Will the project that replaces Baltimore’s McKeldin Fountain be better than what is there now?
Enough to justify the expense (at least $10 million) and the time (potentially several years) required for demolition and reconstruction?
What if only Phase One gets completed?
Those were the chief concerns voiced by members of the architectural review panel that saw plans for the replacement project earlier this month.
“I’m not a fan of McKeldin Plaza, but I’m not convinced that this phase is any better than what is there now,” said Rich Burns, part of the panel that reviewed plans presented by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, about the design for Phase One.
“I’m troubled that we could be spending a significant amount of money to demolish a monument and create something that is not significantly better.”
The latest plans call for the fountain at Pratt and Light streets to be demolished and for the 2.8-acre traffic island where it’s located to be connected to the Inner Harbor shoreline by removing traffic lanes that currently separate it from the waterfront.
Northbound traffic on the east side of the fountain would be shifted to the west side, with new traffic lanes taking a slice of land where the fountain is now.
• PART 1: Proposed razing of McKeldin Fountain raises many questions about city planning and policy (7/22/15)
• PART 2: Why McKeldin Fountain was built – and what’s being planned in its place (7/24/15)
In place of the existing fountain and plaza, the designers are proposing new water features and landscaped areas that would fit within the 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 to a height of 18 feet and double as an amphitheater. West of this tilted lawn would be a meandering pathway, filled with plants and trees indigenous to the region.
North 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 the water features, including a water wall that could serve as a backdrop for video projections.
The water features would constitute a new memorial to former Mayor Theodore McKeldin, who launched the Inner Harbor’s revitalization with a speech more than 50 years ago. The estimated cost of the project starts at $10 million and rises to more than $40 million depending on the scope of the final design.
At the end of a 90-minute presentation to the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel (UDARP) on July 2, Burns expressed concern about the design and the phased construction strategy, which calls for minimal landscape improvements to the triangle immediately after the fountain is razed.
(Most of landscape features and traffic realignment would come in later phases of the project, which would be carried out as funds became available.)
Burns, a former principal of Design Collective who now runs his own firm, worries about how the area would look if the Partnership demolishes the fountain, but never gets approval to move the traffic lanes or raises sufficient funds to complete the full built-out. “What happens if Phase Two doesn’t happen?” he asked. “Will this stand alone?”
He also questioned specific elements of the proposed replacement – the tilted lawns, the water wall and the meandering pathways. He said he has seen all three many times before and questions whether they are too clichéd to be appropriate either for a major gateway to the city or a civic memorial.
Singling out the water wall that could turn into a projection screen, he said, “I’ve seen it from [architect Ricardo] Legorreta. I’ve seen it at the Marriott Nashville. I just wonder if this is appropriate in honoring McKeldin. . . I see the frame and the water wall being incredibly commercial. When you start showing images of people or, God forbid, a Coca Cola bottle, I see that as commercial.”
Others have pointed out that Danish architect Bjarke Ingels recently unveiled plans to create tilting lawns on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution, 40 miles away.
Another panel member and retired principal with RTKL, Gary Bowden, said he doesn’t see the benefit of landscaping the area differently in different phases of the project, as the designers proposed to do, because that adds to the cost.
“I am not sure you get enough out of Phase 1 and Phase 2 to make sense,” he said. For example, “the sloping lawn is important,” he said. “I think it’s interesting, But it’s not in Phase One. If it’s an important element, wouldn’t it be in Phase One?”
The meeting was held because the Downtown Partnership, a private business group, is seeking permits from the city to tear down the McKeldin Fountain and replace it with a new water feature and plaza more to the liking of its members.
It is standard procedure as part of the permitting process for the design panel to review and critique projects in urban renewal areas such as the Inner Harbor, so the city in theory gets the best possible designs.
In this case, the panel was not asked to consider the option of preserving the fountain; it was focusing solely on the design of the proposed replacement.
Absent from the UDARP meeting was Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler, who has led the effort to tear down and replace the McKeldin Fountain.
UDARP meetings are held primarily so that city-paid design experts can give advice to people such as Fowler, who propose building projects that could result in potentially sweeping changes for key areas of the city.
According to Mackenzie Paull, a vice president for the Partnership, Fowler was on vacation and could not be present.
Paull told the panel that “the Downtown Partnership believes that McKeldin Square as it stands currently is the most important civic space downtown, and if it isn’t, it deserves to be.”
She said the group has assembled a “world-class” design team to overhaul the area, including Baltimore-based Ayers Saint Gross, Ziger/Snead Architects, and Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architect.
No one at the meeting suggested postponing the review session until Fowler could be present to hear the panel’s comments and suggestions.
