Saturday, November 9, 2019

Lost on Baltimore's waterfront Promenade

Anybody who uses the Baltimore Promenade knows it is far from perfect. It isn't as sleek as Tampa's new Riverwalk, it isn't cutting edge like New York's Highline and not as long as Chicago's Lakefront Trail. Instead it is an often invisible sleeping beauty, marred by inconsistency and gaps caused by those who just never followed the rules. In short it is typical Baltimore.
The Baltimore Promenade, as broken as its signs. Follow
the photo journey below this article to see what is broken

But only an end to end investigation shows how very far its potential is from its reality, especially if one imagines to be a visitor who isn't familiar with Baltimore. The problem isn't that the Promenade can't adhere to a consistent width, design or material. Not that it doesn't boast fitness, bike repair or art stations like some of its newer brethren in other cities. Not even that it has many rickety "temporary" connections or entirely missing links. No, the most egregious problem is that nobody seems to care about the Promenade any longer. Another discarded love. Tat, too seems typical Baltimore.
The promenade is the glue of the public realm around the Inner Harbor. As such, it is the framework for the public realm, knitting together the public open spaces and buildings along the waterfront. (Ayer Saint Gross, Harbor 2.0, Nov 2013)
Once a cherished child of tireless Baltimore promoters, it no longer gets the attention it needs to be an asset just like so many other things in Baltimore: Off to a promising start and then petering out in indifference. The indifference and lack of care is demonstrated by those who can close it off with a sign without providing a detour, by those who don't bother to think about the disabled, the elderly or those don't care to balance along the edge of a deep drop into the water. Very disturbing is that even city engineers design links such a four lane bridge extending central Avenue to HarborPoint without respecting the promenade enough to give it prominence or any kind of decency on the $15 million project. But maybe most annoying is the fact that in years nobody has made an effort to promote this facility not even on the simplest level: By putting some directional signs up so one can find one's way. without getting lost.
At present, the promenade is somewhat disjointed and inconsistent in quality throughout the harbor. As a result, current pedestrian navigation along the harbor is not straight-forward. (Ayer Saint Gross, Harbor 2.0, Nov 2013)
Six years later, nothing has changed. These deficiencies are not caused by a lack of money, just by lack of basic attention. The almost complete absence of signage makes the promenade invisible to anybody who isn't already intimately familiar with it. Somebody trying to follow it for more than a few hundred yards at a time would despair by the lack of guidance when many options are available but only one is the right one. Except the only way to find out is try and error. Get lost is what this tells the user, unless you are a local insider. For a city that prides itself to be welcoming to visitors, new residents and immigrants, this is inexcusable arrogance.

 Baltimore has been the leader in many things, one of them the redevelopment of formerly industrial waterfronts for recreational purposes. Baltimore's HarborPlace has been copied the world over, alas, the original is tired and in desperate need of new ideas. so is the 7.5 mile Promenade fanning out to both sides of HarborPlace. The concept is as old as HarborPlace and as much in need of rejuvenation and love.

Were it to work properly it would be one of the longest waterfront promenades in the country, reaching from Locust Point all the way to Canton Crossing. It would provide a cross section of Baltimore's history from industry to shipping, from bars to boats. Fort McHenry, Tide Point, Domino Sugar, the Museum of Industry, the Science and the Sewer Museum, the Aquarium, the World Trade Center, an Under Armour outlet store and a seafood restaurant in the shape of a large ship, are all par for the course. People from neighborhoods as diverse as once working class Locust Point and Canton, African American Sharp Leadenhall, urban pioneer enclave Otterbein, fast growing Dowtown, swanky Harbor East, low income Perkins Homes, historic Fells Point, and newly rediscovered Brewers Hill could utilize it. Some certainly do, but they are not really invited by some marked dedicated trail-heads or clearly marked access points.

Many forest trails are better marked than our promenade. Baltimore's water taxi landings strung all along the Promenade provide immediate access, except nothing at the landing points indicates that it stretches miles to either side. Of course, Circulator and MTA bus stops remain totally mum about it. The Visitor Center sits on it and so do a number of hotels, but nowhere anything that says, welcome to Baltimore's Promenade and here are all the places you can reach.

For someone walking on the promenade all kinds of history could come to life: The former immigration pier second only to Ellis Island, the Korean War Memorial, Federal Hill and the internationally famous Fort McHenry and the Civil War museum at President Street Station, to mention just a few. Good stuff, that could make this promenade Baltimore's #1 attraction for locals and visitors alike. Meanwhile the world is ooing and ahhing about the much shorter Highline in New York, the Millennial Park in Chicago or Seattles revived waterfront.

