City has much to offer planners trying to replicate old charm

January 12, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

THE OTHER morning I took refuge from the ice storm in an office building at Calvert and Baltimore streets. A voice called out my name at that corner; it was an old friend, Jesse Turner, who invited me to his warm office a long elevator ride up in the sky.

There, where he makes architectural models at Development Design Group Inc., I viewed dozens of miniature streets and towns now being planned and built in places from Ecuador to Columbus, Ohio. Many of these architectural projects are intended to replace, or compete with, strip malls and enclosed malls. What I saw was, indeed, a breath of fresh air.

Architects and city planners - and I guess the people who pay the bills - want their projects to look like Hamilton or Hampden, the small city neighborhood shopping districts that we try to revive in Baltimore with sadly mixed results.

I saw prospective movie theaters that look something like our old Century or Valencia, both demolished under the banner of urban renewal. There were new Abercrombie & Fitch branch stores on the model board that resembled vacant shop fronts I've known in Highlandtown or along Park Heights Avenue.

My tour of the model-making shop came during a week when I traditionally wind up my holiday visiting, a time when I get invited into the homes of old friends and often think how good it is to reside in old Baltimore. Our inventories of well-built - and ever so comfortable - homes are situated in classic city neighborhoods, with sidewalks, public transportation, back alleys, parks and stores nearby.

I thought to myself: Do we always appreciate what we have? I considered the homes I'd been to recently, the ones with the front halls large enough to accommodate big Christmas trees and baby grand pianos. Am I talking about Gibson Island? No - Greenmount Avenue in Waverly.

I'm thinking of the gleaming oak parquet floors on Guilford Avenue and the amazing butler's pantries of my neighbors on St. Paul Street, where people routinely have an extra working sink. What about the house in Sudbrook Park where I temporarily got lost looking to claim my coat in the interconnecting bedrooms, or the Bolton Hill castle where there is a large cellar below the basement? Or the Greenway apartment built around the time of the First World War that has its own elevated breezeway with windows on all sides?

But back to the models of the new neighborhoods now being designed and planned in the downtown office: As I looked at them, I couldn't help think about a little walk I'd taken a few evenings before. I needed some exercise and took off in the dark with no specific goal except to get away from traffic.

I wound up on Chancery Square in Guilford, just as the lights were being turned on in some wonderful English-style houses of 1914 vintage. I had no invitation inside; indeed, on this night, the show was better outside - a whisper of Sunday's mini-snow on a chilly January night - and multi-paned windows overlooking this little village square.

I think the model builders and their architects need to make a field trip, come here, and see the real thing, the spots we Baltimoreans have right here outside our front doors.

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