`Code-free' zone urged by planner

Proposal: Noted architect recommends more creativity and fewer restraints.

Architecture

April 09, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

How can Baltimore get more people to move back into the city?

Designate a small part of it a "code-free zone" - an area with no cumbersome rules and regulations for construction - and watch the architects and developers pour in with creative ideas.

That's one of many recommendations that noted architect and town planner Andres Duany offered at a recent address to 250 members and guests of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

"For 300 years we built without building and planning departments" telling people what to do, Duany reasoned. "You'd be surprised how intelligent individual Americans can be when you leave them on their own."

Skeptics might counter that it often seems as if the entire city is a code-free zone already.

But Duany, a Florida-based architect known as a leader of the "New Urbanist" design movement, had plenty of other ideas for rejuvenating Baltimore after touring it for a day and conferring with local experts.

During an entertaining and provocative presentation that combined quips, anecdotes and astute observations about cities, he advised local civic leaders to stop focusing on building mega-projects such as stadiums and provide more opportunities for small-scale, everyday development.

"I think this scheme you have of bringing in the grands projets, as the French say, is a very ineffective way to bring people back," Duany said. "It works, but it's very inefficient."

With a stadium, for example, "you can come and use it and never use the rest of the city."

The best developments for these times are small scale projects that are embedded in the city.

"The cities that have done the best, such as Alexandria [Va.] and Georgetown, tend to have a rowhouse fabric," he said. "The beauty of the rowhouse is that the increment of investment is the individual family. ... A city of rowhouses is the city of the future."

Duany strongly suggested that the city convert one-way streets, such as Charles and Pratt, to two-way traffic.

On a weekday afternoon, "Pratt Street is dedicated to the evacuation of Baltimore," he said. "There's a dreadful misallocation of priorities. You are actually incentivizing people to leave."

As far as merchandising is concerned, "no retail can work effectively on a one-way street," he said. "So many stores have been killed by one-way. The retail is constantly hobbled by the fact that it's literally getting only half the traffic."

Duany, a partner in Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., said there is strong evidence that Americans are moving back to cities - and more will come if given the chance. He said cities could support that trend by streamlining the permitting and planning process so it's less of an impediment to prospective builders and investors. But he said planners and public officials shouldn't act like beggars, eager to accept any proposal regardless of its merits.

The New Urbanists are perhaps best known for their efforts to design mixed-use communities for vacant land, mostly in the suburbs or near transit stations, according to old-fashioned town planning principles. In recent years, they have turned their attention to infill development, brownfields reclamation and other opportunities in inner cities.

"We are the first people to realize that the inner city has to be competitive - not competitive with other cities but competitive with the suburbs," Duany said.

In order to compete successfully with the suburbs, Duany said, cities such as Baltimore need to be just as "predictable" as they are - and that means developing master plans when necessary and sticking with them.

In the suburbs, people "know where the shopping center is, they know where the McMansions will be," because it's all planned and approved far ahead of time, he said. And if a master plan is not followed, "there are instant lawsuits against the developer."

Duany said Baltimore is "a museum of planning ideas." The trouble, he said, is that Baltimore's master plans are constantly being revised or violated, and as a result, occupants of any given area have no faith that an unwanted development won't materialize nearby.

"You can fall in love with certain pieces of Baltimore," he said. "But if you look around a little bit you ended up saying, `What is that? What is that? Some dingbat thing. ... ' There is evidence, quite a lot of evidence, that none of your master plans are under control. ... If high-rises can sprout like mushrooms, it's not predictable."

Uncertainty about the planning process is invariably bad for a city in the long run, he added. "Eventually, it seeps through. There is a cultural understanding that whenever you buy into a city, it's not a predictable situation. ... What happens is an entire generation of citizens doesn't trust master plans."

Editor to speak

Reed Kroloff, editor in chief of Architecture magazine, will discuss his work and publication in a talk at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $12 per person or $8 for seniors or students with valid identification.

Two leaders of Baltimore's economic development community, Ann Lansigner and Linda Ellerton, will discuss the issues facing biotechnology-related development in the region during a free forum at noon on Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Charles and Fayette streets.

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