The 60-year-old Baltimore Arena could get a maritime motif with blue lights and triangular, sail-like forms attached to two sides, as part of a $150 million upgrade proposed by the California-based developer who has been selected to renovate it.
A parking lot and roadway on the Hopkins Place side of the building would become a multi-purpose plaza for music festivals, food truck rallies, boat shows and spillover events from the nearby Convention Center.
The main entrance would remain on Baltimore Street and part of the arena’s north façade would be opened up with pop-out windows so people inside could look out over the city. The rooftop chevrons would remain and possibly get new up-lighting to accentuate their distinctive shapes.
Those are a few of the ideas that the Oak View Group of Los Angeles and its lead designers, SCI Architects of New York, showed during a 90-minute review session Thursday with Baltimore’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP).
The meeting, held virtually, was one of the first times that the Oak View Group has discussed its project in a public forum since Nov. 24, when Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved a 30-year lease, development and management agreement with the company.
Oak View Group’s team was selected over two other bidders that sought the opportunity to renovate and operate the Arena, also known as the Royal Farms Arena, at 201 West Baltimore Street. One of its investor partners is Kevin Durant, an All Star forward with the Brooklyn Nets who was born in Washington, D. C. and grew up in Prince George’s County.
The property is bounded by Baltimore, Howard and Lombard streets and Hopkins Place. Even though the lease agreement calls for the Oak View Group to pay for all capital improvements without any funding assistance from the city, it’s still required to go through the Planning Department’s design review process in order to obtain building permits and begin construction.
The team is under a tight time schedule because the city has been selected to host the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments in February 2022 and 2023, with the arena as primary venue both years.
To honor those bookings, which will bring national attention and thousands of visitors to Baltimore, the city has set an 11- to 12 month construction schedule that would start as soon as the 2022 games are over, on Feb. 28, 2022, and be substantially complete before Feb. 20, 2023, when the 2023 event is due to begin.
The scope of renovations includes major changes to the interior of the arena, the exterior and the area around it. UDAAP is charged primarily with reviewing plans for the building’s exterior and adjacent public spaces, but members also want to understand how the interior functions.
Architect Murray Beynon said the team plans to keep the arena’s main entrance at the corner of Baltimore Street and Hopkins Place, with two additional entrances on Baltimore Street. He said the team has proposed a series of moves to help change the look of the arena and the way people will interact with it, whether they attend an event inside or not. They include:
A bluish lighting effect, two billboard-sized sign panels over the main entrance, and other changes that will give the arena a new look. He said the team has explored the idea of adding sail-like shapes to the building’s north and east sides. He said the designers have been wrestling with the number and size of the sail forms because they don’t want them to fight visually with the chevrons on the roof. He also showed versions of the exterior without any sail forms.
A plaza on the east side of the arena, facing Hopkins Place, that can be used for a variety of events. Beynon said operators of the nearby Baltimore Convention Center have expressed a need for spillover space to accommodate some of its events, and an outdoor plaza would help in that regard. He said the plaza could have a café at the base of the arena and that Hopkins Place might be closed to vehicular traffic between Baltimore and Lombard Streets at certain times to enlarge the pedestrian zone. He said the new plaza would get new lights, electrical outlets and other modifications needed to support festival and other outdoor events.
More lighting along Howard Street, especially where part of the arena is cantilevered over the sidewalk and makes the area dark even during the day.
Review panel members said they liked the idea of the flexible plaza and other changes that would activate the area around the building. They were fairly receptive to the team’s ideas for using light and light towers to help change the building’s image and give it a stronger presence in the city.
Panel member Osborne Anthony encouraged the designers to do more to give the Howard Street side of the building some “love.” He and panel member Sharon Bradley encouraged the designers to think about how the arena will look when there isn’t an event underway inside, as well as when there is an event underway.
The reviewers were less enthusiastic about the architects’ efforts to add sail-like forms to impart a nautical or maritime theme. They said it’s not a new idea to incorporate shapes that suggest Baltimore is a port city and that if the team wants to do so, it needs to be done in a way that is fresh and sophisticated.
“I tend to think that the exterior of the building is a little bit of an afterthought, a little bit heavy-handed,” said panel member Pavlina Ilieva. “The sails are perhaps expected. I think the references to the water and the maritime nature of Baltimore is what every project, for lack of a better idea, would try to do.”
If the architects do want to embrace a maritime theme, they need to do it in “a much more meaningful way,” Ilieva said. “Because that theme is so overused and so overdone and so expected, you would need to commit to it in a more artful and more deliberate way. It would need to be more thoughtful, more sophisticated. It cannot be the thick crayon version of [maritime Baltimore.] It can’t be a big triangle that suggests sails. It can’t be just painting water on the building…It’s just too easy, too obvious, too you-don’t-have-anything-better.”
For such a transformative project, it needs to be “something that really elevates and uplifts the area through this building and through this project,” she said. “I’m not saying there is no opportunity to pursue the sails or even that theme. It would just have to be done a little bit better.”
The Board of Estimates, the city’s spending panel, approved the agreement with Oak View Group last month in a 4-to-1 vote, with Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby casting the dissenting vote. According to The Baltimore Business Journal, Mosby this week wrote to Mayor Brandon Scott again expressing his concerns and suggesting that the project might be rebid.
Mosby’s objections have centered on whether Oak View Group can complete a comprehensive renovation of the 60-year-old arena within the needed timeframe, especially given the supply chain issues that have delayed many other local construction projects, even smaller ones such as the eight-story office building that’s behind schedule at Charles and Eager streets.
At the Nov. 24 meeting of the Board of Estimates, over which he presides, Mosby asked what contingency plans the city has if the arena renovation isn’t finished on time. He also questioned Oak View Group’s plans for hiring a substantial percentage of minority- and women-owned businesses, a stated goal of the city.