Baltimore's Promenade, by contrast is so well hidden that one could suspect that those living nearby wanted to make sure none else would share the joy. Even people who inevitably stumble across the promenade somewhere near HarborPlace will no chance to realize that it stretches miles each way. Wherever a person would have a momentous ambition to explore the pursuit would be quickly thwarted by abrupt termination, and obscure hidden turns, routes that only the most intrepid pathfinder would test, a great great turn-off for everybody else. Walking the Promenade shouldn't be a case of breadcrumb navigation. The only ones undeterred are runners who use it every day.

It all started very promising. The promenade was conceived with ambition and a code that required anybody developing along the shoreline to not only set aside space for it but construct it to impeccable design standards emulating on a reduced scale what one can see at HarborPlace or near Rash Field.  Width , lighting, brick material, all established established. Presumably nobody along the water would get development approval without providing this public access feature. The Ritz Carlton development may never have paid its water bills, but it built a flawless promenade. But many other property owners never followed the rules, others never developed their land and let it sit fallow.

A recent example is the luxury Pendry Hotel on the Recreation Pier right next to the well equipped and prominent Broadway Pier.  It was exempted from promenade construction because the developer argued that rebuilding the pier was already costly enough. Taking off the width of a promenade on three sides would either leave no space for development while cantilevered structures hanging off to the sides would disfigure the historic pier. Routing the path around each projecting pier would also make a very circuitous route, although it is exactly what happens at Henderson Wharf and other developments and gives the promenade its record length. Fair enough. But wouldn't this exemption mean that the sidewalk in front of the Pendry which is now also the Promenade would deserve some extra attention? A few directional signs, right at the most popular arrival point for water taxi users?
Instead of extra width, the path is shrunk to make room for valet service.

East of the Pendry the Promenade just seems to end and even an ambitious user would never know that it somehow resumes around Henderson Wharf as a wooden boardwalk. The Houdini like disappearing Promenade is an issue in dozens of places: At the Rusty Scupper or beyond the Ritz Carlton condos where the Promenade hits the HarborView property to become nothing more than an internal access road of the development, speed bumps included, before it dies entirely at Key Highway. All that is left is a narrow sidewalk in poor repair. No sign that would say, "sorry, the Promenade ends here". Or better: "A little further on, we can still offer some more waterfront pathway experiences", fragmented as they are: In front of the Little Havana restaurant, at the Museum of Industry and much further on at Under Armour. From there again there is no marked path to Baltimore area's only National Park,  Fort McHenry. Which, however closes after dark or whenever the National Park Service feels like it (for example when the federal government "shuts down"), which could be very frustrating after enduring the long obstacle path to there.
Even smack in the center of attractions: the Promenade closed off

Going east from HarborPlace the ambiguities begin right at the World Trade Center which blocks the water's edge with a tall fence. No signs which of the bridges to take from the Aquarium plaza. Or should one go around the Aquarium, where there is something like a promenade, but boy, don't do that, there it is as ugly as dumpsters and automobile parking can get. Then comes Pier 5 (again, where to go), Pier 6, (only insiders will find the short-cut bridge after cutting through a parking lot). Then things are fine along Harbor East until one gets to HarborPoint where that ill conceived road bridge is now open. This bridge if it had been built for pedestrians and bicycles, could have been a highlight of the Promenade and a landmark. Instead, this most banal car bridge amounts to publicly financed large scale vandalism. No sign, just the puniest sidewalk and a tiny skinny unprotected bikelane. The car run sovereign here where the pedestrian should be king. Bland engineering convenience reigns where design and creativity was needed. (If you wonder how I feel about this bridge, read also here and here)
• Sidewalks on a promenade must be within an easement of at least 20’ in width. (Baltimore City Site Plan Review Manual 2017)
On HarborPoint itself, things are still unfinished. In fact, a temporary promenade all around the peninsula had been opened for a while so one could reach the wildly popular "Sandlot" waterfront attraction. From there one would almost be in Fells Point and at the historic Sugar House (the Douglass Maritime Museum). But when construction on another building began, a fence went up and with it the infamous Promenade Closed sign.  No detour. Our imaginary intrepid user would have to back-track, find a path across a humongous surface parking lot, through and underground garage and then back to Caroline Street before ever reaching the Douglass Museum. Utter disrespect.
Officials are pleased about an ugly road bridge at HarborPoint

East of  the Pendry and Henderson Wharf the chase of the Promenade becomes truly adventurous. Every time one thinks this must be the end, there is yet another way to continue. Around hard corners, across various property fragments, but on it goes, somehow.

