Why I Am Against the Downtown Partnership’s Plan to Tear Down McKeldin Fountain by Cara Ober

Imagine, just for a minute, that a group of powerful Italian business owners and urban planners decided that the Roman Forum is an architectural disaster, a waste of potentially income earning space, a dump filled with detritus and decay. They hire architects and submit tidy plans of manicured lawns, open spaces for “attractions and events,” and sleek fountains that “honor” the original space. Their plans claim to “reclaim and reconnect the urban fabric” of the city, minimize “vehicular obstructions,” and “correct urban design wrongs” while creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to have a presence in a central part of the city.

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Do you really think the citizens of Rome would allow an established historical site to be bulldozed by the business community for a green lawn and shopping mall ?? Oh HELL NO. The Italians would never let this happen. They value their monuments from distant eras and preserve their architecture, even its ruins. For this reason, a walk through the city of Rome is a fascinating, educational encounter with living history; a place full of unique buildings and beautiful fountains tucked into in the most unexpected corners.

Monuments exist for a reason – to remember collective history. Since their very structure comes from past aesthetic values and principles, it will inherently be outdated in serving as a physical representation of a bygone era. In an age where we bulldoze history on a regular basis and then regret it later, especially in Baltimore, preserving the past in its physical form deserves a primal cry for sanity and caution.

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This is what I am thinking about as I sit in the new offices of Baltimore’s Downtown Partnership, overlooking the gaping hole of dust and wreckage that was once the Morris Mechanic Theater. I am listening to a presentation by architects (Richard Jones of Mahan Rykiel Associates and Steve Ziger of Ziger-Snead) who plan to tear down one of Baltimore’s remaining Brutalist structures – McKeldin Fountain in the Inner Harbor – and replace it with a green lawn, extra traffic lanes, and a generic water wall.

As I look down many stories into the swirling dust below, I remember the magic I felt as a young child on one of the theater’s balconies punctuated with rocky spires – it was one part Star Wars Tattoine, one part Stone Age cave, and one part Frozen ice castle. I remember, when riding the metro to the Morris Mechanic Theater to see Les Miserablés for the millionth time, the magic I felt when riding up the escalator into that otherworldly architectural experience. It’s all gone now. It’s all rubble and dust. Rather than restoring and rebuilding an audience, Baltimore thought it better to build high rise condos in its place. Does this troubled city need more condos for the wealthy? What are we thinking???

The Morris Mechanic Theater

The Morris Mechanic Theater circa 2004

As I sit in a boardroom with about forty people, the speakers at the Downtown Partnership meeting describe the whys and hows of a new McKeldin Plaza and the buzzwords are “reclaiming open spaces” and “reconnecting the urban fabric.” They say that Baltimore’s Inner Harbor needs to be a better “beacon for visitors” – and by this, they mean that it needs to somehow look better from a northbound car window and provide better traffic flow for Orioles fans and commuters. They claim that the current McKeldin Fountain is unwelcoming and unwanted, that the plaza in front of it is underused, an example of bad urban design.

In the early 1980’s Rouse & Co. rewrote architectural and urban design history with Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Harbor Place. The new space for retail and gathering was named after former Baltimore Mayor (and Governor) Theodore McKeldin. It was McKeldin who envisioned the transformation of the Inner Harbor from an industrial port to a beautiful public space on the water. As an architectural centerpiece, the McKeldin Fountain, a prime example of Brutalist architecture, was built as a way for visitors to engage with both Harborplace and the open spaces from below, above, and within. In its day, this fountain was as much a game changer as the space itself, with towering spires, shooting fountains, and dramatic skywalks. A citywide referendum was required before the project was built.

The "underused" and "unfriendly" fountain on May 12 - just after our meeting ended. Photo by C. Ryan Patterson.

The “underused” and “unfriendly” fountain on May 12 – just after our meeting ended. Photo by C. Ryan Patterson.

Fast forward thirty-five years to the present. Our city has not cleaned this fountain thoroughly in decades or replaced the lights necessary to keep its interior spaces safe. The shooting waterfalls were turned off until Fountain Craft, a local company, repaired it and has said the structure is in good working order. I have to wonder if this neglect is benign or purposeful? An afternoon walk after the meeting reveals the fountain and plaza filled with people sitting, talking, walking, and biking. Is it possible the Downtown Partnership has gotten this plan all wrong?

