Bold ideas for downtown

Our view: GBC's sweeping plan for a new convention center/arena and remake of Rash Field offer a compelling — and plausible — vision

May 25, 2011

The Greater Baltimore Committee is offering a tantalizing series of ideas for remaking downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor, but unlike many of the flashy artists' renderings boosters hail one day and forget the next, these have the distinction of being fiscally and logistically plausible. In combining a proposal for an expanded convention center, arena and hotel complex with a remake of Rash Field and a water and lights show for the Inner Harbor, the group has hit upon a mix that could keep the area attractive to tourists but also make it inviting to locals. And most crucially, the group already has significant commitments of private sector financing that could make the vision a reality even at a time when local and state governments are struggling.

The largest — and most expensive — part of the proposal is for an expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center coupled with the construction of a new arena and attached hotel. The proposal, drafted by the architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross, calls for a glass-encased, 18,000-seat arena, integrated with a towering new Sheraton hotel and an expansion and replacement of the older east wing of the convention center. Retail and restaurants would line the ground floor, making the structure much more a part of the urban fabric than the convention center is now, and the new size would make Baltimore instantly eligible to bid on convention business that now passes us by. Moreover, the connection between the expanded convention center and new arena — slated for the south side of the convention center, where the existing Sheraton and a parking lot are now — would be unique among American cities and would make Baltimore a compelling destination for large conventions.

There are several other ways in which the plan beats the city's previous idea of tearing down 1st Mariner Arena and building a replacement on the same site. It allows the city to continue to use the arena during construction and, when the new facility is completed, to redevelop that site with urban green space and/or new buildings. It could also allow the city to reconnect Redwood Street and restore proper east-west traffic flow downtown.

But most crucially, the GBC has secured a commitment from builder Willard Hackerman, who owns the Sheraton, to assemble private financing for the new hotel and arena, provided the city and state agree to the convention center expansion. That takes a $900-million project and leaves the city and state with a relatively manageable $400 million bill for the expansion of the convention center. The debt on the newer wing of the existing convention center is set to be retired in 2014, so the state, likely through the Maryland Stadium Authority, could soon have the capacity to finance the project, which would not need to be undertaken simultaneously with the arena and hotel construction.

As for Rash Field, Ayers Saint Gross produced three concepts for transforming the large open space at the Inner Harbor's southern end into a world-class urban park that would be a draw for tourists but also offer locals a compelling reason to visit. Their proposals offer active recreation options — crucially to some Baltimore enthusiasts, they have ideas for keeping the sand volleyball courts — along with a playground, outdoor concert venue and field for lacrosse or soccer games. The plans integrate art works into the landscape along with trees and footpaths and a better connection between the park and Federal Hill and the American Visionary Art Museum.

Their most intriguing idea — and the one that might be hardest to pull off — calls for a pedestrian bridge connecting the corner of Rash Field near the Rusty Scupper restaurant with the pier on the other side of the harbor. Not only would such a structure be visually striking, but it would integrate the harbor's elements in a way that was previously unimaginable. The chief logistical difficulty posed by such a bridge could also be its most iconic feature. Because sailboats (including the USS Constellation) would need to pass through, the architects have proposed a kind of drawbridge that, rather than opening vertically, would swing open like a gate.

The final element of the GBC's presentation is the idea of adding a water and light show to the Inner Harbor. The water show would be reminiscent of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas — think geysers of water shooting in the air in ways you hadn't considered possible, all set to music — and the light show would allow images and video to be projected on the sides of nearby buildings. This idea doesn't have quite the same timeless appeal as the other parts of the plan, but it does have an advantage over other ideas for creating a major new draw for the Inner Harbor in that it wouldn't entail any kind of permanent alteration of the landscape.

Changes on the magnitude that the GBC envisions will require an extensive civic conversation, but the vision the group's leaders unveiled at their annual meeting Wednesday night presents a far more compelling starting point than any of the ideas offered to the Baltimore Development Corp. earlier this month. This is no giant Ferris wheel, French light tower or zip line grafted onto the Inner Harbor but, instead, a thoughtful attempt to complement the attractions and topography that have already made the area Baltimore's crown jewel. City and state officials should get to work to determine what it would take to make the vision a reality.

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