With its logjam of chain restaurants, kitschy knick-knack vendors and congested tourist haunts, Baltimore's Inner Harbor, acclaimed as it might be, sorely lacks a spot where things are not.
Tranquillity is just not one of the main attractions.
However, a long-anticipated renovation of Rash Field, an underwhelming mish-mash on the harbor's southern side, could transform a significant swath of the waterfront into a 9-acre park with sweeping fields for picnicking, shaded promenades, water features and an educational playground for kids, and with a fenced-in area where dogs could run leash-free.
The overhaul would enlarge the park and eliminate an unsightly parking garage near the Rusty Scupper and a parking lot outside the Maryland Science Center. It would also hide a 600-car underground parking garage. The architects hope to finish the project by fall 2009.
"It's going to be the green anchor," said Thomas Balsley, the landscape architect for the project.
"It's going to be a pretty powerful statement about the city and the promise it made its citizens. The Inner Harbor isn't just ice cream cones and beer."
The park, which opened in 1976, includes such features as beach volleyball courts, a trapeze school and a merry-go-round. Getting to it from Federal Hill requires cutting through a parking lot and maintenance area for the Science Center.
Architect Steve Ziger, whose firm is working on the project with Balsely, said the area's main problem is that people don't consider it a park. "It's leftover space," he said.
The architects want the revamped area to complement the Inner Harbor's parade of commerce that lures visitors to the city and to be a place where residents can throw down a blanket and enjoy their waterfront.
"We want to believe it's got something for everyone, and all of those somethings are going to add up to an extraordinary urban park," said Balsley, whose firm also redesigned neighboring West Shore Park.
Ziger said, "The Inner Harbor has a lot of stuff going on. This is one site in which we have an opportunity to have an openness and a civic garden, a bit of a reprieve."
The plan calls for replacing the disjointed and concrete-heavy area with a cohesive park that is largely green. Awkward entrances would become welcoming gateways with pathways that beckon to the harbor.
The park would slope toward the water from Key Highway, a layered topography including gardens, lawns and terraces.
Most of the park would be a vast lawn where the city could stage festivals or people could picnic or kick a soccer ball.
Along the current brick promenade, which follows the shoreline, there would be a "garden promenade," a path sheltered by shade trees with covered pavilions interspersed.
On the western end, near the Science Center, would be a science garden, an interactive outdoor exhibit for children.
"If you walk around the Inner Harbor from the Rusty Scupper to Harbor East, you're not going to find a lot for children to engage," says Andy Frank, deputy mayor for development. "I think that would complete the experience in the Inner Harbor."
Balsley said, "It will become this unbelievable, unique, distinctive location for children. Even on the weekends, parents will drive their kids in for this science play."
The beach volleyball courts and trapeze would be moved to the park's eastern edge.
Along the park's Key Highway edge would be a 300-foot-long, fenced-in area where pets would be able to run and play amid boulders and bushes while their owners relaxed on benches.
Balsley said the space for pets is a crucial urban amenity that Baltimore lacks.
"Dogs are a very important element in the revitalization of our downtowns," he said. "Young urban professionals with double incomes are coming along with singles and the empty-nesters, and guess what, they all come with dogs.
"It gives dog owners a place to meet each other in the city. Nothing is more important than building those social connections and those neighborhood connections."
There would be room for the merry-go-round.
The Pride of Baltimore Memorial, which honors those who were killed when the city's clipper ship capsized and sank in 1986 near Puerto Rico, might be moved to West Shore Park.
The garden installed by Kawasaki, Japan, one of Baltimore's sister cities, would be re-created in the new park.
"We worked very hard to accommodate the programs without compromising the overall design of the park," Ziger said.
The architects based their design on meetings with community leaders in the Federal Hill area. Ziger said people applauded after being shown the finished sketches recently.
"If this comes to pass, God, it would be exciting," said Paul Robinson, founder of Friends of Federal Hill Park. "We love everything we've seen so far. ... What a huge improvement. An ingenious design."
The underground parking garage would be paid for with $25 million in parking bonds. No money is budgeted for the extensive park renovations, however, and city officials will be looking for local and state grants, and contributions from foundations and private companies.
The money situation worries Federal Hill residents, who are otherwise enthusiastic about the plan.
"It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the neighborhood association to support the project until a source of funding ... is not only earmarked but in place," Robinson said. "Get all your ducks in line before you break ground, you know what I'm saying?"