Baltimore's downtown would include designated districts that are defined by unique building structures, and regulations would prohibit blocking views of the city's iconic structures under a proposed vision for future development.
City planners offered preliminary ideas on Thursday for new rules and guidelines to replace downtown's zoning regulations, which haven't been updated in nearly 40 years. The new zoning also would prohibit any new surface parking lots. The proposals will be incorporated into a new zoning code for the entire city through the Transform Baltimore initiative.
"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity ... to not be bound by the current rules and to improve urban design quality of the region," said Thomas J. Stosur, the city's planning director. "We need to address what is on the ground, but we can heighten the quality of the end product. This is a critical moment."
The current code was put in place at a time when planners expected most downtown redevelopment to occur northward into Mount Vernon, but much of the new construction instead has spread east and west and around the waterfront.
Planners hope to give the city tools to support growth while preserving its character. They are calling for livelier street-level activity including retail stories on several main streets: Charles, Pratt, Baltimore, Eutaw and Howard. They are proposing a single downtown zoning designation that would permit high-density commercial and residential uses.
They also want to prevent buildings from being demolished to make way for parking lots. "If someone tears a building down, they can green it while they wait to do a new building," said Laurie Feinberg, division chief of comprehensive planning.
A comprehensive plan the city adopted in 2007 called for a rewriting of the 1971 zoning code. Planners have been working on ideas since 2008 and hope to have a preliminary draft completed next month. To take effect, the code would need to be introduced as a city ordinance and adopted by the City Council.
Preliminary proposals from the planning department call for stricter guidelines on the look of garages on major streets downtown.
A new code also could incorporate stricter restrictions on height in four newly created "character districts," which are not historic districts but contain buildings with unique character. Those would include Redwood Street, several blocks of North Calvert including the courthouses, the 300 to 500 blocks of North Charles Street, and the 200 to 400 blocks of Howard Street.
Stosur said the intent of creating character districts is not to discourage new construction, but to ensure that new buildings are compatible with the existing ones.
Architect David Benn of Cho Benn Holback, who is working with the city to develop guidelines, said they could incorporate ways to preserve views of iconic structures or of the waterfront by protecting designated landmarks, such as the Bromo Seltzer Tower. Downtown views of the building could be blocked or altered when the city builds a new west side arena on the site of the 1st Mariner Arena, for instance. And if redevelopment occurs around the Shot Tower on the east side of downtown, Benn said, the tower could lose its prominence in the skyline.
Feinberg asked for feedback Thursday during a presentation to the city's Urban Development and Architecture Review Panel, which reviews the design of city development projects.
"There are definitive icons, and we ought to define them and take note so we can respond," panel member Gary Bowden said.
He called protecting distinctive views of buildings "politically charged, but a very brave thing to do. It's our only chance to have cohesion in downtown."
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., warned that guidelines should allow enough flexibility to encourage investment and growth downtown, but he said that has to be balanced with "preserving some of what makes Baltimore Baltimore, so downtown doesn't become Houston or Phoenix."