West 8 withdraws from Baltimore waterfront overhaul after blackface photo surfaces

Developing Story

West 8 withdraws from Baltimore waterfront overhaul after blackface photo surfaces

The former winning entry would have ambitiously dredged land from a nearby port to expand the South Baltimore waterfront’s public-facing amenities. (Courtesy West 8)

West 8, the Dutch landscape architecture firm selected last year as the lead consultant on the international Middle Branch Waterfront Revitalization Competition in South Baltimore, resigned from the project July 3, four days after a photo circulated showing a party with people in blackface at its headquarters in Rotterdam.

Earlier this week, The Baltimore Brew reported that a city resident identified online as “Middle Branch citizen” has been circulating a photo by email showing three white people dressed as “Black Pete,” or Zwarte Piet, the helper of St. Nicholas according to Dutch legend, during the 2012 party at West 8’s office.

According to the Brew article, the photo shows a former West 8 employee dressed as St. Nicholas and three of the employee’s children dressed as Black Pete. The holiday tradition of people in the Netherlands painting their faces black and wearing Afro wigs has increasingly come to be seen as offensive and racist.

The company is “no longer affiliated with the city and is no longer working on the project,” Lester Davis, Chief of Communication and Government Relations for Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said Thursday.

When reached for comment, West 8 provided AN with the following statement, emphasizing they were stepping down quickly and paving the way for another designer to take their place as to not cloud the important project with controversy or to provoke unwarranted delays:

West 8 is deeply saddened to have to step away from the Middle Branch project. As landscape architects and urban designers, our mission is to help shape public spaces by creating bridges between communities and our clients.

A defamatory, anonymous email was sent to the City and key members of the project team on June 29th, 2020 accusing West 8 of being a racist organization. A picture was attached of three people in black-face.

West 8 believes Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is a racist character. The photo was taken in West 8’s Rotterdam office in 2012 and the employee dressed as St. Nicholas no longer works at West 8. No West 8 employee was in black-face.

West 8 condemns black-face characters and immediately banned St. Nicholas celebrations in West 8 offices following the incident in 2012, stating unequivocally that Black Pete is a racist character.

While we vehemently disagree with the accusation made against the firm, the nature of the claim is such that we can no longer serve in our role as Prime Consultant without becoming a distraction to the team and process. On July 2nd West 8 voluntarily offered to step away from the Middle Branch project so as to not slow down the project from moving forward. We followed up this offer with a formal letter of resignation to the City of Baltimore on July 3rd.

We are not bigger than the project, and what’s best for the team, the City of Baltimore and the communities that make up the Middle Branch is for our firm to step aside. To keep the project moving forward, West 8 authorizes the use of all Middle Branch products and designs developed during the design competition.

It is our recommendation that the work be continued by the expert consultants on the Middle Branch Master Plan Project Team led by Mahan Rykiel Associates. This multi-disciplinary team of largely Baltimore-based firms have the expertise to ensure the City of Baltimore achieve its goals for the Middle Branch project.The Middle Branch Master Plan is an opportunity to build up the capacity of local firms, and to reconnect the communities of South Baltimore with their waterfront and each other.​

The company’s founder, Adriaan Geuze, confirmed that it withdrew in an interview with The Baltimore Sun last night.

“We immediately thought this is not good for the project, this will cause potential stress and undermine the dignity and values of the city and communities and we decided to voluntarily resign,” Geuze told the Sun.

Geuze acknowledged in the interview that the photo was taken in the company’s office in 2012 during a St. Nicholas party. He condemned the photo and said the employee in question left the firm years ago, before West 8 began working in Baltimore, and told AN the firm immediately discontinued their St. Nicholas parties after finding out.

West 8’s resignation on July 2 marks one of the first cases in which community concerns about systemic racism and the use of blackface have had an impact on an urban design commission in the United States. It came five weeks after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody set off nationwide demonstrations that focused attention on the Black Lives Matter movement and structural racism in American cities.

A diagram of Baltimore's swampy waterfront
An overview of West 8’s now-shelved plan. Diagram showing the dredge-filled marshland and artificial islands in the bay (in light green) as well as the trail and connecting bridges (in yellow). (Courtesy West 8)

Baltimore and Rotterdam are sister cities, and over the years have exchanged delegations to learn how they operate. 

