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In the 1960s, then-Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin launched a visionary effort to transform the city’s Inner Harbor from a rat-infested cesspool of rotting piers and banana boats to the vibrant tourist, business, and residential district it is today. Fifty years later, local architects and landscape architects are trying to continue this tradition by creating a more welcoming gateway to downtown and continue the revitalization along the waterfront. In the process, they have found themselves caught up in Baltimore’s biggest preservation and urban design controversy of 2015, as the plan calls for the removal of a prominent Brutalist public fountain designed by Philadelphia firm of Wallace Roberts & Todd (then Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd) that was dedicated to McKeldin.
Set in an oversized, triangular traffic island at Pratt and Light streets—cut off from the harbor’s edge by two lanes of northbound traffic—McKeldin Plaza is an 18-foot-high concrete mountain with water cascading down on all sides and collecting in shallow pools below. Built into it are skywalks that connect the fountain to the Light Street Pavilion of Harborplace and the Hyatt Regency Baltimore hotel, by RTKL Associates. Since being completed in 1982, the fountain and its adjacent plaza have been a magnet for tourists, shoppers, and office workers on a lunch break.
In the early 2000s, seeking to compete with other urban centers, city leaders began looking for ways to jumpstart redevelopment. They started with a plan to alter Pratt Street, the main east-west thoroughfare downtown. A master plan by Ayers Saint Gross (ASG) showed McKeldin Plaza replaced with a new sort of gathering spot, containing large video screens high above the sidewalk.
Several years later, again working with ASG, city leaders unveiled a new master plan to guide development. The resulting plan, dubbed Inner Harbor 2.0, recommended that the McKeldin Fountain be removed and that the triangular traffic island be redesigned and made part of the Inner Harbor shoreline.
Inner Harbor 2.0 has been discussed widely but has never been adopted by the city planning department as a formal planning document. It was scheduled for a hearing by the planning department in September 2014, but was pulled off the agenda at the last minute due to protests about the proposed removal of volleyball courts on the south shore of the Inner Harbor, an area called Rash Field. The protest had nothing to do with the McKeldin area.
In the meantime, city leaders who want to see progress with redevelopment are pushing ahead with certain projects from the Inner Harbor 2.0 plan in a piecemeal fashion, including The McKeldin Plaza makeover.
The latest plan, presented July 2, shows McKeldin Plaza gone and the former traffic island connected to the Inner Harbor shoreline. A paved pathway bisects the triangular plot and serves as a gathering area for events. South of the walkway is a lawn that slopes upward to a height of 18 feet to form an amphitheater. Beneath it is a storage area for rental bikes. On the west side of the tilted lawn is a meandering pathway filled with indigenous plants. On the north side of the central walkway is a smaller sloped lawn, rising to a height of four feet. On the north side of the main pathway is a new water feature, including a fountain, a sunken rectangular pool, and a water wall. An inscription on the fountain quotes McKeldin’s 1963 speech in which he challenged the city to transform the Inner Harbor.
Baltimore’s preservation commission passed on taking a stand on the issue, saying that the fountain, now 33, was not old enough to fall within its purview. Baltimore’s Public Art Commission said the fountain is part of the city’s official inventory of public art and that they should be consulted about any proposed changes. At the very least, they said, they would have to formally agree to take it off the city’s inventory.
The pigskin may be deflated for Gensler’s design for Los Angeles’ proposed football stadium, Farmer’s Field, but a venue for the other kind of football is alive and kicking. On May 18, Major League Soccer’s newest team, the Los Angeles Football Club, announced plans for a new soccer stadium and mixed-use complex in South Los Angeles.
Gensler’s stadium scheme replaces Welton Becket’s 1959 Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which was the subject of a 2010 environmental impact report ordered by the LA Coliseum Commission to study a replacement. Demolition of the existing venue is expected to take a year and will require a significant amount of infrastructure and environmental abatement.
The Coliseum Commission and the LA City Council are expected to sign off on the proposed design in July, giving a go-ahead for the estimated $250 million dollar project that includes a 22,000-seat stadium, as well as 100,000 square feet of new restaurants, office space, a conference center, and a world football museum. Plans feature outdoor site amenities, such as plazas that connect to the peristyle Coliseum and a wall of video screens ready to cater to MLS soccer and USC football fans alike.
Since this is LA’s first open-air professional sports arena built since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, the design of the roof is critical. C-shaped and asymmetrical, the steel and ETFE structure extends over the bleachers all the way to the edge of the pitch to provide protection from the western sun. There’s an expectation that the curved roof will also help keep sound from spilling out into the surrounding neighborhood. The canopy’s sections are strategically positioned to frame views of Downtown Los Angeles.
