Year End Round-Up: With Harbor Point, CORE and Growing Influence of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, Development Spread Far Beyond Downtown in 2016

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Mechanic Theatre lot
The year in development began, the way every year does, as a blank slate waiting to be filled. But it also began literally with a blank slate in the form of a gaping hole downtown where the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre once stood.

The theater was torn down starting in 2014 to make way for high-rise housing. But a lawsuit between the developer and an underground parking lot operator meant that construction on the replacement couldn’t begin until the case was resolved. The land has been sitting vacant for more than a year, an eyesore in the heart of the city. From an upper floor of 10 Light Street, it looks like a giant box of cat litter.

The blank slate is a reminder that not every development project moves as quickly or turns out as well as planners may hope, even in the best of times. It was one of many properties in various states of demolition and stagnation throughout Baltimore during 2016. There were also numerous signs of renewal and rebuilding that will affect large areas of the city. One of the most noticeable trends is that development activity spread far beyond downtown in 2016, even while centrally-located parcels such as the Mechanic site sat dormant.

Here are 10 of the most significant developments in the Urban Landscape in 2016.

Bikes, bike sharing, and bike lanes

Baltimore has been slow to become a bike-friendly city, but it went a long way toward catching up when it launched the Baltimore Bike Share program and added dedicated bike lanes along Roland Avenue and Maryland Avenue. Besides providing another way for people to move around the city, the bike infrastructure resulted in significant changes in the cityscape, including prominently-located storage areas for rental bikes and new car parking patterns that many people are still getting used to.

Light City Baltimore festival draws people downtown, helps counteract the civil unrest of 2015

Baltimore’s first Light City festival around the Inner Harbor involved temporary art, but it had a lasting effect on the way people perceived the city and what can happen downtown before the summer tourism season hits. Managed by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the light festival drew 400,000 people, and it offered new ways to view and explore the city, one year after the unrest following the death of West Baltimore resident Freddie Gray.

The illuminated animatronic Peacock, by Tim Scofield and Kyle Miller, was an ideal symbol for the positive energy the festival brought to the city, and a welcome antidote to the negative energy of the riots one year before.

Peacock by Tim Scofield and Kyle Miller. Photo via lightcity.org.

Governor Hogan’s CORE initiative

Speaking of Freddie Gray, Governor Larry Hogan launched a $94 million spending program to help rebuild parts of the city, largely by tearing down vacant buildings and eliminating other forms of blight. The program, called Project CORE (Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise), was a subject of concern for local preservationists, who fear that significant buildings will be lost as part of the urban “removal” effort, especially in areas such as Upton that have numerous properties associated with the city’s civil rights history.

But Project CORE is also helping fund some construction projects that will benefit the city, including a $16 million mixed-use development anchored by an “Innovation Center” in place of the Madison Park North complex known as Murder Mall, and new apartments in place of the vacant Walbrook Mill and Lumber property next to Coppin State University.

Governor Hogan’s decision to kill the State Center redevelopment

One year after killing the Red Line transit project, Governor Hogan stunned Baltimore communities by canceling plans to redevelop the State Center office complex as a mixed-use, transit-oriented development. His move ended years of planning for a $1.5 billion project that represented sophisticated thinking about smart growth and urban design, with Mithun of Seattle as the lead architect.

Hogan then said he would support a study to build an arena in the area, a proposal that was widely criticized as a terrible idea that would do far more harm than good.

The future of Pimlico Race Course, a new look at the expanding the Convention Center and the growing influence of the Maryland Stadium Authority

The Maryland Stadium Authority’s main job is to manage the 85-acre Camden Yards sports complex in Baltimore and make sure occasional guests such as Beyonce, Donald Trump, and the Obama family have a good time and receive adequate protection. But the state agency does a lot more than that. Much of its influence comes from launching feasibility studies to help elected officials determine whether to fund a development project.

In 2016, the stadium authority agreed to carry out studies involving some of the most important sites in Baltimore, including the future of Pimlico Race Course, expansion and modernization of the Clarence Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, possible expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center and a possible new arena for the city. It’s also helping to carry out the state’s CORE initiative. That’s a lot of influence on the built environment, and it makes the stadium authority a sort of shadow planning agency for the city.

Development all around the city, not just downtown

One of the positive aspects of Project CORE is that it helps fund development projects in parts of the city that haven’t seen widespread investment. But 2016 was a year when development seemed to be taking place all over the city, not just downtown. From the former Lion Brothers property in southwest Baltimore to new housing in Oldtown, developers were investing in areas that might not have seen activity five years ago.

One of the most encouraging developments was SoHa Row in Hamilton-Lauraville, where developer Sam Polakoff is building a mini arts district for creative types who want to live and work in the area. One of his first tenants is Zeke’s Coffee, which is opening a larger café and store at 4719 Harford Road.  Another encouraging sign was that developers bought the historic Emerson Mansion in Reservoir Hill, former home of the inventor of Bromo-Seltzer, and disclosed plans to renovate it. A proposal to turn the state’s partially shuttered prison complex into a museum or job center showed creative thinking about ways to link Mount Vernon with East Baltimore.

