Public places, public uses Skywalks: Redesign of pedestrian bridges kicks off improvements at Charles Center.

November 19, 1997

WHEN CHARLES CENTER was built, architects wanted its two plazas to be like piazzas in the old Italian city of Siena -- centers of activity day and night. And for a while they succeeded.

In 1970, the first City Fair brought more than 200,000 people to Center Plaza in a fun-filled exercise of civic harmony that gave Baltimore a badly needed boost of self-confidence two years after the trauma of race riots. Later, weekend ethnic festivals and concerts became popular events at Center and Hopkins plazas.

In the longer term, however, the two Charles Center plazas never developed into gathering places for people from all walks of life. As a result, a number of restaurants and other businesses failed at Hopkins Plaza, despite their proximity to the Mechanic Theater.

New efforts are underway to make the Charles Center public places "more open and inviting," as Baltimore Development Corp. president M. J. Brodie put it.

In a $4 million overhaul, the city is taking down a little-used concrete skywalk that runs alongside the Mercantile Building from Hopkins Plaza to Liberty Street. Several stairs to other pedestrian bridges will be replaced, including a broken escalator near Baltimore Street.

A new fountain will be built and the Mechanic Theater will get a real marquee.

When the overhaul is completed, most of the concrete skywalks, which enable pedestrians to avoid crossing streets, will remain in place. But officials hope the enhancements will increase visitors' sense of security by removing structures that now often harbor vagrants.

Bigger changes are being talked about, according to Mr. Brodie. Among them is the possible redevelopment of Charles Plaza, a retail and office structure with a main entrance at Charles and Saratoga streets. Once home of the Tower movie theater, the complex currently houses the Johns Hopkins University's downtown operations.

Physical improvements are only a partial answer to making the Charles Center plazas more popular. Particularly during evening hours and weekends, people need a reason to gather there. A better mix of seasonal programming -- from ethnic festivals to small exhibits and music events -- could make all the difference.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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