Baltimore’s Inner Harbor revitalization can be traced to 1963 when Mayor Theodore McKeldin issued a challenge during his second inaugural address.
“Envision with me,” McKeldin said, “a new Inner Harbor area, where the imagination of man can take advantage of a rare gift of nature to produce an enthralling panorama of office buildings, parks, high-rise apartments and marinas.
“In this, we have a very special opportunity, for few other cities in the world have been blessed, as has ours, with such a potentially beautiful harbor area within the very heart of downtown. . . Too visionary this?. . . Too dreamlike?. . . Certainly not.”
McKeldin’s vision started to become reality when Wallace, McHarg, Roberts & Todd (now WRT) of Philadelphia, created a master plan to guide development of 250 acres around the harbor basin.
Its plan became the setting for Benjamin Thompson’s Harborplace pavilions, Cambridge Seven’s National Aquarium, Edward Durell Stone’s Maryland Science Center, and office towers by Harry Cobb, David Childs, Craig Hartman, Eberhard Zeidler and Vlastimil Koubek, among others.
As part of its master plan, WRT worked on individual projects within the renewal area, including the waterfront promenade and pedestrian bridges across city streets. Its most sculptural contribution was the concrete fountain and plaza at Pratt and Light streets, a central area that was dedicated in honor of McKeldin.
Also called “The Waterfall,” the fountain was located at a pivotal site where downtown meets waterfront.
According to Fred Scharmen, an assistant professor in architecture at Morgan State University and an expert on the fountain, WRT partner Thomas Todd, the principal designer, intended it to be “reminiscent of a return to the source of the Susquehanna River, on its way to fill the Chesapeake Bay.”
An “Explorable” Waterfall
As designed by Todd and completed in 1982, the fountain is an explorable waterfall, set in a 2.8-acre traffic island, adjacent to a public plaza. The island, triangular in shape, is surrounded by traffic on three sides, including six lanes that cut it off from the harbor’s edge.
PART 1: Proposed razing of McKeldin Fountain raises many questions about city planning and policy (7/22/15)
The fountain is made of concrete prisms, with platforms at various levels containing plants, water and walkways for people. It rises 18 feet, with water cascading down all sides and collecting in pools below.
Like Baltimore’s recently-demolished Mechanic Theatre, an early anchor for Charles Center, the McKeldin Fountain is considered an example of the architectural style known as Brutalism. The term comes from the French “beton brut,” which means raw concrete.
The fountain’s colors and materials are consistent with much of the infrastructure around the harbor and many of the beige-toned buildings from the time.
Built into the fountain are skywalks that connect it to the Light Street Pavilion of Harborplace and the Hyatt Regency Hotel. From the start, it has been a magnet for tourists, shoppers and office workers on a lunch break.
The adjoining city-owned plaza is a free-speech zone that has been the site of both protests and civic celebrations; it served as the setting for the Occupy Baltimore encampment in the fall of 2011.
The fountain isn’t delicate and symmetrical like the Beaux Arts fountains in Mount Vernon Place and other neighborhoods. But it has a raw kinetic energy that draws people to it. It co-exists comfortably with the cars and trucks passing all around.
Most importantly, it has enough height and mass to “hold the space” at that key intersection and serve as a backdrop for gatherings and civic events, not just a passageway for people going from one place to another. And it isn’t a copy of anything anywhere else. It clearly grew out of its place and time.
Inner Harbor 2.0
In the early 2000s, civic leaders began looking for ways to jumpstart redevelopment and set the city apart again after other downtowns copied the Inner Harbor’s kit of parts.
They started with a plan to alter Pratt Street, the main east-west boulevard downtown. The plan, by Ayers Saint Gross, showed McKeldin Plaza replaced with a new sort of gathering spot, an area that contained a giant video screen high above the street.
Several years later, again working with Ayers Saint Gross, city leaders unveiled a new master plan to guide redevelopment of roughly the same area that WRT focused on in the 1960s and 1970s.
That plan, called Inner Harbor 2.0, also recommended that the McKeldin Fountain be removed and that the triangular traffic island be redesigned and connected to the Inner Harbor shoreline.
The organization behind the push to replace the fountain, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, works to promote and improve the center city. Its board meetings are not open to the public, a sore subject for non-board members who try to follow its work, and one reason it has a reputation for being less than transparent.
The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a sister organization headed by Laurie Schwartz, opens its board meetings to the public. So does the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s quasi-public development arm.
Moving Light Street
Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler said the McKeldin Fountain occupies a key arrival point downtown, and his members don’t believe it represents a sufficiently inviting gateway, especially for people approaching by car from the south.
He argues that it has a backside that is unattractive and says his members dislike the way it is cut off from the shoreline by traffic.
To redesign the fountain area, the Downtown Partnership is working with Ayers Saint Gross, Ziger/Snead Architects, and Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architecture firm. All three are Baltimore-based and have worked on numerous other projects downtown.
The latest plans call for the McKeldin Fountain to be demolished and for the traffic island to be connected to the Inner Harbor shoreline by removing traffic lanes that currently separate it from the waterfront.
Under this plan, northbound traffic on the east side of the fountain would be shifted to the west side, with new traffic lanes taking up a slice of land where the fountain is now.
To take a slice of the fountain for traffic realignment, designers say, the entire fountain would have to come down. The tradeoff, in effect, is losing the fountain and gaining more public property that is directly connected to the waterfront.
Water Wall and Tilted Lawn
In place of the fountain and plaza, the designers have introduced new water features and landscaped areas that fit roughly within the McKeldin property’s triangular footprint, except for the western slice that would be shaved off to make way for new traffic lanes.
