Center Plaza plan imagines a patch of green downtown

Work begins on project to create `a front yard' for area buildings


In the 1960s, Center Plaza, a 3-acre concrete swath in downtown Baltimore, was called a paragon of modern urban development. It bore an industrially simple form that is now considered uninviting,

After nearly four years of setbacks, disputes and funding shortfalls, the redesign of Center Plaza is under way. Project planners said yesterday that the plaza's transformation from a gray space to a verdant park embroidered with shade trees and segmented by promenades will cost about $7.4 million and take 14 months to complete.

The plaza, just west of Charles Street and north of Fayette Street, bridges the core business district and the west side of downtown. As a common ground to several businesses, condominiums and apartments, the new, greener plaza will act as a buffer.

"We're looking at a backyard. We want it to become a front yard," Mayor Martin O'Malley said at the groundbreaking yesterday. "This is going to be such a wonderful and attractive place."

The state and the city each pitched in $2 million for the project. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings helped secure a $600,000 federal grant from the Department of Transportation. The remaining cost was covered by three contributions of nearly $1 million from Orioles owner and lawyer Peter G. Angelos, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Southern Management Corp., a regional developer that has invested more than $150 million in Baltimore properties.

Center Plaza was hailed when it was first built as a tranquil oval gathering space that, along with two other courtyards, was described in a 1970 Sun article as awaiting "human use, which hopefully will give new life to the city" that the writer described as often "devoid of simple joy."

The Baltimore Downtown Partnership, which manages the plaza, wants to capture that joy with its plans from 2002 for redesigning the plaza to make it more appealing and attractive for residents.

The overhaul under way was supposed to have begun in 2003, after the Downtown Partnership announced that the project would be jointly financed by city, state, federal and private contributions. But it has been hampered by problems.

David Hillman, president of Southern Management, said that putting the project together was like "getting lions and tigers in a cage together."

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, likened the project to a Whack-A-Mole game, with problems that kept popping up. Now that construction has begun, he said, "There are no moles popping up, but I tell you I'm going to keep [a mallet] handy."

The first time the project stalled in 2003 was when the city considered shaving its contribution to $1 million. Angelos, members of the Downtown Partnership and representatives from businesses around the plaza interpreted the city's flagging support as retribution for having opposed a bid to place billboards on the 1st Mariner Arena. The mayor's office said at the time that the city couldn't afford $2 million because of a shortfall in state funding.

In 2004, the state Department of Legislative Services introduced another obstacle. Complaining of a tight budget, the department recommended that $400,000 of the state's $2 million pledge to Center Plaza be withheld. Then-president of the Baltimore Downtown Partnership, Michele Whelley, successfully lobbied two state committees, House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation, to keep the pledge intact.

The Downtown Partnership was stymied again in February 2005, this time by the owner of a parking garage beneath the plaza. Construction plans include peeling back a thick layer of concrete, beneath which lies a waterproof membrane that separates the garage from the plaza. Fearing that the garage's roof would be damaged, Edison Properties, the garage's owner, asked for $750,000 to ensure that construction practices were "sound."

Instead of placating Edison, the Downtown Partnership ceded managerial control of the project to the city, which has rights to an easement on the plaza. That meant construction could begin without Edison's consent.

Meanwhile, the price of the project rose, from $5.6 million to $7.4 million. Even with construction beginning, planners retain a healthy skepticism.

"Building projects always have to be baby-sat. Something is always going wrong," said Sister Helen Amos, chairwoman of the Downtown Partnership. "But this project is another dimension to all the great things that are happening here in Baltimore."

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