Disharmony in Meyerhoff's back yard

A state-owned open-air storage site in the midst of the cultural district may be the latest sign of a city grown numb to blight


November 07, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

A city, if it has any vitality at all, will always be in flux physically. Buildings rise and fall. Streets open and close. People come and go.

But do we sometimes become so accustomed to the transitory nature of our surroundings that visual clutter and jumble don't register anymore? Can we become so inured to ugliness that we no longer care about beauty?

Those questions are prompted by the newest addition to Baltimore's Mount Royal cultural district, home of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the Lyric Opera House and the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Howard Street -- a gateway to the cultural district -- is land that was once a well-manicured lawn for the Baltimore Life Insurance Co. Now owned by the state of Maryland, the property in recent months has been turned into an open-air storage yard for a contractor working for the Mass Transit Administration.

Instead of greenery, concert-goers and others are now greeted by large spools of cable, piles of gravel and lumber, trailers, forklifts, metal tubs, Spot-A-Pots and other assorted construction equipment and materials. The area is enclosed by a chain-link fence, topped by barbed wire.

What would be an eyesore even in an industrial zone is a jarring sight so close to the Meyerhoff's front door, especially at the height of the fall concert season. Its existence contradicts continuing city and state efforts to revitalize the west side of downtown and the historic Mount Vernon area.

Strangely enough, the changes have drawn scant attention from administrators of the closest arts organizations. John Gidwitz, executive director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said he has been preoccupied with other matters and hadn't looked into it until a reporter inquired. Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, said he thought the state was relocating underground utilities.

But others are concerned by the sudden appearance of a junkyard in their midst. "It's unsightly. And it's getting worse and worse," said Joe Pitta, co-owner of Neal's Hair Salon on Park Avenue.

Pitta said the merchants along Park and Tyson Street were never notified about the change in use for the state property. Given the investments that cultural institutions and private businesses have made to improve the area, he said, "it's inappropriate for it to be there."

It won't be there forever. MTA spokesman Frank Fulton said the yard, on land that is awaiting development as an apartment, office and retail complex, is being used as a temporary "staging area" by a contractor repairing nearby light rail tracks along Howard Street. The contractor is expected to finish its work in January.

Fulton said the decision to use the former Baltimore Life site was a practical one: The land offers the space the contractor needs and is close to the light rail line, which saves time.

"It speeds up the process," he said. "They're doing it for expediency and safety and efficiency."

If the storage yard were an isolated case, that would be one thing. But it seems to be part of a pattern of thinking that Baltimore can be treated as a dumping ground and no one will mind.

For nearly half a decade, the Charles Street entrance to Penn Station has been blocked by concrete barriers and a metal fence, awaiting reconstruction. North of the train station, Amtrak allowed a private company to erect telecommunications equipment on the eastern edge of its parking lot, spoiling another approach to the train station.

Strips along the Jones Falls Expressway and Russell Street have grown thick with billboards and wall signs, cluttering key gateways to the city. Piecemeal demolition around town further contributes to the sense of visual disorder.

It's encouraging to know that the Mount Royal storage yard won't be a permanent fixture on the landscape. And to their credit, state planners put the work area as far out of view from the Meyerhoff as possible.

Still, it's disappointing that public officials assumed they could trash even part of the Mount Royal cultural district, even temporarily. Other cities wouldn't tolerate such a careless attitude. Baltimore shouldn't either.

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