Safety is a focus around theater

Hippodrome operators, city officials want patrons to feel secure in the area

January 31, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

John Cavey is the type of guy the Hippodrome Theatre's management hopes to attract. The 56-year-old industrial salesman from Baltimore County occasionally attends plays in the city and wants to see the theater's $62 million overhaul.

But old perceptions about downtown Baltimore's west side leave him a little uneasy. After all, Cavey still remembers when his car was broken into near the theater - in 1969. Yet he is willing to give the area another chance.

"I would probably frequent the place as long as there wasn't a safety problem," he said recently from his home in Parkville. In an allusion that would make city officials cringe, he added, "Hey, they had to settle the Wild West."

With The Producers scheduled to open Feb. 10, the theater's operators and city officials have been choreographing a security plan meant to safeguard patrons - and to make them feel safe going to the 2,286-seat venue at 12 N. Eutaw St.

The Police Department plans to increase patrols around the theater. The city is installing new lights on nearby blocks. A network of 16 surveillance cameras will watch the streets. And hundreds of parking spaces will be reserved within a stage whisper of the theater entrance.

"Once people get there and see the building and that it's safe and well-lit, a lot of that prejudice against the west side of downtown will start melting away," said Marks Chowning of Clear Channel Entertainment, the theater's operator.

At the same time, he and law enforcement officials do not want to turn the theater into a fortress.

"You won't see a police on every corner; that's kind of counteractive," said Maj. John Skinner, commander of the Central District, which includes the west side. "In all honesty, the crime numbers don't support the need for that type of deployment."

The biggest problem in the area is not violent crime, Skinner said, but "nuisance" acts such as public intoxication and aggressive panhandling.

Skinner said police have cracked down on "quality of life" incidents to discourage repeat offenders. Last year in the west side, officers logged more than 5,000 arrests or criminal citations, similar to tickets.

On show nights, officers based in a substation at Howard and Lexington streets will patrol around the theater, mostly on bicycle. A roving downtown "quality of life" squad also will be deployed, Skinner said.

The focus is not just the theater but also routes between it and downtown hotels. The new lighting will brighten the way, and officers will help keep intersections clear on show nights.

Footage recorded by the surveillance cameras can be reviewed by police if a crime is committed. The network, which cost $40,000 to buy and install, was paid for by the city, the Abell Foundation, and business and property owners in the area.

In addition, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore will dispatch extra yellow-shirted public-safety guides and cleaning "ambassadors" in the evening. The security measures for the theater are part of a larger plan for downtown's west side that has been in the works since 1999, said partnership vice president Tom Yeager.

The main question theater patrons have, Chowning said, is where to park. Two garages should accommodate a sell-out crowd. One is the Baltimore Grand, which connects to the Hippodrome complex, called the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center. The other is at Fayette and Eutaw streets.

City officials are hoping that the restored theater, paid for with private and public money, will help spark a revival of the faded west side. Chowning said the completion of projects in the next six to 12 months - including restaurants planned across Eutaw Street - will complement the theater.

In the meantime, he said the best sign of people's willingness to go the Hippodrome for performances of Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera may be the subscription numbers. Last year's season at the smaller Mechanic Theatre attracted 3,700 subscribers. This season, which is split between the Mechanic and the Hippodrome, has drawn 12,400.

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