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.