Master plans sweeping Baltimore

Process gives residents a voice in community's future

July 11, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The concept of the master plan is embarking on new terrain: coming of age in the city neighborhood.

In fact, the phenomenon is sweeping so many neighborhoods, institutions and parks that city agencies are at times hard-pressed to connect them all.

In a groundswell of interest, more than 300 people showed up to hear Mayor Martin O'Malley encourage more neighborhood planning in a recent forum at Morgan State University.

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of C. William Struever has been corrected for the archive database. See microfilm for original story.

"Community input is something you have to do," O'Malley said, promising to include all neighborhoods in the process.

The city's planning director, Charles C. Graves III, said the trend could help "focus city resources more strategically" and the plans could be incorporated in the city's freshly forged comprehensive PlanBaltimore.

Master plans are one of the original tools for envisioning how streets, buildings and parks would be laid out on land. (The city of Irvine, Calif., the country's largest master-planned city, emerged from strawberry fields 25 years ago.)

These days, however, master plan drawings are not just produced by professional architects and planners. They have become democratized documents that give communities more of a voice and vote.

"They're absolutely critical if a neighborhood is going to do anything," said Eleanor Montgomery, a lawyer and a Waverly community leader. They also empower, she added: "It's very good for cohesion to prioritize."

Since the late 1990s, master plans have emerged from Highlandtown to Charles Village, demonstrating that communities and organizations are paying close attention to their short- and long-range futures.

"They're springing up all over," said Sandra Sparks, executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District. Formerly head of the Greater Homewood Community Corp., Sparks oversaw completion of a 1998 master plan linking 35 neighborhoods from North Avenue north to the Baltimore County line.

"Capital projects follow and hopefully better management of [development] decisions," Sparks added.

Among prominent institutions having outlined or now drafting plans are the Peabody Institute and the Maryland Historical Society, both in Mount Vernon, and the Johns Hopkins University in Homewood. Renderings for Patterson Park, Druid Hill Park and Carroll Park also are in progress.

One feature in vogue in master planning is the "charette," a lengthy forum for architects and planners to hear community views. The Harford Road Partnership (HARP) used this technique in 1997 to revitalize the northeast business district. The process laid the groundwork for an urban renewal ordinance passed by the City Council last year, essentially a master plan made law.

Last month, Johns Hopkins officials showed neighbors of the university the latest version of an elaborate plan for beautifying and expanding the Homewood campus.

The next night, two dozen faithful urbanites met in Hampden Family Center to exchange ideas on neighborhood stabilization in pursuit of a master plan for the Jones Falls Valley. A charette to advance the Jones Falls Valley plan was also held last month at Loyola College.

Developer Bill Struever, who is playing a lead role in the Jones Falls project, imagines a rebirth of "the beautiful mill buildings of the Jones Falls Valley" which will overlook a waterway leading to what he calls the "digital harbor," a reference to the city's rejuvenated downtown waterfront.

Alfred W. Barry III, a former city planner who now runs his own consulting firm, is at the center of several master plans.

"The initiation of these plans comes from the community, not the city," Barry said, noting a plan he drew up for the Southeast Baltimore Community Organization Inc. as a revitalization document that has already had an impact. For example, he said, the Enoch Pratt Free Library is building its first large regional library in Highlandtown, in accordance with both the community plan and the Pratt's 1997 strategic plan for the 21st century.

As to why master plans are proliferating now, experts attribute it in part to prosperity - a period in which endowments, federal research funds and the stock market have never been higher.

"When you have prosperity, there's pressure to convert that prosperity in a coherent way," Barry said. The process itself can be healthy for a community or institution, he said. "It forces participants to think about their relationship with each other and that can be very enlightening. The community comes out stronger than it might be otherwise."

Whether the plans are realized or not, their impact can be felt for a century or more, as is the case with the Olmsted brothers' regional landscape plan for the city's park system and northern neighborhoods such as Roland Park and Homeland. The plans come together most smoothly, experts say, when all parties meet regularly in a public place to discuss it.

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