Located in Exposition Park, the new stadium complex sits between the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Figueroa Street. According to architect Ron Turner, director of sports and entertainment for Gensler, the design addresses both the street and the park. “From Dodgers Stadium at the north end, to the Staples Center, to our site in the south, the Figueroa Corridor is quickly becoming an important boulevard of the city,” he explained.
Although the wide boulevard, which boasts the occasional strip mall and a view of the 110 Freeway, seems an unlikely candidate for renewal, Turner references the MyFigueroa project, an initiative slated to transform three miles of the Figueroa Corridor into a “complete street” with a narrowed roadbed and protected bike lanes. As he describes a design that serves the South LA community, Exposition Park visitors, and event-goers, he envisions sidewalk cafes in the shadow of the stadium that are open to the public beyond game day.
Los Angeles Football Club hopes to have the stadium completed by the 2018 Major League Soccer season. Gensler was part of the team that designed Arena Corinthians for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, however this scheme takes inspiration from the English Premier soccer league. Even with 22,000 fans, it is meant to be an intimate experience: seats close to the pitch, steep raked bleachers, and separate entrances into the stands, so that each area feels like its own club. “It’s a stadium for the people,” said Turner.
As Amtrak trains—possibly carrying Vice President Biden—rumble across overpasses in Washington, D.C., the dark passageways below yearn for a breath of new life. They are about to get just that, as Pawtucket-based Thurlow Small Architecture (TSA) has devised an interactive light installation that will turn dark roofs into planes of light in the M Street tunnel, one of four underpasses that will get such treatment in the NoMa district.
The design was developed in collaboration with Joan Almekinders and Rotterdam-based NIO architecten, and it is moving forward after winning a competition sponsored by the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) to bring better connectivity to the area. “On the NoMa BID side, there are a number of large, 10-story buildings,” explained architect Andrew Thurlow of TSA, “Once you pass through the tunnel the scale and building footprints decrease and a row-house typology emerges—the aesthetics are quite different, too. They asked us to bridge this gap by both highlighting and improving upon the existing infrastructure.”
Responding to the prompt of “light and safety,” the interactive light installation is based on the effects of rain falling, with 4,000 polycarbonate rods fixed to the top of the tunnel. Programmable LEDs blink and cascade in wave-like patterns when cars pass through. The main challenge was to make sure the light didn’t distract drivers, which was the main concern for the District Department of Transportation (DOT). The pattern will resemble a boat-like wake behind the passing vehicle, ensuring that pedestrians experience the light, but not drivers. When traffic is heavy, the pattern becomes a dim, even glow, maintaining a calm light throughout the tunnel. The relationships between pedestrians, bikes, and cars are exploited as the lights change as people pass through.
Amtrak owns the existing rail structure, and the granite walls are protected, so much of the existing structure was off limits. Working inside of these constrictions, the designers added new steel columns against the walls, and the rods were hung from a substructure that spanned the pedestrian space. The rods are cut in an implied vaulted pattern that responds to the existing structural grid, but also to the bike lanes and pedestrian paths below.
Each element is designed to give maximum effect for passersby. “We are hoping to get a soundtrack which will add another sensorial dimension, explained Thurlow, contextualizing his project, “We are going for an affectatious architecture that involves multiple senses, both visual and acoustic.”
TSA worked closely with NIO, who have considerable experience with this type of project, having recently completed similar projects in Amsterdam and Amersfoort, Netherlands. The installation will be pre-fabricated and assembled in as little as two weeks onsite. Lighting designer Maramoja in Germany is now building prototypes of the rods. The project is expected to open in the fall following permitting this summer. This is the first of four for the $2 million NoMa BID program, which will later improve the tunnels over L Street, K Street, and Florida Avenue NE.
Sasaki Associates proposes a community-friendly Boston City Hall Plaza buzzing with cultural activities
- Extend plaza into the city + leverage cultural capital
- Design for civic and human scale + populate with variety
- Preserve City Hall’s character + activate underused space
- Enhance infrastructure and natural systems + showcase Boston’s innovation
Georgia’s largest city is establishing a new pattern for urban success by building density in its core and opening new modes of transit. Darin Givens tells us about the city’s aspirations and struggles as it develops in the 21st century.
A national report from 2014, “The Young and Restless at the Nation’s Cities,” found that recent years have seen a significant rise in the percentage of young and educated adults living within a three-mile radius of the Downtown Atlanta central business district. This includes intown neighborhoods such as West End, Adair Park, Atlantic Station, Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, Grant Park, and Glenwood Park. The metro region as a whole, though, has taken a loss on this demographic.
