Monday, June 3, 2019

Big names and ideas for Baltimore's "second waterfront"

30 years of planning

The year was 1990 and Baltimore's young architects organized in the Urban Design Committee published a little booklet with ideas what to do with the Middle Branch. The context then was the football stadium to be constructed south of Camden Yards and the notion that such a stadium should spawn a larger masterplan which would address "Baltimore second waterfront". The architects envisioned a softer, greener and more natural waterfront, contrasting from the first waterfront, the Inner Harbor. Alas, the Ravens' nest was built without a masterplan and the Middle Branch languished.

However, in 2005 the Planning Department had taken on the notion of masterplanning and communicated with the architects again about ideas for the Middle Branch. The AIA provided a set of recommendations, including this one:
Baltimore's second waterfront (Middle Branch
The area around the Middle Branch “basin” might be considered as a series “communities” within with the Middle Branch as the common element.  The Westport shoreline is an opportunity to create a mixed-use “Village” along the water.  The parkland is more of a green zone, while the opposite shore can be defined as a low-lying institutional/business/etc. area with increasing mass and height towards the peripheral roadways. (from 2005 AIA-UDC letter to Planning)
In 2007 the Middle Branch Masterplan was finally adopted. Meanwhile Pat Turner claimed, planned, and lost Westport. One of his consultants was the the landscape firm Field Operations.

In 2016 Under Armor claimed Port Covington and obtained Westport in foreclosure.  Their landscape consultant in the masterplanning stage was Landworks Studio in Boston.  In 2018 Weller Development issued a request for proposals for landscape architecture.  The Port Covington team is still set on the development of the full 235-acre, multi-decade, $5.5-billion project of Port Covington, and the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) bond funds which include also the reconstruction of the Spring Gardens Swing Bridge into a pedestrian bridge that would connect Westport to Port Covington near Swann Park.

Competition with world stars in green design

Finally, now in 2019 the Parks and People Foundation announced three finalists for their landscape design idea competition funded from Casino impact funds. From an initial pool of 50 "world class landscape architecture teams", three teams emerged as finalists: Hargreaves Associates, James Corner Field Operations, and West8. The idea concepts deal with 11 miles of waterfront and can be viewed here.
Sagamore maserplan renderings of Middle Branch waterfront park
“Our vision for the Middle Branch Waterfront is that it will be the newest crown jewel in Baltimore’s inventory of great public parks: one of the country’s next great urban waterfronts,” Lisa Schroeder, CEO of the Parks and People Foundation
“Every once in a while, there comes an idea that’s bigger than all of us put together, and the Middle Branch is one of them,” Chris Ryer, director of the Department of Planning.
The shortlisted firms are big names anywhere in the world and it is an achievement to have been able to attract them to produce ideas for Baltimore's "second waterfront" in spite of uncertain funding and Baltimore's long history of wavering when it comes to follow through.
Middle Branch aerial photo with cleared Westport side on the left

The unkind treatment of the Middle Branch.

Even after the Inner Harbor had been discovered as an attraction, the Middle Branch only got the boot. On its shores were installed: a tank farm, an Interstate exchange, an animal shelter, a waste incinerator, a hospital, a Greyhound Station and a Sams Club (now Under Armour's HR department). Even after the architect's initial foray in favor of better treatment and after the adoption of the masterplan in 2007, the Middle Branch did not fair much better than before.

  • The Baltimore Development Corporation changed the area east of Russell Street form being part of the Carroll Camden industrial park to a sports entertainment area with a sports center that emerged as the winning contender only to be squashed by Baltimore's eagerness to land a casino. As a result a good piece of Middle Branch located along Warner Street was ruined by the gigantic Horseshoe Casino garage and cut off from access and view.

  • Field Operation's green dreams for the New Westport fell by the wayside when Turner Development had to give up the 43 acre site which sits fallow ever since the BGE facility and the Carr Lowry Glass Company had been leveled.

