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Editorial: Make city casino design welcome site

Thank you, UDARP, for sending the newly designated operators of Baltimore’s planned casino back to the drawing board to produce a design for the $310 million facility more in keeping with its locale and a larger mission to help transform the southern entrance to downtown.

The “most troublesome” element was a 700-foot-long, nine-story parking garage that overshadowed the rest of the glitzy structure and “looks too much like a prison,” said Gary Bowden, a member of the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel.

“We have big prisons here in Baltimore, and we don’t need one out on the waterfront, like the casino,” Bowden said.

Amen to that.

Entering the city from the south via Russell Street is a grim experience. Until you reach M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, you see an expanse of gas stations, a storage facility, a budget hotel and some old industrial sites.

The casino, which will be operated under the name of Harrah’s, has the potential to make that entrance more of an exclamation mark than a yawn, which is why the building’s design is so important.

Initial plans show a two-story, 260,000-square-foot casino with a facade of bricks, steel and glass illuminated by a red neon sign and a rainbow of colored lights.

OK, this may not look like London or Paris, but it’s a casino in Baltimore, and if done well, it could look a darn sight better than what we have now.

That’s where the parking garage comes in. The last thing that area needs is another hulking concrete edifice, and this one would house two huge billboards and dwarf the casino.

“This is a huge statement on the water,” said UDARP member Emily Hotaling Eig. “The parking garage is more important than the [casino] building.”

So clearly, the initial design needs refinement. To his credit, Greg Miller, senior vice president for development for Caesars Entertainment, said he was not disappointed with the UDARP action and pledged to work with the city for a better outcome.

The stakes are huge. An attractive, vibrant casino complex will almost certainly be a catalyst for much-needed, high-value development in the area.

That, in turn, could help connect the development dots from the casino, north to the stadiums and the Hilton Hotel, then east to the convention center and the hoped-for expansion of that facility plus the new arena and hotel.

All of that means UDARP was right to call for a design overhaul that will lessen the deadening impact of such a monstrous parking garage. There will be only one chance to get the design right, and the results could be transformative.