August 22, 2011

Camden Yards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards: 20 Year anniversary

The ballpark was revolutionary and the thousand foot long warehouse created a unique urban signature, but the rest of Camden Yards has still not fulfilled its potential as an urban space.

This month's Press Box magazine presents a nice twenty year retrospective of the "good old days" when Oriole Park at Camden Yards first opened. Yes, the design of Baltimore's ballpark really was as revolutionary as everyone has said. But just like the Orioles themselves, it's much nicer to remember Oriole Park's past then to contemplate its present of shrinking attendance and interest.

Camden Yards is no longer a sports leader

Let's face it: Since its 1992 opening, Baltimore has been left in the dust by many other major league cities, not just on the field but in terms of development surrounding the field. To name several, the new waterfront stadium settings in Pittsburgh and San Francisco embrace their cities' images even more than does our B&O Warehouse. And Baltimore's only major new nearby development has been the plain-Jane Hilton Hotel built by the city itself, which blocks much of the inside view, particularly of our wonderful historic Bromo Seltzer Tower. Among the others, Coors Field in Denver's LoDo neighborhood has sparked much more downtown and Platte riverfront revitalization than has Camden Yards.

Worse yet, Baltimore has since turned its back on building this kind of fine grained urban development, of the style that has demonstrated to be in complete harmony with urban ballparks as long ago as Boston's Fenway and Chicago's Wrigley built nearly a century ago. Twenty years ago, Baltimore proved it again when the high density Ridgely's Delight neighborhood continued to prosper directly across Russell Street from Oriole Park.

Baltimore started losing its way with new development when the Ravens' M&T Bank stadium was plopped down on the Camden Yards south parking lot a few years later, in the same kind of contextual vacuum that characterized 1960s-style "ashtray" stadiums built around the country such as Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. But yes, football is different from baseball, so perhaps this is excusable. Baltimore's football stadium works well enough even though no legends have grown up around it.
Proposed new Baltimore arena and hotel at Conway (foreground) and Charles streets, with expanded convetion center behind it (with grass roof.)
The proposed billion dollar convention center/arena/hotel/retail mega-complex
 is the present-day  equivalent of the multi-purpose "ashtray" stadium monstrosities
 built before Oriole Park at Camden Yards revolutionized stadium design.

Look at what they're pushing now

More distressing is what has been happening lately, with the Greater Baltimore Committee pushing their massive billion dollar combination arena, convention center, hotel, retail complex between Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor. This proposed mega-complex is so hopelessly way out of scale with everything around it, just like the proverbial million pound gorilla which promises to eat up everything in sight. This is a suburban fortress mentality. It's easy to compare such a facility to those 1960s-style combination baseball-football "ash tray" stadiums that were the bane of sports until Oriole Park came along.

It's also easy to detect the city's increasing desperation, in its efforts to build a slots casino just south of Camden Yards, no matter what kind of monstrosity might ultimately be proposed. Recently, city leaders have been banking more and more of the city's economic future on the slots project.

When you want a casino in the worst way, that's probably what you're going to get - the worst way. It looks increasingly like the city will not be able to say "no" to any design demand or shortcut proposed by a prospective slots developer. It cold easily end up as just another alien mega-barn plopped down south of the football stadium, built to maximize immediate payoffs and minimize costs, rather than being an element that will intelligently fit into a plan for urbanizing the entire area around Camden Yards.

Just look at the way the city has allowed the Grand Prix preparation to run roughshod over the Inner Harbor's streets and trees in preparing for the Labor Day weekend race, and that is a hint at how future plans promise to be dealt with.

Another recent proposal is for a branch of "Seacrets", a six acre mega-bar from Ocean City that has been talking to Westport developer Patrick Turner. Seacrets could become either a wonderful and compatible urban attraction, or just another loud, tacky community disruption. It's a strong signal of danger that a recent front page Sun article on Seacrets cited Westport, where it would be very difficult to assimilate into Turner's plan which has already won neighborhood approval, but did not mention the Gateway South casino area. Seacrets could certainly fit in better near the casino, if not for all the unspoken promises the city should be expected to make to the casino developer.

As the hype of economic justification of mega-projects because more and more convoluted and strident, without firm numbers of course, the future looks increasingly at risk.

A concept plan to urbanize Camden Yards prepared in 2010
 for an article in with new development on parking lots
 and air rights oriented around a new urban street. 

Promoting true urbanization

This type of development desperation is needless. A casino, an arena, a convention center expansion, new hotels and other new urban development and amenities can easily be accommodated as part of a plan that integrates them into downtown and the city, and allows the entire private sector, large and small businesses alike, to maximize opportunities on an equal footing.

Camden Yards' expansive parking lots and highway and railroad "air rights" have tremendous potential for new development that could enable Baltimore to retake the leadership away from Pittsburgh, Denver, San Francisco and other cities as the best possible stadium environment. Furthermore, Gateway South and Westport, the areas south of Camden Yards along the Middle Branch waterfront, also have tremendous potential if the city doesn't blow it.

One of the impressions of the PressBox article is that stadium architect HOK breezed into Baltimore back in the 1980s and immediately presented its vision for what became Oriole Park at Camden Yards, dazzling everyone with its brilliance. But in reality, HOK had been architects for many of those "ashtray" stadiums built around the country, and they originally tried to sell the same thing to Baltimore.

But making Camden Yards a unique and valuable part of Baltimore was a local effort, not HOK's. This kind of local initiative is still needed now more than ever to ensure that Camden Yards, downtown, the Inner Harbor, Gateway South, Westport, and indeed the entire city is planned in a way that allows it to freely grow and prosper instead of merely catering to those who make demands on our will and resources.


  1. you hit the nail on the head, balto has LOST ITS WAY!!!!