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Media Circus

Field of Schemes

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 3/21/2001

Late last year, a friend of mine growled that this column should investigate what she called The Sun's "biased coverage" of the Memorial Stadium controversy. At the time, I didn't feel the urgency--the stadium hulk had lain dormant for years, and the city had decided 18 months previous to entrust redevelopment of the site to the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp. (GEDCO), a nonprofit group that aimed to build mixed-income housing for seniors and a YMCA. GEDCO'S Stadium Place plan had been OKed by groups representing the four neighborhoods closest to the site, the City Council, and then-housing chief Daniel Henson. Done deal, I figured.

I underestimated the power of state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. Starting last June, the erstwhile mayor and governor began using his slot on the state Board of Public Works to keep the old ballpark standing, attempting to undo more than four years of deliberation by lesser beings.

Schaefer found allies among his fellow Olympians on The Sun editorial board, who are not ordinarily prone to foment against due process. Nor, ordinarily, does the paper resort to hurling insults, but on March 3, as stadium-wrecking crews revved their engines, a Sun editorial called Stadium Place "a mindless use of prime acreage" attributable to "nitwit decision-making," and exhorted Mayor Martin O'Malley to "come . . . to his senses." The piece, headlined "It's not the façade, stupid," read like something the hotheaded O'Malley might say--and be scolded for by The Sun. The diatribe included a charge lifted from Schaefer's rhetoric on the subject: "The city will accrue no property-tax benefits." This claim so annoyed Alice Cherbonnier, editor of the Charles Village-based monthly Baltimore Chronicle, that she called The Sun demanding a correction, citing GEDCO's estimate that Stadium Place will yield about $400,000 in annual real-estate taxes. The daily ran a grudging correction six days later.

In its reportage as well as its commentary, The Sun has consistently dismissed neighboring communities' support for Stadium Place. In the paper's version of history, Henson picked GEDCO's plan arbitrarily while ignoring two other, worthier proposals: a bid by Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse to redevelop the site commercially and a plan by Johns Hopkins University's Dome Corp. and others to create a high-tech office park in the stadium shell. In fact, all three concepts were presented at a 1999 community forum, and backers of the tech-park idea--which The Sun favors--simply dropped their ball. Instead of making its own pitch to the community, a lukewarm Dome Corp. passed the chore to construction mogul Willard Hackerman and Theo Rogers, CEO of A&R Development Corp., who made (according to witnesses I've interviewed) a surprisingly halfhearted, poorly documented presentation. (It didn't help that Hackerman--of Pulaski Incinerator fame--has a rotten reputation among Baltimore community groups.)

GEDCO put on a much better show, having spent months in dialogue with community groups. (The Struever proposal never really had a chance of winning community favor, as residents saw it undercutting the struggling commercial district on Greenmount Avenue/York Road.) The upshot was that the neighborhoods, by modest margins, supported GEDCO over the tech park. City officials followed their lead, to the amazement of many who'd assumed that either Hopkins or Struever (Henson's former employer) had the decision wired.

Sun writers have consistently glossed over such inconvenient details; worse, they have actively distorted facts, dismissing the entire multitiered Stadium Place scheme as "subsidized housing for low-income elderly" (Barry Rascovar) and "an old-age home" (Michael Olesker). GEDCO Executive Director Julia Pierson told me her requests to meet with the paper's editorial board have been ignored. (She does note that reporter Jamie Stiehm, who has co-written most of the paper's updates on the stadium, may yet file an in-depth piece about GEDCO. Whether her editors run it remains to be seen.)

Before concluding, I should declare my own light baggage on this topic. Ten years ago, as a Waverly resident, I attended lengthy meetings on the stadium site's future. My personal bias was in favor of redeveloping the building itself; I still feel strongly that the landmark memorial plaque must be preserved. I have friends on both sides of the issue who have spent years trying to get something positive--be it housing or a tech park--to happen on 33rd Street. Their opinions deserve respect, not The Sun's ill-informed, unhelpful outbursts on the subject.

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