Festival Hall's Future

August 19, 1993

The forthcoming $150 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center dooms Festival Hall. The Schmoke administration is now considering moving that portable structure several blocks north to rejuvenate the Howard Street corridor.

This is an intriguing idea, but one that requires realistic and unsentimental examination.

From the 1858 opening of Hutzler Brothers until the 1970s, Howard Street was Baltimore's pre-eminent shopping street. Those days are now gone and never likely to return. Over the past two decades, several attempts have been made to breathe new life into this thoroughfare. So far, nothing has worked. Yet the mile-long stretch of vacant or underused buildings from Antique Row to the vicinity of Camden Yards presents an unequaled opportunity for revitalization.

City development officials are now studying the possibility of re-erecting Festival Hall either on a vacant lot adjoining Lexington Market or across from the boarded-up Mayfair Theatre-Congress Hotel complex at Howard and Franklin streets.

The former site has ample parking nearby; the latter site does not. Both parcels are small; neither of them is in an area that is currently regarded as safe at night by visitors. There are further complications, including an assessment by the Maryland Stadium Authority that dismantling and re-erecting Festival Hall probably does not make much financial sense.

We strongly urge the Schmoke administration to establish the basic facts of the situation. Once that is done, it should be clear whether moving Festival Hall is cost-effective or whether planners are actually envisioning a brand-new (and costly) structure near Howard Street.

In either case, the market for a hall ought to be thoroughly researched. It is amazing that in the discussions so far, the performance of Festival Hall at its present location is used as a barometer of future success.

This is a false assumption. The two proposed locations cannot expect to benefit from Convention Center-related events, which today account for much of Festival Hall's bookings. A new hall would have to make it entirely on its own, far from the Inner Harbor. It would have to shoulder all the labor and promotion costs that now are often shared with the Convention Center.

When all this is considered, we seriously doubt Howard Street will look appealing as the site of a reconstructed or new Festival Hall. That street, after all, already has an underused Fifth Regiment Armory that handles a variety of community functions, shows and festivals.

Ideally, a new Festival Hall ought to be at Camden Yards, either as part of a football stadium or as a stand-alone building. To succeed, it has to have a good location, ample space and easy traffic connections. The revitalization of Howard Street, as much as it is needed, is a different component of the city's economic development efforts.

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