By: Olivia Klose
In the heart of Baltimore, 1960s-style urban renewal has received a facelift with the completion in October 2007 of a $7.5 million renovation of Center Plaza, the urban plaza at the core of downtown’s complex of office, retail and residendial buildings known as Charles Center. In 2002, a national competition was held for the redesign of the unpopular and rundown Center Plaza, originally designed by the Baltimore firm of Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky & Lamb as the focal point of Baltimore’s first urban renewal project and inspired by the great urban plazas of the Italian Renaissance. The local architecture and design firm of Brown & Craig won the competition with their design of extensive greenscaping, a reflecting pool, movable seating and dynamic lighting effects. Brown & Craig had collaborated with Daniel Biederman, the talent behind the successful revitalization of New York City’s Bryant Park in the early 1990s; however, it is too early to tell whether the team’s design will foster the desired transformation of Center Plaza into a hip and inviting urban space.
As originally designed, Charles Center’s open spaces reflected the principles and ideals of the urban renewal movement that swept through American cities beginning in the 1950s, forever transforming the urban landscape. As consulting architects to the Charles Center urban renewal project, which was launched by a public-private partnership in 1957, RTKL’s goal was to make the plazas and open space a “social center for 24-hour citizens of Baltimore.” The 1958 Charles Center promotional report gushed that ”Here, open space will be used, loved and economically successful because it will be full of pleasant things: fountains, sculpture, flowers, umbrellas, flags and trees. The open space will be, in its own way, as concentrated as the city around it.” George Kostritsky of RTKL envisioned an urban landscape along the themes of light, sculpture, and water, for Charles, Center and Hopkins plazas, respectively. The three plazas, located on the interior of the two superblocks comprising the Charles Center urban renewal site, were to be linked through a series of elevated walkways, escalators and skywalks in order to overcome the problem of the site’s steep topography (a 68-foot drop in grade from the northern boundary of the site to the southern boundary) and in order to create a series of “pedestrian islands.” Though futuristic in appearance, this circulation system was a typical component of urban design of the 1950s and 60s and was often promoted as a means of separating pedestrians from the escalat-ing nuisance of auto traffic and congestion. In the case of Charles Center, the exterior circulation system was also intended to provide a venue for extensive retail activity.
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