Baltimore arena debate is back

Proposals to build a new indoor sports and entertainment arena in Baltimore — an arena worthy of a "major league" city —- have been studied, hashed over and rehashed for years.

The city seemed poised to move ahead a few years ago. Baltimore and state leaders wanted to knock down the aging 1st Mariner Arena — the old Baltimore Civic Center — and build a, bigger, cutting-edge facility in its place, something to enliven the struggling west side and maybe attract a professional basketball or hockey team.

Then the economy stalled, and so did the project. The development teams that had answered the city's call for proposals were left in limbo. Now the topic is back on the table.

City business and tourism leaders fear that delaying the project further could cause Baltimore to lose precious ground in the competition to draw big acts, concerts and convention business. And developers say that financing options have begun to open up as the economy begins to recover. Cities such as Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Nashville, Tenn., have launched convention space and hotel projects.

This month, a group of business and civic leaders endorsed a plan to build a new arena connected to an expanded Baltimore Convention Center. But developers who had proposed other Baltimore locations say their ideas deserve another look, including waterfront slated for redevelopment and sites near the city's football and baseball stadium complexes.

Even ideas never formally proposed could be considered, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. He mentioned an idea to put an arena and underground garage on a site between Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium that is now occupied by parking lots.

"We'll dust off the sites that were proposed before and look at them afresh," Brodie said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said the city would seek alternatives to the 1st Mariner site. But city officials aren't talking specifics yet, saying only that they would start anew to explore locations and re-evaluate the project's scope. The mayor favors keeping a new arena downtown, according to her spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty.

Klaus Philipsen, head of the ArchPlan design firm and co-chair of the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said city leaders must decide the number of seats and what events they want a new arena to accommodate before they can hone in on a location. He said the city needs to have a broader public discussion so many views can be considered.

"What are the uses? What is the market?" Philipsen said. "Is it for the circus or half-naked ladies playing football or monster trucks? Is it mostly sports or mostly entertainment? There are so many variables. It shouldn't just be given to developers to decide. It shouldn't be done behind closed doors."

Teams of developers, architects and consultants have poured thousands of hours and untold resources into pitches about where a new stadium should go, what it should look like and what purposes it should serve. Here is a look at arena sites proposed by developers in 2007 and 2008, as well as the latest idea to build a hybrid arena and convention center:

West side and Inner Harbor:

The current arena site, on West Baltimore Street, is close to the Inner Harbor, the Baltimore Convention Center and transit lines. The site was selected for a new arena in 2008 by Gov. Martin O'Malley and then- Mayor Sheila Dixon. But Rawlings-Blake has other ideas — and concerns over 1st Mariner "going dark" during the construction of a new venue, which could take several years.

Frank Remesch, general manager of 1st Mariner Arena, has the same concerns about the loss of shows and events, from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to the Rockettes to "Disney on Ice" and "Sesame Street" productions. "They would leave and not come back," he said.

Meanwhile the big-name concerts that the outdated arena has managed to book in recent years, including the Rolling Stones and Beyonce, prove that the city is a strong market for a new facility, he said. "It took all those years to put us on the map."

Proponents of a new arena connected to an expanded Convention Center say the Inner Harbor parcel that is now the site of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel might be the only land available that would solve two pressing needs — enabling the city to more than double its convention space and update its arena in a linked hybrid project. The Greater Baltimore Committee is studying the idea.

Russell Street:

Developers who had proposed two sites in South Baltimore — considered a gateway to downtown —still believe their ideas could work.

Samuel Polakoff, managing director of Cormony Development, was one of four developers whose arena proposals for the current site were under consideration in 2008. He also was part of a team that earlier proposed the Gateway South site near M&T Bank Stadium. That plan was part of a proposed sports-themed office and commercial center that was never developed. Polakoff says he still thinks Gateway South would be ideal for an arena.

Another site in Carroll Camden, on the west side of Russell Street, offers proximity to the city's baseball and football stadiums and a chance to create a sports and entertainment complex by linking those assets, said Vernon Marrow, a member of the ESmith Legacy development team that proposed it. The site also offers proximity to the Convention Center and the Inner Harbor and the opportunity for mixed-use development, he said.

"It's a good thing that there are possibilities and that we are talking about development again after going through the last few years of no cranes moving," Marrow said.

The waterfront

Land near the harbor has natural appeal, say developers who have proposed arenas there.

One suggested site is Westport, a $1.5 billion development of homes, offices and shops that is under way on the shores of Middle Branch. Also proposed were Port Covington, a mostly undeveloped parcel with a Walmart store off Hanover Street south of Federal Hill, and Canton Crossing, a mixed-use project where some development, including the 1st Mariner office tower, has been completed.

Developer Patrick Turner, president of Turner Development Group, has proposed that the Westport site could serve as home to a soccer stadium that could attract a major league soccer franchise. Asked whether he might resurrect his arena proposal there, he replied in an e-mail: "We will wait and see where the city goes; we could possibly do both."

It seems unlikely that an arena would end up in Canton. The Canton Crossing office tower and 10 acres of waterfront property have changed hands since Edwin F. Hale Sr., the developer and former owner, proposed an arena there in 2007.

Columbia-based Corporate Office Properties Trust, which paid $125 million to acquire the property in 2009, believes an arena would not be the best use for the land, said Roger Waesche, the firm's chief operating officer. The company has no specific redevelopment plans but would consider market demand for a hotel, offices, residences or some combination, he said.

Port Covington remains attractive as a waterfront site for an arena and other development such as retail and entertainment, said Marrow of the ESmith Legacy team that also proposed the site in 2007. But he said he believes the Camden Carroll proposal is the top choice of his group's earlier proposals.

Lexington Market:

A new arena west of the historic market would infuse life into the area and the University of Maryland campuses there and attract new retail, in much the way the Verizon Center in Washington helped revitalize a struggling neighborhood, the Arena Development Group argued in its original 2007 proposal.

That plan still offers those advantages, said Sean MacCarthy, a member of Arena Development Group. And the 1st Mariner site would be available for redevelopment that could benefit its neighborhood.

Penn Station, Eutaw Street:

Developer Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse led a team that proposed several sites in 2007 — in Station North on a parking lot north of Penn Station, on Eutaw Street near Maryland General Hospital, at Port Covington and at the site of the current arena.

But even in 2007, developers on the Struever team thought the current arena site was preferable because of the catalytic effect it would have in rejuvenating the area.

And that is still the case, founding partner C. William Struever said in an interview this month after the mayor announced that the city planned to shift course. He said the city should pick a site in a neighborhood that would benefit from the influx of thousands of people a year attending events.

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