Questions remain about rationale for replacing McKeldin Fountain

Baltimore's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel had several pointed questions when they met Thursday to see the latest version of a plan to remove the McKeldin Fountain and Plaza at the Inner Harbor. Proposals to replace the fountain, which City Paper has written about previously, date back to a masterplanning process for the Harbor and Pratt Street, begun in 2002 and updated in 2008 and 2013. Since late 2014, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has been pushing forward with the removal of the existing fountain, with at least three rounds of new designs for the downtown site.

Richard Jones, president of design firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, described the team's ambition to create a space that would return nature and softness to the Inner Harbor. The designers described their proposal as a center within a flow of people, like a "pebble in a stream." The plan consists of wooded lawns with paved paths. An area in the center of the new plaza would surround a circular water feature that could be drained for large events.

One member of the five-person review panel praised the new design, saying that the team of architects, landscape architects, and planners had come a long way, even improving on the version that some panelists had seen previously the week before at a "working session" that had not been open to the public.

The other two panelists who offered comments were more critical. "Is the lawn conducive to free speech?" asked Pavlina Ilieva, referring to the current plaza's status as a "Free Speech Zone" within which spontaneous protest without permits is permitted.

Expressing concern that a soft lawn would not be appropriate for large groups, she also noted that the paved area was also insufficient: "unless someone drains the pool, no one is going to gather there."

Other questions centered on the nature of the space's identity.

"If I took someone from out of town there, what would I show them?" she asked. "If this is going to be re-done, then it has to be re-done in a big way."

Another panelist, Rich Burns, noted that the new proposal didn't change the boundaries of the traffic island in which the current fountain sits, and asked if removal and new construction would be worth it.

"Is the project transformational? That has to be the rationale," he asked, given the effort and expenditure of "money and political capital."

"I don't see this as transformational," he said.

He questioned the original assumption that the existing fountain had to go, noting that successful public spaces in other cities relied on events and activities, saying, "Your plan is dependent on programming to become successful."

He then asked why investment in maintenance, enhancements, and programming at the existing fountain was never considered.

"Programming the existing plaza could've got the same result without demolition," he said. "I'm not convinced that this plan justifies the demolition of the existing fountain. I wonder if we're giving up on McKeldin prematurely."

The other two panelists indicated the comments as delivered covered anything that they would have had to add. Thomas Stosur, the director of the Department of Planning, also expressed skepticism.

"It's still not something we can look at and say 'Yes, this is it,'" he said.

The panel will allow the design team to go back to the drawing board one more time, before meeting again to vote on a date next year.

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