Details of Convention Center and arena proposal released

December 16, 2010|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

With a price tag approaching $1 billion, a plan to expand Baltimore's Convention Center and build an arena next to it would be one of the most expensive construction projects ever undertaken in Baltimore.

A preliminary estimate places the cost to expand the Convention Center and build an adjacent arena at $750 million to $930 million, with funding expected to come from the public and private sectors, according to the head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a nonprofit civic group studying the proposal.

Details about the project's price and construction timetable emerged Thursday during and after a presentation made to Baltimore Development Corp. directors by Donald C. Fry, president of the GBC, and architects from Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore.

Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, said such a project could reinvigorate downtown. What gives the proposal such a high price — the combination of an arena and a convention center — also would set it apart from facilities in other cities, he said. He sees this mix of uses as the next wave in urban development.

"Cities have to continue to reinvent themselves, and Baltimore has a good track record for doing that," he said. "It seems to me the kind of thing that we should be looking at."

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency, noted that public officials said this fall that they wanted to explore all viable options for building a new arena and expanding the Convention Center, whether together or in separate locations, and that that is still the case. He said the concept of combining the two projects in one location is intriguing.

The cost estimate includes three major elements: a four-level, 400,000-square-foot Convention Center expansion; an 18,500-seat arena with a two-level, 500-space garage beneath it; and a 500-room Sheraton hotel rising 23 to 25 stories. It does not include the cost of demolishing the existing arena and attached garage.

The Convention Center expansion and new arena would be approximately equal in height to a 10-story office building, with the hotel rising in a midblock tower above, Fry and the architects said.

The project could take 61/2 to seven years to complete, putting the opening of the arena and expanded Convention Center in mid-2017 if construction started right away. The hotel could open sooner.

About 120,000 square feet of exhibit space in Baltimore's existing 300,000-square-foot Convention Center would be demolished and unavailable for bookings until the replacement space was complete, which would take 21/2 to three years. The rest of the Convention Center, with 185,000 square feet of exhibit space, would remain open.

The Convention Center would be transformed from a facility with most of the exhibit space on one level to a multiple-level center capable of accommodating more than one major event at the same time. The arena would be connected to the center and could handle large gatherings held in conjunction with conventions.

Other major local projects in that price range include the $1.1 billion hospital expansion that Johns Hopkins Medicine is completing in East Baltimore and the two-stadium sports complex at Camden Yards.

The Greater Baltimore Committee disclosed last month that it was studying a proposal to build the project as a way to address the city's long-standing needs for a new downtown arena and an expanded Convention Center.

The proposed construction site, near Conway and Charles streets, is the footprint of the original Convention Center built in 1979 and the adjacent Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel and parking lot, which is owned by businessman Willard Hackerman.

According to Fry, Hackerman has indicated that he is willing to consider the plan if his 330-room Sheraton could be replaced with a 500-room hotel before the existing building is razed and if he knew for certain that the rest of the project would materialize. Fry said Hackerman commissioned Ayers Saint Gross to prepare conceptual designs.

Fry made the presentation as part of a series of meetings with public officials and other civic stakeholders. He cautioned that the study is still under way and that a final recommendation by the Greater Baltimore Committee on whether to proceed and how to pay for the project is expected early next year.

Fry told Baltimore Development Corp. directors that his organization is still determining how the project could be financed. He said the hotel portion would likely be privately funded. He indicated that the final cost would vary, depending on whether the project is completed in phases or all at once, and what the final design calls for in the way of materials and finishes.

Fry said the Greater Baltimore Committee strongly believes that the proposal is worth exploring and that it could trigger a new wave of redevelopment around the Inner Harbor.

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