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Rethinking Baltimore's waterfront

We have a potentially wonderful 7-mile waterfront park from Canton to Fort McHenry that should become Baltimore's Central Park. While the Inner Harbor is the center of this, we should be thinking beyond it and taking advantage of greater opportunities. This is more important on many levels than just adding more Inner Harbor attractions.

We need to bring major benefits to the whole area for residents and visitors alike. If we want a balance of amenities for both, we need to strongly incorporate the primarily residential waterfront areas beyond the Inner Harbor where neighborhoods meet the water. This potential waterfront park would strengthen the connections to and from the Inner Harbor and also to and from the adjoining neighborhoods. Wouldn't it be great to jog, walk or bike to Fort McHenry directly from the Inner Harbor, Federal Hill and Locust Point on a continuous parkway?

This waterfront park already partially exists as seven miles of promenade but with numerous gaps and a lack of maintenance — it is a shadow of the wonderful park it could be. Parts of the promenade are pleasant with green areas and amenities and large anchor parks at the ends in Canton and Fort McHenry. But too much is utilitarian at best. A better balance needs to be found between the lack of attention to the extensive outer harbor areas and the almost over-developed small basin of the Inner Harbor.

Our waterfront has been described as a necklace with potential jewels around its edge. Imagine a wide walkway and bikeway that is nicely landscaped and maintained, shaded for comfort in our hot humid climate, with amenities at points along the way such as pavilions with swings, interactive sculpture, or educational, cultural, historic and artistic displays allowing our museums to extend their outreach. Amenities could be temporary, serious, local, national, whimsical or experimental. How about finding a way to display AVAM's incredible kinetic sculptures every year after the event?

A Tide Point group's proposal includes making a crucial pedestrian connection between the promenade at Key Highway and Fort McHenry by sweeping along the railroad tracks. Although we want to ensure that the working waterfront can remain, there may be an underutilized pier here that could become a new recreation area sponsored by Under Armour. Future development along Key highway could provide views and connections to the water including more parks. Another group is focused on improving Federal Hill Park with a playground inspired by historic landmarks. Imagine a beach in Canton, a shady grove and historic shipyard display at Harris Creek Park, Captain James' crab shack with picnicking around it and a broad promenade along Thames Street extending the open space of the Broadway pier. The opportunities are great and would build on existing successes like the kayak stations and the new Pierce's Park playground being built.

We can do a lot to extend the reach of the water back into the neighborhoods, making this a better amenity for all. In Chicago, they are planting green streets with rain gardens and shade trees that thread throughout the city to Lake Michigan. Baltimore could demonstrate how we are making our city more sustainable with water that is swimmable and fishable. As we improve the waterfront park, it could be landscaped and treated to become part of the Healthy Harbor effort.

How are we going to take our waterfront to this next level? We have rich opportunities, but we aren't rich (we weren't when the Inner Harbor was started years ago either). In reality, this is major city infrastructure that like so much else is in need of attention. We may have to set priorities — an incredible park, sustainable harbor and green streets could probably be done in installments for less than some of the big ticket projects around.

Wouldn't it be great to have a 10-year plan to plant 5,000 trees, to build up this park by carefully selecting a challenged area every year where we could have a design competition and make a really special place that has maximum impact? All levels of government funding are important, along with more adventurous ideas like adopting parts of the park by neighbors, or seeking corporate sponsors. Potentially a group like the Waterfront Partnership or a conservancy could help coordinate all these different efforts, to nudge us along and to provide common guidelines for design and maintenance.

An extensive waterfront park could make a huge difference to our city bringing untold benefits for everyone while showing Baltimore's commitment to livability and sustainability.

David Benn, Baltimore

The writer is an architect and principal for Cho Benn Holback + Associates.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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