Going, going, gone


New construction is blocking the familiar skyline for some sitting in the stands at Camden Yards

Architecture Column

April 21, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

The field is as lush and green as ever. The ushers look sharp in their bright orange jackets. Fans are once again strolling along Eutaw Street, enjoying Boog's barbecue and hoping for a good season.

But something's drastically different at Oriole Park this year, and not just on the playing field.

The sweeping view of downtown Baltimore that fans have enjoyed for the past 16 seasons has changed considerably, as a result of two large construction projects beyond the outfield.

Now missing from many vantage points is the quirky Bromo Seltzer Tower that could be seen beyond center field, with its crenellated top, round clock faces and warm blue glow at night.

New to the view are two large buildings that loom just beyond the left field grandstand, the Zenith tower, with its "APTS 4 LEASE" message spelled vertically in the windows, and the soon-to-open Hilton Baltimore Convention Center hotel, which occupies two city blocks just north of Oriole Park and Camden Station.

Neither escaped the notice of Katherine Mulligan, a 23-year-old nurse who lives in Federal Hill and works at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"You can't see the clock tower anymore" because it's blocked by the hotel, she groused during a break in Wednesday night's game against the Chicago White Sox, while sitting in the lower deck behind first base. "Big buildings around the harbor may be all right, but when you're talking about the line of vision from the stadium, that's too much."

"It's cool. It's cool," countered her friend, Robert Talanehzar, a 25-year-old Web site manager. "Baltimore has bad enough problems. I think any big building is good for this city."

A half-inning later, Talanehzar came up with a suggestion for making the hotel more palatable to his friend.

"I think they should paint it orange and black" after the O's team colors, he said of the hotel. "Then it would fit in."

Just as the Orioles are in the midst of a rebuilding program, so is downtown Baltimore. The change may not have dawned on many Orioles fans who've yet to visit the park this spring - the team has been last in the American League in attendance - but this past weekend's home stand against the Yankees was the season's busiest.

For some fans coming to Oriole Park for the first time this season, the new sights in and around Camden Yards have become as much a topic of discussion and debate as the new faces on the roster. The urban landscape changes can be particularly jarring to fans who had become spoiled by so many years without many.

Scheduled to open in August, the 20-story, 757-room hotel, designed by RTKL Associates of Baltimore, has already come in for some negative reaction - from out-of-town journalists to incensed letter-to-the-editor writers to everyday fans. "A cruel cubist joke" on a "previously perfect" ballpark, complained one Washington Post sports columnist.

Even Gov. Martin O'Malley, who approved funding for the city-owned hotel when he was Baltimore's mayor, asked about the yellow-and-blue surfaces on its upper levels when he went to check out the new scoreboards just before Opening Day. It's insulation material that will be covered by metal panels, he was told.

Such questioning is understandable. It underscores Baltimore's love affair with Oriole Park.

It was, after all, the original back-to-the-city ballpark, whose success triggered a nationwide movement of building baseball stadiums in American cities again. Its design was well-received largely because it was such a happy marriage of baseball and Baltimore.

The open end of the C-shaped seating bowl was oriented to provide a picture-postcard view of the downtown skyline from most seats. The view was possible because the two blocks north of the ballpark were owned by the city, used for surface parking, and thus contained no tall buildings to block the skyline in the distance.

That gave the ballpark the "breathing room" that enabled fans from their seats to catch glimpses not only of the Bromo Seltzer Tower but other local landmarks such as 10 Light St. (the former Maryland National Bank Building) and the old Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. headquarters. Those memorable views helped forge a strong connection between the ballpark and the city it's in.

At the same time, Oriole Park was constructed to be a catalyst for downtown development. The city-owned land wasn't meant to be parking lots forever. Elected officials have talked for decades about the need for a convention headquarters hotel next to the convention center, even before the ballpark was in the works.

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