Aquarium, project demolition a contrast of Baltimores

Urban Chronicle

August 10, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

This week, I attended two events within two hours - and two miles - of each other in the two Baltimores.

Yes, one was in the middle of the Baltimore of glittering waterfront development and the other in the Baltimore of depressing urban decay.

But the contrast was deeper than that.

One was of a vision exceeded; the other, of a concept just now showing nascent signs of being realized.

At noon Tuesday, I went to a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the National Aquarium - and a dedication of a new waterfront park in front of its entrance.

The celebration was marked by a steel band, a costumed puffin and a fish-shaped cake.

What once was derisively dismissed as a "fish tank" by detractors who thought the money could be better used on what even then were the city's many obvious social needs, has become more a source of economic stimulus.

Now a complex of three buildings, it has become an iconic symbol not only of the Inner Harbor and the city but of urban redevelopment and a magnet that has drawn about 37 million visitors in its history.

Twenty-five years ago, few foresaw the waterfront as it is today, with development extending to Harbor East, Canton and beyond and across the harbor to Locust Point.

For those chafing at the seemingly slow pace of revitalization around the city, it might be worth noting that the aquarium's opening came nearly five years after city voters approved a $7.5 million bond issue to partially finance the building. It also came five weeks past its scheduled July 4 opening date, chosen to coincide with the first anniversary of the opening of Harborplace - prompting then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to don a Gay '90s swimsuit, clutch a rubber duck and plunge into an outdoor seal pool to make good on a pledge to take a dip if there was a delay.

Mayor Martin O'Malley took note of the aquarium's educational and environmental missions in brief remarks the day before yesterday, even as he alluded to the debate over its construction. "This is much more than a fish tank," he said.

He sounded like a disciple of the late urbanologist Jane Jacobs, when he praised the Harry & Jeannette Weinberg Waterfront Park on the plaza in front of the aquarium.

"Public spaces are one of the things that make cities vibrant," he said.

Two hours later, I went to one of a series of open houses in East Baltimore held over the past several months on a draft plan for the second phase of the huge redevelopment project centered around a biotech park north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex. The recommended final plan is scheduled to be presented at a community meeting at the end of next month.

This centerpiece of this event was a series of color-coded maps containing potential areas to be redeveloped and preserved in the 50-odd-acre second phase, though it is unclear exactly how many of the approximately 400 households might have to be relocated. Included were areas designated as possible open space, among them a complex that could include a school, playing fields and a boys and girls club.

As if to accentuate the needs of the neighborhood, belongings from an eviction were piled in the street across from East Baltimore Development Inc.'s offices and resource center at 1731 E. Chase St.

Meanwhile, more than five years after the now $1 billion effort to revitalize one of the city's most distressed areas was first proposed, signs of progress are beginning to emerge - though it takes more than a little imagination to envision the new community that has been conceived for the initial phase.

The site of the first life sciences building at Ashland Avenue and Wolfe Street, where ground was broken in the spring, is still a hole in the ground. And an area designated to include retail, new housing and open space is a breathtaking expanse of former rowhouses reduced to rubble.

Since demolition began a month ago, 378 properties have been razed, generating nearly 2,000 tons of debris, officials report. Demolition is scheduled to be completed by Halloween. By then, construction should be under way for the first new housing, a 152-unit complex containing low-income and senior apartments.

Edward Livingston, 72, a retiree who lives in the project's second phase and attended a housing meeting after the open house, is noncommittal when asked to assess what's going on around him.

"I can't say," he said. "Right now, I'm in limbo. I'm looking and seeing what's happening."

Still, questions - many of them raised by the Save Middle East Community Action Committee - remain, about the project's first and second phase. Among them are whether the anticipated 6,000 jobs will be created, whether enough low-income housing will be created and how many displaced former residents will return.

The most fundamental questions are these: A quarter of a century or so from now, will there be cause for an anniversary celebration, in this case for that of a new community? And if so, what kind of community will it be?

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