Mayor unveils new vision for downtown 20-year strategy likely to stir debate


Two weeks after the Greater Baltimore Committee painted a vision of Baltimore as a city "where science comes to life," a citizens group formed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has unveiled a sweeping series of recommendations for bringing that vision to life.

The 68-page report is full of specific and, in some cases, controversial recommendations for altering the face of downtown Baltimore, including changing Charles Street back to two-way traffic, eliminating "the Block" adult entertainment zone, replacing the Baltimore Arena, moving the downtown Greyhound-Trailways bus terminal and demolishing elevated portions of the Jones Falls Expressway to create a new east-side development district larger than Charles Center.

Suggested additions include a 3,000-seat performing arts center, maritime museum, a new downtown school, an east-west route for the light rail system along Pratt Street, a terminus for a high-speed train system connecting Baltimore and Washington, and a new design for Rash Field and the western shore of the Inner Harbor.

The report also makes far-reaching proposals that would affect practically anyone who lives, works or shops downtown. It calls for overhauling outdated city zoning ordinances to limit development in certain areas; providing tax incentives to encourage people to live in and own properties downtown (and possibly increase taxes for owners of vacant buildings); and revamping the process by which the city designates historic landmarks.

A common theme throughout the report, entitled "The Renaissance Continues: A 20-Year Strategy for Downtown Baltimore," is the suggestion that Baltimore couple its perceived economic missions -- such as tourism, education and research in life sciences -- with an effective development strategy that will both reshape its physical appearance and reinforce those economic goals.

"We cannot look back and we cannot stand still," said Mayor Schmoke, who received a copy of the final report during a ceremony yesterday at the Walters Art Gallery. "I asked for this report so that downtown does not become simply a monument to our past. It must be a steppingstone to our future."

In accepting the report, the mayor symbolically marked the end to a two-year planning effort that involved more than 300 people and cost about $250,000, most of it raised privately.

He pledged to carry the recommendations to the implementation stage and announced that he has appointed Rachel Edds, deputy city planning director, to coordinate the effort, with guidance from an eight-member committee that oversaw preparation of the report.

"This is a 20-year plan whose objectives cannot wait, and I assure you they certainly will not," the mayor said. "There will be no delays. We are going to move forward quickly. We have a lot of work ahead of us, and that work begins now."

The area affected by the study is bounded roughly by Key Highway on the south, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west, Lanvale Street on the north and the Jones Falls Expressway on the east. It covers 1,200 acres, four times the size of the central business district alone.

Among its 250-plus recommendations, the report suggests that the entire downtown be organized as a single area for planning and delivery of services, such as police protection, housing inspection and sanitation.

It divides the downtown into six districts, each with a distinct character and attributes. They are: the Business Center, Inner Harbor, University Center, Mount Vernon, Mount Royal-Penn Station; and a new development zone called East Side.

Within each area the report makes a number of specific planning recommendations, some of which can be implemented easily and some of which require further study.

For the Business Center, for example, planners suggested that Howard Street become a corridor for government offices and that the Baltimore Arena be razed so that its site can be redeveloped, with an extension of Redwood Street between Hopkins Place and Howard Street.

For Mount Vernon, planners suggested the Preston Gardens area be designated a prime location for new office and residential development.

The report also made general recommendations about issues that cross district borders, including historic preservation, transportation, city infrastructure and livability.

One far-reaching recommendation was to establish a new process for designating the "most valued" buildings and districts so they can be better protected from demolition or insensitive development. Planners also suggested that a task force be formed to explore economic incentives to encourage preservation.

Walter Sondheim Jr., senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee and chairman of the mayor's Strategy Management Committee, said that no estimates of the cost of implementing the recommendations have been made. He said that job and the assignment of priorities were left to the mayor.

Mr. Schmoke noted that the report was dedicated to the city's children and said that he hoped the changes would be an inspiration to them. "I want every young person to get the message that we care about their future and that achievement, distinction and renewal are possible for our city and for them."

The mayor also urged that any building contracts that grow out of the planning effort involve minorities and women entrepreneurs in a substantive way.

"Minorities and women businesses cannot be left with their faces pressed up against the windowpane of downtown redevelopment," he said. "The window has to open so that all our citizens can breathe the fresh air of economic opportunity."

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