Baltimore's just-renamed 1st Mariner Arena, formerly known as the Civic Center or Baltimore Arena, has never been one of downtown's most attractive buildings. Now 40 years old, it's outmoded in many ways and likely to be replaced within the next decade.
Can Baltimore businessman Ed Hale's plans for a Times-Square-inspired face lift make this aging, city-owned meeting hall more appealing and profitable during the years it has left? And how will Hale's plans mesh with other city efforts to rejuvenate Charles Center and the west side of downtown?
These are questions that members of Baltimore's Planning Commission will consider this week as they decide whether to approve City Council legislation that would permit Hale and his associates to add 17 billboard-sized advertising signs on the arena and an adjacent garage.
The signs would be the first billboards erected in the city since 1999, when Martin O'Malley signed legislation imposing a moratorium on new billboards as one of his first mayoral acts.
Hale, who is chairman of 1st Mariner Bancorp. and owner of the Baltimore Blast soccer team, the arena's lead tenant, says revenue from the signs will enable him to invest more than $1 million for other improvements to the 11,500-seat hall. He wants to outline the giant metal fins on the roof with fiber optic lights, repaint areas that need it, add directional graphics and upgrade the streetscape - all ways, he believes, to make it more attractive for public events.
For city leaders short on funds to fix up municipal buildings, it's an enticing proposition. The arena has needed a savior for some time, and Hale has some good ideas.
But this mariner also is entering uncharted territory with his proposal to put so many billboards on one structure, no matter how ugly. If done effectively, it could be a welcome sign of life for the west side. But if done poorly, it could be a visual disaster. The key is the way it's carried out.
Bounded by Howard and Baltimore streets and Hopkins Place, the arena has plenty of wall space for signs. Open since Oct. 23, 1962 - long before convention centers started becoming "pedestrian friendly"- it's the original boring urban box. Its most distinctive architectural feature is the series of chevrons on the roof.
A touch of Hong Kong
As part of his renovation plan, Hale last week installed signs reflecting the name change to 1st Mariner Arena. He obtained naming rights last fall by agreeing to pay the city $75,000 a year for 10 years - a pittance compared to what the Ravens want for Baltimore's football stadium. The neon signs are adaptations of the blue and green letters and gold compass of the 1st Mariner Bank logo, with the word `Arena' added in a cursive green script. (The 1st Mariner signs are permitted under current laws because they identify the building; advertising billboards are prohibited unless the moratorium is lifted.)
Working with SMG, the arena's manager, and Clear Channel Communications, an outdoor advertising company, Hale came up with a proposal that calls for installation of 17 signs along Howard and Baltimore streets and Hopkins Place.
According to a fact sheet prepared for prospective advertisers, the signs would come in three basic configurations - 16 feet by 60 feet, 45 feet by 54 feet, and 27 feet by 45 feet. They would be made of "flex vinyl" and vinyl mesh, hung from the wall and illuminated from the front.
Hale points to cities such as Hong Kong and New York, where signs on buildings help enliven urban areas, day and night. "I thought long and hard about whether I should put my name on that building, because it doesn't have a good reputation," he said. "But I decided, if we're going to be here, let's make the best of the situation. ... This is going to brighten the area and bring that building alive."
To show city officials what they have in mind, Hale and Clear Channel last year prepared photo montages demonstrating the variety of signs and how they might fit together on the arena. Hale says one sign will be reserved for the city's use free of charge. He'd also like to erect a large video screen along Hopkins Place.
Clear Channel's images contain mock ads for Jeep, Panasonic, a radio station and a clothier, among others. There is not much wall space between ads. One sign simply picks up where the last leaves off. The messages tend to run together, like giant versions of the news crawls on cable TV. There's no rhythm, no punch, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Sign patterns seem driven more by Clear Channel's manufacturing capabilities than any aesthetic vision for the arena.