Finally, the last two undeveloped sites fronting the Inner Harbor might be getting filled in with mixed-use skyscrapers. Depending on financing, at least one of them should break ground in 2016. It's surprising this took so long—the former News American Building at 300 E. Pratt St. and the McCormick & Co building at 414 Light St. were both demolished in the 1980s to make way for other, failed development projects. The prominent sites have embarrassingly languished as parking lots for decades—a pattern familiar to anyone who's lived in the city long enough to observe the latest boom-and-bust real estate cycle leave a trail of fruitless rubble in its wake.
But what's more surprising is that the buildings (as currently proposed) won't suck. In Baltimore we've become accustomed to new construction with a laughably tacky faux-historic aesthetic, dowdy poop-colored masonry, and squat cheap-looking massing. 300 E. Pratt St. and 414 Light St. might just raise the bar—and the roofline—to a more glamorous level. Both buildings feature sleek cladding that's refreshingly of this millennium in a good way and tall, slender proportions that will drastically improve Baltimore's stubby, chubby skyline. At 48 and 44 stories, respectively, 300 E. Pratt and 414 Light will likely rise over 500 feet. For comparison, Baltimore's tallest building (built in 1973) is the 40-story, 529-foot Transamerica Tower. Their impact at street level will be just as transformative—replacing bleak surface lots with pedestrian-focused retail environments—at least on their harbor-fronting facades. Precedent suggests East Lombard and South Charles streets will likely end up with dismal parking-garage entrances.
Of the two, 414 Light, from architects Solomon Cordwell Buenz, is the less remarkable. That's largely due to the city's famously inconsistent Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel nitpicking nearly every idiosyncrasy and quirk from the plans over the past few years of deliberations. The result is a somewhat standard glass skyscraper with a little "blip" at the top that's supposed to evoke a billowing sail (get it? Because it's next to the water!). Baltimore's postmodern skyline, much like her church ladies, loves its hats. This new addition will follow all the trends.
But that's the not-quite-beauty of 414 Light: It's huge without being offensive. It will be the politely quiet, handsome-in-a-tall-wholesome-Midwestern-way Tinder date of a dinner guest—seated at the table in unironically normcore attire, trying not to stand out despite his conspicuous height. His face is "meh" but that build is goddamn sexy (with the exception of a dumpy parking garage for a rear end on Charles Street). He's the perfect seat-filler between the popular kids at the center of the table and the perpetually single stragglers to the south (I'm looking at you, weird, lonely South Baltimore high-rises). Mostly, we assure ourselves he'll be more attractive in the dark.
Conversely, Questar Properties and HKS Architects' 300 E. Pratt St. will be the exotic stranger everyone at the table can't stop ogling. The Western facade is ribbed for our pleasure with blocky rust-orange protrusions that simultaneously stand out and compliment the neighboring chunky blue-green Renaissance Hotel. That facade treatment continues over the roofline in a sawtooth fin, adding a tasteful feature to a mostly blunt cityscape in need of more (but less obvious) spires. Every side of the building is different, working in a pretty cohesive palette of stripes, balconies, and cantilevers that evoke a circuit board. Busy and graphic without being tacky, it will be unlike anything else in Baltimore, and that's a good thing. It recalls the optimistic futurism of pre-recession Spanish architecture or something from a booming Australian coastal city. It's one of the rare new buildings in Baltimore that doesn't look as if it's embarrassed to not be in a stuffy suburb.
The elegant massing of this tower owes a lot to its site—it's located on a narrow lot made slightly narrower by the city's recent floodplain restrictions in the face of sea-level rise. Contrast this with business as usual in Baltimore: 2016 will also see stumpy developments consume wide swaths of the central city, amassed by demolishing smaller structures. On the corner of Light and Baltimore streets, for example, nearly an entire block of prewar structures is being obliterated by developers Carey Euwer and J. Joseph Clarke (husband of Councilwoman Mary Pat). These will join another void Clarke created on Light Street by demolishing the grand 1918 Southern Hotel. That lot has been an eyesore for more than a decade since Clarke lost financing for a different ill-fated project. Now, he's back with a new scheme from office-parkitecture firm AECOM. With a massive, clunky parking garage for a base, the fat tower will sap light and dismally dominate the pedestrian experience on two busy blocks. I can't help but imagine a better alternative—one that squeezes the same amount of square footage into a taller, more slender building in Clarke's first folly while preserving the buildings fronting Baltimore Street. The AECOM design is an ungodly sterile eyesore that looks like a 1980s bank headquarters in Charlotte crossed with a suburban Nordstrom parking garage. Worse, it robs Baltimore of one more charming block of historic structures at a time when many people are looking for scarce affordably scaled live/work real estate downtown. Can we please limit building width as opposed to height?
A block away, Owings Mills-based developer David S. Brown has demolished the historic, irreplaceably idiosyncratic Mechanic Theater and plans to erect a pair of squat residential towers on a retail base destined to house a suburban big-box store. The draft proposal, from architectural firm Shalom Baranes Associates, appears to have one guiding ethos: Consume as much space as possible with the blandest design conceivable. The effect will be something akin to a bleak early-aughts Washington, D.C. office building clumsily plopped into Downtown's historic core with little regard to context beyond a Baltimore-sized budget. It will obstruct views and light from virtually every angle and gift absolutely nothing to the skyline in return. I can't think of a worse architectural trade-off in recent history. While the Mechanic carved a sturdy jigsaw outline of public space, this presents passersby with a crappy-looking wall of glass too ill-proportioned and awkward to pass as minimalist. The old theater offered a human-scaled strip of storefronts that comfortably housed small businesses facing the metro station. Brown's stunted towers of mediocrity will transform Charles Center—the geographic heart of the city—into a clunking mass of oversized, soulless chain stores and anonymous architecture. It's especially insulting to the property owners who were displaced under the wave of urban renewal that built the theater half a century ago. Use of eminent domain was justified by the promise of an urban core of civic assets: a theater and cathedral-like subway station surrounded by public space. But soon, that land will be reborn as a monument to everything wrong with private-sector city building. The whole affair is an unforgivable wound to Baltimore's face. No one will ever love this building.
The takeaway from these good and bad changes coming to downtown is twofold—we should be giving architects more freedom to design tall and eccentric buildings shoehorned into existing vacant lots, and giving developers less freedom to demolish what's already here. Our two greatest planning assets are a surplus of enough vacant lots to accommodate a century of growth and a stock of gorgeous, irreplaceable old buildings. It's downright confusing that this city is sacrificing landmarks far faster than we're replacing them. 300 E. Pratt St. is the rare exception that bucks those trends—we're getting an iconic addition to the skyline for the price of some eyesore asphalt.
Let's hope 2016 brings more construction cranes and less wrecking balls, please.