A more people-friendly Charles Center

A lawn, trees and flexible seating are among the comforts envisioned for a rejuvenated Center Plaza.

Architecture: Review

March 17, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Baltimore's Charles Center renewal district took shape in an era when the prevailing design philosophy was "Less is more." Its buildings are relatively spare and unadorned. Its public spaces provide serviceable links between office and hotel towers but aren't necessarily attractive destinations in themselves.

The winners of a recent competition to rejuvenate Center Plaza have taken an approach that could be characterized as "More is more." Their $5 million plan for reviving the area where downtown's renewal began recommends adding a wide range of features that were never part of the minimalist plaza that opened in 1970, from a lawn with portable chairs to a retail pavilion with food vendors and public restrooms.

The plan contains more than a few ideas that could benefit from additional study, including the retail pavilion, which threatens to form a barrier between the area to be renovated and Hopkins Plaza to the south, and a stairway and glass canopy that would be an instant target for vandals.

On the whole, though, the winning plan for Center Plaza can be seen as a valuable blueprint for transforming a desolate public space into a vibrant section of the city in relatively short order. The abundance of pragmatic, workable suggestions shows an impressive knowledge of the area and ways to turn it around. Moreover, the winning plan is consistent with recent shifts in attitude about public spaces in general and the evolution of Charles Center in particular. It should give hope to anyone who wants to see the heart of downtown become more livable and lively again.

Three-acre space

Center Plaza is one of two major public spaces created as part of the 33-acre Charles Center renewal area, where the redevelopment of downtown Baltimore began more than 40 years ago. Occupying three acres north of Fayette Street, between Charles and Liberty streets, it's actually the roof of an underground garage.

The competition, involving five contenders, was launched by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore to generate ideas for renovating Center Plaza and to select a design team to guide the effort. The area started out as a work setting, active primarily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. But developers plan to build more than 1,000 residences within easy walking distance, creating more of an urban neighborhood. Planners want to support the private investment by making the plaza an amenity for these future residents as well as office workers and visitors.

The winning proposal was submitted by two local design firms, Brown & Craig, an architecture firm with extensive experience in retail design in the immediate area, and Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architecture firm that has worked on many of the city's most prestigious commissions.

Their partner and secret weapon in the competition was Dan Biederman, a New York-based urban management consultant who is known as an expert on rejuvenating urban spaces. A protege of famed urbanologist William "Holly" Whyte, Biederman has gained widespread acclaim for his role in reviving Bryant Park, a 9-acre public space in midtown Manhattan that includes the main branch of the New York Public Library.

Bryant Park's transformation was so successful that Biederman has begun to market his expertise through a company he heads, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures Corp. of Chappaqua, N.Y. Center Plaza, which would be his first project in Maryland, is very much a spiritual descendant of Bryant Park, but by no means a clone.

A sense of place

This team envisioned Center Plaza as both a "living room" for Charles Center and a crossroads linking three key renewal areas -- the Central Business District, the West Side and Historic Charles Street. Team members proposed transforming Center Plaza with a mix of grass, pathways and structures, including a stairway that would link Center Plaza with Charles Plaza, a retail and office development with a smaller outdoor space at the southwest corner of Charles and Saratoga streets. They suggest renaming Center Plaza "Charles Center Park."

The proposal includes several major moves designed to give the area a stronger sense of place.

First, the team proposed creating a central lawn surrounded by wide promenades that would encourage people to gravitate toward shops and restaurants around the perimeter. The lawn would serve as a space for concerts and other gatherings, while making the area greener. The designers recommended "populating" it with portable chairs that people could arrange as they desired to take advantage of the sun and shade or to form conversation groups.

A second major idea was to plant two rows of trees on the west side of the plaza, creating a shaded area for outdoor cafes. The designers said they would strongly encourage property owners to infuse this side of the plaza with retail activity and perhaps even modify building facades to provide more storefronts.

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