Center Plaza to undergo overhaul

State funding very likely for barren area downtown

Plan calls for lawns, trees, paths

March 26, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Center Plaza, a barren space in downtown Baltimore that only pigeons and skateboarders could love, is finally getting a long-awaited facelift to make it more inviting for the rest of us.

The $5.6 million overhaul, stymied by delays, is expected to begin in June and take a year. Plans call for turning the bleak, 3-acre expanse on Fayette Street west of Charles Street into grassy lawns dotted with shade trees and crisscrossed by paths.

Budget committees in the state Senate and House of Delegates recently endorsed the first installment of a critical $2 million state grant, putting the last piece of funding largely in place.

"Everything is looking rosy right now," state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday.

The city-owned plaza is important for many reasons. It is a gateway between the core business district and the west side, now in the midst of an ambitious redevelopment effort.

The plaza also serves as the back yard for several Charles Center towers that have offices and, increasingly, apartments. Two hotels sit just south of Fayette Street.

In addition, the plaza is on a major transit corridor that includes nine bus lines, with light rail and Metro stops a short walk away. Hence Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s support, Flanagan said.

The cost of construction - much of it to replace a waterproof barrier between the plaza and a garage below ground - is being shared by the city, state and federal governments, as well as by Peter G. Angelos and other property owners on the plaza.

It's an important project even in a difficult budget year, said Michele L. Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which manages the plaza.

"This is not fluff, this is economic development," she said.

For the typical downtown worker, resident or visitor, it may be a place to have lunch on a nice day, or listen to an outdoor concert. Downtown Partnership will continue to run the plaza, which is a little bigger than two football fields, to make sure it is kept up.

The project's progress owes partly to Whelley's tenacity.

A year ago, the city said it was cutting its allotment by $1 million, ostensibly because of less state funding for the city overall.

Business owners, though, said they were told that Mayor Martin O'Malley made the cut to punish Whelley's group, Angelos and others for opposing an unrelated bid to put billboards on 1st Mariner Arena. The mayor's office denied this.

The reduction in the city's contribution created enough uncertainty that work did not begin last year.

In the end, the city's share turned out to be greater than expected, Whelley said. By picking up the $700,000 in design fees that are separate from construction, the city raised its total commitment to $2.2 million.

Meanwhile, the federal government, at Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' urging, will give $600,000. Property owners, who also include Constellation Energy and developer David H. Hillman, will pay $1.5 million total.

Even if the city had not cut its funding last year, Whelley said, the $2 million state grant still would have been pivotal. She said work could have begun with the hope that the state money would come through.

Whelley recently had a scare that the grant was going to fall through, raising the prospect of another financial hurdle.

The Department of Legislative Services urged that the first installment of the $2 million grant - $400,000 - be stripped from the coming year's budget because of the state's fiscal crunch.

Two committees, House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation, kept the money in after lobbying by Whelley. As a result, it is likely the funds will be in the capital budget adopted by the General Assembly at the end of the legislative session.

The plaza's design, led by Brown & Craig architects, includes several "bubbling" basins along Fayette Street.

"There aren't a lot of bells and whistles here," Whelley said. "We want a park people feel comfortable using. We don't want a monument."

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