Theater project cost is rising Estimate for restoring city's Hippodrome now near $50 million

Key to west side rebirth

December 11, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

The cost of transforming Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater into a contemporary performing arts center is likely to be closer to $50 million than to the $35 million figure estimated two years ago, according to state officials working on the project.

During a presentation yesterday to Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel, planners said the additional funds are needed to alter parts of the 1914 theater so it will be able to accommodate the large Broadway-style shows that now bypass Baltimore.

If the funds can be raised from public and private sources, the planners said, they are confident the Hippodrome and adjacent buildings can attract patrons and help revitalize the west side of downtown.

"We are trying like crazy to keep the budget to $50 million" or less, said Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, the state agency coordinating plans to restore the property at 12 S. Eutaw St.

But after several months of planning, "we do not see it being $35 million," he said.

The proposed performing arts center has been identified as a centerpiece of the city's $350 million plan to revitalize an 18-block district between Charles Center and the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus.

It involves restoration of the theater and several other structures on the block bounded by Fayette, Paca, Eutaw and Baltimore streets, including two former bank buildings.

The upgraded Hippodrome would replace the Mechanic Theatre Charles Center, which opened in 1967, as the principal venue of the Baltimore Center for Performing Arts, the nonprofit group that brings Broadway-style productions to Baltimore.

Hoffman and other planners warned state legislators in September that Hippodrome renovation costs may exceed the $35 million estimate. But they said then that they would not have firm figures until consultants complete a feasibility study commissioned by the General Assembly.

The consultants have now done more work, Hoffman said yesterday, and the latest cost estimate is $52 million -- a figure that is subject to change as design revisions are made.

Hoffman told the design panel members that the funding plan always called for about 50 percent of the funds to come from the state and 50 percent to come from the city and private sources, including Theatre Management Group -- the Houston organization that wants to operate the Hippodrome.

If the final cost turns out to be higher than originally anticipated, Hoffman said, proponents of the project will have to ask public and private funding sources for more money, to make up the shortfall. He expressed optimism that the project would still receive support, because it is so critical to the city's plan to rejuvenate the west side of downtown. Gov. Parris N. lendening, recently re-elected to a four year term, has expressed strong support for the project as an example of his Smart Growth strategy for Maryland.

The Hippodrome design team is led by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates of New York and Murphy and Dittenhafer of Baltimore.

Stewart Jones, director of the performing arts group at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, said the designers want to restore the theater as much as possible, while making the technological changes that will enable it to function as a contemporary theater.

To do that, he said, they needed to address three requirements: the need for a larger stage and stagehouse; the need for at least 2,200 seats; and the need for sufficient lobby and circulation space and patron amenities, such as VIP seating in the balcony and adequate restrooms.

By connecting the theater with the two banks to the north and several properties along Baltimore Street, the design team was able to provide enough space to create a 2,240 seat theater with all the necessary backstage facilities.

The theater would be restored to contain approximately 1,150 seats on the orchestra level, 1,050 in the balcony above, and several dozen box seats along the sides.

One of the adjoining banks would become a multipurpose space that could be used for performances or conferences of the nearby University of Maryland, while the other bank would be a lobby.

Under the latest plan, the Eutaw Building at the northwest corner of Baltimore and Eutaw Streets would be demolished and replaced with a two-story structure containing another lobby, a box office and possibly retail space.

Hoffman said he wants to have the preliminary design and final cost projections complete in time to show state legislators when they convene next month. He said the planners expect to ask the legislators during the 1999 session for about $2 million to acquire the properties adjoining the theater and another $1.5 million to $2 million to complete the design work.

If that money is approved in 1999, he said, the planners would ask state legislators in the 2000 session for construction funds.

If the construction funds are allocated in April of 2000, planners say, work could begin that spring and be complete by the fall of 2001. The architects' preliminary plans drew high praise from the design review panel.

"It's a really strong and exciting concept," said panel member Melvin Mitchell. "It will do a lot for Baltimore.

It's "a wonderful scheme," added panel member Phoebe Stanton. "I hope it comes to pass."

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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