DOWNTOWN REMAKE Public panel views far-reaching changes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A citizen's panel that is studying ways to guide downtown development over the next 20 years is likely to recommend that public officials seriously consider razing a mile-long stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway, and replacing it with a boulevard in order to create a large new development area.

Members of the planning group also strongly favor the idea of reopening North Charles Street to two-way traffic, as it was before the 1950s, to increase activity along the street and make it more pleasant for pedestrians by slowing down traffic.

And they would like to see more light rail routes built in the city to supplement the line under construction along Howard Street -- possibly including a crosstown line down Pratt Street and a spur on the east side of the central business district.

Those are a few of the many ideas that have received extensive discussion from participants in a 12-member citizens panel on urban design and development, one of several technical advisory committees formed as part of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 18-month effort to create a "strategy for the progressive development of downtown Baltimore."

Mayor Schmoke launched the planning effort in May of 1989 to devise ways to keep the downtown development momentum strong and build on the success of revitalization efforts for Charles Center and the Inner Harbor.

A final report on the recommendations of the urban design group won't be issued until next month, and there is no guarantee that all of the ideas will be incorporated into the group's official recommendations.

But according to draft statements prepared by the group's consultants and from discussions at their recent meetings, it is clear that participants have come up with a wealth of ideas that could have far-reaching effects on stimulating growth of Baltimore's office, housing, retail, hotel and tourism markets.

Many of the boldest ideas came out of two daylong "charrettes" or design workshops that the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) organized in conjunction with the city's planning effort. Others were generated in meetings between the panelists and Stanton Eckstut, a New York-based architect and urban designer hired as a professional adviser to the group for the duration of the planning effort.

"The city has gotten a lot of pro bono contributions from design professionals who are trying to do some thinking about big ideas and the long-term future for downtown," said Chuck Kubat, a principal of RTKL Associates Inc. and organizer of the AIA workshops.

"It was very productive," Mr. Eckstut said of the AIA design effort. "It wasn't just people picnicking for the day. It was a very serious effort."

Among the ideas that have received considerable discussion from members of the urban design group are:

*Demolishing the elevated Jones Falls Expressway, roughly from Chase Street to Fayette Street, and replacing it with a boulevard to create a large new area for redevelopment. Removal of the elevated expressway, planners say, would eliminate a physical barrier between the Mount Vernon-Belvedere area and the neighborhoods to the east of the city while freeing up a development area of 40 acres or more. It also would present an opportunity for the city to uncover more of the Jones Falls waterway that now spills into the Inner Harbor and maintain it as an open waterway.

*Reconverting North Charles Street to two-way traffic, as it was before the 1950s. Panelists say such a change in the street patterns would increase pedestrian activity and help reinforce Charles Street as the city's main north-south thoroughfare. Changing the present one-way status also would encourage retail activity and slow down traffic, making it more pleasant for pedestrians.

*Adding more light rail routes downtown. Group members have advocated supplementing the light rail route now under construction along Howard Street with a north-south route on the eastern side of the central business district, possibly along the Jones Falls. They also would like to see a crosstown route and have identified the north side of Pratt Street, where the sidewalk is currently lined with large plant beds, as a possible route for an east-west spur.

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*Revamping Charles Center. Panel members say some of the

public spaces in the 33-acre renewal area are lifeless after

business hours but could be the center of far more activity if redesigned. Ramps that lead to underground garages, they say, also prevent strong links with surrounding areas. The group members say they would like to see the city initiate a comprehensive review of Charles Center with the idea of linking it more effectively to adjacent areas and improving use of public spaces there. "It could be something as crazy as adding more streets back" in the area, Mr. Eckstut said.

*Improving Pratt Street to reinforce its role as the city's main east-west thoroughfare. Group members say they would like to see the city come up with a plan for increasing retail activity along Pratt Street, creating a light rail link, and providing a strong link between Pratt Street and the Camden Yards stadium area.

*Creating a major new public open space near the downtown stadium. Group members want the city to plan a public plaza or square that could provide a proper setting for the Camden Station, the proposed Convention Center expansion, and the Camden Yards light rail station as well as linking the stadium and Pratt Street. They have identified the block just north of the train station as an ideal place for such a project.

