James Corner Field Operations in line to replace West 8 in Baltimore's Middle Branch revitalization

On The Waterfront

James Corner Field Operations in line to replace West 8 in Baltimore's Middle Branch revitalization

Looking down the Patapsco River from Middle Branch (Famartin/Wikimedia commons under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

James Corner Field Operations is in line to replace West 8 as lead urban designer for the Middle Branch waterfront planning effort in Baltimore, five months after the Dutch firm withdrew.

In 2019, West 8 won an international competition to develop a master plan to guide improvements for 11 miles of shoreline along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, a picturesque waterway in south Baltimore.

Field Operations placed second in the design competition, which drew more than 40 entrants and was later narrowed down to three finalists. The client was a mix of city agencies and private organizations working to improve the Middle Branch shoreline and strengthen connections between the waterfront and the communities farther inland.

When West 8 bowed out of the project in July, the public-private coalition that organized the competition turned to the second-place finisher to see if it was available to step in.

Brad Rogers, executive director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, a key member of the client team, said representatives of the communities along the waterway felt strongly that the city should honor the competition rules, which stated that if the winning team couldn’t fulfill the terms of its contract, the clients should start negotiations with the runner-up. The original contract was nullified when West 8 withdrew and planning has been on hold since July.

Rogers said the city is now negotiating with Field Operations to take over the lead planning role on the Middle Branch project and hopes to have a contract to present to the city’s spending board by early next year. He said four other new consultants also have been identified to work on the project, in the areas of justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and social engagement. The new team members will work with 14 consultants remaining from the team that West 8 assembled, he said.

As a sign that the clients are optimistic they can come to terms with Field Operations, they unveiled a new website this month,, which puts James Corner Field Operations at the top of the list of “consultants and collaborators” working on the project.

The Mayor’s Office put out a press release saying that work has resumed on the project and naming Field Operations and the four other consultants brought in to join the previously-assembled team. The other new consultants are: DesignJones, a group that includes former Morgan State University landscape architecture professor Diane Jones Allen; Kofi Boone, professor of landscape architecture and environmental 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.

“I am truly excited to announce that the Reimagine Middle Branch initiative is moving forward,” said Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, in a statement. “Projects like this with dedicated community support are how we will continue to build Baltimore.”

In a phone interview, James Corner said that he was pleased to be contacted about the project and is optimistic that his firm can work out a contract to work on the planning effort. He said he was proud of his team’s competition entry and “super disappointed” when it didn’t win.

“It was a project we felt very passionately about during the competition and during the process, so when they invited us to come back in, we were very happy to do that,” said Corner. “We feel privileged to have this opportunity.”

“It’s never fun to come in second place,” he added. “It’s a labor of love and somehow you didn’t win and you don’t get to move forward with it. It’s sad and you feel disappointed. Nine months go by or maybe a year and the phone rings and they’re inviting you back and you think, ‘Hey, yeah, love to. Thank you.’”

Unlike an architectural competition in which a winning design is selected and “you just go and build it,” he said, this was more of an ideas competition and much more interaction is needed with different community members and other stakeholders to arrive at a successful master plan. “This is really a process of engagement and building good ideas that will stand the test of time.”

Corner referred all questions about the status of contract negotiations to Rogers. But, he said if Field Operations is successful in working out a contract, Sarah Astheimer will be the principal in charge of the project for his firm and work will be led from the company’s Philadelphia office.

If officially hired, Corner will join a small but prestigious group of urban planners who have worked on various sections of Baltimore’s downtown and waterfront, including David Wallace for Charles Center and the Inner Harbor; Stanton Eckstut for Inner Harbor East, and Janet Marie Smith for Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

This would be the second major project in Baltimore for Field Operations. More than 10 years ago, the firm was the urban designer for Westport Waterfront, a $1 billion mixed-use, transit-oriented community planned for the Westport section of south Baltimore. That development never moved ahead after the land was cleared and the 43-acre site now has a new owner, with Christopher Pfaeffle of Morris & Ritchie Associates as the lead planners. Pfaeffle also worked on the Westport Waterfront project and McCoach is a former Baltimore City planning director.

Though Field Operations is well known as one of the designers of the High Line linear park and greenway on the west side of Manhattan, Corner and Astheimer said the scope of the Middle Branch project is more comparable to several other long-range planning projects that Field Operations has worked on.

Corner mentioned Fresh Kills in Staten Island, which involves transforming 2,200 acres of the world’s largest landfill into parkland with connections to adjacent communities; the Presidio in San Francisco, turning 1,400 acres of a former military site into parkland and other uses, including the 14-acre Tunnel Tops Park built above a relocated freeway; the South Bay Sponge project in San Francisco; Domino Park in Brooklyn, New York; and Pier 70, a mixed-use waterfront development on once-industrial land in San Francisco.

