In the three years since they unveiled plans for a 28-story office tower at Pratt and Light streets, the joint venture partners of IMB Corp. and T. Rowe Price Associates have given off plenty of mixed signals:
*The companies said they needed the tower to stay and grow in Baltimore, but then Price built a large adminsitrative center in Owings Mills and moved hundreds of its employees there.
*They stressed the strength of their corporate tenants, then gave their building the weak, generic name of 100 E. Pratt.
*They said they are investing in the city, yet they have refused to disclose how much the building cost to construct.
But there is one area where the owners have sent anything but a mixed message: the design. This is bold, brash, in-your-face architecture, the kind of building that is impossible to ignore.
And it is impossible to miss, seemingly visible from everywhere -- the Inner Harbor, Federal Hill, Canton, even (in computer graphics form) on the TV news. In recent months the tower -- actually a 28-story addition to the 10-story IBM building at the same address, with a 940-car garage on the north side of the block -- has become one of the most talked-about buildings in town, as people take notice of its unusual rooftop canopy and overpowering night lights.
One could have seen it coming. This is, after all, the building that broke all the rules. Its design sparked a heated public debate when it was unveiled because it violated the 10-story height limit on the block and threatened to create a wall between the Inner Harbor and the business district to the north. City officials, perhaps trying to have it both ways themselves, approved the plan, then promised to come up with a better strategy for guiding downtown development in the future.
What is only beginning to become clear, however, is the long-term negative impact this tinker toy tower will have on the Inner Harbor. In many ways, 100 East Pratt is the first major urban design blunder of the 1990s for Baltimore and one of the worst ever -- the Scarlett Place of office buildings. It slipped through the cracks at a time when the Schmoke administration was new to office and relying on a redevelopment chief, Al Copp, who placed more value on launching new projects than protecting what was already in place -- always a difficult balance. Now the damage is done, and it will forever change the rules of the game.
From an owners' and users' point of view, 100 East Pratt is a dream building. It occupies a premiere city site on the front row of the Inner Harbor. It takes advantage of that can't-miss location by maximizing its frontage along the harbor and presenting a distinctive silhouette on the skyline.
The chief attention-getter, of course, is the structural steel canopy that caps the tower. According to the architect, Craig Hartman, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the metal truss work was designed to evoke "the maritime imagery of the waterfront," including ships' rigging and masts. But it's not just ornamentation, he says, because it is also part of the structural system that holds up the giant "bay window" that projects 20 feet into the air space above the IBM building.
If the exterior is a giant calling card for the development, then the interior is its best sales pitch. From any level, the tower offers absolutely breathtaking views of the harbor that surpass those of any other downtown office tower for sheer proximity to the water's edge. Looking down from above, the inner harbor seems to have been made just for this building alone.
The architect supplemented these dramatic views with high-quality finishes in public spaces, including elevator cabs and a new two-story lobby off Light Street. The best sign of his attention to detail is a 28-foot-high curving "feature wall" in the lobby that echoes the nautical theme of the top with exotic Anigre wood, stainless steel columns and illuminated panels of Japanese rice paper glass.
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From a citywide perspective however, the building does not come across nearly so well. By rising 28 stories in a slab configuration parallel to Pratt Street, it does indeed, form a solid wall that separates the harbor from the municipal district. No fewer than a dozen tall buildings have lost all or part of their harbor views as a result of its construction.
If the tower were more attractive, that might help compensate for the blocked views. But for all the expensive finishes inside, this is actually quite a mediocre-looking building -- long and inefficiently narrow in plan and almost too skinny in its side pro
file. The surface detail, so promising in early renderings, does not particularly enhance it either. Made of glass, precast stone and granite to echo window patterns of the IBM building, it is disappointingly flat, fussy and wallpaperlike. On the north side, where there is no large glass wall, it looks like a high-rise prison. From Federal Hill it looks like nothing so much as a giant, new age cash register.