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An architect who helped guide Baltimore to a new era

Many people claim credit for the success of Baltimore's Charles Center and Inner Harbor renewal areas. David A. Wallace is one individual who actually deserves it.

The nationally known architect and urban planner, who was found dead in his Philadelphia home last week, led teams that created master plans to guide the redevelopment of Charles Center and the Inner Harbor shoreline - the starting points for Baltimore's much-vaunted renaissance.

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In the process, he showed the country how attractive and livable a city can be when it's built according to strong planning principles rather than by happenstance.

"He will be remembered as one of the shapers of Baltimore's urban design successes," said M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which oversees downtown development. "The open spaces. The frame around the Inner Harbor. The placement of tall buildings. His strong urban design convictions have shaped downtown Baltimore as we know it and have received national and international acclaim for decades."

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"He was a legitimate star" in the planning profession, said Martin Millspaugh, former chief executive of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc. and now vice chairman of Enterprise Real Estate Services.

"He didn't draw pretty pictures that would never be built. He developed plans that could be carried out. He espoused an action-oriented, growth-management type of professional planning on behalf of decision makers in cities large and small. ... His plans assisted Baltimoreans in making their city an international model for other cities in crisis, combating urban and suburban sprawl."

He was a "brilliant, brilliant man" with a rare ability to get the public to accept complicated design concepts, and he delighted in proving the skeptics wrong, said Barbara Bonnell, deputy director of the Greater Baltimore Committee in the 1950s and longtime director of information for Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management.

"People would look at his work and say, 'It's a good idea, but I'll never see it built in my lifetime,' " Bonnell recalled. "He took that as a challenge, and he loved challenges."

The bodies of Wallace, 86, and his wife Joan, 83, were found in their Philadelphia home on Monday by a healthcare worker, after what police called a double suicide.

David Wallace had been suffering from prostate cancer; his wife was terminally ill with heart disease. Both had apparently taken alcohol mixed with crushed pills and were found lying in bed with plastic bags over their heads. A note on their front door said, "Come in."

News of the Wallaces' deaths came as a shock to their friends and colleagues, many of whom said they weren't even aware David had cancer. They described him as a private man who couldn't bear the thought of living without his wife. They also noted that it wasn't out of character for a man who planned so much in life to plan his death as well.

"I got the impression he didn't do anything casually," said Mame Warren, director of Hopkins History Enterprises at the Johns Hopkins University. Warren is curating an exhibit about Charles Center and the Inner Harbor that will go on display at Hopkins' Downtown Center and said Wallace had been sending her material. "This man needs to be celebrated," she said.

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Baltimore work

Born in Chicago, David Alexander Wallace Jr. grew up and studied in Philadelphia. Though he worked in many cities, none benefited from his efforts more than Baltimore. In a memoir published this year, Urban Planning/My Way, Wallace said his Baltimore experience was "the major one of my professional life."

Wallace's first job in Baltimore was director of the Greater Baltimore Committee's Planning Council, from 1957 to 1961. His charge was to create a master plan to guide redevelopment of the 33-acre renewal area known as Charles Center. Others on his team were Jeremiah O'Leary, John Adelson, George Kostritsky, Harry Cooper and Bill Potts.

The effort marked one of the first times a city attempted large-scale urban renewal involving downtown property controlled by a number of owners, and it became a model for revitalization efforts nationwide.

Unlike other projects at the time, the Charles Center plan didn't call for demolition of the area. Instead, it incorporated several distinguished older structures, such as the Lord Baltimore Hotel. It also proposed a mix of uses, including offices, housing, shops, restaurants and a theater, with open spaces for recreation and underground parking.

Another unusual aspect of Charles Center was the high percentage of private developers involved, according to architect Charles Lamb. "We had private parking garages under public streets and private buildings over public plazas," he said. "It is very complicated to build that way. In its time, the plan was unheard of - eons ahead of what other cities were doing."

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With Charles Center under construction in 1961, Wallace returned to Philadelphia to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later, he co-authored with land planner Ian McHarg a benchmark study, "Plan for the Green Spring and Worthington Valleys," a blueprint for preserving 80 square miles of open space in Baltimore County.

In 1963, Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin announced plans to redevelop the Inner Harbor shoreline and tapped Wallace to lead the design effort. Wallace asked McHarg and architects William Roberts and Thomas Todd to join him, forming the firm of Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd (now Wallace Roberts & Todd). Over the next 25 years, Wallace and his partners designed all of the Inner Harbor's promenades, piers, bridges and fountains, and set design controls for all private development. The Inner Harbor has reportedly won more design awards than any comparable project in the United States.

Inner Harbor frame

As with Charles Center, the strength of the Inner Harbor plan lay in design principles that subordinated individual buildings to the total composition, so the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts. Wallace's firm also proposed the idea of creating an urban frame consisting of relatively low buildings along Pratt and Light streets, punctuated by towers at strategic locations. The frame gives the lakelike harbor basin a sense of containment without making it seem too walled-in.

"I am convinced that this frame is a primary cause of the feeling of well-being that everyone enjoys along the shoreline," Millspaugh said. "You get out on the shoreline and you just feel good. You don't know why, but it's because of the frame."

Wallace suggested that Baltimore create an Architectural Review Board to critique designs of all key buildings planned for downtown - one of the first such bodies in the country - and served as the first secretary of the panel.

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After retiring in 1991, Wallace received a slew of honors, including the Distinguished Leadership Award from the American Planning Association in 2003. This summer, WRT was named Firm of the Year by the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Even in retirement, Wallace remained intensely interested in Baltimore developments, attending a reunion of Charles Center planners several years ago and challenging design proposals that ignore his recommendations

Wallace didn't always get his way. He never persuaded the city to build a pedestrian mall linking City Hall with the shoreline. He couldn't make the notorious Block disappear. He's seen the 10-story urban frame threatened by several developers seeking to build taller structures close to the water's edge. But for the most part, his basic principles have held up well and continue to guide Inner Harbor development to this day. That's a tribute to his vision and ability to sell his ideas.

There are those who will argue that cities are the ultimate expressions of human nature, and can never be planned down to the last detail. Wallace's life and work are testaments that, to a very real degree, they can. Baltimore is a better city for having sought, and followed, his advice.


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