In the zone

TV or not TV? That was once the question, but not anymore.

The lines are disappearing between the two-dimensional realm of television and the three-dimensional worlds of retailing and entertainment. In Washington, viewers of the Discovery Channel can flick off the TV and explore the channel's flagship store, which features books, videos and other goods linked with Discovery's programming. In Atlanta, news junkies can tour the Cable News Network studios and headquarters at CNN Center.

But the newest and perhaps most immersive example of this genre is ESPN Zone, the sports-themed dining and entertainment "experience" that will open at 11 a.m. Sunday inside the Power Plant at the Inner Harbor, after a gala preview Saturday night.

ESPN Zone was conceived as an extension of the ESPN cable network, a leader in sports programming. Its designers were instructed to create a destination that would be the physical embodiment of what viewers see on ESPN, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co.

The concept was developed jointly by ESPN and Disney Regional Entertainment, a Disney affiliate established in 1996 to create entertainment concepts for metropolitan and suburban markets in the United States and abroad.

Unlike the nearby Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, branches of well-established chains, Baltimore's ESPN Zone is the first in the world -- the prototype for a series of dining and entertainment complexes.

Designing a project such as ESPN Zone is the supreme architectural challenge for the infotainment age: to create a three-dimensional expression for a medium that most people experience only in two dimensions.

The in-house designers for Disney and ESPN responded by creating a sensory-rich, technologically sophisticated, high-energy environment that is equal parts nightclub, amusement arcade, restaurant, broadcast studio and sports shrine. If it were possible to dive into the TV screen and become part of the action on the other side, this is what it would feel like.

For fans of the network, one of the most gratifying features is likely to be the Zone's distinctive personality. ESPN is known for having commentators who are passionate, outspoken and authoritative, and the psyche of the place is remarkably in sync with the psyche of the organization.

This is not a sterile or generic or even particularly sanitized environment, but one that reflects the wit and irreverence of ESPN and its on-air personalities. ESPN has also gone to great lengths to tailor its attraction to the Baltimore market, paying homage to local heroes such as

Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Johnny Unitas.

Plenty of room ESPN Zone occupies the lower levels of the northernmost third of the cavernous Power Plant, the early-1900s landmark on Pratt Street that Cordish Company is converting to a $30 million entertainment center. With 35,000 square feet on two public levels and a mezzanine, and room for more than 500 visitors at a time, it is one of the largest tenants signed up for the former power generating station, along with Hard Rock and Barnes & Noble bookstore (scheduled to open later this summer).

To signal its presence within the building, ESPN Zone has attached large signs near the top and a marquee featuring a moving, Times Square-style sports ticker, satellite dishes and a (literally) flaming logo. The most unusual exterior attachment -- one that's relatively subdued compared with Hard Rock's neon guitar -- is a monochromatic "sports kebab" made with bronze-colored balls on a skewer. The kebab is a recurring motif for ESPN Zone, appearing on everything from jewelry sold in the Zone Stuff souvenir shop to matching columns that frame the entrance.

The interiors were designed by Disney's and ESPN's in-house designers, in collaboration with Dallas designer Charles Daboux. Just inside the entrance is a multi-story atrium that leads to two main spaces on the same level -- a dining area called the Studio Grill and a tiered Screening Room, where patrons can watch sports events around the world. On the second level is a 10,000-square-foot Sports Arena, a high-tech arcade.

Many tie-ins While ESPN Zone has some features that will be familiar to patrons of sports bars and theme restaurants, it's the way they're put together that gives this operation its distinctive character. Everything from the graphics to the furnishings has been designed to reinforce connections between the place and the network.

The restaurant is designed as a TV studio and features replicas of sets from three of ESPN's most popular shows: "SportsCenter," " NBA 2Night" and "Baseball Tonight." Patrons may dine at separate tables or sit in the anchor chairs, if they're available. (This is a working studio and will be used from time to time for live broadcasts, while diners watch.) Placemats will be printed daily not only to show dining specials but to update scores and other sports news.

The Screening Room is like a movie theater with restaurant booths instead of auditorium seats. Set into one curving wall are 13 giant screens programmed to show sports events from around the globe. From their tables, patrons can adjust the audio to follow whichever contest they want. Along the front are 10 plush lounge chairs with built-in trays for food service -- the ideal setup for couch potatoes seeking a home away from home. For big events, such as the

Super Bowl, there will be a cover charge.

