Constellation Center is a blight

URBAN LANDSCAPE

April 28, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

This week's disclosure that the Constellation must leave Baltimore's Inner Harbor for extensive repairs is unwelcome news for anyone who wants the city to look its best.

It means the Inner Harbor will lose its sculptural centerpiece for up to four years -- a period that could span the city's (and the Constellation's) bicentennial. Baltimore was incorporated the same year the Constellation was launched -- 1797.

But there is one positive development that could result from the vessel's move to dry-dock. It provides a perfect excuse to get rid of the Constellation Center, the peanut butter-colored pavilion that has blighted the shoreline since 1990.

The two-story building on Constellation Dock was one of the biggest blunders ever made by Inner Harbor planners. It was constructed at a cost of $875,000 by the Constellation Foundation, the nonprofit group that operates the vessel, to house a ticketing area, gift shop, orientation gallery and space that could be rented for parties, providing revenue needed to keep the vessel afloat.

Its chief flaw is that it is so large, opaque and out of scale with its setting that it blocks views of the very attraction it was meant to promote. With the recent removal of the Constellation's masts, it is actually taller than the ship. It also obstructs views of the harbor from many vantage points.

When the Constellation is moved this fall, the pavilion will lose its reason for being. It should go to dry-dock, too, on a permanent basis. Better yet, it could be filled with fireworks and blown up on the Fourth of July. For city officials seeking ways to enhance the appearance of the Inner Harbor shoreline, removing the Constellation Center would be a big improvement.

Unfortunately, a more pragmatic scenario probably will take place.

The Constellation Foundation owns the building and has a lease to rent the dock until the year 2028. Representatives say they intend to keep the building's gift shop and "artifacts display" space open during the repair period as a way of maintaining an JTC Inner Harbor presence.

"It's a permanent facility," said William Kloepfer Jr., public affairs chairman for the foundation. "It is our operations center."

Richard Hurley, director of construction for the Baltimore Development Corp., noted that the foundation will be raising funds to repair the vessel and that paying to take down the pavilion would be counterproductive -- especially because it would be needed when the Constellation returns. "It would be awfully expensive to tear it down," he said.

Given that perspective, there is one possible use for the building that could justify its continued existence.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association has been searching for a temporary harbor site where it could operate a visitors information center starting this fall, when the lease expires on its current space at Pratt and Howard streets.

The group plans to build a permanent, 5,000-square-foot visitors center on the west shore of the Inner Harbor, but that won't be ready for a year or more.

With its orientation theater and display space, plus its ability to accommodate a steady stream of visitors, the 4,600-square-foot Constellation Center would be a logical interim site for the visitors center.

By temporarily leasing even part of the building, the visitors association would be providing money that could be used to repair the Constellation -- a worthy mission. The new occupants could even set aside a spot where visitors could be invited to make donations to help repair the frigate.

Mr. Kloepfer said the notion of leasing space hadn't occurred to him but seemed like a "healthy thought." Wayne Chappell, executive director of the visitors association, said he already has suggested it to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It would be a perfect solution," he said.

Converting part of Constellation Center into a citywide visitors center wouldn't address the building's problematic size and opacity. But if it can't be razed until 2028, then the city at least needs to ensure that it doesn't stand dormant or underused.

The only thing worse than an ugly building is a useless, ugly building.

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