Mechanic Theater's role appears likely to change

City property was sold to developer considering renovations, replacement

February 05, 2005|By Jill Rosen and Lorraine Mirabella | Jill Rosen and Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, once the keystone of downtown redevelopment efforts, has been sold to a parking facilities developer and faces an uncertain future that ranges from conversion to a movie theater to becoming rubble.

One West Baltimore Street Associates, headed by Arrow Parking co-owners Benjamin and Melvin Greenwald, purchased the 38-year-old blocky edifice at Charles and Baltimore streets for $6 million last month from the estate of Morris A. Mechanic. The theater complex, which had stopped staging productions in summer, had been on the market since December.

The new owners are considering a gamut of possibilities for the site - everything from a first-run movie theater to a smaller-scale theatrical venue to tearing down the structure and starting from scratch.

"All options are open," Benjamin Greenwald said. "We like the piece of real estate and where it's situated. It's an exciting challenge, and an opportunity to take those vacant areas and find some good applications, which will enhance the city."

Dwarfed and outmoded by the freshly refurbished Hippodrome Theatre just a few blocks west, the 1,614-seat Mechanic closed in July when its contract with Clear Channel Entertainment expired. Clear Channel was concentrating its lineup of Broadway shows at the 2,286-seat Hippodrome, built to accommodate such large touring operations.

However, when it opened on Jan. 16, 1967, as the anchor onto which the city hung its hopes for the fledgling Charles Center renewal zone, the Mechanic was considered a cutting-edge showplace, and its house, designed by John Johansen, a bold demonstration of modern architecture.

The intent of the dramatic package? Bring people back to a sagging city center.

Walter Sondheim, who served on the team that developed both Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, said, at the time, people were deserting downtown and the Mechanic was critical to turning that around.

"It was an important architectural statement in the city," Sondheim said. "This was a key factor in the redevelopment of downtown."

With downtown Baltimore fighting similar battles today, Sondheim hopes the Mechanic has a continuing role to play there, perhaps as a smaller venue to complement the Hippodrome.

"It would be wonderful if we could keep two theaters alive," he said.

At the peak of the Mechanic's popularity in 1984, the theater's subscription base surged to more than 22,000. By the 2002-2003 theater season - the last before the Hippodrome opened - subscribers had dropped to 3,731.

In addition to the theater, the 230,000-square-foot complex at 25 Hopkins Plaza includes a block of street-level shops along Baltimore Street, a vacant food court that opens onto Hopkins Plaza, and an underground parking garage with just over 200 spaces.

Though the parking component was the investment draw for Arrow, which has leased and managed the garage for 20 years, Greenwald said the whole of the Mechanic facility offers the firm a chance to expand in new directions.

"We really have to ... see what the market will bear and what makes sense," Greenwald said.

Terri Harrington, who has been leasing the site for the Mechanic estate for six years and will continue to do so for Arrow, said there is already interest in both the food court and the theater. Harrington, who works for The Shapiro Co., said she has had no trouble leasing the storefronts along Baltimore Street.

Topping the list of possibilities for the theater, she said, are a movie theater or a concert hall.

Because of the expense involved in modernizing and maintaining the aging Mechanic, a smaller theatrical player - such as a community or collegiate theater group - would appear to have little chance of making ends meet there. Furthermore, it would be nearly impossible to use the windowless building for a non-entertainment use.

"It's a complicated property," Harrington said.

Some retail development experts doubt the viability of either a movie theater or a concert venue. If the developers of Harbor East, just east of the Inner Harbor, construct a movie theater as planned, it might be difficult for another downtown theater to compete.

"All the other movie theaters downtown are gone," said Thomas H. Maddux IV, president of a Baltimore commercial real estate brokerage firm. "Is it time for another? Maybe. I don't know. It's a very well-located, valuable piece of real estate, but I don't know what it wants to be."

Business and development officials say that design challenges aside, the site has potential.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., would like to see restaurants brought back to the food court and the theater somehow retrofitted into a 700 or 800-seat auditorium for local or regional theater and music groups.

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