On one of those tenuous connections built from timber hanging off the side of a building a bright orange sign catches the eye: It announces that the Promenade will be closed for 2 years! Yes, imagine! This is such a flagrant violation of a public compact that Councilman Cohen is working with the developer on a decent detour. Of course, the simplest route would be using existing marina piers with just a short gap that would have to be closed with a small bridge. But I am afraid that the detour won't lead across busy streets instead.

After navigating the many stops and fits at Fells Point and Canton the promenade resumes with some verve at Canton Cove along the Korean War memorial only to die with a whimper in a parking lot and a facility of the marine police unit. During snowy winters DPW dumps mountains of dirty salty snow here. But even this is not conceived as a trail head or terminus. No promenade signs whatsoever.  Nor any real access to Canton Crossing or Brewers Hill, Baltimore's latest growth area where the Rails to Trails People dream about a big loop trail along the former right of way of a railroad to connect to Highlandtown.
One of the best Promenade spots is at Harbor East: safe and attractive

To fix the most basic failings, a consistent signage should be installed that not only brand the promenade with a logo but also provide consistent uninterrupted directions. Access points need to be marked from major arteries and circulation junctures. Signs that emulate the downtown pedestrian signs and point out the surroundings would be great. Water taxi landings should be upgrade to become beacons at night and pearls on the string of the promenade by day. Each should represent an information hub with waiting areas and a pleasant place to rest. In some places the walk is so narrow and has such sharp turns that railings would be no luxury.

Another important issue is what is allowed on the promenade and what not? This debate has been going on at least since 2008 when bike enthusiast Greg Hinchliffe reminded the then City planner Robert Quilter who was in charge overseeing the Promenade, that man cities around the world allow bicycle use while Baltimore didn't. At least some of the old signs prohibiting bike use are still up, generally, today there is no clarity about it.
In this instance one could believe it for a moment
The space has been successfully shared by pedestrians, pets, and cyclists for years; I am not aware of any safety problems in that time, certainly not in excess of what would be expected in any multi-use facility, such as the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls Trails.

Similar waterside facilities exist in cities all over the country and most if not all of them are open to regulated cycling.  They offer pleasant and safe bicycling for residents and visitors alike in cities such as Vancouver (BC), Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Chicago, and New York.  The only places where cycling is banned are where there are parallel bike paths immediately nearby. (
Greg Hinchliffe, May 2008, then Chair, Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee)
While Baltimore is searching for the right path in so many ways, the path along the water already exists. It just needs the attention it deserves. From Forth McHenry to Canton Crossing.

Picture tour along the promenade from HarborPlace to Canton Crossing:
Is this the promenade?

Or this most direct but skinny connection

Or this utterly unattractive route around the Aquarium

South of Powerplant  still no Promenade direction

Is this the route for the Promenade? One can see this connection  only after traversing the Pier VI parking lot

Where the Promenade meets the new Central Avenue Bridge a huge opportunity was missed

The intrepid bridge sidewalk user gets to this point: Where to go if anywhere?

Those adventurous enough can find this temporary promenade around HarborPoint

Until this abruptly stops the journey. No detour is provided

From the other sie there is at least a warning about the closure but still no information where to go

At times the brick turns into a boardwalk. The sharp turns without bollards or railings may be hazard at night

A quite attractive access route from Fells Point's Bond Street. But no signs point to the Promenade nor
do signs inform anyone on the Promenade about where this route goes

Here the Promenade dives underneath the Bond Street Wharf building. A good solution.

One of the few signs that provide orientation on the promenade, but it is about a special health walk only. But at least its shows the Promenade route.

Walking towards the Pendry Hotel. This is just a sidewalk now, but it is also an important Promenade connection

The Promenade offers many attractive views

Coming to this juncture on Thames Street, there is no clue provided where to go from here

One can indeed get around Henderson Wharf, except that the walk isn't very luxurious and not lit. 

The boardwalk ends here. Is this the end of the Promenade?

The courageous user will try this route which looks awfully like a private driveway

And will find that the Promenade, indeed, continues!

At least for a bit when things get dicey again. Is this the end?

No it isn't, just  a 90 degree turn.

