A face-lift for the Mechanic

The darkened theater's new owner hires an architect to redesign the plain concrete exterior of one of downtown's early symbols of renewal.

July 06, 2005|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

The new owner of the shuttered Morris A. Mechanic Theatre has no plans to demolish the complex, one of downtown Baltimore's earliest redevelopment efforts, and has hired an architect to redesign the facade as a first step toward revitalization.

Benjamin Greenwald, co-owner of Arrow Parking who bought the Mechanic in January, said he has brought in Baltimore-based Parameter Inc. to create an exterior design to use in marketing the center to potential tenants.

Greenwald and his father and partner, Melvin Greenwald, bought the 38-year-old theater at Charles and Baltimore streets for $6 million from the estate of Morris A. Mechanic.

The owners, who formed One West Baltimore Street Associates, have made no decisions on the ultimate use or mix of uses in a refurbished center, though they have been approached by movie theater operators, Benjamin Greenwald said.

The 1,614-seat Mechanic stopped staging productions a year ago when its contract with Clear Channel Entertainment expired. Clear Channel has shifted its lineup of Broadway shows to the larger and freshly refurbished Hippodrome Theatre on the city's west side.

Development experts have talked about the Mechanic's potential as a movie theater, concert hall or nightclub, possibly with restaurants, though some retail experts question the viability of those uses.

Movie theater operators would have to consider the competition from other city theaters, especially an art film theater planned for Harbor East, said Thomas H. Maddux, president of NAI KLNB Inc., a Baltimore-based commercial real estate firm. "Movie theater companies aren't going to open new facilities unless they believe there's a market for it," Maddux said yesterday.

The Mechanic site 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. The owners plan to renovate the garage, which they manage, and are studying the center's mechanical systems.

"The architect is working on drawings of the exterior of the building to make it look more inviting and welcome," Greenwald said. "As far as the game plan or tenants, that's the missing piece."

Once the exterior renderings are complete, possibly in about a month, the owners plan to approach the city for feedback, then begin marketing the site to potential tenants.

"We're going to have to use this [exterior design] as a marketing tool, see the interest and move forward," Greenwald said.

The architecture, urban planning and design firm, Parameter, is also designing the transformation of a former 290-foot grain elevator in Locust Point into upscale condominiums, a development of Henrietta Development Corp., as well as working to convert a Fells Point warehouse into condos.

With the Mechanic project, "We're looking at enlivening that building," said Christopher Pfaeffle, a principal with Parameter. "We're analyzing the existing building, including the retail, and we are providing a master plan for Ben to help him shepherd the project along and help them figure out what they'd like to do in the long term.

"Part of our vision is to take this dull, concrete building in almost the absolute center of Baltimore and try to make it more of an extroverted building instead of introverted," Pfaeffle said yesterday.

City development officials welcome the Mechanic redevelopment as an opportunity to reactivate the vacant shops and food vendors as well as to find a new use for the darkened theater.

"We were all encouraged by the idea that it might carry on as a theater or an arts-related use," and include additional retail, said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. "It's in the middle of a very densely populated daytime population."

When the Mechanic opened in 1967 as the anchor of the fledgling Charles Center renewal zone, it was considered cutting- edge, modern architecture and designed to attract people to a sagging city center.

Today, with a renewed interest in city life and more people working and living downtown, some say a face-lift is long overdue.

"We would want to see improvements that present a friendly face to Hopkins Plaza, Charles Street and areas to the north and the south," Frank said. "When the building was designed, it was oriented toward Hopkins Plaza and represented a certain style at the time."

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said that group, too, hopes redevelopment will make the faM-gade more inviting, perhaps through the use of large video screens, and will bring in uses compatible with the neighborhood.

"It's come to a point where the building really turns its back on Charles Street, from a design standpoint," Fowler said. "It has no street presence on Charles. The kind of design really doesn't match up well with the way downtown has developed. No one expected so many pedestrians on the street as there are now."

A movie theater, he said, could work well because of new housing within several blocks.

"It's most important that the buildings are full and provide some kind of activity that can generate even more activity on the streets all day long, and it's important for that site to become an evening venue," Fowler said.

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