Shunning the sprawling fringes, young people with college degrees are flocking to the places that are most urban in Atlanta; the ones with transit service, density, and mixed uses. In contrast to the way baby boomers of the latter half of the 20th century reshaped the region with car-centric, low-density development, this new generation is eager to take part in the powerful trends of urbanism that are improving the center-city’s core, making it a better place to live and work.
It isn’t hard to see a geographic correlation between the location of this trend and the outline of the Atlanta BeltLine. Looping the center of the city with a series of paths and parks, it will, when fully completed, pass through 45 close-in neighborhoods that are all within a two- to four-mile radius of downtown. Even in its partially completed early stages, the BeltLine has proven itself a powerful tool for changing the way people think about Atlanta’s development.
This series of multi-use paths and green space is boosting the amount of parkland in the city by 40 percent. Nineteen percent of the city’s land mass falls inside the planning area for the project. The city touts $775 million in real estate development within a half mile of the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail alone. This puts a considerable number of residents in easy access of a popular public space that is now known for its weekend crowds, while also demonstrating the ability of the city’s growth to occur in new ways. It is happening not alongside wide, multi-lane roads; instead, this part of intown’s resurgence is taking shape around the BeltLine’s shared spaces and bike lanes (and, some day in the future, planned rail transit).
The sea change ushered in by the BeltLine can’t be understated. In one of the least “designed” large cities in the U.S., where market trends and interstate infrastructure have had an outsized role in shaping the urban fabric, people are now excited about re-thinking how the city is shaped. Residents who seldom considered the urban environment beyond their own block have become aware of the strength of conceptualizing whole neighborhoods and the links between them. And it is having an effect on architects as well.
Ryan Gravel is a senior urban designer for the Atlanta office of Perkins+Will. His master’s thesis in Architecture and City Planning from Georgia Tech in 1999 became the original vision for the BeltLine. He said that the project is “making obvious improvements to the form and life of the city, but the consumer market that it is generating is also pressuring developers and architects to make better buildings.
“You can see this right now with the unfolding of Ponce City Market, which is raising the bar three or four rungs for quality. But you can also see it on the drawing boards for projects like the Atlanta Dairies site on Memorial Drive, which are re-introducing Atlanta to a more interesting mix of uses, like markets, music, and the arts. They’re also taking advantage of both historic and nondescript old structures to deliver more inventive designs. Along with the general upgrades in Downtown and Midtown, an emerging bicycle culture, and a fantastic culinary scene, Atlanta’s central city is coming alive in a really interesting way.”
Ponce City Market
The adaptive reuse of a hulking, 1925 Sears, Roebuck & Company distribution center is an appropriately transformative project to take place alongside the BeltLine. One point one million square feet of the structure has undergone a mixed-use conversion as Ponce City Market (PCM). The finished product includes 517,000 square feet of offices, 300,000 square feet of retail, and 259 residential units. The project has proven successful in drawing in tenants, with most of the office space already leased to a variety of high-profile companies including Twitter, and an array of shops is set to open throughout 2015.
Atlanta architect Kyle Kessler said that PCM, which sits directly beside the eastside BeltLine path, is “important as a project itself (adaptive reuse, on the BeltLine, etc.) but also because it appears to have captured the public’s imagination and is setting a new baseline for development in Atlanta.”
Indeed, even the high rental prices announced for the residential units have not soured the city on it. PCM has become a symbol of what Atlanta can accomplish in terms of reusing structures of the past, and re-aligning them with modes of transportation other than cars, and opening them to public space.
Immediately south of PCM lies Historic Fourth Ward Park. Opened in 2011, it offers 17 acres of green space, walkways, an amphitheater and event lawn, and numerous water features. A stormwater detention basin forms a two-acre lake, surrounded by a carefully landscaped park. Several recently constructed mid-rise apartment buildings overlook the park, which boasts a popular playground and splash pad that draw in families from surrounding neighborhoods. The sight of children playing in a carefully designed park, in the midst of human-scale residential development and a multi-use path, conveys a very European sensibility in its overall aesthetic; something many may be surprised to find in Atlanta.
Struggling to find connections
In a city that is sliced through its core several times with interstate highway infrastructure, as well as large arterial roads that serve highway entrances and exits, finding pedestrian-friendly connections from place to place can sometimes be a challenge. In many cases the urban fabric can be repaired, but sometimes the city seems content to develop islands of activity set apart from each other.
