Festival Hall may be a building in search of a site


Has Baltimore's Festival Hall outlived its usefulness?

If state legislators approve funds this spring to expand the Convention Center on the site of Festival Hall, what should city officials do with the existing structure? Would it be worthwhile to invest potentially millions of dollars to move it -- and if so, where?

To answer such questions, the Baltimore Development Corp. is about to commission a feasibility study. The agency is looking for consultants capable of evaluating the cost and benefits of moving the $4.5 million facility to "various sites within the downtown area."

Festival Hall can't remain because it occupies the northern half of the site of the proposed $150 million Convention Center expansion, bounded roughly by Pratt, Howard, Conway and Sharp streets.

Some options that have been mentioned are downtown or near-downtown sites, such as Camden Yards, Inner Harbor East, the Allied Chemical Corp. site, and the Fallsway Park-and-Ride lot. Other parcels are farther from downtown, including Port Covington, the Middle Branch shoreline, Canton waterfront, Carroll Park and land around Memorial Stadium.

Leslie Howard, city development director, said that his office wants to explore ways to save not only the building but the events that take place inside.

"We have to be ready to move ahead, because we want to see the convention center expand," he said. "But we'd like to retain the events that have been held at Festival Hall if we possibly can -- the trade shows and summer festivals -- because we want to keep the activity in the city."

Designed by Cochran, Stephenson and Donkervoet and opened in July 1985, the low-rise metal shed was a William Donald Schaefer special -- built with a low budget and on the former mayor's do-it-now timetable to snare events that couldn't be accommodated at the Convention Center.

The idea was to create a bare-bones facility that would be available primarily for use by local people and events -- and that could be taken down and set up elsewhere if necessary.

Recent statistics show that the 52,000-square-foot Festival Hall has done exactly what it was supposed to do -- and more. It was busy for 196 days during the fiscal year that ended last June. It booked 43 events and drew 225,000 people, according to convention complex executive director Peggy Daidakis.

In the same period, the Convention Center was busy 344 days and drew 386,000 people.

Baltimore County has competing venues in the form of the Timonium Fairgrounds and Towson Center. In 1989, former County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen expressed interest in buying Festival Hall from the city.

But because the Schmoke administration wants to keep the business in Baltimore, selling the building to another jurisdiction is not an option, Mr. Howard said.

The cost of dismantling and reconstructing the hall may be between $3 million and $4 million -- not including land.

According to Ms. Daidakis, many current users want to remain downtown, close to the hotels and attractions. A long-range solution for them would be construction of a domed football stadium in Camden Yards, but the city would still need an interim plan.

Even though Festival Hall was conceived as a temporary structure, it has shown there is a permanent need for a facility that can accommodate local events. The city can't afford to lose such a valuable people magnet.

Architects win national award

Baltimore's newest architecture firm has won one of the country's most prestigious design awards. Studio Wanda, headed by Peter Fillat and Randy Sovich, received a citation this month from Progressive Architecture magazine for designing an eight-unit affordable housing project for Pittsburgh. Each house will cost about $50,000. Studio Wanda is the first Baltimore firm ever to be cited in the magazine's annual awards program. Mr. Fillat is looking for land in Baltimore to build similar houses, which he calls "Wanda units."

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