Design proposals unveiled for $40 million school in E. Baltimore

Classrooms that "grow" in size as students get older.

Vegetable gardens and wind turbines that help teach city children about farming and alternative energy sources.

Diverse learning spaces under a single, sweeping roof, intended to foster a sense of community.

These are just a few of the ideas presented by three teams competing to design the East Baltimore Community School, a $40 million, kindergarten-to-eighth-grade facility planned as an anchor for the East Baltimore Development Inc. renewal area.

Expected to open by fall 2014, the 103,000-square-foot building will be a "public contract school" — it will be open to neighborhood students, but its design and construction will not be funded through the city school system's standard procurement process. Money to build the school will come from a variety of sources, including nonprofits such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, as well as from a previously approved tax-increment financing plan. More than $8.5 million has been raised so far.

The site for the new school is a seven-acre parcel bounded by Chester Street, Ashland and Patterson Park avenues and the Amtrak and MARC rail lines. The school, which will house 540 students, will replace a temporary facility that opened in 2009 at Chase and Wolfe streets. City officials say the new school will be one of the first to be built in Baltimore in decades. The project includes a 30,000-square-foot Family Support Center, which will house early-learning programs for children up to age 5 as well as adult learning programs.

East Baltimore Development Inc., a public-private partnership that is redeveloping 88 acres north of the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus as a $1.8 billion mixed-use community, is overseeing the school project. To select an architect, it launched a national competition and chose three teams to work for nine weeks on a design. Each team will receive $25,000, and the winner will be given the first chance to negotiate a contract to design the campus.

Christopher Shea, president and chief executive of EBDI, said the organization launched its design challenge nationwide because directors wanted to tap the best thinking available about building public schools in urban areas.

"Schools, especially public schools, are one of the most important institutions in building and maintaining great communities," Shea said. The new campus "will be an important catalyst in the revitalization of East Baltimore by providing a home for one of the city's best public K-8 schools and a place for those who live and work in East Baltimore to learn, recreate and come together."

EBDI is using the design competition to identify the architectural team it deems best-suited to work on the project, but it is not yet ready to choose a final design. The partnership plans to rank the teams' proposals by mid-December.

Cathy Miles, principal of the existing East Baltimore Community School, said she was impressed by design teams' ideas. "I like the process a lot, but it's overwhelming," she said. "It's a huge decision."

The finalists are Ross Barney Architects of Chicago, Rogers Marvel Architects of New York and Erdy McHenry Architecture of Philadelphia. The three teams took dramatically different approaches to the design challenge:

In Ross Barney's proposal, the school's classrooms and common spaces enclosed a large central courtyard that would be secure from the streets. Much of the surrounding land would be devoted to a working farm, or "grange," with community gardens, open cisterns to collect rainwater and wind turbines to supply energy to pump the rainwater to irrigate crops.

Rogers Marvel suggested that grade groupings be given their own, custom-tailored classrooms and outdoor courtyards, and that students move through the building over the years as if on an adventure or journey. The designers proposed that the classrooms and outdoor spaces be shaped differently to correspond to the ages and sizes of the students; children would "graduate" to larger and more complex learning spaces as they mature.

Erdy McHenry's plan has learning spaces opening onto a glassy, multilevel arcade, with much of the land devoted to playing fields. The architectural team put all of the teaching spaces beneath one long roof to promote a sense of community and located arts-related facilities in highly visible locations to emphasize the importance of the arts.

Isaac Williams, a faculty member with the University of Maryland's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and Linda Lo Cascio, a local development consultant, coordinated the competition.

EBDI's selection committee saw detailed presentations from the three finalists Friday. On Saturday, the open house drew students, parents and staffers from the existing school as well as members of the community, including parishioners from nearby St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church.

Marjorie McDonald, a St. Wenceslaus parishioner, said she appreciated the security of the inner courtyard in the Ross Barney proposal and believes the school will help the neighborhood. "I think when caring people see a big, beautiful new building, they will have more pride in their community," she said.

Michael Hall, another St. Wenceslaus member, also said he thought the school would help the area. "When people are thinking about where to live, they look at the schools," he said.

Towanda Ross, parent of a first-grader at the existing, temporary school, said she was encouraged by everything she saw. "I'm just glad that my son will be able to benefit from it all," she said.

Nia Redmond, a longtime East Baltimore resident and an EBDI board member, said she was pleased that EBDI has high aspirations for the project.

"We couldn't have the best hospital here and not have the best school," she said. "I'm happy for the kids."

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