The city’s design review panel has rejected renderings for a 3,750-slot machine casino in Southwest Baltimore, saying the proposed entryways were not fully developed and a huge parking garage that would hold 4,000 vehicles resembled “a prison.”
The Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel met for two hours Thursday morning with representatives of the casino licensee, Caesars Entertainment Corp.-led CBAC Gaming LLC.
The casino operators were advised to go back to the drawing table and return in the near future.
“This is a very exciting project for the city, but we just cannot grant approval at this time,” said Mark Cameron, a UDARP member.
CBAC Gaming, which was awarded the license to operate the city’s casino in late July under the name Harrah’s, unveiled schematic designs for the facility expected to open in late 2014 to the UDARP.
Those designs showed a two-story, 260,000-square-foot casino built with bricks, steel and glass and illuminated by a large red neon sign and a rainbow of colored laser-like lights facing Russell Street. On the ground floor, a variety of restaurants and bars would be located, the CBAC Gaming officials said, and the casino would be located on the second floor.
The idea was to create a “new urban casino concept” that would “connect with existing attractions and be a good fit with surrounding areas,” said Greg Miller, senior vice president for development for Caesars Entertainment.
“We know our success is all about integrating into the community we go into,” Miller said, adding that similar plans have worked in New Orleans and Cleveland, where Caesars recently opened casinos.
Miller said the Cleveland casino, which opened in May downtown in the former Higbee’s department store flagship building, is on track to attract 6 million gamblers this year, 1 million more than originally anticipated.
“We view ourselves as the catalyst for the extension of this gateway project,” Miller told UDARP members of the Baltimore casino that he said had the potential to create a renaissance in the area that is still heavily populated with industrial businesses.
The design, Miller said, was made with that goal in mind — and a vision to create more of a pedestrian-friendly community surrounding the casino that could link it to nearby M&T Bank Stadium.
However, UDARP members pushed back, saying the design’s grand entrance to be placed along Warner Street, which runs parallel to Russell Street, was confusing, relied too much on valet parking services and did not accommodate tour bus traffic expected to bring gamblers to the site.
Also, a 700-foot long, nine-story parking garage added behind the casino, also on Warner Street, would dwarf the casino in a disturbing way, UDARP members said. The garage would hold huge billboards visible from Interstates 95 and 395 and would be roughly the length of two football field.
UDARP member Gary Bowden said the garage design was “the element most troublesome from an urban design standpoint.”
“It looks too much like a prison,” Bowden said. “We have big prisons here in Baltimore, and we don’t need one out on the waterfront like the casino.
“I’d like to see the garage simplified.”
Another UDARP member, Emily Hotaling Eig, said the parking garage as proposed “is going to change the view of Baltimore for so many people.”
“This is a huge statement on the water,” Eig said. “The parking garage is more important than the [casino] building.”
CBAC Gaming officials and their architects pledged to return with revisions.
The total cost of the casino is estimated to be about $310 million, but Miller said the figures were still being compiled. The casino is expected to employ more than 1,200 workers.
“We’re not disappointed at all,” Miller said. “To be successful, we have to integrate into the community. We welcome this forum.”
The city casino’s ownership team is Caesars Entertainment, Rock Gaming, and local owners A&R Development Corp., Caves Valley Partners and an investment group headed by financier Eddie Brown.
Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. has been selected as the general contractor for the project, Miller said.