Renovation would make Mount Vernon Place realize its potential

February 07, 2011|By Henry H. Hopkins

Conforming to the highest standards of planning for a truly remarkable and nationally recognized historic landmark, the "Master Plan for the Renovation and Revitalization of Mount Vernon Place" culminates 10 years of a community-driven effort. The draft plan, designed by Olin Partnership, a leading U.S. urban landscape design and preservation firm, offers a vision for Mount Vernon Place to realize its full potential as a world-class urban public space.

Located in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, a National Historic Landmark District, Mount Vernon Place is the cultural heart of Baltimore. The Peabody Conservatory, the Walters Art Museum and the Engineers Club and Mount Vernon Club frame the four squares; the soaring Washington Monument is at the center. Regrettably, these prominent and underutilized public squares suffer from years of substandard landscaping and deferred maintenance, evidenced by the significant deterioration of the marble balustrades, fountain basins, retaining walls, sidewalks and other architectural elements.

In partnership with Baltimore City, the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, founded by engaged citizens from the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and Friends of Mount Vernon Place, seeks to change this by improving landscaping and maintenance in the short term and securing funds in the longer term for the park's phased restoration. Although a conservancy is new to Baltimore, the concept of nongovernmental organizations taking on the role of improving the experience of prominent public spaces is not. The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has drastically improved the Inner Harbor's public spaces, as has the Downtown Partnership, which led the restoration of Center Plaza.

Today, the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) will take up the Mount Vernon Place master plan. With CHAP approval, the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy can begin raising funds to launch a phased restoration of the park, including the repair and reopening of the Washington Monument to the public. We are pleased that the master plan has broad support; yet, as with many plans that involve change, there is often disagreement. In this case, there is objection to Olin Partnership's recommendation to remove and replant approximately 100 trees.

We acknowledge and respect the views of those who prefer an alternative to tree replacement and welcome their interest in Mount Vernon Place; however, we must agree to disagree with their point of view. On balance, the tree replacement plan would produce important functional, aesthetic and historic benefits. We note that transformative projects in major public spaces in Baltimore — such as War Memorial Plaza, Center Plaza, the Pratt Street berms, and the Charles Street streetscaping — removed and replaced every tree, producing attractive, safe and active public spaces. In Mount Vernon Place, some trees are dead or dying, others were recently planted and can be relocated, and several obstruct historic views. The interior trees need to be replaced in order to install perimeter sidewalks and to install underground utilities, irrigation, electrical conduit and healthy soils. These critical improvements will make the park accessible to a wider community, ensure the long-term health and vitality of the revitalized landscape and respect the historic integrity and vision of the square's designers.

The conservancy has proposed a series of measures in response to the concern about replacing trees. First, the number of replacement trees will match or exceed the number of trees removed. Second, replacement trees will be 25-30 feet high, and with 8-inch trunks, providing an immediate shade canopy. Third, planting will occur in a state-of-the-art process, for example, removing and replacing contaminated soil to ensure longevity. Fourth, no tree removal will occur until funding is in place to restore a complete square. Fifth, the conservancy will phase in restoration to allow the city and public to judge the benefits for themselves. Finally, we would like to formalize a standing committee with representatives of groups opposed to tree replacement. We believe that the only way to find compromise is to keep talking.

The restoration of Mount Vernon Place is not inevitable. Absent a group like the conservancy to remain vigilant and advocate for its interest over the long term, the benign neglect will continue unabated. With limited resources, Baltimore City has done what it can to maintain the park, but our partnership can achieve a higher level of care. The conservancy is ready to move forward. We look forward to expanding our partnership to create a great urban space worthy of the neighborhood, institutions and city in which this national treasure is so prominently located.

Henry H. Hopkins, president of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, is retired chief legal counsel for T. Rowe Price Associates. His e-mail is henry.hopkins03@gmail.com.

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