Architects vs. politicians

May 31, 2002

It's good that Baltimore has hired a top-flight architectural firm to prescribe Inner Harbor design guidelines for the next 20 years. But that's not nearly enough.

After all, a precursor of the very same firm came up with a wonderful concept for Baltimore's Inner Harbor East in the 1980s. But even though that design won a prestigious award from the American Institute of Architects, it was later junked by then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

As Cooper, Robertson & Partners -- famous for visionary master plans for New York's Battery Park City and Disney's new town of Celebration in Florida -- start working on Inner Harbor guidelines, the past should serve as a warning.

The soundest and most imaginative design ideas amount to precious little if elected officials lack the political commitment to stand behind them.

For two reasons this caveat must be sounded at this early point.

The Cooper firm will be paid roughly $200,000 for its Baltimore work, an amount so small that it is likely to produce only a sketchy plan. Also, Mayor Martin O'Malley's Baltimore Development Corp. drew the Inner Harbor borders in such a manner that the study area leaves out two pivotal future building sites: the 27-acre AlliedSignal parcel near Fells Point as well as much of Key Highway's waterfront.

These exclusions limit the Cooper study to a largely built-out core area. Because of unfortunate precedents, the city has relatively little say on how two premium lots -- the vacant McCormick and News American parcels -- will be built.

This is the nefarious legacy of past compromises. As the city started deviating from original Inner Harbor design guidelines in the 1990s, developers, with the blessing of politicians, ran roughshod over accepted standards.

Even today, it seems that City Hall is fearful of a truly dynamic planning effort. That would explain why the Cooper study is so severely limited -- and why it has no connection to a separate master plan that aims to guide the development of the Inner Harbor's water area. Yet the two documents address overlapping concerns. Their approach and solutions cannot be at odds with one another.

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