Options sought for site of balloon

City looking to replace ride with mixed-use development

Tourist draw was grounded last year

Officials seek unusual plans for half-acre lot near harbor

August 10, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

With the colorful balloon that once soared above the city grounded for good, Baltimore development officials are looking to fill its prime downtown site with a more grounded attraction.

The city's development agency is asking for proposals to turn the half-acre lot at President and Baltimore streets, home to a helium balloon ride since 2001, into a mixed-use development with "unique retail" on the ground floor.

Next door to the Port Discovery children's museum, near Power Plant Live's sprawling assortment of nightlife options, and just two blocks from the Inner Harbor, the site offers an opportunity to bolster Baltimore's menu of downtown attractions.

"We're not looking for just another bar or a restaurant," Baltimore Development Corp. Vice President Andrew Frank said yesterday. He said he wants "something that provides an experience not currently available in Baltimore."

The move quashes any hopes that the balloon, grounded since a harrowing incident last summer in which passengers on the ride got stuck aloft during a violent wind storm, will rise again.

Though just weeks ago the president of the nonprofit corporation that runs the ride talked of efforts to reopen it, Frank said BDC is terminating Balloons Over Baltimore Inc.'s lease on the city-owned site.

Bidders have until October to answer the BDC's request for proposals, but one prominent local developer has already begun plans.

David Cordish, whose Cordish Co. opened Power Plant Live in 2001, just months after the debut of the balloon, said yesterday that he is "extremely interested" in the balloon site.

Cordish said that he would like to build a high-rise residential tower there, with a venue on the ground floor for "a unique, world-class day and nighttime entertainment tenant." While Cordish declined to name the business, he said it would be compatible with Port Discovery and Power Plant Live.

"The last thing [Power Plant Live] or the [children's museum] or for that matter the city needs is another bar, dance club or restaurant. No matter how nice," Cordish said in an e-mail. "Our user is none of the above and is completely unique to [the] city and region."

Officials at Port Discovery, another entity likely to be interested in the site, could not be reached for comment.

The site comes with a few challenging development issues.

The land is directly above underground rail lines, and the property includes an entrance to the Shot Tower Metro station. Without the ability to build an underground parking garage, a developer would have to make do without on-site parking.

Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman Cheron Wicker said that the MTA would review proposals for the site to make sure they don't compromise the station's security.

And though parking can't go below ground, there could also be issues about building too high above it.

The site could interfere with police helicopters heading for the rooftop landing pad at the department's downtown headquarters on Baltimore Street.

"We are not limiting height," Frank said, "but that's an issue."

Development on the site would revive an area that has lain dormant since July 17, 2004, when 16 passengers and a crew member were stranded in the balloon for nearly two hours as a violent storm blew through the area.

With the balloon 200 feet in the air, 50- to 60-mph wind gusts surprised the ride's operators, who were unable to lower the balloon. As the wind nearly blew the balloon onto President Street and sent it crashing into the air-conditioning shed atop city police headquarters next door, passengers in the steel gondola were tossed about.

That rocky trip was the balloon's last ride. But it wasn't the start of the attraction's woes. Though the balloon's creators intended for it to be a tourist magnet, a bright and irresistible draw to lure harbor visitors north into the city, it never proved that compelling.

"It was never performing well," Frank said. "Ridership was never what they expected it to be."

Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler said that though the balloon was "fun for a while," he is eager to see the property back in action. He said he would like to see something temporary there while the BDC sorts out the proposals for long-term use.

Fowler said he is surprised that downtown real estate is hot enough that developers want to wedge projects into nearly any available space. Just weeks ago, BDC announced that a mixed-use development was an option for the Pier Six concert pavilion, which is just blocks from the balloon site.

"Perhaps a few years ago people could not have conceived that President Street could be a lively restaurant and retail area, but it can," Fowler said. "We'd be supportive of anything that could get more life into the city."

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