The design firm James Corner Field Operations is developing a vision for the South Baltimore waterfront.

Planning for the revitalization of Baltimore’s Middle Branch waterfront is getting back on track, with the pending hiring of a design team led by a prominent consultant who has worked on transformative projects such as the High Line in New York City.

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates is scheduled this week to approve a request to commission James Corner Field Operations and other project partners to update a master plan guiding development along 11 miles of shoreline on the southern edge of Baltimore, framing the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Corner, based in New York but with offices in London, San Francisco, Shenzhen and elsewhere, has provided the vision behind some of the most attention-grabbing projects in urban areas, from the Manhattan High Line to Chicago’s Navy Pier and Tongva Park in Santa Monica, Calif.

Corner would replace a consultant that won a design competition to take on the project but was removed after photos circulated showing guests in blackface at a party at the firm’s office in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The South Baltimore project is considered one of the most signficant recreation, economic development and community-building opportunities in the city, and would breath life into what many consider to be an underutilized stretch of waterfront.

Corner was the runner-up in an international competition in 2019 to identify a design team to reimagine the Middle Branch waterfront. West 8 Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, a Rotterdam-based planning firm, was ultimately selected, but was removed from the project last July after a photo surfaced of three white children of a former employee attending a holiday party wearing blackface.

The photo, sent by a tipster known only as “Middle Branch Citizen,” infuriated residents of Westport, Cherry Hill and other predominantly African American communities that are part of the study area. It came five weeks after the May 25 murder of George Floyd, which set off nationwide demonstrations that focused attention on the Black Lives Matter movement and structural racism in American cities.

Corner and others would be retained by the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, a non-profit entity created to use funds from casino gambling in Maryland to improve Baltimore neighborhoods.

The study area includes Port Covington and Westport, two areas where extensive waterfront development activity is underway or planned. Putting the request on the Board of Estimates agenda is a sign that the city’s Planning Department and the gateway partnership have reached terms with the New York-based designer and that Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration supports bringing him in.

The amount of the contract is $851,451. According to the agenda item, the “non construction consultant agreement” with Corner will last for a year, with an option to renew for another six months. More than $300,000 is coming from funds generated by Baltimore’s Horseshoe Casino, and the rest is coming from the partnership.

The commission involves working with communities along the Middle Branch to develop a “Waterfront Vision and Implementation Plan” to improve the shoreline and strengthen connections between the waterfront and the communities close to it.

The project’s scope includes designing parks, trails, bridges and other amenities and infrastructure along the north and south shorelines to enhance the area for residents and visitors, while also creating a more attractive setting for future development.

The Middle Branch is “a project that we felt very passionately about,” Corner said when city officials began negotiating with him several months ago. “We feel privileged to have this opportunity.”

Part of the James Corner Field Operation firm’s vision for the South Baltimore waterfront.
Part of the James Corner Field Operation firm’s vision for the South Baltimore waterfront.

West 8’s withdrawal put a temporary halt to the planning activity. After West 8 resigned in early July, the gateway project worked with Mahan Rykiel Associates, one of the subcontractors on the West 8 team, to finish a preliminary phase of the work. West 8’s founder, Adriaan Geuze, recommended to then-Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young that Baltimore keep going with the team of 14 subcontractors he had assembled, with Mahan Rykiel in charge.


But the rules of the design competition stated that Baltimore would start negotiations with the runner-up  if the winner couldn’t fulfill the terms of its contract. City parks director Reginald Moore, for one, insisted that the city honor the competition rules and negotiate with the runner-up rather than hand it over to Mahan Rykiel as West 8 suggested.

Corner’s credentials are also impressive. Its other large-scale projects include transformations of Fresh Kills Park on Staten Island; Domino Park in Brooklyn; the Presidio Tunnel Tops in San Francisco; Seattle Central Waterfront and Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee.

Corner also is familiar with the Middle Branch after serving as the urban designer for Westport Waterfront, a $1 billion mixed use community that was planned by developer Patrick Turner for a 43-acre tract in Westport but was never built.

But bringing him in required additional time to negotiate a new contract and have it approved by the finance department, law department and other city agencies. As part of the new arrangement, four additional consultants are being added to the design team, largely to strengthen efforts to make sure the planning work is inclusive and equitable.

They are: DesignJones, a group that includes former Morgan State University landscape architecture professor Diane Jones Allen; Kofi Boone, professor of landscape architecture and environment planning at North Carolina State University; Proof Projects, a design research firm, and The Urban Studio, an interdisciplinary art and design collaborative based in Washington, D. C. Mahan Rykiel also remains on the team.

Corner, 60, is one of several big-name designers selected in recent years to work on key projects in Baltimore, including Renzo Piano and Bjark Ingels for the Johns Hopkins University, Kohn Pedersen Fox for Harbor Point and Morris Adjmi for Port Covington. Sarah Astheimer will lead the Middle Branch planning effort from Corner’s Philadelphia office.

The Board of Estimates meeting is scheduled to begin on Wednesday at 9 a.m.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

4 replies on “Firm behind New York’s High Line set to take over planning vision for South Baltimore waterfront areas”

  1. Kinda buzzed that importing pelicans is part of the plan (first image above). Not sure the pelicans will be too excited about it, though.

    1. Nice catch! We should tell them that herons work better for their Maryland images!

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