Seeing visions everywhere that you look


I know we've had too many visions about Baltimore's future when, . . .

* There are two or three well-funded vision campaigns for every concrete plan to actually do something.

* My 6-year-old comes downstairs to soberly announce that he has a vision about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles playing Nintendo games on a CD player while eating pizza on their way to the new Disney World outside of Paris.

* We begin confusing ideas with hard work and substance.

Most of the recent flurry of Baltimore visions was whipped up by the Greater Baltimore Committee, the regional business group that kicked things off last January with its release of "The Strength of Maryland Depends on The State of Baltimore," (Get it?) a 20-page "GBC Vision for a Healthy, Thriving Baltimore City." It stressed the need for a fiscally sound city that can effectively educate kids.

Last week, the GBC unveiled its vision for a life sciences economy in the Baltimore area -- a four-pronged program of work involving education, infrastructure, entrepreneurship and enrollment, or citizen participation. Its tag line is "Baltimore. Where Science Comes to Life."

In case you didn't feel the Earth move yesterday afternoon, the latest look at part of Baltimore's possible future -- "The Renaissance Continues: A 20-Year Strategy for Downtown Baltimore" -- was officially delivered to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke by Walter Sondheim Jr., the city's eminent counselor and chairman of the eight-person strategy management committee that oversaw the work.

This two-year effort to guide downtown development over the next 20 years was formally initiated by the mayor but received most of its funds from the GBC (if you want to know why that is, go back to the fiscal woes of the city that underlay the January vision statement).

In fact, yesterday's effort -- a handsome, 68-page document backed up by a tome of six special-topic committee reports -- marks at least the third urban-development study by the Schmoke administration, joining earlier efforts that focused on the Canton and Fells Point corridor and the Key Highway area on the southern side of the Inner Harbor.

So, although the economy is in a recession, the vision business is clearly booming.

"The Renaissance Continues" might have fared better if delayed. That would have given the city more time to absorb the GBC's life sciences vision and also have allowed the downtown strategy to be viewed as more the practical document it is than a vision statement.

Based on extensive committee work involving more than 300 people, the downtown strategy reflects extensive thought and consensus about downtown's future. While "group-think" efforts seldom inspire the soul, this one retains both creative and challenging aspects that deserve further airings. This is not a master plan, Mr. Sondheim stresses, but a range of ideas.

Some cost lots of money, but many of them don't. Some of the "cheapest" ideas, however, may require the biggest attitudinal shifts, such as changing traffic patterns on some of downtown's major north-south streets or creating political and public-service boundaries for downtown that permit this area of the city to receive unified representation.

The "highlights" of the strategy, if that's a fair term, include dividing downtown into six distinct development districts, plus drastically revising the mechanisms and criteria for historic preservation. Recommended preservation efforts include ranking the significance of every downtown building in a public process that gives lots of attention to economic considerations.

Here are the six districts and some of the development ideas presented for each:

* Inner Harbor, including the new stadium site, Otterbein, Inner Harbor, Key Highway, Pratt Street corridor and President Street. Ideas: Consider putting light-rail extension on Pratt Street; create major new public open space near Camden Station, stadium and Convention Center; promote pedestrian use of Pratt Street; promote boating facilities and water commuting.

* Business Center, the traditional financial district. Ideas: Redesign Charles Center open spaces and provide active uses for these areas; create better linkages with University Center, to the west; enhance on-street retail shopping; plan and design a new, major, active public open space in this area; eliminate "the Block," the adult entertainment area; replacing Baltimore Arena; consider relocating Fayette Street bus terminal; create corridor of government offices on Howard Street.

* University Center, located to the west of the Inner Harbor and Business Center districts and dominated by the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the University of Maryland Medical System. Ideas: Support new medical developments; better integrate complex into nearby residential and mixed-use areas; improve physical links with adjacent parts of downtown.

* Mount Vernon, a primarily residential and institutional area to the north of the Business Center, with enhanced architectural and historic interests. Ideas: Designate areas bordering Preston Gardens, along St. Paul Street, as prime location for new office and residential development and as a link to new East Side district; define and designate historic streets; encourage street-level activities (by, in part, discouraging street-front parking lots); divert commuter traffic away from St. Paul, Calvert and Paca streets and onto Jones Falls Expressway (Interstate 83) and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; explore two-way traffic and curb parking on Charles Street to encourage retail and pedestrian use; restrict through-traffic on residential and historic streets.

* East Side, a largely underdeveloped area that lies mostly to the east of the Jones Falls Expressway. It is downtown's "new frontier" and would be held in reserve for future developments, especially those linked with the life sciences vision. Ideas: Prepare a planning, urban design and development initiative that considers light-rail facilities; opening Jones Falls as an urban waterway; replacing elevated portions of I-83 with an at-grade boulevard; creating a permanent open space area for public events such as City Fair and ethnic festivals (especially if Festival Hall must be moved to accommodate expansion of the Convention Center); and appropriate residential and research uses.

* Mount Royal/Penn Station, located north of Mount Vernon and encompassing the Penn Station area, state government office complex and cultural facilities. Ideas: Integrate light-rail stations with new development; create a direct ramp connection between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at Howard Street and the Jones Falls Expressway; extend the Eutaw Street greenway median from Dolphin Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; strengthen pedestrian links to adjacent Bolton Hill neighborhood.

This is a very "rich" diet of development proposals and guidelines and is probably better understood in the context of the 68-page presentation.

"The Renaissance Continues: A 20-Year Strategy for Downtown Baltimore" is available for $20 (make checks payable to The Downtown Strategy) by calling 396-4330 or writing to: City of Baltimore, Department of Planning, 8th Floor, 417 East Fayette Street, Baltimore 21202.

Next Wednesday, we'll see how many of these ideas were put in place during the week, and move on to the next vision.

Just kidding.

Downtown vision

"The Renaissance Continues: A 20-Year Strategy for Downtown Baltimore," included five economic missions for downtown, none of which is particularly surprising. Here are the missions, plus some of the specific strategies accompanying each:

1) Downtown should be the launching pad for life sciences research and industry. Strategies: Promote building of the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration; set up a consortium of life sciences institutions to commercialize research developments; support secondary and higher education efforts in these fields.

2) Downtown is the commercial and financial core of the region. Strategy: Concentrate "Class A" office development in the Business Center (one of the six downtown districts).

3) Downtown's development should be aided by its proximity to Washington. Strategies: Improve transportation gateways linking downtown with Washington; market to Washington-type office users such as federal agencies, non-profits and regional headquarters; concentrate Washington-based marketing in certain parts of downtown.

4) Downtown is a center of urban tourism. Strategies: Promote Convention Center expansion; support efforts to attract professional football franchise; pursue overseas marketing of downtown as convention and group tourism site.

5) Downtown is an international gateway for the region. Strategies: Create physical focus for activities with international benefits (perhaps by developing a medical mart; strengthen transportation and communication systems linking downtown and the international marketplace.

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