Harbor Masters


City selects the design team that will oversee the future look of the waterfront

April 15, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

They created master plans for Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan and Disney's new town of Celebration in central Florida.

They're advising developers on the best way to rebuild Ground Zero, the former site of New York's World Trade Center.

Now architects from one of America's most prominent urban design teams have been tapped to help Baltimore sharpen its vision for the Inner Harbor.

Cooper, Robertson & Partners of New York heads a team selected to create a master plan to guide development of Baltimore's harbor front over the next 20 years or more.

City officials notified the architects last week that they were chosen over 13 other groups that sought the commission, potentially one of the most important design assignments to be awarded in Maryland this year.

The selection is a critical step in the city's effort to rethink how the Inner Harbor ought to evolve, nearly 40 years after former Mayor Theodore McKeldin announced plans to transform it from a rat-infested precinct of rotting piers and banana boats to one of America's leading urban destinations.

It marks the first time Baltimore has asked one firm to create a comprehensive vision for its downtown waterfront since Wallace McHarg and Associates was hired to prepare the initial master plan in the early 1960s.

The Inner Harbor is "one of the granddaddies of waterfront development," said Brian Shea, design partner for Cooper Robertson and head of the new planning effort. "People use Baltimore all the time as a model of what can be done."

With other cities copying the Inner Harbor, or surpassing it in some cases, local leaders want the newly hired design team to recommend ways to make Baltimore's waterfront even better.

They want to strengthen connections between the popular shoreline promenade and nearby areas that don't get so much foot traffic, such as Charles Center. They're looking for ways to rein in unbridled growth.

"The vision for the Inner Harbor was created nearly 40 years ago," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the agency that oversees downtown development and sought the new master plan. "Is that vision still valid? Should we look for a new vision? How can we do better?"

The New York designers represent "fresh eyes" to aid local planners, added Paul Dombrowski, director of planning and design for the development corporation.

"We all know how successful the Inner Harbor is," he said. "But is there something more we could be doing? Some unfinished business to address that we don't see because we stare at it every day?"

Working with Philadelphia architect David Wallace and others starting in the 1960s, Baltimore developed an award-winning plan that set "standards and controls" for all buildings in a 250-acre tract around the Inner Harbor basin. But over the years that plan has been eroded to some degree, with high-rise buildings going up on sites where they weren't envisioned and public space given over to uses such as parking. Portions of the water's surface have been covered with stationary "restaurant barges," and building surfaces are smothered with signs.

Over the years, Baltimore has lost some of its ability to enforce design standards, because federal funds for urban renewal have dried up and the city doesn't control much of the land still available for development. Private developers call the shots more than ever, and they don't necessarily want to adhere to strict design guidelines.

The area to be re-evaluated is bounded roughly by Lombard Street on the north, Howard Street on the west, Central Avenue on the east and Key Highway on the south.

It includes several renewal areas -- Inner Harbor Projects I and IA, Inner Harbor West and Inner Harbor East -- that city planners want to combine into one seamless district. It doesn't include the former Allied Signal property, one of the largest single tracts available for development along Baltimore's waterfront.

The design team has been asked to look at such issues as traffic, parking, use of public space along the shoreline, signs and provisions for bikeways, hiking trails and public transit.

City planners are seeking advice on the best use for the former McCormick spice plant property on Light Street, the former News American parcel on Pratt Street, the south ends of piers 5 and 6 and the city-owned parking lots north of Camden Station and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, among other areas.

They also want the consultants to critique plans for the proposed expansions of the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Maryland Science Center and to make recommendations on design issues related to security, emergency vehicle access, streetscape improvements and view corridors.

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