Town Vs. Gown on Charles St. ARCHITECTURE REVIEW City's plan may conflict with university's

December 23, 1990|By Edward Gunts

For those wondering what new visions the Schmok administration is conjuring up for downtown development in Baltimore, there is no more important corridor to watch than Charles Street, Baltimore's major north-south thoroughfare. The changes permitted there in coming months will reveal much about the direction and effectiveness of the mayor's 18-month effort to devise a new strategy for guiding development throughout the city.

And there is no better test of the city's emerging strategy than the stretch of Charles Street from Preston Street to Pennsylvania Station -- site of the University of Baltimore's midtown campus. University president H. Mebane Turner has been working on plans that have the potential to transform the once-sleepy commuter school into a thriving urban campus of 10,000 or more -- Baltimore's equivalent of Boston University or New York University.

But while there is great opportunity for administrators to forge a new image for a campus that very much needs one, especially once the state's 27-mile light rail line opens with a stop at the school's doorstep, there is also a potential for conflict between the university's agenda and the city's urban design goals.

Two projects in particular, the planning effort involving the former Odorite building at Mount Royal and Maryland avenues, point out ways in which the university's actions are already at odds with the city's goals. Ultimately, they show the difficulty of guiding development in a fashion that benefits the entire city, rather than simply meeting the needs of particular property owners.*

"Public improvements, such as the light rail system and the stadium, should be seized as opportunities for initiating major efforts aimed at preservation, expansion and new development."

--Excerpt from the final report of the city's Urban Design and Development Technical Advisory Committee, Fall 1990.

The most tangible symbol of the university's expansion plans is the business school, proposed for the southwest corner of Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue.

After considering more than a dozen architectural teams, the state hired a joint venture of the Hillier Group of Princeton, N.J., and Ayers Saint Gross Inc. of Baltimore. Their plan calls for a six-level, 115,000-square-foot building with a computer center on the lower level and classrooms and faculty offices surrounding a central atrium above. It would be a masonry building, raised on a podium, with punched window openings and inset stone trim -- not dissimilar in concept from the grand palazzos of the Renaissance.

What is most unusual about the project, however, is its imagery. University administrators want the building to blend visually with the rest of the area, and the architects have given it an appearance that is very much a composite of others in the immediate neighborhood -- from mid-rise structures such as the law school and academic center to more ornately detailed buildings on Charles Street. The idea, according to Hillier architect Craig Ronning, was to use the business school to pull the area together and send a message that the campus is now on both sides of Mount Royal Avenue.

The problem with this strategy is that it requires the architects to take cues from some of the most bland and forgettable buildings in the city -- the newer tan buildings on campus and the refaced Lyric Opera House, for instance -- when a fresher image may have produced a more striking signature building.

The result is a strange agglomeration of architectural elements that lacks coherence and grace. The upper-level window pattern, with its alternation between vertical bays and large rectangular openings, makes the building look like it has the hiccups. The peanut butter coloration is more in keeping with the Inner Harbor than Mount Vernon, and the turret on the northeast corner is a weak gesture toward Charles Street. It's a boring, bloated beast for a university that needed -- and had reason to expect -- much more.

And the uninspiring exterior is not the only drawback of the design. Although hundreds of people will be inside the school each day, the square, internalized building promises to do little to make either Mount Vernon or the campus any more cohesive or walkable. The main entrance is located on the west side of the Mount Royal Avenue facade, far from Charles Street, and there is no provision for shops or cafes that might add life to the corridor.

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