Vacant landmark seems best suited for entertainment POWER PLAY

August 11, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way.

When she teamed up with ABC-TV executives to propose a sports-themed entertainment complex for Baltimore's Pier 4 Power Plant, entrepreneur Lynda O'Dea promised a $32.5 million attraction that would enable visitors to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Instead, she got to experience them herself -- first when the city awarded development rights to her group in 1992, and then when it revoked them last week.

By taking the building away from Ms. O'Dea's group, Sports Center USA, and offering it to the Alex. Brown & Sons investment firm, which is looking for a headquarters site, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke showed where his priorities lie. It is clear he is growing impatient about putting the vacant landmark back to productive use. And that he believes a brokerage in the hand is worth a Sports Center in the bush -- even if building offices on Pier 4 runs counter to the city's long-range strategy of making the Inner Harbor a magnet for tourists and conventioneers.

Now that Alex. Brown has turned down the city's offer of a 60-day exclusive negotiating period, the city is back to Square One. It can work with Alex. Brown, resume talks with the Sports Center team or seek other proposals.

Should Baltimore's Pier 4 Power Plant be an office building, entertainment complex or something else? It's easy to stand outside and make pronouncements about what is best for the city. But as they weigh their options, city planners shouldn't fail to address another key issue: What is best for the building itself?

If they really want to make the Power Plant come alive as an asset to the Inner Harbor, then city redevelopment officials need identify a use that works well with the interior of the early 1900s building, as well as fitting in with the collection of attractions all around.

Indeed, the beauty of the Power Plant, aside from its location and historic profile, lies in its vast, open spaces, characterized by high ceilings and elaborate truss work. This variety of three-dimensional volume could be put to any number of uses -- a museum, theater, retail center, catering hall. Much of the appeal of the Sports Center proposal (a combination of rides, movies and virtual-reality machines that simulate sports experiences) is that it was tailored to conform well to the building's existing spaces, including the retail arcade and the theaters.

For all the Power Plant's potential, however, it is difficult to imagine how it could be converted to an office center, as suggested by Alex. Brown.

In many ways, the very interior features that make it so intriguing could turn out to be a nightmare for any company that tried to adapt it for a corporate headquarters. To take spaces such as the Power Plant's and chop them up for offices would be a bad idea for several reasons:

First, to make the building the private domain of a company would limit public access to the interior, which in itself would be unfortunate.

Second, the cost of such a conversion would likely be steeper than new construction and probably not cost effective.

Third, unless it is handled with extreme finesse, a conversion to office space could rob the Power Plant of much of the charm and character that makes it worth recycling in the first place.

According to Mayor Schmoke, the company needs room for a large trading floor, and the Power Plant is one of the few buildings downtown that has that kind of space on one level. The Power Plant also has the most macho silhouette on Baltimore's skyline -- a strong symbol for any company. And Alex. Brown was a backer of the utility that built the complex, a valuable historical connection.

But the investment firm would have many other issues to resolve before it could determine whether it wants to move to the Power Plant. To provide the amount of square footage it is seeking, floors would have to be inserted in the space, and windows may have to be punched through the exterior. Executives would most likely want secured parking somewhere on the premises.

Another unresolved issue concerns the building's structural soundness. A 1979 plan for a 300-room Omni hotel unraveled in part because the city was not certain the building had the lateral strength to withstand heavy construction needed to build in hotel rooms.

Uncertainty about the shell's structural capacity was one of the principal reasons the city chose a "lightweight" use when it selected Six Flags in 1982.

Clearly, Alex. Brown's continued presence is vital to the city. The mayor took a bold stand last week to show his desire to retain it. But from a purely architectural point of view, it would not be a disappointment if Alex. Brown focused its search somewhere besides the Power Plant.

The Sports Center, by contrast, offered as good a fit as one might want. If Ms. O'Dea's group wants to keep pursuing its project, the city could do much worse than give it another chance to negotiate.

But if the Sports Center is indeed out of the ballgame, then let it be replaced by some other public attraction that would make full, creative use of the Power Plant's dramatic interior spaces. Offices should be considered only as a last resort. There are too many other wonderful ideas out there.

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