After Artscape, What Next for Mount Royal Area?

August 01, 1993|By EDWARD GUNTS

Is there life after Artscape?

The record crowds that flocked to Artscape '93 last weekend are proof that Baltimore's Mount Royal Cultural Center can be a popular destination in itself, a people magnet powerful enough to rival the Inner Harbor.

But how can the energy and vitality exhibited during this three-day cultural extravaganza be channeled into the area year-round, to strengthen its identity as Baltimore's cultural center?

That's the central question facing a battery of city and state planners who have been working for more than a year with property owners, architects and community leaders to identify ways to enhance the cultural district.

Their ideas range from "greening" the area with more trees and landscaping to rerouting traffic to building a wide array of academic and cultural facilities.

"We're seeking a road map for the future," said Donald Duncan, chief of urban design in Baltimore's planning department. "Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California, 'There is no there there.' This area is in that state right now. Planning has been ad hoc for many years. Our challenge is to make it have a 'there,' and to make it memorable."

"Everybody thinks of the intersection of Baltimore and Light streets as the largest concentration of office workers downtown. But this is probably the second largest concentration," said Anand Bhandari, chief of design for the state Office of Planning. In all, it has more than 7,500 employees, including 6,000 with various agencies in the State Government Center (which the city includes in the cultural center planning area), 700 with the University of Baltimore and 800 with AEGON USA, a financial services holding company on Charles Street, he said.

The planning effort involves an irregularly-shaped area that straddles both sides of the Jones Falls Expressway, between Guilford and Maryland Avenues.

Home to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Lyric Opera House, University of Baltimore, Maryland Institute College of Art and Pennsylvania Station, it is one of six areas identified as being in need of additional study in "The Renaissance Continues," the final report of a citywide planning effort that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke launched in 1989.

This year, Artscape attracted more than 1 million visitors. The area draws 2 million more visitors at other times of the year, including 450,000 who attend concerts at the Meyerhoff, 270,000 who see performances at the Lyric, 6,000 University of Baltimore students, 1,600 Maryland Institute students and 1.5 million rail passengers.

Despite the opening of the Meyerhoff in 1982 and the phased-in modernization of the Lyric -- events that led the area to be christened the Mount Royal Cultural Center -- it still has its share of problems.

Planners say too much land is devoted to parking; that there aren't enough strong pedestrian links to downtown or the neighborhoods of Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon; that there aren't enough interesting places at street level, such as shops or restaurants; and that the area still hasn't completely shaken its pre-1980s reputation as an urban no-man's land.

As a follow-up to the citywide study completed in 1991, $l government planners have been working to come up with a new master plan that can guide development over the next two decades. They have been assisted by the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects, a volunteer group that plans to hold a series of town meetings this fall to discuss their recommendations for the area.

Although the planning effort is still a work in progress, city officials recently published a 16-page report that indicates some of the ways the area might take shape. Among the suggestions are to:

* Take advantage of the cultural center's light rail stop by redeveloping the site of the Baltimore Life Insurance Co. at 901 N. Howard St., a six-acre parcel that was vacated when the company moved to Owings Mills last December.

* Make the area more inviting to pedestrians by adding more landscaping, shops and restaurants.

* Build up the University of Baltimore campus with new academic facilities that serve students' needs and frame the green space that surrounds the cultural institutions.

So far, the subject that has generated the most discussion is the automobile traffic that comes through the area -- and how it ought to be controlled.

Some urban designers believe the streets leading to the area should be reconstructed so the two main arteries -- Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83) -- are directly linked.

"Basically, it's a non-link right now," said architect David Benn. "It's a confusing mess, even for people who live in the area. We believe it could be made into an attractive green boulevard."

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