Architects argue for a different site for a new arena

Architecture Column

May 13, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Did Baltimore make a mistake by opening what is now called the 1st Mariner Arena on a prime downtown parcel 46 years ago?

That's the conclusion of a group of local architects who recommend Baltimore find another site for the new arena city officials want to build, rather than construct it on the same spot as the current one at 201 W. Baltimore St.

The architects say the present arena, originally known as the Baltimore Civic Center, is a "dead zone" for much of the day and fails to add much vitality to the central business district. They say a better location for a new arena would be south of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, where it could be part of a larger sports and entertainment district.

The architects also say that moving the arena would free up the present site for new development that could support the city's revitalization efforts on the west side of downtown, including housing, stores and offices. A more "finely grained" and "multi-tiered" mixture of uses, they contend, would do more to rejuvenate the surrounding area than an arena because it would add people and activity to the area around the clock.

"If Baltimore is to build a new arena, it shouldn't be on the current site," said Klaus Philipsen, one of the architects making recommendations about a future arena.

"This is a two-for-one situation," he said. "If we build a new arena, we can energize a new area. And if we move it ... we can energize that location more than it is now."

The recommendations come from the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It's a volunteer group that seeks to initiate public discussion about design issues in Baltimore.

Committee members issued a position paper this spring outlining their vision for the current arena site, which is bounded by Baltimore, Howard and Lombard streets and Hopkins Place.

"The main point we wanted to make is that neither the existing arena nor a new arena would be the highest and best use for this location and that a mixed use ... would add more vitality and energy to the area," said Philipsen, the urban design committee's co-chairman.

The group is airing its recommendations just as city redevelopment officials are weighing options for building a new arena to replace the existing one, which is home for the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team as well as a venue for other events and concerts. Last fall, the Baltimore Development Corp. received "expressions of interest" from seven groups that would like to build a new arena for Baltimore.

In soliciting interest in the project from the private sector, the city did not identify one site to consider but invited the developers to propose locations, whether they controlled the land or not. Of the seven bidders, two proposed building a new arena either on the current site or another site. The others suggested sites in Canton, South Baltimore, Westport, Port Covington, near Penn Station and near Lexington Market. A selection panel hasn't chosen one team to move ahead with a project.

In a recent public forum sponsored by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, Philipsen said the committee made its recommendations because members believe it's important to link any discussions about the future of the existing arena site, which the city owns, to decisions about a new arena, rather than have the subject be "a mere afterthought."

Some advocates for a new Baltimore arena say it could be a catalyst for redevelopment of the surrounding area, the way the MCI Center has been in Washington. But members of the AIA committee say the current arena does not help revitalize its surroundings because of the way it was designed. According to Matthew Fitzsimmons, another AIA member who worked on the report, the 1st Mariner Arena forms a barrier between the central business district and the downtown's west side; its blank walls add little to the streetscape, and the land along Hopkins Place often becomes an unattractive staging area for events.

Philipsen and Fitzsimmons said they believe the present arena site has "enormous potential" to be a setting for buildings containing up to 1 million square feet of housing, offices and street-level retail space. One property owner that has a logical interest in the arena site is the University of Maryland, Baltimore, whose campus is just west of Howard Street. Philipsen said the university would be a good candidate to occupy space in any new development on the arena site, because it would be a bridge between downtown Baltimore and the campus.

Castalia hearing

One year after the leaders of Calvert School disclosed to Tuscany-Canterbury residents that they may seek permission to tear down a former headmaster's residence at 200 Tuscany Road to make way for an amphitheater, the private school is moving ahead with plans to restore and expand the residence for academic use.

Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation is scheduled to review preliminary plans for modifying the building, known as Castalia, during a meeting at 2:30 p.m. today at 417 E. Fayette St.

Its meeting comes two months after preservation commissioners added the 1928 house by noted architect Laurence Hall Fowler to a "special list" of buildings they want to protect from demolition. Walter Schamu of Schamu Machowski Greco in Baltimore is the architect for the proposed restoration and expansion.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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