Camera footage shows crews working on the stage area at Baltimore Arena. A camera has been installed to let anyone follow the progress. Credit: OxBlue.

New operators of the Baltimore Arena have wasted no time starting on a $150 million renovation of the building – and the general public is invited to watch their progress.

Shortly after the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments ended at the arena in late February, the Oak View Group and its partners began working to transform the 60-year-old building at 201 W. Baltimore St.

The work includes adding seats and suites, refurbishing concourses, upgrading concessions areas and changing the building’s appearance – all part of a plan to book “top tier” events and draw more people downtown to see them.

Signs of activity are visible outside the arena, where a construction fence is up and a section of the exterior wall has been removed to help bring materials in and out.

“Work has commenced on the project as planned,” said Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), which led the search for a development team.

The general contractor, Clark Construction Group, has installed a 24-hour OxBlue construction camera inside the building to let anyone follow its progress. The camera currently shows demolition work on the stage area.

Oak View Group of Los Angeles was selected last year over two other bidders that sought the opportunity to renovate and operate the arena. An equity investor on Oak View’s team is Thirty Five Ventures, founded by Rich Kleiman and Kevin Durant. Durant is an All Star forward with the Brooklyn Nets who was born in Washington, D. C. and grew up in Prince George’s County.

Oak View Group has agreed to pay for all capital improvements, without funding assistance from the city. SCI architects is the lead designer.

The team has a strict deadline to complete its improvements because the CIAA tournaments are scheduled to return to the arena next February and Oak View Group has promised it will be ready. Next year’s event is scheduled to begin on Feb. 20, 2023, giving contractors less than 12 months to finish their work.

The scope of work entails major changes to the interior of the arena, the exterior and the area around it. The architects have suggested a maritime theme for the exterior, with sail-like shapes added to the north and east sides as a reminder that Baltimore is a port city.

The main entrance will remain at the corner of Baltimore Street and Hopkins Place, with two additional entrances on Baltimore Street. The number of seats will increase about 10-15%, from about 14,000 for concerts now to about 16,000 when work is complete. The parking lot on the Hopkins Place side of the building will be turned into a pedestrian plaza that can support festivals and other outdoor events.

City officials express optimism that the development team can stay on schedule. Tarbert acknowledged at a real estate conference in December that the schedule is tight but said he believes it’s realistic.

“It can be done in one year,” he said. “It’s super aggressive, but we think we can do it.”

Tarbert said at the real estate conference that he believes Oak View Group and Thirty Five Ventures may end up investing even more than $150 million: “It probably will be closer to $200 million when we’re done.”

And because of the new seating and other amenities the team has proposed, he added, “you won’t realize that you’re in an arena that was built in 1961…That’s a really exciting, catalytic project that we’ve been trying to figure out for over 20 years now.”

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates voted 4 to 1 in November to approve an agreement that allows Oak View Group to lease, renovate and manage the arena for 30 years. According to the BDC, Oak View Group and Thirty Five Ventures have committed to achieving 45% minority and women-owned business participation during construction and maintaining that participation rate through ongoing operations.

In addition, the BDC said, Oak View Group has pledged to use “reasonable good faith efforts” to allow the opportunity for at least 25% of the equity investment in the project to be made by minority and women investors. Clark, the general contractor, has pledged to prioritize the hiring of Baltimore City residents and provide pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeship programs, the BDC noted.

A rendering shows what the Baltimore Arena’s exterior will look like after renovations are complete. Credit: SCI Architects.
A rendering shows what the Baltimore Arena’s exterior will look like after renovations are complete. Credit: SCI Architects.

‘Reimagine, redevelop, reposition’

The BDC issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) from developers interested in renovating the arena on Nov. 25, 2020, and set Feb. 25, 2021 as the deadline for bids.

In its RFP, the BDC said its goals were to: “reimagine, redevelop, and reposition” the Arena in its current location; maximize direct and indirect economic benefits of the Arena to the city; activate street-level facades “to the greatest extent possible”; support the convention center operations and the broader tourism industry; achieve the highest quality of architectural exterior/interior design and best construction practices; maximize the property as a catalyst for investment in the surrounding downtown area; and provide employment and training opportunities for Baltimore city residents. It also wanted the project’s architect to have demonstrated “design excellence,” especially in the field of entertainment venue design.

“Our goal is to create a major transformation of the existing Arena into a first-class, modern, entertainment and event venue through either renovation or new construction, the RFP states.

Only proposals for the city-owned property bounded by Baltimore, Howard and Lombard streets and Hopkins Plaza will be accepted, the offering continued. “Alternative sites for the redevelopment of the Arena will not be reviewed.”

Competing bidders

A second bid was submitted by a local team headed by WMC Metropolitan Investors and ASM Global. WMC Metropolitan Investors is a joint venture of Metropolitan, a development firm headed by Cary M. Euwer Jr., and WMC Holdings, the same team that recently converted a former federal office building at 300 W. Redwood St., directly west of the arena, to a $73 million, 395-unit residential community known as Redwood Campus Center.

