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Commentaryby Gerald Neily12:59 pmDec 3, 20100

Best place for a new Baltimore arena: “The Bird Trail” at Camden Yards

Rebuilding convention center and cramming arena there – a bad idea, GBC

Above: A new arena between the Ravens and Orioles stadiums, seen here from above Russell Street. The vantage point that will make it really work, though, will be from “The Bird Trail.”

The Greater Baltimore Committee’s new plan to stuff as much of their wish list as possible onto just one site – a convention center expansion that would also get a new arena, another hotel and more retail – typifies what’s wrong with downtown development planning.

It should now be evident that these people are not really trying to upgrade all of Baltimore, just aggrandizing their little corner of it. What a strange response to an underutilized convention center: build a lot more of it!

VooDoo Balto-nomics

There are some obvious reasons why the  GBC’s plan is bad. They propose to demolish a perfectly good convention center, so that means building more than 400,000 square feet of new convention space, with only a 300,000-square-foot net gain. Same goes for the 500 hotel rooms called for in their plan – 300 of those would be rooms they’d be rebuilding after tearing out the old ones.

Even without this tear-down-and-rebuild element, the economics of these investment are tenuous. The private sector has already demonstrated that they wouldn’t touch these things with a ten foot pole. So GBC’s only recourse is to repeal the laws of economics and replace them with the confusing laws of Balto-nomics.

Baltimore is not so perfectly built-out that it makes sense to start replacing functional buildings. There are great vacant sites right under our noses, especially in the place where Baltimore has received justified fame from the outside world – Camden Yards.

Camden Yards started the great national trend toward urban sports facilities, and yet it is not nearly as urban as it could be. The baseball and football stadiums are still mostly just surrounded by fields of surface parking. Greater urbanization has taken place in fits and starts, most notably at the north end of the stadium area, around the city’s new Hilton convention hotel. GBC seems to be so relieved that the Hilton is not yet a failure that they are now ready to “double down” on a new 500-room Sheraton hotel built into this convention center expansion scheme.

The city’s other recent gamble has thus far been a bust – a casino at Gateway South, just south of Ravens Stadium. David Cordish has just demonstrated that the smart money builds casinos where people already want to go (Arundel Mills Mall). By contrast, Gateway South is still a long way from the beaten track. Camden Yards is the critical link.

How to urbanize Camden Yards?

The short answer is, put a new arena there and lay it out with a true urban street. Streets are how we see and interact with the city. Streets are where the city gets its energy.

A new main street can be constructed from the street fragments and parking lot aisles that already exist in Camden Yards. We’ll call it The Bird Trail, where Orioles and Ravens fans can migrate all year long. But it could also be named after Unitas, Ripken, Ray Lewis, Brooksie, Modell, Angelos (for the right price) or even Gus Honeycomb or Earl the Pearl (anticipating a return of the NBA). Google Earth calls it Eutaw Street on the graphic below. Whatever it’s called, it would become unique and famous overnight. With hardly any traffic conflicts, it would also make a great biking and jogging trail.

Arena Camden Google image 2 (Illustration by Gerald Neily)

A bird’s eye view of the proposed Bird Trail – a new urban street (magenta-colored line) through Camden Yards from Warner (left) to Conway Street (right.)

The Bird Trail would start at the intersection of Conway, Howard and I-395, next to the Convention Center. Southward from there, it would immediately be defined by the thousand foot long B&O Warehouse, which is as urban a building as could ever be hoped for. From the warehouse, The Bird Trail would then need to continue southward along the edge of the MARC and light rail tracks and underneath the Hamburg Street overpass.

South of the Hamburg bridge, adjacent to the Ravens Stadium, The Bird Trail already exists and is open to a bridge to the light rail station. South of the football stadium, a new street would need to be built underneath the Ostend Street overpass leading into Warner Street, at the north edge of the Gateway South redevelopment district.

Huge development potential

The proposed Bird Trail (below, in magenta) and Warner/Annapolis Road connector (in blue) would link the new arena (#4) and other Camden Yards development sites (#1,2,3,5) to Gateway South (#6), Westport (#7) and Downtown.

Arena Camden 15

The development potential along The Bird Trail would dwarf that of the GBC’s convention center plan. Moreover, it would require no demolition of functional buildings and would not put all our bird eggs in one economically dubious basket.

Below is a partial list of development opportunities, keyed to the map above. Sites 1 through 5, starting at the north end, would create the urbanization of Camden Yards. Beyond them to the south, Gateway South (area 6) and Westport (area 7) would create a new Gold Coast along the Middle Branch.

1 – Convention Center Expansion – No demolition necessary! This can take place in “air rights” hovering above I-395, the light rail and MARC stations and the Federal Reserve parking lot. This type of development was originally envisioned when Oriole Park was being built in the early ’90’s. Harborview developer Richard Swirnow hired the famed prince of postmodernism, Michael Graves, to design something called a Medical Mart, a huge facility of showrooms to demonstrate medical equipment to doctors and other health professionals, thereby taking advantage of Baltimore’s world leadership in medicine. Such an air rights building could be tied into the existing Convention Center, providing access across the congested Conway/I-395 intersection that is currently difficult to impossible for pedestrians.