At some point in 2002, Baltimore’s Downtown Partnership, a non-profit devoted to employment and events in the Inner Harbor, decided that the McKeldin Plaza was a failure of urban design and that the fountain needed to be torn down to accommodate more lanes of traffic. I have no idea who made this decision or how the decision was made – although I have been assured that there were “numerous public meetings” that I never heard about when I was a city resident in 2002. This lack of transparency and willingness to consider keeping the historic fountain is troubling for many reasons.

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In the past year, I have attended several meetings, including the Mayor’s Town Hall Meeting for the Arts last fall, where concerned citizens have asked about the decision to tear down the fountain – and the request is always brushed off as a “done deal,” decided ages ago. I need to ask again: Who made this decision? If there are a number of vocal, tax-paying citizens who want this decision revised or reconsidered, why hasn’t this happened? Why is the Downtown Partnership so insistent on tearing down this fountain? Who does this city belong to? Although they didn’t give a specific date, I have been told that demolition could start as soon as July.

In recent history, in 2012 the McKeldin Plaza was designated a “free speech” zone by the ACLU after Occupy protests occurred across the country. If the DP’s plan is approved, this democratic space for dissent (you don’t need a permit to protest here) would be annexed with the rest of Harborplace, an area that is owned privately by business. So in addition to losing an architectural gem, we’d destroy the one space downtown that exists for free speech and assembly.

Occupy Baltimore Protests in McKeldin Plaza

Occupy Baltimore Protests in McKeldin Plaza

After the Baltimore Uprising this April, it is clear that our city needs an urban space for dissent and peaceful protest – not more shopping for suburban visitors and certainly not a green lawn, a symbol of capitalist greed, suburban flight, and poor environmental policy.

What I learned at the Downtown Partnership’s public session on Tuesday, May 12: there is hope for those who want to preserve what we have.

First of all, I realized that a lot of people care about the fate of the McKeldin Fountain and Plaza, and have grave doubts about the Downtown Partnership’s ability to carry out their current plans. This meeting was public, but was scheduled for a Tuesday at 3 pm – how many people could actually attend this meeting? Does it seem like the time was intentionally planned to exclude? Also, you had to RSVP twenty-four hours before attending, another way to discourage people who signed up late, like me. (Thankfully I was on the list and a name tag was waiting for me). Regardless, there were a number of dissenting voices present at this meeting.

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The Downtown Partnership’s current plans for McKeldin Plaza

The DP’s pitch hinged upon creating a successful urban space, but their plan appears to be actually about re-routing traffic. They want to combine the two halves of McKeldin Plaza currently divided by the curvy spur between Light and Calvert Streets (there is a skywalk for pedestrians over this as part of the fountain), to reroute traffic from a Y to a T formation, and add several additional lanes of traffic. They claim that the current traffic pattern cuts off McKeldin Plaza from downtown and that they are trying to “right the urban design wrongs” of the past. Personally, I have a hard time believing that there is a one block solution to a much larger urban planning problem – a major inter-state highway emptying into Baltimore’s downtown, which is supposed to be a pedestrian friendly, public area. Good sources of public transportation, and less cars, seems a much better long-term solution to the problem, but the Downtown Partnership does not appear to be interested in this direction.

Although it was not mentioned in the presentation, the DP currently does not have enough funding to complete this project as it was described to the audience. So, instead of waiting until the whole project is funded, they propose to do it in phases and to raise money along the way. Phase one was – you guessed it – tearing down McKeldin Fountain and adding a lane of traffic. It did not include anything about combining McKeldin Plaza with Harborplace or creating a new traffic pattern, the centerpiece of the presentation.

How many large scale city projects have started out as temporary and ended up permanent? The metro station by Orioles stadium is 10 years old now and was supposed to be replaced soon after it was built. It’s still there. How many downtown projects have idled as a dirty hole with a chain link fence around it for years? Why is the DP in such a hurry to tear down this historic fountain? My guess is that Brutalist architecture is currently out of fashion – or perceieved to be. The destruction of the Morris Mechanic is proof of this. However, what the DP and its supporters fail to appreciate is that art and architecture go out of fashion all the time.

 

Imagine what Art History would include if all the ‘ugly’ art was destroyed by the haters of their time? Pretty much all of it. Every piece of historically significant art has been hated by a contemporary audience in its day.

