An intro to the beginning of a preamble

URBAN LANDSCAPE

The city's master development plan asks the right questions, but falls short on specific recommendations.

May 02, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,sun architecture critic

Ever since Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced last fall that he would not seek a fourth term, there has been a flurry of development activity throughout the city.

It's not that Baltimore suddenly became a better place for investment. It's just that everyone with a project wants to get it under way before a new administration comes to power in December. The mayor, too, understandably wants to get as much going as possible to cement his place in city history.

(The same phenomenon occurred just before William Donald Schaefer left the mayor's office in 1987. Back then, Baltimore got the HarborView tower that looms over Key Highway; this time it gets the matching goal post on the opposite side of the harbor, the Wyndham Hotel.)

The end-of-term frenzy would seem to make this spring a less than ideal time for the city to unveil PlanBaltimore, a new vision to guide city development over the next 20 years. It surely would have been better if the city had its plan in place long before the floodgates opened.

But timing is not all that's vexing about this 228-page document, which is being prepared at a cost to city taxpayers of more than $500,000.

As released in draft form by the city planning department, directed by Charles C. Graves III, the report is an encyclopedia of facts and figures about where Baltimore stands at the dawn of the millennium. It asks the right questions, and makes many valuable observations. But it doesn't yet contain the specific land use recommendations that would make it an effective plan for addressing the city's ills, or for guiding development.

Without site-specific recommendations, PlanBaltimore is not so much a plan as a preamble -- a plan for planning to plan. The authors concede as much when they outline "the next steps" in the process. "The Planning Department will develop a new land use plan over the next three to five years," they state on page 223. "This will become the official city master plan."

There was a time when city planning was treated as a more exact science in Baltimore and other cities. Master plans were blueprints for change. They revealed precisely where roads would be constructed and towers would rise. People could look at them and find out whether a certain property would be a good place to raise a family or open a store.

From 1965 to 1990, Baltimore's planning department was headed by Larry Reich, a disciple of Philadelphia planning giant Edmund Bacon. Reich believed that a master plan was a map to the future. During his tenure, the city generated highly specific documents that reshaped the skyline. They spelled out height limits, setback requirements and floor-area restrictions for new buildings in Charles Center and the Inner Harbor. They showed which parcels would be public and which could be privately controlled. They created an air of predictability that gave investors confidence in the city.

Twenty-five years after one seminal plan was adopted for downtown Baltimore, the results are still apparent -- from the 11-story-high framework of buildings around the Inner Harbor to the pedestrian promenade along the water's edge.

But in recent years, the planning process has become less exact. In many ways, planners have become handmaidens to the city's housing and development agencies. Starting with Schaefer, the "do it now" mayor, more attention has been paid to resolving disputes and putting out fires than taking a long-range view.

Many of the current planning efforts in Baltimore were initiated not by the city planning department at all, but by private or quasi-public organizations such as the Weinberg Foundation, Downtown Partnership and Mount Vernon Cultural District. In the process, the city's once-sharp vision for the future has become increasingly blurry.

At present, there is no single master plan for the city. Instead, dozens of individual urban renewal areas, "planned unit developments," enterprise zones and other strategic planning districts have been established to guide development within various sections of the city. Some neighborhoods have launched their own planning efforts, including Greater Charles Village, Midtown and Southeast Baltimore.

The city's master plan has become the sum of these separate plans, in various states of revision. That's why it needed updating.

Over the years, as various planning areas emerged, the rules for growth changed as well. Buildings began to appear where no one expected them, such as the 28- story tower at 100 E. Pratt Street. Architectural treasures began to disappear with alarming regularity, including the Tower Building and the former Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co. headquarters.

Part of the promise of the current planning exercise was that it would result in a "shared vision" toward which everyone could strive. It was meant not only to help repair the damage inflicted by modernism -- such as elevated highways and high-rise public housing -- but also to heal the wounds of piecemeal planning.

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