Downtown Baltimore comes back to earth

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

The indefatigable William Donald Schaefer frequently won praise for breathing new life into the old port city he presided over from 1971 to 1987. It’s one of history’s ironies that when the former Baltimore mayor (and two-term governor) died April 18 at age 89, the city’s current leadership had just announced yet another plan to reenergize the downtown.

That Baltimore would need to be revitalized — 30 years after Schaefer worked on that very project — was less a rebuff to the long-serving mayor than an admission of how temporary an “urban rebirth” usually is. Rarely does an urban turnaround resolve everything or do it permanently. As soon as one set of challenges is dealt with, another group of problems looms, and the city again has to marshal its resources.

On July 2, 1980, Baltimore celebrated the opening of Harborplace, the Rouse Company shopping, restaurant, and entertainment complex that became the talk of the nation. Harborplace attracted hordes of people to the previously derelict Inner Harbor; it extended the sense of rejuvenation that Baltimore had earlier gotten from constructing the downtown’s 33-acre Charles Center office complex.

Despite their importance as civic symbols, neither Charles Center nor Harborplace made a truly walkable downtown. So now Baltimore is launching a plan that would remedy some of the flaws in those projects and also confront another problem: a glut of office vacancies in the central business district. The plan’s goal: “connecting islands of downtown development into one seamless, mixed-use district.”

If the plan succeeds, the vacancy rate, now hovering around 19 percent, will diminish, and the number of people who live downtown — 41,300, up 11.6 percent since 2005 — will continue to expand.

Why does the downtown have so much vacant space? One reason is that many older buildings don’t suit today’s office tenants. Another reason is that businesses have been moving from the core of downtown to Inner Harbor East, a 70-acre mixed-use project that’s come into being in the past 15 years.

Harbor East was laid out by Ehrenkrantz & Eckstut to be lively and pedestrian-friendly, with narrow streets and varied activities, all within walking distance of Little Italy (loved for its restaurants) and the waterfront (where a brick promenade draws joggers and tourists). With offices, hotels, apartments, cinemas, restaurants, and shops in buildings up to 25 stories high, Harbor East enjoys comfortable connections to the waterfront — better connections than the downtown core offers.

Elevated walkways are out

“Downtown Baltimore is at another important juncture,” the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization of downtown businesses, declared in April in unveiling its Downtown Baltimore Strategic Plan. “The global recession,” the Partnership said, “reined in the dramatic investment, development, and residential growth of the past decade.”

To pull the downtown together and redo poorly used public spaces, the Partnership had a consultant team, led by Mahan Rykiel Associates, prepare a downtown open space plan that has been integrated into the Strategic Plan.

Tom McGilloway, Mahan Rykiel’s lead designer on the open space effort, points out that for the past several years, Baltimore has been removing walkways above street level. The open-air passages had been built as a complement to Harborplace — reflecting the modernist idea that pedestrians would be better off with their own circulation network, up above vehicular traffic.

“Basically, they made it easy for suburbanites to drive down and park in garages, walk directly to Harborplace where they could shop and eat, and then walk back to their cars and leave the city without experiencing the city itself,” Stuart Sirota, principal of TND Planning Group, says of the planning concepts that prevailed 30 or so years ago. “They were also primarily installed to allow pedestrians to avoid crossing the megastreets of Pratt and Lombard Streets, which became one-way couplets, at some points six lanes each.”

“My understanding is that people did not use them,” McGilloway says of the elevated passages. Their routes were sometimes circuitous, threading in and out of buildings. “My own experience as a resident,” McGilloway says, “is that I preferred to be on the sidewalks with other people.”

More than half the elevated walkways have now been removed. Eventually, says McGilloway, all of them will be gone.

Within the past three years, the City has also begun removing high earthen mounds, planted with locust trees, that had been installed to shield the sidewalks near Harborplace from the heavy traffic and vehicle exhaust of Pratt Street. The wide Pratt Street thoroughfare was “was designed first and foremost for highway traffic,” observes Downtown Partnership Vice President Michael Evitts. It remains an obstacle to pedestrians and in need of redesign.

The mounds along Pratt are being leveled, and new trees are being installed to create a larger tree canopy. As for the roadway itself, Evitts says the long-term goal is to change the lane configuration “to be more of a boulevard.”

