Righting old wrongs in urban landscape

Design fads: Demolition of skywalks at State Office complex underscores their pitfalls.

April 17, 1999

BALTIMORE'S State Office building complex has a new look: The forbidding concrete terrace and skywalks above Preston Street are gone. Baltimoreans emerging from the Metro station can instantly see the area's two other destinations: the Fifth Regiment Armory and the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

This is the second time within a year that something of an the urban landscape miracle has been achieved by taking down 1960s and 1970s architectural obstructions.

In February of 1998, the demolition of the former Hamburger's overhang across Fayette Street gave new light and airiness to Charles Center, highlighting downtown Baltimore's redevelopment possibilities.

Meanwhile, the city is considering a proposal to eliminate yet another failed experiment by reopening the Lexington Street pedestrian mall to limited traffic.

Once the fad of urban designers, such pedestrian malls have more recently fallen in disfavor in downtowns across America. Today's architects, instead of trying to hide or eliminate automobiles, are aiming at seemingly more realistic compromises.

Yet no one is sure that currently contemplated urban design solutions will work any better. A case in point is the ambitious plan to revitalize the west side of downtown between the old Howard Street retail district and the growing University of Maryland campus of professional schools and medical facilities.

We strongly support these renewal efforts, including a condemnation ordinance awaiting City Council approval.

This does not mean, though, that the direction of the large-scale demolition plan should not be debated.

In her recent book, "Cities: Back From the Edge," Roberta Brandes Gratz argues persuasively that large-scale demolition for big projects in marginal downtown areas seldom works. She prefers a more flexible approach that emphasizes creative re-use of buildings of character.

Such re-use is among the elements of the Weinberg Foundation's $71 million revitalization commitment on Howard Street. But it should be considered in other parts of the huge renewal area as well.

West-side boosters should bring on board a successful urban commercial turnaround expert to study and market the area's possibilities. A logical choice would be David Cordish, the Baltimore-based developer whose magic has transformed old landmarks in many cities, including the Inner Harbor's Power Plant.

What the west-side backers might find is that some companies prefer the possibilities of old buildings to demolition sites and the latest design fads.

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