Atlantic Station is 138 acres of a former brownfield site that became a master-planned, mixed-use city within a city. Opened in 2005, it has an impressive six million square feet of office space that sits among a varied array of housing, including townhomes, apartments, condos, and detached houses. Its central retail area is an outdoor shopping mall outfitted with gridded streets that host popular shopping destinations, with levels of parking stacked directly underneath.
But despite being walkable in itself, there is a rough transition between Atlantic Station and surrounding nodes of activity, from which it is separated by a combination of interstate highways, car-centric corridors, and freight rail lines. Without a safe pedestrian connection to the rest of Midtown to the east and west, or to Buckhead to the north, it is largely a car destination.
Car destinations are also a big part of the landscape of Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead section, on the north end of the city. The commuter congestion on its central Peachtree Road corridor is known by locals as something to be avoided as much as possible. One attempt to link Buckhead’s destinations for human-powered transportation is PATH400 Greenway Trail. This north-south multi-use path will eventually link up with the BeltLine on its south end. Its first phase opened in January 2015, and the full 5.2 miles of trail will eventually connect a series of parks, schools, and neighborhoods to the urban center of Buckhead.
The fact that the Buckhead community business district has shown major support for the PATH400 project is telling; even in the most challenging places, Atlanta is focused on developing in a new way.
Perhaps the most challenging location of all is Underground Atlanta in the south end of Downtown. With lower-level storefronts that used to be at the main street level in the earliest days of Atlanta, before the viaducts were built over them (hence “underground”), this is the historic birthplace of the city that eventually morphed into a financially troubled mall.
Even the presence of a MARTA rail station next door has not been able to draw enough foot traffic to make the mall profitable. One probable culprit is geography: It is disconnected from the popular neighborhoods of the city by crisscrossing highways, a railroad gulch, and a series of enormous events facilities and their adjacent parking structures.
The city decided in 2014 to end its ownership of Underground Atlanta. Making the sole bid for purchase, developer WRS Inc. has submitted concepts that would transform it into 12 acres of mixed uses, including a grocery store, additional retail, and residential development. Instead of only trying to draw in visitors from other neighborhoods in the city, this new plan for the space could end up some day serving as the centerpiece for the South Downtown neighborhood.
Atlanta Daily World Building: big gains from small packages
This is a modest building, physically, by any standard. Comprising 4,756 square feet of space on 0.11 acres of land, this simple two-story structure built in 1930 is not visually striking. But true to its placement on Auburn Avenue, which served as the epicenter of African American commercial and cultural life for several decades in the early-to-mid 20th century, it has a prominent place in the city’s history.
It served as the headquarters for its namesake publication for many years, which was the nation’s first successful black-owned daily newspaper. Threatened with demolition after being damaged by a 2008 tornado that hit Downtown Atlanta, it was spared thanks to the voices of local preservationists. A real estate professional purchased it and has carefully renovated the building for apartments on top and two retail spaces below.
Small projects like this tend to slide under the radar, missing out on the coverage afforded to mega developments. But these are the ones that make neighborhoods feel authentic. According to Kessler, this project is important because “it’s on the opposite end of the scale as Ponce City Market. Much of what has stifled development in Atlanta’s urban core is that developers can’t get the property assemblages together to make a project big enough for the pro forma to work. This building was a goner, but the project proves that a small developer can make the numbers work. Hopefully this is a model that can be repeated throughout downtown and the rest of the city.”
Challenges for furthering Atlanta’s good urbanism
Urbanists have much to celebrate in the strides Atlanta has taken toward building places that are more walkable and that echo some of the best practice of good urban form. Though the city government has supported efforts at reshaping the city for the better, it has not always taken the reigns when it comes to leading those efforts and fostering a cohesive vision. Matthew Garbett, a community leader who is currently working with the city on a tactical urbanism project, said, “I think urbanists share a vision for the city, but I don’t think we’re effectively sharing that vision in a way that is shaping the city. We lack an advocate at the city-wide level who really has the people and the press’s attention, someone willing to speak about the bad and the real, sometimes difficult measures that need to be taken to improve.”
And even with the addition of planned public spaces such as the BeltLine, the market economy still has the biggest say in what gets developed. As Kessler noted: “Yes, architects are taking part in the vision, but I wouldn’t say we’re leading the vision. As has been proven with the new Falcons stadium, Civic Center, Turner Field, Underground Atlanta, etc., the vision has been put forward by a developer who’s worked with a particular architect, but architects serving as design advocates have not been out in front of the process.
“There have been calls in the media and from new organizations such as the Architecture & Design Center to raise the level of discourse regarding architecture, but I think Atlanta needs more architects advocating for better design and not just allowing developers, bankers, and other participants that don’t have an obligation to serve the public to dictate what gets built.”