A good walk interrupted, again and again

October 16, 2005|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

The brick walkway unrolls encouragingly along the southern rim of the Inner Harbor, past the Maryland Science Center, Rash Field and picturesquely docked boats.

When Baltimore's storied waterfront promenade sidles up to the Rusty Scupper restaurant, a point where walkers are probably just getting warmed up, a sign on the parking garage there beckons them further, to "go the extra mile."

Thing is, one step past the garage and the strollers had better be swimmers too.

Despite repeated declarations by Baltimore's leaders that a linear park hugging the harbor would become a public asset the likes of which few cities could boast, and a magnetic economic development tool to boot, all Baltimore can brag about so far is an intermittent series of path pieces that dot the waterfront like a strip of Morse code.

Thirty years and millions of dollars after its conception, the promenade faces an uncertain future. It has no dedicated funding source, no one is accountable for its look or maintenance, and no one can say when it might be completed.

Though officials have called the walkway 90 percent done since 1997, it's clear the end will not come this year. Or next. And probably not even the year after that.

As for the parts that exist, tourists and city residents largely bypass them because the path is neither advertised nor marked.

Still, Mayor Martin O'Malley's staff and the largely volunteer crew that labors on the Sisyphean task of promenade creation say they're closer than ever. If people have the patience to wait out construction on a few key properties, they say, the mythic 7.4 miles will soon enough be solid-brick reality.

"I think we've made progress and there's more progress to be made," O'Malley says.

"We're right on the edge of really dramatic progress," agrees John Kellett, director of the Baltimore Waterfront Promenade Partnership, a nonprofit aligned with the Living Classrooms Foundation. "Most every site has funding in place and a design for the promenade and is on the verge of a construction schedule."

Yet he knows that's not how it seems.

"For the casual promenade user," he says, "it's still choppy and hard to see where those accomplishments are. It may even seem like we've gone backward."

Early on, city fathers tied advancement of the promenade to development - only as the harbor was built out from Harborplace would the promenade grow. If the economy allowed it, the path would some day wind from the Museum of Industry in Locust Point to Canton Waterfront Park.

But with every step toward that goal - and many lean years passed with few of those - the promenade seemingly regresses, at least for a little while.

That's because when development looked distant on certain parcels, the city stepped in to lay temporary blacktop to bridge isolated pieces of the promenade. But once development finally got under way, up went fences, out went the paving, and those once-accessible parcels became off-limits for however long construction took.

With the waterfront real estate market white-hot, and much of the area a construction zone, the state of the walkway appears more fragmented than ever.

Robert Quilter, the city Planning Department's promenade point person for about 15 years, says the economic pressures that fostered the promenade's growth have also held it hostage. As developers with waterfront property take their time, deciding how to wring from it the most profit, the promenade waits.

"The promenade is at the mercy of the timing of development," Quilter says. "We haven't been able to have a domino effect, with site after site after site being developed in succession."

During urban-renewal efforts of the 1980s, the city began requiring harborfront developers, by law, to provide promenade easements. But aside from asking nicely, the city has no means to force a developer to build the walkway. And if a developer agrees to do so out of the goodness of his heart, there's no design standard to dictate his materials or layout.

That autonomy has resulted in a free-for-all of payment plans and designs. Sometimes government grabs the check (as with the original Inner Harbor segment). Sometimes the private sector pays (as with the developer of under-construction Ritz Carlton Residences). Sometimes they split the bill (as with the pending Union Wharf project in Fells Point).

"It varies from parcel to parcel and circumstance to circumstance," says Andy Frank, vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., who for the past year has coordinated Inner Harbor development.

"The whole idea," Frank adds, "is we wouldn't provide a dollar of public money if we believed it would happen without it."

Meanwhile, owners of property developed before the urban-renewal plans are grandfathered from the easement law. Though this loophole only applies to tidbits of possible promenade, it makes for a walk with a few absurd obstacles.

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