AMID the confusions and complexities of life, don't you sometimes wish that you could pick just one thing and do it right, and then lots of other things would magically fall into place?
Well, you can, and you can do it in downtown Baltimore, on the site of the Baltimore Arena.
In case you haven't thought about the Arena lately, it's the big, dull building that we used to call the Civic Center. Journalist Garry Wills once said it was the first Baltimore building that really looked like an air conditioner. Now the powers that be are talking about tearing it down.
But don't think of the Arena as a building -- think about it as a site. In fact, think of the Arena site as the most important piece of ground in Baltimore. If we can redevelop the Arena site in the right way, a key part of the new downtown will take shape.
The Arena takes up two city blocks, and it walls off Charles Center from UniversityCenter and the loft district. Back in 1962, when the Arena opened, the idea of walling off Charles Center from its western neighbors probably sounded smart. Then the loft district was something else -- a place where people made pants, and University Hospital was still just a hospital.
Now the area west of the Arena has changed immensely. It is vibrant and prosperous. University Hospital has become UniversityCenter, a major employer with a large campus of impressive buildings. The loft district is a hotbed of upscale living, a thousand apartments with low vacancy rates. And the charming historic neighborhood of Ridgely's Delight, which is functionally part of UniversityCenter, is home to another thousand households.
A Berlin wall
Today, walling off Charles Center from UniversityCenter and the loft district no longer looks smart. Charles Center doesn't need to shield its eyes from shabby western neighbors. On the contrary, a graying Charles Center, losing prestige and tenants to newer buildings near the Inner Harbor, needs to tap into the energy of the vibrant district on the other side of the Arena.
How to do it? Start by leveling the Arena and re-opening the block of Redwood Street that used to run where the Arena now sits. Then you could walk from Hopkins Plaza, the heart of Charles Center, to the front door of University Hospital. (without making detours on Lombard or Baltimore streets).
A new boulevard
With one stroke, downtown would stretch smoothly from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Little Italy. Charles Center would be the true center of this much larger downtown, and Redwood Street, which is a charming Main Street in the loft district, would turn into a restaurant row for office workers, students, downtown residents, Orioles and Ravens fans and others.
With Redwood Street open again, the Arena site would become two development sites of great value. Almost anything could be built there -- perhaps even a replacement Arena. The key is to make Redwood Street work as a lively pedestrian street with plenty of retail space.
The issue of the Arena site couldn't come at a better time because it's not the only big development issue west of Charles Center. Plans to renovate the Hippodrome Theatre are moving forward. If you have passed by the long-closed Hippodrome lately, you know how much the surrounding neighborhood needs to improve to support a serious Broadway stop in the Hippodrome.
Fortunately, though, you can solve that problem. You can do just one thing -- redevelop the Arena site in a smart, urbane way -- and lots of other things will magically fall into place.
Charles Duff, a writer, a developer and planner with Jubilee Baltimore, is president of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.
Pub Date: 4/07/98