Harborview: A Beacon For Baltimore

September 16, 1990|By Edward Gunts

The fall of 1990 hardly seems an ideal time to start selling luxury high-rise condominiums on Baltimore's waterfront. With the crisis in the Middle East, the sluggish economy back home and past resistance to high-rise housing locally, it may seem more like sheer madness.

But if anyone is going to roll the dice and come up a winner, the developers of the HarborView condominiums in South Baltimore appear to have a shot.

With today's grand opening of a $5 million sales center and yacht club at 500 HarborView Drive, the public is going to see a high-powered, high-tech marketing effort that surpasses the debuts of just about any other local project in recent years -- for sheer chutzpah if nothing else.

Beneath the marketing razzmatazz, though, is a well-thought-out community that ranks among the better developments unveiled so far for Baltimore and Maryland in the 1990s.

To be sure, HarborView has been criticized from the start for being too large for its site -- both in terms of building heights and density. Most recently South Baltimore residents have been worried about a giant "medical proposed by the same developers for the north end of their 42-acre property -- and justifiably so.

But given the building program approved by the Baltimore City Council -- up to 1,590 residences, plus shops, offices and a marina -- the architectural solution is first-rate. The development team headed by Richard Swirnow of Baltimore and Parkway Holdings Inc. of Singapore were determined not to repeat the mistakes of past waterfront projects, and they had both the land and the design expertise to do the job right.

Today's opening marks the first chance for the general public to see their brave new vision of Baltimore as livable city, a timely theme for city officials who are seeking new ways to make it just that. Not since Coldspring was unveiled in the 1970s has there been such an elaborate display of a "new town in town" as they are presenting for the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. shipyard on Key Highway. Their models, renderings and computerized video displays are likely to be of interest not only to those in the market for waterfront housing, but to anyone who cares about the

changing harbor skyline and future of South Baltimore.

The secret to the design success of HarborView is in the way the architects appealed to Baltimore's taste for anything new that bears a touch of the old.

From the first building on, the design team borrowed from the past to create a sense of place, then added modern amenities to make their buildings marketable to a wide range of buyers.

The approach is not unlike the Maryland Stadium Authority's plan to build an old-fashioned ballpark for the Orioles in Camden Yards, yet add the skyboxes and other creature comforts fans have come to expect. What makes HarborView so compelling is the creativity with which its designers responded to marketing requirements while also giving the buildings a distinctive identity with a Baltimore flavor.

The design team is headed by Columbia Design Collective, with Baltimore native Richard Burns as principal-in-charge. Other architects include Vlastimil Koubek of Washington, Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass., and Swanke Hayden Connell of New York. M. Paul Friedberg and Partners of New York are the landscape architects.

The idea of borrowing from the past is exemplified first in the sales pavilion and yacht club at the head of a 900-foot pier left over from the shipyard. From a distance, the three-story building has the feel of a quaint little boat club or cottage. Close up, however, one discovers that it is quite a large building, with room for a restaurant and dockmaster's office as well as the sales center above.

Mr. Burns took cues from the works of turn-of-the-century architects such as Charles Rennie McIntosh and Baille Scott to create a building that evokes familiar Baltimore images, including the stucco-clad houses of Roland Park and the pitched roof and rusticated base of the Maryland Club.

As built, the pavilion shows evidence of more than a few last-minute design changes, including one-way metal stairs on the east side that throw off its symmetry and small upper-level windows that seem out of proportion with the rest of the building. Still, it succeeds in setting an architectural tone that is at once fresh and new, yet also quite familiar and comfortable -- exactly what the entire project tries to be.

The 254-unit first tower, called 100 HarborView Drive, also comes across as a blend of old and new. Planned to rise 27 stories on the eastern end of a dock that juts into the harbor, it has a highly sculpted form and detailing that recall the grandeur and permanence of apartment buildings constructed before World War II.

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