Site of welcome center debated Where should it be? City and state officials disagree on placement of a building for tourist information at the Inner Harbor.

Urban Landscape

November 16, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Constellation Center, the peanut butter-colored pavilion that set off a howl of protest when it was built in 1990, may soon disappear.

But it would be replaced by a one-story building that could take up even more of Constellation Dock and block even more water views from the Inner Harbor promenade than the current building does.

That's what would happen if the Schmoke administration

proceeds with a new idea it has been considering for the Inner Harbor -- construction of a $2.5 million "Welcome Center" on Constellation Dock.

The idea represents a potential reversal of a year-old plan to build the visitors center on the west shore of the Inner Harbor, a location that has widespread backing.

Wherever it goes, the orientation center will be a place where tourists, conventioneers and residents can get information about attractions, hotels, restaurants and events in Baltimore and Maryland.

The Welcome Center would be funded by the city and state and run by the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. City officials want to open it in time for Baltimore's Bicentennial in 1997.

Well before Constellation Dock became a focus of interest, the Baltimore Development Corp. had been working to build an 8,000-square-foot, two-story building just south of the Light Street pavilion of Harborplace.

The site, visible from Conway Street, was chosen in part to take advantage of that corridor's growing prominence as a gateway to the city. The city and state have allocated $131,000 each to design a building for the west shore location.

But this fall, just as planners are preparing to apply to the state legislature for construction funds, several agency chiefs within the Schmoke administration have questioned the West Shore location and suggested that other sites be considered. More than one has indicated a strong interest in Constellation Dock now that the vessel is to be moved to dry dock for an overhaul.

The agency chiefs are all members of the Development Group, (( which Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke formed to coordinate physical development in the city.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said that some members balked after a recent presentation of plans to build the Welcome Center on the West Shore.

He said the questions centered on whether the Light Street location is sufficiently accessible to people coming in cars and whether the 7 to 15 short-term parking spaces reserved for it are enough.

"We're going to look at it again," he said. "When we have the answers, we'll roll ahead."

But the Light Street location still has strong support from groups that have been involved in the planning from the start, including the Rouse Co., owners of Harborplace; the state's division of tourism and promotion; and the Mayor's Advisory Committee for Tourism, Entertainment and Culture (McTEC).

Nancy Brennan, director emerita of the Baltimore City Life Museums and head of McTEC's Welcome Center planning subcommittee, said the Light Street location was chosen after a lengthy review process that involved traffic experts, economic development specialists and community groups.

She said it was selected because it has plenty of room, good visibility and would be equally capable of serving pedestrians and motorists who need to stop in quickly for directions.

She said Constellation Dock is inadequate because it would not accessible to people in cars and is not as easy to build on as the West Shore site.

She is also concerned about repeating the mistake that planners made in building the Constellation Center, a 4,600-square-foot structure that has been lambasted for being too large and obstructing views of the water and the warship it was meant to promote.

If an 8,000 square-foot building were placed at Constellation Dock, she said, "you would have a very big box there, and that's not what we want as a city, I don't think. It would destroy the vista."

Tony Hawkins, vice president and group director of the Rouse Co., said he would like more information about the city's plans for Constellation Dock. But he said he has been a strong supporter of the West Shore location for the Welcome Center because of its visibility and its accessibility for people arriving by car or by foot.

Another backer of the West Shore site is Dean Kenderdine, assistant secretary of the division of tourism and promotion for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development. There's no question but that trying to transfer the building is fraught with problems. I just don't know what is gained by moving it," he said, "I'm very fearful it would affect the project from a timing standpoint."

One party that has not been consulted is the Constellation Foundation, owner of the building that would be torn down. Gail Shawe, chairwoman of the nonprofit group raising funds to repair the dilapidated vessel, said it will need a building on Constellation Dock after repairs are completed in about 2 1/2 years.

"Nobody has talked to me" about the demolition proposal, she said.

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