City officials look for legal ways to keep Preakness at Pimlico

Daily Record Business Writer
April 10, 2009 3:54 PM

In an attempt to secure Pimlico Race Course’s future as host track of the Preakness Stakes, Baltimore officials are looking at other legal avenues to give the future owner more incentive to keep the race there.

According to City Solicitor George Nilson, the city is considering changing the track’s zoning designation to allow for retail and mixed-use properties to increase the value of the 116-acre site — but there’s a catch.

The winning bidder for the track must plan on keeping Preakness, the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown and the industry’s biggest moneymaker in the state, at Pimlico.

“It’s a big piece of land and it’s underutilized space — generally used once a year as parking for Preakness,” Nilson said last week. “There are commercial uses that could be put on the property ... that would create more density and more variety of uses while being sensitive to neighborhood ... and we’d make that available if the owner were to continue to run Preakness there.”

Nilson said city officials planned to meet this week to discuss more specific possibilities and that their next move had not been finalized yet.

Meanwhile, the city is taking steps to protect its right to move forward with any changes while Pimlico’s owner, Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp., is in bankruptcy court.

On Thursday, lawyers for the mayor and City Council filed a motion to reconsider an order granted early on in the proceedings in Delaware bankruptcy court. The motion takes issue with the wording in an order granted for Magna and seeks to clarify the limits of the protection of the company’s property.

The order could interfere with the city’s right to “enforce various zoning, health, housing, and other municipal codes, for the protection of the public health and safety,” the motion stated.

The city is also considering designating Pimlico as a historical landmark to save the property.

“Preakness is only going to stay here if there’s a racetrack on that property, and despite what ‘Mr. Developer’ says, if he wants to develop a shopping center it doesn’t sound to me like he’s too interested in keeping the racetrack,” Nilson said, referring to recent statements by Pikesville developer Carl Verstandig that he would build a mall around Pimlico if he won the bid.

“If this protection is in place, he might not be able to do that,” Nilson said.

Verstandig said Friday that Nilson “should have done his homework” — noting his decades-long history of revitalizing dilapidated properties in Baltimore without city funding — and that Nilson’s comments were unfair.

He added he was bothered by reports last week that said he intended to raze Pimlico in favor of a shopping mall. Legislation introduced by Gov. Martin O’Malley that would authorize the state to seize Pimlico by eminent domain immediately followed those reports.

“I definitely think there’s favoritism,” he said, noting other potential bidder David Cordish had not received the same backlash for his idea to build a residential and shopping community around the tracks.

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