*Re-evaluating the Baltimore Arena. Some members of the planning group see the Baltimore Arena as an physical barrier that prohibits movement between Charles Center and the west side of downtown, including the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus. Aware that the owner of one of the building's main tenants, the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team, has been talking about moving his team either to a new arena in Timonium or to a domed stadium proposed for Camden Yards, they say such a move could provide an opportunity to rethink the uses of the arena and the underlying property.

*Designating the Upper Jonestown area north of the Shot Tower and main Post Office as a key growth area and promoting it for more intensive uses. Panelists want city officials to prepare a separate urban design study that would show how Upper Jonestown could be developed as an east side expansion of downtown with a variety of uses, including housing and office space. Space for a large, permanent, fully serviced public facility for outdoor events, for the relocated Festival Hall, and for a major garage should be identified, they said.

*Changing zoning of properties in historic districts such as the Mount Vernon area to discourage overbuilding. Planners say much of the land in Mount Vernon is currently zoned for development that is as intense as the downtown business district and that such zoning drives increase the price of properties. If the properties were "down-zoned" so owners can't build as much, planners say, there would be more incentive to preserve buildings rather than raze them.

The urban design and development committee that is considering these and other ideas is one of several that have been meeting since early this year as part of the mayor's 18-month planning effort.

Other groups have been formed to study transportation, preservation, the city's infrastructure, and livability. Earlier this year, an economic consultant, Legg Mason Realty Group, prepared a market assessment of the downtown area. All of the groups report to a 35- member citizens advisory committee that plans to make a final report to the mayor in the spring of 1991.

The planning effort is the first launched for downtown Baltimore in 25 years. It represents a response to the city's steady growth beyond the borders of the Charles Center and Inner Harbor planning areas.

Working with professional advisers, each group will make a series of recommendations for the study area, which is bounded roughly by Martin Luther King Boulevard on the west, Key Highway on the south, the Jones Falls Expressway on the east and the Amtrak railroad tracks just north of the Jones Falls Expressway on the north.

At a halfway point of the planning process in June, the 35-member advisory committee endorsed the Legg Mason market assessment, which outlined a series of economic goals that planners could use as a starting point for their effort.

In its report, Legg Mason said the city could reasonably expect to add 12 million square feet of office space, 2,700 hotel rooms, 4,000 housing units and 1 million square feet of retail space over the next 20 years, assuming the public and private sectors work to encourage such growth.

Starting later this week the different technical groups and their professional consultants will present to the mayor's advisory committee their recommendations for meeting those goals.

Members of the urban design committee include architects Stan Britt, Tim Duke, Chuck Kubat, Mario Schack and Patrick Sutton; landscape architect Catherine Mahan, University of Maryland professor Sidney Brower; Morgan State University professor Richard Dozier, developers Richard Johnson and Daniel Stone, former city planning director Larry Reich, and former Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Corp. president Martin Millspaugh, who is now an executive with the Enterprise Development Co.

In their deliberations, group members have had to grapple with issues many cities are facing, including the need to steer development away from landmark-quality buildings that ought to preserved, to strengthen the edges of downtown, and to devise strategies that are workable even with multiple property owners.

One of the key differences between the planning efforts of the 1960s and the 1990s is that federal funds that were available then for widespread land acquisition and clearance in the 1960s are no longer available today.

Mr. Eckstut, a partner in the firm of Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut and Whitelaw, has recommended from the beginning that the best way to bring about change despite limited funds for land acquisition and clearance is to focus on improving streets, squares and other spaces in the public realm rather than focusing on individual buildings or construction sites.

As part of their effort, the group has recommended that five planning districts be designated for downtown. They are:

*The Business Center district, which includes the existing financial district, the municipal district, Charles Center, Market Center, and land to the east and northwest of them.

*The Mount Vernon district, which includes the entire residential and business district centered on Mount Vernon Place as well as Cathedral Hill, Seton Hill, the Mount Royal cultural area and the area around Pennsylvania Station.

*The Inner Harbor district, which includes the Inner Harbor, the Baltimore Convention Center, the 85-acre Camden Yards stadium area and the Pratt Street corridor.

*The University district, which includes the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus, University Hospital, the loft district and Ridgely's Delight.

*The East Side district, which includes the Preston Gardens area, Upper Jonestown and areas along both sides of the Jones Falls Expressway south of Chase Street.

