Refitting white elephants

August 08, 1994

With the opening of the city's Columbus Center just five months away, it is appropriate that redevelopment efforts now center on two vacant buildings nearby, the Pier 4 Power Plant and the Fishmarket. Both bombed in their initial incarnations as entertainment centers and have been begging for new users ever since.

Two years ago, the cavernous Power Plant was offered to a group of investors who wanted to re-open it as a $32.5 million virtual reality entertainment complex called Sports Center USA. They have been having trouble securing financing, however. Perhaps the financial world fears Baltimore's tourism market is not yet big enough for such a concept to succeed.

Enter Alex. Brown & Sons, which once owned the Power Plant as a generator station for its railway company. The investment firm, scouting for a new headquarters site, wanted to consider the Inner Harbor location and persuaded the city to cancel its award of exclusive negotiation rights to the sports center promoters.

This is fair. The two groups can now negotiate simultaneously with the city. If neither of them wants or is able to redevelop the Power Plant, it should be offered to other interested parties worldwide. The Power Plant may be a white elephant, but it is a white elephant sitting on the last piece of unused waterfront land in the center of the Inner Harbor's current tourism activity.

If a permanent user is not readily found, the city could do worse than consider Evening Sun columnist Dan Rodricks' idea of converting it into a "combination flea market/antiques emporium/auction house featuring vintage-clothing boutiques, art galleries" and the like. Another idea: an arts and crafts center modeled after the old Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va.

We are certain that in another few years developers will look back incredulously, wondering why the city was having so much trouble finding tenats for the Power Plant and the Fishmarket. With the right concept, both are bound to be natural moneymakers in that area of expanding tourism.

For that reason we are excited about the latest plan that would have the city acquire the padlocked Fishmarket for a new children's museum. The reconstructed old fishmonger center is virtually tailor-made for that purpose, whereas its neighbor, the Brokerage, would have presented nearly insurmountable problems for handicap access and crowd control. Together, however, they can be redeveloped into a winning children's museum and retail center.

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