Oasis in the heart of the city

Concrete-heavy Center Plaza transformed into inviting public space

Critical eye

October 07, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

If Baltimore wants to get more people to live and work downtown, it needs a greater variety of stores, better restaurants, more to see and do in general. It also needs more attractive public spaces - not just passageways between office towers, but inviting parks and plazas where people will want to linger, meet friends, and get some fresh air, after work and on weekends.

Toward that end, the city took a giant step in the right direction with the recently completed, $7.5-million makeover of Center Plaza, a once-barren open space that has been transformed to an oasis of greenery in the heart of downtown.

Dedicated last month after six years of design and construction, the 3-acre park shows what planners can do when they get serious about improving the quality of life in the city. In many ways, it's a prototype for the way downtown Baltimore can and should reinvent itself to be more vibrant, livable and welcoming.

The transformation of Center Plaza grew out of a design competition sponsored in 2002 by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit corporation that works to make center city a better place for businesses, employees, residents and visitors.

Aware that downtown is becoming more of a mixed-use neighborhood as older office buildings are converted to apartments and hotels, the partnership's leaders sought ideas for improving the public realm.

They placed a high priority on transforming Center Plaza because it was one of two public spaces created as part of Charles Center, the 33-acre district where downtown's redevelopment started in the 1950s, and had fallen into disrepair. Located north of Fayette Street between Charles and Liberty streets - actually the roof of an underground garage - it's an important link between the center city, the west side and Charles Street, with more than 8,100 office workers, 1,800 apartments and 1,500 hotel rooms within a one-block radius.

Center Plaza had also fallen out of fashion as public spaces go. When it opened in 1970, it was seen as a model of urban design - a no-nonsense public space that was considered clean, modern, easy to maintain. But the abundance of concrete also made it feel cold and austere - a common flaw of 1970s-era architecture. With little greenery and few amenities, it came to be regarded as drab, lifeless, in need of an overhaul. In targeting Center Plaza for a makeover, the partnership was seeking to renew the area where Baltimore's downtown renewal began.

The winner of the competition was a team that included landscape architect Mahan Rykiel Associates, architect Brown Craig Turner; and civil engineer Rummel Klepper and Kahl, all of Baltimore; and Biederman Redevelopment Ventures of Chappaqua, N.Y., an urban management consultant best known for the much-acclaimed revival of Bryant Park in Manhattan.

This team envisioned Center Plaza as both an outdoor living room for Charles Center and a crossroads linking the surrounding areas. Team members proposed transforming Center Plaza with a mix of grass, flowers, trees and other features that were never part of the minimalist 1970s design, including a new stairway and sculptural glass canopy to connect Center Plaza with Charles Plaza to the north. They recommended filling the green space with portable chairs that people could arrange as they want, as visitors do in Bryant Park. In short, they wanted to change the area from hardscape to softscape, from an urban plaza to an urban park.

The completed project lost some of the architectural features proposed in the competition, including the stairway. But it kept the essence of the plan - replacement of the concrete plaza with a lawn, flowers and trees. The lawn is subdivided by two crushed-stone pathways that crisscross the space, marking "desire lines" that follow the way people naturally walk through the area.

One of the most noticeable changes is the introduction of a raised plant bed and series of nine fountains and steps along Fayette Street. They enclose the south end of the park while reducing traffic noise. With this buffer in place, Center Plaza doesn't bleed out into Fayette Street the way it did before. It feels more like a destination unto itself, rather than a place to pass through.

Much of the projects' success is due to the attention to detail on the part of the landscape architects, including Scott Rykiel, Joe Burkhardt and Brian Reetz. They defined the ground plane with paving materials that impart a human scale, and plants that add color and texture. Sections of lawn are outlined by handsome granite borders. Each fountain gives off a low spray of water that adds visual interest, and each has a small, shallow bowl that discourages people from trying to get in the water.

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