Man who loved cities did great work for this one

September 20, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

It was only last month that Larry Reich was taking an early evening walk on Lafayette Avenue with his wife, Edith.

He did not look well as he passed the familiar Bolton Hill rowhouses. Yet he was still looking around and, though retired, he was still the city planning director at heart. On Saturday, Larry Reich died at age 75.

Will the lobby at Center Stage or the Lyric or Meyerhoff Hall ever be the same without his smile, enthusiasm and raspy voice?

L Will the city ever be the same without his questioning mind?

And though physically a small man, he could take the heat and slap down a silly project. He had a mind wide open enough to see the major potential in what others thought was just a pile of hideous bricks.

Larry Reich was an individual ideally suited to a job. He loved cities in general and Baltimore in particular. No part of Baltimore was too ugly for him. He saw beauty in neighborhoods and their residents that escaped many a bureaucrat. He was a firm believer in open government and open planning.

He insisted on the most important quality of all -- an open mind.

Larry Reich was not the kind of government official who sought confrontation because it put his name in a newspaper or his face on television. I think he didn't care about his media image. He believed that many ideas needed to be tested and didn't worry about the naysayers.

What he did care passionately about was Baltimore and how it could be made more livable. He did this by using his powers of observation. He often walked the streets. He saw the value of neighborhoods, of corner stores and paved alleys.

As a couple, he and Edith were frequently seen all over town. They loved urban culture. He would turn up at the Walters Art Gallery and the Baltimore Museum of Art, at a Hollins Market area restaurant or a neighborhood tour in Dickeyville. They always seemed to be at performances of the Baltimore Opera Company and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Flower Mart. City Fair. The Farmers Market. They were there.

Sometimes his questioning mind got him into trouble. Back in the 1970s, when city government was ecstatic about getting the Rouse Co. to build Harborplace, Larry Reich raised his voice. He questioned the site. He disliked the awkward placement at the corner of Pratt and Light streets.

He thought the Harborplace buildings should have been moved somewhat and elevated so that traffic would run under them. He thought the cars got in the way of a good time and pleasant spot. He was right.

Every time I see a harbor visitor nearly run over by traffic at Pratt Street or Light Street, I recall his advice.

Larry Reich took up the case for saving City Hall when there was a movement to tear it down and replace it with something akin to the City Hall that went up in Boston nearly 25 years ago. His good counsel won out.

He was a strident critic of the plan for a parking garage on Franklin Street near the Basilica of the Assumption. He challenged several city agencies. The garage was eventually built and some people would say that it was a more subdued structure because of his complaining. He still didn't like it.

At the same time, Larry Reich was one of the happiest men in Baltimore during the spring of 1992. The Central Light Rail Line opened for the first exhibition game to be played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

I don't know what he liked more -- the ballpark that incorporated the old warehouse into its design or the new streetcar system.

As the crowds poured off the new cars that first day, he stood on the platform and was nearly trampled. He recounted what a shame it was that Baltimore had trashed its entire street rail transportation system shortly before he arrived as planning director in 1965.

Early on, he saw the value of the Camden Station area for a sports center. The planning department cranked out studies and reasons why it could work. He was also a very early voice for saving the brick warehouse.

As planning director, he filled his staff with young professionals who were so bright they occasionally made other city agencies seem like repositories of dead brain matter.

There were people in city government who wished Larry Reich would have never settled in Baltimore. But far more look back on his life of accomplishment.

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