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New arena, new opportunity

The Baltimore Sun

While the Howard Street department stores were gearing up for the 1964 fall shopping season, a worldwide phenomenon descended on the Holiday Inn on Lombard Street - then distinguished by its revolving rooftop restaurant - when it played host to the Beatles during their performances at what was called the Civic Center, now 1st Mariner Arena.

The downtown department stores have long gone, of course, but the arena remains and, despite some cosmetic renovation, is substantially the same facility that provided the venue for Baltimore's brush with the Fab Four nearly 43 years ago. Now a report commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority has concluded that the building has "served its useful life" and should be replaced. Such a recommendation is long overdue.

Inherent deficiencies limited the usefulness of this facility from the beginning. Its rectangular configuration entirely ignored the concept of sightlines, and a permanent stage dominates one entire end. The boxy envelope also meant that many seats have obstructed views, causing the National Hockey League to abandon plans for a Baltimore franchise. Some planned features fell victim to budget cutting, most notably a sliding roof for open-air events. The building's weird roofline is all that remains of that design idea. Capacity was also limited to something less than 12,000.

These fundamental problems can never be entirely corrected by renovation, and they have been joined over time by the glaring absence of what are now considered standard amenities. While it remains an active host for ice shows, circuses and the undeniable fun of indoor soccer, the arena is woefully inadequate as a site for today's major shows and concerts, professional and collegiate sports, and the largest conventions and trade shows. All of these events now bypass Baltimore.

That is significant, because downtown Baltimore today is economically dependent on its ability to attract recreational dollars. The old engines of commerce have been replaced by entertainment and tourism. That was inconceivable in 1964, but it is a fact of life now, thanks to the rejuvenation of the Inner Harbor, the building of the Convention Center and the redevelopment of Camden Yards as a sports complex. Having thus jumped headlong into the saving waters of a vibrant service economy, we are, like it or not, in a competition with many other cities that have adopted the same economic strategy. In this context, the absence of a viable indoor facility is a severe disadvantage.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament pumped March Madness dollars into such places as Winston-Salem, N.C.; Spokane, Wash.; Lexington, Ky.; and Columbus, Ohio - all cities without any major-league sports franchises but with arenas that provide a desirable venue.

The potential payoff from a regular schedule of such events, as well as large-scale conventions, is immeasurable. In fact, the lack of a competitive arena vastly diminishes the benefits of having invested in a fine convention facility.

It is encouraging that the process of moving forward with a new arena has, at long last, begun. However, the stadium authority report has two significant shortcomings.

First, it recommends a seating capacity of 15,000 to 16,000. This is based on the expressed assumption that Baltimore will never attract a major-league basketball or hockey franchise that would require something close to 20,000 seats.

This logic smacks of the same shortsightedness that doomed the original Civic Center planning. Potential sports tenants should not be the sole consideration when it comes to capacity. Major concert tours, conventions and trade shows now fill the nation's largest arenas. Indeed, some entertainers, who previously tried to fill stadiums, find it much more desirable to perform in 18,000-to-20,000-seat arenas, where they can schedule more shows and offer a better-quality production.

Moreover, to say the city will never have the opportunity to return to the NBA or join the NHL is an attitude that screams "minor league," and is reminiscent of those who insisted we would never have another NFL franchise after the Colts' departure.

The report also fails to identify a location. There are some who see the arena as an opportunity to bring growth to a newly developing area with readily available highway access. But the arena should not be designed with automobiles primarily in mind. Its importance in the fabric of the city, and the justification for public investment, is the pedestrian traffic that it would generate for all surrounding businesses and attractions, as well as its use in conjunction with the Convention Center.

For those reasons, a downtown location is essential. It would be foolish to build a new facility and place it where the attendees would never leave the parking lot. That is what the Capital Centre was in Landover, generating no spillover economic benefit. When we were trying to attract an NFL franchise, some, for traffic reasons, proposed building the stadium at the Beltway and Interstate 95. Imagine all we would have lost without the excitement of Ravens football downtown.

Let's do this right and not repeat the mistakes of the early 1960s that left us with a weird roofline and a white elephant as an enduring testament to our lack of vision.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His e-mail is rdburke@ober.com.

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