Urban Renewal Renewed: A Makeover for Baltimore’s Center Plaza
Published May 15, 2009
In the heart of Baltimore, a 1960s-style urban renewal project received a facelift with the completion in October 2007 of a $7.5 million renovation of Center Plaza, an urban plaza at the core of downtown’s complex of office, retail and residential buildings known as Charles Center. In 2002, the local architecture and design firm of Brown & Craig won the national competition to redesign Center Plaza with their plan which features extensive greenscaping, a reflecting pool, movable seating, and dynamic lighting effects.
Center Plaza was originally designed by the Baltimore firm of Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky & Lamb. As the focal point of Baltimore’s first urban renewal project, it was inspired by the great urban plazas of the Italian Renaissance. Charles Center’s open spaces reflected the principles and ideals of the urban renewal movement that swept through American cities beginning in the 1950s. RTKL were consulting architects to the Charles Center urban renewal project, which was launched by a public-private partnership in 1957. RTKL’s goal was to make the plazas and open space a “social center for 24-hour citizens of Baltimore.” The 1958 Charles Center promotional report stated that “Here, open space will be used, loved and economically successful because it will be full of pleasant things: fountains, sculpture, flowers, umbrellas, flags, and trees. The open space will be, in its own way, as concentrated as the city around it.” George Kostritsky of RTKL envisioned an urban landscape of light, sculpture, and water for Charles, Center, and Hopkins plazas. These three plazas, located on the interior of the two superblocks, were to be linked through a series of elevated walkways, escalators and skywalks in order to overcome the problem of the site’s steep topography (a 68-foot drop in grade from the northern boundary of the site to the southern boundary) and to create a series of “pedestrian islands.” Though futuristic in appearance, this circulation system was a typical component of urban design of the 1950s and 60s and was often promoted as a means of separating pedestrians from the automobile traffic. At Charles Center, the exterior circulation system was also intended to provide a venue for extensive retail activity.
Although the Charles Center plan had all the right ingredients for successful place-making, its physical realization made plain many of the shortcomings of modern urban design principles. In the words of Charles Center’s chief urban planner himself, David Wallace, the skywalks at Charles Center were “circuitous and hard to find,” and retail was consistently “lackluster.” City government did not end up retaining ownership of the entire system of open spaces and exterior infrastructure (only the three plazas), and so treatment of its various sections—in terms of services, amenities, ambiance and maintenance—was left up to individual building owners and retail tenants. The first skywalks were dismantled in the 1980s and, by the 1990s, only two remained.
The introverted nature of the Charles Center plan was a built-in handicap and prevented the lively, populous atmosphere envisioned by planners. Placement of the two major plazas, Center and Hopkins Plazas, on the interior of the superblocks meant that they were virtually invisible from the street. Fixed seating, copious hardscaping, and insufficient greenery all contributed to the plazas’ underuse. As early as 1962, a member of Baltimore’s Planning Council predicted that the majority of plaza users would be office tenants on their lunch break, and that a mere quarter would be the visitors, shoppers and tourists. An obstacle to the plazas’ popularity stemmed not from design, but perhaps from the absence of integrated planning. Several of the Charles Center office buildings offered subsidized cafeterias, which kept office workers inside for lunch. Ultimately, the sheer scale of Charles Center, separate building ownership, and the overall decline in downtown retail activity were major factors which worked against the visual and spatial cohesion of the entire site, and prevented the plazas from assuming the status of clearly defined destinations within the city.
In many ways, the emphasis on movement and variety as a visual theme has stayed the same from the original design to the new one. It is perhaps only in the execution of this theme that Brown & Craig’s design seeks to differentiate itself from the original design and announce Center Plaza as a 21st century urban destination. Bryce Turner of Brown & Craig describes Center Plaza’s intended transformation, saying that “As [designers] developed their version of plazas in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a ‘Jetsonian’ view that incorporated lots of hardscape. Now we have found it is important to have more soft spaces.” Their design incorporates the ten key principles that made Bryant Park a resounding success, most notably monumental sculpture as a focal point, movable seating and outdoor cafes, greenscaping (as opposed to hardscaping), and ambient nighttime lighting.
There is undoubtedly increased attention to the urban spaces of Charles Center, with the opening in 2001 of Johns Hopkins University’s Downtown Center at the southeast corner of the site, and with the imminent redevelopment of the 1967 Morris Mechanic Theater, located on Hopkins Plaza. With enough retail investment—an important prescription in Brown & Craig’s plan and the focus of the Mechanic’s redevelopment—Center Plaza will benefit from the most important ingredient of any public space: people.