Wednesday, April 8, 2015

McKeldin Fountain - Its Fate is Sealed

Late last year when it became clear that the Downtown Partnership considered the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain near HarborPlace a matter that had been publicly discussed, vetted and approved and therefore a done deal, a flurry of articles and event ensued with people wondering about the validity of the public process leading up to such a discussion and about the quality of the existing fountain design itself.

In December the local chapter of AIA had its board vote on a resolution that stated that no demolition should take place unless a new design was ready to be implemented that would include the closure of the street-space that currently separates the fountain plaza from Harborplace.

  • No demolition before a new design has been publicly presented, vetted and approved by a review agency.
  • McKeldin Plaza needs to be an iconic space of the highest caliber with broad public participation.
  • The McKeldin Plaza design should be embedded in a comprehensive plan and integrated approach to site circulation with an emphasis on pedestrian access along Light and Pratt Streets which is based on best urban-design principles and not solely traffic- engineering. (AIA Resolution)
The Baltimore D-center held a Design Conversation about the fountain and discovered that it had many friends even among the young. It also discovered that any discussion that could challenge the wisdom of demolition of the brutalist fountain as a foregone conclusion causes severe friction with those that are involved with the new plans and concepts.

Currently, the Square fountain suffers from aging concrete and metalwork; its pumps are often nonfunctional, making it very expensive to operate.  Its physical footprint divides the heart of Downtown from the Inner Harbor.  It blocks views in and out of the harbor, and it only faces one direction even though it is visible from all sides.  The back of the fountain offers a poor greeting to millions of visitors who arrive at one of the prime gateways into Baltimore, at Conway and Light streets.  For many months out of the year, the water in the fountain does not run, leaving a dry, poorly-lit, desolate hole at a crucial location in Downtown Baltimore.  During the public process underlying the recent plans, stakeholders repeatedly commented that the stark skywalks and fountain created a weak first impression for prospective employees, residents, and clients, undermining the City’s ability to attract top talent and residents.  (Downtown Partnership Nov. 2014)

Where are we today in March 2015?
According to my information the Baltimore design review panel (UDARP) will review a new design concept this month, possibly on 4/16 (no agenda has been released yet). DPoB and the designers retained by the Partnership (Mahan Rykiel, ASG and Ziger Snead) continue to assume the complete demolition of the existing fountain and completed a new design concept that presumably is based on closing the dogleg of Light Street that connects over to Calvert Street and separates the current fountain area from the Inner Harbor, an idea that had first been suggested in Pratt Street redevelopment plans by ASG and later in the Inner Harbor masterplan 2.0 also prepared by ASG.

The linchpin of the discussion appears to be traffic and what the engineers determined to be the minimum number of lanes needed to manage traffic without the connecting dogleg. Apparently, the City retained traffic consultant Sabra Wang concluded that the 55' between the current fountain and the western edge of Light Street are not enough to accommodate north and southbound traffic (currently this area is solely used by southbound traffic). My various attempts of getting confirmation from DOT about the state of the traffic study have not been successful.

While bullet one of the AIA resolution is technically fulfilled through a UDARP review and such a review would constitute a public unveiling of the new design, it is much less obvious that urban design truly is the basis of the new design and not the findings of traffic engineers or the desires of those who provide private funds for the demolition of the current fountain. Nor is it really clear that the pros and cons of the fountain's demolition have been sufficiently discussed by the public as part of the meetings about Harbor 2.0, given what a prominent public space this is.

That these questions remain diminishes the laudable efforts of transforming Pratt Street and the areas around the Inner Harbor into really world class spaces. One can only hope that the quality of the new design will be so overwhelming that nobody will miss the Wallace Robert Todd designed McKeldin fountain and that no temporary solutions attempted in which the fountain will be demolished, the street remain open and the new design un-built.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The McKeldin fountain as it presented itself last year around the bicentennial celebrations

Exterior Links:

Baltimore Business Journal article
Hyperallergic article

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