More darts thrown at UB student center plan


The University of Baltimore's plan to build a $13.9 million student center in the Mount Vernon historic district, already under fire from local preservationists and the Maryland Historical Trust, has encountered opposition from a new source - the state's Architectural Review Board.

Panel members voted 5-1 last week to withhold approval of preliminary plans for a six-level structure designed to replace the 1915 Odorite building at the southeast corner of Maryland and Mount Royal avenues.

During a 90-minute review session, panel members applauded university officials for wanting to build a student center but issued a scathing critique of plans for the proposed building, designed by Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects.

The panelists said the design was a "jarring juxtaposition" of forms and materials, not "pedestrian friendly," and confusing in its layout.

They questioned why a 200-seat theater was located on the top floor rather than closer to street level, and why the Maryland Avenue facade was mostly a blank wall, when the architects had said they wanted to bring in as much natural light as possible.

They didn't dwell much on the proposal to raze the two-story Odorite Building, which was built as a showroom for the Monumental Motor Car Co., saying the preservation issue would have to be decided at a different forum.

"Personally, I don't think the Odorite Building is that spectacular," review panel member Steve Ziger told the university's architects. "I think it would be great to do a great building in this location. I don't think this is the great building to replace Odorite. I don't think you're there yet."

The student center will contain a book store, convenience store, food service, offices and meeting rooms and student organizations, lounges, multipurpose room and the theater. The university wants to open it by the summer of 2005.

The meeting represented the first time that plans for the student center have gone before the architectural board, one of several public groups that review plans for key building projects in Baltimore. It was also the first University of Baltimore project to come to the panel since Robert Bogomolny became its president last summer. Asked to address the board members, Bogomolny said he wanted to get their reaction to the design. "I'm just here to learn," he said.

The state panel is generally less harsh in its comments than the city's sometimes vituperative Design Advisory Panel, but that was not the case at this session.

Ziger, who has an office in Mount Vernon, started by commending the architects for taking a "sculptural approach" to the project. But he expressed concern about the way they put forms and materials together.

"It's trying to do too many things," he said. "You have a real problem. This is a jarring juxtaposition. I don't think it's integrated as a building. It's a collision of elements. I think there are fundamental problems with it."

Ziger also questioned the size of the student center and the "opacity" of the design.

"You're trying to put a whole lot into a tight space," he said. "Urbanistically, aren't you concerned about a blank wall along Maryland Avenue?"

Panel member Carol Macht, a landscape architect, praised the university's leaders for wanting to make the building a magnet for students and community residents, but said she didn't think the exterior was very inviting.

"It's missing that sense of friendliness at the street," she said. "It should feel more inviting. ... You have no sense, from looking at that ground level, that there are lively things happening [inside].

"One of the things that hurts about taking the Odorite Building down is that it had a pedestrian scale," Macht said, as if the building were already gone. "It was pleasant to walk around it."

Panel member Melanie Hennigan said she would like to see more windows in the new building. "You have a lot of glass on your upper levels," she said. "It seems the retail level is where you would want the most glass. What's wrong with natural light in bathrooms and stairs?"

Hennigan also questioned the way the metal-clad cylinder stopped short of meeting the sidewalk. "Did you think of having that cylinder come all the way down?"

Panel member Ed Masek said the design reminded him of a museum.

"This is more jewel-like than the civic buildings around it - the Meyerhoff and the Lyric," he said. "I don't see a relationship to the Mount Vernon historic district, and this is a gateway to the Mount Vernon historic district. ... I'm just wondering whether or not this is too strong a statement in a student setting. I think it should go through another level of refinement."

A new panel member, James Louviere Sr., said he liked the combination of materials - including Jerusalem Gold stone and metal panels with a matte sheen - and believes the designers are headed in the right direction. But Louviere was also the one to make the motion to "reject" the design. Another panel member suggested that Louviere reword his motion to say "withhold approval of" the design, because it sounded less harsh.

"I like the materials," Louviere said. But "they haven't jelled yet. It doesn't sit very easy with me just yet. ... There's no resolution with how the curved portion meets up with the glass."

The only member who didn't turn down the proposal was J. Jay Pecora. He said he represents the engineers' perspective on the panel and didn't see any deficiencies with the engineering aspects of the design, so he didn't vote to withhold approval.

Architects Michael Murphy and James Suttner said they had reasons for making the building look the way they did. They said they were limited in the extent to which they could open the book store to the street because they were told to have just one entrance for security reasons.

They explained that they put the theater on the top level because they wanted to reserve the street-level for spaces that get the most use, including the book store and food service, and the theater wouldn't be used as much.

Murphy defended the windowless section of the Maryland Avenue facade, "That Maryland Avenue facade is our favorite because we see it as a simple expression of two materials," he said. "I'm quite an advocate of urbanism myself, but I can think of some cases where a wall can just be a beautiful plane of stone."

Murphy said he believes the design team has made a good start. "We think we have a clear diagram," he said. "We think we have a very successful resolution. ... What I'm hearing is: 'How can we make it more human?'"

"I don't think you have a clear diagram," Ziger responded. "I don't see any order. Frankly, I think the plans are confusing. They're disorienting."

"OK, Steve," Murphy said.

Andrew Lewis, representing the Maryland Historical Trust at the meeting, said his agency objects to demolition of the Odorite Building and has asked the university to explore alternatives.

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