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Mobtown Beat

Next Stop: Nowhere

Under Its $2 Million Facelift, Camden Station is Still Empty

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/3/2002

The air warms, downtown lampposts sprout orange-and-black banners, and baseball fans begin pouring into Oriole Park at Camden Yards for another season of major-league action. The Yard turns 10 years old this year, but by design, the brick park evokes the feel of ballparks of yore--a feat of shiny new nostalgia that has influenced a whole generation of even newer ballparks.

En route to seats in the faux-old ballpark, though, hundreds of thousands of fans will stroll past a genuinely hoary edifice: Camden Station, which looms over the stadium's Eutaw Street entrance and enhances the old-time feel. The state-owned former train station is old (built in phases between 1857 and 1865), majestic (the Italianate building sports a trio of cupola-topped towers), and rife with history (an assassination-fearful President Lincoln slipped through the station in disguise in 1861; Charmed Life, Feb. 20). The storied station is also vacant. The landmark building has been empty and unutilized for a decade. There is not even any signage on hand to tell curious tourists what the elaborate brick building is--or was.

"It's really unfortunate that no one is using it," says Cooper Gabriel, project architect with Cho Benn Holback & Associates, the firm that designed the renovations to the station's exterior in 1992 (when the firm was known as Cho Benn Wilks). "It's a beautiful building in a great location, and it's a shame to see it vacant for so long."

One problem is that the station's beauty is only skin deep. The Maryland Stadium Authority acquired the disheveled and unused station from CSX Corp. when the authority was assembling parcels for Camden Yards in the late '80s. The outside of the nearly 45,000-square-foot station was restored to its 1865 appearance (which meant painstakingly rebuilding parts of the building's trademark towers) in time for Oriole Park's April 1992 debut. The $2.2 million project won a 1993 Maryland Historical Trust prize for "outstanding exterior rehabilitation." But the interior went untouched. The result is tantamount to a Potëmkin building.

"I can tell you why it's sitting idle," Stadium Authority executive director Richard Slosson says. "Basically, all the structure inside needs to be gutted, replaced, or upgraded. It's not even safe to walk inside. It would take about $7.5 million to bring it up to [the condition] that a normal tenant would expect."

The Stadium Authority, Slosson says, "has no money set aside" to perform interior renovations. Indeed, he says the agency had slated $2 million to perform further exterior work--parts of the roof and some windows and doors need replacement--but budget-pressed legislators in Annapolis are threatening to withhold the funds. "I'm hoping to get at least $1 million to let us do some repairs," Slosson says. "I won't know [what funds we'll receive] until the end of the legislative session."

Since 1993, one would-be tenant for the building has been waiting in the wings: the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. Under a plan approved by the Stadium Authority, the museum would continue to operate its current site in Ruth's rowhouse birthplace at 216 Emory St. while turning the western end of the station (roughly half of the building) into a Maryland sports museum, honoring everything from famous Orioles and Colts players to the old Negro leagues and duckpin bowling.

"We remain ready, through our design plans and through our fund-raising, to move in as soon as were able," museum executive director Michael Gibbons says. "The hang-up has been trying to find a suitable partner to go in with us--either a restaurant or some other enterprise that's compatible with what we're doing."

Gibbons says it makes economic sense for the state to tackle the station's shattered interior all at once, rather than doing half at a time. His organization has raised $3 million to develop its exhibits and would begin further fund-raising once construction was underway. "We're not the major player here in terms of what's happening and when," he says. "But we're confident that [our museum] could be an important tourist attraction."

If there is a major private-sector player involved in Camden Station's future, it's Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who wields considerable influence over the address. In 1996, the Stadium Authority invited restaurateurs to vie for the rights to half of the building. The eventual winner, in 1997, was Bo Brooks Crab House, which was looking to move from its Belair Road location in Northeast Baltimore. Brooks beat out a number of national chains, the restaurant's chief executive officer, Herman Hannan, says. But the deal was never completed.

"It's our understanding that Peter Angelos said that he wouldn't approve a crab house going in there," Hannan says. The O's owner, it seems, turned his nose up over the deal--literally, over concerns that crab-steaming and crab-trash odors would be a nuisance for baseball fans.

Angelos did not return City Paper's calls seeking comment. But the Stadium Authority's Slosson confirms Hannan's account. "Basically, [Angelos] blocked the deal because of smell issues," Slosson says. "Angelos does not have final say [over the property]. That's a big misconception. But he has a say when it comes to food service, because it competes with what he has in the stadium."

Hannan says Bo Brooks had planned to deal with the odor issue through a system that "scrubbed" kitchen emissions and by compacting and freezing crab waste for removal when the stadium was dark. The restaurant ultimately moved to Canton in 2000.

"We're very happy where we are now, but we spent about $40,000 to $50,000 developing plans for [Camden Station]," Hannan says. "We wouldn't have spent that kind of money if we knew that the Stadium Authority, who owns the building, did not have the final say as to who got to go in there."

Three years ago, the Baltimore Business Journal reported that Angelos was interested in opening his own restaurant in the station, but no work was begun. One architect familiar with the project speculated the restaurant was to be developed in conjunction with the major hotel Angelos hoped to erect on city-owned parking lots across from Camden Station. The O's owner lost exclusive rights to the lots in 2000 after failing to land a deal with a hotel chain. Slosson, who says he speaks with Angelos frequently about Camden Station, says Angelos "has no interest in putting anything in there at this point--none at all."

From his sidelines perspective, Gibbons admits to being frustrated by the delays in getting the museum expansion underway. He estimates that once the state finishes its work on the station's interior, it would take 18 months to complete the expansion. But Gibbons has good reason to be diplomatic. The museum is beholden to the Stadium Authority to gain access to the site, and Angelos has donated $1 million to aid the expansion. "It's already in our bank," Gibbons says of the donation. "[Angelos] has been very supportive, and we have a terrific relationship. We're doing all we can do to move the project forward. It's just that we have no control over the timing."

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