Memorial Stadium's last Memorial Day?


It might have been a groundbreaking American building. Instead, it's history.

May 30, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

It may be shaped like a horseshoe, but Baltimore's venerable Memorial Stadium appears to have run out of luck. After reviewing three proposals, the city this month awarded development rights to a team that wants to raze the stadium to make way for a retirement community called Stadium Place. As a result, tomorrow may be the last Memorial Day that the city-owned landmark -- one of Baltimore's most prominent memorials to war veterans -- will be standing on 33rd Street.

The decision may be a victory for community residents who see nothing particularly lucky about having a vacant stadium in their back yard. Many neighboring property owners and renters are looking forward to the $43 million development, which would include a YMCA branch and acres of recreational space.

But while affordable senior housing is unquestionably needed in the city, the decision is a disappointment to those who were hoping Memorial Stadium might somehow continue to fill the role it has played for decades -- as a visual and economic anchor for north Baltimore.

The city had the opportunity to follow a much different scenario -- and for that matter, still could. Besides the proposal to tear the stadium down, Baltimore received bids from two groups that wanted to preserve the stadium. Both started from the premise that the building was a valuable asset and deserved to be the starting point for any new development on 33rd Street.

Either plan might have drawn attention as a model of preservation, not only for Baltimore but for the many other cities that are replacing multipurpose stadiums. Baltimore could have made history by demonstrating how an aging stadium could be adapted for new uses. Now, unless the selected developers falter -- or the next mayor has a change of heart -- some other city will be the pioneer.

Aging sports facilities

Memorial Stadium is one of four aging sports facilities in Maryland that are targeted for the wrecking ball.

The Baltimore Arena is destined to disappear, and the University of Maryland wants to replace Cole Field House in College Park. After announcing plans last year to recycle the Capital Centre in Landover, the Cordish Company and owner Abe Pollin now want to take it down to make way for a retail and entertainment complex.

None of those arenas is likely to be missed by as many people as Memorial Stadium, home of major league baseball and football since 1954. None has as much potential for reuse, either.

One conversion plan proposed turning the stadium into a commercial center with shops, restaurants and recreational activities such as a golf driving range. The second envisioned a technology park that would make the stadium a center for hundreds of high- paying jobs.

Of these two proposals, the one worked out in the most convincing detail was the $44 million technology park plan, submitted by a group headed by Willard Hackerman of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and Theo Rodgers of A&R Development Corp. They proposed that the stadium's shell be preserved and that the seating areas and concourses be reconfigured as 300,000 square feet of laboratories and offices for research and development initiated by Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State and others.

The technology park team hired Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum (HOK) to plan the conversion -- the same firm that designed the new stadiums in Camden Yards for the Orioles and Ravens. A leader in the design of sports facilities, HOK is one of the country's largest architecture and engineering firms, with vast experience designing preservation projects and research facilities as well.

This was a chance for the firm to come full cycle in the sports design field, by proposing a strategy for reusing a stadium rendered obsolete by the firm's own work. It could have been the start of a wave of sports facility conversion work for HOK -- and essentially a new building type for America.

What made HOK's plan for Memorial Stadium intriguing was the way the architects took the very features that made the stadium obsolete as a sports facility and turned them into attributes for the technology park.

For example, one shortcoming of the old stadium was upper-deck support columns that blocked the views of some spectators. The architects realized that these columns also frame areas that could be transformed to high-ceilinged research and development space. They're also part of an extraordinarily sound structural system designed to minimize vibrations -- an important quality for certain experiments.

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