Exelon Tower opens

While many of the new developments in 2016 are about plans and ideas for future changes to the city, the Exelon Tower at Harbor Point is one of the most significant projects that actually opened this year.

Besides housing the regional headquarters for Exelon, parent of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, the $160 million tower contains 103 apartments, parking and street-level stores such as the first long-term Maryland location of the West Elm home goods chain. The exterior breaks no new ground, but it is the first major building to be completed on the concrete cap that was built over the contaminated Allied Signal property, and it brought upwards of 1,500 people to live and work in the Harbor Point renewal area.

The Superblock is no more, the Mayfair is largely gone, and a new strategy takes hold for the West Side

For years, city planners put their hopes on one development group to rejuvenate a multi-block area near the intersection of Howard and Lexington streets on Baltimore’s west side but little happened. This year the city pursued a new strategy of awarding individual buildings within the so-called Superblock to different developers who bid for them in more “chewable chunks.”

The strategy was more consistent with the way urban visionary Jane Jacobs thought about development than Robert Moses did, making it fitting as planners around the world marked the 100th anniversary of Jacobs’ birth. It also showed signs of paying off, with properties awarded to Everyman Theatre and Spotlighters Theater, among others. It was one of the most important changes in downtown development strategy since William Cole became head of the Baltimore Development Corporation.

Despite success with the Superblock, not every city-owned parcel is being developed in accordance with a preservation-oriented strategy spelled out in a 2001 Memorandum of Agreement between the city and the state. The city tore down the Franklin-Delphey hotel at Franklin and Howard streets and much of the adjacent Mayfair Theater after engineering reports indicated that both were structurally unsound.

The demolition of the Mayfair was one of the biggest losses of a historic building in the city during 2016. The front façade of the Mayfair survives, and the development corporation has issued a request for proposals from groups interested in preserving it as part of a new project. Still endangered is the Sons of Italy lodge on Fayette Street, a 100-year-old structure that developers want to raze to make way for new apartments.

McKeldin Fountain reduced to rubble

Another big loss in 2016 was the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain, a 1982 sculpture and water feature in a triangular traffic island at Pratt and Light streets. Designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas Todd, the fountain was built to honor former Mayor and Governor Theodore McKeldin, and was included in the city’s official inventory of publicly owned works of art.

The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore led the campaign to tear down the fountain, arguing that some of its members thought the Brutalist design made it an eyesore and the city needed a different gateway to downtown. A member of the McKeldin family, Courtney McKeldin, wrote an op-ed saying she supports the Downtown Partnership’s efforts to raze the monument to Theodore McKeldin. A light installation during Light City by a group called Luminous Intervention, meanwhile, showed that the fountain could still be a one-of-a-kind backdrop for people and art, as it was intended to be.

The fountain’s demolition was allowed to take place even though the city did not have an approved design for a replacement or funds to pay for it. It raised questions about the nature of public space in the city and who should be making decisions about what happens to it. For now, the city is left with a rubble-strewn bookend to the empty lot where the Mechanic Theatre stood.

The widespread design influence of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank

Baltimore’s development news was dominated in 2016 by negotiations to provide various forms of funding assistance and design approvals for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s redevelopment of 266 acres of Port Covington, including a new headquarters for Under Armour and an adjacent mixed-use development by his real estate arm, Sagamore Development Co.

That alone makes Port Covington the biggest development story in 2016, even though the only buildings to open in the area so far are Building 37, the conversion to offices of an old Sam’s Club big box store, and City Garage, an innovation hub and maker space inside a former repair shop for municipal vehicles.  A permanent home for Plank’s whiskey making venture, Sagamore Spirit, will open next.

But the influence of Under Armour and Kevin Plank goes far beyond Port Covington.

Plank seemed to be everywhere in 2016, from the Sagamore Pendry hotel in Fells Point to the Under Armour Performance Center at 10 Light Street to the reconstruction and expansion of a city recreation center on Orleans Street. He unveiled new water taxis for the harbor and, with city officials, sponsored a national design competition to create the “Next Great Baltimore Bench.”  He wants to light up the Hanover Street Bridge, help build a new home for the Baltimore Rowing Club and eventually redevelop the Westport waterfront. He’s also building a nearly 35,000 square foot home, one of the largest houses in the country, in the Greenspring Valley.

Unlike many developers who try to get by with the least they can do and spend, Plank has been working with first-rate designers, especially Frank Grauman of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Patrick Sutton of Patrick Sutton Associates and Biohabitats of Baltimore. His reach is so great that some local pundits have taken to calling Baltimore names such as Plank-town or Plankton. But if someone from the private sector has to set the tone on the development scene in the age of Donald Trump, Kevin Plank is turning out to be a formidable choice.

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts

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


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