  • A 2015 Gateway Masterplan conceived to guide the use of Casino funds was full of generalities and lofty goals and very short of actual guidance.

!990 AIA Urban Design Committee Report

  • A West Covington Park designed for bird-watching was constructed as part of an agreement with the Aquarium to build a facility on the site of a former municipal bus garage at the foot of the Hanover Street Bridge. The many trees had barely taken root and grown a bit when the park changed hands and Weller Development re-imagined the park as an active place with a sports bar, a ball field and sand lots for volley ball. Hundreds of trees were removed requiring off site mitigation somewhere. (The short life of West Covington Park)

The bright spots of an emerging Middle Branch green system

But good things also happened. How a green oasis can look becomes clear when one looks at the Masonville Cove.
In 2003, the Baltimore Harbor team proposed a study of the Masonville site for dredged materials. In 2004, there came an opportunity for environmental revitalization when the Army Corp of Engineers and the Maryland Port Administration offered to restore and preserve the natural beauty of Masonville Cove and construct an environmental education center as part of a harbor dredging project.
Since 2007, restoration of Masonville Cove has been underway, including removing derelict vessels from the water and removing over 14,000 tons of wood and assorted debris. The wood was used as fuel for electricity generation in
Gwynns Falls Trail at Middle Branch Park
Pennsylvania and recovered metal debris was recycled. The concrete debris was stockpiled to build artificial reefs to provide a home and shelter for fish, crabs and oyster beds. (Website) 
The Gwynns Falls Trail system was fleshed out with a waterfront trail spur which ends at the Harbor Hospital, allowing a flavor of the potential of the Middle Branch as a waterfront park system including the fantastic views of downtown. The existing Middle Branch Park on the south-shore, where Baltimore's Rowing Club has its home has received $150,000 Casino money through the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership for landscape upgrading. Port Covington started out with the Distillery and the conversion of the Sam Club, both with well designed waterfront parks.

The current competition ideas:

The descriptions of the shortlisted landscape architecture firms come from their websites. Below they are followed by a summary of what the concepts propose. ((The online Parks & People website has combined all boards into slide show-videos, making a direct comparison extremely cumbersome).

All participants were invited to suggest a phasing plan based on the fact that whatever funding for implementation would only realize over a 10 year period.
Hargreaves Jones is a landscape architecture and planning firm in New York City that practices around the globe on a wide range of urban design, waterfront, public park, academic, corporate, institutional, and residential projects with a focus on the creation of memorable landscapes. These projects range in scale from miles of riverfront or 1000’s of acres of parkland to urban parks, gardens and plazas. (Video)
Hargraves Jones rendering
The firm may be best known through their Olympic Fields in London. Their idea boards show a trail system throughout the area with new pedestrian bridges including a connection via the old railroad turn bridge as previously assumed in the Sagamore masterplanThey dubbed their concept "Patapsco Strand". There are new wetlands in "Ridgely's Cove", a new Westport promenade, and a floating swimming pool. The Middle Branch and Park Smith Cove sport a real beach, there are also an event lawn, a performance pavilion, a market plaza and a shade pavilion as well as wetlands and boardwalks, in short an assortment of what one would expect along a recreational waterfront that one day may be clean enough for direct water contact. The team is augmented by the local members Living Design Lab, and the Neighborhood Design Center.
Hargraves Jones Middle Branch Park
James Corner Field Operations is a leading-edge landscape architecture and urban design practice with offices in New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia. The practice is renowned for bold, transformative design in complex urban environments, inspired by place and culture, and informed by an inclusive and engaging process. In all of the work, there is a deep commitment to reconnecting people to nature in the City through the design of a vibrant and dynamic public realm that integrates ecology, program and people. (Video)
James Corner of Field Operations is best known through the New York High Line project. As noted, the team is already familiar with the area from the work on the Westport concepts. Not satisfied with the proposed widened sidewalks and bike-lanes on the Hanover Bridge reconstruction (not fully funded yet) the team has added a separate new pedestrian bridge adjacent to the historic bridge just for peds and bikes. The new bridge would be part of a trail system around the waterfront that includes promenades and bridges in Ridgely’s Cove that hang from the overhead Interstate bridges. The old railroad turn bridge is converted to a pier coming off a pedestrian bridge. Water overlook terraces and a beach are added to West Covington Park which Sagamore now calls South Point.The concept dubbed "Shorelines" plans "social porches" in the form of beaches, a kayak and canoe launch, fishing piers, and a picnic place along the Middle Branch Park and Smith Cove,  and a swimming pier adjacent to Sagamore Spirit Distillery. The firm is locally supported by Biohabitat Baltimore and Moffatt Nichol, a civil engineer that also works with Sagamore.
Field Operations: Suspended trails
West 8 is an award-winning international office for urban design and landscape architecture founded in 1987. Over the last 32 years, West 8 has established itself as a leading practice with an international team of 70 landscape architects, urban designers, architects and industrial engineers. West 8 has offices in Rotterdam, Belgium and in New York City. With a multi-disciplinary approach to complex design issues, West 8 has extensive experience in large-scale urban master planning and design, landscape interventions, waterfront projects, parks, squares and gardens. (Video)
Field Operations Overview Plan
West8's maybe most prominent project is the landscape design of Governor's Island in New York. For the Middle Branch the team came up with the boldest and most expensive idea: The team suggests converting the Hanover Bridge into a linear park and constructing a new vehicular bridge from the center of Port Covington next to Under Armour’s planned future headquarters, into Brooklyn. The long new bridge would be broken up by a new island. This reconfiguration of the transportation network has many implications on both ends which will, no doubt, trigger a lot of discussion during the public comment period underway until June 8.

