Baltimore's future 'Monday Night Football shot'

A pedestrian bridge across the Inner Harbor would be costly but instantly iconic

First, let me acknowledge the following: The Baltimore harbor is still too polluted, too many Baltimoreans still throw too much trash in the street; we need better results from the city's public schools and more involved parents of school-age kids; we need to lower property taxes; we need to better support city businesses; we need to foster healthy morale and principled duty among teachers, firefighters and police officers, and they need to be adequately paid.

I further agree that city services — particularly law enforcement services — need to be as good in distant neighborhoods as they are downtown.

Does that cover everything?

Probably not.

But rest assured, I have my eye on Baltimore's basic mission: clean it up, make it safe, teach its children. These are fundamental things, and each still a work in progress.

Now, with those acknowledgments out of the way, I would like to present what some of you will probably consider "fluffy stuff," amenities the city cannot afford — or shouldn't even consider — with so many demands already on Baltimore's time, energy, public treasury and private funds.

But I don't see it that way.

Inner Harbor 2.0., the master plan from Ayers Saint Gross architects to remake and improve the Inner Harbor, builds on what's there in an inspired way. It is hardly fluff. It is overdue maintenance layered with a 21st-century vision that could make great the good.

Baltimore's centerpiece attraction is getting stale in middle-age. But, instead of just a spruce-up, the master plan could give the Inner Harbor genuine world-class status.

There's a lot to it, but let me get right to the bridge. It's the most exciting piece of the plan.

At first glance, a pedestrian bridge across the Inner Harbor might seem like classic fluff — the expensive fantasy of a designer, the kind of thing we've seen on dozens of conceptual renderings, more daring than doable.

But I've been thinking about this off and on since November, when Inner Harbor 2.0 rolled out, and I've decided that the harbor bridge is something approaching a stroke of genius. The people who move and shake things in this town ought to embrace it and finance it with mostly private funds — even if it takes a decade to get in place.

Here's why:

The bridge has the potential to be one of the coolest walks on the Eastern Seaboard. Everybody will want to take a toll-free stroll across the Baltimore harbor, stand in the middle of the span for a few minutes, take in the view, take pictures, propose marriage, or dream about sailing off to exotic places.

"As we developed the idea, we realized that it could be an iconic gateway to our city, and the Monday Night Football shot," says Adam Gross, principal at Ayers Saint Gross, who credits architect Mike Talbott with the idea. "It is designed to open for taller ships, and the opening itself could be an event."

The most significant aspect of the design: It connects Pier 5 with the southern rim of the Inner Harbor, about where Rash Field meets the Rusty Scupper restaurant. You'll be able to walk from Federal Hill to the National Aquarium and beyond, over water.

The push for connectedness — better connecting Baltimoreans with their waterfront — is all over Inner Harbor 2.0. It's in the prescribed improvements to the promenade, in the landscaping and lighting on each shore. It's certainly in the proposed realignment of Pratt and Light, which transforms that awkward intersection into a pedestrian-friendly greenway to Harborplace.

The bridge would be a powerful attraction, an enticing smile across the harbor, and it would recruit people to the southern shore. It would beckon Harborplace visitors to the edge of Rash Field, just so they can cross the bridge, if only to say they did.

"It would create a simple loop," says Gross. "It would be an iconic walking and jogging trail. The loop is envisaged to also have monumental sculpture and art along it. The bridge itself would be sculptural and a part of this concept."

I know it sounds crazy and expensive. But Gross doesn't think it's impractical. "The length of the span is quite short, and is the same or shorter than new and old bridges over rivers in many cities, London for example," he says. "It is doable, functional and realistic. Other cities do these kinds of pedestrian bridges. Why can't Baltimore?"

We have a Wow Week coming up — a few days in mid-September with a Ravens-Steelers game, an Orioles-Yankees series and the bicentennial commemoration of the Battle of Baltimore, the British bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the national anthem. While you're on the waterfront checking out the tall ships or looking up at the Blue Angels, look across the harbor and imagine that bridge between Rash Field and Pier 5. Imagine it opening up when the tall ships leave. Imagine yourself walking over the harbor. Why not?

drodricks@baltsun.com

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