It would hardly have seemed possible several weeks ago, judging by the amount of work still to be done, but Baltimore's newest waterfront park is on schedule to open this month.
West Shore Park, under construction between the Maryland Science Center and the wavy-roofed Visitor Center, will be the setting for the Baltimore Waterfront Festival April 27-30.
The event, expected to draw 300,000 people, will mark the first use of the 2.5-acre stretch of shoreline since work began in August on a $2 million reconstruction.
City officials timed the reopening of the park to coincide with the Waterfront Festival because the event provided a firm deadline for contractors and gives Baltimore a chance to show off its newest amenity to a wide audience.
The centerpiece of the festival is the Baltimore-Annapolis leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, a sailing contest that draws participants from around the world. It's also a showcase for exhibitors celebrating the Chesapeake Bay and activities on Baltimore's waterfront.
"We're thrilled that the park is going to have world-class exposure" starting with its first event, said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the agency coordinating the festival.
The park replaces a "temporary" parking lot that had been in operation since Harborplace opened in 1980. Thomas Balsley Associates of New York is the lead designer, with Hord Coplan Macht of Baltimore also on the design team.
Improving the west shore was one of the recommendations made in 2003 by designers hired to update the city's master plan to guide harbor redevelopment. The Baltimore Development Corp. and Department of Recreation and Parks subsequently commissioned Balsley and Hord Coplan Macht to design a flexible gathering place that could be used both as a spot for quiet contemplation and more active uses, such as festivals.
The design called for the elimination of a surface parking lot and several small buildings on the western shore. In their place will be a large lawn with unobstructed views of the harbor, Federal Hill and the downtown skyline. The lawn will be about 3 feet above the Inner Harbor promenade, and its eastern edge will include steps that can double as seats facing the harbor's edge. The north, west and south sides of the lawn will be framed by areas with shade trees and flower beds to provide seasonal color. The lawn itself will be slightly irregular in shape, suggesting a degree of informality.
One change is that a one-story building targeted for removal in the Balsley plan has been left in place. It previously housed the city harbormaster's office and a police department substation, both of which have moved to a spot near Rash Field. It now houses the ticket office for Harbor Cruises, a private company that operates the Bay Lady, Lady Baltimore and Prince Charming cruise ships.
In addition, several aspects of the original design have been deferred until money is available, including a bandshell and a fountain with "dancing jets" of water.
According to Tracy Baskerville, a spokeswoman for the Office of Promotion and the Arts, contractors are scheduled to turn the park over to the city on April 21. Public agencies will then have six days to set up tents and prepare other areas for use during the Waterfront Festival. After the festival, contractors will put the final touches on the park. All work is to be complete by the Fourth of July.
West Shore Park is one of several that the city is building or refurbishing in or close to downtown. Others include the new park on Pier 3 that serves as a forecourt to the recently expanded National Aquarium, the Baltimore Immigration Memorial and Liberty Garden planned for Locust Point, the renovation of Center Plaza in Charles Center and a new round of plantings for Hopkins Plaza.
Landscape architect Carol Macht, a principal with Hord Coplan Macht, said she is pleased to see West Shore Park nearing completion and excited about what it will offer.
"It's the front door to the city. That's what's so wonderful about it," she said. "It works well with the visitor center and the science center, in the sense that it isn't traditional looking. The forms are very fresh and simple and strong. There will be myriad places to perch, which I think will be fun. It's going to be great for people-watching."