West8 also added a trail system looping around the Middle Branch and into Ridgely’s Cove with new pedestrian bridges and new marshlands adjacent to each shoreline. The plan also converts the Spring Gardens Swing Bridge into a pedestrian bridge. Other accessories include a band shell and amphitheater at the Middle Branch Park and additional water taxi stops. West8 has local support from Mahan Rykiel Associates and Moffatt Nickel. 
West8 overview plan with new road bridge

After being shortlisted all three firms will engage with the community through online comments and meetings. A "winner" will be selected by a yet to be named jury after the comment period ends on June 12. According to the Parks and People website, the process "is overseen by the Parks & People Foundation  under a contract with the City of Baltimore and the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership with the goal to recruit highly qualified experts to assist in finding the best team to work with Baltimore on this exciting initiative." The project is supported by a working group, advisory committees and a variety of active stakeholders, including a steering committee, comprised of property owners, community representatives, government leaders, elected officials and technical experts.

The three designs concepts were revealed on May 30 at an event where Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Frank Lance, President & CEO, Parks & People, Michael Middleton, Chairman, SB7 Coalition, Inc., Senator Bill Ferguson and Delegate Brooke Lierman as well as Dr. Benjamin Wu, from the Maryland Department of Commerce, Deputy Secretary, Reginald Moore, Director, Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, Chris Ryer, Director of Planning; Brad Rogers, Executive Director, South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, and Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello of the 11th District expressed their excitement about the ideas.

What's next?

West8 detail for Ridgely's Cove
The public feedback will be shared with a jury of community representatives and technical experts who will assess the entries, take the comments into consideration, interview the firms, and then recommend a firm to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

The process doesn't follow typical design competitions which let a professional jury select a concept based on design but is mostly based on the firm's reputation and allows public input which should mean that the presented concepts could change significantly.

In-person exhibits and online comments will run Thursday, May 30 through Wednesday, June 12 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library Cherry Hill Branch and at City Garage.

How many of the will ideas will eventually be implemented will largely depend on how casino revenues develop (they are on a downward trajectory) and how Sagamore's Port Covington progresses. ("Chapter One is about to begin construction).  Much more than the Inner Harbor, the Middle Branch could really become a waterfront of and for the neighborhoods. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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