By now one suspects that this isn't the end either, even if it looks like it

Even this isn't the end, except a sign announces that it soon will be

After some twists real Promenade territory comes back into sight

The standards chnages but the route continues (Captain James)

Crossing a parking lot there is an effort made to give some spray-paint guidance

Promenade built to the standards (almost, it hardly seems to be 20' wide)

In Canton near the Safeway on Boston Street a hard choice has to be made. The runner seems to know the way

At Tindeco the standard is different again and a restaurant got away with narrowing the path, but still: This is nice

and transitions a bit awkwardly into the real Promenade standard at Canton Cove

The water taxi landings could be visual highlights and hubs along the Promenade. But most have no amenities at all. This one at the Korean War Memorial has at least a shelter

The path veers away from the water. Why?

Because now, here in this manner it really ends. No sign to inform the optimistic user that may traverse the parking lot once more hoping for another surprise

But the hopes are dashed at this publicly owned waterfront terminusof the Baltimore Police Marine unit. 

Really the end

Turning around one can barely grasp that Baltimore's 7.5 mile attraction should begin like this. No sign, no information, no welcome. But it looks promising, doesn't it?

Very promising, indeed. But maybe it is just easier to use the boat?

Baltimore’s Waterfront Promenade represents a unique public and private partnership that has ensured public access to the city’s most cherished natural asset – its harbor.  It is a public pedestrian walkway/shared use bicycle path that functions as a waterfront sidewalk for development sites and public spaces that have emerged from the former industrial waterfront. The concept of the eight-mile promenade was established in the 1960’s as a key component in the Inner Harbor Master Plan – a visionary plan that proposed massive redevelopment of land adjacent to the historic harbor that was the basis for the founding of Baltimore in 1729. (online description by the Planning Department)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Spooky at HarborPlace

In 2011 I wrote an article titled "Perpetual Halloween at the Inner Harbor". Back then I was referring to the "carnivalization" of the Inner Harbor with its sometimes already gaudy attractions. Some concepts in a recent idea competition tried to top this with rides and a Ferris Wheel. Of course, there is already "Believe it or Not", the Ripley pavilion with the decorations  of a spooky carnival ride.
Perpetual Halloween at HarborPlace?

Eight years later, HarborPlace has become truly spooky. The halls of the pavilions are eerily empty, boarded stores, just ghosts of the past haunting the halls. The uncertainties of the retail world at large have gripped the retail microcosm of the Inner Harbor.

From "Festival MarketPlace to chain stores, to gaudy attractions, HarborPlace went through a steady spiral of stupefication and decline. And this isn't just an elitist intellectual take of a Birkenstock sandal wearing muesli-eater that looks down on what the masses want. The masses have spoken, and they don't want HarborPlace any longer.

Reproduced the world over, the mini-mall on the water's edge has now run its course, it is deflated, tired and obsolete. It's state mirrors its big sisters, the failing big malls and festival market-places across the nation. Most of them are sad shadows of their glorious past, withered by online shopping, cool new urban places and a younger generation in search of authenticity and tired of generic consumption.
Jim Rouse on the cover of TIME

With the luster off a clearer view emerges of what was wrong with the famed Inner Harbor redevelopment all along: It makes obvious that the successful conversion of the once working waterfront was only a thin veneer of glitz surrounded by roadways on steroids separating it from downtown and the nearby neighborhoods. Neither the historic communities of Little Italy and Federal Hill nor the retrofitted rehab community of Otterbein engage with the Harbor, neither functionally nor visually. In the case of Federal Hill this is mostly due to geography and the steep park side blocking direct connections. But with Otterbein and Little Italy the separation is merely manmade: 7 or more lanes of highway and the ungainly broadsides of Scarlett Place and Harbor Court.

Massive buildings of the kind that the original 1964 Wallace McHarg masterplan tried to avoid, block neighborhoods off. They slipped through during a time when developers began to safely ignore carefully crafted planning documents, namely the Harbor Masterplan of Wallace Roberts, Todd. Contrary to urban lore, plans to make the harbor an attractive recreational waterfront date back to at least 1951, much further back than the era of Mayor Schaefer and developer Jim Rouse which get most of the credit today.
1951 rendering by Edward S. Black (Beggar or Chooser?)
To me, the most significant area of downtown Baltimore for potential development from the standpoint of civic design and fine architectural setting, is the inner harbor area I have been inspired by the possibilities of this area from the very time I arrived in Baltimore to become the Director of Planning eight years ago.11 …the entire Inner Harbor can be surrounded by beautiful buildings with a fine, direct relationship to the water itself. Properly planned, waterfront-orientated hotels, office buildings, restaurants, and clubs can produce a much higher taxable base and much better use of the land than is now the case. If we can add cultural and recreational facilities, possibly some of them using the water, we can make Baltimore a city which its citizens can point to with pride as truly one of the most exciting cities in the world. Baltimore Planning Director Arthur D. McVoy (1956

