Dutch landscape design firm West 8 has emerged as the top contender among three companies that submitted proposals to beautify and repurpose the Middle Branch Waterfront—and its plan proposes a major urban planning overhaul for South Baltimore.
The Parks and People Foundation, which managed the design contest on behalf of the city, said the firm’s entry received the top ranking from a five-member jury of local leaders and design pros, besting submissions from James Corner Field Operations and Hargreaves Jones, both based in New York.
This isn’t a done deal, Parks and People’s announcement noted: “If the City and West 8 cannot reach acceptable terms, the City will continue down the list in rank order.”
A spokesperson for the foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on which firm was picked as the runner-up.
The contest solicited ideas for a brand new park encompassing 11 miles of shoreline in the oft-overlooked waterfront wrapping around Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Westport, Riverside and Port Covington. Proposals from each firm included various interconnected parks and trails, boardwalks, boat launches and other amenities that would bring new life to the area. None of them included projected costs, notably.
West 8, which helped reinvent New York’s Governor’s Island and has spearheaded major projects in Seoul, Madrid, Toronto and elsewhere, proposed a “blue green heart unifying the Middle Branch of Baltimore.”
The design puts forth a radical plan for the century-old Beaux Arts-style Hanover Street Bridge, converting it into a “linear park” shut off to traffic—a dream for cyclists and pedestrians, albeit a South Baltimore commuter’s nightmare—with repurposed recreational space beneath its arches.
In shutting down the passageway to cars and making it “the clasp that holds together a network of waterfront access, programs and development,” West 8 calls for building a brand new route to the south, called Ferry Point Bridge, that would lead directly to and from Port Covington.
“Investing in a new bridge will be less costly in the long term than maintaining the historical structure of the Hanover Bridge as a modern vehicular corridor,” a slide says.
A 2018 study by a city-hired consultant proposed a $50 million overhaul for the aged viaduct that would make it a four-lane roadway, down from five lanes currently, with more room for pedestrians and cyclists on sidewalks on either side of the bridge and two-barriers separating them from traffic. It also suggested closing the drawbridge and filling in the steel grate deck to save the city money on maintenance costs, and creating a “unique urban space” with art and recreational facilities underneath, among other changes.
Along the shoreline, West 8’s proposal envisions an expansive “green boulevard” situated above an amphitheater and performance space, plus biking and walking paths and boardwalks. Beneath the linear park on the Hanover Street Bridge would be a “kayak stop” with floating piers, facilities for boating and public spaces beneath the arches.
The design would also make renewed use of the stranded, decrepit CSX swing bridge in the Patapsco River. The plan says it “could be re-imagined to accommodate an education center and cafe forming a spectacular edge to Ridgley’s Cove.”
Parks and People sent the jury’s rankings to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who’s since directed city agencies “to begin analyzing issues that should be addressed in contract negotiations with West 8 in planning for a phased, multi-year design and construction project.”
Young said in a statement that he supports West 8’s plan.
“I am extremely excited to learn that the jury recommended West 8 as the landscape architecture firm to advance the Middle Branch Waterfront Plan,” the mayor said in a statement. “We received three impressive proposals, but I agreed with the jury of community leaders and experts in the field that West 8’s vision most closely aligns with what residents want to see in their communities.”
The panel that chose West 8’s proposal included South Baltimore Gateway Partnership board chair and local attorney Geoffrey Washington, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks Director Reginald Moore, South Baltimore 7 chair Michael Middleton Jr., Susannah Drake of the New York-based landscape design firm DLANDstudio and the director of Columbia University’s Graduate Urban Design program, Kate Orff.
Rankings were based on technical merit, feasibility, ability to integrate community feedback, originality, responsiveness to contest objectives “and to the site and its context,” and general quality and clarity of the presentations.
Jury members used feedback from Baltimore residents, the foundation said, and also interviewed the designers from each firm. Reed Kroloff of Chicago-based design consultancy firm Jones/Kroloff and Parks and People Foundation CEO Frank Lance facilitated and oversaw the jury process.
Moore told Baltimore Fishbowl that “all three firms were awesome, they all had unique ways for how they could re-energize the waterfront itself.”
West 8’s presentation in particular “was innovative, creative and really thought outside the box,” he said. On the firm’s proposed repurposing of the Hanover Street Bridge as a park, he said Baltimore “has to decide at some point” what to do with the passageway, and could benefit from making it more pedestrian-friendly.
He also appreciated the idea to make renewed use of the iconic swing bridge. “Every time I ride by on 95, it’s just sitting there.”
Here’s West 8’s plan in greater detail (or view the firm’s actual presentation to the jury here).