As with those projects, “the Middle Branch is a very large site, entailing both natural waterfront green systems as well as neighborhoods and urban issues,” Corner said. “It is interesting in that it is a very comprehensive and broad-ranging plan, encompassing many challenging issues.”

Also relevant, Astheimer said, is the firm’s work on the Seattle Central Waterfront and at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee. “Both started with large-scale strategic master plans and resulted in a series of built projects (a number still underway) that address issues of waterfront access, connectivity, activation, ecological resilience and equity—all issues that pertain to the Middle Branch,” she said over email.

Astheimer said Field Operations is committed to making the planning process as fair and inclusive as it can—especially after the racial equity protests around the country over the summer.

“Given the extraordinary moment of change we are all experiencing (pandemic, politics, and new cultural awareness), we are committed to approaching the project through a lens of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion,” she added. “This starts with uplifting the voice of the community and evaluating the site in terms of assets and inequities.”

Many of the communities in south Baltimore have been disadvantaged over the years and marginalized, and “it shows in much of the urban fabric and the quality of space that they have,” Corner said. “In many ways, this project is about reinvigorating the vibrancy of the culture and the community and the history and the traditions there but also looking forward to the future.”

Many of the projects that Field Operations works on are not necessarily in glamorous or prestigious locations, he said.

“They’re all about trying to do good for communities that have been dealt a bad deck of cards. Trying to use public open space and exposure to nature and environments and a sense of ecological wholeness is all about what we do. A lot of our projects are situated in challenging environmental and social sites and we look to the project as a means of lifting people up.”

Even the High Line wasn’t the developer’s haven it seems to be today.

“It’s a cool project in that it’s an amazing site,” said Corner. “But remember, when we started, that was in a very blown-out part of town… Most of the buildings and structures there were old warehouses and storage facilities. It certainly wasn’t glamorous when we started on it.”

Part of the solution for the Middle Branch, he said, is likely to come from finding ways to knit the communities together better so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“It’s all about holistic, comprehensive, inclusive work as opposed to a lot of individual and separate projects,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid developments and projects that happen in isolation, and instead try to make sense of projects and developments as a more comprehensive and inclusive vision.”

Rogers said the client-team is taking a two-step approach to bringing Field Operations into the project. He said the first phase of the planning effort, the part West 8 was working on when it bowed out, will be completed by a team led by Mahan Rykiel Associates of Baltimore, an original member of the West 8 team.

Rogers explained that the first phase is creating a “project brief” that will define the scope of the master planning effort and provide a structure and methodology for completing all the work in the subsequent phases—a “plan for a plan”—and will involve both the 14 subcontractors assembled by West 8 and the new ones that were added this fall.

Rogers said Field Operations has been hired under a separate contract to join Mahan Rykiel and the rest of the consultant team as it finishes out that preliminary phase and to provide “input and feedback” on the project brief. He said including Field Operations at this stage is a way to bring it up to speed on the work done so far and to help it get acquainted with the team members that had been working with West 8. An expected completion date for the phase led by Mahan Rykiel is January of 2021.

While that preliminary phase is wrapping up, Rogers said, the client-team is negotiating with Field Operations to work on the remainder of the master plan starting around February, if a contract can be approved by the city’s spending board by then. Under that contract, he said, Field Operations would essentially fill the role West 8 had before while retaining the consultants assembled by West 8 and adding the four new ones named this week. That work is expected to continue for much of 2021, Rogers said.

In the 2019 Middle Branch Waterfront Design Competition, the three finalists developed plans showing their vision for enhancing the waterfront and the communities connected to it, while also addressing issues such as resiliency and climate change.

Proposals called for parks, trails, restored landscapes, boardwalks, piers, bridges, wetlands, and other recreational amenities and infrastructure improvements, as well as strategies for connecting various neighborhoods to the waterfront and to each other.

In addition to the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, other members of the client team include the Mayor’s Office in Baltimore; the city’s parks and planning departments; the non-profit Parks & People Foundation and the SB7 Coalition, including the communities of Brooklyn; Cherry Hill; Curtis Bay; Lakeland; Mount Winans; Saint Paul and Westport. Funds for the planning effort come from a mix of public and private sources, including a portion of the proceeds from Baltimore’s only casino.

When it bowed out, West 8 recommended that the client-team carry on with Mahan Rykiel as the lead consultant and the other team members in place. Rogers said that option was considered, but the community representatives wanted to follow the ground rules of the competition out of fairness to all participants and at least negotiate with the second-place finisher.

Corner said he’s comfortable with the two-step approach. He said his team and the West 8 team had some overlapping members during the competition phase, so he already knows some of the consultants.

“Almost all of our projects are collaborative and have multiple team players, so we’re familiar and comfortable with that,” he said.

“We’re thrilled to… join the Middle Branch team and look forward to working closely with stakeholders and members of the community,” Astheimer said.

If the client team is unable to reach an agreement with Field Operations, Rogers said, it has the option of negotiating with the third-place finisher in the competition, Hargreaves Jones.