Public panel views far-reaching changes


September 10, 1990|By Edward Gunts

A citizen's panel that is studying ways to guide downtown development over the next 20 years is likely to recommend that public officials seriously consider razing a mile-long stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway, and replacing it with a boulevard in order to create a large new development area.

Members of the planning group also strongly favor the idea of reopening North Charles Street to two-way traffic, as it was before the 1950s, to increase activity along the street and make it more pleasant for pedestrians by slowing down traffic.

And they would like to see more light rail routes built in the city to supplement the line under construction along Howard Street -- possibly including a crosstown line down Pratt Street and a spur on the east side of the central business district.

Those are a few of the many ideas that have received extensive discussion from participants in a 12-member citizens panel on urban design and development, one of several technical advisory committees formed as part of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 18-month effort to create a "strategy for the progressive development of downtown Baltimore."

Mayor Schmoke launched the planning effort in May of 1989 to devise ways to keep the downtown development momentum strong and build on the success of revitalization efforts for Charles Center and the Inner Harbor.

A final report on the recommendations of the urban design group won't be issued until next month, and there is no guarantee that all of the ideas will be incorporated into the group's official recommendations.

But according to draft statements prepared by the group's consultants and from discussions at their recent meetings, it is clear that participants have come up with a wealth of ideas that could have far-reaching effects on stimulating growth of Baltimore's office, housing, retail, hotel and tourism markets.

Many of the boldest ideas came out of two daylong "charrettes" or design workshops that the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) organized in conjunction with the city's planning effort. Others were generated in meetings between the panelists and Stanton Eckstut, a New York-based architect and urban designer hired as a professional adviser to the group for the duration of the planning effort.

"The city has gotten a lot of pro bono contributions from design professionals who are trying to do some thinking about big ideas and the long-term future for downtown," said Chuck Kubat, a principal of RTKL Associates Inc. and organizer of the AIA workshops.

"It was very productive," Mr. Eckstut said of the AIA design effort. "It wasn't just people picnicking for the day. It was a very serious effort."

Among the ideas that have received considerable discussion from members of the urban design group are:

*Demolishing the elevated Jones Falls Expressway, roughly from Chase Street to Fayette Street, and replacing it with a boulevard to create a large new area for redevelopment. Removal of the elevated expressway, planners say, would eliminate a physical barrier between the Mount Vernon-Belvedere area and the neighborhoods to the east of the city while freeing up a development area of 40 acres or more. It also would present an opportunity for the city to uncover more of the Jones Falls waterway that now spills into the Inner Harbor and maintain it as an open waterway.

*Reconverting North Charles Street to two-way traffic, as it was before the 1950s. Panelists say such a change in the street patterns would increase pedestrian activity and help reinforce Charles Street as the city's main north-south thoroughfare. Changing the present one-way status also would encourage retail activity and slow down traffic, making it more pleasant for pedestrians.

*Adding more light rail routes downtown. Group members have advocated supplementing the light rail route now under construction along Howard Street with a north-south route on the eastern side of the central business district, possibly along the Jones Falls. They also would like to see a crosstown route and have identified the north side of Pratt Street, where the sidewalk is currently lined with large plant beds, as a possible route for an east-west spur.


*Revamping Charles Center. Panel members say some of the

public spaces in the 33-acre renewal area are lifeless after

business hours but could be the center of far more activity if redesigned. Ramps that lead to underground garages, they say, also prevent strong links with surrounding areas. The group members say they would like to see the city initiate a comprehensive review of Charles Center with the idea of linking it more effectively to adjacent areas and improving use of public spaces there. "It could be something as crazy as adding more streets back" in the area, Mr. Eckstut said.

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