High hopes for Inner Harbor East didn't pan out

Renaissance: In a living, breathing city like Baltimore, change is inevitable. But looking at the hotels rising east of the Inner Harbor, one wishes there could have been more attention to design.

June 03, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

NEARLY 10 YEARS ago I sat through a presentation by a New York architect planner named Stan Eckstut. He had just been hired to draw up a set of design guidelines for what was called the Inner Harbor East -- the mostly vacant land between the Jones Falls (the stream, not the expressway) and Fells Point. On paper, he devised a model urban village, where the smaller buildings sat on the water's edge and taller mid-rises took their place in the back. Every one in the room left with high hopes for a brilliant future for this part of Baltimore.

A few days ago I walked through the area where he had made his planning forecast on paper. There's all the difference that a decade can bring. It didn't turn out the way I'd hoped, the way he'd proposed.

Walking westward along Aliceanna Street, I thought I was in some dense canyon of the business district, hardly a neighborhood of water, marinas and walks along the harbor edge.

Tall buildings, a couple of hotels and garages, each casting long shadows, were on their way to completion. A new neighborhood was under furious heavy construction. I wasn't sure I was in Baltimore, just off the Patapsco River.

The old President Street Station, now the Civil War Museum, is so overshadowed by the larger of the two hotels it looks like a tool shed. The neighborhood's other landmark, the Sewage Pumping Station and smokestack, is also dwarfed.

This is certainly not the Aliceanna, Exeter, Fleet or President streets I knew or recognized.

And, yet, in a busy, living downtown, commercial change is inevitable. New buildings will rise and old ones will fall. Indeed, later on my little tour, I happened by the vacant lot where our old Southern Hotel once stood at the corner of Light and Redwood. The Southern is gone, but there are two new Marriott hotels in the Inner Harbor East. (This new section, near both Little Italy and Fells Point, could use a better geographic description. )

The rebirth of Baltimore's harbor has been such a success that it should come as no surprise that businesses should want to locate here.

I entertained hope the design of the new buildings would be better. After all, it is not a risk. This is hardly a dicey neighborhood. It's a fine location, well served by main streets and even a water taxi. And there were acres of vacant land where the creative mind could stir the soul.

What has risen is boring, predictable and not much fun. It's better to direct your eyes toward the water and pray that, should you take a room or move your office here, you get a window with a water view.

We can have good architecture here. The day I was walking around, I spotted a new pedestrian bridge that links the National Aquarium's two pavilions. This trim little span is a real beauty, a gem, delicate and respectful of its site.

The building frenzy here should make the people think again about the planned construction in the Westside and at the foot of Federal Hill, where a Ritz hotel is in the discussion state. If this is what Baltimore is going to get, watch out.

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