August 24, 2015

Casino Entertainment District

Horseshoe Hotel on the Middle Branch as envisioned by Peter Tocco

 UPDATE: Erin Chamberlin, senior vice-president and general manager of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore now says of the hotel: "We certainly envision a time when such a project could serve as a prominent component of the area's broader redevelopment." (The Sun, October 27. 2016)

This comment is skillfully phrased to position the Horseshoe within the city's development climate and its casino competition at Arundel Mills and National Harbor, both of which are nearing completion of their own hotels.

The Horseshoe is willing to wait to see how they're impacted. It's a win-win for them. The worse the Horseshoe is hit by the competition, the bigger the subsidy they'll get from the kickback of community impact fees. And yet the casino was supposed to be a cash cow.

Considering that the casino area's biggest "broader redevelopment" so far has been renovated convenience stores like Royal Farms and the "Greyhound Bus Station From Nowhere", the Horseshoe will be sitting pretty to demand major city support for its hotel.

The Horseshoe Hotel plan is inevitable.

Waterfront hotel on a Middle Branch Parkway

Casinos are all about fantasy and illusion. As such, the recently released 184 page master plan for the Horseshoe Casino communities is all about spreading casino winnings to its surrounding areas, very much the same way gamblers fantasize about what they're going to do when they get that big win.

Similarly, the proposed Horseshoe Casino Hotel shown above is just a fantasy illusion, skillfully photo-shopped onto a picture of the Middle Branch by Peter Tocco. This hotel's illusion is based on being just a thin veneer which would wrap-around and hide the monster parking garage that the casino built on its waterfront. Such veneers have become popular and fashionable in postmodern architecture, including in Baltimore.

But right now, the giant parking garage is what drivers on Interstate 95 see as the casino's lure. That's not much of a fantasy. What they ought to see is a glamorous hotel conveying the message of opulence and possible riches, or at least being "comped" for a free night.

The rear of the 3400 car casino parking garage as it encroaches on the Middle Branch waterfront seen from underneath I-95. It's a huge footprint, but it looks far more dominating as seen from I-95 above. M&T Bank stadium is shown to the right (north).

The "Gateway Master Plan"

There's not much basis in the master plan report for this fantasy. Mostly, it's just a "plan to do a plan" - trying to get "buy-in" from the local stakeholders for whatever happens. Maybe we'll win, maybe we won't. At this point, the casino's future success is dubious at best due to killer competition from Arundel Mills and National Harbor.

The report hardly even mentions the casino, the impetus for all this, any more than it has to. The physical plan recommendations begin on page 130 (pdf page 138) through page 143.

Here is the entirety of the report's recommendations directly pertaining to the casino area:

"A new entertainment district along Warner Street would connect the Horseshoe Casino and M&T Bank Stadium and offer restaurants, shopping, hotels and other entertainment choices. The City should establish specific land use recommendations, restrictions and urban design guidelines for the Warner Street area, including options for improving pedestrian safety at the CSX Railroad crossing. The design study should also explore land use changes and public improvements for Russell Street."

"RECOMMENDATIONS 1 Conduct a land use and urban design study to establish the vision for a new entertainment district along Warner Street and portions of Russell Street. The study should consider how best to enhance and take advantage of nearby access to the Middle Branch waterfront."

Very well and good. It would have been nice if the city had taken this idea seriously before the casino was built, when the casino's giant parking garage was allowed to dominate and displace Warner Street and the waterfront. This severely reduces the flexibility in how to balance urban and natural needs. The waterfront was an afterthought, hidden away and therefore vulnerable to any kind of abuse. 

It's also essentially too late to "explore land use changes and public improvements for Russell Street." The street recently underwent a major rehab and its downscale gas stations and convenience stores are now being replaced by higher-class gas stations and convenience stores. So much for a "gateway".

So the real key to creating greater connectivity to the city's surrounding urban fabric must now be to shun the gasoline-alley pseudo-suburbia of Russell Street and create a new far more urban and human-oriented gateway along the waterfront. There's no other choice.

Middle Branch Parkway

This can be achieved by creating a new two-mile Middle Branch Parkway which extends all the way from Conway Street at the cusp of Camden Yards, the convention center and Downtown, southward to Westport and Waterview Avenue. Its goal is to create the most flexible possible public realm, optimized to balance development and nature.

Proposed Middle Branch Parkway extending from Westport (left) northward to Camden Yards and downtown (right). This would be the casino's new waterfront address.

The parkway should be built to accommodate slow moving auto access, but it should also be closable for any kind of event - sports events, cycling events, drinking events (pushed out of Federal Hill), gambling events, festivals or even just weekend solitude.

In the Camden Yards area to the north, the Middle Branch Parkway should create urban street frontages for the Oriole Park Warehouse and the MARC Station, air rights development sites over I-395 and the railroad tracks, new development sites carved out of the expansive surface parking lots and better edge definition for the remaining parking lots.

