As opening day nears for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, there has been no shortage of speculation about the impact it will or won't have on Baltimore and Maryland.
But for those who want more than statistical projections, one of the best places to look would be the last major redevelopment project in Baltimore to garner so much national attention -- the twin pavilions of Harborplace.
Built at a cost of $18 million, Harborplace changed the city in ways no one could have predicted when it opened in 1980. From an urban planning standpoint, there are strong parallels between the two projects that suggest Oriole Park will have just as much impact, if not more.
What the ballpark shares most with Harborplace is the power to have an uplifting psychological impact on the city, over and above any direct physical or economic impact. The stadium can be seen as the capstone to the urban renaissance era that Harborplace put in high gear 12 years ago, the culmination of city revitalization efforts throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In a sense, this is what it has all been building up to.
"There is a much greater sense of anticipation about the ballpark than there was for Harborplace's opening because it's clearly a project created by and for the public," said James W. Rouse, an avid Oriole fan and founder of the company that built Harborplace.
"Everybody in the city feels ownership of it, and all of the advanced attention has been so marvelous. I've never seen the mood of the city raised to such a high pitch as it is now about the ballpark, and justifiably so. I think it will be widely recognized as one of the most important places in the United States."
Another parallel is that both are people magnets. Just as the 12-year-old retail center uses shopping and dining as an excuse for bringing people together, the ballpark uses sports as an excuse for bringing people together. The bottom line is that each is drawing people to the heart of the city.
Yet the two buildings are not merely gathering places, but spiritual centers that go to the heart of what the community is about and cares about. Both play to the pride of the community, providing tangible symbols of accomplishment. Both help generate excitement about Baltimore, excitement that can be fueled by media coverage. Both show that cities can be fun, fulfilling what Mr. Rouse has referred to as "the basic yearning of people to come together and share time and space with each other."
Both also have strong ties to William Donald Schaefer: Harborplace was his chief physical development triumph as mayor of Baltimore; Oriole Park is his chief development triumph while governor of Maryland.
The marketplace and the ballpark have also put Baltimore on the cutting edge of national development trends. In 1981, Boston architect and critic Robert Campbell observed that festival marketplaces capture the spirit of the age more than any other type of building. "Perhaps each generation creates a kind of mythic building type for itself," he wrote. "What the skyscrapers were to New York in the 1930s, the market is today: . . . the place where the god of the city has taken up residence for the moment; the place where you take the visiting cousins; the place, where, mysteriously, for a time, the Delphic air vibrates."
Seven years later, New York architect John Burgee made a similar observation about sports arenas. A stadium is "the most monumental structure that cities are building these days," he said. "They're not building City Halls. They're not building
cathedrals. The sports palace is the new national meeting place."
"Not since ancient Greece has sports so much taken the center," added his partner, architect Philip Johnson. "In ancient times, the Olympic games were where everything happened. There was no question where the center of the community was. . . Again, now, cities may be known by their tall buildings, but communities will be known by their stadiums."
Today, many cities have festival marketplaces and many are getting new ballparks and arenas. But no other city in the country has combined the two the way Baltimore has. They are practically side by side, and the combination will make each all the more powerful.
"Sports have been one of the great integrating forces, both racially and economically, in American life," said former Baltimore housing commissioner M. Jay Brodie. "That function is terrific to have in the middle of the city."
For many people, in fact, the ballpark is likely to strike an even deeper chord than the shops of Harborplace, because many people are so passionate about sports. They can get more excited about a game-winning home run by Cal Ripkin Jr. than about a great salade Nicoise at Paolo's.
"The ballpark focuses attention on the ballclub, which is our only big league performer in the city," Mr. Rouse said. "People will be mad at me for saying it, but there's nothing else in Baltimore that is as truly 'big league' as the Orioles, and, therefore, there's a great sense of possession about them. To have this as their new home, there's a very focused sense of consciousness. At Harborplace, there was a much more scattered sense of reactions. The sense of community was much more residual."
A new major league ballpark "gives you instant recognition, nationally and internationally, in a way that no other project can," said Sandra Hillman, a marketing consultant to numerous cities and former director of Baltimore's promotion office. "Every major news organization will be broadcasting from here on Opening Day. The psychology of sports is different from anything else. Nothing else gives people a chance to participate in the same way."
In terms of design and development, both are critical to what the noted planner Kevin Lynch has called the imageability of the city. They are well-designed, image-making buildings that become an integral part of the city's identity -- and the collective consciousness of its residents. It may even be possible to go so far as to say that if the glass and brass of Harborplace could be seen as a feminine kind of place, the brick and steel of the ballpark make a perfect masculine counterpart. Both are places where locals will take out-of-towners when they want to show them a good time -- and put the city in a glowing light.
All that presents new opportunities for the city and its businesses, the way Governor Schaefer sees it.
