The monster that looms in the outfield

Hilton proposal cuts ballpark off from city skyline, competitor contends


April 27, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The Orioles are off to another shaky start. Attendance is down. Key players have been injured. What more could go wrong this spring for team owner Peter Angelos?

The city could destroy the magical ambience of Baltimore's stadium by permitting construction of a 24-story hotel that would wall it off from the rest of downtown - giving fans one more reason not to show up.

That grim scenario has been a possibility ever since Mayor Martin O'Malley held a news conference last November to announce that a Washington group wants to build a 750-room Hilton hotel on two city-owned blocks north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an area bounded by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Paca streets.

City leaders have since received two competing proposals that don't smother the stadium as much, and they're expected to make a selection this spring. But the Hilton plan is widely regarded as the front-runner because it came in first.

Its potentially devastating effect on Baltimore's prized ballpark came into focus during a recent urban design forum on the hotel proposals sponsored by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

A local architect on a competing team presented images showing the view of Baltimore's skyline from the upper deck of Oriole Park today - and how much of that view would be lost if the Hilton hotel were built as proposed.

The first view captures everything that is so right about Oriole Park. Fans can see the action on the green playing field in the foreground and the fascinating mix of old and new buildings in the background. The view includes the one-of-a-kind buildings that have come to define Baltimore over the years: the slender Bromo Seltzer Tower with its crenellated top and giant clock faces, the office building with a cast-iron front at 300 West Pratt St., the Bank of America's gold-crowned landmark on Light Street.

This engaging urban composition serves as a never-ending advertisement for the city and how much it has been revitalized, in part by the presence of the ballpark itself. When fans see distinctive structures such as the Bromo tower or the sleek blue building that steps down toward the harbor, they know they're not in Dallas or Denver. They're in downtown Baltimore, and it's not a bad place to be.

The second view shows how many of those memorable backdrop buildings would disappear from sight if the Hilton is built. Also lost would be the sense of openness that one gets in the stands today. Instead, the open end of the curved seating bowl would be closed in by two large hotel buildings one block away. The larger of the two would be a 24-story structure rising north of Camden Station and dwarfing it, the ornate scoreboard behind center field, and the long B&O Warehouse behind right field. The second building would rise 15 stories and loom over left field, throwing off the intimately-scaled composition. Along Paca Street would be an eight-story headquarters for Catholic Relief Services.

The before-and-after images represent the first attempt to show the impact the Hilton would have on Oriole Park and the Camden Yards area. They indicate that the 11-year-old ballpark, whose success sparked a back-to-the-city movement in stadium development nationwide, would lose the direct visual connection it has with its own hometown.

At present, the skyline is so close and inviting it seems to be the 10th player on the home team. With the proposed Hilton in place, Oriole Park would still be an attractive and functional spot for baseball, but the city would be shut out of the view. The ballpark would become a canyon, a tomb, exactly the sort of masonry doughnut that the team sought to avoid building in the first place. It might as well be out on the Beltway somewhere.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense," said Klaus Philipsen, a local architect and co-chair of the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "When the stadium was built, its planners had the foresight to connect it visually and functionally with downtown. It would be a shame to block the views today and take away one of its main assets."

The developer selection process has been conducted behind closed doors by the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public agency that oversees downtown development. The architecture foundation sponsored a public forum on the hotel proposals largely because the city would not.

The principals behind the Hilton proposal, Robert Johnson of RLJ Development LLC and Robert Gladstone of Quadrangle Development Corp., declined to participate in the forum - a decision that speaks volumes.

The images were generated by Peter Fillat Architects of Baltimore. Fillat would be the designer of a 755-room Westin hotel proposed by another group, so the firm clearly has a vested interest.

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