The spirit of Camden Yards? Stadium: The preliminary design for a $200 million downtown home for the Ravens has disappointed some observers.

June 02, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Will Baltimore's new downtown football stadium be as good as Oriole Park at Camden Yards?

Taxpayers expect it to be, given the $200 million funding commitment by the state, the prime property it will occupy and the "dream team" designing it -- the same architects who created Oriole Park.

No other building on the drawing boards for this region will be more prominent, more costly and more closely watched around the country.

But the designs unveiled this spring have more than a few design experts warning that the Ravens' football stadium could turn out to be everything Oriole Park is not: a hulking, charmless concrete bowl in the middle of a parking lot.

Planners say the designs are preliminary and that there is time for revisions. "Nobody wants to make a mistake on a project as big and visible as this," said Bruce H. Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Despite such assurances, architects are grappling with a variety of factors that make it difficult to design a stadium that stands out the way Oriole Park does: The timetable is tighter, and football stadiums typically lack the nooks and crannies that added so much interest to the baseball stadium.

In addition, the site is farther from downtown and has no historic buildings to play off, such as the B&O Warehouse adjacent to the ballpark.

And the stadium will be up to 30 feet taller than its baseball counterpart, with up to 20,000 more seats.

Even given those constraints, the early designs have troubled some observers, including members of Baltimore's Architectural Review Board.

And as the clock ticks down toward a Sept. 1 groundbreaking, planners are making decisions that could preclude architectural innovations later. The stadium is scheduled to open in August 1998.

"This is probably the most important building that is going to be constructed here in the next 25 years," review board member George Qualls told Stadium Authority representatives last month. "I have grave concerns about what I see. This looks like it could be office space."

None of the five members of the review panel is satisfied with the design.

"Where is the spirit of Camden Yards?" asked panel member George Notter, who heads a firm in Washington, D.C. "Teams win because they have some player out there who does something different. They need to address that."

Some local architects have also expressed disappointment about the renderings they have seen.

"There doesn't appear to be a big idea to this design," said Peter Fillat, co-chairman of the Urban Design Committee of the American Institute of Architects' Baltimore chapter. "It looks as if were spit out by a computer."

Compatible projects

The stadium designer is HOK Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City, Mo., one of the world's leading sports architecture firms and chief designer of Oriole Park. In the 1980s, Maryland officials decided to hire HOK to design both Camden Yards stadiums so that the two projects would be compatible and consistent in quality.

The Stadium Authority, the state agency in charge of building and operating both stadiums, promises that the mission of Camden Yards will be fulfilled.

"This is an important building," Hoffman said. "It's a gateway to the city, and we have every intention of making it as good as the baseball park."

One of the biggest challenges is the tight timetable, designed so that the stadium will be ready for the 1998 football season.

HOK couldn't officially be hired to design the football stadium until its financing was approved by the General Assembly in April, leaving less than five months before the Sept. 1 groundbreaking.

As a result, the construction schedule is "10 months less than we had for Oriole Park," Hoffman said. "We don't have the luxury of designing four different scenarios and deciding what everybody likes."

The football team is a key to the process, too, and its lease gives the owners a strong say in the final design.

David Modell, vice president of the Ravens, said the team has been pleased with HOK's work. The stadium is "going to have a lot of distinctive features," he said. "It's going to make our city proud."

But given the nature of the project, he said, there's only so much anyone can do.

'Can't dress up a pig'

"You can't dress up a pig," he said. "It's not the Meyerhoff. It's not Lincoln Center. It's a stadium. It's going to be a great super-duper stadium."

Such pronouncements raise hackles among those who advocate first-rate design in Baltimore.

"What? That's not true," Notter said. "They know better than that. They can do better than that."

Although the planners say there is time for revisions, much of the design is already set.

The construction site is a 40-acre parking lot bounded roughly by Hamburg, Russell and Ostend streets and by the state's light rail and MARC train lines. Its center is a half-mile south of Oriole Park and less than 1,000 feet from the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

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