Road to future

The Baltimore Sun

Adam Gross imagines the gateway to downtown with all the grandeur of an Italian piazza: sparkling fountains, brilliantly designed restaurants and landscaped walkways that beckon visitors with a sense that the street itself is a destination.

Yesterday, Baltimore development officials endorsed that vision for the city's Pratt Street as they named Gross' firm, Baltimore-based Ayers Saint Gross, and Olin Partnership, of Philadelphia, the winners of a contest to redesign the main artery along Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"We want to create a much more beautiful and stronger sense of the public realm along the length of Pratt Street," said Gross, design principal at Ayers Saint Gross, who with a 10-member team found inspiration in some of the world's classiest boulevards - New York's Fifth Avenue, the Champs-Elysees in Paris, and Chicago's Michigan Avenue.

"We wanted to create a great series of public spaces," he said, "a great public corridor for the activities of the city."

But how to make it a reality is still in the works. Officials would not specify cost estimates, other than to say a complete makeover of Pratt Street would require a public-private partnership and take many years.

The Baltimore Development Corp., Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and the city departments of planning and transportation began soliciting design ideas for Pratt Street last year. In December, they narrowed a field of 10 to four finalists and awarded each a $25,000 grant to pursue proposals for remaking the 16-block stretch from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard east to President Street.

Last week, the finalists unveiled their proposals publicly at the Baltimore Convention Center, suggesting such dramatic changes as building boathouses along the harbor and demolishing the Pratt Street Pavilion of Harborplace.

BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie called the winning selection "extremely thorough and creative."

While some elements of the proposal could happen right away, others - such as transforming both eastbound Pratt Street and westbound Lombard Street into two-way thoroughfares - would need more consideration, said Brodie.

"It doesn't mean that each of these suggestions will turn out to be possible," he said. "But hopefully, as many of the ideas as possible can be retained."

In conceptualizing the design, architects aimed for stylish, inviting and environmentally friendly. Among the highlights are an east-west trolley system between President Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, bicycle lanes and a two-story, free-standing glass pavilion in front of the Legg Mason building at Light Street to house a top-notch restaurant.

McKeldin Plaza, at Light and Pratt streets, would receive a high-tech overhaul, with a giant "video wall" that would project scenes celebrating Baltimore's diverse cultural events or even a sold-out Ravens game.

"It's sort of a Times Square idea that is done in a more elegant, sophisticated way," said Gross.

The architects' overarching goal was to help Pratt Street feel more unified through a seamless design of lighting, landscaping and an intrinsic connection of water and land.

"We want to reinforce the connection of Baltimore to the harbor," said Betsy Boykin, landscape architect with Ayers Saint Gross. "So that wherever you are along the length of the street, you understand the connection of Pratt Street, and Baltimore itself, with water."

Large fountains would mark the gateways of Pratt at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and President Street, while smaller ones would run along the blocks in between, the water from which would be used to irrigate the surrounding landscape, said Boykin. Other green elements include solar-powered street lamps.

The proposal is the culmination of several years of discussions among city officials who have long agreed that Pratt Street deserved a face-lift. Chief on their priority list was doing away with the grassy mounds, or berms, on the sidewalks, which they said disrupt its urban character.

Designed in the 1970s, the grassy knolls were intended to create a buffer between pedestrians and vehicle exhaust, but they only ended up confusing people, said Kirby Fowler, president of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership. In addition, Fowler said, some people feel unsafe walking along the street, with some berms as tall as 5 feet preventing pedestrians from seeing their surroundings clearly.

Fowler said removing the mounds would be among the first redesigns to take place. "You see people walking down and they look disoriented and kind of scared," said Gross. "We don't need that space. Let's put the trees closer to the street, make a nice wide sidewalk and take the facades, pull them out further and make room for some new retail."

Gross noted that cities nationwide admire the planning behind Baltimore's Harborplace and that architects want to capitalize on an already good thing. In addition, Gross said he hopes the design inspires areas well beyond Pratt Street.

"Lombard is like the back of a refrigerator right now," he said. "But it should become more like Pratt Street. ... This should happen not just for the core of the city, but these same kinds of competitions and debates should happen citywide - in areas both poor and affluent."

City leaders envision Pratt Street as the connection between east and west revitalization efforts.

"The redesign of Pratt Street is extremely important to the future of downtown," said Fowler. "It's our welcome mat, basically. And, if anything, it should have the best qualities of the city reflected on it."

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