Disney seeds finally sprouted Restaurant: The ESPN Zone restaurant-entertainment center is the result of an effort launched in the 1980s, when city officials asked Disney to build a project in Baltimore.

Urban Landscape

July 23, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

THIS MONTH'S opening of the ESPN Zone entertainment center inside Baltimore's Power Plant marked the culmination of a six-month construction blitz aimed at bringing a Walt Disney Co. attraction to downtown Baltimore.

But the seeds of Disney's arrival were planted more than a decade ago, when city officials first sought to persuade Disney Chairman Michael Eisner to build an urban entertainment project in Baltimore.

In an interview during his visit to Baltimore for the ESPN Zone opening, Eisner said Disney considered launching a project in Baltimore shortly after he became head of the company in the mid-1980s, but the timing wasn't right.

"It was just too early for us," Eisner said. "We were concerned with our own parks. We needed the right concept."

ESPN Zone -- a multilevel sports-theme restaurant and entertainment center built as a joint venture of Disney and ESPN -- turned out to be the right concept, and the former power generating station on Pier 4 was the right location, Eisner said.

"We figured, if they're not making electricity here anymore, why can't we generate our own kind of electricity?" he quipped.

But Disney's selection of Baltimore as the city to build the prototype for what may become a chain of ESPN Zones didn't occur without extensive negotiations.

"It was not easy getting this through Disney," said David Cordish, head of the Cordish Co., which is converting the Power Plant to a $30 million entertainment complex. "Not that they didn't love [the Power Plant], but because Baltimore isn't the place you'd automatically think of to do this. And nothing gets done without Michael Eisner's approval."

Cordish said that as a developer active in many cities, he was aware that Disney had created a division to explore opportunities for opening attractions in cities and regions throughout the United States.

He also knew the executive Disney had tapped to head its regional entertainment division, Art Levitt, formerly head of Hard Rock International, because Levitt had opened a Hard Rock Cafe at a Cordish development near Niagara Falls.

Cordish asked Levitt to consider Baltimore's Power Plant as a setting for one of its urban projects. Levitt liked the idea, and discussed it with Eisner.

Eisner, in turn, was familiar with Baltimore and the Power Plant from lobbying efforts made during the 1980s by then-housing commissioner M. Jay Brodie, former promotion and tourism office director Sandra Hillman, and others. They had traveled to Florida at one point to try to persuade Disney officials to launch a project in the Inner Harbor.

At the ESPN Zone opening, Eisner said he was familiar with the short-lived entertainment center that another developer, Six Flags Corp., created inside the Power Plant -- down to the "smell-o-vision" in one theater.

He said he also admired the late developer James Rouse, who founded the company that built Harborplace. The Disney company had asked Rouse to serve as an adviser on urban development, and Eisner said he met Rouse on several occasions.

In addition, Brodie, who now heads the Baltimore Development Corp., knew Disney's lead in-house architect, Wing Chao, and other Disney designers.

The more the Disney executives looked at the Power Plant, the more they regarded it as an ideal location for the world's first ESPN Zone. Now Disney is involved with a second project in Baltimore, the Port Discovery children's museum, for which it is designing exhibits.

"This was the right place," Eisner said. "This was the right time."

5 firms in the running to design arts center

Five architectural teams are under consideration to design the $35 million performing arts center that state officials are planning to create in and around Baltimore's historic Hippodrome Theater at 12 N. Eutaw St.

The contenders are RTKL Associates of Baltimore; Richter Cornbrooks Gribble of Baltimore; Cochran Stephenson & Donkervoet Inc. of Baltimore with Loschsky Marquardt Nesholm of Seattle; Martinez and Johnson Architecture of Washington; and Hardy, Holzman, Pfeiffer Associates of New York. The "short list" was created from 13 teams that responded to a request for qualifications issued by the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Construction manager candidates include Whiting Turner Contracting Co. and Clark Construction Co. Decisions are expected within the next several weeks.

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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