New town square for Baltimore? Park: Just as Atlanta will benefit from its new Centennial Olympic Park, Baltimore could gain a boost from a public space in the Camden Yards area.

Urban Landscape

August 15, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

LESSONS FROM Atlanta?

If Baltimore can learn anything from the way Georgia's state capital performed as host for the XXVI Olympiad this summer, it probably doesn't involve sporting facilities.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is every bit as good as Olympic Stadium, which will become the home of the Atlanta Braves.

But Baltimore could take a lesson from the way Atlanta used the Olympics to build a "legacy" of improvements that will benefit the city long after the event.

Chief among them is Centennial Olympic Park, the 21-acre public space created as a new town square for the city.

Baltimore won't be host for the Olympic Games soon, of course. But it is building a $200 million football stadium at the south end of Camden Yards. It already has a $100 million-plus baseball park at the north end. And Baltimore is getting ready to celebrate its bicentennial -- the 200th anniversary of its incorporation as a city on Jan. 1, 1797.

All of which suggests that Baltimore needs its own version of Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park.

Call it Bicentennial Park.

Fortunately, the city owns land that would be ideal for such a project -- the block bounded by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Eutaw streets.

Framing the south side is Camden Station, where owners of the Babe Ruth Museum are planning a $7 million baseball museum.

On the east is the $150 million addition to the Baltimore Convention Center.

To the north is the Holiday Inn with its rooftop restaurant.

This valuable land is a parking lot, but it would be even more valuable if it became Bicentennial Park.

Here are 10 reasons why:

It's a bargain. Because the city owns the land, acquisition costs would be nil. No residents or businesses would be displaced.

It would be a new focal point for the city. The park would be an attractive capstone for Oriole Park and the Convention Center. Marking the spot where Baltimore's sports district meets its convention and hotel district, it would be a natural staging area for ethnic festivals and other public gatherings.

It would preserve needed open space. Creation of a park would head off more intensive development that could block views from Pratt Street of Camden Station and the Convention Center.

It would extend the Camden Yards precinct. People already hang around this property before and after baseball games. It is likely to become even more of a magnet when the baseball museum opens and the Convention Center expansion is complete. A landscaped park would add life to the street and encourage people to patronize businesses near Oriole Park.

It would be easy to find. Scott Ditch, a former Rouse Co. vice president, has argued that the restored Camden Station ought to become a full-blown visitors center. A park in front would be an easy-to-find place where visitors could obtain directions to local hotels, restaurants and other downtown attractions.

It would be a wonderful location for a major public art commission in honor of Baltimore's 200th anniversary. Baltimore is known as the Monumental City, but it hasn't built many public monuments recently. The construction budgets for the baseball park, the planned football stadium for the Baltimore Ravens and the Convention Center expansion provided no funds for public art. A landscaped park would be the place to make amends.

Bicentennial Park or Camden Square would be a prestigious address for nearby properties waiting to be developed. The land just west of this parcel, for example, once was offered to the federal government for an office tower that never materialized. It also has been touted as the site for a 1,000-room hotel. A park would be a better neighbor than a parking lot for any high-rise next door. It might even help attract one.

It would help remove blight. Constructing a park would be a convenient excuse for the city to upgrade the appearance of vacant blocks north of Camden Street. The picket fences around the parking lots have a tacky suburban look that is inappropriate for an area visited by as many as three million people a year.

It wouldn't necessarily mean a loss of parking space. Underground parking could be created under both blocks. Whoever gains approval to develop the west lot could be given rights to build parking under both parcels.

It would be a place anyone could visit. When Atlanta was preparing for the Olympics, organizer Billy Payne saw the need for a public space where anyone could go, free of charge, and get caught up in the excitement of the Games. The park more than fulfilled his vision.

To be sure, its first month was marred by the July 27 pipe-bombing that resulted in two deaths. But even the bomb couldn't take away the park's vitality.

Just as Atlanta needed a focal point for the Olympics, Baltimore needs a focal point for the Camden Yards area.

It also needs a tangible way to commemorate its bicentennial.

An attractive public park next to Camden Station and the Convention Center would provide both.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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