Thursday, April 14, 2016

Designing in stove pipes: Rash Field

Baltimore continues to muddle through. That became very visible today when a new design for Rash Field was discussed at UDARP. This happens in spite of the sweeping  Harbor 2.0 masterplan from a few years back, which had been precisely commissioned with the purpose of avoiding piecemeal approaches that wouldn't add up. But muddle is what we get:
MRA rendering of the redesigned Rash Field with Skatepark in
the front

  • Ashkanazi is redesigning the Harborplace pavilions, 
  • the Downtown Partnership is redesigning McKeldin Plaza, 
  • city DOT is studying traffic on Pratt and Light Streets and
  • designing a bikeway for Key Highway, 
  • and the Waterfront Partnership engaged Magan Rykiel re-design Rash Field, 
Each of these elements should be puzzle pieces of a larger picture and a grand vision of how to make the Inner Harbor a true part of the City.

But that isn't how it is. Instead these plans advance in stunning isolation from each other to the point that DOT's new Key Highway design isn't even referenced in the design plans for Rash Field, even though two fat arrows in a design diagram emphasize the importance of the connectivity of Rash Field across Key Highway.

The good news is that there is so much activity, the bad news is that evidently nobody feels a need to coordinate and ensure that the plans work synergistic together.

An institution that wasn't conceived for coordination, but that certainly notices the lack thereof, is the Urban Design and Architectural Review Committee, UDARP, a function of the Planning Department (which is designed to coordinate urban design). Today the Rash Field re-design had its first UDARP review round ("a discussion") and the panel of architects and landscape architects was not happy.
Public Outreach 

Public preferences
Even though presenters Isaac Hametz and Richard Johnson from Mahan Rykiel (MRA) stated right in the beginning that the project entailed only "strategic upgrades in a tactical approach", reviewers Gary Bowden, Pavlina Ilieva, Richard Burns and David Haresign offered strong criticism.

MRA's design intended to reduce barriers and turn a, in their words, "mono-activity site" into a multi-activity site. They had done intensive outreach including polls and meetings with the result that volleyball was a very strong activity on the site. (80% of respondents were white).

Bowden directed his laser pointer to a small court at the corner across Key Highway right across from the Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) and said "that is by far the most active place in the area, and its users are all black." He was referring to the small single basketball court on Covington Street. "Can a basket ball court not be located on Rash Field?" Ilieva chimed in and added "all your arrows, they are not really happening". To which Bowden added, "your diagrams are much more compelling than your design."

Warmed up by the tussle about equal-opportunity sports, Burns proceeded to a much more sweeping critique: "How does this fit into a bigger vision?" he asked. But first he had a specific problem with the relocation of the Pride of Baltimore memorial monument about which MRA had observed  "that it was occupying valuable space and was not very visited." Burns said that he had many discussion about this with the late Mario Schack who had served for many years as a design review member and whose daughter Nina perished when the original Pride of Baltimore sank, an event memorialized by the Rash Field monument. WRA had relocated the monument near the bathrooms across from Battery Avenue. "That monument should be in a contemplative space", Burns demanded. "Where you placed it is almost like an afterthought."
Back on the bigger picture Burns asked: "Are we cutting ourselves short and settle for something utilitarian?" He wondered aloud if the  $18 per square foot that he had derived from the overall $5 million budget would be enough for even what Bowden had called the "maintenance plan" to be implemented within the budget. "You can't design this just within the box" Burns concluded and Ilieva seconded that "without resolving the edge conditions even a beautiful interior is not enough". Bowden added that "the Inner Harbor needs to be part of the whole city".
The major activity elements: The lawn, the sandbox and the skatepark

"You are not making stronger connections to the neighborhoods. You are not making connections to the attractions. The pragmatic approach sells ourselves short" he lamented.
"What if the rusty scupper garage would be gone and how that would allow the Visionary to be connected?" mused Burns as an example how even a prgmatic plan should be embedded in a larger vision.

In the case of Rash Field UDARP can only have a "discussion" and the usual verdict whether a design can advance to the next level was not possible. If it had been, it would have been a strong no by all indications.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Enlargement of the Skatepark (modeled after a Danish park)

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