Pratt Street as we know it might be nearing the end of the road.
City agencies are appealing to experts who think they can change the look and feel of one of downtown Baltimore's main thoroughfares from bland and unapproachable to dynamic and engaging -- and hoping the possibility of winning $25,000 will persuade them to pour on the originality.
"We want to have the benefit of choosing from the most creative plans," Baltimore Development Corp.'s Andy Frank said yesterday. "We think [the money] will attract interest and more creative ideas."
For years, critics have targeted Pratt Street, which runs past the Baltimore Convention Center, Inner Harbor and some of the city's main attractions, lamenting its lack of personality and preponderance of grassy berms.
The berms, critics say, are more obstacle than invitation -- totally inappropriate for a street that's essentially the city's threshold.
"We convened 40 stakeholders in March" to brainstorm about Pratt Street, said Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler. "All of them were supportive of the berms coming down."
The Downtown Partnership and the BDC, along with the city's planning and transportation departments, have teamed up to sponsor the design contest and each is donating $25,000 -- which will go to each of the four teams that make the city's short list.
The city hopes to choose a winner in February for what would be a multimillion-dollar job likely to take years to complete.
The target area is the 16 blocks of Pratt stretching from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard east to President Street.
The goal is to find a team of professionals -- experts in urban design, landscape architecture, traffic flow and retail -- that can collaborate to devise a plan to refresh the public spaces all along the corridor.
The city is open to ideas -- the more creative, the better. Though new landscaping is an option, miniparks, pedestrian trails, shopping kiosks, street entertainment and public art displays are all possibilities.
"We're looking at this as an opportunity to create Baltimore's version of the Magnificent Mile," Frank said, referring to downtown Chicago's famed Michigan Avenue. "Right now, we've got a lot of dead space."
Thirty years ago, as the Inner Harbor was being redeveloped into a tourist attraction, Pratt Street was tagged to be Baltimore's one true boulevard. But in the fashion of the time, planners designed the corridor to keep pedestrians far from the noise and fumes of cars.
That's the reason for the 5-foot-tall grassy knolls along the street, and that's why some of the buildings are set back as much as 80 feet from the street.
The berms have been a particular issue for Fowler, he said, since last summer when a woman was attacked near the federal courthouse.
BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie agrees that people don't feel safe walking between the berms and the buildings, hidden from the street traffic.
"There's an off-putting aspect to people lingering there and sipping booze out of paper bags, making it not so comfortable for other people," Brodie said
The BDC will accept applications until Nov. 13, then narrow the field to about six teams. After interviews, a panel will select the four teams that will receive $25,000 and a chance to sketch out a more complete plan.
The decision-makers will include Brodie, Fowler, Planning Director Otis Rolley III and Cyril Paumier, the founder of an urban design firm who wrote Creating a Vibrant City Center.
Klaus Philipsen, co-chairman of the urban design committee for the American Institute of Architects' Baltimore chapter, said he might compete for the job.
"The question is, `How can we use this extra width we have there?'" said Philipsen, who also owns the firm ArchPlan. "And how can we use the area occupied by the berms to create a lively urban boulevard?"
Brendan McHugh, who manages the office building at 750 E. Pratt and is eager to lose what he calls the "rat-infested berms," calls the design contest "an excellent idea."
"I'm very interested to see what someone with a good imagination will come up with," he said. "I really hope this goes through."