When it opened in 1970, Center Plaza was hailed as a model of urban design - a public open space critical to the success of Baltimore's 33-acre Charles Center renewal district.

But less than 30 years later, it had become so bleak and desolate that some city officials considered turning it into a parking lot.

"We're tossing the plan around," former public works director George Balog admitted in 1998. "Our observation is the plaza isn't being fully utilized."

This year city leaders are looking at plans of a different sort. Instead of turning one of downtown's few open spaces over to cars, they are exploring ways to bring it back as a magnet for people. In effect, they're seeking to renew the area where Baltimore's downtown renewal began.

Suggestions include adding grass and fountains, ringing the plaza with shops and cafes, and installing an ice rink in the winter and a stage for movies and concerts in the summer. Manhattan's Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center, Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, San Francisco's Union Square and Seattle's Westlake Park have all been mentioned as possible precedents.

The about-face in design attitudes about Center Plaza is due in large part to recent changes in the surrounding area, primarily an office district for the past 30 years. Since 2000, developers have opened or announced plans for more than 1,000 apartments all around Charles Center, making it much more of a neighborhood.

"It's a different time," said Marshall Snively, planning and urban design manager for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. "Charles Center is changing, and the plaza needs to reflect that."

"It's a chance to show there's a strong desire on the city's part to improve the quality of life for office workers, residents and visitors downtown," said Matt Damico of Design Collective, one of the design firms making suggestions.

Center Plaza is also important as the meeting point for three renewal areas - the Central Business District, Historic Charles Street and the West Side - and planners realize that improving the plaza could help all three. "There are very few good urban spaces in Baltimore," said architect David Benn. "This could make a big difference.

The plans under consideration are entries in a design competition sponsored by the Downtown Partnership, a business group established to promote and enhance the city's center. Last fall, the group commissioned five design teams to recommend ways to reinvigorate the plaza bounded roughly by Charles, Fayette and Liberty streets and the former bed of Lexington Street.

Participants were given $8,000 and three months to complete proposals, with the understanding that the winning team would be hired to carry out its ideas. Jan. 25 was the deadline for proposals for the plaza, which is actually the roof of the Downunder garage. Designers were asked to keep construction costs under $5 million.

The Downtown Partnership expects to announce a winner in the next week or so. Plans would then be refined and construction could begin next year. As part of the selection process, competitors presented their ideas to a seven-member jury earlier this month.

George Hargreaves and Glenn Allen of Hargreaves Associates showed examples of plazas in other countries as potential precedents for the Baltimore project, including the Campidoglio in Rome, the Place des Terraux in Lyons, France, and their own work at Figue Grove in Sydney, Australia.

Working with Cho Benn Holback + Associates of Baltimore, Hargreaves suggested filling the center of the plaza with a series of granite and metal platforms and steps that could provide casual seating or serve as an amphitheater for large performances. The platforms' design would echo the surrounding street grid, and their location in the center of the plaza would cause pedestrians to walk around the perimeter, patronizing shops there. A fountain, shade trees and small "meadow" would be introduced to soften the plaza.

A competing designer, Dennis Carmichael of EDAW in Alexandria, Va., said Americans have never warmed up to the idea of European-style plazas in their cities. EDAW's plan, developed with Design Collective of Baltimore, was one of several that recommended that the hard-surfaced plaza be filled with grass and trees.

"Americans aren't plaza people," Carmichael said. "We just aren't. It's not Spain. It's not Italy. ... That's why this [plaza] has not been successful. But Americans are lawn lovers. And lawns look good even when they're empty."

EDAW and Design Collective proposed a simple lawn as a foil for the office towers and apartments nearby, with walkways around the edges to cause people to walk past shops and cafes. The lawn would be sunken slightly below street level to make the area seem more cozy and framed with an edge that would give people places to sit.

This team also proposed that the green space be filled during the winter with a 70-by-140-foot ice rink; that a stage be created on the park's north end for concerts and outdoor movies, that a few retail kiosks be introduced, that existing elevator enclosures be turned into clock towers, and that the plaza be equipped with light poles and other equipment needed to handle festivals and other events throughout the year.

Other proposals came from:

Brown & Craig Inc. and Mahan Rykiel Associates, both of Baltimore, and Biederman Redevelopment Ventures Corp. of Chappaqua, N.Y.: Brown & Craig is the architect for the redesign of Charles Plaza at Charles and Saratoga streets, and Dan Biederman of BRV is an urban management consultant best known for reviving Bryant Park in Manhattan.

Team members proposed transforming Center Plaza with a mix of grass, pathways and structures, including a stairway that would link Center Plaza with Charles Plaza. The designers recommended that the staircase be part of a swirling glass sculpture so it would be fun to ascend and descend.

They recommended filling the green space with portable chairs that people could arrange to take advantage of the sun and shade or to form conversation groups.

Biederman stressed in his presentation that good design is only part of what's needed to make a successful public space. Also important, he said, are good maintenance, lighting, security, sanitation and concessions.

Thomas Balsley Associates and Todd W. Bressi - City Design, both from New York, and Hord Coplan Macht of Baltimore: More than any other group, this team proposed a "modern restoration" approach - saving as much as possible and building on what is already good about the plaza, while making it more extroverted.

This was the only group that advocated keeping the arc of mature trees and the oval design in the center of the plaza and reinforcing them with a curving glass canopy. Team members recommended adding a shallow oval pool that could turn into an ice rink during the winter, and introducing a glass elevator that could connect Center Plaza and Charles Plaza with the garage underneath. They stressed a light-handed, flexible approach that would be in keeping with the modernist spirit of Charles Center.

"We don't want Ye Olde Town Square," Balsley said. "We don't want the reinterpretation of a mall."

Rhodeside & Harwell of Alexandria, Va.: The group proposed transforming Center Plaza into a "green oasis," with a combination of grass, paving, "flower columns" for seasonal color, fountains and retail activity around the edges.

It also suggested widening the median strip along Fayette Street to create a landscaped area that provides a bridge of sorts between Hopkins Plaza and Center Plaza. In general, the area's image "needs to be greener, rather than gray," said landscape architect Elliot Rhodeside.

The five design teams disagreed in certain cases. Some wanted to extend the plaza out into Fayette Street by taking over the buses-only lane there, while others proposed cutting into the plaza at Fayette Street. Some wanted to move the bus shelter away from the open end of the plaza, while others suggested replacing it with even more substantial structures.

The competition has already had a positive effect, underscoring the importance of Center Plaza and the possibilities for bringing it back to life.

"It's difficult for one place to be all things to all people," Damico said, "but this is one place that has to do that."

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