Lively 'urban waterfront' could set stadium apart Middle Branch site to blend nature with city life NFL: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While Baltimore waits to find out whether the city will get a National Football League franchise, Christopher Rogers is thinking about birds.

Ring-necked pheasants. Black-crowned night herons. Snowy egrets. Living in the mud flats along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, the birds would be visible from a waterfront park that would be created near a new Camden Yards football stadium.

As a field representative of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit group in Washington that helps conserve land for public use, Mr. Rogers believes the large but relatively underused body of water just south of the stadium property is the "identifying element" that could make the project unique.

"The Middle Branch could do the same thing for the football stadium that the B&O; Warehouse does for Oriole Park at Camden Yards," he said. "To have 70,000 people spill out of the stadium into an urban waterfront that has been reclaimed for public use -- that would really set it apart."

NFL team owners are meeting in Chicago today to decide which two cities will get a franchise from among the five vying for one: Baltimore; St. Louis; Charlotte, N.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Memphis, Tenn.

Mr. Rogers is part of a broad contingent of planners, environmentalists, public officials and others who have begun preparations to make sure that if the NFL does pick Baltimore, the city will benefit as much as possible from the $150 million stadium to be built for the team.

They believe the stadium can be combined with other projects to bring the south end of Camden Yards alive with activity year round, not just 10 dates during the fall.

They envision an 85-acre, two-stadium complex that would be a major recreational and civic amenity for the region.

Some believe the area between the stadiums would be a natural staging site for festivals and other events that have been left without a home by the pending demolition of Festival Hall.

Others see it as a way to increase ridership on the state's light-rail system, which would add a stop near the football stadium.

Many regard it as a new civic gateway that would add luster to Baltimore's Renaissance image.

"It can be another draw for the Inner Harbor. It'll open up a whole new section of the city. It fits in with the new convention center, the light rail, everything," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"The Middle Branch concept really appeals to us," said Bruce Hoffman, Maryland Stadium Authority executive director. "It would be wonderful if people could look out from the stadium and see water and not wrecked refrigerators and junked cars."

Football plans

The proposed construction site is a 40-acre parking lot bounded roughly by Hamburg, Russell and Ostend streets and by the state's light-rail and MARC lines. Its center is half a mile south of Oriole Park and less than 1,000 feet from the Middle Branch shoreline.

Conceptual plans prepared by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum's Sports Facilities Group call for a facility with 70,000 seats, including 108 private suites and 7,500 club seats. They indicate the stadium will be open to the air with a grass field, rather than a dome with synthetic turf. It most likely will be oriented east-west, with its main entrance to the north, facing downtown and the bulk of the surface parking.

Renderings prepared to help sell club seats show a brick and glass stadium with arches and metal truss work similar to that of Oriole Park. But designers say those quick studies may not reflect what will be built.

The final design has not been set because the state law that funded the stadium with lottery-backed bonds prohibits spending money for detailed design work until a team is awarded, Mr. Hoffman explained.

Surrounding property

Planners say the football stadium is not likely to attract much commercial development, because the area is too far from the central business district and mostly industrial. Neighbors include waste treatment plant, gas storage tanks and train tracks that would remain.

But the new stadium could dovetail with other key aspects of the city's 20-year strategy for guiding development.

Foremost among them is the goal of encouraging more public use of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, which is fed by the Gwynns Falls. With six miles of shoreline and a 416-acre water surface, it is 20 times the size of the Inner Harbor.

Since the mid-1970s, planners have been working to transform the Middle Branch into a recreational amenity of regional significance. The proximity of the new stadium, they say, could accelerate that effort.

"That's the greatest area," Mr. Schaefer said. "It can be used for all sorts of things -- crabbing, fishing, wildlife conservation. It has enormous potential."

The Stadium Authority does not control any of the shoreline. But a consortium of city, state and private groups has been working to acquire certain parcels and make them available for public use.

A key figure in that effort is the Trust for Public Land, a 20-year-old organization that creates partnerships to hold and maintain land. One of its best-known conservation efforts was the acquisition of land near Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

In Baltimore, the shoreline near Camden Yards is part of an area where the trust and others want to create a six-mile Gwynns Falls Greenway with jogging and biking trails, wildlife preserves and lookout points. It would stretch from West Baltimore's Leakin Park to the Middle Branch, with spurs to the B&O; Railroad Museum and the Inner Harbor.

Partners in the project include the city of Baltimore, the state of Maryland, the mayor's Gwynns Falls Greenway Task Force, and Baltimore's Parks and People Foundation. The entire cost is $4 million, with the federal government, state and local governments, and private donors each contributing roughly a third of the total. More than $400,000 in federal money intended for alternative transportation projects has already been allocated to the greenway.

The land near Camden Yards is a key part of the greenway because it is where the shore and city meet. Environmentalists want to keep it a haven for birds, with nature trails that allow people to come within 100 feet of the wildlife.

"This isn't just about environmentalism," Mr. Rogers stated in the trust's 1993 annual report. "It's about giving city residents access to a multitude of urban resources for the first time. Imagine kids from the neighborhoods being able to bike down to the Inner Harbor without even having to cross traffic."

Employees from the city's planning and parks departments are working on the greenway's design.

"It's a unique opportunity for Baltimore," said Michael Baker, administrator of Middle Branch Park. "How many places can you go right from a stadium to a major greenway, with herons flying by, and have that as the backdrop for your TV spots?"

Extending downtown

Construction of the football stadium would also help recast the southern end of Camden Yards so it is perceived as part of downtown.

"The baseball stadium and football stadium ought to be incorporated with the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus," said Mr. Schaefer. "There's a natural road right there, Martin Luther King Boulevard, that already connects the two."

One advocate of opening the football stadium site to non-football events is Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles vice president for stadium planning and development and a member of the trust's advisory committee. She believes the lots between the two stadiums are a logical site for outdoor events because of the parking and the light rail stops.

Ms. Smith said spaces inside the stadium could be designed for non-game use. She also suggested food stalls, restaurants and shops could face outward along the perimeter, just like the shops on the ground floor of the B&O; Warehouse.

Planners have also given some thought to preparing fallback plans in the event Baltimore doesn't get a team. Proponents of the greenway say they will proceed even if a football stadium isn't constructed. The city is expecting a consultant's report later this year on the best sites to hold festivals.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°