Sports Center developers propose covering inlet Power Plant now has limited access

February 05, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Developers of the $32 million Sports Center USA complex planned for the Pier 4 Power Plant have proposed covering part of the inlet between Inner Harbor Piers 3 and 4 to improve access to their property.

At a meeting of Baltimore's Architectural Review Board yesterday, representatives for the Sports Center development team said they would like to cover a 230-foot-by-120-foot section at the north end of the inlet with a concrete or steel structure to create a land mass that would lead directly to the power plant's proposed western entrance.

The filled-in area -- about three-quarters of an acre -- could also be a bus drop-off zone and "sports field" that would serve the National Aquarium as well as the sports center, due to open by fall of 1994. It in the winter, it might contain an ice rink.

The proposal represents the first time in a decade that a group has suggested covering any part of the Inner Harbor basin. Plans would have to be reviewed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, as well as the city.

In the early 1980s, the city filled in half of the inlet between Piers 5 and 6 to create an 11-acre parking lot. It has since become the construction site of the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration, opening in 1995.

Sports Center USA has been conceived as the country's first multisport museum and entertainment center, as well as a showcase for ABC's Wide World of Sports. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke selected its development team last year over six others that vied to recycle the city-owned power plant.

Martin P. Azola, construction manager for Sports Center USA, characterized the idea of covering the inlet as a design concept rather than a firm proposal. He said it is part of a series of suggestions that the project architect, Columbia Design Collective, has made to improve circulation in and around the former power generating station.

The architects have also proposed opening up the three-building complex by cutting away sections of brick walls on the east and west sides to create a public arcade through the middle building. Covering the inlet "does a lot to give that building a front yard and foreground," Mr. Azola said.

Members of the design review panel said they believe the idea has a lot of merit.

. . the inlets represent the only places downtown where water comes right up to Pratt Street -- an amenity that has value in itself.

Panel member Mario Schack suggested that city planners also consider covering the northern part of the inlet between Piers 4 and 5. "The whole solution would be stronger if the area between the Columbus Center and the Power Plant were treated in the same way," he said.

"I've always thought the south side of Pratt Street [near the aquarium] was very unpleasant to walk along, with all the curb cuts and lanes," said panel member Colden Florance. "This would be a real relief.

Honora Freeman, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the proposal needs more study. But she added that her office will do whatever it can to help the Sports Center succeed.

Mr. Azola said his group is leaning toward covering over the inlet rather than filling it in because the cost is lower -- about $40 to $50 per square foot, or about $1.4 million for a 120-foot-by-230-foot section.

Money for the project may be available from the federal funds authorized by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. City amusement and property taxes generated by the sports center might also be used, Mr. Azola said.

Army Corps officials say they seek to avoid or minimize impact to existing wetlands by waterfront development projects. If that can't be done, they say, they require that developers create twice the amount of new wetlands nearby as they destroy or displace with their development.

Another issue, city planners say, is that the inlets represent the only places downtown where water comes right up to Pratt Street -- an amenity that has value in itself.

Richard Burns, lead architect for the Sports Center, said he believes the investment made to cover over the inlet would benefit any occupant of the Power Plant, not just the Sports Center.

The group made its presentation to the review board yesterday as part of its effort to negotiate a lease for the power plant by April or May. Mr. Azola said his group would like to begin construction later this year and open the project by Labor Day of 1994. Admission rates will be about the same as the National Aquarium -- about $12 for adults.

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