Sweeping redevelopment plans for the Inner Harbor — including a $900 million multiplex for a new arena, hotel and expanded convention center, waterfront attractions and a new look for Rash Field — were unveiled Wednesday by the Greater Baltimore Committee.
The plans are designed to rejuvenate the area around Harborplace, one of the city’s top tourist attractions, which is 31 years old in July, said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the GBC.
“It brings light. It brings vitality,” Fry said. “We believe it is the next generation of the Inner Harbor experience.”
The plans call for:
-Demolishing the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel and its adjoining parking garage to make way for a towering new 500-room hotel and an 18,500-seat arena located at the corner of Conway and Charles streets.
Both would cost a total of $500 million and would be privately funded by Willard Hackerman, a developer and owner of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., which built Harborplace in the late 1970s. Hackerman currently owns the Sheraton and his company would construct the new hotel-arena complex.
-Demolishing the east wing of the Baltimore Convention Center, to be replaced by an expanded facility of 760,000 square feet, more than twice the size of the existing convention center.
The expansion is estimated to cost $400 million and could be paid for in part by state general obligation bonds. Fry said Gov. Martin O’Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will ask the Maryland Stadium Authority to conduct a feasibility study — due at the end of the year — on expanding the convention center,
-Converting Rash Field into a “world-class waterfront park” by adding banks of trees, recreational options such as a band shell and beach volleyball pits, open space and walking trails that could include a pedestrian footbridge spanning the Inner Harbor waters and linking Rash Field to Pier 5.
-Creating a flashy water and light show in front of the World Trade Center, Harborplace and the Maryland Science Center, similar to shows at Epcot Center in Orlando and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
The show would feature LED lights, lasers and multi-story video projections on buildings for a “wow” factor, Fry said.
The redevelopment plans have been in the works for a year, said Fry and Charles O. Monk II, chairman of the GBC board. They were presented Wednesday night at the annual meeting of the GBC at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel before a crowd of about 850.
New venues, new events
Building a new arena has been debated in the city for years. The current structure is 50 years old and seats 14,000. A new structure would add 4,500 seats and connect the arena to the expanded convention center. Both structures will be surrounded by a glass bubble, giving off an iridescent glow at night.
“It would really be incredibly unique,” said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism agency.
Noonan said the new arena would attract more sporting events to the city, such as NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournament games, hockey and indoor soccer. He also said the city could be a contender for a national political convention because of the space of the combined arena and convention center.
Other cities, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and Nashville, Tenn., have expanded or are planning to expand their convention space, which has hurt bookings in Baltimore, Fry said.
Baltimore’s convention center is the oldest and smallest among the city’s convention competitors on the East Coast, Noonan said.
The current convention center has 313,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space. In 1996, when an expansion was added, it was listed as the 28th largest convention facility in the U.S.—a figure that is now in the “low 70s,” Fry said.
In 2009, organizers of the Star Wars Celebration V rejected the city’s bid to host its event because the convention center didn’t have enough room. The four-day gathering could have attracted 35,000 visitors and filled 12,000 hotel room nights—a larger impact than any convention the city currently hosts.
A report by Watkins Research Group in Kansas City, Mo., examined how Baltimore’s tourism industry is perceived by event planners and convention organizers around the country. While accessibility and hotel accommodations were ranked high, the convention center ranked low for services and facilities in 2008 and 2010.
The expansion would increase the center’s size to 760,000 square feet. The space would be divided on four levels with the largest floor space on the lower level at 340,000 square feet. A 130,000-square-foot ballroom would be on the top level, Fry said.
An expansion of the convention center would also help update its appearance. The center has been in need of at least $20 million worth of renovation, said Convention Center Executive Director Peggy Daidakis.
Some of the upgrades include interior makeovers, such as new carpet, fresh paint and renovated restrooms. Other upgrades include an improved lighting system and a new roof.
Construction of the new hotel and arena could take place within a three- or four-year period, but Hackerman, who has pledged to finance the effort, has told the GBC that he would not move forward without a state commitment for the convention center expansion, Fry said.
That funding would come from the city and state, he added.
State bonds for construction of the current 1st Mariner Arena expire next year and bonds that funded the 1979 construction of the east wing of the convention center are set to expire in 2014, Fry explained, making new debt for the massive redevelopment more palatable.
“We think there is a legitimate state and city partnership,” he said. “The governor and the mayor wrote to the Maryland Stadium Authority asking them to conduct a feasibility study for this project, and it is our hope that that will be completed by the end of the year.”
Michael J. Frenz, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he and other authority officials have been briefed on the plans, but they have not yet received an official request for a feasibility study.
Such a request would have to detail the source of funding and the scope of the plan so the authority can determine the cost of conducting the study. If the request is approved by the authority board and the budget committees of the General Assembly, work can begin.
“It’s our understanding [the request] is in the works,” Frenz said. “We haven’t received it yet, but we’re not surprised about it coming along.”
Rash Field options
The Rash Field redesign includes three options, which are open to public vote and comment on the GBC’s website, www.gbc.org.
Adam Gross, principal in the local architectural and design firm Ayers Saint Gross, which created plans for the $900 million redevelopment and the Rash Field changes, said all three plans include moving the Pride of Baltimore memorial to a new location at the site and demolishing a parking garage near the Rusty Scupper restaurant.
The carousel, currently a popular feature at Rash Field, would remain.
The three options are:
-A large green space with groves of trees, beach volleyball pits, a field large enough to hold a lacrosse field and a moveable band shell.
-A raised terrace next to the science center with underground parking and a formal amphitheatre, surrounded by a pedestrian walkway and bridge that would cross over Key Highway near the American Visionary Art Museum.
-Adding a 750-foot pedestrian walking bridge across the harbor to the second option. The bridge, which would connect Rash Field and Pier 5, would pivot open to allow ships in and out of the Inner Harbor and would create a mile-and-a-half walking loop around the landmark.
Fry said the GBC has met with officials of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s development arm, to discuss the plans.
“Our job is to be an idea maker and hopefully move this project forward,” he said, of the role of the GBC.
Monk added: “The GBC’s mission is to be the visionaries for Baltimore. Hopefully, people will like these ideas.”
Support and caution
Gov. O’Malley said in a statement released by his spokesman, Shaun Adamec, that he supports the redevelopment.
“A project of this magnitude is not only an economic boost and a job creator for the city of Baltimore, but it is also emblematic of the progress our city has experienced over the last 10 years, becoming a national destination for tourists and conventioneers and deserving of a world-class infrastructure to support it,” O’Malley said.
Through a spokesman, Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she supported “carefully studying and pursuing the GBC proposal.”
“Mayor Rawlings-Blake looks forward to understanding more about the economic benefits and is very pleased to see private sector support for the project and new potential investment in Baltimore City,” said Ryan O’Doherty, the mayor’s spokesman, in an email.
Community members near the convention center reacted tentatively.
Jonathan Kucskar, a member of the historic Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, located at the corner of Sharp and Conway Streets, said Hackerman met with church leaders earlier this month.
“We have some knowledge of it — but I’m not sure what the plans are. GBC has not contacted us,” Kucskar said. “We’re aware of the concept, but have not seen what is proposed.”
Kucskar said construction of the mega-project could have a large impact on the everyday function of the church, built in 1785 with a membership of 100 people.
“When the convention center was remodeled in the early 1990s, there was scaffolding that came within 10 feet of the church — that was a negative impact,” he said. “We look forward to working with developers to minimize the impact to the church.”