Courthouse could serve as anchor, landmark

Harbor Point is possible site to put replacement for Garmatz building


July 07, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When architects started drafting a master plan for Baltimore's Allied Signal chrome plant property more than a decade ago, they knew the prime stretch of waterfront needed a one-of-a-kind building to set a proper tone for the development that would follow.

One early idea was to reserve land for a performing arts center - a soaring work of sculpture that might rise from the peninsula the way the Sydney Opera House does in Australia. But Baltimore chose to build a $62 million performing arts center on the west side of downtown, reducing the likelihood that a similar project might take shape on the waterfront.

Still, the architects reserved 1.8 acres for some sort of public building in their master plan, which calls for a mixed-use community called Harbor Point on 27 acres between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point.

Now that the chrome plant is gone and the land is nearly ready for development, a new idea has surfaced for the public portion of Harbor Point, and it has the potential to give Baltimore's next major development tract the signature feature it needs. It also could provide a much-needed boost for Baltimore's Convention Center.

The idea is to use land at Harbor Point to build a replacement for the Garmatz Federal Courthouse, a nine-story building that opened in 1976 at Lombard and Hanover streets. It contains 13 district courts, five magistrate courts, two U.S. courts of appeals, two bankruptcy courts and the U. S. attorney's office.

The U.S. General Services Administration plans to replace the courthouse within the next seven years but has not yet selected a location. According to its five-year plan for 2003 to 2007, it has tentatively budgeted $30.1 million for site acquisition and design in fiscal 2005, and $142.9 million for construction starting in fiscal 2007.

Significant landmark

A federal courthouse may not seem as glamorous as a theater, but it potentially has many other characteristics that would make it an ideal building to jump-start development at Harbor Point.

Federal buildings have long been key anchors for cities, and Baltimore has benefited from the presence of such structures as the U.S. Customs House, the local branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and the City Crescent building on Howard Street.

Courthouses can be particularly significant as civic and architectural landmarks: They draw a diverse group of visitors, serve a serious purpose, and have a symbolic and functional importance few other buildings do.

In 1994, the General Services Administration launched a national Design Excellence program that encourages hiring top architects and pushing for the best designs for public buildings. As a result, the quality of federal buildings is on the rise.

There have been especially good results with courthouses. Many have been designed by architects best known for their work on museums and campus buildings, including Richard Meier, Thom Mayne and Peter Bohlin. The courthouses in Central Islip, N.Y.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Scranton, Pa., are among the most distinctive and ennobling structures completed in the United States over the past decade.

Frees space downtown

Replacing the Garmatz courthouse would also benefit Baltimore by freeing up land near the Convention Center for meeting-related activities. The city block occupied by the Garmatz building - directly across Pratt Street from the Convention Center - would be an ideal location for a large convention headquarters hotel.

City planners have eyed two blocks north of Camden Station for a convention hotel, but the Garmatz site is closer to the Inner Harbor and would not require crossing or somehow bridging the light rail line along Howard Street.

One proponent of the Harbor Point courthouse idea is Janet Marie Smith, vice president of planning and development for Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse. Struever is developing Harbor Point with H&S Property Development Corp. Owned by Honeywell International, the land is zoned for up to 1.8 million square feet of commercial space and up to 600,000 square feet of parking space as well as parkland.

Smith is also a consultant to the Boston Red Sox on plans to save Fenway Park and has been traveling to that city weekly. During her visits, she said, she has been impressed by the way the new John Joseph Moakley Courthouse and Harborpark in south Boston has anchored development of that city's Fan Pier, a waterfront tract with strong similarities to Harbor Point.

Fan Pier, like Harbor Point, was a large parcel physically separate from Boston's business district but within easy view of it. It was also a blank slate, with no existing structures.

Henry Cobb and Ian Bader of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners designed the Moakley courthouse as the first major project for Fan Pier. Since opening in 1998, it has done everything it was supposed to do - drawing people to a new part of town, setting a dignified tone and serving as a catalyst for development.

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