Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Pratt Street- Baltimore's premier mile?

Morgan Stanley's recent announcement to place 800 employees on Pratt Street is the most recent sign that Pratt Street has become hot real estate In spite of all the talk about downtown bleeding out because of Harbor East and HarborPoint. Like much in urban development, the story of Pratt Street is far from straight forward.

Big cities have grand Avenues or boulevards of commerce that often brand their city. New York has 5th Avenue, Chicago has Michigan Avenue, Washington has K Street and San Francisco has Market Street. The Champs Elysees are probably the most famous of the bunch.
Pratt Street

Baltimore has? Umm, Charles Street? Howard Street? Clearly neither of those comes even remotely close to its famous cousins not even during their hey days. Like Berlin after it was divided invented an all new grand boulevard by declaring the Kurf├╝rstendamm as the "showcase of the west", Baltimore declared Pratt Street to be its magnificent mile as part of the great retooling of its waterfront laid out in Roberts, Wallace Todd's (WRT) Masterplan for the Inner Harbor back in 1964.

Many wouldn't bestow the honor of being Baltimore's premier mile on Pratt Street and rather describe it as a 5 lane traffic sewer. But that wouldn't do WRT's vision justice. Baltimore with its old roots didn't have any downtown Street wide enough to be the grand avenue of shopping in the way how Eutaw Place, Roland Avenue or Mt Royal Terrace were the grand residential boulevards.

So WRT's vision for Pratt Street was that it would become the missing grand boulevard but in an unusual fashion. It would be asymmetrical, a boulevard but also a frame and backdrop for the Inner Harbor, more open on the waterside and more solid on the downtown side. There would be a 100' base lining the street and taller buildings would have to turn 90 degrees to allow views of the water from further in.
Pratt Street Desigh competition: An early concept for a two way street

For a long time, though, vision and reality didn't quite match in spite of the original high standards that the Inner Harbor Development Corporation had painstakingly set for design and a set of famed architects that were selected to execute "the frame" and solitaires along the water such as Ian Pei for the World Trade Center. The boulevard remained dull and dominated by traffic mostly because there was nothing going on on the first floor level of buildings and the wide sidewalks were "shielded" from traffic with berms that also blocked views and did not at all convey the urbanity that comes from lively sidewalks.

The discrepancy between vision and reality was not lost on the Downtown Partnership which after a idea charrette with professionals and community input in 2008 commissioned Ayer Saint Gross and the Olin Partnership to develop ideas how to make Pratt Street live up to the original expectations. ASG originally favored turning Pratt Street into a two way street but the idea was thwarted by city transportation and a much tamer plan was eventually developed.
A "backpack" to enliven the street

Since 2008 some berms have been removed and some dull building faces received a "backpack" on the first floor with storefront retail and restaurants opening to the sidewalk. Retail has come and gone (Best Buy) but the tendency is for more. The little cluster of pubs west of Liberty street with their outdoor seating shows that an urban ambiente doesn't need heroic action, just an active business that looks good on the ground level.

There is now enough activity in certain parts of the Pratt Street corridor to attract Baltimore residents and not just conventioneers, visitors who come for ball games or tourists. If businesses don't have to rely entirely on those intermittent users, the street will eventually become a real part of downtown and an important link along the waterfront.

The real estate boom with Pandora Jewelry LLC at 250 W. Pratt, Transamerica at the former USF&G tower, and a host of new restuarants and stores should provide Pratt Street with the boost it needed to truly become Baltimore's premier boulevard. But it is a far way from being a shopping street on par with its peers. But the potential is there, in part because there is no real premier mile competition except for the relatively small cluster at Harbor East.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about recent real estate moves on Pratt Street

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