Seeing visions everywhere that you look



I know we've had too many visions about Baltimore's future when, . . .

* There are two or three well-funded vision campaigns for every concrete plan to actually do something.

* My 6-year-old comes downstairs to soberly announce that he has a vision about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles playing Nintendo games on a CD player while eating pizza on their way to the new Disney World outside of Paris.

* We begin confusing ideas with hard work and substance.

Most of the recent flurry of Baltimore visions was whipped up by the Greater Baltimore Committee, the regional business group that kicked things off last January with its release of "The Strength of Maryland Depends on The State of Baltimore," (Get it?) a 20-page "GBC Vision for a Healthy, Thriving Baltimore City." It stressed the need for a fiscally sound city that can effectively educate kids.

Last week, the GBC unveiled its vision for a life sciences economy in the Baltimore area -- a four-pronged program of work involving education, infrastructure, entrepreneurship and enrollment, or citizen participation. Its tag line is "Baltimore. Where Science Comes to Life."

In case you didn't feel the Earth move yesterday afternoon, the latest look at part of Baltimore's possible future -- "The Renaissance Continues: A 20-Year Strategy for Downtown Baltimore" -- was officially delivered to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke by Walter Sondheim Jr., the city's eminent counselor and chairman of the eight-person strategy management committee that oversaw the work.

This two-year effort to guide downtown development over the next 20 years was formally initiated by the mayor but received most of its funds from the GBC (if you want to know why that is, go back to the fiscal woes of the city that underlay the January vision statement).

In fact, yesterday's effort -- a handsome, 68-page document backed up by a tome of six special-topic committee reports -- marks at least the third urban-development study by the Schmoke administration, joining earlier efforts that focused on the Canton and Fells Point corridor and the Key Highway area on the southern side of the Inner Harbor.

So, although the economy is in a recession, the vision business is clearly booming.

"The Renaissance Continues" might have fared better if delayed. That would have given the city more time to absorb the GBC's life sciences vision and also have allowed the downtown strategy to be viewed as more the practical document it is than a vision statement.

Based on extensive committee work involving more than 300 people, the downtown strategy reflects extensive thought and consensus about downtown's future. While "group-think" efforts seldom inspire the soul, this one retains both creative and challenging aspects that deserve further airings. This is not a master plan, Mr. Sondheim stresses, but a range of ideas.

Some cost lots of money, but many of them don't. Some of the "cheapest" ideas, however, may require the biggest attitudinal shifts, such as changing traffic patterns on some of downtown's major north-south streets or creating political and public-service boundaries for downtown that permit this area of the city to receive unified representation.

The "highlights" of the strategy, if that's a fair term, include dividing downtown into six distinct development districts, plus drastically revising the mechanisms and criteria for historic preservation. Recommended preservation efforts include ranking the significance of every downtown building in a public process that gives lots of attention to economic considerations.

Here are the six districts and some of the development ideas presented for each:

* Inner Harbor, including the new stadium site, Otterbein, Inner Harbor, Key Highway, Pratt Street corridor and President Street. Ideas: Consider putting light-rail extension on Pratt Street; create major new public open space near Camden Station, stadium and Convention Center; promote pedestrian use of Pratt Street; promote boating facilities and water commuting.

* Business Center, the traditional financial district. Ideas: Redesign Charles Center open spaces and provide active uses for these areas; create better linkages with University Center, to the west; enhance on-street retail shopping; plan and design a new, major, active public open space in this area; eliminate "the Block," the adult entertainment area; replacing Baltimore Arena; consider relocating Fayette Street bus terminal; create corridor of government offices on Howard Street.

* University Center, located to the west of the Inner Harbor and Business Center districts and dominated by the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the University of Maryland Medical System. Ideas: Support new medical developments; better integrate complex into nearby residential and mixed-use areas; improve physical links with adjacent parts of downtown.

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