Arena Camden 552 (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The Warehouse in all its thousand foot glory. The adjacent parking lot would be remade as The Bird Trail.

2 – The B&O Warehouse – This magnificent mega-structure sets the tone for all of Camden Yards. Overhead walkways such as the one that already connects it to Oriole:Park, could also connect it to the new Convention Center expansion. A small part of the warehouse could then be remade as a concourse that is simultaneously part of the Convention Center and the stadium, which would set our Convention Center apart from all the me-too wannabes around the country.

3 – South of the Warehouse – Tucked inside the I-395 off-ramp south of Lee Street is an ideal building site to maintain the continuity of The Bird Trail’s urbanization to the south, creating an urban link between the various buildings.

Arena Image 6. (Illustration by Gerald Neily)

The proposed new arena (left) and new buildings south of the Warehouse and over the top of I-395.

4 – The Arena Site – This large site, between the I-395/MLK/Russell interchange and Hamburg Street, has long been considered a candidate for the new arena. But being between the baseball and football stadiums, it had the glaring deficiency of not being a place that would spur additional new development. Building The Bird Trail on the east edge of its site corrects that deficiency in a big way.

Photo 474 (Photo by Gerald Neily)

A piece of The Bird Trail that already exists, next to the Ravens stadium, and a nice promenade. New development would go over the railroad tracks (at left) next to the Hamburg Street light rail station.

5 – South of the Hamburg Street Bridge – This huge site would be directly across The Bird Trail from Ravens Stadium, which is perfectly situated to take advantage of building in the “air rights” over the MARC and CSX tracks and the Hamburg Street light rail station, as well as the huge surface parking lot between the tracks and I-395. In addition to lots of transit oriented development, the site could include structured parking to compensate for the surface spaces lost to the arena. Parking and transit-orientation may be a contradiction in other cities, but have never been so in Baltimore.

Google image 11 (Illustration by Gerald Neily)

The wedge-shaped building (lower left) would mark the connection between The Bird Trail and the proposed Gateway South development area.

6 – Gateway South – The city already has big plans for Gateway South, and these would be tremendously enhanced by the direct urban connection to downtown afforded by The Bird Trail. The prominent wedge shaped site where The Bird Trail would end at Warner Street, south of Ostend, would be the gateway to Gateway South. Proceeding further south along Warner are other attractive waterfront parcels along the Middle Branch, as well as the proposed casino site between Warner and Russell.

The city has already suggested that Warner Street could be closed adjacent to the casino to create one extremely large superblock site extending from Russell Street to the Middle Branch. That would be a big mistake. Eliminating Warner Street would cut off the entire urban face of Gateway South and force virtually the entire public image of the casino and its environs to be created only as a windshield drive-by view from Russell Street. This would condemn Russell Street to be a bad imitation of the Vegas strip or perhaps of Ritchie Highway. It would also isolate Gateway South from the entire surrounding area. While Cordish would have his hard-fought casino association with Arundel Mills Mall, Gateway South would have next to nothing.

7 – Westport –
The gigantic proposed Patrick Turner waterfront development should be the southern anchor of all this. To that end, Warner Street should be extended slightly southward across the Gwynns Falls stream from where it now ends at Haines Street to connect with Annapolis Road in front of the RESCO incinerator plant. This small connection would complete the urban integration of Westport, Gateway South, Camden Yards and Downtown to the benefit of all.

Creating the right urban environment

It’s hard to tell where all these development opportunities would lead, but that’s the point. The Greater Baltimore Committee wants to tear down what’s already built and concoct a multi-use stew to replace it. Their fixation with one preordained recipe for a single site blinds them to all the many opportunities elsewhere.

In contrast, The Bird Trail would create a framework to allow Camden Yards, Gateway South and Westport to develop gradually and organically, with each successive piece contributing its own influence to the fate of the whole.

Maybe the casino idea will take off and leave Arundel Mills in its suburban dust. Maybe its proximity to a new arena would create the ideal environment for an east coast answer to Wayne Newton. Maybe Joan Jett will stage a comeback on the order of what Vegas did for (or to) Elvis. Or maybe the casino will never happen. Maybe upstanding businesses will flee the Arundel Mills den of gambling iniquity and Gateway South will thereby become a great waterfront retail center. Maybe a 21st century version of the Medical Mart plan will re-emerge.

Perhaps the best way to sum it all up is that GBC’s “vision” is based on their numbers game of square feet and hotel rooms and fantasy financial scenarios. But what we really want is quality. We want convention, arena, hotel, office and retail growth to be demand-driven. But with GBC’s Balto-nomics, the irrational response to an underutilized convention center is to build even more of it.

Building The Bird Trail through Camden Yards is an opportunity to create an environment where a new arena can flourish as part of the ongoing urban development process, instead of merely being a piece of Baltimore’s Next Big Scheme.

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