Stadium complex proposed by state 'Urban entertainment' eyed as parking boost

Orioles threaten suit

October 31, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

State officials unveiled yesterday their long-awaited plan to bolster parking at Camden Yards with an "urban entertainment complex" between the stadiums that could include shops, restaurants and high-tech, virtual-reality entertainment.

The Maryland Stadium Authority is formally requesting ideas for development of the 7 1/2 -acre site south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard but north of the Ravens' stadium as a way to add parking and create a new destination for downtown visitors.

The Orioles immediately threatened to file a lawsuit to block the project, which they labeled state-sponsored competition for the baseball team's lucrative sale of food, tickets and novelties. The Ravens said they had no objection.

Stadium authority chairman John Moag, who refused to let an Orioles representative address the authority at its meeting yesterday, said he is merely carrying out his organization's legislative mandate to promote development with as much private money as possible.

"We are not in the sports business. We are in the economic development business," Moag said.

He said a new entertainment complex tied to the stadiums could extend the reach of the Inner Harbor entertainment district and bring more jobs and tourists downtown. The authority says it has been contacted by dozens of developers interested in the site, but is casting a wide net for ideas. One potential tenant mentioned in the early discussions, the Niketown retail stores owned by shoemaker Nike Inc., is not interested, Moag said.

Moag emphasized the authority will be looking for something that will draw visitors to the site, which is well off the beaten path of the Inner Harbor.

To work, Moag acknowledged, the complex cannot depend solely on the foot traffic associated with the 81 baseball games and 10 football games to be played there each year.

In doing so, the state would be tapping into one of the hottest trends in real estate: location-based entertainment complexes.

Across the country, developers are "bundling" theme-based retailing, restaurants and bars with multi-screen movie theaters, stadiums and other anchor attractions. Corporations such as Sony, Disney and Warner Bros. are jumping into the fray.

"It's paradoxical. As entertainment in the home becomes more and more sophisticated, the entertainment outside of the house has to be over the top to get people to come out," said Michael Beyard, vice president of strategic planning for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, who is at work on a book on the topic.

In driver's seat

Amusements found at such complexes ranges from computer-simulated NASCAR races, in which a customer sits in a stationary car surrounded by sophisticated audio and visual devices that mimic a ride around a track, to artificial mountains on which climbers test equipment.

At City Walks, outside Los Angeles, popular tours of Universal Studios are linked with movie theaters, movie-themed memorabilia sales and virtual-reality rides on roller coasters.

Beyard and other experts cautioned yesterday that such projects must be carefully planned. They have to be integrated with their surroundings and offer a sufficient quality and quantity of attractions to draw people. Volume is key because patrons tend to spend less money per visit than they do at shopping malls and other developments.

The plan unveiled yesterday would provide parking in three ways. The 200,000- to 300,000-square-foot entertainment center would have to provide its own, 2,300-space parking deck, and make it available during games.

Additionally, the authority wants to buy land across Russell Street, possibly the area now occupied by a Staples Superstore, for a surface parking lot with 950 spaces.

The land could be purchased by a private developer with state aid or taken through condemnation with General Assembly approval. Businesses would have to be relocated.

Subterranean spaces

Finally, the authority proposes adding underground levels to what is now lot "A" immediately south of Oriole Park, expanding its capacity to 700 at a cost of about $11 million.

"This process is just that, a process. It will change. Nothing is written in stone," Moag said.

In a statement released by his office, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has privately expressed reservations about displacing employers at the Staples site, was neutral on the proposal.

"Their efforts to maximize private investment and resolve traffic and parking problems emphasize the need to develop a master plan for the Camden Yards area that all parties can agree to," Schmoke said.

The Orioles prefer the construction of a 3,800-car parking garage at the Staples site. The authority says it would be too costly -- up to $50 million -- and would concentrate automotive and pedestrian traffic at a single site, tying up traffic and keeping fans and their money away from downtown attractions.

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