A maybe more egregious flaw is that HarborPlace's programming became increasingly tourist oriented. "Cities are fun", the Time Magazine had proclaimed on a title page showing HarborPlace developer Jim Rouse. But the inventor of the "festival marketplace" didn't have a cheap waterfront carnival of the kind we see in Coney Island or Ocean City in mind. The focus on visitors alineted the locals who began staying away.
Vacancy in the once lively pavilions. The ghosts of failing retail
(Photo: Khadija Smith)

The current calamity of the failing pavilions languishing in receivership cannot be solved without some drastic reversals. Plans to rethink the Inner Harbor are plentiful. One careful has to separate the good ideas from the bad ones. Cooper Robertson's plan of 2003 took up the issue of the wide highways that replace the once planned overhead freeways between I-95 and I-83. It was that plan which suggested to close the traffic "dogleg" between Light and Calvert Streets which Ayers Saint Gross repeated in "Harbor 2.0".

Both firms ran into the buzzaw of traffic engineering concerns. Now with a Mayor who is a man of neighborhoods, an ardent proponent of "complete streets" as the chair of the transportation committee in the City Council, and a new Director of DOT trying to clean up the failed department, it is time to finally connect the Inner Harbor to its city by giving the barrier roadways a series of "road-diets" until they become connectors instead of dividers. A good time to test a closure of the "dogleg" roadway would be "Light City".
An architectural sin added later, now fenced off (Photo: Khadija Smith)

Central Baltimore is the city's fastest growing neighborhood, but it is woefully short of open space: The Inner Harbor must become again the area's premier park, for which it was beloved in the early stages of its transformation. This would benefit the residents of Little Italy, Harbor East, Federal Hill, Otterbein and the new neighborhood that used to be downtown.

The latest Rash Field redevelopment plan is a good start after it thankfully dropped the idea of an underground garage (also a Cooper Robertson idea). The failed pavilions need to go and make room for carefully designed open space which connects the island that used to be the McKeldin Plaza with its walkable fountain designed by Mr. Todd. As has been proved from New York to Seattle, well designed central parkland can add so much value, that the loss of those two mostly vacant pavilions should cause no heartburn at all.
When HarborPlace was a blank slate in 1957
Most importantly, perhaps, HarborPlace needs to return to water based themes that reflect its history, boats, boat tours, ferries and maybe a fish market. Also the fantastic 5 mile Baltimore waterfront promenade needs to get its spot as a top attraction. It also has fallen into state of being forgotten, just like HarborPlace.
With just a few fixes, it could easily be Baltimore's largest attraction, not just for visitors but for every community within walking distance of this wonderful amenity from Locust Point all the way to Brewers Hill.
Wrestling Harborplace out of private hands and back into the public domaine where it belongs shouldn't be overly expensive. The Waterfront Partnership just needs all the support it can get to expand the renewal of Rash Field all the way to Pier Six.

The spooky harbor may be fine for Halloween. But only a day later this week Baltimore is gearing up for its annual Light City, this year combined with the Book Festival. Light City, the Book festival, tall ships and a refurbished Rash Field need to be assets for all of Baltimore. Harborplace once thought to be an asset has now turned into a liability. This isn't good for anybody, not even for neighborhoods far away from the water.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

If you are interested in discussing this matter or the issues of Baltimore neighborhoods with me and a panel of experts, come this Saturday to the Book Festival event.

Investment, Disinvestment and Neighborhood Change in Baltimore

 · Hosted by Strong City Baltimore
  • Saturday at 2 PM – 3 PM

  • World Trade Center Baltimore, Observation level
    Baltimore, Maryland
    As part of our 50th anniversary celebration, Strong City presents a discussion panel on “Investment, Disinvestment, and Neighborhood Change in Baltimore” at Brilliant Baltimore - union of two marquee events: Baltimore Book Festival and Light City. Panelists include Dr. Marisela Gomez, author of “Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore”; Klaus Philipsen, author of “Baltimore: Reinventing a Legacy City”; Professor Betsy Nix, editor of “Baltimore ‘68”; and Lisa Snowden-McCray, editor of the Baltimore Beat. Moderator is China Boak Terrell, Executive Director of American Communities Trust.

    Held at the Inspire Stage – Top of the World Observation Level, World Trade Center.

  • Tickets

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