Baltimore observation deck is still closed

Security: The Top of the World deck at the World Trade Center, shut Sept. 11, is likely to stay closed to the public at least until spring.


November 12, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

New York's Empire State Building reopened its 86th-floor observatory Sept. 29 -- 18 days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The Sears Tower reopened its 103rd-level Skydeck on Oct. 29

President Bush has encouraged all Americans to return to business as usual.

But a full two months after the attacks on America, the 27th-level observation deck atop Baltimore's World Trade Center is still closed. It's one of the few public attractions of any kind in the country that closed for security purposes on Sept. 11 and still hasn't reopened.

And despite a $500,000 renovation last spring, it appears likely to remain closed to the general public at least until spring, although it could open sooner for private events.

"We're closed until further notice," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of Baltimore's Office of Promotion, the city agency that operates the Top of the World observation deck. "We're trying to put together a plan to reopen. We're not there yet."

The attraction opened July 15, 1979, as Baltimore's equivalent of the popular lookout points atop New York and Chicago skyscrapers. The city of Baltimore leases the space for $1 a year from the state of Maryland, which owns the pentagonal building at 401 E. Pratt St. Featuring panoramic views of the city, the observation deck draws more than 125,000 paying visitors a year, and another 30,000 children are admitted free as part of school groups.

The delay is related to increased security precautions required by the state for the World Trade Center. Since Sept. 11, the Maryland Port Administration, a state agency that operates the tower, has stepped up security throughout the building, requiring tenants to wear badges and visitors to leave their drivers licenses with guards in the lobby before going to an upper floor. Public officials want to be particularly cautious because it is a signature building on the waterfront and because of the name World Trade Center.

Gilmore said that the state wants to increase security at the Top of the World observation deck as well and that the attraction cannot reopen until the city and state agree on what measures will be taken. Improvements could range from adding security personnel to installing security equipment at the entrance. The Sears Tower's Skydeck, for example, installed a metal detector and an X-ray machine before its reopening.

Since beginning discussions with the state, Gilmore said, he has become concerned that revenues from attendance at the Top of the World may not be sufficient to offset the costs of increased security. He said attendance typically fluctuates from a low of 3,000 to 4,000 visitors in December and January to a high of up to 22,000 in June, July and August. That means the city is in a better position to absorb higher security costs in the summer months and less able to do so in the winter.

As a result, Gilmore said, his office has been exploring the idea of changing the format and mission of the observation deck to address the state's security concerns and keep costs under control. He said he would like to turn the attraction into an "event facility" that can be rented out by private groups during the winter months and operate it as a public attraction just during the spring and summer.

As an event facility, he explained, the observation deck would not be open to the general public, and the state would get a list of guests attending each event. When it is open as a public attraction, fees charged for attendance would help pay for the added security provisions.

Before such a plan could be implemented, the city's lease must be amended to permit private events. That would require approval from the city's Board of Estimates and the state's Board of Public Works. Gilmore said he initially hoped to reopen under the new format by Nov. 15, but that date may not be possible at this point.

Such a move would be a significant change in use for the Top of the World, which has served over the years as an educational facility and marketing tool for the city. When it reopened after a three-month renovation earlier this year, Gilmore said Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration wanted to increase attendance and make it one of the city's premier attractions.

"In some ways, it's the best of both worlds for us," Gilmore said of the proposed arrangement. "We get a lot of requests to use the facility for private functions, but the lease didn't allow us to use it in that manner."

Others say they understand the need for improved security but don't like to hear that the Top of the World may not be open to the public year-round.

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