Some areas along Pratt have sidewalks 35 to 40 feet wide, says Evitts. The Partnership and city officials think they could be narrowed, allowing “lower buildings with restaurant and retail uses” to be fitted in next to the sidewalks.

In 2008, Sheila Dixon, mayor at the time, embraced a number of concepts for Pratt Street, including introduction of street-front retail. Stores and restaurants up against the sidewalks would “improve the pedestrian experience” and make the area more lively, Evitts believes. There have been talks with companies, including General Growth Properties, about constructing a substantial volume of retail space on the north side of Pratt, opposite Harborplace. So far, the depressed economy has delayed progress on that idea.

Problems with plazas

Charles Center, planned in the late 1950s, has buildings that turn their backs on the streets, instead looking onto secluded plazas. The semi-hidden plazas have only modest appeal these days, and, with their extensive concrete, “they have not aged well,” Evitts says.

The open space plan offers a menu of potential remedies for the failings of the plazas and other outdoor spaces. These include removal of obstructing buildings (particularly in cases where passersby have hardly a clue that a plaza is nearby), “turning hardscape into greenscape,” and scheduling events in the spaces. Of Hopkins Plaza, for example, McGilloway says, “Most people on the perimeter streets don’t know it’s there.”

On downtown streets that now have blank walls at ground level, the hope is that active uses such as stores and restaurants can be inserted, making the streets more inviting. At an office building that was headquarters for Legg Mason before the investment firm moved to a tower in Harbor East, the current owner has “spent several million dollars improving the plaza,” Evitts says. The Partnership tries to persuade owners that “curb appeal is as important for a commercial property as it is for a residential property,” Evitts says. “There’s high demand for working and living in a dynamic urban environment.”

Contention has been fierce over what to do about the Morris Mechanic Theatre, a Brutalist building from 1967 by John Johansen, once considered “the roughhewn crown jewel of Baltimore’s downtown revitalization efforts.” Though regarded as architecturally important, the theater, on Hopkins Plaza, has been unused for seven years and has been described by one of its current owners as “ugly” and “a mistake.”

The concept is to add retail and a residential tower, with some office, to the Charles Street side of it,” Evitts says. “The building is a gaping maw, draining the life out of Charles Street. The shell of the building would remain. The bulk of the concrete-clad theater would be retail, with room for cafes, outdoor dining, entertainment.” The tower is nowgoing through the municipal approval process.

Lonely office buildings

A big opportunity would seem to lie in the conversion of old office buildings to residential. The Partnership boasts that 41,300 people live within one mile of Pratt and Light Streets, making downtown Baltimore the eighth-densest metropolitan core in the US. With 113,437 workers — up by 6,700 last year — Baltimore ranks 15th among American cities in downtown employment.

While the population of the city has slipped by 4.6 percent since 2000, to 620,961, downtown continues to gain residents, and has an apartment vacancy rate of just 4 percent, indicating strong demand. Harbor East offers condominiums and high-end rental units. “Residential demand is particularly strong in the older part of downtown,” which is less expensive, appealing to young professionals and college students, says Evitts.

In recent years, residential towers have risen from the tops of parking garages. Storage buildings and warehouses have been converted to housing. Some “Class C” office buildings that could no longer attract office tenants have also turned residential, though other Class C buildings remain vacant or underused.

Yet development of new residential units “has stalled,” the Partnership says. “There are currently no new apartment buildings under construction.” A task force appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake this spring identified six office buildings that could be converted to residences.

The hope is that improvements to the streets and open spaces, including development of active ground floor uses on nearly every block, will encourage building conversions and new residential construction. The Operation: Storefront initiative attempts to bring new businesses and arts ventures to vacant street-level spaces.

The Partnership is proposing a tax-increment-finance (TIF) district in the oldest parts of downtown. It would pay for needed capital improvements, thereby fostering development.

The City and the Partnership are also seeking state approval for designation of one or more Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) districts downtown. Under recent state legislation, a TOD designation gives a district priority for state funding and state office relocations and for leveraging state-owned land or assets.

One place where there is strong support for a TOD district is the area around the old Lexington Market and the State Center, where many state offices are located. A TOD district is also being advocated for the Charles Center Metro stop.

Many of the improvements being pursued by the Partnership and other groups depend on obtaining grants, private investment, or other sources of funds.