Building momentum

July 14, 2002

MANY OLD-TIMERS find it difficult to believe that after 25 years of false starts, more than $150 million worth of construction is under way along Eutaw and Howard streets, on the western edge of downtown. The city must now prepare for the next steps. Building a replacement for the outdated Baltimore Arena must be among them.

For years, it has been evident that the 13,000-seat venue, built in the 1960s at the corner of Baltimore and Howard streets, is inadequate. Planners have identified 10 possible replacement sites, with the front-runners apparently being the existing Howard Street location or sites in the vicinity of the two stadiums farther south.

Of late, the issue has become dormant, in part because any rebuilding -- estimated to cost about $200 million -- is now seen as part of the Washington-Baltimore region's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. But even if the region is not designated in November as an Olympic finalist, City Hall ought to be thinking about ways to build a larger, modern forum.

Its location may indeed be along Howard Street. But it might also be in the rapidly transforming former industrial wasteland east of Canton. Should the latter happen, the current arena site would become available as a choice redevelopment site: It bridges the financial district and the west-side renewal area.

These are issues on which planners and City Hall ought to focus, even as the City Council begins deliberating on strengthening west-side revitalization.

A recently introduced urban renewal amendment would allow the city to acquire, through purchase or condemnation, 42 buildings and vacant lots near the $71 million Centerpoint luxury apartment complex and the $65 million Hippodrome performing arts center.

The proposed acquisitions would not only support those pivotal construction projects, slated for completion in 2004, they would also prop up a number of other revitalization initiatives that are on the planning board. Thus, a Eutaw Street strip club could be closed down, a Howard Street McDonald's could be used as a base for an office development, and a much-talked-about apartment conversion could be kicked into high gear at the Abell building, at Baltimore and Eutaw streets.

Although skeptics remain, the west-side renewal is real. Just look at the new University of Maryland law school and the Stewart's building, both of which are nearing completion.

With momentum building, now is the time to refocus on the arena.

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