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After troop withdrawal: a soundstage?

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's 5th Regiment Armory could become a soundstage for film production in Maryland under a proposal to revitalize the 28-acre State Center renewal area.

Planners have recommended that the state-owned building near Howard and Preston streets, now home for a division of the Maryland National Guard, be preserved and converted for new uses as part of a transit-oriented development that would also contain new housing, commercial space and offices for state agencies and others.

The National Guard division has indicated that it may want to move to a different location in central Maryland, and that would free up the armory for new uses.

If so, "it's perfectly designed to be a soundstage for the movie industry, if someone wanted to locate there," said Chris Patusky, director of real estate for the Maryland Department of Transportation. He made his remarks at a recent presentation of the preliminary master plan for State Center to Baltimore's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel.

Built in the early 1900s, the 340,000-square-foot armory is one of several locations that have been suggested over the years to serve as a permanent film production facility in Maryland.

Others include the Clipper Mill area, which contains a large foundry that has since been subdivided for a variety of tenants, and the warehouse district along Wicomico Street, south of M&T; Bank Stadium.

State officials have said Maryland would be in a better position to attract major motion picture production if it had a permanent facility to accommodate film crews.

They point to other communities around the country where giant soundstages are planned as part of full-blown production centers that include space for set design and fabrication, film editing and prop storage.

Communities where privately funded projects currently are planned or under way include Albuquerque, N.M., the old Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, as well as locations in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Jack Gerbes, director of the Maryland Film Office, and Hannah L. Byron, assistant secretary for the state's Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts, said they have been briefed about the 5th Regiment Armory proposal and agree that the building could be suitable for film production if the Maryland National Guard relocates.

In order to work well, they said, a soundstage must have high ceilings, a large amount of space with few or no columns, ample parking and easy access to interstate highways. The armory meets those requirements. In fact, they said, the armory has been used in the past for filming, including the pilot episode of the Oz television series on HBO.

But Gerbes cautioned that it's not enough to build a soundstage and expect film crews to begin production. He said creation of any permanent facility ideally should be coupled with a monetary program that would entice producers to film in Maryland.

"It has to go hand in glove with a competitive incentive program," Gerbes said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't be busy. ... You have to have the business to warrant it, or else you're going to have an empty building."

A soundstage is one of several suggestions for the armory that came out of brainstorming sessions for State Center, said architect Matthew D'Amico of Design Collective, the lead designer working on the master plan.

He said more detailed feasibility studies would be needed as the master plan goes through the review process, but "it was one idea that seems to have a lot of merit."

Developer sought

The city of Baltimore is seeking a developer to recycle the former Highlandtown Middle School at 101 S. Ellwood St. in East Baltimore. The Department of Housing and Community Development has set June 30 as the deadline for proposals. The building dates from 1934 and is part of the Highlandtown/Patterson Park National Register Historic District.

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