Putting words into action Some of city 'vision' can begin right away

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Now together, we can go from imagining the future to building it."

That is Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's inscription above the list of hundreds of people who helped assemble the latest "vision statement" for Baltimore, called "The Renaissance Continues: A

20-Year Strategy for Downtown Baltimore."

Downtown Baltimore can be excused for failing to storm the streets in celebration over this latest report. Notwithstanding Mr. Schmoke's pledge, a city that has seen four vision-type statements since the beginning of the year risks becoming a bit jaded about the prospects of seeing words turned into actions.

Now, after two years, $250,000 and input from 300 people in nine advisory groups, the most pressing issue is whether -- and when -- the latest report will become reality.

The report contains some far-reaching, expensive and controversial ideas -- lowering to street level sections of the Jones Falls Expressway or relocating the Baltimore Arena -- that are off-limits to a city with severe budget limitations. Yet a solid core of ideas could be enacted immediately with little financial cost.

Mr. Schmoke made it clear on Tuesday, when he received the report from Walter Sondheim Jr., chairman of the Downtown Strategy Management Committee, that he will act immediately. "There will be no delays," he said at the Walters Art Gallery news conference.

Instead of listing four or five of the lowest-cost, top-priority actions, Mr. Schmoke named Planning Department Deputy Director Rachel Edds to coordinate the overall effort.

"The next basic job is to try to identify first steps," Ms. Edds said late last week.

That job will be done over the next few weeks. It will include naming the organizations best-equipped to act on the mayor's priorities.

"A part of what we're doing here," Mr. Edds said, "is laying out a vision for 20 years."

Meanwhile, some people who helped draft the study are eager to move ahead. Here are some recommendations for quick, low-cost action:

* Traffic patterns. Traffic proposals that don't require huge capital expenditures generally come under two categories: diverting traffic away from smaller residential streets, and slowing traffic down in retail and commercial areas.

In 2010, the report envisions "neighborhood parks, streets landscaped with a variety of trees and flowering planters, and less traffic through our communities makes life safer and more attractive while improving downtown's natural environment."

Creating a new leg of the light-rail line and bringing it across Pratt Street can't even be considered for a few years. It's too expensive. So is the proposal to lower elevated sections of the Jones Falls Expressway along downtown's eastern edge.

But the city can begin immediately to create a hierarchy of downtown streets that sends commuter traffic to the perimeter of the area and allows local traffic to move unfettered in the residential areas. That can be done, the report says, by making streets in the residential neighborhoods two-way, with curb parking on both sides and with traffic lights timed to slow down the cars.

To enhance Charles Street's retail and pedestrian character, the report recommends similar action: opening the street to two-way traffic, while allowing curb parking where possible.

"Those are the kinds of things that you can easily experiment with by getting some signs and some traffic cones and trying it out for a few weeks," said David Benn, a principal of Cho, Wilks & Benn architects.

* Zoning changes. The report divides downtown into six separate districts, each with its own distinctive characters. And it recommends various zoning changes to encourage the types of development most appropriate for each district.

It's true that the elimination of The Block, and its redevelopment for office and retail uses, cannot be done without money and time -- and, like many other suggestions, can't be

done by the mayor alone.

But a change in the business district's Floor Area Ratios -- the number that tells developers how many square feet they can build on a particular lot -- to encourage more concentrated development requires only political action by the city.

Likewise, new regulations to promote active street-level use of retail buildings, or to lower the FARs in residential areas such as Mount Vernon, demand no capital investment -- only the will of the mayor and City Council.

Cathedral Hill in Mount Vernon and the entire East Side district could be designated urban renewal areas, as the report suggests, if the city simply decides to take those steps.

* Organizational and design actions. Some of the more involved organizational changes, such as putting the entire downtown area into one police, housing and sanitation district, require the cost of revising administrative plans. But no capital expenditures would be needed, and the move could save money in the operational budget in the long term.

David Gillece, acting president of Center City-Inner Harbor Development Inc., said that he and Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the quasi-public Downtown Partnership

of Baltimore, have started discussing "how we rationally divide the activities of our two organizations."

For most of the districts, the report calls for new urban design plans and guidelines, and "developing guidelines doesn't usually cost a lot, unless you have to bring in a consultant," Ms. Schwartz said.

In fact, a group of American Institute of Architects members already did work in some of those areas as part of the two-year downtown strategy process, and Mr. Benn said he and his colleagues are willing to continue their work. "Actual plans exist for some of these verbalized suggestions," he said, and are sitting in the city's planning department.

* Historic preservation. If the preservation "vision" articulated in the report becomes reality, by the year 2010 "a clear, predictable set of incentives and controls [will have] encouraged preservation of individual buildings and historic districts, allowing them to retain a sense of time and place within the context of an evolving, economically vital city."

The report calls for the mayor to appoint a Designation Advisory Committee to rank the significance of all existing buildings and districts and to work with the architectural preservation commission to determine which buildings and districts

should be protected.

Through action by the mayor and City Council, urban renewal plans should be amended to reflect the new designations, the report suggests. Citizen panels should be established as arbiters when needed.

These and a few other historic preservation ideas would cost the city nothing in capital expenditures and very little in administrative costs. And, said developer Daniel P. Henson III, a member of the mayor's Downtown Strategy Advisory Committee, the political costs would be low as well.

To the surprise of most participants, Mr. Henson said, there was very little conflict over historic preservation ideas. Business and preservation groups got along well during the process, he said.

"I think that whole section [of the report] can start," Mr. Gillece said.

Ultimately, the ability to turn the "Renaissance Continues" report into reality does not rest solely in the hands of the mayor, people involved in the planning process agreed. The same spirit of consensus that drew 300 people into the process -- about 295 more than when Baltimore's first renewal plan was devised in the late 1950s -- will be needed to implement many proposals, participants stressed.

Still, while the renaissance report may need the cooperation of many players to bring it to life, some noted that without Mr. Schmoke's affirmative action, it's not likely to get off the starting block.

"I think the whole difference between whether this sits on a shelf or gets done," Mr. Gillece said, is action from the mayor.

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