Report sees new life for city core Schmoke hails plot for future of downtown.


Downtown Baltimore should be viewed as six distinct districts, each pursuing different economic development and urban design strategies, according to new report released by a mayoral commission.

Titled "The Renaissance Continues: A 20-year Strategy for Downtown Baltimore," the report takes a broad look at downtown Baltimore and is intended to serve as a guide for downtown development for the next 20 years.

The report, turned over to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday, calls for making downtown Baltimore a center for life sciences -- the health, medical and marine biotechnology industries. It also envisions downtown as a commercial and financial core for the region, a center for urban tourism and an international gateway for the region.

The six downtown districts envisioned in the report are as follows:

* The Business Center: Business in this district, which includes Market Center and Charles Center, should continue to be mostly office and retail, the report says. It also urges that the city channel government offices into this area and develop "pocket parks" and other public amenities suited to areas with high pedestrian traffic.

The report also urges that the city find new sites for the Baltimore Arena and the Greyhound-Trailways bus station. It also says that the Block, the stretch of show bars and adult book

stores on East Baltimore Street, should be eliminated.

* Inner Harbor: This area includes the Inner Harbor, Market Place and the areas surrounding the new stadium. The report recommends that Pratt Street be considered for an east-west extension of the light-rail line being built along Howard Street. The Convention Center should be expanded and a park or plaza should be built near Camden Station, it says. Also, the report says the city should maintain parcels of vacant land in this area to accommodate future "big-bang" developments.

* University Center: On the western edge of downtown, this area of loft buildings surrounds the University of Maryland professional schools. The report says this is where the city should focus its efforts to support commercial biotechnology and other "life science" efforts.

* Mount Vernon: This neighborhood just south of Mount Royal Avenue is distinguished by its fine architecture and old-world type parks, the report notes. As a result, it says, the city's mission there should be to accentuate and preserve the area's character and to reduce the number of cars on the streets to make the area more appealing to pedestrians.

* Mount Royal/Penn: This area near Pennsylvania Station and the University of Baltimore is envisioned as a cultural, educational and institutional center of downtown. The report calls for "integrating the master plans of the University of Baltimore, Maryland Institute College of Art, Amtrak, and the State Office Center with the over-all district plan."

* East Side: This neighborhood, east of the Jones Falls Expressway between Monument and Fayette streets, is called a "new frontier" for development in the report. The city should prepare a planning and urban design initiative for the area.

"This is not a traditional master plan," said Walter Sondheim Jr., who chaired the two-year study, which involved more than 300 people. "I think that if we had tried to do a site-specific master plan, it would have been a real dust-gatherer."

The report identifies broad strategies the city should pursue for future development of the 1,200-acre downtown. That area discussed in the document is bounded roughly by Key Highway on the south, Penn Station on the north, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west and the Jones Falls Expressway on the east.

To develop downtown as a "launching pad" for life sciences, the report calls on the city to promote the soon to-be-built Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration. The report also recommends that office development be concentrated downtown to create a commercial and financial core.

The report urges the city to support efforts to secure a professional football franchise and to stimulate "popular attractions around the Inner Harbor" to create urban tourism. To develop downtown as an international gateway, transportation and communications systems should be strengthened to provide service between downtown and the international marketplace.

Many of the recommendations are broad -- a fact acknowledged by the report's framers.

For instance, the report urges the city to lure businesses by featuring its proximity to Washington, D.C.

"While Washington, D.C., is the nation's center of government, Baltimore is its closest urban business center," the report says. "This gives Baltimore an advantage in many levels of the market place. Downtown is an excellent location for government offices, regional headquarters and national non-profit corporations, because it is easily accessible. Land is available near transportation, office rents are more affordable and downtown has all the business, support and financial services they need," the report says.

Other recommendations are costly and unlikely to occur, Sondheim said.

"We didn't attach any cost estimates to these recommendations," he said. "That wouldn't really have a point."

Finding a new site for the Baltimore Arena is an example of a costly recommendation. Tearing down an elevated stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway downtown is another. The report recommends razing the expressway to open a section of East Baltimore -- called the East Side in the report -- to downtown-type development.

"That area is the largest assembly of undeveloped land in the downtown area," said David Gillece, president of the Baltimore Economic Development Corp.

The report also makes recommendations on dealing with the often sticky issue of historic preservation. The report says the city should rank all existing downtown historic buildings and design protection levels to coincide with the ranking system.

In a section on promoting downtown living, the report recommends "the conversion of appropriate public housing into nTC housing for the elderly" and encouraging "home ownership opportunities for eligible public housing residents." The report also calls for the development of "mixed-income residential neighborhoods throughout downtown."

To lure families downtown, the report calls on the city to establish a school with its own curriculum and day care and preschool programs, in addition to job training and vocational education.

The report also recommends that the city grant tax credits or waive transfer taxes for owner-occupants as an incentive to buy downtown housing. It also recommends that the city investigate ways to raise taxes on vacant properties.

The city also should make downtown more livable and "pedestrian friendly," the report says, by limiting traffic on thoroughfares such as Calvert and St. Paul streets and allowing two-way traffic on Charles Street.

Schmoke greeted the report enthusiastically. He called it one that envisions intergrating downtown with the neighborhoods surrounding it. And, he said, he wants to begin setting priorities for the report's recommendations.

"There will be no delays," he said. "We are going to move forward very quickly."

He also named Rachel Edds, deputy planning director, to oversee implementation of the report.

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