Thursday, March 3, 2016

Many reasons to demo the Arena

The BBJ carries one of their unscientific online polls today in which they ask: Should the Royal Farms Arena be replaced?

  •  Yes. A more modern, bigger arena is definitely needed.
  •  No. If renovations can be done at a cheaper cost, I'm all for it.
  •  It depends on the location and scope of a new arena.
  •  Let's see what the next mayor thinks.

My answer would be yes but not for any of the reasons the BBJ allows. Let's go through my argument one step at a time.
The Arena from above

The big Arena dreams which were floated in recent years by big name Baltimoreans like the late Willard Hackerman or David Cordish could forever remain just that, dreams. In which case it behooves the City to think about what they should do if such a sugar daddy would never materialize. And in the last moment of her time as Mayor SRB has begun to do just that. It should also be food for thought for the next Mayor.

Thinking about fixing the current Arena in such a manner that the venue wouldn't have to be shut down for an extended period of time has a lot of appeal.

Not only would this likely be cheaper than a brand-new one, there is also this: The Baltimore Arena is often noted as one of the best performing class B venues in the country. So why slay the goose that lays those golden eggs?

(Oh well, Council President wanted to give those eggs back to the event organizers, but that is another story).

Often it is better to be a small fish in a smaller pond than a big fish in a big pond. In the case of the Arena: Baltimore competes as a strong metro region with a somewhat smallish venue in a field where competitors have much bigger ones. Not going head-on with other cities with a state of the art venue but with an aging one of the type and size they don't have appears to work well.

My reason for taking the existing Arena down anyway is entirely based on urban design and not on the performance of the venue itself.

From an urban design perspective the current Arena is a gigantic failure. Placed by ignoring important cues that the historic street grid should have provided it sits a giant dumb box gumming up the connections between the Westside and downtown.

The Arena never delivered on enlivening its surroundings and spreading the benefits of its good attendance with the neighborhood. People come in, park in a garage, attend their event and go home. There is really no indication that anybody other than the garage operators and  maybe the MTA with their nearby light rail benefit from the crowds at the Arena. Most of the time, the thing sits their as a big hulking mass, deadening the surrounding streets, blocking views and walk connections and casting long shadows.
The downtown street grid before urban renewal (1958)

Just imagine what could be done with the land that it would free up should the Arena would move to another place:

  • the Arena parcel could be cut up into more typical development blocks and the city owned land sold to developers as down-payment for a new venue
  • A mix of retail, office and especially residential use could be brought in creating much more revenue than the Arena currently does
  • Redwood Street could be reopened as the old important downtown lifeline it once was
  • Liberty Street could once again continue as the only downtown diagonal street with a vista terminating on the cupola of the historic Camden Station (ok, a garage on Lombard Street would still be in the way)
  • instead of a dull box, Baltimore could have a setting like Times Square at the place where the diagonal Liberty Street intersects with the regular street grid
  • The Westside could get a small park
  • the awkward counterflow lanes along Liberty could be eliminated
  • a underground transit hub could be created underneath what is currently the Arena foorprint 
    A possible redevelopment scenario (ArchPlan Inc.)

I have been trying to sell this idea for years. An article illustrating it was printed in the 2008 Urbanite (pg. 69) and also here on this blog. The transit center idea was presented to MTA in conjunction with the Red Line, but it would also be relevant under Baltimore Link, the currently proposed overhaul of existing transit.

Since the BBJ asked the question, here is my answer once again.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Links:

BBJ article about latest City thoughts about renovation

Community Architect article about a downtown transit center

Suggested block shapes and possible downtown bus hub
(ArchPlan Inc.)