The tasteful and the tacky

Dan Rodricks

April 19, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

For taxpayers, all the unseemly haggling over the price of th B&O Warehouse in Camden Yards comes down to one question: How much do we pay for aesthetics?

That's what we're talking about here: Aesthetics, our sense of beauty and artistic integrity, our instinct for what is environmentally pleasing, our ability to distinguish the elegant from the vulgar. It's our inclination to act perfectly foppish -- Oscar Wilde-ish -- every now and then, and to make judgments about what is tasteful and what is tacky.

Keeping the B&O Warehouse has something to do with all this.

It's a nice building, I suppose. But there have been a lot of nice old buildings in Baltimore that fell to lack of interest and the wrecker's ball. McCormick Spice was a nice old building -- it smelled good, anyway -- but the new owners showed a phenomenal lack of creativity and had that aromatic grandpa cremated to make way for a parking lot. "Oh, hollow, hollow, hollow . . ."

The B&O Warehouse will not suffer such a fate. It's been saved for aesthetic reasons, integrated into plans for the new sports complex at Camden Yards, in keeping with the effort to give the entire area a new-old ambience. It's a way of acknowledging Baltimore's past while we rush toward the future. It's a lovely thought.

But at this point I step in with the question a guy in Highlandtown asked when the first Formstone salesman came around with his pitch:

"How much?"

Aesthetics are great -- if you can afford them. (And, if you have to ask, "How much?" you probably can't.)

At Camden Yards, we are paying for the aesthetics in a big way.

Just in case you're curious: The owners of the warehouse have asked $18 million, though they paid only $4.6 million for it in

1983.

Morton Macks, long-time developer, was having lunch at the Centre Club one day, dreaming the exciting dream of having a retail outlet in Baltimore -- a "mini-Reading," if you will -- and he looked out the window and there it was: The B&O Warehouse. It was Mort's magic lozenge, the answer to the question in his dream.

Of course, the warehouse was cut off from downtown Baltimore by Interstate 395, the "other side of the tracks," so to speak. It was off the beaten path of shoppers and downtown office workers. A real estate speculator looking over the Baltimore of 1983 might have seen the warehouse's potential for retail and office use as a highly dubious one. It was several long blocks away from the Inner Harbor, a genuine problem in a city where a block or two can be the margin between success and utter failure (see the Brokerage).

So Macks bought the property. His partner was Willard Hackerman, highly successful contractor, and fast friend and political ally of William Donald Schaefer. The Hackerman connection to the warehouse caused some serious eyebrow-raising three years later when the newly elected governor announced that Camden Yards was his favored site for a new baseball stadium. Some people smelled something strange. Others were less cynical, dismissing it as the kind of political-business coincidence standard to Baltimore.

"Hey," a real estate sharp said yesterday, "it's a small town with a lot of big boys in it."

So Macks and Hackerman had the warehouse. It sat there, with a big banner attached to its facade, for a few years. The partners have said they were "devastated" by news reports that Schaefer -- read that, Edward Bennett Williams -- favored Camden Yards for a new sports complex. It killed their plans for retail and office use because none of the tenants they had lined up would sign leases. And neither Hackerman nor Macks saw it coming.

Or so they say.

Whatever. Their $4.6 million investment was hanging out there. The warehouse was still empty, with the state moving in fast to condemn it. What if the state decided the old warehouse was good for nothing? What if the state wanted to tear it down? In that scenario, Macks and Hackerman would be lucky to break even.

But, not to worry.

The state saved the warehouse by integrating it into its plans, thereby increasing its value and vindicating the Macks-Hackerman investment.

The state could end up paying between $8 and $13 million for the old warehouse, and another $17 million for renovations. We're looking at close to $30 million by the time they finish spackling the Sheetrock. Next year, when a baseball fan looks out from his prized Club Level seat, he'll see the beautiful new-old stadium and, beyond that, the just-plain-old warehouse. All that should give him one heck of an aesthetic buzz.

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