A plan to open the Power Plant to a new era


December 17, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

By sacrificing part of Baltimore's Power Plant, a local design team hopes to make the rest of it more inviting.

The 1901 landmark would lose much of its imposing presence under a plan now being considered by developers who want to convert it into a $32 million sports museum and entertainment complex called Sports Center USA.

Although much more scrutiny lies ahead, this less-is-more concept could be the stroke of genius needed to overcome public perception of the three-building complex as hulking and impenetrable.

During a presentation to members of the Downtown Partnership yesterday, Sports Center President Lynda O'Dea unveiled a plan to open up the cavernous Power Plant by cutting away sections of brick walls on two sides.

In a rendering, the middle building's lower level is open from one side to the other so people can walk beneath it, in the same way baseball fans walk underneath an opening in the B&O warehouse next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. On upper levels of the east and west facades, sections of brick would be replaced with glass so people outside the Power Plant could see inside. At the same time, people inside would be treated to panoramic views of the downtown skyline and Outer Harbor.

This preliminary concept is the work of Columbia Design Collective, the firm just hired to serve as "exterior architect" for the Pier 4 conversion. Ms. O'Dea warns that the idea is at an "exploratory" stage and has to go through a lengthy review process.

But she said the development team is intrigued because the plan appears to solve so many problems that confronted the previous developer, Six Flags Corp. The theme park operator closed its $40 million Power Plant complex in 1990, after nearly five years of disappointing attendance and millions in losses.

"It's only a concept at this point," Ms. O'Dea said, but "we think this is a wonderful solution."

What makes CDC's plan so beguiling is that one simple move achieves many goals. It would make the Power Plant lighter and less intimidating. It would add visual interest and show that something new is happening inside, without erasing the building's industrial character. It would provide a clear main entrance for a complex that lacks one.

Perforating the Power Plant is equally ingenious in terms of the Inner Harbor's master plan. Until now, the Power Plant has been a visual and physical barrier between Harborplace and the attractions east of Pier 4. By allowing people to walk through, the architects are establishing an east-west axis for the harbor that never existed before. In the process, they are taking a longtime obstacle and turning it into a new civic gateway.

Assuming new footbridges could be built to link Pier 4 with Piers 3 and 5, the new underpass would make possible entirely new patterns of movement and land use in and around the finger piers. Ms. O'Dea's group is even considering installing an ice rink in the inlet between Piers 3 and 4. The Power Plant passageway would also line up with the entrance to the planned Christopher Columbus Center on Piers 5 and 6.

Could the developers destroy the Power Plant by puncturing it? That design issue will have to be addressed as plans are refined. The openings in the massive complex might even improve its appearance. But the success or failure of Sports Center USA ultimately will hinge on what's inside the Power Plant, not outside.

At this stage, however, the developers have made clear they don't intend to repeat the planning mistakes that Six Flags made.

The proposed gateway represents the kind of creative approach that could help make the Sports Center a success while extending the vitality of the Inner Harbor eastward.

UniversityCenter triple play

University of Maryland officials today will celebrate completion of three new buildings downtown, representing more than $23 million worth of construction. They are the $2.8 million Environment Health and Safety Building at 714 W. Lombard St., the $9.2 million Allied Health Building at 100 Penn St. and the $11.5 million Biomedical Research Facility at 108 N. Greene St.

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