Center Plaza renovation hits another delay

city to take over

Plan is now at least a year behind schedule, organizers say

February 22, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

One of downtown Baltimore's longer-suffering projects, the redesign of Center Plaza, has been delayed again.

The promised transformation of the barren concrete expanse just west of Charles Street and north of Fayette Street into a grassy park-like setting was supposed to begin last June and be ready for outdoor lunches this summer.

Now it's at least a year behind schedule, project organizers say, because of a disagreement with the owners of the parking garage underneath the plaza.

The $5.6 million overhaul of the spare, 3-acre plaza, built in the 1960s as one of the signature components of the Charles Center urban plan, has been in the making for more than three years.

About a year ago, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore announced that with contributions from the city, state and private property owners, it finally had the financing to start construction.

Not long after, however, the nonprofit foundation handling the renovation realized that the parking garage owner, Edison Properties, wanted $750,000 before it would allow work to be done on the property.

The money would pay for garage repairs that had nothing to do with the project, said Downtown Partnership President J. Kirby Fowler Jr., calling the demand "entirely unreasonable."

"If we would cause harm to the garage, we would have been happy to compensate them for that," Fowler said. "It was too big a hurdle."

To overhaul the plaza into a green park crisscrossed with inviting promenades and shade trees, the concrete surface now covering it would have to be demolished, stripped down to the "membrane" that separates it from the garage.

Steven Rosefsky, Edison's vice president and general counsel, said the company "fully supports" the plaza renovation but has concerns that it could damage the parking garage roof.

"We're really seeking sound construction practices," Rosefsky said. "It's unfortunate we're construed as the sole impediment to this project."

The delay frustrated Michele Whelley, the former Downtown Partnership president who fought for more than a year to cement financing for the renovations.

"To have this happen at the 11th hour was difficult to swallow," said Whelley, who now works for a Baltimore commercial real estate firm. "The issues brought things to a halt."

Though the construction disagreement has delayed the project by nearly a year, Fowler said it could be back on track soon.

The foundation is handing off management of the project to the city.

Because the city has rights to an easement on the plaza, construction could begin, with or without Edison's approval, making moot the company's demands.

Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works, said the city plans to put the project out for bid soon, with construction beginning as soon as late summer.

"We can expedite it," Kocher said of the project. "It works out for everybody."

"It would have been a better result if Edison had been able to reach an agreement with us," Fowler said. "But the city's got great powers to come in and get a project off the ground."

Because the plaza is something of a back yard for the office buildings and residences that surround it, as well as a gateway to downtown's struggling west side, which the city is trying hard to resuscitate, it's important not to let it languish, project organizers say.

"The area is becoming so strong with the investment beginning to surround the plaza and the west-side development creeping eastward," Whelley said. "It's such an important nexus."

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