Two of Baltimore's most prominent developers want to build an arena on piers in the Inner Harbor, a new idea that has revived perennial debate about how to replace the aging arena on the city's west side.
The proposal to locate a 15,000-seat venue on piers 5 and 6 remains in the "big idea" phase," said Blake Cordish, vice president of the Cordish Cos.
City leaders greeted the concept with a slew of questions about traffic, parking, engineering and cost.
"It's way too early to make any evaluations," said William H. Cole IV, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development arm.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has not reviewed the plan, but is "always open to any ideas regarding a new or renovated arena," said spokesman Kevin Harris. He said funding and potential traffic were obvious concerns.
The proposal would transform the harborfront between the Cordish Co.'s Power Plant Live and Harbor East, developed by the Paterakis family, who would partner with Cordish on the arena.
The project, estimated to cost $450 million, would include an outdoor amphitheater and a pedestrian walkway spanning the Inner Harbor, an idea included in a long-range plan for the harbor introduced in 2013. The complex would be built to allow for expanded capacity, Cordish said.
Adam Gross of the Baltimore architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross, which worked on the master plan for the Inner Harbor, would partner with another world-renowned architect on the design of the complex, Cordish said.
"We love our hometown and see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an iconic waterfront arena that would be a game-changing project for the city," Cordish said.
The city, which owns the piers, does not intend to start a bidding process now to replace Royal Farms Arena, Harris said.
"We are still interested in the arena project, but would only issue [a request for proposals] if we believe there is financial viability in the marketplace," he said in a statement. "To date, we have not seen that level of viability, but as the economy continues to improve, it is something BDC will continue to evaluate."
The city has looked for sites and developers willing to tackle building a new arena for more than two decades. In 2008, four developers responded to a request for proposals, but lack of financing doomed the effort.
More recently, construction magnate Willard Hackerman, who led the Whiting Turner Contracting Co., had offered to find private financing for an 18,500-seat arena and new hotel on the site of his Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, linked to an expanded, publicly funded convention center. That proposal, put forward by the Greater Baltimore Committee, was estimated to cost $900 million, but little has been said about it since Hackerman died last year.
The city also has discussed rebuilding the arena on the current site and is considering a trip to Providence, R.I., to look at the renovation of that city's facility.
"There are lots of different ideas out there for how to do it," Cole said. "The one thing the city has never been able to pin down is how to pay for it."
Building a new arena with the goal of luring a sports franchise to the city is not part of the discussion, he added.
"We've all been pretty consistent in acknowledging that we need to build a facility for Baltimore, not for what it might bring," Cole said.
Cordish said an Inner Harbor arena would require public support, but the developers hope to limit any subsidy to abatement of taxes generated by the project. The high-profile location is expected to drive up the price for naming rights, he said.
City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Southeast Baltimore, said his "gut reaction" is to oppose the plan, comparing it to the Hilton hotel, a project he also opposed. That subsidized hotel near the Baltimore Convention Center has struggled financially.
"I'd love us to have a new arena, but I'd like to see somebody build it themselves," said Kraft, also citing concerns about traffic and parking. "If they're going to operate it and make a profit, they can pay for it. I don't want the city to put any money into it. We can't meet the needs we have right now."
The city's 14,000-seat arena, which opened in 1962 as the Baltimore Civic Center, is slowly becoming obsolete, said Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism arm.
Visit Baltimore favors a larger convention center and a new arena and backed the GBC proposal. But placing an arena on the waterfront also holds appeal, he said.
"If this gets one of the two off the books, let's go forward and move on," he said.
Royal Farms Arena is profitable and hosts about 130 events a year, bringing in some 800,000 people, said Frank Remesch, the arena's general manager for SMG, which operates the arena for the city.
Remesch said the arena's ongoing viability makes building a new one a tough call. "The gal's still got a lot of life in her."
New arenas generally fail to add jobs or revenue to the economy in the long term, though they do concentrate spending in particular areas, said Brad Humphreys, an economics professor at West Virginia University, who worked at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for 13 years.
"There's a lot of foot traffic, and the bars and restaurants around there do well. ... That looks like net new activity in a community, but it's not. It's just displacement," he said. "It's entertainment spending that would have taken place in Towson or Glen Burnie that instead takes place downtown."
The Cordish Cos. and the Paterakis-owned H&S Properties Development Corp. lease parts of the two city-owned piers. A unit of H&S purchased the Pier 5 Hotel in 1998. Its lease deal would expire in 2025, with two 20-year renewal terms. The Cordish Cos. management and operation agreement for the Pier Six concert pavilion expires in 2016. The firm also built the pier's 690-space garage.
Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership, said those piers, currently home to large parking areas, could benefit from added activity.
"This provides an opportunity for a new entertainment destination on the waterfront that would be unlike what we currently picture as an arena," said Schwartz, whose organization has worked on parks and programming for the Inner Harbor. "It's an intriguing idea that should be explored further."
Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler said several plans remain on the table, but he does not believe the two development firms — led by longtime Baltimore families — are looking to build to make money.
"I think David Cordish has substantial hometown pride, and I'm sure wants an arena that matches our ambitions as a city," he said. "Of course, it needs to make financial sense in the end."
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, who attended a recent presentation of the plan at a Greater Baltimore Committee meeting, called the idea exciting. The city needs to have a plan for the arena, and no one else has stepped forward, he said.
"There doesn't appear to be anyone else that is able and willing to build it," said Embry. "I don't think the site questions are too daunting, but I think the financing is always a problem with facilities like this."
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Kevin Rector contributed to this article.