Metropolitan has completed several other major projects within blocks of the arena, including the One Light Street office tower; the conversion to apartments of the former Maryland National Bank/Baltimore Trust Company/Mathieson tower at 10 Light St., and the conversion to a 140-seat restaurant of the former Alex Brown and Sons building at Calvert and Baltimore streets. Earlier in his career, Euwer was instrumental in developing the 250 W. Pratt St. office tower, designed by David Childs of Skidmore Owings and Merrill. For its efforts, Euwer and Metropolitan have received the President’s Award and the Development of the Year award from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

ASM Global, headed by chairman and CEO Bob Newman, has operated the Baltimore Arena for the city since 1999 and the MECU Pavilion on Pier 6, in partnership with the BDC, since 2017.

Metropolitan and ASM Global assembled a Who’s Who team of local companies that have national expertise in sports and entertainment architecture; retail design; landscape architecture and urban design. Among the members of its team were Mahan Rykiel Associates; BCT Design Group; Ayers Saint Gross; Morris + Ritchie Associates, and James Posey Associates. Janet Marie Smith, a former Orioles executive who has gone on to lead renovations of Fenway Park and Dodgers Stadium among other high-profile projects, was to be the project director. Whiting Turner was to be the general contractor.

The Metropolitan/ASM Global team also included the Baltimore office of Gensler, one of the country’s largest design firms; Federal Parking; and an African-American developer and Baltimore native who is currently featured on commercials for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Jayson Williams, the president and CEO of Mayson-Dixon Companies.

A third bid was submitted by Spectra, a Philadelphia-based management company that specializes in live events and entertainment. In August 2021, Oak View and Spectra announced plans to merge, effectively taking Spectra out of the running as an independent bidder for the Baltimore project.

A photo shows what the existing Baltimore Arena looks like. Credit: Baltimore Development Corporation.

Comparing the bidders

In their responses to the city’s RFP, the two remaining bidders both proposed to renovate the arena without relying on public funds, increase the number of seats, and meet a demanding construction schedule. Both also pledged to hire a substantial percentage of minority- and women-owned businesses during the construction period and beyond.

The bid from Metropolitan and ASM Global went into great detail about how team members would improve the exterior of the arena and revitalize the area around it, while also upgrading the interior by widening concourses, adding seats and making other improvements.

In Smith, Metropolitan and ASM had a nationally-recognized expert in renovating aging sports facilities. Smith also has studied the West Side of downtown Baltimore for previous mayors and made recommendations for revitalizing the area by building on Oriole Park’s energy.

Each design consultant on the team had a specific role: Gensler was to be the master architect, creating the master plan and design of the arena. BCT Design Group was to be in charge of “placemaking,” designing the retail venues, concessions and “plaza experience” along Hopkins Plaza.

Mahan Rykiel was to be responsible for landscape architecture; Ayers Saint Gross, for urban design; Morris + Ritchie, for Site and Civil Engineering; Walter P. Moore for structural engineering, and Mayson Dixon for community affairs, partnerships and outreach.

The main concept in assembling a team to redevelop the arena was to combine “global resources with local expertise,” Metropolitan and ASM Global said in their proposal.

“As you read through our proposal, please take notice of one overriding theme – WE ARE BALTIMORE. The team that we have assembled to undertake the redevelopment of this iconic venue is proudly and deeply rooted in Baltimore. Our team is comprised of members who collectively have hundreds of years of experience providing Baltimoreans great live entertainment and sports experiences; places to live, work and play; and public spaces that captivate.”

An interior rendering of the event level, including a lower deck bar area, from the Oak View Group’s proposal to renovate the Baltimore Arena. Rendering courtesy of Baltimore Development Corporation.
An interior rendering of the event level, including a lower deck bar area, from the Oak View Group’s proposal to renovate the Baltimore Arena. Rendering courtesy of Baltimore Development Corporation.

‘A national prototype’

Besides presenting plans for upgrading the arena’s interior and exterior, the Metropolitan and ASM Global team outlined a comprehensive strategy for transforming the area around it.

They suggested reskinning the arena to make it less of a “mysterious box” and more attractive and dynamic, while keeping the rooftop chevrons. They proposed adding more glass on the exterior and outward-facing shops and restaurants at the base that would draw people whether a big event was underway inside or not.

The team also suggested that the west wall become a “canvas for area artists” and that “artistically curated LED boards” be installed on the east side to promote Baltimore and upcoming events. They proposed converting the parking lot along Hopkins Place to a food- and arts-oriented marketplace; making better connections to other westside attractions such as Oriole Park and the Hippodrome theater, and upgrading the city-owned garage just south of the Arena.

