New cafe, seating for Pratt Street plaza

New café, seating for Pratt Street: “This is the gateway to Baltimore.”

The plaza in front of the Transamerica tower in downtown Baltimore is mostly a place to pass through, but officials hope new seating, a cafe, giant blocks screened with images from the Baltimore Museum of Art and other programs will persuade people to pause.

The added amenities, formally introduced Wednesday, build on a Thursday farmer's market that started on the site in 2013 and are part of the Downtown Partnership's broader push to improve the Pratt Street corridor.

"This is a gateway to Baltimore," said Cynthia Nikitin, senior vice president at the New York-based Project for Public Spaces Inc., which helped develop the plans with the Downtown Partnership. Nikitin said she hoped to make the site, between Light and Charles streets, feel like the "biggest stoop in Baltimore."

The Downtown Partnership in 2008 unveiled a $100 million vision for Pratt Street, designed to make the busy thoroughfare more pedestrian-friendly by removing skywalks and berms, overhauling McKeldin Plaza and adding new retail buildings on the corridor's broad sidewalks. At the time, the group's president, Kirby Fowler, said he hoped it would be completed in seven to 10 years.

Fowler said some parts of the plan were delayed as the country sank into the great recession, but small changes have made a difference.

New retailers, including Shake Shack and Chick-fil-A, took up residence this year in a new, two-story, 24,000-square-foot addition to 400 East Pratt Street. The Downtown Partnership has also removed eight berms and two skywalks, installing new landscaping — an investment of about $2.5 million, Fowler said.

Fowler said the goal of the new features, to include a wooden deck area and a kiosk fashioned from a shipping container, is to encourage downtown office workers, tourists and residents to linger in the public space and enliven it, he said.

"By drawing people out of these buildings you just create a better environment for everybody," he said.

The new amenities at the 100 Light Street plaza are funded by a grant from Southwest Airlines worth roughly $170,000, including $100,000 that will go to the site, Nikitin and Fowler said. The Downtown Partnership raised another $15,000 in matching funds and likely will kick in more, Fowler said.

Megan Lee, senior manager of community outreach for Southwest, said the airline is committed to giving back to its host communities — especially when it can find a way to make them more attractive places for people to fly and visit. Southwest, which has made "Heart of the Community" grants in 13 cities including Baltimore, is the largest carrier at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"We look at it as sort of a win-win," she said. "We're hoping to contribute to the community where our employees live and work. … It's also hopefully [making] a better destination as well."

More changes on the Pratt Street corridor may be on the way.

The Downtown Partnership has raised about $3.4 million in public and private funds for the McKeldin Plaza overhaul and expects to present designs, including demolition of the fountain, in the coming weeks. The goal is to have shovels in the ground by the end of the year, he said.

Fowler said the city is expected to complete its analysis of how realigning the intersections around Pratt, Light and Calvert streets to connect McKeldin Plaza to the Inner Harbor promenade in a few months. Other property owners have expressed interest in adding retail, but no specific plans are in the works, he said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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