Historic city's new pitch for revitalization : A ballpark for the Orioles is the latest play in redevelopment.


This is the town everyone loved to knock. One resident, Billie Holiday, said she always thought of Baltimore as a city that took pretty girls and turned them into prostitutes. H. L. Mencken checked out his hometown one day and said he felt as if he were standing among the ruins of a once-great medieval city.

Though it was the nation's second-largest city in the 1820s, Baltimore eventually came to be known as a place where anyone with all his teeth was a celebrity.

By the 1950s, decaying Baltimore had not seen a new hotel or office building in 30 years. A municipal report predicted bankruptcy.

So do we sound a dirge for Baltimore? Not at all.

Bawlamar, as its residents call their city, has had a face lift lasting 20 years. The once-rotting piers on the upper Chesapeake Bay today house a harbor-side development of shops and restaurants and an aquarium that attracts millions of visitors a year. Communities havebeen saved and restored; hotels and office buildings tower skyward. Yet, by emphasizing rehabilitation rather than demolition, Baltimore has not lost its character; it remains essentially a collection of neighborhoods bound together by a flavorful history.

The latest jewel in the city's redevelopment crown is nearing completion in the downtown Camden Yards, the old B&O; rail yard in whose station house the Democratic National Convention nominated Woodrow Wilson for the presidency in 1912. Rising there, a few blocks from the harbor, is a new major league ballpark--a ballpark, mind you, not a stadium--that may become the yardstick against which future sports facilities are judged. The baseball-only park is a stunning departure from the multipurpose monoliths that American cities favored in the 1960s.

As yet unnamed, the future home of the Baltimore Orioles of the American League resurrects the intimacy and grace of bygone parks such as Brooklyn's Ebbets Field and Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Its brick facade is a series of archways and it has a structure of steel, rather than the concrete used in most modern stadiums. Instead of dominating Baltimore's skyline, the park appears as an integral part of the cityscape, its playing field 16 feet below street level.

In what next season will be left-center field, there once stood a home, at 406 Conway St.; Babe Ruth's father lived there and ran a saloon on the ground floor. A hundred-year-old B&O; warehouse behind the right field wall, spared from demolition and renovated, will house the Orioles offices, the central kitchen and private offices. Camden Yards has all the amenities of a new park--including skyboxes costing up to $95,000 a season--but wears the garments of an old friend from the '30s, a reflection of Orioles owner Eli S. Jacobs' love affair with Fenway Park and Braves Field he knew in his youth in Boston.

The $105-million park, built and owned by the state of Maryland, will be financed by bonds and lotteries. It makes its debut next April 6--baseball's opening day.

But why, some lawmakers asked, should Maryland invest so much when the Orioles' current home, 42-year-old Memorial Stadium, located a few miles away, still functions adequately as a sports facility?

Money is part of the answer. With player salaries escalating and television revenue not likely to go much higher, teams need more income to meet expenses, and the Orioles will benefit from the sale of 72 skyboxes, an increased number of premium seats and the novelty of a new park. Camden Yards also is 20 minutes closer to Washington than Memorial Stadium. Washington accounts for about one-quarter of the Orioles attendance.

And no one here has forgotten how Baltimore's beloved Colts stole away in the dead of night. Moving vans showed up at midnight at Memorial Stadium on that fateful day seven years ago and when Baltimore awoke, its National Football League team had become the Indianapolis Colts. The highly successful Orioles had pressed for a new park by signing a series of short-term leases at Memorial Stadium. Their lease at the new 46,500-seat park runs for 15 years.

"Losing the Colts was devasting for Baltimore," said Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "The temptation might have been there for the Orioles, too. Look at St. Petersburg. They built a ($139-million) domed stadium for the Chicago White Sox, and the Sox never did move. What would a city like that be willing to do to take the Orioles away from us?"

Maryland hopes to attract an expansion National Football League team back to Baltimore and build a football stadium as well on the 85-acre Camden Yards site. The two stadiums could generate $1.1 billion for the state over 15 years, a study by the Maryland Sports Authority reported. Meanwhile local officials are trying to decide what to do with the city-owned Memorial Stadium when the Orioles leave it at season's end.

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