Baltimore launched the competition to find a design team to provide a vision for the future of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, an urban waterway south of downtown Baltimore. The scope of the project includes designing parks, trails, bridges, and other amenities and infrastructure along the north and south shorelines to improve the area for residents and visitors and create a more inviting setting for future development.

A team led by West 8 was named the winner last summer and the city’s spending board approved a $325,000 contract in May for the consultants to begin work on the project’s first phase. Other finalists included groups headed by James Corner Field Operations and Hargreaves Jones.

Baltimore’s population is approximately 63 percent African American and four of its last five mayors have been African Americans. After learning about the party-goers in blackface, according to local reports, some of the residents in communities along the Middle Branch shoreline were offended and asked city officials to take West 8 off the project.

“We don’t want to see that stuff,” longtime resident and community leader Keisha Allen told The Baltimore Business Journal.

Without discussing the specifics of the Middle Branch contract, Davis said certain information was presented to the city’s law department and the mayor’s office, and the mayor was involved personally. “What I can tell you is that a situation was discovered, handled swiftly and we’re moving on,” Davis said. “They’re no longer with the city.”

Davis went on to say that the city of Baltimore has certain expectations for the consultants and contractors it hires, and takes action when those expectations aren’t met.

“This administration sets a high standard and a high bar when we’re talking about delivering for the taxpayer, and sometimes folks may struggle to meet that standard and we have to hold folks accountable,” he said. “When we look for folks that are doing work, whether it’s mowing medians or doing design work for projects, they have to be up to the task.”

Davis added that the absence of West 8 won’t derail the project. He said the project will continue with a new designer, who has not yet been determined.

“The project is an important project,” he said. “It’s one that the city is heavily invested in, and it’s going to march forward.”

Planners in Baltimore have turned their attention to the Middle Branch area in recent years because the transformation of the city’s Inner Harbor, begun in the 1960s with Wallace Roberts and Todd as the master planner, is largely complete and this is another waterfront ripe for redevelopment.

Rendering of parkland lawn with yellow performance hall structure
The 11-mile-long site would have entailed outdoor performance spaces and other gathering areas for local residents. (Courtesy West 8)

In addition, Under Armour founder Kevin Plank announced plans several years ago to move that company’s headquarters to one of the communities along the Middle Branch, Port Covington, and hired Bohlin Cywinski Jackson to serve as the master planner. Plank also owns extensive waterfront acreage in another Middle Branch community, Westport, which was the site of a never-realized master planning effort by James Corner Field Operations and others.

Under Armour has completed one building at Port Covington but it hasn’t moved ahead with the bulk of its project. City officials wanted to lay the groundwork for additional development by improving the public realm and used community redevelopment funds generated by the city’s Horseshoe Casino to help pay for the competition. A local nonprofit, the Parks and People Foundation, coordinated it.

Founded in 1987, with offices in Belgium and New York as well as Rotterdam, West 8 is an interdisciplinary firm with projects in Copenhagen, London, Moscow, Madrid, Hamburg, Toronto, Amsterdam, Shanghai and Seoul. Its U. S. projects include master plans for Governor’s Island Park in New York and Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Its competition entry for Baltimore offered one of the most ambitious visions for remaking the Middle Branch shoreline, and its team included a respected locally-based landscape architecture firm, Mahan Rykiel Associates.

On its website, West 8 has a prominent section entitled “Black Lives Matter,” in which the company expresses support for efforts to fight discrimination and states that it has a “culturally diverse team” with employees representing more than 18 different nationalities and a mentoring program that prioritizes helping people of color.

“West 8 strongly stands by the Black Lives Matter movement and we believe, unequivocally, that there is zero room for any form of racism or discrimination, in our offices, our field, and the rest of the world,” the first sentence states.

One of the tasks now faced by Baltimore city officials is deciding who will take West 8’s place. Its competition entry contained design ideas that none of the other finalists offered, including a bridge spanning the Middle Branch in a location that no one else suggested.

Will the rest of the West 8 team be allowed to remain in place and finish out the contract approved in May? Will the runner-up in the competition be brought in, like in the Miss America pageant, and told to follow West 8’s design? Will someone start anew?

“All of that is being worked out,” Davis said. “Obviously, it just transpired not that long ago, and so we’ll probably have more information in the days to come.”