Locked doors send wrong message


April 29, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

When they unveiled a 20-year strategy for stimulating downtown development in 1991, city planners said one key to a cleaner and safer city is adding life to the street.

But the Schmoke administration has failed to follow its own strategy with a decision involving the city-owned Charles L. Benton Jr. building near City Hall.

Last week, the building managers permanently locked the Baltimore Street doors and posted signs directing employees and visitors to walk around the block and use the Fayette Street entrance instead. A guard desk was also located in the lobby to make sure visitors sign in.

City employees say the Department of Public Works, which operates the 14-story building, acted to improve security after a rash of petty thefts and purse snatchings.

What makes the locked doors so ironic is that the building houses many of the agencies that have been most active in the effort to enliven the streets: the housing department, planning department, zoning board and preservation commission.

In addition, the building itself was constructed to help clean up The Block -- the collection of adult bookstores, peep shows and strip bars in the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. -- by changing the mixture of daytime uses. It is even named for the Bible-toting former city finance director who led the charge to replace The Block with more wholesome development.

Some city employees who work in the building say they feel safer and are glad something was done. But many others say that they believe the city is sending the wrong message by locking doors during the day to a place where the public conducts business. They say it's as if the city is turning its back on The Block rather than trying to solve its problems. Some employees are preparing a petition, asking the city to reopen the doors.

"This has killed Baltimore Street," said a city employee who asked not to be identified. "The whole downtown strategy was to revitalize the city by revitalizing the streets. The city made a commitment to be down on The Block to help Baltimore Street, and now they go and lock the doors. It's ridiculous." Another employee who also would not be named said, "It doesn't increase security at all. People can still walk in and sign their name on the other side. They could sign, 'Mickey Mouse,' and still be let in."

Some visitors are also troubled.

"When people complain about streets and spaces not being active and vibrant, it's usually because people don't come in and out of buildings," said David Benn, a local architect who often conducts business in the Benton building. "If you want to begin to change an area through an infusion of new uses, then you can't just put a building there. You have to make it active by having people come in and out."

As of yesterday, the doors remained locked. But officials are reassessing the decision.

""Everybody I've talked to agrees that we need to come up with a solution that gives the public good access to the building and provides good security for employees," said Rachel Edds, acting director of the planning department. "We have to do both."

Daniel P. Henson III, the city housing commissioner, said, "This was not a popular decision among the tenants. This is a Class A building. We ought to treat it like that and address our security issues otherwise, which we will do."

The flap is symptomatic of a larger security problem that exists throughout the Baltimore area.

More and more office buildings have receptionists at the front entrance who require visitors to sign in. More and more retailers lock their doors to the street and permit access only through a main lobby, as the Custom Shop does at the corner of Baltimore and Calvert streets, or by unlocking the door when a customer rings. More and more new buildings are designed like minifortresses.

By locking the Baltimore Street entrance to the Benton building, the Schmoke administration has set the worst possible example. After all, if city government can't address security problems without turning every building into a fortress, who can?

The Cross Keys Inn recently opened all of its doors to show off a $1 million redecoration of its 148 guest rooms. Karin Chriss of Resort Design Inc. chose three themes for the rooms: "whimsy," "botanical" and "twig."

Next in line for the 20-year-old inn at 5100 Falls Road: construction of a larger ballroom.

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