Stepping Into The Future

New geographical boundaries for an expanded Artscape open the door to a developing part of the city

July 21, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

If necessity is the mother of invention, then Baltimore was a major beneficiary last weekend, as organizers of the annual Artscape festival took a pressing need for more space and turned it into a creative way to promote an emerging arts district.

This year's new, expanded layout reinvigorated the 27-year-old event - billed as America's largest free public arts festival - by providing room for a wider range of activities that gave people more to see and do than ever.

The expanded mix of activities, in turn, brought more people to the 100-acre Station North Arts and Entertainment District in one weekend than months of planning sessions by city agencies and consultants plotting which properties to redevelop and what uses to introduce.

One festival highlight was a new feature called the Midway, which filled the temporarily closed Charles Street Bridge across the Jones Falls Expressway with experiential and performance artists whose common goal was the exploration of ideas, rather than the sale of food or objects of art.

Years from now, the sea of people who walked across the Charles Street bridge to experience this updated take on the old-fashioned carnival midway may well be remembered as a turning point in the revitalization of midtown Baltimore, just as urban historians today remember the crowds that flocked to the refurbished Inner Harbor shoreline to view tall ships in 1976 or the beer-soaked throngs that sloshed their way along Thames Street during the initial Fells Point Fun Festivals.

It was as if the years of behind-the-scenes planning to rejuvenate the area north of Baltimore's Penn Station was a dress rehearsal and last weekend was opening night before a standing-room-only audience.

In Baltimore, city fairs and festivals have long been used to promote emerging parts of town, whether its Charles Center or Harbor East, and that's what Artscape did this year, by stretching its boundaries to include Station North, said Gabriel Kroiz, a local architect whose firm, Kroiz Architecture, played a key role in shaping the Midway.

"This is our new frontier," Kroiz said of the Station North district, as he surveyed the crowds milling around the area late last week. "That's what a festival does. It puts an area in people's imaginations" and shows the potential it has.

"By allowing more businesses, restaurants, galleries and theaters to participate, we can better highlight the diversity of this great city," said Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Two factors combined to make 2008 the year Artscape expanded to include a different part of town, after years ensconced along Mount Royal Avenue near the Maryland Institute College of Art campus.

First, the festival's producer, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, needed more land because a key parcel used in past years, a large parking lot known as Bolton Yards, had been targeted for redevelopment and was no longer available as part of the main festival grounds.

Second, stakeholders in the Station North area, which was designated a city arts and entertainment district in 2002, lobbied the city to be part of the festival's boundaries as a way of showcasing that area's offerings. Several blocks north and east of the previous Artscape turf, Station North is bounded roughly by Guilford Avenue, 20th Street, Howard Street and the railroad tracks and Jones Falls Expressway, with Charles Street and North Avenue as the major intersection.

In response, the arts agency kept the festival along Mount Royal Avenue from Lafayette Street to Maryland Avenue and then expanded it to include the 1400, 1500, 1600 and 1700 blocks of North Charles Street, which were closed to automobile traffic during the event. This stretch of Charles Street gave organizers the land they needed to replace Bolton Yards while providing the desired link to Station North.

Once the new layout was determined, the arts agency worked with Kroiz Architecture to create two temporary architectural installations to mark Charles Street as a new part of the festival grounds and main pedestrian gateway to Station North.

The closed portion of Charles Street included a bridge that crosses the railroad tracks. Rebuilt within the past 10 years, the bridge has a gradual slope that makes it pleasant to walk on, even though relatively few people ever do. The Office of Promotion and Arts was looking for a place to put its new category of experiential and performance artists and decided that the bridge would be the ideal spot, once it was closed to vehicle traffic. This midway would then lead to more activities north of the train tracks, making it the logical gateway to Station North.

Rather than simply lining the bridge with the city's standard fair booths, the arts agency asked Kroiz to create an architectural installation that would underscore that this was a new part of the festival and accentuate the bridge's symbolic gateway role.

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