Next at the Brokerage: kids' play?

December 29, 1992

Seldom has the city Board of Estimates moved as swiftly an with such high spirits to spend $5 million as it did last Wednesday in purchasing the Brokerage, a 280,000-square-foot troubled retail and office complex near the Inner Harbor. Technically, the city agreed to acquire the complex's 276-car parking garage. The Bank of America then donated the rest to remove the troubled property from its books. For the city, the Brokerage was a deal too good to resist. The garage and retail operations cover debt service on the acquisition, which was once considered so lucrative that a previous partnership sank $53 million into it before the property was foreclosed.

Nine years ago, when the Brokerage was assembled from decrepit warehouses and pornography shops, it was seen as a key element in spreading the Inner Harbor magic. Renovated but largely vacant, it is now surrounded by other high-expectation failures: the boarded-up Fishmarket night life complex and the padlocked Power Plant entertainment center. While no redevelopment plans have been announced for the privately owned Fishmarket, the Power Plant is to become a high-tech sports museum and entertainment complex.

Under the city's somewhat vague plans, the Brokerage, in turn, is to mix retail and office uses with a children's museum and an African American heritage center. The idea is to close the Cloisters Children's Museum in Brooklandville and merge it into a group that has been planning a more ambitious and technologically challenging exhibit center for children at the Inner Harbor. Meanwhile, the existing museum honoring ragtime pianist Eubie Blake would be moved from its North Charles Street site to the Brokerage as a centerpiece for the African American center. We see this as an exciting opportunity for Baltimore to have children's exhibits as attractive -- but even broader -- as those in San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia.

To realize this potential, uncompromisingly high standards must set and met. Anyone who thinks this can be achieved just by moving existing exhibits to the Brokerage clearly does not understand the challenge ahead. To succeed, the new Brokerage will need unfettered imagination in its exhibit designs. And to be economically viable these exhibits must be interesting to big crowds of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

The city has a superb opportunity to make a troubled downtown showcase work. Officials cannot afford to let this investment fail.

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