One of the gateways to the area where Baltimore's Artscape festival is held every year is about to become more "pedestrian friendly."
A forbidding concrete skywalk over Preston Street, constructed in 1976 as part of the state office complex, will be demolished within a year and replaced with a landscaped, at-grade promenade linking Eutaw and Howard streets.
Maryland's General Assembly approved $601,072 this spring to remove the overhead "pedway," which measures 150 feet by 280 feet and cost $5.3 million to build. The demolition funds became available July 1.
The project is part of a plan to enhance the area around the Mount Royal Cultural District, home of the Lyric Opera House, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the annual Artscape festival.
It also could help relieve a shortage of parking near the cultural center, where a group headed by Hope Quackenbush wants to build a $60 million performing arts center to replace the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Charles Center.
Parking space is already at a premium in the Mount Royal area. The third performing arts center, proposed for the former Baltimore Life Insurance Co. property at 901 N. Howard St., would generate a need for even more spaces.
The state has hundreds of spaces available for evening use on surface lots west of Eutaw Street, several blocks from the district. But symphony and theater patrons typically don't use them, in part because they aren't visible from the existing performance halls.
If the Preston Street pedway were removed and the Preston Street corridor were well lighted and patrolled at night, planners say, arts patrons would be more inclined to use the state office complex parking lots.
The at-grade walkway also would provide a direct link between the State Center Metro Station, at Eutaw and Preston streets, and the Mount Royal Cultural Center's light rail stop on Howard Street near Preston.
"It will be a much more pleasant connection once the promenade and lighting are in place," said Anand Bhandari, chief of planning design for the state's Office of Planning. "It will improve the whole area."
The master plan for the state office complex, designed by Victor Gruen Associates in the 1960s, called for the construction of a half-dozen mammoth office buildings, all connected by an elaborate skywalk system that would separate pedestrians from vehicles by putting them on different levels.
But state officials never implemented the full development plan VTC and are unlikely to do so. In recent years, the Department of General Services has launched an aggressive campaign to buy or lease existing office buildings rather than expand the state office complex.
The Preston Street pedway is a remnant of the more grandiose development plan. It has been plagued with leaks, cracks and
other defects, such as a malfunctioning escalator. In 1982, state officials called it "unfit for the use for which it was intended."
Gruen Associates designed the pedway to link the Herbert R. O'Conor building at 201 W. Preston St. and the 13-story office building at 301 W. Preston St. with others that would have risen around them. It is actually a free-standing structure that can be taken down with little disruption to adjacent buildings.
Performing arts center
Besides the $601,072 for the pedway removal, the General Assembly allocated $150,000 this year to help pay for feasibility and planning studies to determine the need for a new performing arts center on the Baltimore Life site.
After reviewing six proposals, the state Office of Planning has hired a team headed by A.M.S. Planning and Research Corp. of Fairfield, Conn., to complete a "marketing and financial feasibility study" at a cost of about $80,000. Other team members include Jules Fisher/Joshua Dachs Associates, theater planning and design consultants; Donnell Consultants, cost consultants; and Ernst and Young, real estate advisers.
The team has been asked to assess use patterns of existing performing halls in downtown and midtown Baltimore and the need for new ones. Its report is due Oct. 1. If it indicates the project is viable, planners say, then they will hire an architect, using funds allocated by the General Assembly and others.