The current discussion about building a new downtown arena is intriguing, but it has not focused on an even more promising opportunity: the chance for Baltimore to create a great new downtown park and anchor for economic development.
Baltimore could follow the lead of resurgent cities like New York, Boston and Chicago, which have created or rejuvenated dynamic urban parks, attracting businesses, people and major private investment in downtown redevelopment. If we relocate the arena between Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, Baltimore should seize the opportunity and create a new park to occupy the current arena site. The park would reach eastward through a rejuvenated Hopkins Plaza and connect to Charles Street. Planners could also reinvigorate the area between Liberty Street and Park Avenue, currently occupied by abandoned buildings, by extending the park north to Lexington Street.
Such a park would serve to link the thriving area around the University of Maryland, the Hippodrome Theatre and, eventually, a relocated Everyman Theatre with the Central Business District.
The value of great urban parks is hard to overstate. We have seen it in Baltimore, with a strengthened Patterson Park serving as a major catalyst for redevelopment around it. In New York, consider the effect of lively Union and Madison squares; in Boston, the enormous benefit of Boston Common and the Public Garden; or in Chicago, the energy generated by Millennium Park.
Union Square, for example, was once a less-than-desirable area just north of Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Today, rents around the park are two to three times higher than they were in the 1990s, and it has become the place to be for many of the fast-growing companies that are fueling the new economy. The area's resurgence began with a popular farmers' market and the opening of a Whole Foods Market, followed by the opening of stores including Filene's Basement, Forever 21 and Trader Joe's. Pedestrian traffic around Union Square has increased 59 percent between 2003 and 2008, while ground-floor vacancies are extremely low.
What factors feed into the success of such spaces? They include high pedestrian traffic; retail and food options; a public transportation hub; and a confluence of residents, office workers and students. A park around Baltimore's current arena site would benefit from the neighborhood's growing number of young professionals, great nearby attractions and unique architecture. Street life generated by events at the new arena would add to the area's vibrancy and entice office workers to linger downtown after the workday.
The park could include a great transit center providing direct connections to the Metro Subway, light rail, Charm City Circulator, the planned Red Line, and a bus center. Visitors could safely choose from among the growing number of cultural and entertainment options in the area. Appealing transit centers are a proven factor in the success of transit-oriented development.
Such a park wouldn't be simply a grassy field. It would include attractions such as concerts and seasonal stalls for a farmer's market, flea market and holiday-oriented shopping. It should have fountains, public art or both and would draw in people to eat, read, shop or simply people-watch.
A well-developed space would also attract new offices, residences and stores. It's easy to picture both residents and visitors sitting outside at restaurants facing the park. Property values would soar and job opportunities would grow.
With the Everyman Theatre scheduled to move across the street from the Hippodrome, and with successful new entrants ultimately needing permanent space, the area adjacent to the park could become a new theater district. Adding a successful charter school to complement an appealing park and strong transportation options could turn the area into Baltimore's next great downtown neighborhood.
More broadly, a great west-side park would connect the area with a resurgent downtown business district. If successful, such a project would essentially close a gap and lead to Baltimore having an economically strong zone stretching from Martin Luther King Boulevard east through downtown, the Inner Harbor, Little Italy, Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton. This wide swath of economic vitality would create an urban core that could ultimately spread across Baltimore, attracting the businesses and residents necessary to a thriving city.
Baltimore's elected and civic leaders should seize this moment and begin a thoughtful process for developing a world-class park in downtown Baltimore.
Tom Wilcox is the president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.