Planning under way for Old Town makeover

The Baltimore Sun

It has designed new housing to replace Church Home Hospital on Broadway and laid the groundwork for the biotech park taking shape north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus.

Now a nationally prominent team of urban designers has been hired to recommend ways to revitalize another large swath of East Baltimore - the Old Town renewal area and surroundings.

Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh heads a group that was selected this year by Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration to create a master plan to guide redevelopment of 400 acres that lie between downtown Baltimore and the medical campus.

The area has become a repository for some of the harsher elements of urban life, including prisons, way stations for the homeless and abandoned buildings surrounded by barbed wire. But because it's so close to downtown and Hopkins, it also attracts interest from developers.

The city is seeking a vision for transforming the area into a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood or series of neighborhoods with businesses, shops, housing and public spaces, and using the transformed property to create a stronger connection between downtown and the Hopkins campus.

As part of the study, city officials also want to know how to provide better access to the area and take more advantage of assets there, including Dunbar High School, Sojourner Douglass College and the restored houses on Stirling Street.

"It's a case of addressing a variety of issues by putting them in a broader framework," said city planning director Doug McCoach.

"If you look at any one parcel, you get solutions in scale with that parcel," he explained. "If you look at the whole area, you can look at bigger ideas - mixed-use strategies, high-quality open spaces. It's a way to reshuffle the deck a bit and identify opportunities that might be hidden in plain sight."

Old Town is one of the three original sections of Baltimore, along with Jonestown and Fells Point. Because it is not on the waterfront, it has largely been bypassed by the rebuilding activity that has helped rejuvenate the Inner Harbor and Fells Point shorelines.

Planners describe the area as a "hole in the doughnut" because though much of the land is relatively underused, the area is surrounded by strong institutions and neighborhoods.

Some changes are already in the works. The Baltimore Development Corp. has selected a group headed by Continental Realty to build a grocery store and other commercial space in Old Town. In recent months, developers have unveiled plans to build three moderate-priced hotels on Fallsway just south of Gay Street. The Housing Authority of Baltimore City plans to raze a public housing complex, Somerset Homes, to make way for new development.

The Old Town study area is bounded roughly by Fallsway on the west, Fayette Street on the south, North Broadway on the east and East Madison Street on the north.

Urban Design Associates is nationally known for creating master plans for mixed-use communities in urban areas. It was selected from among eight groups.

The planning effort will take about six months; the city's budget is about $300,000. Other members of the Urban Design team include the Cobalt Group, an economic analyst from Pittsburgh; Marks Thomas Architects of Baltimore; and RK&K;, a Baltimore engineering firm.

A public meeting has been set for 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Pleasant View Gardens Community Center, 201 N. Aisquith St., to launch the planning effort.

McCoach said the team was chosen in large part because the selection panel was impressed with the team members' knowledge of the city and vision for the area.

"We were struck by their notion of how all the different pieces of the puzzle could come together to create something that's bigger than what's there today," he said. "They understand the synergy we're looking for."

Paul Ostergaard, a principal of Urban Design, said he believes the area has strong potential though it has suffered from lack of investment.

Ostergaard said his team plans to meet with stakeholders to gather information about the area and to conduct two charettes - intensive, short-term planning exercises - as it develops its master plan. He applauds the city's leaders for wanting to look at the big picture.

From a "smart growth" perspective, he said, "this is the most sustainable form of growth you can imagine, because you're taking part of a great city and recycling it. We can see a lot more people living there, a lot of jobs created there. It's an amazing location."

Monumental Life tour

As part of a yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary, Monumental Life Insurance Co. is opening its headquarters in the 1100 block of N. Charles St. for the general public to tour from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

The open house is a rare opportunity to explore the building, which is filled with antiques. Visitors will also be able to see the old treasury vault that has been buried under Charles Street since 1939. Monumental Life's actual anniversary is Wednesday.

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