Friday, March 10, 2017

One Light Street - Baltimore's biggest hole

How can anybody believe that Baltimore is on the Fritz  if a developer would dig a hole a big as the one at One Light Street in hope of making big bucks?
Shoring up Baltimore Street. Look for the small worker at
the bottom level for scale! (Photo Philipsen)

The hole is as deep as the debates about the future of the large vacant lots left behind by the demolished 14-story Southern Hotel were long. It is probably currently Baltimore's biggest hole aside from the one in the school budget. The hole may easily be more interesting than the new tower itself.

Dan Rodrick's described in his column how his Tonka neurons fired in his head at the sight of a backhoe in the hole flattening an old oil tank,

This corner of downtown served this week as a reminder of what is wrong in Baltimore when robbery and assault committed by a tassel of school kids in bright daylight was video-taped, Looking into the hole my architectural eye was trained in structural issues just enough to immediately spot the unusual bracing of the 40' or so retaining wall, holding up Baltimore Street. Big steel pipes hold back a beam in the upper section of the retaining wall. Building the basement levels with those pipes in place will require step by step dismantling of those brackets.  Typically caissons and/or piles would hold up the soil adjacent to a deep excavation held in place against horizontal pressure by tie-backs burrowed into the terrain. But in this case there is a subway station under Baltimore Street that doesn't allow tie-backs.

Maybe even more impressive is the sight of the historic 1892 Thomas Building jacked up on a giant plinth. It is the only structure that has been preserved in the entire block between Baltimore and Redwood and Light and Grant Streets. Sitting at the corner of Light and Baltimore Streets with a McDonalds franchise as the only occupant, it would long have fallen into the hole had its basement walls not been carefully "extended" down as the excavation progressed, a process generally called underpinning. The result looks outright scary.
the Thomas building balancing on the edge
(Photo Philipsen)

The Southern Hotel, demolished in 1998, was a witness of another time when developers built big in Baltimore. The posh hotel opened in 1918 but had been shuttered in 1964 before it become rubble at the age of 80 in spite of many attempts by preservationists to save it. Its rise and fall as well as the many starts and stops after its demolition are a Baltimore story that has played out many times: High hopes for a bright future and then not enough money to do it, gutting history in the process. The McCormick spice factory, the News American Building are such examples vacant lots transformed into surface parking lots for decades. Lately the Mechanic Theater seems to join that line of precedents, apparently held up by lawsuits over access to the parking garage under it.

Baltimore architects Peter Fillat, Hord Coplan Macht and now URS-AECOM have tried their hand on designing a worthy structure to succeed the Southern for a number of developer teams. Only the Metropolitan Partnership, who also developed the former Nations Bank Tower at 10 Light Street across from the Southern site, had enough capital back the project to begin construction. Or, maybe  the design was whittled down far enough to make "the numbers work".

The Thomas building and the garage of
the same size on Baltimore Street
(UDARP presentation)
The final result is 364' tall enclosing nearly 781,000 square feet of development consisting of a 9-level 646-space parking garage with only 2 levels below grade, ground level retail, 9 floors of offices and 10 levels of luxury apartments. The once famous night club on top of the Southern will be replaced  by a roof-top pool. The new tower is architecturally much less interesting than the previous designs. It will easily blend in with the other unremarkable modern towers that line Baltimore Street on the north side and will turn Baltimore Street into a canyon. It will diminish the views from the historic 10 Light Street tower but it will also provide parking for it.

The already completed 10 Light Street renovation project has no parking of its own, a solution for the urban dweller who uses transit or ZipCar and anticipates the shared autonomous vehicle (AV) that doesn't have to be parked all day. It is a mystery to me how the expense for a 650 car garage that is incorporated into the project with no chance for demolition or alteration can be justified in 2017 when the AV will become common in just a few years.

Which gets us back to the initial point of the risk that such a project presents, or the stability that Baltimore offers for such an investment. Or the lack of foresight.

I can see that the other big tower going up just now at 414 Light Street on the old McCormick site can be a successful project even if the units will be quite expensive. At the edge of the Harbor and the community of Otterbein, the project will have a clear identity. By contrast, One Light is a bit of everything, sitting among other giants with a facade that looks the same, no matter whether it encloses cars, offices or residences. A design that gave UDARP a hard time. I like its optimism, but wonder if its sits on a sound footing and I don't mean the one at the bottom of the hole.
Ten Light Street (left) and One Light Street
(UDARP presentation)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The proposed tower as seen from Red
wood Street at Light

The Southern Hotel in the 60's from the
same angle


  1. The Southern Hotel wasn't vacant since 1966. The Marine Engineers' Union operated a school for mariners on the site after 1966. It moved to Easton some time in the 1980s.

  2. The Pontiac in that photo is from the early 1970s.