Looming five-story images of cars, sneakers and Cokes may soon enwrap the 1st Mariner Arena in downtown Baltimore because a city Circuit Court judge refused yesterday to halt construction of 14 billboards on the building's facade.
Depending on who is talking, the 54-foot-tall illuminated advertisements will either enliven the arena's neighborhood or scare away prospective tenants of nearby apartment and office buildings.
A group of owners whose properties face the arena -- some of the biggest business names in the city -- are challenging the legality of the billboards, saying the signs are a visual disaster in the making. They sought, unsuccessfully, to freeze work until their case is heard in August.
"The process begins now," said Joseph Kunigonis, real estate manager for Clear Channel Inc., the company that is to place the billboards on the arena's walls.
"We'll move quickly to obtain permits," Kunigonis said. "But it's more than signs; it's a whole revitalization project."
Because of the extensive work required to prepare the arena for the billboards, lights and landscaping, the signs will not be completed for at least two months, he said.
Kunigonis said the company has pending billboard contracts with Coca-Cola, Nike, Volkswagen, Reebok and the Baltimore Blast soccer team. A 15th sign is to be reserved for public service announcements. Together, they will make the West Baltimore Street area livelier, Kunigonis said.
Owners of nearby property say the signs will amount to "visual clutter" and argue that a zoning change allowing the signs to be erected was illegally approved by the city, which owns the arena.
The trial, scheduled for Aug. 20, is expected to determine whether the city acted lawfully in lifting Baltimore's 2-year-old billboard ban exclusively to benefit the arena.
Yesterday, the group opposing the billboards was denied its request for a stay, an order to stop work, until that trial.
Clear Channel was hired to erect the billboards by Edwin F. Hale, chairman of 1st Mariner Bank, which owns the naming rights to the arena. Hale also owns the Blast, which plays in the arena.
Hale has said the billboards will help defray the cost of operating a professional team in the city.
The city agreed to make an exception a downtown billboard ban "to level the playing field" with the football and baseball stadiums at Camden Yards, where ads were sold to raise revenue, said Sandra Gutman, an attorney for the city.
Further, she said, city officials instrumental in revitalization efforts on the west side do not oppose billboards on the arena. Clear Channel agreed to remove 14 other billboards around the city.
The city has filed a motion to dismiss the property owners' lawsuit before the August trial. The court has not taken up that motion.
James E. Carbine, the lawyer representing the property owners, had argued that the billboards might deter tenants in west-side apartments and offices by creating a trashy look. The owners have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and upgrade properties as part of a public-private effort to revitalize the area.
"We don't know what the reaction of tenants will be," he said.
Judge M. Brooke Murdock said that by law, the property owners had to prove that they would be definitely be "irreparably harmed" by the signs before the trial.
Petitioners listed in the suit are: MBC Realty LLC, Banc of America Community Development Corp., Charles Plaza LLC, Charlesview LLLP, Park Charles Apartments Associates LLC, Park Charles Office Associates LLC, PGA One Charles Center LP, PGA 210 North Charles Street LLLP, Redwood Square Apartments LP, the Atrium at Market Square LLC, the Marlboro-Classic LP and 120 West Fayette Street LLLP.
Owners of those properties include Bank of America, Mercantile Bank, apartment developer and manager Southern Management Co. and real estate developer Artemis Properties Inc., owned by lawyer and Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos.
Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of the West Side Renaissance Corp., a business organization that represents most of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the property owners remain hopeful that they will prevail.
"The question of the legality of billboards remains on track for trial later this summer," he said.
"We hope it can get resolved and resolved quickly. The preference of the west-side stakeholders was to stop them in the meantime."