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World's grand avenues shape visions of Pratt Street

The Baltimore Sun

Will Baltimore's Pratt Street ever be the equivalent of Chicago's Michigan Avenue or New York's Fifth Avenue, or perhaps even the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris?

Or are they the wrong images to hold out?

Those questions came up during a recent presentation by architects from Ayers Saint Gross and others hired this year to come up with ideas for strengthening 16 blocks of Pratt Street as a destination for tourists and residents.

Adam Gross, one of the principals of Baltimore-based Ayers Saint Gross, suggested that city planners look at grand avenues in Chicago, New York, Paris and elsewhere as a way to determine what is possible downtown and what Baltimoreans might strive for.

His firm often prepares drawings and image boards that compare places it is studying with places that are considered highly successful, and those are what he showed members of Baltimore's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel.

"There have to be some big moves" on Pratt Street, Gross said, "or else we're just tinkering."

After participating in a limited design competition, a team headed by Ayers Saint Gross and Olin Partnership was selected this year to recommend ways to enliven Pratt Street from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to President Street.

Their preliminary ideas included converting Pratt Street from one-way traffic to two-way traffic and adding buildings where the Legg Mason Tower plaza and the McKeldin Fountain are, among other locations. They dubbed Pratt Street the "Avenue of the Inner Harbor."

Most review panel members said they appreciated the overview and offered suggestions for what to explore next. But one influential public official who attends the panel's meetings (and served on the jury that selected the Ayers Saint Gross/Olin team), indicated that he was not entirely convinced by the comparisons with other cities.

"It's useful to look at historic stuff, but I think it's time to put it away," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which oversees downtown development.

"Those streets represent the best quality of shopping in America," Brodie said of Fifth and Michigan avenues. "I don't think that's where we are today."

Fifth and Michigan avenues are lined with shops and restaurants on two sides, whereas much of Pratt Street has retail activity on its north side but not the south, Brodie noted. In addition, Chicago and New York have larger populations that can support more commercial activity, he said.

"I think you have to focus much more on this situation," he told the designers, suggesting that they propose short-, medium- and long-term "interventions" for Pratt Street.

"We should think of it as: "What is a Baltimore response to a Baltimore situation?' ... I don't think it's even helpful to think of it in terms of these other situations. ... I don't think our reach should exceed our grasp. ... We should take it for what it is and not try to make it something that it is not."

Gross appeared stung by Brodie's response. He said Baltimoreans ought to set their sights high and that looking at precedents in other cities helps people see what is possible.

"I know you don't mean to suggest that we shouldn't have aspirations," he said to Brodie. "We need to look at other models."

"It's not in any way to denigrate the way Baltimore is. We should allow ourselves to stretch," Brodie said. But "we should add in increments and allow ourselves to be successful in increments."

The exchange of ideas, during a two-hour meeting attended by several dozen people, underscored two extremes of looking at ways to rejuvenate urban areas.

One is to think big and see what ideas have worked elsewhere and how they could be applied to Baltimore. The other is to take a more pragmatic approach, see what conditions exist here that may be obstacles for builders, and either decide what can be achieved despite those obstacles or how to overcome them.

The architects say they plan to meet with property owners along Pratt Street and other "stakeholders" throughout the summer and aim to have a final "concept plan" by September.

Among the issues to be decided are whether Pratt Street should have one-way traffic or two-way traffic and what parcels are ripe for redevelopment. The improvements will be carried out in phases over the next six to 10 years.

Political forum

Candidates for citywide office in Baltimore will share their views about historic preservation and historic neighborhoods during a free public forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Baltimore Student Center, 21 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Baltimore Heritage Inc. and the Baltimore City Historical Society have organized the event to give candidates for mayor, City Council president and comptroller a chance to share their ideas and take questions from the audience about Baltimore history, preservation and other history-related topics.

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