In the middle of the triangle would be a landscaped area that divides the site in half and serves as a gathering spot for civic events.
South of the walkway would be a lawn that would slope upward from the central walkway to a height of 18 feet and double as an amphitheater. Beneath it could be a storage area for rental bikes.
On the west side of this tilted lawn a meandering pathway would be constructed, filled with plants and trees indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay region.
On the north side of the central walkway would be a smaller tilted lawn, rising to a height of four feet.
Along the north side of the diagonal pathway would be new water features, including a fountain, linear pool and water wall, which could serve as the backdrop for video projections. On the fountain would be an inscription featuring McKeldin’s challenge to transform the Inner Harbor from his 1963 speech.
Richard Jones, president of Mahan Rykiel, said the public space is designed to serve multiple uses: to accommodate large gatherings, to mark a gateway to the city and to provide a pedestrian link between the central business district and the waterfront.
Architect Steve Ziger, whose firm designed the 9/11 Memorial of Maryland at the base of the World Trade Center on Pratt Street, said the water features and inscription would constitute a new public memorial to McKeldin.
Cost is Anyone’s Guess
Construction would be carried out in phases. First would be demolition of the current fountain and interim improvements to the land. Later phases would involve shifting the traffic lanes to connect the now-isolated island to the shoreline and construction of the tilted lawns and other new features.
How much all of this would cost is unclear, largely because the project is still being designed.
Estimates have ranged from $10 million to more than $40 million, depending on how many features and construction phases are involved. Another factor, Fowler said, is the extent to which the proposed changes to Light Street traffic lanes might end up necessitating changes to other streets downtown, such as Charles Street.
Earlier this week, Fowler said the Downtown Partnership has raised $3.4 million for the first phase, involving demolition of the existing fountain and temporary improvements. He said his group does not yet have funds to carry out the entire project.
Funding identified for the project so far would come from a combination of public and private sources.
According to the Downtown Partnership and others, initial funds have been pledged, promised or allocated by the Downtown Partnership ($300,000); the City of Baltimore (possibly as much as $800,000); the State of Maryland (possibly as much as $750,000); T. Rowe Price, which is based at 100 East Pratt Street ($250,000); Emmes Asset Management, owner of 1 East Pratt Street ($100,000); the Meyerhoff family ($50,000); and PNC Bank, the lead tenant of 1 East Pratt Street ($40,000).
But some of these funding commitments come with conditions that must be met before the money can be spent.
The $50,000 figure from the Joseph & Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, for example, is a “challenge grant” that requires the Downtown Partnership to raise $200,000 to qualify for the $50,000.
A $300,000 allocation involving economic development bonds from the City of Baltimore, approved at the Board of Estimates level last September, comes with the condition that the work be (in the board’s words) planned and implemented “in conjunction with the Department of Transportation.” DOT has not signed off on the traffic lane realignment strategy.
Some potential state funds were identified before Republican Larry Hogan took office as Maryland’s governor and began reevaluating funding commitments for Baltimore-related projects such as the Red Line light rail system and the redevelopment of State Center.
One potential $250,000 allocation from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development is supposed to come from a state fund that housing advocates say was intended to be used in “challenged residential neighborhoods,” not commercial areas such as the Inner Harbor. They say it would not be an appropriate use of state housing department funds.
Other community activists argue that funds allocated to support demolition and replacement of the McKeldin Fountain are funds that won’t go somewhere else in the city or state.
Fowler has argued strongly that he doesn’t think his group should be forced to prove it has funding for the entire project before any phase can proceed.
In a memo to members of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Fowler said the concept “goes far beyond” current real estate practices, economic development principles and existing law.
“Such a proposition is without basis in law, and it has serious repercussions for development projects,” he argued. “In point of fact, developers are not required to provide evidence of funding before initiating a project.
“Along those lines, it might be worthwhile for the AIA to debate whether a developer should be required to commit to building all phases of a project at the same time before the City can issue any permit.
“For example, should Sagamore, in order to tear down the non-historic Walmart in Port Covington, be required to provide evidence of full funding and commit to build all phases of its project at once before it can initiate any construction?
“Such a policy could severely deter development and limit the possibilities for architects to earn a living. Redevelopment of McKeldin Square should not be held to a different standard than other development, particularly since the fountain in McKeldin was deemed not to be an historic structure by CHAP [Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation].”
Fowler went on to say that he believes park spaces lend themselves to step by step redevelopment in a way that individual building projects do not.
“There is a compelling argument that park spaces, because of their many components, can be dramatically improved in an incremental fashion, unlike infill sites,” he said.
“The Downtown Partnership’s strong track record with landscape projects proves that phasing is a quite effective strategy. . . We have employed three of the best architecture firms in Baltimore to design the [McKeldin] project, and every phase of the project will be of the highest quality.”
Bill to Halt Demolition
Despite such assurances by Fowler, the lack of certainty about funding commitments for the fountain’s demolition and replacement – combined with questions about how much money city taxpayers might end up paying for the project – led to the introduction on Monday of City Council legislation that would prevent any changes to the fountain until certain conditions have been met.
The bill, if approved, would prohibit demolition of the fountain 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.”
The legislation was introduced by Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. It was sent to the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee for review and a possible public hearing. If voted favorably in committee, the bill would return to the full Council for a vote.
Young told Council members that he decided to introduce the legislation because he has questions about the project and its backers. Before any work begins, he said, “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.”
Mark Reutter contributed to this article.
PART 3 (to come on Monday): Critics of the replacement project worry that what has been proposed so far would not be significantly better than what is there now.