Orioles sue city over construction

Team says convention hotel building site blocks Pratt Street entrance to stadium

March 22, 2006|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore Orioles sued the city yesterday, saying that construction of a publicly financed hotel at the convention center is blocking the main entrance to the Camden Yards baseball stadium and that pedestrian detours would be hazardous for hundreds of thousands of fans.

The lawsuit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court seeks an injunction to force the opening of the Pratt Street entrance -- near Babe Ruth Plaza -- for two hours before and after games. Arguments are to be presented at a hearing scheduled Friday.

The Orioles say in court papers that closing Eutaw Street between Camden and Pratt streets, as the city has done, forces an unmanageable number of ticket-holders onto narrow side streets and, in one case, through a wooden tunnel. The suit describes the detours as "recklessly conceived" and "a disaster waiting to happen."

The Orioles open their season at Camden Yards on April 3 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said that opening Eutaw Street would force fans to walk next to a dangerous construction zone. He said city lawyers will show the court alternate routes that pedestrians could take to efficiently get in and out of the stadium.

Tyler said in an interview that a proposal by the Orioles to put up temporary metal fences on a walkway along Eutaw Street to keep fans away from the project would not work. "It is unnecessary to do that," Tyler said, adding that keeping the street open "would be harmful to the construction."

Work began in late January on the 752-room, city-owned Hilton on a vacant lot next to the Baltimore Convention Center. The city voted to build the $305 million hotel after much debate last year. Work crews have closed a portion of Eutaw Street and sidewalk on the south side of Pratt Street.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos had tried starting in the late 1990s to negotiate a deal with Hyatt and build a hotel across from the stadium. Angelos lost exclusive negotiating privileges with the city in 2000 after a series of extensions failed to produce a deal.

Lawyers for the Orioles argue that had Angelos been able to build his hotel, the Eutaw Street entrance to the stadium would not have been closed as it is now. The Orioles lawsuit says the street could be shut for as long as three years.

"We don't think it's fair to put fans at risk," said Arnold Weiner, a lawyer for the Orioles. "All they have to do is keep Eutaw Street open."

The suit also names the Baltimore Development Corporation, the Baltimore Hotel Corporation and the Hensel Phelps Construction Co.

With Eutaw Street closed, fans coming from downtown would have to enter the stadium from Howard or Paca streets. The lawsuit states that more than 60 percent of the 2.7 million fans in 2005 entered and exited the stadium through its northern gates.

The sidewalk on the west side of Paca Street is closed because of the construction of an unrelated tower. The east sidewalk of Paca Street will be replaced by a 12-foot-wide wooden tunnel. Those two projects could force fans out onto Paca Street, according to the suit.

The Orioles are also say that Howard Street would see increased pedestrian traffic, potentially twice the minimally acceptable level.

Representatives of the Maryland Stadium Authority, named as an involuntary plaintiff by the Orioles, said they are likely to support the lawsuit.

"We share the same concerns" as the Orioles, said Jim Slusser, director of security and public safety for the Stadium Authority. He said the Orioles estimate that 14,000 fans at each game will be affected by the Eutaw Street closing.

"Most will be spilling out onto Paca Street," he said.

Attendance at Oriole Park, built in 1992, has dwindled over the years as the team has suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons. The team has failed to reach the 3 million mark in attendance per season the last four years. The team averaged 32,404 fans per game last year; the ballpark holds more than 48,000 people.

The Orioles blamed some of the decline on the arrival of the Washington Nationals. Angelos had vehemently opposed a team in the nation's capital about 40 miles to the south.

But lawyers for the team say the issue is more about safety and holding the city accountable for what the Orioles feel was a broken promise. The lawsuit says the Orioles did not know of the street closing until January and that they had been assured that the road would remain open.

The sides met late last month but could not reach an agreement.

"They don't seem to have come up with a satisfactory alternative," Weiner said.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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