 

When we raze our historical monuments, we are left with a generic ‘shopping mall’ landscape created by bland groupthink, designed for everybody but compelling to no one. Ironically, adjacent to the DP’s offices at 20 S. Charles there is a large plaza with a metal sculpture and reflecting pool where a handfull of people sat and mostly walked through on their way to the metro. Do we need to turn one of our few unique architectural monuments into something lame that we already have?

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After the presentation, which included a number of visuals of white people sitting on lawns and a linear ‘water wall’ which might be able to serve as a screen for video projections, we broke into smaller groups to discuss and raise questions. Participants were given a list of ten or so subjects to discuss, but it was obvious that almost everyone in my group wanted to discuss options for the preservation of McKeldin Fountain.

I take it back. There was one businessman in my group who applauded the design and thought the lawn was great “as long as there is no space for skateboarding.” He felt strongly that the open urban space – supposedly designed for everyone – should exclude urban teenagers who enjoy skateboarding.

 

According to a ‘concerned citizen’ in my group (we had to list our affiliation which was put on our name tags), “The people of Baltimore want transparency. They want to own this space. Where were the community meetings to decide what happens to McKeldin plaza?” When it was reiterated that the decision was made in 2002, the speaker described the current plans as “dumb urban planning” and said they needed to do better.

 

A different participant who identified himself as part of AIA asked why, if this is an economically viable project, wasn’t it funded already at 100%? Regarding the construction’s ‘phasing’ approach, he said it made no sense to tear down the fountain and rebuild the plaza temporarily only to tear it all down again and rebuild it again when they have the money to move the traffic spur. Why not wait, he suggested, until all the money was raised? And if the funding isn’t there, it might be a sign that this project is not viable.

Another ‘concerned citizen’ questioned the plan’s intent to combine the private and commercially owned land of Harborplace with McKeldin’s public and civic space. Would it lose its ACLU designation as a free speech zone? Doesn’t Baltimore need a space for free speech, now more than ever? No one could say.

Richard Jones, a landcscape architect from Mahan Rykiel Associates, handled all the questions from my group with grace and patience, but his answers simply repeated the presentation we had already witnessed. He said the plaza had faced a lack of use since the 1960’s, that it was an unfriendly urban space, and that they had consulted numerous traffic studies to determine the number of extra lanes of traffic that were needed.

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What can you do to help?

The Downtown Partnership’s plan must be approved by the City’s Urban Design & Architecture Review Panel (known as UDARP) before it can move forward with phase one. According to the Baltimore Sun, “The Downtown Partnership plans to present the proposal to the city’s design panel for approval this month, with the hope of starting work by the end of the year, said Kirby Fowler, the partnership’s president. The work would proceed in phases, starting with the demolition of the existing fountain and the addition of grass.”

As far as current funding goes, the partnership has raised just $3.4 million (including a million in state funding) for the plan, but the entire project is estimated in “the tens of millions” according to Fowler. In the end, we would have a 2.8 acre plaza full of grass and a sharper image styled fountain after eliminating the spur between Light and Calvert Street, as well as a few extra lanes of traffic.

If you think Baltimore’s citizens deserve to have a say in this discussion, contact Thomas J. Stosur, Director of the Department of Planning at UDARP and Anthony Cataldo, the UDARP Coordinator at (410) 396-4107 (no email was provided at the website). Ask how to submit an opinion to UDARP‘s commission directly or at the the meeting. You can also inquire if the commission accepts public comments or if there will be a time for public commentary at the review.

If you care about this fountain, call or send your email today – they are planning to review the plans at the end of this month.

Tell our city representatives that the citizens of Baltimore want to preserve our unique historical monuments, we want to preserve our ‘free speech zone’ – especially after the events of the past few weeks, and we don’t need “tens of millions of dollars” of green lawn and a few extra lanes of traffic downtown. This money could be better spent on numerous other projects where there is a real need – not the Inner Harbor’s traffic on one city block. Let’s let the Department of Transportation deal with downtown’s traffic issues and focus the Downtown Partnership on the existing problems of Harborplace – attracting viable retail for one – rather than allowing them to make unilateral civic and architectural decisions.

What this city needs is democracy, discussion, an appreciation for our history, and empowerment for all citizens – not another Grand Prix-sized disaster. McKeldin Plaza embodies these principles physically and is a unique architectural structure. Once it is destroyed, it cannot be replaced.

Let the people of Baltimore have a say in this decision! Hold more public discussions about the matter! Don’t let the business community bulldoze one of our last egalitarian Brutalist structures. Call or email today.

 

Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt and she likes Brutalist architecture!