Hopeful plans for a blighted neighborhood


A design contest hopes to revive an area near Hopkins Hospital that has been losing vitality -- and people.

May 09, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

A refuge for Albanian Kosovars. A staging area for the 2012 Summer Olympics. A "healing garden" for the city. A retirement community. A facsimile of Venice, complete with canals.

Those are just a few of the ideas that architects, landscape architects, planners and urban designers have proposed to reinvigorate the blighted area north and east of the Johns Hopkins medical campus in Baltimore.

They are among the more than 80 entries submitted this spring in an international design competition titled "New Strategies for the Undercrowded Baltimore Neighborhood: Encouraging Neighborhoods of Choice and Diversity."

The competition was launched last fall to find ways to help reverse patterns of abandonment and disinvestment in "depopulated" urban neighborhoods with high rates of vacant housing. April 29 was the deadline, and entries came from as far away as Brazil, Italy and South Korea. Winners, whose ideas may or may not be executed, will be announced Friday.

The competition was coordinated by the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) of Baltimore and the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC).

They asked for proposals for redevelopment of the historic Middle East neighborhood, a community of 19th-century rowhouses. Bounded by Biddle, Chester and Madison streets and Broadway, the 16-block study area has about 1,000 vacant homes, nearly 3 percent of the city's vacant housing stock.

The sponsors indicated that they also are looking for ideas that can be applied to other "undercrowded" neighborhoods in Baltimore and beyond -- a prototype urban community for the 21st century.

Responses from the entrants, whose identities have not yet been made public, ranged from highly abstract to very specific. Some recommended strategies for attracting groups whose presence could enliven East Baltimore, such as senior citizens or young people. Others concentrated on designing buildings and public spaces that could enhance the area.

Many of the proposals represented variations of New Urbanism, a design movement in which home builders create "neo-traditional" communities based on proven town planning principles.

For some designers, preservation was a key strategy. They recommended that the city save as much of the area's existing housing as possible and make it available to new residents -- possibly through a dollar-a-house homesteading program similar to the ones used to save Stirling Street and the Otterbein area. "Retaining the character of the site through the reuse of existing buildings" was the primary design intent of Entry 12. "STOP TEARING DOWN THE ROWHOUSES!" was the message from Entry 28.

Others argued that the only hope for the area would be to introduce new types of housing and nonresidential structures to supplement the traditional row- house. One team recommended that the Middle East community take advantage of its proximity to Hopkins by building amenities that can be shared by community residents and Hopkins students and faculty, such as a recreation center, shops and movie theaters. Some proposed removing every other rowhouse, or every third rowhouse, as ways of decreasing density and creating more open space.

Many of the designers recommended adding parks, amphitheaters, markets and water features, including a Venetian-style canal network that would be fed by an existing underground spring. One recommended painting houses in pastel colors and planting flowers -- a sort of Martha Stewartization of East Baltimore.

One of the most provocative entries suggested that the area become a haven for 1,100 Kosovars displaced from their homeland during the Balkan fighting. It contained no drawings or design work. The proposal was spelled out in a mock newspaper article, dated April 29, 2000. The article was written as an after-the-fact account of the refugees' move and how it transformed the area. It was presented in the form of a photograph of the article pinned to the front of a refrigerator door, as if it had been saved by one of the families that had moved to Baltimore.

Additional sponsors of the competition include the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects; the Institute of Architecture and Planning at Morgan State University; and the City of Baltimore.

"There was a terrific quality to the entries and a great range of ideas," said Carol Gilbert, NDC's executive director. "Designs generated by this competition will help neighborhoods in Baltimore and beyond adjust to population loss."

The East Baltimore coalition is excited about the level of interest shown in the community, said executive director Michael Seipp. "We look forward to the selection process and to getting down to the nuts and bolts of developing these projects and attracting new homeowners."

The entries will be judged Thursday and Friday by five housing and design experts from around the country: David J. Boehlke, David Lee, William R. Morrish, Cheryl O'Neill and Lynda H. Schneekloth.

Awards include cash prizes of $15,000, $5,000 and $2,500 and a student award of $1,000. Winners will be announced during an awards presentation at Hopkins' Turner Concourse, East Monument and Rutland streets, starting at 4 p.m. Friday. Many of the entries will be displayed then.

Funding for the New Strategies competition has come from NationsBank, the Fannie Mae Foundation, Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Coleman Foundation. After the winners are named, the coalition hopes to hire one or more of the entrants to prepare a comprehensive plan that can guide redevelopment of the Middle East area. The co-sponsors also intend to mount an exhibition and publish a book showing a selection of the entries.

Juror William Morrish will lecture on "Reframing the 1945-1965 Suburb" Wednesday at 6 p.m. at 1401 Hollins St. To attend the talk or the awards presentation, call the Neighborhood Design Center at 410-233-9686. Its Web site is http://www.ndc-md.org.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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