Arenas and towers and light shows, oh my!

Downtown plans may draw tourists, but shouldn't forget the locals

May 28, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

A new downtown arena and hotel? Nice. An expanded convention center? Uh, OK. Laser light shows, dancing waters and all those other Vegas touches for the Inner Harbor? Well, now you're starting to lose me.

This week brought the kind of big, shiny downtown development plans not seen since the days of William Donald Schaefer. Even Schaefer's old ally, Willard Hackerman reappeared, with a very cool $500 million offer to privately finance the proposed arena and hotel.

I'm as primed for a jolt of new construction downtown as anyone, especially when Hackerman is willing to come up with more than half of the estimated costs. I might need more convincing on the expanding convention center part — the business and tourism folks say we need it to compete for larger meetings — but I'm willing to hear it.

Then there were the Inner Harbor upgrades that the Greater Baltimore Committee floated, primarily turning Rash Field into a park and jazzing up the waterfront with light and water shows. Coming on the heels of some previous proposals, such as an ersatz-Eiffel tower, a Ferris wheel, ziplines, a climbing wall, a mini-golf course and various observing platforms and pods, I'm thinking: Everyone, take a deep breath and step away from the renderings.

They're dazzling, for sure, all those idealized visions (especially that one showing the combined arena and convention center, which looked like it just landed here from some 50s version of space). And it's sure been fun talking about new stuff again, after all the bunkering down of the recession.

But I had to wonder what's in all this for me — or, to be less provincial, those of us who live rather than just visit here?

Maybe I'm just cranky from having to slalom through all the streets being ripped up — for a three-day car race. Maybe I see these proposals for making the harbor even more touristy than it already is, and I can't help but be that spoiled child at someone else's birthday party. Or maybe the bitter host who at the end of the night feels like the guests had all the fun.

There's no doubt that efforts to increase tourism and visitors no doubt have positive ripple effects on the local economy, so to the extra jobs and tax revenues generated, we should all say: More, please.

But while I go to the harbor a lot — it's basically my backyard — I often come home wishing there was more there for a local. Something like a farmer's market, for example, somewhere that I could pick up some food and wine to bring home for dinner. Or a better mix of shopping.

That's a lot to ask, for one place to serve one population that wants bread and the other circuses. But what's been great about the harbor lately is it seemed to be moving toward accommodating both — which is vital if yet another goal of the downtown set, to keep the number of people live there growing and filling all those empty commercial buildings.

Rash Field, for example, has become our version of the softball fields on the Mall in Washington — there's quite an active beach volleyball league based there, and times when pick-up players can drop in. While you'll never see my aging self flopping around on the sand, and for that you should thank your lucky stars, I like that other people have colonized it as their urban playground, and that they hang around after their games at the harbor, and the nearby neighborhoods.

About 1,500 people play on the sand there every week, says Todd Webster, something of the commissioner of Baltimore Beach Volleyball, which leases the space from the city. And he'd like to double the current seven courts, and hopes not to be left out of the Rash Field reconfiguration plans.

But while the GBC heard them out, the business group's proposals for Rash Field are fairly noncommittal. A couple mention volleyball and basketball courts, but focus more on gardens, foot bridges, playgrounds and public art installations.

GBC head Don Fry said volleyball serves "a very small niche" and that he'd like to see Rash Field expand its offerings and become much more a part of the Inner Harbor. But that doesn't have to mean it'll only be for the tourists — the harbor was always conceived as something for both locals and visitors alike, he said.

I do think the GBC's vision of Rash Field as some kind of wonderful park is the right one, especially if it incorporates some playing fields or courts. I'd much rather see something like that than the previous proposals for observation decks and such, the kind of attractions that you might check out once or only when you have out-of-towners visiting.

If nothing else, a park would give the harbor, which is always being "improved" by building new stuff around it, some much needed breathing room. And the rest of us, from here or not, as well.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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