Planned Arrogance

June 20, 1991|By DAVID W. BARTON JR.

Once when Kingman Brewster, president of Yale University, wasaddressing a town-gown meeting in New Haven he smugly stated: ''If it weren't for Yale, New Haven would be another Bridgeport.''

A man in the audience stood up and said, ''I'm from Bridgeport and I resent that.'' Mr. Brewster contritely mumbled his mea culpa and lamely tried another tack.

The other day Walter Sondheim, briefed more than 100 Baltimore business leaders with what he called ''A Twenty-Year Strategy for Downtown,'' explaining that this strategy was not ''an update,'' for Baltimore ''never had a downtown strategy.''

Like the man from Bridgeport, I stood up as a former 10-year chairman of Baltimore's Planning Commission and said,''I resent that.''

Unlike Kingman Brewster, Mr. Sondheim was not contrite. He mumbled something to the effect that Charles Center, Inner Harbor, the Convention Center, the stadium, the tourism planning, the transportation planning of the past 30 years were mere projects, developed without any strategy. Further, he specifically denigrated the professionalism that went into yesteryear's downtown's strategic planning -- even though officials from cities around the world have been flocking to Baltimore to see how we pulled it off.

Finally, Mr. Sondheim crowed that this ''new strategy'' being proposed was intentionally not based on research and professionalism, but on a series of committee reports of community advisory groups that met to offer ''self-reflections and discoveries.'' And that this astounding process had produced this fantastic mosaic of new visions for downtown.

I could have overlooked the tactless slam at prior downtown planning. I could have swallowed his forgetting the role of the Mayors McKeldin, D'Alesandro and Schaefer and the outstanding contributions of Jim Rouse, Bob Levi, Bob Embry, Jay Brody, Gene Feinblatt, Dave Wallace, Bill Boucher, Marty Millspaugh, Clarence Miles, Larry Reich, Jeff Miller and a host of other equally gifted downtown Baltimore strategists.

That's if Mr. Sondheim's ''new strategy'' for downtown offered something new. Something exciting. Promising. Doable.

That's if it contained specifics of implementation. That's if it gave some clues to its financeability. That's if it lived up to its other title: ''The Renaissance Continues.''

Sadly, none was offered. The report refers to ''when the big bang occurs'' without explaining whatever that is. It calls downtown's east side an area of great potential -- if only the city would pull down the I-83 viaduct. (Think of it, this could provide an unimpeded vista of our biggest growth facility -- Baltimore's jails.)

Mr. Sondheim explained to his youthful audience that what was proposed was not a passe ''real-estate plan'' (like the Inner Harbor) but ''a people plan.'' He failed to note that before Inner Harbor, Baltimore had each year a mere 1.5 million visitors; today it has more than 10 times that. Before the Inner Harbor, downtown had less than 3,000 (mostly sub-par) hotel rooms; it has more than tripled that. All of this and similar strategic developments translated into jobs for people and dollars for merchants, who, Mr. Sondheim might recall from his department-store days, are also people.

This kind of nonsense can't go unanswered. It is a gross disservice to the city, to its history and, more important, to the 150 youthful business leaders. To lead them to believe what was done in downtown in the last 30 years was done with a mindless project orientation is false history.

They need to know that what is being presently promulgated is fluff. Unsupported fantasies. That what is proposed is quick-and-dirty (Mr. Sondheim bragged how cheap was its $250,000 price tag), mostly a rehash of old notions and few new bad ideas (like replacing the truck traffic on Pratt Street with a train.)

What was achieved by this exercise of some 300 individuals, listed in the study credits, was a timely, fresh look at the downtown of tomorrow. If one believes that ''the unexamined life is not worth living,'' perhaps the same is true of downtown. Perhaps one should seek answers to basic questions:

* What is downtown's current position vis-a-vis competing interests?

* What does Baltimore want for its downtown?

* With whom and with what competitive forces must downtown compete to achieve its desired position?

* What are the costs and benefits of achieving such a position?

* Can such a position be sustained?

* And where is the research and the data to support these contentions?

What has happened to the judgment of the Greater Baltimore Committee leadership, the mayor's office, the planning commission and other astute, interested paties? What will it take to return to hard-headness?

The big turnout of those business leaders for Walter Sondheim's briefing says the climate is right for revisiting downtown interests. This should be encouraged as the city rethinks its strategy. But let's stop feeding them pabulum; they can chew whole food.

David W. Barton Jr. was chairman of the Baltimore City Planning Commission from 1961 to 1971.

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