A new report calls for resident-friendly growth in Federal Hill

JACQUES KELLY

November 18, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Baltimoreans are rightfully possessive and protective of their Federal Hill, that grassy rise that sits above the harbor like a natural observatory.

So, when various developers make proposals and pitches about what should be constructed at the foot of this noble outcropping, there is usually an equal and opposite force of community protest and objection.

A new report, written by the Neighborhood Design Center with advice from the American Institute of Architects, sets out ways to keep inevitable growth at the northeast corner of the hill in check. To use the architects' wording, the people there want a "contest-sensitive design."

It's not hard to see why South Baltimore and Federal Hill neighborhood residents are as possessive as they are. The views from the hill are spectacular. And you don't have to own real estate around here to feel this way. Any tour of Baltimore should begin with an orientation walk around the hill's rim.

There's always something to watch from Federal Hill Park. The harbor remains busy. And the skyline never ceases to change. Baltimore's downtown and neighborhood profile of church steeples, industrial plants, warehouses and office buildings appear in a visual harmony you won't find elsewhere. And even on the most humid and gray afternoon in July, the harbor doesn't look bad from here.

The new report, prepared for the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, studies the part of Key Highway where it makes a rather sharp turn by the old Bethlehem Steel Propeller Yard, a site dominated by a 1950s red brick building at the northeast corner of Federal Hill's base.

This Propeller Yard parcel, immediately adjacent to the new HarborView residential community (where a very imposing and view-blocking high-rise apartment house is now rising), was once suggested for a proposed medical mart complex. That plan has been shifted to a site south of Camden Station.

But Federal Hill residents like Jerry Wachtel believe the old Propeller Yard property will one day see new construction. "It's only a matter of time," he said.

The report -- which has no force of law behind it -- is to be presented to city officials.

"We wanted to go on record with a good, sensible report that was worked out by design professionals," Wachtel said.

The report wants Federal Hill's "unique views" protected. When new buildings go up, their "rooflines should be varied, flat roofs avoided and mechanical equipment or enclosures absent." The guiding philosophy behind the report is that a person atop Federal Hill should be able to see the midpoint of the harbor's channel and not have that view blocked by masonry walls and air-conditioning equipment.

Anyone who has ever tried walking along Key Highway would agree with the architects' findings that this thoroughfare needs to become a "pedestrian-friendly boulevard." (It's a poorly paved, post-industrial mess today.)

"Traffic should be limited to two driving lanes in either direction with parallel parking lanes on both sides of the street available for parking at all hours." The street also needs a central divider. Parking garages should be underground, the sidewalks and waterside promenade should be well-landscaped and lined with interesting buildings. The Propeller Yard site should be a "gateway" into the more densely developed Inner Harbor precincts.

The report asks that the northernmost part of Covington Street be closed to through traffic at Key Highway. And the paper recommends that side of Federal Hill that terraces down to Key Highway from Warren Avenue deserves a decent pair of steps:

"The study proposes the development of a new urban public space at the junction of the Propeller Yard and HarborView developments. This new plaza would be an extension of Federal Hill Park to the water's edge via a grand staircase at the foot of Warren Avenue."

The report will be explained Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at a Federal Hill Neighborhood Association meeting at Light Street Presbyterian Church, Light and Churchill streets.

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