“A Series of Cliché Moves”
After the presentation, Burns said he found the Downtown Partnership’s proposal to be “uninspiring” at best.
“The scheme lacks cohesion and is cobbled together by a series of cliché moves: a tilted triangular lawn here, a curved path with native Chesapeake Bay vegetation there, a contemplative water rill feature here coupled with a commercialized water wall there for good measure. It is directional as a route and lacks the defining gestures to be static as a place.”
Panel member David Haresign said he shares Burns concerns. “I agree with the notion that it is a little clichéd,” he said of the design. “In five or 10 years, is it going to stand the test of time, for the public investment? I’m not sure.”
A fourth design panel member, David Rubin, said he doesn’t mind the forms proposed and isn’t bothered that they may be seen as copies of projects in other cities, as long as the replacement succeeds in drawing people.
“There doesn’t need to be an object that says McKeldin,” he said. “To me, it is the people who are honorific of McKeldin. The most important thing about this is the people.”
“Hell of a Good Start”
Rubin said he believes that one of the “failings” of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is that “there is not something happening every minute” all along the waterfront.
“I think it is incredibly valuable to the citizens of Baltimore City,” Rubin said of the replacement plan. “I think it is one hell of a good start.”
Thomas Stosur, director of Baltimore’s Planning Department, said he could tell there are strong concerns about the phased construction strategy. “I know there are a lot of different opinions about whether the existing fountain is more attractive than Phase One and whether it is worth the money. I think informed people can differ on that.”
The meeting ended without UDARP approving any phase of the designs for the fountain’s replacement. The panel members weren’t obligated to take a vote, since the meeting was listed as an informational session.
Design approval is a requirement of legislation introduced last week by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
His bill, if passed, would prohibit any modification to McKeldin Plaza until all development plans, construction documents and timetables for the proposed modification have been approved and full funding is in place.
Fowler said last week that meetings with groups such as UDARP are signs that the Partnership is working to obtain the construction approvals required by Young’s bill. But he added that he has questions about the bill’s wording and how it would affect maintenance on the plaza.
“It’s a very confusing bill,” Fowler said. “The way it’s written, you wouldn’t even be able to prune a tree.”
Fear of More Traffic Lanes
The concerns voiced by the review panel members have been echoed by other local architects, artists and planners who are following the project closely.
Klaus Philipsen, a local architect, critic and co-chair of the local American Institute of Architects chapter’s Urban Design Committee, said the planning seems to be driven by traffic engineers, not urban designers.
He said he fears that the city could end up with more lanes of traffic on Light Street than it has now, when he believes the city needs to “put Light Street on a diet.”
Philipsen also said he believes the current fountain “holds the space” well and animates the area by encouraging activity, and he questions whether the tilting lawns would do the same.
“The more I look at it,” he said of the existing fountain, “the more I like it for its scale and verticality. . . It is very contextual and of its time, a monument for the McKeldin period by design, not forced plaques.”
Fred Scharmen, an assistant professor in architecture at Morgan State University, noted that the plan’s traffic reconfigurations have never been approved by the city’s Department of Transportation.
Others still aren’t happy about the prospect of losing the existing fountain.
Al Copp, former head of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc., predecessor to the Baltimore Development Corp., said he has a personal connection to the fountain and believes it should be preserved as a symbol of the Inner Harbor’s rejuvenation.
During a meeting about the fountain that was organized by a design oriented group called the D Center and held at the Wind Up Space on North Avenue, Copp broke into tears as he spoke about the fountain and the early days of Inner Harbor redevelopment.
“We have to save it,” he said.
Another advocate of preserving the McKeldin Fountain is Cara Ober, a local artist and founder of the BmoreArt web site. She notes that cities going back to Rome have preserved buildings and monuments because of the period they represent, even though they may not reflect later stylistic tastes.
“Monuments exist for a reason – to remember collective history,” she wrote on her website. “Since their very structure comes from past aesthetic values and principles, it will inherently be outdated in serving as a physical representation of a bygone era. In an age where we bulldoze history on a regular basis and then regret it later, especially in Baltimore, preserving the past in its physical form deserves a primal cry for sanity and caution.”
Ober questions whether the fountain has been targeted because of its Brutalist design. “Why is the Downtown Partnership in such a hurry to tear down this historic fountain?”
She said her hunch was that Brutalist architecture is currently out of fashion – or perceived to be. “The destruction of the Morris Mechanic is proof of this. However, what the Downtown Partnership and its supporters fail to appreciate is that art and architecture go out of fashion all the time.
“Imagine what art history would include if all the ‘ugly’ art was destroyed by the haters of their time,” she continued. “Pretty much all of it. Every piece of historically significant art has been hated by a contemporary audience in its day.”