South of Stockholm Street nearer the casino, development opportunities are more limited. The emphasis should be placed on creating an urban edge for the waterfront area to promote surveillance, maintenance and a constituency to prevent "out of sight, out of mind" neglect and abuse.

To do this, the development footprints for the parking lot and adjacent animal shelter sites along the water should be relatively small to leave more room there for parkland and nature. These two parcels are arguably the most important in the entire Middle Branch, because they are the closest to the South Baltimore and Pigtown neighborhoods, accessible via the Ostend Street underpass which avoids conflict with Russell Street, and from Sharp Street which avoids conflict with the CSX mainline railroad crossing on Warner. Sharp Street is also particularly close to the huge new Caves Valley development.

There's plenty of room left over for nature, a waterfront parkway and a hotel attached to the veneer of the Horseshoe Casino parking garage, The downtown skyline in the distance (right) can be made to look like Oz's Emerald City instead of the gasoline-alley gateway on Russell Street. (Maybe the parkway can even be built as a Yellow Brick Road.)

This would be compensated, however, by the casino hotel site on the long narrow veneer of the parking garage. The city obviously does not think development near the casino has much potential anyway, as evidenced by their leaving the Greyhound Bus terminal on the site just to the south. Eventually, this should also be replaced by something more appropriate and Greyhound should get a much more suitable and less isolated site.

South of the casino, the parkway would extend underneath the I-95/I-395 interchange, a vast surrealistic underworld that seems fascinating (to me anyway) in a postmodern juxtaposed kind of way. The hidden isolated nature of this area means that it is currently severely trashed, but it has tremendous creative potential. 

South of I-95, Westport starts, and the billion-plus dollar development site recently purchased by Under Armour's Kevin Plank, which would be the strong southern anchor for the parkway. The north end of Westport in the shadow of I-95 is slated for parkland, but as currently configured, it would be difficult to maintain a pristine park to the south while ignoring the adjacent I-95 catacombs. The parkway would unify them in a much more coherent and sustainable manner.

The success of the long delayed Westport development would also benefit great from the parkway, creating the direct linkage that would make Westport a downtown community instead of an isolated island. 

A new North Westport light rail station station could also be built to provide decent access to the casino, bus station, and a future spur to the rest of the Under Armour empire at Port Covington (see blog article).

The need for a casino hotel

The need for a casino hotel is far stronger now than when the casino was in its planning stages. The original statewide enabling legislation called for high tax "slots barns" which would focus simply on local patrons who did not want to travel to more lucrative out of state gambling venues.

The stakes were greatly increased when the state added table games, slashed the tax rate and approved an additional world-class casino at National Harbor near Washington, DC. Concurrently, the Arundel Mills casino just  few miles down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway started dominating the high stakes competition with Baltimore's Horseshoe. They have recently announced that they will build a hotel attached to their casino.

Baltimore must find its comparative advantage in this competition. It can only be in emphasizing its urbanity over its Russell Street frontage amid the gas station/convenience stores.

Peter Tocco's more "over the top" alternative design for a veneer hotel attached to the casino's waterfront parking garage.

The hotel itself would be just a means to an end - the image it conveys. The casino marketers and city image-makers need to decide how to best present the casino to its market. It may be a tasteful facade or it may be Vegas-style, over-the-top. That must be negotiated. There are already examples of how our once clean, sleek Inner Harbor has been made over by the image-makers, with a giant guitar attached to a smoke stack and a cartoon monster wrapped around a Harborplace entrance. 

Baltimore is past the point of no return on gambling. The casino must be re-oriented to the waterfront and the waterfront must be reoriented to downtown. It's all about reinforcing the casino's image as a place of fantasy and illusion. The casino parking garage must be given a new active waterfront facade with an address on a parkway which integrates the Middle Branch with downtown.


  1. I have trouble following the Middle Branch Trail of the East Coast Greenway on Google maps. It looks like it only starts at Russell and Bush streets, and ends at Warner and Alluvion streets. It is unclear where it is coming from or where it is going, but it has the makings of a promenade for that area. With a bridge over the tracks, it could connect to the Ravens' Walk.

    The first part of your proposed Parkway exists from Conway to the end of M&T, where it takes a sharp right and ends at Russell. Does that "street" in front of the Warehouse and along the edge of the parking lots have a name?

    1. Google Maps and Google Earth have it right. The trail is just a fragment right now, tucked in behind the casino parking garage, the Greyhound Station and the BP Gas/Convenience Store. It's pretty nice, but potentially dangerous and it could be a whole lot nicer. I don't see how building a bridge over the railroad tracks could be worth it. Worst case scenario if a train blocks the Warner crossing too long: Take Stockholm to Sharp and cross the Locust Point RR Branch instead of the CSX mainline, then take the Ostend bridge back to the Ravens Stadium.

      No, the street has no name. I called it "The Bird Trail" in the Baltimore Brew. Someone can probably do better.

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