Architects sought for $60 million arts center


After selecting the Mount Royal cultural district over the Inner Harbor as the preferred site for a $60 million performing arts center for Baltimore, city and state officials are now seeking architects to design the project.

The Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public agency that has been leading the charge to turn the Howard Street corridor into an "avenue of the arts," announced this week that it will hold a limited design competition to identify architects for the 2,700-seat facility, planned for the former Baltimore Life Insurance Co. property at 901 N. Howard St.

The development agency has set Dec. 13 as the deadline for bids from architects and urban designers. It is acting on behalf of the Friends of the Performing Arts, a private group that is being formed to raise funds and operate the completed center.

The performing arts center is conceived as a potential replacement for the 27-year-old Mechanic Theatre in Charles Center. A 1991 report by the Abell Foundation indicated that the 1,607-seat Mechanic is too small and out-of-date to attract many large touring productions.

The new building would house "large-scale Broadway touring productions, full-scale operas, and dance companies," according to the announcement of the competition. Construction funds would be raised from a combination of public and private sources.

The Baltimore Life building, occupied by the insurance company until its move to Owings Mills a year ago, is now owned by the state and would be razed. The resulting 5.8-acre parcel is on the south end of the cultural district, also home to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Lyric Opera House.

Three design teams will be chosen to take part in a five-week competition starting Dec. 30. Each finalist will be paid $10,000 to prepare conceptual designs by Feb. 7 showing how the building might fit on the site and what it might look like.

A panel of experts will select a winning team, with which the development agency will attempt to negotiate a design contract. City officials plan to ask the General Assembly next year to provide preliminary design funds so that the winning firm may continue work.

"We hope this competition will generate material that we can take to the state legislature" to support the funding request, said Shubroto Bose, director of architecture and urban design for the development corporation. "We are looking for illustrative drawings that show you can build a building on that site, and preliminary cost estimates."

Nearly 200 design teams from around the world recently vied to take part in a design competition for an $80 million performing arts center for the University of Maryland at College Park, and five finalists were selected last month.

Mr. Bose said that process is proving beneficial to planners of the Baltimore project because many of the already-assembled teams are now expressing interest in the new competition. "It works out very well for us."

Fells Point's loss

When planners decided to build the performing arts center in the Mount Royal area, they essentially rejected another site under consideration -- a 27-acre waterfront parcel that Allied Signal controls between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point.

When seeking City Council approval of their master plan in the spring, Allied Signal representatives said they would set aside 6.7 acres for a performing arts center. They had the backing of Fells Point's leaders, who worked for months to reach agreement on the appropriate mix of uses for the Allied Signal parcel, which also includes housing and commercial space.

Steve Bunker, a Fells Point business owner and member of the citizens' group that worked with Allied Signal, said the arts center was a key element of the plan. He warned that the community is likely to be more wary of other ideas for Allied Signal's property, given the decision about the performing arts center.

"It's going to be very tough to get that approval again," he said. "It was a good public use, an educational use, a place that would involve a lot of people from the community. We aren't giving up yet."

Mr. Bunker intends to protest the decision when the project comes up for hearings before the state legislature. If nothing else, he said, he believes that the Allied Signal site should be studied along with the Mount Royal site to see which is best.

"Everybody likes the water," he said. "You would really go a long way toward guaranteeing the project's success because it's a world class site."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad