Mayor defeated in battle of the bridge

Kelly green color scheme for Howard Street Bridge wiped out in Internet poll

November 01, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

It was the first time a mayor asked Baltimoreans to vote on the color of a bridge, but Mayor Martin O'Malley's choice of Kelly green for the Howard Street Bridge lost yesterday.

In a close vote, the 5,139 voters who used a City Hall Web site chose a rust red-brown favored by Baltimore artist Stan Edmister.

The electorate gave 2,689 votes to Edmister, and 2,450 votes -- a 52 percent to 48 percent split -- to O'Malley's favorite.

O'Malley has said he will abide by the plebiscite he called this week to resolve his pique over the rust color scheme, which he called "God-awful" when he saw it at a ribbon-cutting last summer. The Howard Street Bridge crosses over the Jones Falls Expressway, and it is one of the city's most visible perches.

"I submit to the will of the people," O'Malley said yesterday. "To paraphrase Jefferson, I fear for my countrymen, that they may receive the bridge colors they deserve."

Edmister created a color scheme for all the expressway bridges more than a decade ago. The design was approved by the city and received support from the Municipal Arts Society and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The artist expressed relief yesterday that the last bridge in his series would be painted as planned. If the mayor's scheme had prevailed, Edmister said, "It would be an embarrassment to the mayor and the city for a long time.

"This Kelly green color scheme, you would wince to see it," he added.

Saying that he wasn't personally affronted by the mayor's criticism, Edmister added, "That was a reflection of his own lack of sophistication and ability to view the comprehensive whole."

The artist wasn't entirely critical of the mayor, though, and praised the online polling system. "If this controversy has a silver lining, it is to usher in a whole new, transparent decision-making process," Edmister said. "This opens the door for a whole new way of engaging citizens. I'd like to see more of this."

Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, said he was pleased that more than 5,000 votes were cast. "It's wonderful that many people cared enough," Lazarus said. "They care about the environment and what things look like. People want it to be more than just a bridge."

Lazarus had written to O'Malley to defend the Edmister scheme shortly after the summer ribbon-cutting where the mayor made his displeasure known.

"I'm glad he [O'Malley] was willing to let people speak without making a unilateral decision," Lazarus said. At an arts town hall meeting this week, O'Malley told a gathering that he didn't want to be heavy-handed or authoritarian about a matter of taste. He said he hoped the vote would be a light-hearted civic exercise to engage public opinion.

But there were some who feared any political intervention in the public arts sphere. "We don't elect the mayor to make arts decisions," said Peter Doo, vice president of the Municipal Arts Society.

Kenneth Hart, an architect, called O'Malley's actions "disrespectful." He added, "This should not be an issue of rust or green."

Sun staff writer Matt Whittaker contributed to this article.

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