Symphony Center opening with hope


The first phase of Baltimore's new Symphony Center -- two rectangular brick office buildings and a parking garage that hug Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall -- has just opened, amid hope that what was a long-vacant urban patch will become a popular midtown business and residential complex on Park Avenue.

With the "S" in "symphony" displayed like a treble clef on the exterior signs, the public-private project is considered one of the most ambitious revitalization efforts outside the Inner Harbor.

This week, the governor's office officially opened the two three-story, 120,000- square-foot buildings and a 650-space parking garage behind them and indicated that ground could be broken next door in the summer on a 135-unit residential building. Retail shops and restaurants also are planned.

State officials say the $35 million project is the most significant result in the city of the Smart Growth policy -- which aims to concentrate resources and control sprawl to improve quality of life. The state contributed $6.2 million to the construction, which began in 2000.

Neighbors said the new development offers access to cultural venues and small local businesses, including restaurants.

Contemplating the spherical brick symphony building at 1212 Cathedral St. and the rooftop of the Belvedere Hotel outside his second-story window at 1040 Park Ave., Baltimore Jewish Times publisher Andrew A. Buerger said the location offers "walkability," a concept that worked well for the waterfront.

The newspaper is a short walk from a source of much of its coverage -- the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore -- and a number of coffee shops, Buerger said. It's also close to public transportation -- the light rail and the Metro subway.

State officials said the intent was to offer public transit access, to concentrate investment and spruce up the drab 6 acres of state-owned land, site of the former Baltimore Life Insurance company and a long stone's throw from the 5th Regiment Armory and the old train station tower at Maryland Institute College of Art.

"This is an important milestone in our Smart Growth efforts in Baltimore City, because it brings together retail, office and residential buildings as well as cultural opportunities, all centered around transit," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said.

"Location, location, location," stands out for Anne Dooley, a teacher for Baltimore Reads Inc., a nonprofit literacy organization that moved to the first floor of 1010 Park Ave. two months ago from cramped rowhouse quarters on Read Street.

Marlene C. McLaurin, the chief executive officer of Baltimore Reads Inc., said that being in the center of the cultural arts center is uplifting to her staff and clients.

"For our learners, our welfare-to-work population, the light rail makes it easier," McLaurin said. "This location will enhance our learners' self-esteem, with almost a campuslike setting, and it will for my staff as well."

The buildings have a red brick exterior and green awnings, which contrast against the brown brick of the modernist Meyerhoff. In the lobby, gleaming glass and chrome doors, blue-flecked black marble tile floors, mirrored elevators and green lampposts hint that the project is expected to be a fix for the struggling area around two of the city's leading cultural institutions, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Theater on Mount Royal Avenue.

"It brings resources and new life to that area, so it certainly is Smart Growth," said Suzanne Bond, a Maryland Transit Administration spokeswoman. "The community is becoming more vibrant, because it adds more activity."

The office buildings are nearly full, with a mix of government, nonprofit and media organizations. A & R Development, Symphony Center's lead developer, plans to break ground in the summer on a grassy stretch bordering the buildings, at Chase Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

A few said they look forward to amenities such as a newspaper stand or an restaurant on the site. While some worry a seven-story residential building will spoil the streetscape vista, others expect it to animate the area.

Officials see the project as an extension of downtown and a gateway to the city's heart. "Parking downtown, that's right up there with oxygen!" said Ernie Odom, a computer instructor at Baltimore Reads Inc., as he spoke of the new parking lot with assigned spaces.

While the symphony is not officially connected to the project, President John Gidwitz said he is delighted to have new neighbors and the extra parking.

"An empty lot is not a ideal environment," he said, adding, "We were on the edge of not quite anywhere. This tucks us into Mount Vernon and Mount Royal."

Brenda Davenport, head of security for a Social Security office in the center, said the federal agency, which includes several administrative judges, moved from the Rotunda about a month ago. Already, she said, she has noticed a change in people's habits: "A lot of people put their cars down, and are taking the subway or light rail. And I hear them saying, 'I'm going over to get tickets,'" from the Meyerhoff across the street.

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