Architects return to bring charm to Charles North


Architecture Column

October 01, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The last time they worked in Baltimore, the architects of BTA+ were crafting one of the city's most high-profile projects - the Harborplace shopping pavilions that helped rejuvenate the Inner Harbor.

Now they've been selected to recommend ways to revitalize another part of town - the 100-acre Charles North urban renewal area between Penn Station and Charles Village.

The commission represents the first time the Massachusetts-based firm has been hired to work in Baltimore since the waterfront marketplace opened in 1980, and it marks a reunion of sorts for several team members.

This time, there is no Jim Rouse as developer-client, no William Donald Schaefer as mayor. The project is different in scope - recommending ways to revitalize a large district, rather than designing specific buildings. But the architects say they can employ many of the same strategies that made Harborplace successful to enliven the area north of the train station.

They also plan to draw on their experience designing mixed-use developments in and around train stations and other landmarks, including Union Station in Washington and Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

"We haven't done a project in Baltimore ... since Harborplace," said Philip Loheed, the BTA+ principal and Baltimore native who will lead the design team. "But we have a lot of ties to Baltimore. We have done a lot of consensus building over the years. We know the potential of the neighborhood is very real."

The Baltimore Development Corp. announced last month that it selected a team headed by BTA+ of Cambridge, Mass., and Matrix Settles of Arlington, Va., and Annapolis to come up with a "vision and physical development plan" that will guide revitalization of the area bounded roughly by 21st Street on the north, St. Paul Street on the east, Howard Street and Falls Road on the west and the Jones Falls Expressway on the south.

The study will cost about $200,000 and will be used by city leaders and private property owners to improve the area. Other team members include retail specialist Lehr Jackson; market analyst Eric Evans, and landscape architect Mahan Rykiel Associates. The team was selected over five others that expressed interest in the project, including groups headed by EDAW, Ayers Saint Gross, Hord Coplan Macht, ArchPlan and Morris & Ritchie.

Charles North is an important commission for BTA+, which has been working to re-energize itself since its founder's 1993 retirement.

BTA+ started in 1966 as Benjamin Thompson & Associates and designed not only Harborplace, but South Street Seaport in New York, Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and Riverwalk in New Orleans. It practically invented the "festival marketplace" as a building type in the 1980s and 1990s, and was in high demand during those years. In 1987, it was named the American Institute of Architects' Firm of the Year, and Thompson received the AIA's Gold Medal in 1992. After Thompson's retirement, the firm was renamed BTA Architects and is now called BTA+. It has a staff of seven, down from more than 100 in its festival-market heyday.

Loheed said the firm learned about the project from Matrix Settles, with which it has begun collaborating at the suggestion of Lehr Jackson, a former partner of Williams Jackson Ewing, a consulting firm created by alumni of the Rouse Co., the developer of Harborplace and one of Thompson's biggest clients.

Loheed, 64, said BTA+ was intrigued by the challenge and believed it could bring its expertise in rejuvenating urban areas, particularly those anchored by train stations. One of its past projects, he said, was a revitalization plan for 40 square blocks of central Manhattan for the Grand Central Partnership. It also has extensive experience in adaptive reuse of old buildings - another plus for an area filled with structures such as the old Parkway Theater and the North Avenue Market.

"Charles North," he said, "is a classic example of what is called transit-oriented development" - a district that can be planned around a transit hub such as a train station or light rail stop.

Loheed said he and other team members want to explore and promote "micro investment" strategies that would permit the area to be improved "parcel by parcel or building by building."

He said the team also wants to develop a plan that incorporates the latest thinking about environmentally friendly design, because that will help the area draw young people.

"Young people today will be attracted to an area if it's sensitive to the planet as well as other ideas they are working on," he said.

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