In the three years since it opened, Oriole Park at Camden Yards has maintained its stature as one of America's most impressive sports complexes.
But the main corridor leading to it has grown less attractive, as a series of advertising signs and illuminated billboards has cluttered Baltimore's southern gateway.
That's the opinion of city and state officials who tried and failed this week to persuade Baltimore's zoning board to block a company's plan to erect a large signboard at 1530 Russell St.
As planned by Penn Advertising of Baltimore for property owned by David Bavar, the signboard, elevated to a maximum height of 65 feet, will be 14 feet tall and 48 feet wide with messages on both sides. Approved on Tuesday by the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, it will join a half-dozen others along a six-block stretch of Russell Street just south of the ballpark. Still others line Interstates 95 and 295 farther south of the ballpark.
"The Department of Planning is very concerned about the growing proliferation of billboards along the expressway routes leading to Oriole Park," director Charles Graves III said in a letter submitted to the zoning commissioners before their vote.
"We are concerned that the proposed sign will distract drivers from important warning and directional signs in the stadium area, as well as be very visible."
Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said the Camden Yards complex was carefully planned to create a "new and dramatic entrance" to downtown Baltimore. He said the state spent millions to upgrade Russell Street and his agency doesn't want to see the investment undermined.
"Erection of an illuminated signboard of this size here is no more appropriate than erection of one on Light Street opposite Harborplace," he said in a letter to the zoning board.
Stadium Authority Chairman John A. Moag Jr. calls the sports complex a "nationally acclaimed cultural landmark and recreational resource" for Baltimore.
"We believe that the integrity of the aesthetics of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and our future development objectives for this sports complex will be impaired by the proliferation of signboards in this area," he said.
Under the city's zoning ordinance, billboards are "conditional uses" that cannot be put up without zoning board approval. Other signs along Russell Street, facing both toward and away from Oriole Park, currently tout: The Sports Authority; U.S. HealthCare; Radio Station 100GRX; Chevrolet; Legg Mason; Marlboro Lights; and the state's Keno game.
Some advertisers tailor their messages to baseball fans. A poster for Budweiser beer, for instance, calls it "As Classic As Camden Yards."
Nathan Sterner, Penn's director of real estate, testified that the company wants to erect the new sign to satisfy advertising demand and disputed the contention that it would pose a traffic hazard.
Despite the objections raised by city and state officials, zoning board members voted unanimously to approve Penn's signboard. It was the second time they have approved one along Russell Street in recent months.
The commissioners concluded that the proposed billboard met their standards, explained zoning board executive director Gilbert Rubin. Opponents of the decision can file an appeal with the Circuit Court for Baltimore City within 30 days, he said.
Al Barry, assistant director of the planning department, said he believes that the zoning board has an obligation to consider the aesthetic impact of billboards.
This week's approval "is part of an unfortunate trend over the last few years, in which a major approach to downtown has been desecrated," he said. "The zoning board should be taking the collective impact of these signs into account."
Mr. Barry said the planning department is not trying to prevent free speech. "We're in favor of free speech. We're against ugliness."
Architects interviewed for Camden Station
In its effort to enhance the Camden Yards area, the stadium authority this week interviewed seven architectural firms under consideration to convert Camden Station to a $4.6 million expansion of the Babe Ruth Museum.
The candidates are Marshall Craft & Associates; Cho, Wilks and Benn; Kann & Associates; D'Aleo Inc., Cochran Stephenson & Donkervoet; Design Collective; and Murphy & Dittenhafer.