The team members said they wanted to use the renovation of the Baltimore Arena as a national prototype for enlivening cities without widespread demolition. They said their goals were to: 1) “Renovate the Baltimore Arena in a manner that turns the activity inside out to energize the streets and plazas around the venue”; 2) Increase the number of seats and amenities to create a broader market appeal to enable the operator to book more events [and] artists and to attract and a larger audience, thereby enlivening Downtown via increased visitation, and 3) Use the project’s new look [and] new behavior as a catalyst for growth” in the Charles Center and Howard Street neighborhoods.

“This proposal for the Baltimore Arena is a model of renovation and rejuvenation, a symbol of civic pride and example of sustainable design, bucking the recent presumption that to be a Class A arena, one must start anew,” the proposal said. “The architectural goals are to take advantage of the existing structure and expand the building interior in a way that utilizes the structural elements while modifying those that are required to improve the program while bursting onto Hopkins Plaza to animate the neighborhood.”

An interior rendering of seating from the Oak View Group’s proposal to renovate the Baltimore Arena. Rendering courtesy of Baltimore Development Corporation.
An interior rendering of seating from the Oak View Group’s proposal to renovate the Baltimore Arena. Rendering courtesy of Baltimore Development Corporation.

Oak View Group

Oak View Group is a global sports and entertainment company that was founded in 2015 by Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff, each with more than 30 years of experience in the sports and entertainment business.

Leiweke served as president and CEO of AEG, one of the world’s largest venue management and entertainment companies, and was responsible for more than 100 facilities. Azoff has had a distinguished music career and served as president and CEO of Ticketmaster.

Currently, Oak View Group is leading the redevelopment and operations of Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Washington, as well as arena development projects for UBS Arena in Elmont, New York; Moody Center in Austin, Texas; New Arena in Coachella Valley, California; and Co-op Live in Manchester, U.K. According to the BDC, Leiweke is particularly passionate about this project because he started his career at the Baltimore Arena.

By joining with Spectra, Oak View Group has been able to use that company’s strengths in areas such as food and beverage service. With Durant as an investor, Oak View Group offered something Metropolitan and ASM Global didn’t – a celebrity investor who is a star in the National Basketball Association and has a Maryland connection.

“The OVG team is committed to bringing to Baltimore a state-of-the-art venue that will help reimagine and develop the proposed arena for the local community,” Leiweke said in a statement. “Both OVG and our partners, Thirty Five Ventures, look forward to working with strong minority and women-owned businesses during both construction and through ongoing management to present the very best of live entertainment.”

Reasons for choosing Oak View Group

In a news release following the Board of Estimates vote, the BDC listed several reasons for recommending Oak View Group’s bid over the one from Metropolitan and ASM Global, including the partnership with Durant and the team’s commitment to employing minority business enterprises (MBE) and women business enterprises (WBE).

“The City awarded an Exclusive Negotiating Privilege to OVG in June to negotiate a lease and management agreement for the Baltimore Arena, largely due to its proposal offering a significant investment to redevelop the Baltimore Arena, delivering an aggressive timeline for redevelopment, and demonstrating a substantial commitment to MBE/WBE participation (not only in construction, but also during operations) and local involvement throughout the project and operation of the Baltimore Arena,” the BDC release stated.

“Importantly, OVG is also committed to substantial minority participation in the equity ownership of the project, including by National Basketball Association (NBA) superstar and Maryland’s own, Kevin Durant.”

Design was a factor too, the BDC said.

“OVG and Thirty Five Ventures’ proposed design will balance the historical significance of the Arena with contemporary interior and exterior features such as glass, brand elements, lighting, and signage – creating a warm and local feel with modern aesthetics,” according to its release.

“The new exterior will include dramatic facades, improved signage, and branding opportunities while activating Hopkins Plaza and connecting to the surrounding neighborhood. The new interior will include contemporary seating, enhanced suites, food and beverage amenities, and a reimagined concourse.”

In the BDC release, Mayor Brandon Scott stressed Oak View Group’s commitment to hiring minority- and women-owned businesses.

“I am extremely excited to see the transformation of the Baltimore Arena move forward with such an experienced team that is also committed to substantial minority and women business participation,” the mayor said. “A new state-of-the-art entertainment facility will not only continue to attract top-tier national events and live entertainment, but further catalyze development on the West Side of downtown.”

The Baltimore Arena is “a major anchor in our efforts to drive further investment and development in the Bromo Arts & Entertainment District,” Tarbert said. “I am glad that our efforts have attracted the caliber and talent of a team like Oak View Group and Thirty Five Ventures to help realize a…long-sought goal.”

“I’m thrilled the city made this deal,” said Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, which includes the Hippodrome Theatre at 12 N. Eutaw St. “They are going to get a new arena (which they didn’t have the money to do alone) and Maryland residents will get an elevated live experience in downtown Baltimore.

“World class cities have world class venues,” Legler added. When the work is finished, “Baltimore residents will enjoy the arena for years to come.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.