The panelists also have identified two streets that they believe will be the main thoroughfares in the city of the future: Charles Street as the main north-south thoroughfare and symbol of the "Old Baltimore," and Pratt Street as the main east-west thoroughfare and symbol of the "New Baltimore."

From the start, the planners have been somewhat limited in what they can do. They have been asked by the mayor's representatives not to develop a specific master plan that spells out what ought to happen in every block. Instead, they have been asked to come up with more generalized strategies for stimulating the growth they hope to see.

In general, group members have said they favor preserving the best of downtown and adding only what is necessary to help stimulate new growth. For the most part, they say, they want to identify and reinforce Baltimore's assets, such as distinctive, highly walkable neighborhoods and memorable places, and not make changes for the sake of change.

By far the boldest idea was to replace a mile-long stretch of raised expressway on the east side of downtown with an at-grade boulevard.

The architects who came up with that idea said the Jones Falls could run through the middle and that the boulevard could be built just to the east of the raised expressway so it could remain in use until the new boulevard was ready to open. They even gave the area a possible new name: Falls Center.

One of the big advantages of wiping the slate clean and opening up such a large new area for development, the architects said, is that it would provide land for a more suburban-type, campus-style environment in which buildings could have larger floors than they typically can in the heart of downtown.

"I guess my highway design friends would cringe, but I find it an interesting concept," said William Hellmann, a local engineer who is serving as consultant to the transportation committee, during a meeting in June. The expressway "was initially built to connect to Interstate 95. But I guess you have to ask yourself why it couldn't function like Martin Luther King Boulevard on the other side."

One key question is funding for such a large project, but if there is enough support city officials could always seek approval of special funding legislation to make it possible, Mr. Hellmann said.

The cost would undoubtedly be high, but "it probably builds us a land bank that the city will look kindly on in the future," said Al Copp, president of Center City Inner Harbor Development Inc.

During the design workshops, other teams suggested sites for new streets, monuments and public buildings such as a 3,000-seat performing arts center. They called for reforestation of the city and urged city planners to find ways to take more truck traffic off Pratt and Lombard streets. They also advocated that the city improve sections of the shoreline along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Once the charrettes were over, the results were reported back to the ongoing urban design committee for evaluation. Since then, the group has been drafting its final report for presentation to the full advisory committee in October.

The advisory committee members will take the urban design recommendations along with reports from the other technical advisory committees and assimilate them to create one large planning document that will outline the group's vision for downtown and strategies for making it happen. That process will take place starting this month and conclude in early 1991 with the presentation of the advisory committee's final report to Mayor Schmoke. The mayor and his management committee will then decide how to proceed.

W. Scott Ditch, an Otterbein resident and former vice president of the Rouse Co., is the author of the urban design committee's report.

Although it is not finished, draft versions circulated among group members indicate they are likely to recommend that city officials follow the current planning effort with a series of more detailed studies of specific issues and areas, including light rail development, zoning changes and design guidelines.

According to the draft report circulated last month, the urban design panel also would like the city to:

*Initiate a comprehensive study and listing of significant buildings and landmarks as a preliminary step in developing a detailed preservation policy, especially in connection with future development in the business district.

*Initiate traffic studies not only on the reversal of Charles Street to two-way traffic but also on the reduction of through north-south traffic in the vicinity of Mount Vernon and Seton Hill and truck traffic on Pratt and Lombard streets.

*Initiate zoning amendments in the Mount Vernon district and the business district.

*Initiate the development of comprehensive design guidelines for the Mount Vernon district and the business district's financial and municipal areas.

Mr. Eckstut, who is well known for his work on urban waterfronts such as Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, said he would also like the final design recommendations to encourage just a bit more congestion in the streets, since people feel comfortable when there are a lot of other people around and cars have to slow down.

"If you examine where people travel or spent time on vacation, it's usually places where there is a good deal of pedestrian congestion -- the Greek islands or Paris or London," he said. "Our popular culture and our literature speak of it as an unpopular situation, but it's not."

The key, he said, is to create environments that are pedestrian-dominant, rather than automobile-dominant.

"As a conscious effort I would want to make places where streets are crowded and drivers have to make lots of turns and slow down. Diagonals are great because they disrupt the traffic flow. That's the idea. People feel more comfortable when they take over."

"If we can make downtown more walkable, that really will be quite an achievement," Mr. Eckstut added. "That's the measure of a successful city."

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