Design panel rejects Baltimore casino, but likes light rail entrances

A rendering of the proposed casino on Russell Street in Baltimore.
A rendering of the proposed casino on Russell Street in Baltimore. (Handout photo)

Baltimore's architectural review board had little to say about renderings of the proposed Harrah's Casino on Russell Street.

However, the hulking parking garage sitting behind it — looming above the water, facing drivers on Interstates 95 and 395 — came in for scathing criticism.

Three members of Baltimore's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel who met with representatives of the project Thursday rejected the casino plan, saying the parking structure would mar the city's skyline.

"It's going to change the view of Baltimore for so many people," Emily Hotaling Eig said. "I don't know how to fix that."

Another member of the advisory group, Gary A. Bowden, compared the structure to a prison and called it "too busy" and "a lot of chaos."

The parking garage, with space for 4,000 vehicles, would stretch 700 feet and rise 125 feet in the air — making it about as long as the nearby M&T Bank Stadium and more than half as high. As planned, the garage would block the view of the casino from the highways.

The design panel also asked the architects to reconsider several other facets of the casino project, including planned traffic flow, the look of several entrances and landscaping proposed for adjacent streets.

Greg Miller, senior vice president of development for Caesars, said the company was open to community feedback.

"We welcome this sort of interaction," he said. "We'll get back together and consider their suggestions and continue to work through the process."

Caesars is part of CBAC Gaming, which received a license for the casino in July. The ownership group formed last fall with the aim of bringing a world-class casino to Baltimore.

Renderings showed a brick-and-glass building adorned with bright signs. Plans called for two floors of slot machines — 3,750 in all — and several restaurants that would face the streets and possibly include outdoor seating.

Miller said the project could be completed by the third quarter of 2014 if the city grants approval by the end of this year. It was unclear when the group would next be ready to appear before the panel.

The UDARP panel also saw Morgan State's West Campus master plan and got a first look at the aboveground entrances to underground light rail stations in downtown Baltimore.

The panel suggested Morgan State better integrate the $71.4 million business school on Hillen Road's west side with the surrounding neighborhood, a subject school officials plan to discuss with community groups in coming months before the first construction contracts are granted.

Renderings for three Red Line stops, presented by architects from the global design firm AECOM, received raves.

"They're very elegant," said Thomas Stosur, the city planning director.

A long-planned, multibillion-dollar Maryland Transit Administration project, the east-west Red Line will run from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, through downtown, to outside the Baltimore Beltway by Security Square mall. If funds are allocated, construction is scheduled to begin in 2015 and could be completed by 2021, said Henry Kay, the MTA's executive director of transit development and delivery.

Five of the Red Line's 19 stations, all in downtown Baltimore, will be underground. The panel saw plans for stations near First Mariner Arena, the Inner Harbor and Fells Point on Thursday.

"It's a wonderful Baltimorean unification," Eig said of a plan to install glass sidewalk tiles on Light Street to allow sunlight into the underground station at the Inner Harbor.

The Inner Harbor and Fells Point stations — located on the intersection of E. Lombard and Light streets and just north of the Broadway Market, respectively — will be free-standing entrances with glass walls and roof and metal supports.

"It needs to be an architecture that is consistently recognizable," said Osborne Anthony, chief architect for the Red Line. The same materials and modern design will be used at each entrance so that riders can identify it as part of the Red Line, he explained.

The Howard Street/University Center station will be integrated into the First Mariner Arena's city-owned parking structure. Glass and metal canopies will hang over the sidewalk at the corner of South Howard and West Lombard streets to make the entrance identifiable. A ventilation system for the underground platform will be incorporated into the building.

Panel member and University of Maryland Architecture professor Gary A. Bowden called it a "slam dunk."