the Baltimore Development Corp. have said.

That equals “a stunning $6.2 million per acre,” an analysis of part of the TIF request by the Baltimore Brew said this week.

An additional $21.6 million for a red-brick promenade linking the Harbor East and Fells Point neighborhoods to Harbor Point is also proposed, to be funded via the TIF and then turned over to the city for maintenance after it is built. Similar promenades along the city’s waterfront have been funded with a mix of public and private funds, it was noted.

The topic of the parks was discussed at the often-contentious hearing before the Baltimore City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development committee. City Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the committee, questioned spending such a large sum on new parks financed by taxpayer incentives, a sentiment echoed by Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes the Inner Harbor’s tourism draws. Cole, a member of the committee, said benches, lighting and other parts of existing parks near the city’s famous tourist hub are in disrepair because of city neglect.

“A question is, why are we supporting the creation of all of these parks?” Cole asked Beatty and Darrell Doan, an executive of the Baltimore Development Corp. who was pushing the TIF request that requires council approval. “Who would maintain the (Harbor Point) parks? We do a lousy job of maintaining our parks now.”

The city’s current capital budget allocates $5.8 million for maintenance and upkeep of the existing 7,000 acres of parkland, with a matching amount given by the state’s Program Open Space, according to the Brew analysis.

But you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to find some of the woes that exist as a result of the slim maintenance funds — they are visible from the windshield and appear as broken benches, broken lighting, chipped sidewalks, overgrown shrubbery, tall grass, etc.

Sources in City Hall say there is a budding movement among some council members to amend the TIF request by trimming it and eliminating some of the funds earmarked for the parks. Meetings over the next month at City Hall may produce an alternative TIF package. TIFs are generally used to fund infrastructure at new developments, such as sidewalks, curbs, water and sewage lines.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a strong proponent of the Harbor Point project and the entire TIF request, defended the parks component at a press conference this week She called it forward thinking.

“While we’re trying to maintain, we also have to plan to grow,” the mayor said, when asked about the wisdom of building new parks with taxpayer funds when the city’s existing parks are crumbling and, in some cases, being taken over by private groups for maintenance.

“By your assumption, we’d never do anything. Because there’s always something to fix. That’s the job of an executive. I’m not going to be stuck in inertia because everything else that we’re doing isn’t perfect.

“Yes, we have challenges in our parks, but we have to have our eye on the future,” she said.

Just in time for this sweltering July heat wave, city officials have unveiled a plan that could possibly close 11 community pools in Baltimore and replace them with new splash options.

Last week, officials with the city’s parks and planning departments outlined plans to close several swimming pools as part of an overall effort to revamp public aquatic options by the Department of Recreation and Parks.

During a July 11 meeting at Riverside Park Pool, city planner Katherine Brower explained a slate of options being considered through 2023 that would include closing 11 neighborhood pools — Towanda, Liberty, Central Rosemount, William McAbee, Greater Model, Walter P. Carter, Coldstream, Harford-Lanvale, Ambrose Kennedy, City Springs and O’Donnell Heights, as well as the closure of five “wading pools” — Willow Avenue, Joseph Lee, Curtis Bay, Traci Atkins and Canton Playfield.

To compensate, the plans could include construction of new “spray pads” and water parks as well as a year-round indoor pool facility that could also have a fitness center.

The city currently has a dozen neighborhood pools of small size and six large “park” pools, three indoor pools and six small wading pools for children. There are 17 indoor pools in various Baltimore City Public Schools, but they are not operated by the city’s recreation and parks offices, and many are not in use.

Public input for the new public pool configurations is being sought this summer through a series of meetings. The next ones are scheduled for July 20th at the Druid Hill Park Pool, 800 Wyman Park Drive, beginning at 10 a.m., and July 24 at the Clifton Park Pool, 2013 Sinclair Lane, beginning at 6 p.m.

Real estate in the suburbs is starting to take off after five years of slow- to no-growth. New developments in Baltimore County in Dundalk and Towson have set a new pace there, and this week, Harford County economic development officials said new movement there is striking.

Through May, they said, the number of building permits has increased 10.5 percent over the same period in 2012, with 174 permits issued in May, a huge increase over May 2012 when 46 permits were issued.

Warehouse leasing for commercial and industrial purposes has also risen in Harford. A total of 952,161 square feet was newly leased this year and there is a vacancy rate of just under 6 percent for leasable industrial space. Office space in Harford was recorded at a 17 percent vacancy rate, county officials said, using figures from Bloomberg, MRIS and other real estate sources.

A new winemaking building will officially open on Sept. 13 at Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County.

The 7,200-square-foot facility at the 240-acre site will hold warehouses, a bottling room, a shipping room and a production plant. The expansion of the 68-year-old suburban landmark was first reported by Bmoremedia.com this week.

The addition will allow Boordy winemakers to increase their chardonnay, pinot grigio, merlot and shiraz creation by 10,000 gallons.

Early next month, Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy will move from its present schoolhouse near Center Stage on Calvert Street to Federal Hill.

The independent, all-boys Jesuit middle school that will enroll 75 low-income students this fall will double its size and relocate to 300 E. Gittings St., in a LEED Silver certified building that totals 26,200 square feet.

The building is the former Catholic Community School of South Baltimore, which has been vacant for years. Mullan Contracting Co. has worked to renovate the school for St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, under the direction of architects George Holback and Mark Nook of Cho Benn Holback + Associates Inc.

Tuition is free for the students, but paid by sponsors, foundations or groups of individuals, said Deborah M. Morris, director of development at the academy. The move will allow St. Ignatius Loyola Academy to add a fifth grade “in a few years,” Morris added.

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