"There's not a bad seat in the place, if you look around," he said. "But they've got to keep the area well lighted. Got to keep it safe. Got to promote the Inner Harbor. Got to expand the festivities. They've got to turn Baltimore into a festival city. They've got to turn it into a tourist city.
"This is the only time it opens," the governor said. "If they don't take advantage of it, they'll lose the opportunity. They'll never do enough to satisfy me."
There are even parallels in the criticism both projects have received. Before Harborplace opened, merchants and restaurants of nearby areas such as Little Italy were worried that it would take business away from them, and leaders in Baltimore's black community complained that many of the jobs it created were more menial than meaningful. The ballpark, too, could be criticized for creating mostly low-paying seasonal jobs in the food and beverage business. In the current economic climate, though, even those jobs drew hundreds of applicants.
There are some skeptics who say that the ballpark in itself will add very little to the economy, especially if the team is not a winner. "You've burnished the city's image, and that's important," economic development consultant Ross Boyle told Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Morgan. "But in terms of attracting companies and economic development to town, I don't think it will be all that important."
Some of the most pointed criticism about the ballpark, however, has been based on fears that it will be too successful. Residents of nearby communities such as Otterbein and Ridgely's Delight are concerned that it will adversely affect the quality of life in their neighborhoods by attracting criminal activity and causing traffic and parking nightmares.
Phoebe Stanton, a former Johns Hopkins University professor and member of Baltimore's Architectural Review Board, warns that the danger is not necessarily the ballpark itself but what might follow on its heels. She is afraid the ballpark could be "smothered" with new development if city and state planners aren't careful about controlling growth. "It could generate another whole mini-central business district," she said.
Of course, Harborplace and the ballpark are not the only places with the power to draw large numbers of visitors. Baltimore is blessed to have many places that work simultaneously to bring people together in one relatively compact zone downtown, including the Convention Center, the Aquarium and the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion. In some cases, the activity center was in place before Harborplace opened, including the Maryland Science Center and the Inner Harbor promenade. All work to bring people together in ways that they like to come together -- through sports, music, shopping or just people-watching.
One of the most serendipitous aspects of Oriole Park is that even though it was not part of the original master plan for downtown revitalization, it is entirely consistent with the strategy of making the center of the city a gathering place for all kinds of people. Yet it went even further by taking it in a new direction: If Harborplace were the project that got Baltimoreans to rediscover the waterfront, then Oriole Park is the project that will get them to rediscover the rest of the city and take pride in it again.
To Orioles majority owner Eli S. Jacobs, the key to the significance of Baltimore's ballpark is that it adds something that is genuinely new to the city, and yet of the city. The Orioles play at home in only one place. It's not redundant with anything else.
"It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a beneficial impact on the city and its future," said Mr. Jacobs, a financier with a keen interest in architecture and urban planning. "That's one reason why we were so sensitive to the grid of the city and the fabric of the city. It turned out just the way we hoped it would."
Mr. Jacobs said he wanted the ballpark to satisfy three urban design goals: "It had to be an integral part of the city. It had to give life to a part of the city where adding life was important. It had to add value to the city over and above just being a home for the Baltimore Orioles, to fulfill all of its potential. I think it's going to succeed on all those counts.
"I think its distinguishing characteristic is its authenticity," he added. "It fits. It belongs. It's not ersatz. . . We've made a statement that this is Baltimore and baseball. And no one will mistake it or confuse it as they might in so many other places."
There is a bittersweet side to all of this, too. One of the best characteristics about Harborplace and Oriole Park is that they bring people together on an intellectual plane as well as a physical one. Harborplace was initially controversial -- it entailed construction on public property and sparked a debate about land use and design. Once it was approved, people looked forward to it and the jobs it would create. Its opening provided a shot of adrenalin for city revitalization efforts.
Oriole Park has been controversial, too. It entailed the use of state-acquired land and state lottery funds. It was the subject of intensive discussions about design. And once it was approved, people looked forward to it and the jobs and spinoff development it would create.
Now that it's complete, there will be a chance to see if all the hoopla was deserved. But there may be a sense of a letdown, too, just as there was after the opening of Harborplace.
Abell Foundation president Robert C. Embry Jr. once said that a part of the significance of any large redevelopment project is that it provides something for the general public to focus on, to strive for -- something for a whole city to rally around and pin its hopes and dreams on. That's what Harborplace did in the early 1980s, and that's what Oriole Park has done in the early 1990s.
Mr. Embry, a former Baltimore housing commissioner, says a city always needs a big project that is just a little beyond reach, far enough away that it provides a goal that holds a community's interest. With the ballpark now complete, there is a void once again. Will the next big project be the subway extension? The football stadium? The Christopher Columbus Center? The Convention Center expansion? Port Covington? Right now, at least, nothing in the offing seems to have the magic of Harborplace or Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
For its own good, Baltimore needs something new to take the ballpark's place as a shimmering vision off in the distance, and the sooner the better. As architect Charles Lamb has put it, "Cities either go forward and change or settle back and lose position. There's very little in between."