May will be a big month for Baltimore's Inner Harbor, with the May 7 opening of a $4.5 million Visitors Center and the May 28 opening of the expanded Maryland Science Center.
But one part of the waterfront that still doesn't make a good impression is the area between the two attractions.
The west shore of the Inner Harbor is a prime waterfront parcel that contains a 60-car parking lot, a police substation and dockmaster's office, a trailer for Harbor Cruises, an ice cream stand, vending machines, a Baltimore Ducks kiosk and plenty of asphalt paving.
Over the years, the city has commissioned a series of studies for making the shoreline more attractive, but officials have never made permanent improvements. Nearly 25 years after the opening of Harborplace, the west shore still has an unfinished, unpolished, unkempt appearance. The problem was underscored during a preview event the Maryland Science Center held last week to show off its $35 million transformation.
The addition has two large exhibit halls with windows that offer sweeping views of the downtown skyline. But the view is marred by the sight of the west shore in the foreground, with its asphalt paving and hodgepodge of kiosks and other structures.
City redevelopment officials say upgrading the west shore is a high priority, but the work may have to be done in increments and it may still be several years from completion.
"The plan is to make it presentable and permanent," said M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "It's been neither for the last 20 years."
Brodie said the Inner Harbor master plan commissioned by his agency two years ago recommends that the parking lot disappear and the west shore be landscaped as a "large grassy plain" that would provide an alternative to more active areas along the shoreline. This green space may also double as a setting for outdoor movies, the way Bryant Park does in New York.
Brodie said the city did not previously make permanent improvements to the west shore because "we haven't been ready before the Inner Harbor master plan study."
But he said the recommendations contained in that plan -- by Cooper Robertson and Partners; Cho, Benn + Holback, and landscape architect Thomas Balsley -- appear to have widespread support.
The next steps, he said, are for his agency to work with Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks and others to hire designers to develop more specific plans, get cost estimates and identify funding -- possibly from a voter-approved bond issue.
He said the agencies have to make certain the shoreline improvements are included in the city's six-year Capital Improvement Program and follow the city's procurement procedures.
Of all the recommendations in the Inner Harbor master plan, he said, "there's no more important item on my agenda than implementation of the west shore improvements in a permanent way. But it's going to take a few years."
In the meantime, visitors to the west shore can expect to see some changes over the next few months.
Christopher Cropper, marketing director for the science center, said the expansion project there includes landscaping and brick walkways to connect the building to the Inner Harbor promenade. The science center also has plans to "take the inside experience outside" with outdoor exhibits, but that is not part of the phase that opens May 28, he said.
Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts will use the west shore as the setting for a three-day jazz festival that starts May 7. A tall ship from Spain, the Juan Sebastian de Elcano, will come to town the same weekend and dock at the harbor's west wall.
The opening of the visitors center is expected to result in the removal of one structure on the west shore, a trailer that houses the city's temporary visitors center. The project also includes a grove of locust trees, native grasses and an abstract concrete sculpture by William Niebauer. Other shoreline buildings can't necessarily be removed on short notice, planners say, because occupants have leases or operating agreements with the city.
Both the science center expansion and the visitors center were designed by Design Collective of Baltimore. Design Collective has also worked on studies for improving the west shore. Luis Bernardo, a senior designer for the firm, said he hopes the May openings of those two buildings will call attention to the need for permanent improvements on the west shore.
During the buildings' construction, passers-by may not have paid much attention to the area, he said. But once the buildings are open, he said, they will offer views that people have never seen before.
"With the completion of the Science Center and the Welcome Center, you really create two bookends" for the west shore, he said. "So you need to take a look at what's happening between them."
Parking lot going down
Two 100-year-old buildings at 210-216 E. Baltimore St. are being torn down to enlarge a parking lot that Edison Parking operates on the former site of the Tower Building downtown.
The buildings most recently housed merchants such as a Ritz Camera store and a music shop at street level, and their upper floors were vacant. They dated from 1904 and had a pleasant scale and degree of ornament that contemporary buildings do not. The three-story building at 210-214 was designed by the noted firm of Baldwin and Pennington for the estate of publisher A.S. Abell. The building at 216 was designed by J. Appleton Wilson.
The buildings were not protected by landmark designation. City planners say they believe the property may not stay a parking lot for long because it has potential for development, perhaps an expansion of the Baltimore City court system.