Inner Harbor endgame

May 06, 2004

A CENTURY AFTER the first renaissance plan for Baltimore's tourist horseshoe was announced, the city is touting its final listing of good intentions for the harbor area. As with the first plan, the devil is in the details, and in public will.

The Inner Harbor master plan announced Tuesday envisions livelier green space along the west and south sides of the water, much as did the one proposed by planner Paul E. Burkhard in 1904. Other shared goals are keeping the waterfront public space, regulating the height of waterfront buildings and rearranging traffic to tie the inner ring to the outer ring of buildings. The Burkhard vision, described in The Evening Sun in 1946 and 1985, also planned a park to connect the harbor to busy Charles Street.

That first plan, written just after the Great Baltimore Fire, fell apart in the face of city business leaders eager to rebuild their harborside warehouses and recommence the lively maritime trade. The 1965 master plan, which the current version builds on, was better received and followed - but still, outside interests got a towering hotel, a parking garage and assorted dinky, dingy buildings on prime land. Not to mention a mammoth visitors center in its own separate building on land meant for open space.

The 2004 master plan is needed to combat the danger of the Inner Harbor falling victim to its own greater-than-predicted success; there are precious few spots left for preservation or development along the city's doorway to the sea. It is good to reassert that green space should grow greener, and that buildings should be only so high. The specifics on how this all will be accomplished, though, are slight. Or, as the plan puts it, "Detailed design investigation is required to fix final solutions."

And the tough decisions are still way down the road, so to speak. Although there are a good number of descriptions of how to make the ring roads - especially the pedestrian nightmare at Light and Pratt streets - better for walkers as well as drivers, any decision or debate must wait until another traffic study is performed. And an underground parking garage might be built at the foot of Federal Hill, but we won't know for sure until the city puts out a request for proposals and gets them back.

Even the greening of the open space awaits more study and design - and money. There are no dollars, or estimates, attached to any of these proposals, so the timing of all of this is iffy. Not all the land affected by the plan is owned by the city; private owners might need some persuasion.

But what's most needed is ironclad will. If the City Council caves on every big-money project that wants to break the rules, or the administration skirts the hard, long-term decisions on traffic, this plan, too, will be history.

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