October 31, 2011

Downtown Racetrack

A downtown racetrack:
An incredibly stupid idea that refuses to die
Google Earth image of Pimlico Racetrack superimposed over industrial community between Carroll Park (left) and Camden Yards (right), south of Ostend Street 

The idea of building a downtown Baltimore horse racing track has been bandied around by the usual suspects, our so-called business leaders, for almost a decade now, so it's time to put an end to it once and for all.

It takes only a tiny bit of scrutiny to expose this as totally absurd. It's so ridiculous, it would seem to be able to just die on its own, but it keeps crawling back like a cockroach you thought was dead.

The idea was recently raised again on September 28th in the back of a front page Sun article on "Maryland's Gambling Future", by a "longtime member" of the Maryland Racing Commission, John Fanzone, who said "he hopes the Stronach involvement with the Baltimore casino improves the prospect for a downtown racetrack."

Of course, Frank Stronach has long preached for replacing the venerable historic Pimlico Racetrack, while at the same time presiding over the steady deterioration of the Maryland horse racing industry. The Sun article also reminds us that Greg Avioli, who runs Stronach's track business, says that "downtown Baltimore is a strong possibility for a new racetrack."

In order to maintain at least a shred of plausibility for this idea, proponents avoid speaking of details. But back in 2004, Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Carl A.J. Wright said "the best spot would be on 100 acres west of Russell Street and south of Ostend Street in the vicinity of the stadiums that are home to the city's two major professional sports teams", according to an article in the Daily Record from May 13, 2005.

So I prepared a quick Google Earth image showing how 100 acres of Pimlico racetrack would look as superimposed over such a site south of Ostend Street, which can just barely be squeezed between Carroll Park to the west and the CSX mainline train tracks to the east.

One hundred acres is a huge amount of land in such an urban setting. A racetrack on such a site would absolutely dominate southwest Baltimore, and displace a huge number of present businesses as well as preclude future businesses. Quite a bit of the Pigtown residential community would also be wiped off the face of the earth.

Here is a small sample of some of what would have to be eliminated, a residential block of Cleveland Street, an historic industrial building, and the Washington Boulevard frontage on Carroll Park:

Three Pigtown places that represent a small part of the 100 acres which would have to be wiped out to accommodate a proposed racetrack.

These are exactly the kinds of places that ought to represent Baltimore at its best, and that the city should be trying to nurture and cultivate, rather than threatening with a crazy racetrack scheme. No wonder Carroll Park and Pigtown have been unable to achieve their vast potential as an urban park and community, with things like this hanging over their head.  

Of course, the so-called business leaders always portray their schemes in a cloak of rationality. The Daily Record article has Donald Fry, Greater Baltimore Committee President and perennial purveyor of mega-schemes (such as the all-in-one Convention/Hotel/Arena and the multi-billion dollar transit Red Line) assuring us that while he favors a new government-sponsored racetrack, it would have to get a good return on investment - at least on paper, in the terms of one of their feasibility studies.

Somehow, these people seem to think that these schemes are the future of Baltimore - or at least downtown, or at least the part between downtown and Interstate 95 that allows people to escape without interacting with the vast rest of the city.

Wouldn't it be nice if these so-called business leaders could focus all their energies on actually improving business?

Please - once and for all - let's just kill the idea of a Pigtown Racetrack, doo-dah, doo-dah.


  1. Just wait until the wind carries the smell of the horses across Camden Yards on a baltimore summer day. I'm sure that will really boost the morale of the Orioles and fans.

  2. I think I smell something already. This is a new way to create a "stable" neighborhood.

  3. "Wouldn't it be nice if these so-called business leaders could focus all their energies on actually improving business?"

    We can all dream... :-)

    The worrying thing is that this could actually happen - 'Kelo vs. City of New London' only strengthened the precedent. I hope not, though - it would be a shame to lose all those (occupied, not even abandoned!) rowhouses, businesses, and industries. Besides, what's wrong with fixing up the existing Pimlico racetrack?

    It seems like there's a notion for B'more to transform itself into a third-rate Vegas (new casinos!) complete with horses and "odditoriums" (as you put it nicely) to woo the gamblers' bored wives and kids. I didn't know cities could sink lower than Atlantic City or Reno. Is this really what passes for "economic development" these days?