'Transformative' projects eyed for Baltimore's business district

Downtown Partnership envisions more green spaces

February 25, 2011|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

The Downtown Partnership plans to unveil an ambitious proposal Friday to create more than $100 million worth of new parks and public plazas throughout the central business district, including major projects for the Inner Harbor, Charles Center and west side.

The proposal would transform the downtown landscape, with a green oasis where the 1st Mariner Arena stands and possibly the demolition of the Lexington Market Arcade to reopen the street as a public thoroughfare. The proposed work could also involve the realignment of city streets to make way for plazas and streetscape improvements.

The nonprofit Downtown Partnership, which works to promote and beautify more than 100 city blocks, is exploring the idea of designating part of downtown as a "tax increment finance," or TIF, district to help pay for some of the proposed work. It also plans to tap a mix of public and private funds, possibly from owners of nearby properties.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will join partnership officials Friday to outline the planning strategy for raising the quantity and quality of public space downtown and improving how it is maintained. Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said the report was commissioned to show how to make Baltimore more livable and attractive for years to come.

"When people think about what makes a successful city, they often think about the buildings that comprise the skyline, but most don't realize that cities are just as defined by the open spaces between the buildings," Fowler said. "Around the globe, the best communities have well-designed streetscapes, parks and plazas that bring people outside and that invite interaction and private investment."

The Open Space Plan "gives us a blueprint to address every open space downtown and create truly transformative space," Fowler said. "It will help guide our planning decisions for the next 20, 30, 40 years."

The report, which cost about $85,000 and took a year to complete, comes at a time when city officials are seeking to attract businesses to Baltimore's central district and keep existing ones from leaving.

In recent years, companies including Legg Mason Inc. have moved from the heart of downtown to other parts of the city, such as Harbor East, pushing the downtown office space vacancy rate above 20 percent. Others, such as the Miles and Stockbridge law firm and PNC Bank, have leases due to expire soon and are exploring their space options.

The plan outlines a broad list of ideas for improving existing open spaces, creating new ones and using "green corridors" to connect parks and plazas. The recommendations came out of a planning process that included meetings with area residents, employees and business owners as well as guidance from a design team led by Mahan Rykiel Associates and Project for Public Spaces.

Some of the recommendations call for relatively small projects that could be carried out quickly. Those include the introduction of new seating, landscaping and artwork along Wilkes Lane north of the SunTrust office tower on East Baltimore Street, and new seating and landscaping near the office towers at 20 and 36 S. Charles St.

Other recommendations call for large-scale improvements that would cost millions and take years of planning and construction: They include:

A park on the former site of the Southern Hotel, torn down to make way for an office tower called One Light Street that was never built. One version calls for adjacent buildings on Baltimore Street to be razed to enlarge the park.

Improvements to Preston Gardens, including "water features" where wall-mounted fountains once flowed. The plan calls for widening a sidewalk along St. Paul Place and shifting traffic lanes to create an esplanade overlooking the park.

Improvements to Hopkins Plaza, including the removal of a pedestrian bridge over Baltimore Street. One version calls for the acquisition and removal of the Kaiser Permanente building on Hopkins Place to expand the plaza and open views to the former Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

A greensward called Jones Falls Park along the Lower Jones Falls. The idea is a revival of a 1980s "Fallswalk" concept promoted by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer after he visited San Antonio's Riverwalk.

A park where the 1st Mariner Arena now stands, at Baltimore Street and Hopkins Place. City officials have been evaluating alternative locations for a new sports and concert arena to replace the aging arena.

A new public space west of the Lexington Market Arcade. One design calls for demolition of the arcade, built in the 1980s.

A new space called McKeldin Plaza to replace the aging McKeldin Fountain at Pratt and Light streets.

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