The first level of the ESPN Zone also has a VIP room, radio broadcasting booth for use before and after local games, and "video library" to handle overflow crowds from the bar or private parties.

The second-level arena, meanwhile, is the most participatory part of the operation, with dozens of video games. From there, patrons can look down into a circular command center, from which ESPN staffers select the images that appear on more than 200 video monitors around the building.

Open space in a box Although most patrons may be too busy to notice, ESPN has made remarkably efficient use of the Power Plant. The space has been gutted and subdivided so there seems to be plenty of room, even when hundreds of people are in the building. Rooms are attractive, comfortable and quite varied, and it's easy to get from one area to another. All in all, it's a clever use for what is essentially a windowless box.

Learning a lesson from its theme parks, Disney has made a concerted effort to minimize the amount of time people must wait in line by giving them plenty to do at every turn. If patrons want to dine in the restaurant and it's full, for example, they can go to one of several bars or up to the arena, and they'll be paged when a table is ready. They can also replay classic sports moments on computer touch screens or check scores on electronic sports tickers.

While computer technology is clearly one key to making this operation hum, there are also more than a few low-tech touches designed to amuse and entertain. As part of the interior design, ESPN commissioned several dozen works of art that convey sports themes appropriate to Baltimore and the Power Plant.

There's a painting that looks from a distance like Colonial leaders signing the Declaration of Independence, but it's really Art Donovan, Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson in powdered wigs.

On a wall near the dining area, hotdog-shaped glass tubes contain soil from each of the Major League ballparks. A life-size bust of Vince Lombardi looks like it's made of cheddar cheese. A scale model of Chicago's Wrigley Field is made entirely of Wrigley chewing gum wrappers.

Walls in one set of rest rooms are designed to look like lockers of famous athletes ( Gordie Howe, Phil Jackson and Joe Namath in the men's; and Venus Williams, Mary Lou Retton and Dennis Rodman in the women's).

At the entrance, New York artist Steve Gerberich has created a kinetic sculpture about golf titled "Practice, Practice, Practice." It depicts a whimsical stick figure whose arms and legs are made (( of spindles from wooden furniture, and whose head and torso are made from recycled kettles. He's standing on a putting green made with hundreds of green tees with their ends pointed up, like blades of grass, and he's wearing gloves and shoes and a cap all signed by golfing great Arnold Palmer.

"We didn't want to take an Arnold Palmer-signed hat or an Arnold Palmer-signed flag and just put it in a glass case," said Scott P. Dickey, director of marketing and sales for ESPN Zone. "That wouldn't be ESPN. So we took it to the next level, not just displaying memorabilia but creating art."

Some of these touches are more effective than others. Together, they help provide the multilayered environment that sets ESPN Zone apart from a typical sports bar. They also help create the sense that this is a place with a voice, an edge, a welcome point of view.

The layers of detail also help make ESPN Zone an environment that is so visually rich that patrons are likely to discover something different each time they come in. And while Baltimore is featured prominently here, it's easy to see the potential for promoting sports figures and subjects in Chicago, New York or other markets where ESPN may open a Zone.

The ultimate keepsake In one corner of the upstairs Arena, patrons will be able to deliver the news on a mock "SportsCenter" set. For a fee, staffers will make a video of their "broadcast" to take home.

This is just one of the ways ESPN has managed to blur the lines between the TV world and the real one outside the Power Plant.

From here, it's not hard to imagine the shopping mall of the 21st century as a three-dimensional television of sorts, with media outlets serving as mall anchors instead of restaurants or department stores. Rather than buying goods and services, consumers will purchase fun and entertainment.

By all indications, Disney and ESPN are leading the way. They have fit an amazing amount of activity into a relatively tight urban space. ESPN Zone is an ambitious concept that hits the mark on a variety of fronts -- retailing, food service, pop culture, sports.

The test now is whether visitors will really feel as if they have walked into a different world and whether they like that world. One might quibble with any number of details -- from the clarity of certain video screens to the selection of beers on tap. Quality of service and ease of parking will be chief factors in determining how often people come back.

But there's no denying that this high-tech/high-touch approach represents the wave of the future in retailing and urban entertainment -- a step above the theme environments that aren't nearly so participatory. Starting Sunday, it will be open for all to see. And Baltimore, for once, will have a front-row seat.

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