New plan would revamp heart of downtown

Plan would rip out fountain and eventually realign McKeldin Plaza and Light Street

New designs for McKeldin Plaza would fuse the brick space to the Inner Harbor promenade, transforming one of the busiest and most prominent intersections in the city into a 2.8-acre park, with grassy slopes and a curtain-like translucent fountain.

Landscape architect Richard Jones of Mahan Rykiel Associates said the design is an effort to create a space that serves as a better civic gathering space and strengthens the link between the waterfront and the city.

"We feel strongly that the plaza should not be an island of concrete and brick, but a place that best embodies all those qualities of civic open space that we hold dear," he said.

The Downtown Partnership plans to present the proposal to the city's design panel for approval this month, with the hope of starting work by the end of the year, said Kirby Fowler, the partnership's president. The work would proceed in phases, starting with the demolition of the existing fountain and the addition of grass.

The partnership has raised $3.4 million, including $1 million in state money, for the plan, which could cost "in the tens of millions" to complete, Fowler said.

The full proposal would create a 2.8-acre plaza by eliminating the curvy spur that connects Light and Calvert streets, but cuts off McKeldin Plaza from the promenade.

Plans by a group that includes Ayers Saint Gross, Ziger/Snead Architects and the JMT engineering firm, in addition to Mahan Rykiel, call for large pathway that leads diagonally from the intersection of Pratt and Light streets to the harbor, bisecting two grassy slopes, which tilt up like wings. The bigger triangle would rise to 18 feet, creating room underneath for storage and commercial space — that could house a bike program — at the southern tip.

A "water feature" on the main path — designed as a memorial to former mayor and governor Theodore R. McKeldin — would have a curtain of water falling from about 18 feet into a shallow pool, which people could run or wheelchair through.

The pathway is large enough to fit an ice rink, such as the one located on the plaza this winter.

A public meeting to review the designs drew about 50 people Tuesday, who asked about the construction timeline and maintenance costs, whether the slopes could hide the Harborplace shops and the need to eliminate the fountain.

The Department of Transportation is reviewing the potential impact of squaring the roads. If revamped, Light Street and a bike lane would pass through part of the existing fountain's footprint, precipitating its demolition.

Some argued for preserving the fountain — or at least not starting with its demolition, given the uncertain outcome of an unfunded proposal.

Some said they are skeptical that the design would meet its goals, if many-laned streets continue to roar by the new park's borders.

"If you don't solve the two roads around it, you'll just have a great thought between two roads — two highways," said Lee Driskill, an architect at Hord Coplan Macht.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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