Op-Alt: The latest plans for a revamped McKeldin Plaza leave a few things out

City Paper

As previously reported by City Paper, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPB)  is leading an effort to demolish the Inner Harbor’s McKeldin Fountain. The fountain is a monument to former Mayor and Governor Theodore McKeldin, and sits in a plaza between the southbound lanes of Light Street, and the northbound lanes splitting off to take cars into downtown via Calvert Street. Last Tuesday, DPB held a meeting at its Charles Street offices, overlooking the site of the recently demolished Morris Mechanic Theatre, to discuss their plans for the plaza. The meeting was announced a week out, and held during business hours, but was still well attended by members of the city’s architecture, planning, arts, and business communities.

A central goal of the plans for this site, dating back to at least 2002, has been the elimination of the traffic spur from the intersection, correcting the mistakes of older planning models that had given over large portions of the city’s land to automobiles, and making the area more pedestrian friendly. The 2002 plans have been updated in several ways: The proposal to make Pratt Street a two-way boulevard is gone, and the plaza at the corner, which had remained a simple grid of paving and trees in planning documents for more than 10 years, has received renewed attention from designers at the landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel, and architects at Ayers Saint Gross and Ziger/Snead (where, in full disclosure, this author worked as a designer for three years).

The existing fountain needs to go, according to the designers, to make way for new traffic lanes shifted from the spur to the main run of Light Street. At the end of a four-phase rebuilding process, costing, according Mahan Rykiel president and designer Richard Jones, “tens of millions” of dollars, the new plaza could feature a rain garden for stormwater mitigation and two upturned grass lawns facing a new plaza aligned with the center of the space between the Harborplace pavilions. A new water feature would run down this axis. This would be a linear fountain, starting with a minimalist font by Ziger/Snead, inscribed with a quote from McKeldin, and ending at a large framed cascading digital display, viewable from the grass.

After the project’s presentation, the attendees were invited to break up into smaller groups to discuss reactions to the plan. Writer and critic Cara Ober asked Jones about the plan’s phasing and funding model. “How many downtown projects have idled as a dirty hole with a chain link fence around it for years?” she later wrote, at BmoreArt. At the meeting, Jones reiterated that the planners were “100 percent committed to making this work effectively,” regardless of current funding status.

Designer and educator Mike Pugh asked about the “wow factor” of the new design. “When this was built,” he said about the original Inner Harbor development completed in 1980, “they rewrote the urban planning books . . . What will people visiting Baltimore today, remember when they leave, what will they tell their friends about?” He noted that many elements of the new plan were based on existing pieces already present elsewhere. Last November, Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group unveiled its plans for a new plaza at the Smithsonian, framing that institution’s famous castle on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall with two upwardly peeling grass lawns, similar to the ones proposed at McKeldin Plaza. Jones replied that since the 1980s, the history books had already been rewritten again, and that the designers of the current plan wanted to focus on accessibility and engagement over monumentality and image.

Architect Klaus Philipsen, of AIA Baltimore’s Urban Design Committee, asked about the conclusions of the traffic engineering study: why aim to retain so many lanes of traffic, when other gateways to the city could be widened instead? Jones indicated that traffic studies were ongoing. My own question, as an attendee of the meeting, was about the existing plaza’s status, since 2012, as a free speech zone. The waterfront open space around Harborplace is privately owned and the businesses there have broad powers to force people to disperse. McKeldin Plaza, bounded by the traffic lanes, is a place where spontaneous assembly and protest is protected by law. In Baltimore, we’ve seen this protection in action, as many of the marches for Freddie Gray and the #BlackLivesMatter protests over the last several months have started here. If the spur is removed, then this clear boundary between private commercial space and protected public space may be lost.

The new plans for the Plaza are due to go before Baltimore’s Urban Design Architectural Review Panel (UDARP), at the close of this month. Funding for Phase One of the plan, which would eliminate the fountain but not address the traffic issues, is part of Baltimore’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, which is up for a vote in a few weeks as well. It is unclear if the DPB will formally propose the removal of the fountain to Baltimore’s Public Art Commission, which has jurisdiction over work like this owned by the city. At a previous Public Art Commission meeting, an attorney for the city indicated that the Commission had no authority to prevent the fountain’s removal. None of the original plans for the Inner Harbor, starting with the 2002 master plan, or subsequent iterations such as “Pratt Street: Avenue of the Inner Harbor” from 2008 and the “Inner Harbor 2.0” plan of 2013 call out the McKeldin Fountain for removal by name. They simply show renderings of new plazas without it. As a Department of Planning Memo from 2012 indicates, while these plans had support, none of them were ever fully adopted. Additionally, the Department of Transportation has not yet signed off on any plan to remove the spur at Light Street, which is nominally the major reason for removing the fountain in the first place.

On that Tuesday, the disconnect between the group of architects and planners—meeting on a weekday afternoon to discuss the merits of a plan that dates back more than 13 years—and the diverse group of Baltimoreans having a late lunch or simply enjoying a sunny afternoon at McKeldin Plaza could not have been more evident. The scene at the plaza was even more active than the Photoshopped renderings of the proposed new space on the architect’s boards.

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