It's time for Hopkins to step up to the plate

The institution has the credibility and it has the money to keep Memorial Stadium standing.

Architecture : Review

January 07, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

The year 2001 is starting out very much like 2000 in Baltimore in at least one respect -- the city is stuck in a preservation quagmire. Last year, the fate of Baltimore's west side historic district was uncertain. This year, the focus is on one of the city's best known icons: Memorial Stadium.

Opened in 1954 and known as the longtime home to the Orioles and Baltimore's two National Football League teams, the Colts and the Ravens, the stadium was rendered obsolete when two new stadiums were built in Camden Yards. Many neighbors didn't want it sitting vacant near their homes, and campaigned to have it razed. But for others it remains an important link to the past -- a familiar landmark, a repository of sports memories and a monument to war veterans.

For most of the past year, even diehard preservationists had become resigned to the prospect that the stadium was destined to disappear to make way for a $43 million retirement community and YMCA branch, a development selected in the waning months of Kurt L. Schmoke's administration.

But just before the actual demolition work was due to begin last fall, those who want to save the stadium were given new hope when two of the three members of Maryland's Board of Public Works -- state treasurer Richard N. Dixon and comptroller William Donald Schaefer -- signaled that they would not approve a $2.6 million demolition contract, forcing it to be temporarily withdrawn from consideration.

The delay in approving the demolition contract came less than three weeks after preservationists rallied at the stadium on Veterans Day, to support its preservation as a war memorial. Around the same time, community residents circulated a petition stating that they want to see the stadium saved.

In addition, some veterans have reacted negatively to a plan that would relocate only part of the distinctive lettering on the stadium's front facade to a new, lower wall in Camden Yards. They say the truncated version is an insult to the men and women commemorated on the existing plaque, especially when ground was just broken for a $100 million World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington.

All of this last-minute activity is a sign that many people are finally beginning to realize how much the city will lose if Memorial Stadium disappears. In response, Mayor Martin O'Malley, who now controls the fate of the city-owned parcel, indicated in December that he would be willing to consider alternative plans for the property, but that prospective bidders ought to step forward quickly. The 29.5-acre tract is bounded by 33rd and 36th streets, Ellerslie Avenue and Ednor Road.

Will Hopkins step in?

These 11th-hour developments mean there may be one last chance to save the stadium. While there has been a groundswell of activity from "interested parties," there's only one institution that has the ability to turn it around -- Johns Hopkins University. If Hopkins stepped forward and promised to carry out a redevelopment plan that it created in 1998 and then backed away from -- a $44 million technology park with the stadium as its centerpiece -- that clearly would be the best use for the property.

Three proposals were submitted in time to meet the city's deadline of Jan. 8, 1999. A plan for a $55 million commercial development met with little public support. Pretty quickly, the choices were narrowed to two plans, one that would raze the stadium, and one that would save it:

n Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., a consortium of churches, submitted a plan calling for the land to be cleared for construction of a retirement community and YMCA branch. It was a solid use and fills a need, but such a facility doesn't have to be built on the stadium site.

n The technology park. This proposal, the most daring of the three, called for the stadium to be recycled as the center of a "comprehensive learning, research, development and business campus." The idea was to use the stadium's horseshoe-shaped shell -- with its sturdy concrete piers and high-ceilinged concourses -- to create the sort of laboratories that can be prohibitively expensive to build from scratch.

The building was constructed to withstand capacity crowds, engineers said, so it's ideal for experiments that must be conducted in vibration-free settings. The playing field would be preserved to commemorate the sports events held there -- and as green space for those who work inside. The 110-foot-tall memorial wall would be saved in its entirety, and a new plaza would be created in front.

This proposal had the potential to be a one-of-a-kind attraction for the city and the region, capable of drawing businesses from outside the area. There are other retirement communities and retail centers, but nothing like this technology park. It even fits into the Digital Harbor campaign that Baltimore is using to attract high-tech entrepreneurs.

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