Adding 10,000 seats could ruin ballpark's vistas

URBAN LANDSCAPE

February 10, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

When the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Orioles first decided to build a ballpark on a constricted site near downtown Baltimore, there seemed to be 99 ways to do it wrong and one way to do it right.

But the stadium authority and its architects found the right way to do it -- and they've been drawing accolades ever since.

Last week Oriole Park at Camden Yards received an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects -- one of the top prizes for design.

"The architects and their enlightened clients have built not merely another ballpark but a very important public place, bringing people into contact with each other and with the city itself," said the AIA's jury.

Now the Orioles' new owners have another challenge for the stadium authority. Peter G. Angelos, head of the group that bought the team last year for $173 million, disclosed recently that he is exploring the idea of adding up to 10,000 seats to the ballpark, which now holds 48,079.

Mr. Angelos said he is motivated by a desire to help Orioles fans who can't buy tickets to the games, most of which are sellouts. He also said he would not want to do anything to harm the park's ambience.

While Mr. Angelos' intentions are laudable, the idea of making a drastic change to such a well-received landmark is dubious at best.

From the beginning, the stadium authority and the Orioles set out to create an "intimate, old-fashioned" ballpark with a deliberately limited seating capacity. The gap between the left field grandstand and the B&O Warehouse could have been filled in with more seats. The warehouse itself could have been razed, for that matter.

But the designers left the warehouse up and the area behind center field open to create a strong visual connection between the ballpark and the city skyline beyond. That connection was singled out for praise last week by the AIA.

"By preserving and assimilating the magnificent B&O Warehouse, creating vistas into and out of the park, and sinking the field below grade to ensure a comfortable, humane scale," said the nine-member jury. "Oriole Park . . . seamlessly unites a stadium with its city."

Mr. Angelos wants to add seats to take advantage of the ballpark's popularity -- without sacrificing the intimacy. But he can't necessarily have it both ways.

Although it's unclear exactly where the 10,000 seats might go because no actual design work has begun, the obvious location is where none exist at present: the area in and around the picnic grove beyond center field.

The stadium authority has already begun to study that area as a possible site for a 1,500- to 2,500-seat grandstand for disadvantaged children. Filling in any more of the gap could destroy the memorable view of the skyline. The key will be how the gap is narrowed -- and how the addition is detailed.

Architect Joseph Spear of HOK Sports Facilities Group, the ballpark's lead architect, said adding 10,000 seats would be difficult, but not impossible. Many ballparks have been altered over time, including classics such as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, he noted.

"Ballparks do change. I think you have to be sensitive to what you're doing and what you're giving up. I wouldn't want to hear someone say: 'Tear down the warehouse and build 10,000 seats.' I would resist that. But there are a lot of different ways a person could add seats. . . . I think it can be done in a positive way."

Mr. Spear added that much of his firm's work involves improving existing facilities, rather than designing new ones. He said ballparks can be seen as works in progress, not finished products.

"Is a ballpark ever complete?" he asked. "I don't necessarily think so, because baseball fans change and owners change. Underlying everything team owners do, they have 48,000 customers who come every night, and they have to respond to what the customers want."

That may be true. But the designers must be careful if they don't want muck up their masterpiece. What Mr. Angelos wants may be achievable. But now there seem to be 999 ways to do it wrong, and one way to do it right.

Rouse on Development

Builder James Rouse will discuss Baltimore's role as a national leader in urban redevelopment Tuesday at 8 a.m. at The Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Charles and Saratoga streets. Cost: $20 per person.

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