Building Another Renaissance New construction: '96 sees Baltimore poised to rejoin the upper echelon of cities watched for new ideas in urban development.

January 14, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Baltimore architects and planners avoided more than a few design blunders in 1995. They didn't turn the waterfront over to casino interests. They didn't convert the vacant Pier 4 Power Plant, which has the potential to be a terrific public attraction, to a private office building for Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. They didn't put a visitors' center on a pier in the middle of the Inner Harbor, where few could reach it.

But successful urban planning requires more than averting mistakes. Cities on the move these days are taking steps to create environments in which good things will happen, not just places in which bad things won't happen.

Baltimore was considered a national leader in urban design and development back in the halcyon days when the Convention Center and Harborplace and the National Aquarium opened in rapid succession. Then the level of building activity dropped off, and other cities grabbed the limelight.

But for the first time in a decade, Baltimore is poised for a comeback. In many ways, 1996 appears to be the year when the city gets its second wind and begins adding another round of blockbusters that will return it to the upper echelon of cities to watch for new ideas in urban development.

The projects scheduled to open this year include the $151 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center, a four-story exhibition center for the Baltimore City Life Museums, waterfront offices for Sylvan Learning Systems, and downtown laboratories for AIDS researcher Robert Gallo.

BStill other high-profile buildings will be under construction this year, heading toward openings in 1997, the year of Baltimore's bicentennial. They include a new terminal and light-rail station at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the Babe Ruth Museum's new home inside Camden Station, and a retail and entertainment center inside the Power Plant.

$30 million children's museum called Port Discovery inside the former city fish market; an African-American history museum; a $20 million overhaul of the Harborplace pavilions; a large cancer center on the Johns Hopkins medical campus; new residential ** communities to replace the Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace high rises; and a $175 million, 70,000-seat football stadium at Camden Yards.

Outdoing the renaissance

Together, these and other projects represent as much activity and investment as Marylanders saw during the heyday of the city's much-vaunted renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Some are more than promising.

The City Life Museums' exhibition center, featuring the reconfigured cast-iron facade from the old G. Fava Fruit Co. building, is an inspired combination of a new design approach and old-fashioned craft. As seen from the Jones Falls Expressway, it is so complete visually that one challenge for the museum directors has been deciding where to locate Nipper, the 14-foot-tall RCA mascot that they recently acquired, so it doesn't mar the view.

The building that will house Dr. Gallo's laboratories is another resourceful recycling effort, this time using the old Hutzler Bros. warehouse on Lombard Street. A large atrium has been created in the middle of the building to help bring natural light to researchers working on the lower levels.

The proposed design for the three-building Power Plant conversion also involves carving away part of the existing structure. The east and west sides of the center structure would be partly removed to reveal the four giant smokestacks and provide access to cavernous spaces on either side that are to house stores, restaurants and other public spaces.

The Convention Center expansion essentially continues the low-slung profile of the existing 1979 facility at Pratt and Sharp streets, but its steel trusses are much larger and more pronounced. The Inner Harbor East office building will offer some of the most picturesque views to be found along Baltimore's seven-mile waterfront promenade. Rising at Orleans Street and Broadway, Hopkins' cancer center will be a visual throwback, echoing some of the Victorian detailing of the domed Billings building nearby.

Early in design

Other projects are still at an early design stage.

Plans by the Rouse Co. to overhaul Harborplace could be sympathetic to the twin pavilions or destructive to them; specifics have not been released. The same is true with the proposed alterations of Camden Station and the fish market.

Another question mark is the design of the football stadium proposed for Camden Yards. Its designer, HOK, was responsible for the much-praised Oriole Park. The firm has developed a few preliminary sketches for the football stadium, but many key design decisions will be made this year.

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