Hotel's flawed design will harm city

March 27, 2006|By GORDON T. INGERSON, KLAUS PHILIPSEN AND GIL THOMAS

Camden Yards is like a great blues tune. It assimilates the untidy reality of its place and time yet manages to transcend these to express something of the soul of Baltimore. It is one of those extremely rare settings where our physical and cultural worlds complement each other in a fascinating if imperfect harmony.

This bit of urban design magic was the result of the chutzpah of a few individuals with a vision who managed to prevail despite a decidedly un-magical process. Our city now possesses a national icon for which many have hastened to take credit.

Unfortunately, no one has volunteered to shoulder the burden of producing a convention center hotel that is worthy of this legacy. While earnest efforts have been made on all sides, the mundane details seem to have overwhelmed any desire to add another voice to the previous performance, although the cues are in plain sight. The citizens of Baltimore deserve better.

Construction of the 19-story, 756-room hotel has begun. The architectural design received final approval from the city Dec. 22. Bonds totaling $301.7 million were sold Jan. 26 to finance the project, with the city pledging $7 million in annual hotel occupancy tax receipts to back the bonds as a means of obtaining more favorable terms. Site work by design-builder Hensel Phelps Construction is under way, and the hotel is to open in 2008.

But construction is not so far along that design changes cannot still be made that would have a dramatic impact on how the building interacts with the public spaces around it. It is not uncommon to make changes to a building's design throughout the construction phase at the request of an owner. In this case, the owner is Baltimore's citizens.

One of the most enchanting elements of the ballpark is that it participates in the street life of the city. It manages this through its remarkable permeability. A ground level arcade and an upper level promenade reduce its massiveness and invite pedestrians to become involved in both the surrounding urban energy and the spectacle of a ball game.

Eutaw Street continues through the site between the stadium proper and the historic warehouse, knitting the stadium grounds into the fabric of the neighborhood. The stadium complex faces directly onto the adjacent streets on its north, east and west sides, without the large parking lots that create a feeling of isolation at other ballparks.

This sense of connection is a critical aspect of the design that few other cities have managed to emulate and is more important to its success than the historical details that have been imitated across the country.

The interconnected exterior urban "living rooms" are a pleasure to walk through and provide a lively and attractive pedestrian environment. No one up to now has suggested eliminating or bridging over these spaces, as they are an integral part of the experience.

But in the design of the convention center hotel, the city seems to have been identified as the enemy. All open spaces are regarded as problems that must be overcome and, in most cases, bridged over rather than as assets. The extension of Eutaw Street has become a constricted passageway beneath the extensive overhanging connections between the base of the hotel proper and the ballroom wing.

Howard Street has a low-slung bridge across it between the ballrooms and the convention center that will almost entirely block this major view corridor and create a disagreeable pedestrian environment beneath it.

The space in front of Camden Station has an anomalous diagonal wall at the ballroom wing that forms an uncomfortable relationship with the historic station, focuses attention on the largely blank wall at this end of the convention center and has none of the intimate scale and detail of the station itself.

The base of the hotel is a closed box that seems impenetrable despite some areas of glass that have been inserted into the design; there are no arcades or walkways, even along Camden Street. The hotel turns its back on one of the finest urban ballparks in the country with a low, hermetically sealed utility wing.

The uses at the base of the building consist chiefly of service areas and meeting rooms, which add nothing to street activity in the area. There is little retail. The transit station proposed for the site in the block adjacent to Howard Street has been discarded, abandoning an opportunity to create a major new gateway to our city.

There are ways to avoid these urban design shortcomings and still have an efficient convention center hotel.

Imagine the equivalent in Baltimore of Pioneer Square in Portland, Ore., the renewed Campus Martius in Detroit or Dupont Circle in Washington, all of which have become gathering places and defining symbols for their cities. The bridges can be eliminated and the convention-goers brought into contact with the street life in Baltimore.

The featureless ballrooms can be buried beneath an urban square or inserted into the hotel mass on the adjacent block, as has been demonstrated in various studies.

The outdoor space at Camden Station can become another urban "room," an additional setting for the convention experience, as similar "rooms" are inseparable from the experience of a baseball game at Camden Yards. This is heresy to some convention hotel planners, but it was also heresy to build a ballpark adjacent to city streets and a historic warehouse and without a "parking moat" completely surrounding it.

Oriole Park is direct physical evidence of the power of good urban design to transform a city for the better. Flawed urban design has an equal and opposite power. It's time to step up to the plate.

Gordon T. Ingerson is a member of the AIA Baltimore Urban Design Committee and Klaus Philipsen and Gil Thomas are its co-chairs. Their e-mails are gingerson@grantarchitects.com, kphilipsen@archplan.com and gilt@marks-thomas.com.

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