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Size of arts center prompts questions


Some say it will be too big. Others fear it will be too small. But with less than a week before conceptual designs are presented for a $60 million performing arts center in Baltimore's Mount Royal Cultural District, many Marylanders have a strong opinion about it.

At a meeting Monday sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, some residents of communities near the cultural district said they fear the two-hall complex will be too unwieldy for its proposed site. The state has offered a 5.8-acre parcel at 901 N. Howard St. -- former home of the Baltimore Life Insurance Co.

But representatives of some music groups that want to perform there are afraid it won't be big enough. They're concerned that the smaller hall, projected to contain 650 seats, won't accommodate their audiences.

"We're asking this building to do an awful lot," said architect Glen Tipton, past president of the Baltimore AIA chapter. "It will be sitting at one of the most complex confluences of traffic in the city, and next to one of the most aggressive buildings, the Meyerhoff [Symphony Hall]. It's a real design challenge."

Next Tuesday four architectural teams will present their concepts for the project to a seven-member jury, which will recommend one team to be the architect.

Aware of the strong interest in the project, officials are opening the presentations to the public. They will be held from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the 12th-floor conference center inside the office tower at 100 E. Pratt St. Seating is limited and will be available on a "first come, first served" basis.

The contenders are teams headed by Lett/Smith Architects of Toronto; Rafael Vinoly Architects of New York; Antoine Predock of Albuquerque, N.M., with Ayers Saint Gross Inc. of Baltimore; and Arata Isozaki & Associates of Tokyo with Design Collective Inc. of Baltimore.

The competition was launched on behalf of Friends of the Performing Arts, a nonprofit group headed by Hope Quackenbush.

The Baltimore Center for Performing Arts, a group that now uses the Mechanic Theater, has already made a commitment to use the larger hall, with 2,800 seats.

Planners have also been meeting with directors of local music groups that may want to perform in the 650-seat hall, such as the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Handel Choir of Baltimore.

At one recent meeting, many of the participants expressed interest in performing there if the space is suitable for their productions. T. Herbert Dimmock, the Handel Choir's music director, said he would rather have a 1,000-seat hall. He warned that 650 seats may not be enough for many of the area's medium-size ensembles.

"If the second house within the new complex is either too small or too large or designed for the wrong performing art," he stated, "it will sit empty."

Tom Hall, music director of the Choral Arts Society, said his group prefers 1,000 or 1,200 seats, or a hall that adjusts. But he also noted that some groups in town never draw more than 500 people.

Mrs. Quackenbush said that even though the architects involved in the design competition were given a figure of 650 seats, it would still be possible to alter the specifications once a design team is selected.

At Monday's meeting, community representatives said they hope the building works well with the light rail line, presents an attractive side to Howard Street, adds life to the area day and night and has adequate parking.

"You have to make the place user-friendly," said Mount Vernon resident Rex Rehfeld. "Otherwise, people are going to say, 'Every time I go there, it's raining. It's cold. I can't find a place to park. I'm not going to go down there anymore.' "

Shubroto Bose, director of architecture and urban design for the Baltimore Development Corp., said the design can be fine-tuned once an architect is chosen. "Nobody is expecting a final design to come out of this competition," he said. "In five weeks' time, how can an architect design such a major building?"

Town meeting

A public forum on the future of the Mount Vernon historic district will be held today at 7:30 p.m. at the Latham Hotel, 612 Cathedral St. It is the fourth in a series of public forums on downtown Baltimore.

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