Monday, September 26, 2022

Baltimore's newest thing is an old hat elsewhere

Peering out my office window from the historic Wicomico building in Pigtown I wondered about those big sticks going up right behind another new construction project on Ostend Street, the new 3,400 seat Paramount concert venue at the corner with Warner Street. 

View from my window: 150' netting
(Photo: Philipsen)

Recently the purpose of the more than 150' sticks becomes clear after netting connects the sticks and a closer inspection of the venue reveals a three story open horseshoe shaped structure facing the giant net. Further investigation revealed that what is happening here on the former Animal Control and Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) is another piece in what I would call Baltimore's new fun zone at the Middle Branch and is related to the biggest fun palace, the Horseshoe Casino. Ok, fun is in the eyes of the beholder, but  is often defined as approximately opposed to purposeful or productive activity.  Topgolf, under that definition fits fun. The more serious title for the fun zone is the Warner Street Entertainment District, a term used by the Baltimore design firm BCT which has designed the Casino and developed concepts for the area. 

The 250,000 sf district will transform an abandoned, desolate industrial zone into a thriving recreational corridor with the addition of an 80,000 sf Paramount music venue, 65,000 sf Top Golf facility, 30,000 sf Yards Social Bar, 320-key branded hotel and 34,620 sf of interlacing retail. (BCT website)

Maybe you are like me and wonder, what on earth is Topgolf? For an answer I recommend this really entertaining article by the golf experts titled "A beginner's guide to Topgolf, the best way to enjoy golf while knowing nothing about it".

Topgolf player Minneapolis (Explore Minnesota)

The article starts off with this reflection about not having invented this lucrative activity:

If you’re like us, you wake up every morning and spend 10 minutes staring at the ceiling thinking, What have I been doing that’s so important that I didn’t think to invent Topgolf? and then you hit yourself with a waffle and head off to your relatively boring job. (Golf Digest)

The article explains the activity of Topgolf much better than I ever could, so here I quote again:

Topgolf has exploded thanks to its forehead-slappingly simple formula: driving range + bar + accessible vibe.  Short version: three-story-tall driving range with bar and kitchen. The range is populated by several dozen bays, which you and your group can rent by the hour. Each bay is essentially a private driving range tee with a waitstaff. Six can play at a time, all ages. (Golf Digest)
For more detail I recommend reading the full article. 

Rendering of the Baltimore facility (Topgolf)

One doesn't have to be an expert in Topgolf to see that at least three different visions are tugging on the available land around the Middle Branch which my colleagues at the AIA Urban Design Committee called "Baltimore's second waterfront" as early as in a 1992 masterplan for the Middle Branch. Family centered fun, accessibility and a softer more natural water's edge celebrating marshes, wetlands and habitats was part of our vision then. 

Another  version emerged which saw a string of sports venues lining Russell Street, Oriol Park, the Ravens Stadium and then a third large sports venue that was proposed in various forms (a 2007 proposal suggested a new arena here) but ultimately the casino won out.

With the casino a third vision came to be, one for which the Middle Branch was merely an afterthought. The giant parking garage directly along the shore attests to that. 
Here at Topgolf, we’ve made socializing a sport through a blend of technology and entertainment – and that’s just the game! If you journey through our venue on any given day, you’ll find a place buzzing with energy. There’s no pressure to have a good golf swing or score a lot of points. It’s all about everyone having fun. (Topgolf website)
The first vision, the Middle Branch as a natural waterfront is not dead, though. It was nurtured by Pat Turner's Westport design when he engaged the landscape architects of Field Operations (New York High Line), Kevin Planks Port Covington and lately the "Reimagine the Middle Branch" design once again presented by Field Operations and ironically largely funded by "casino impact grant funds". 
Field Operations rendering of the Middle Branch: 
A new shoreline design envisions improved water quality
and resiliency measures that protect communities from damaging
storms, while adding trail connections, boardwalks,
and scenic beauty to the Middle Branch.

The plan’s long-term vision is guided by three Equity Frameworks: Protect and Connect the Shoreline, Transform Barriers into Connections, and Strengthen Communities with Parks and Programs. These frameworks organize a series of projects to be implemented over the next two decades and identify three major priority areas: an expanded Middle Branch Park, Ridgley's Cove, and the Loop Trail. 

Middle Branch Park, already a destination on the waterfront, will be expanded and improved with a new boathouse, improved boating and fishing piers, an expanded playground, an event lawn for festivals, and a covered outdoor pavilion for gatherings. At Ridgley’s Cove, large expanses of new marshland will form a “maritime park” and provide critical green stormwater infrastructure for nearby areas that are vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. (Field Operations website)

Neither the casino nor the Topgolf facility will do anything for access or enjoyment of the Middle Branch, except for providing funds for trails and enhancements through community benefits agreements. (Topgolf is supposed to put a trail behind the casino garage).The project also filled some half acre of tidal wetlands and open water with compacted soil, an impact that is mitigated offsite at Ridgely's Cove. 

An ideal planning approach would look for direct synergies between the land use along the shores of the Middle Branch and the vision of the Middle Branch as an attractive and healthy natural body of water. But Baltimore's planners always had trouble with that, all the way back to when in the 1990s against the begging of the AIA Urban Design Committee the Baltimore Development Corporation issued a request for proposals for the Warner Street area for new industrial uses as an extension of the Carroll Camden industrial park, essentially a continuation of what the area had been in the past. BDC also wrote the request for proposals for the former BARCS site. Topgolf was the only bidder.
Reinventing the indsutrial legacy city: Giant sticks
in the air

When I wrote my book, Baltimore - Reinventing an American Legacy City I looked  for ways how the economic and demographic base of an industrial city like Baltimore could change towards a prosperous future in the 21st century. The possible answers are numerous
It looks like for the Warner Street corridor the answer is fun and "entertainment". just as this apparently has been the answer for Fells Point, canton and Federal Hill and likely will be the answer for a future Inner Harbor. 

The 65,000 sf three story sports bar with a 36' video wall on 6.5 acres fits right into the concept of those other fun zones in which a large part of the revenue comes from drinking.  But the facility is not supportive of the vision that puts the Middle Branch in focus as the primary asset.

Topgolf is not the name of a new sport, it is a brand and an enterprise. It so far operates 69 venues around the world. (Not only Las Vegas, Austin, Minneapolis and  Denver have it already but also Philly, DC, New Orleans, Richmond, Detroit, Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and even St Louis and many more). 

According to 2018 promises when the project was first announced, the company will create 500 jobs at its Baltimore location and generate $264.5 million of revenue over 10 years. Indeed, "what have I been doing that’s so important that I didn’t think to invent Topgolf?". On the other hand, in 10years will anybody still think it's fun to hit a golf ball from a perch on the third floor into a 150' tall net?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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