McKeldin Square reopens with grass and trees in place of fountain

Thick grass, trees and terrace seating have replaced the brutalist-style fountain and blocks of concrete at McKeldin Square in downtown Baltimore.

The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore unveiled on Thursday a $4 million makeover of the square at the corner of Pratt and Light streets.

The improvements triple the amount of usable space in the plaza and are intended to offer a more welcoming resting spot for tourists, residents and workers looking for a break from the office.

"This is where it's all happening," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "This is the future of the city, where it's very much all of us together, enjoying the benefits of public space."

The renovated square's debut Thursday was more than a decade in the making.

City leaders and community stakeholders began planning a redesign of the Pratt Street corridor, including an overhaul of the aging McKeldin Square, in 2006. Opened in 1982, the cement fountain in the square was deteriorating — water pumps often broke down and were expensive to fix, and much of the year it was empty.

Despite protests from some residents who wanted the city to preserve the fountain, it was demolished last year, along with skywalks that connected buildings on the west side of Light Street to the Inner Harbor.

The city worked with Philadelphia landscape architect David Rubin and his firm Land Collective to design a more open public space that adds greenery to a part of the city that is dense with towering buildings and concrete.

"This is really nice," said Denise Smith, who lives in Bel Air and comes into town a few times a week to baby-sit her grandchildren.

On Thursday, they took a break from their walk to indulge in free ice cream sandwiches being given out to celebrate the square's reopening.

Smith said she thought the grassy expanse, dotted with young trees, was an improvement over the fountain.

Margo Wright, who works downtown at the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, said she often takes her lunch to the amphitheater along the Inner Harbor. Now, she'll have a second option for her al fresco lunch breaks.

"I think it's a good area for folks to come for a bit," Wright said. "It makes the area very family-friendly."

There's more to come for McKeldin Square.

The $4 million in improvements, the cost of which was split between the city, state and private donors, are part of a larger renovation to the plaza, Fowler said.

A second phase will add signs that describe the legacy of Theodore R. McKeldin, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor for whom the plaza is named.

Eventually, the city plans to add a water feature and a memorial to McKeldin.

The square pays tribute to its recent history, too.

Chunks of concrete from the demolished fountain now fill the wire mesh boxes that serve as the foundation of terrace seating along the edges of the square.

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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