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City's new look is softer, greener

The Baltimore Sun

When the city constructed Center Plaza in the 1960s, it was a symbol of Baltimore's new industrial modernity.

Towering office buildings hugged a 3-acre concrete expanse, interrupted only by the small park benches and skinny trees that dotted its rounded borders. It was Spartan and simple.

But what was once considered modern is now regarded as austere and unwelcoming.

So yesterday, Mayor Sheila Dixon and others gathered at the plaza, just west of Charles Street and north of Fayette Street, to unveil a part of the new Baltimore: an almost completely grassy expanse criss-crossed by wide walkways and embellished with new trees and white, purple and yellow flowers.

"When it originally opened, they were trying to set up an environment where people would come and enjoy themselves," said Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, which is heading the makeover. "But it turns out, it was just inhospitable."

The mayor applauded the opening as part of an effort to bring green space - land put aside for recreation in concentrated residential and industrial areas - to the city.

After an extensive 14-month makeover and five years of political wrangling that tripped up the reconstruction, the park is ready for weekend picnics, music shows and outdoor movies - almost.

Though it formally opened yesterday, officials from the Downtown Partnership said construction probably won't be finished until September. "Welcome to the reopening of Center Plaza," said partnership President Kirby Fowler yesterday, "or 90 percent of Center Plaza."

Construction workers were out in the morning and continued after the ceremony. The park's nine fountains won't be functional for 10 more days. Stacks of granite and rolls of wiring litter one side of the plaza, and a portion that runs along the BGE building is still fenced off.

But that the renovation even occurred is a testament to how important many think this location is to Baltimore. Its supporters jumped over hurdles to get to yesterday's celebration.

"This was a labor of love," said Sister Helen Amos, board chairwoman for the Downtown Partnership and executive chairwoman of Mercy Health Service's board of trustees, "but this was a labor."

In 2002, the partnership decided to redesign the park to create a more welcoming gathering space. Private contributors, as well as the city, state and federal government, pledged money.

But before construction began, the city and state threatened to reduce their shares. In 2005, the project was slowed again when the owner of the parking garage beneath the plaza asked for $750,000 to guarantee that construction would be sound. The partnership handed control of the project to the city, since it had the power to trudge ahead without the garage owner's consent.

In March 2006, construction finally got under way.

The project's cost grew, from an estimated $5.6 million to almost $7.5 million. The city and state each chipped in $2 million, and each of three private contributors - lawyer and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Southern Management Corp. - added almost $1 million each. The federal government picked up the remaining $600,000.

Before the remodeling, Center Plaza had become known as "a place you wouldn't want to hang out," said John Pryor, one of the electricians installing lighting along the walkways yesterday. It was "beat up," he said.

But it hadn't always been that way. Before the plaza was built in the 1960s, the area was a commercial district full of shoe stores and a few movie theaters. As part of a redevelopment effort, the area was ripped up and refurbished into the unadorned plaza that followed the architectural style of the time.

During the 1960s and 1970s, it served some city purposes. A Sun photo from 1973 shows that it was home to the occasional art exhibit, including a towering sculpture that resembled an enormous decaying piece of wood. It was also the original home of the now-defunct Baltimore City Fair and was frequently used as a popular protest site.

But in 1980 when the city opened Harborplace in an effort to revive downtown, businesses and travelers shifted their attention to the Inner Harbor. The plaza deteriorated and became known as a gathering spot for the homeless.

"It was a bit in need of repair - to say the least," said Lynne Tognochi, a lifelong Baltimorean who works by the plaza and who stopped there yesterday to take advantage of the free food, music and new carpet of grass.

The plaza is particularly important because of its location - in the backyard of more than 2,000 residents, 8,000 employees and thousands of visitors staying in nearby hotels, according to the Downtown Partnership.

It's at a crossroad between the city's main business district and the west side and is in the midst of a major transportation corridor that includes several bus lines and a number of nearby Metro stops. The plaza is near two hotels and is surrounded by apartment buildings and businesses. More apartments are set to open on Lexington Street this summer.

The hope is that the refurbishment will get people into the plaza and local businesses. But for the past year, the entrances to many of the bordering businesses have been obscured from public view.

"It was terrible," said Grace Chong, who owns King's Garden Cafe, a buffet place that sells everything from sushi to Power Bars. She said she has had difficulty paying her mortgage, car loan and employees because of construction. "Maybe it will get better."

Fowler said he thinks business will improve. The partnership is organizing an outdoor movie for the summer, as well as a wine-and-art stroll. Plans are set for an employee appreciation celebration next week.

At the opening, Dixon said her goal is to create a city that is "clean and green and healthy," reiterating a campaign theme.

Plans for the new green space include a park steward program that employs three workers to oversee the park from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day.

Center Plaza was alive yesterday during its opening. One couple was so eager that they tried to cross through before the official opening, causing a public safety guide to chase them down and shoo them off the manicured grounds.


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