Wallscaping the Arena

January 13, 2003

BANKING AND sports entrepreneur Edwin F. Hale Sr. has an intriguing idea: He wants to cover the 1st Mariner Arena downtown with 15 advertising "wallscapes," each four stories high.

This wrapping of the ugly 1960s concrete box, formerly known as the Civic Center and Baltimore Arena, has some aesthetic merit. But if the city allows such a cover-up to jazz up an underused corner of Charles Center, that should be done with taste. Billboards ought to bring excitement to an area that is about to be transformed into a new entertainment district. No malt liquor or lingerie ads, please.

And if this commercial repackaging happens, it should not divert the city from what must be its overriding goal: replacing the inadequate and obsolete Arena with a modern, first-rate sports and entertainment complex.

Building-sized signs known as wallscaping are the latest gimmick used by the advertising industry to combat billboard bans that many cities, including Baltimore, have adopted in recent years. One pioneer is Dallas. There the City Council overrode objections from the planning commission some 18 months ago and gave parking garages the right to put vinyl mesh advertising images on their walls.

Among the first to go up was a multistory likeness of Dallas Maverick Michael Finley soaring across a wall to dunk the moon. Such sports- and entertainment-related billboards would be appropriate uses at the Arena as well.

It's not surprising that Mr. Hale, who paid $75,000 a year for the naming rights to the Arena, wants to squeeze every penny out of his deal. But asking for 15 billboards is stretching it. The City Council should limit the advertisements to the Hopkins Place, Lombard and Baltimore street walls of the building. The Howard Street side, facing a new apartment complex under construction, should be kept free of wallscapes.

The most prudent way to go about this is to try out wallscapes for two years. That limit would test the ability of Mr. Hale and Clear Channel Outdoors, his billboard contractor, to come up with visual images that contribute to downtown verve, instead of detracting from it.

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