Arts center in wings for Mount Royal? Performance hall would seat 2,700


Another article in yesterday's editions about a proposal t build a 2,700-seat theater in the Mount Royal cultural district stated incorrectly that the project is being planned by the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.

The planning is being done by an independent group headed by Hope Quackenbush, former managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.

The Sun regrets the errors.

A 2,700-seat performing arts center would be built in Baltimore's Mount Royal cultural district under a plan city and state officials are considering to attract Broadway-style touring productions that might otherwise bypass the area.

The need for a new performing arts center in Baltimore, which could cost $40 million to $100 million, has been a subject of public discussion since 1991. The Abell Foundation released a report that year warning that the 1,607-seat Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, which opened in Charles Center in 1967, was out of date and too small to satisfy national theater companies.

Until recently, a 27-acre waterfront site that Allied Signal Inc. owns between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point was being touted as a possible location for a new center.

But in the past two months, the Mount Royal cultural district, already home to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Lyric Opera House, has emerged as the first choice of city and state officials.

The focus of their attention is seven acres formerly occupied by the Baltimore Life Insurance Co. The state acquired the building at 901 N. Howard St. and surrounding property several years ago from the insurance company, which has since moved to Owings Mills. The vacant building, which is undergoing asbestos removal, would be demolished.

"The mayor and the governor have committed to pursue the performing arts center on the Baltimore Life site," Michael Seipp, executive vice president of Baltimore Development Corp., said this week.

Although Allied's property had tentative approval from the City Council and Fells Point community, the Mount Royal site "was put on the table as an alternative that had a number of advantages to it," Mr. Seipp said. For example:

* It is well served by major roads such as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Interstate 83, and by stops on the state's light rail line and the Metro system.

* It is surrounded by hundreds of parking spaces, including surface lots serving the state office complex and garages near the University of Baltimore campus. This fall, the state began building a 505-car garage at Preston and Cathedral streets.

* It would broaden the concentration of activities in the Mount Royal district, which was designated the city's cultural center just before the Meyerhoff opened in 1982.

Much of the appeal of the Mount Royal site, Mr. Seipp said, is that it would complement the city's strategy of turning Howard ++ Street into a full-fledged "avenue of the arts," with several restored movie palaces and a wide range of activities to draw city residents and visitors.

The 1991 Abell report noted that new performing arts centers in other cities, such as the Buell Center in Denver and the Ordway Theater in Minneapolis, have ranged in cost from $40 million to $100 million.

A group headed by Hope Quackenbush, former managing director of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, has quietly been laying groundwork for a new facility in Baltimore for several years. The group -- a quasi-public agency established to bring Broadway shows and other live performances to the Mechanic, the Pier Six concert pavilion and other venues -- is setting up a private, nonprofit corporation to raise public and private funds and start planning the project.

The group intends to seek money from the next session of the General Assembly to help pay for preliminary design work. Mrs. Quackenbush said reliable cost estimates won't be available until that design work is done.

She explained that the 2,700-seat figure was based on projections of the number of seats needed to accommodate large-scale shows and ensure the volume of ticket sales producers want to see.

The group's lease at the privately owned Mechanic expires in 1995. Mrs. Quackenbush said the organization is negotiating to extend its lease through 2000, with a buyout option that would enable it to move out sooner if possible.

Mr. Seipp said city and state officials will be working for the next three weeks to compile information to show state legislators, corporate leaders, current theater subscribers and others why Baltimore needs a new performing arts center and why the Mount Royal site is appropriate.

The future of the Mount Royal cultural center will be the subject of a public forum tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. at Mount Royal Station, 1900 Cathedral St. But the idea of a new performing arts center already has strong community support.

"I think it would be terrific," said Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art. "Anything that continues the development of the cultural center as a cultural center would be great."

John Gidwitz, executive director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, had a similar reaction.

"It might be a very good idea," he said. "This area is a neighborhood that planners decided to call a cultural center, but all the elements aren't here yet."

Neal Friedlander, a past president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association, said a performing arts center would be good for the surrounding area.

"It would make the cultural center a more exciting place to be, and it would make Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon more desirable as neighborhoods -- assuming all the traffic and livability issues can be addressed adequately," he said.

State officials had previously announced plans to renovate the Baltimore Life building as a headquarters for Maryland's Mass Transit Administration, now at Howard and Lexington streets.

Mr. Seipp said that move has been put "on hold" because of the planning for the performing arts center. He said the asbestos removal will continue because it is necessary whether the building is renovated or demolished.

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