By choosing to build a new arena on the west side of downtown, Baltimore is placing a $300 million bet on an area that has long struggled to come to life.
One problem has been 1st Mariner Arena itself, a 46-year-old albatross with only one entrance and no street-level retail outlets - a hulk that stifles the blocks around it. Proponents of a new downtown arena call the project a shot in the arm for the west side, while critics said yesterday that a mega-project is a bad fit for that area.
City officials, outlining their vision, said they want a cutting-edge, pioneering structure that will change the way people look at arenas - just as Oriole Park at Camden Yards created a new mold for ballpark construction. The new arena would have retail space on all four sides, an 18,500-seat venue above that and then, higher still, the potential for housing and offices.
"We have an opportunity to change how arenas are defined," said Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank. "I can see a very vertical building that packs in a mix of uses. The challenge is to activate the site all the time, 365 days a year and 24/7, if we can."
As the west side has revived in recent years, bouncing back from the shuttering of department stores and the destruction of Howard Street by the light rail line, the area has remained isolated from the rest of downtown. And critics say the 5-acre arena site has been a roadblock to progress.
Now city officials and west-side advocates say a new arena - likely to cost up to $300 million, much of it paid for with public money - would link the successful Charles Street area with the west side while attracting tourists from the Inner Harbor.
"It's very important to draw people up from Pratt Street to the rest of the city," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "If we don't, we will confirm people's misconception that Baltimore is all about the waterfront and nothing else."
Within a month, the city is expected to issue a formal request for proposals. Several top local and national developers, including Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, have expressed interest and are expected to file plans. The downtown site was one of four that Struever Bros. suggested for a new arena.
"What we like is the fact that it's so much a part of the existing urban fabric of Baltimore," said Timothy Pula, senior development director at Struever Bros., referring to the proximity of transit lines, parking and downtown attractions. As more people move to cities and transit gains in ridership, he said, an arena in the heart of Baltimore makes a lot of sense.
Pula also said a new arena could boost an area that is finally recovering after years of neglect. "There's been so much money spent, so much effort, on the west side, and it's working," he said. "We ought to continue that and not go put $200 million or $300 million out in a field somewhere."
Several leading Baltimore architects cautioned yesterday that the design of the arena is critical to is success and must be part of the discussion from the beginning. They want specific guidelines for developers and say design should be an integral part of the arena planning process, which will be led by the Baltimore Development Corp.
"The BDC moves these [projects] forward on the basis of the quality of the development teams and financial wherewithal, but they rarely if ever put any real requirements up front that deal with urban or architectural design," said Klaus Philipsen, president of the architecture and planning firm ArchPlan Inc. in Baltimore. "They always say, 'Let's talk about design later.'"
He said the Hilton Convention Center Hotel, opening next month, is an example of a process that didn't make design a priority from the start. "The result speaks for itself," he said.
Philipsen is co-chairman of the AIA Baltimore Urban Design Committee, a volunteer group promoting good design in the region. The group has challenged the notion that a new arena would provide the most benefit to the west side.
Instead, they suggested the site be used for an urban park, a transit center and a mix of retail, residential and office space.
"We're disappointed the arguments we put forth were not heard," Philipsen said. He said small, intimate blocks would be more inviting than a massive arena which, at 18,500 seats, would be even larger than the present 14,000-seat arena.
His group and others have also suggested that the city could reap a greater economic benefit if it leased development rights to the arena land - which is owned by the city - and used the revenue to build an arena elsewhere.
Housing has shown strength on the west side. Apartment projects, including Camden Courts, the Atrium and Centerpoint have high occupancy rates. Restaurants and coffeeshops have also moved into the area, and the city pressured the expanding University of Maryland, Baltimore to build a Barnes & Noble bookstore at Baltimore and Eutaw streets.
Ron Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., said, "They are contributing to a very constructive life on the street that, when you add it to a large attraction like the Hippodrome or Camden Yards, it creates a very nice sense of an urban place in the heart of the city."
The city sees an arena as having "catalytic value" beyond what housing or retail would provide. Officials point to Washington's Verizon Center, with ground-level retail and a Metro stop built into the structure, as an example of how an arena can revitalize an area and be an active destination even when it's not hosting an event.
"Ground-level retail is where you start," said recently resigned city Planning Director Douglas B. McCoach III, who urges developers to think even more creatively.
At the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, he said, a TV studio is located next to the arena, creating excitement at street level. That kind of dynamism is missing from the 1st Mariner Arena, he complained.
"The arena today is a big box," McCoach said. "It's almost a windowless box, and that doesn't really contribute anything to the life of the city."
Three sides of the arena are completely blank, critics note, offering nothing to passers-by. The fourth side, on West Baltimore Street, has the arena entrance, but nothing else.
"The perimeter has got all kinds of problems," said Gilbert Thomas, senior principal at Marks, Thomas Architects and co-chairman of the Urban Design Committee. "Without mixed-use development in an arena, it tends to be a dead box."
Frank, the deputy mayor, said that won't be the case with the new arena. He said the city will work with the Urban Design Committee to "make sure we can deliver a product that everyone is proud of."
"This is an opportunity to exploit," Frank said. "It can and should be the Camden Yards of arenas."