Building A Legacy

As past mayors have shaped the look of Baltimore, Dixon aims to put her stamp on developments beyond the Inner Harbor

Architecture Column

November 12, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Every mayor is the chief architect of the city - a decision-maker who not only shapes policies and strategies but also the built environment in which all else takes place.

In the 1950s, former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. worked with business leaders to create Charles Center. In the 1960s, Theodore R. McKeldin launched the effort to revitalize the Inner Harbor. In the 1970s and 1980s, William Donald Schaefer was a champion of the Inner Harbor and the Camden Yards sports complex. During the 1990s, Kurt L. Schmoke's administration tore down high-rise public housing and put a convention hotel in the Harbor East renewal area.

So how will Baltimore's newly elected mayor and first female chief executive, Sheila Dixon, put her stamp on Baltimore's physical environment? What will Dixon's legacy be in four years or more?

Interviews with Dixon and several of her advisers indicate that this mayor isn't likely to focus on just one part of town, or to become identified with only one or two building projects.

As interim mayor for the past 10 months, completing Martin O'Malley's term after he became Maryland's governor, Dixon made a number of moves that hint at the sort of city builder she will be. After winning the general election last week, she has four years to carry out what she started.

Dixon says her greatest impact is most likely to be seen in areas that weren't touched much by previous mayors but are ripe for attention now - frontiers beyond the Inner Harbor such as the Park Heights Avenue corridor, Uplands and Edmondson Avenue, the area around the old American Brewery in East Baltimore.

She would like to see Poppleton take advantage of its proximity to the University of Maryland's biopark and become "another Georgetown." She's eager to see transformation begin in Westport and other portions of the Middle Branch shoreline. She believes the area around Mondawmin Mall will benefit from the $70 million investment its owner is making there.

"Much of the focus I'm looking at is beyond the Inner Harbor," she said. "Westport, the Middle Branch, Port Covington. ... Downtown development is doing fabulously, and we want that to continue. But revitalization of city neighborhoods, that's where my focus is."

Her slogan is to make Baltimore "cleaner, greener, safer and healthier."

"She has always been a very strong neighborhood person" with "good instincts" about development issues, said M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. "She doesn't hesitate to make decisions. She doesn't mind changing course. That's what you want in a decision-maker."

On Dixon's watch, Baltimore will launch a number of initiatives that aren't particularly flashy but that have the potential to transform the city nevertheless. They include the first effort in 35 years to rewrite the city's zoning codes and a campaign to promote affordable housing.

Dixon wants to build schools to anchor neighborhoods, reconstitute a public art commission, improve older parks such as Rash Field and create new ones. She wants to see the city's mass transit system improve, strengthen connections between college campuses and double the city's "tree canopy." She wants city neighborhoods to be in a good position to capture many of the up to 60,000 jobs said to be coming to Maryland under the military base realignment and closure process.

Beyond the harbor

In some ways, Dixon has a luxury other mayors didn't have because so much groundwork was laid by previous administrations, said Douglas McCoach, the city's planning director. As a result, there's not just one or two areas to focus on, he said.

"The work we've done in the '60s and '70s and '80s and '90s was wildly successful in terms of the waterfront," McCoach said. "Now we have to move outward and beyond the Inner Harbor."

It's a different process than focusing on one structure or district at a time, he said. The goal "is not building monuments in the traditional sense. It's not like building an aquarium. It's creating a broad platform for the health and renewal of the entire city."

Much of this mayor's challenge will be filling in missing pieces throughout the city that are needed to create connections and make the city work better, McCoach said. In the area of public transportation, for example, the proposed Red Line from West Baltimore to Fells Point and proposed improvements to the West Baltimore MARC station could make a big difference in how people travel, he said.

McCoach said the city will be working to redevelop brownfields - former industrial sites that are ready for new uses, such as the former General Motors plant on Broening Highway and the former Allied Signal chromium property near Fells Point. It is promoting "transit-oriented" developments such as Clipper Mill and construction around the state office complex on Preston Street.

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