Is it possible that Baltimore’s McKeldin Fountain could be spared from the wrecking ball?
For years, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has been leading an effort to tear down the man-made waterfall and plaza at Pratt and Light streets and replace it with a different water feature and public space, a composition more acceptable to its members and directly connected to the Inner Harbor promenade.
But City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young today raised questions about the project’s status by introducing legislation that would prevent the 33-year-old fountain from being demolished or otherwise modified until certain conditions are met.
Councilman Eric T. Costello, whose district includes the fountain and plaza, said during tonight’s session that he does not support Young’s legislation.
“I am not signing on to this,” Costello declared, saying he was hopeful that “we can avoid the need for an ordinance.”
If passed, Ordinance 15-0556 would prohibit “any modification to McKeldin Plaza until all developments [sic] plans, construction documents and timetables for the proposed modification have been approved and full funding for the proposed modification has been identified.”
Introduction of the bill means that opponents of the fountain’s proposed demolition could have a chance to testify at a public hearing held by the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, if a hearing date is set.
The proposal to replace McKeldin Fountain, which was completed in 1982 and is dedicated to former Mayor Theodore McKeldin, has sparked one of Baltimore’s biggest preservation, urban design and traffic controversies.
Representatives of the Downtown Partnership, a private business group, say the fountain is unattractive and that they would like to see it replaced with a new public amenity that represents a more inviting gateway to the center city.
But others say the fountain is a significant vestige of the Inner Harbor infrastructure that McKeldin inspired when he was mayor and a key local example of “Brutalist” architecture and should be preserved.
Young said today that he decided to introduce the legislation because he has questions about the project, estimated to cost at least $10 million.
No City Funding?
“We want to know how much it is going to cost, how long it’s going to take, who is going to pay for it,” Young said during a luncheon meeting with the Council before introducing the bill. He added that he has questions about the Downtown Partnership’s role in the project and vision for it.
“The Downtown Partnership is not a city agency,” Young said at the luncheon. “We are a city agency. They should be showing their stuff to us.”
During the City Council session tonight, Young expressed an additional concern about the projects’ financing. “We want to make sure that there is no city funding involved in this,” he said.
Costello asked Young at the luncheon to reconsider his plan to introduce the bill. Costello said that Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler has offered to meet with Young in private to answer his questions about the project.
Costello Calls for Private Briefing
Costello asked Young to hold off on introducing the McKeldin bill until he meets with Fowler in private.
“The Downtown Partnership has agreed to brief you on it,” Costello said to Young. “I would just hope you would meet with them.”
Young rejected Costello’s request not to introduce the bill, but said he would agree to hold off from setting a date for a public hearing.
When The Brew attempted to ask Costello about Young’s response to his request, Costello, who got his Council seat last year with Young’s strong-armed assist, said he had “no comment.”
Costello said again at tonight’s meeting that he hoped Young would meet with the Downtown Partnership so he could get his questions answered. “Hopefully this can stay in committee and we can avoid the need for an ordinance,” Costello said in the public session.
At least three Council members were listed as co sponsors of the legislation: Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, Edward Reisinger and Sharon Green Middleton.
Spector said she would like the full Council to get a briefing on the project. “This happens to be one of those places that is of. . . interest to everybody,” she said.
Council member Mary Pat Clarke, who represents North Baltimore, also said she supports the idea of a public hearing. “I would very much like to see a review by the Council for this project because it is of city-wide importance,” she said.
Clarke pointed out that the fountain lies in a free-speech zone in Baltimore. “There’s a lot of interest about that in my district. I’m looking forward to a clear presentation from those who know all about what is planned, and on what schedule and how much it will cost.”
Fowler, the Downtown Partnership president, said his group has raised $3.4 million to begin work on the first phase of the project, which involves demolition of the existing fountain and a temporary replacement, and continues to raise funds.
He said he does not have a final cost estimate for the entire project because it is still being designed. Previous estimates have been more than $10 million, depending on the scope of the replacement.
Fowler said his group has released drawings of the proposed replacement and already has been meeting with various city agencies, such as the planning department and the city’s design review panel, to obtain the approvals that Young’s legislation calls for.
“We’re working with the city agencies. It isn’t like we’re doing it on our own. . . We’re proposing to make changes to a park the same way any group would, whether it’s a city agency or a private group,” Fowler said today.
“There have been a lot of public reviews,” he added. “If the City Council wants their own presentation, we’re always happy to do it.”