Making Pratt Street more people friendly

Study group ponders adding walkways, stores to major downtown thoroughfare


Pratt Street could be to downtown Baltimore what Michigan Avenue is to Chicago or what 5th Avenue is to New York, a signature street full of street-level shops, outdoor cafes, street performers and even mass transit, a local planning group believes.

Redesigned some 40 years ago as part of the Inner Harbor redevelopment with grassy berms meant to separate pedestrians from cars, noise and exhaust fumes, Pratt Street instead has evolved into a main thoroughfare with little to attract foot traffic, said members of the group, which gathered yesterday for a planning charrette led by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

The Downtown Partnership wanted to generate ideas to present to city officials in advance of a major project now in the planning stages to revamp Pratt.

The project is expected to start within the next two years.

Pratt Street needs a uniform theme, a more consistent appearance and improved access for pedestrians, the group concluded during a four-hour session at the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor

"It needs a reason to walk down other than baseball games," said Adam Carballo, a designer with the architecture firm RTKL Associates Inc.

"You don't walk down Pratt Street for enjoyment. There's nothing for you to do. It's a large highway going through our city," Carballo said.

Some of the ideas reflect a change in urban planning philosophy from when the Inner Harbor was first redeveloped, architects said.

Rather than trying to separate uses, such as areas for walking with skywalks and areas for cars, today's approach stresses mixing uses to enliven downtowns and streetscapes beyond business hours.

The group agreed that the time has come to do away with the decades-old grassy berm dividers that dot Pratt Street from Paca Street on the west to President Street on the east.

The berms, which are up to 6 feet high with trees, flowers and some benches, have instead become foreboding places, members of the group said. Great expanses of the street have no street-level shops or other activity, making the night-time street appear dark and unsafe, they said.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, who moderated yesterday's charrette, said the berms have also become a collecting place for trash and have had the unintended effect of directing streams of pedestrians into the narrower part of the walkway closer to cars zipping down Pratt, rather than to areas closer to buildings.

Some ideas

Ideas floated by participants, who broke into five teams, included building two- to three-story structures closer to the street for permanent or temporary shops or restaurants, placing retail kiosks in unused space and promoting first-floor retail in existing space.

Planners also hoped to encourage street performers and vendors to set up along the sidewalk. Some of those ideas are in the works already; for instance General Growth, owner of the Gallery mall on Pratt Street, is considering a plan to build out more retail space closer to the street, Fowler said.

To make walking and crossing the street easier to navigate, some planners suggested creating new and more visible crosswalks, slowing down traffic, removing skywalks that keep pedestrians off the sidewalks, making the street two-way or allowing a lane for street parking.

Others suggested creating better signage to direct drivers to garages with available space. Some of these ideas, such as switching to two-way traffic or eliminating the S curve on northbound Light at Pratt, have been talked about and studied in the past.

`Easy to walk'

"It should be easy to walk, safe to walk and an exciting place to walk," said Ed Hord, of Hord Coplan Macht Inc.

One team suggested Pratt should be able to offer several different types of experiences for the pedestrian by planning its design in sections, from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Greene Street, from Greene to the harbor, from the harbor to President Street, then from President to Central Avenue.

Now, said Bryce A. Turner, president and chief executive officer of Brown Craig Turner architects, "Pratt Street seems to be designed for the evacuation of Baltimore."

Fowler said he intends to take ideas from yesterday's four-hour session to city planning, transportation and economic development officials in hopes of coming up with specific amendments to the urban renewal plan governing the Inner Harbor area. Amendments would require approval by the City Council.

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