Architecture review: Building design matters again in Baltimore

414 Light St Project
Dec 29, 2014, 7:35am EST
by Klaus Philipsen

The good news is that there is plenty of construction to write about in Baltimore: Blueprints have been dusted off, cranes are up, concrete mixers out.

Also good is that development is not limited to downtown, but is happening over a fairly wide swath of the city — while still leaving large disinvested parts.

Even better: Design seems to matter again, finally. Well known big-city architects presented architectural designs for the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre site, the Exelon Corp. headquarters in Harbor Point, the former News-American site on Pratt Street, the old McCormick & Co. Inc. spice site on Light Street and the latest Bozzuto Group apartment extravaganza on Fort Avenue, to name a few.

This is not to say that we don’t have plenty of local talent, but some national and international competition clearly raises the bar.
All of the noted projects integrate various uses with apartments, which no longer present themselves with a relentless row of punched-out windows. Some of the proposed designs claim to be “genuinely Baltimore,” but are retreads of first-tier city projects tending towards an indistinguishable style that now can be found from Atlanta to Austin, Texas, and from Denver to Dallas.
The largest Baltimore project completed in 2014 was the new Horseshoe Casino. It too is designed by a reputable out-of-town expert, KA Architects of Cleveland.

Unfortunately, despite having a presentable gateway design on Russell Street, this project also produced the biggest urban design nuisance in 2014, a gigantic garage that dominates the Middle Branch. The garage is the most prominent structure viewable from Interstate 95 and I-395, allowing travelers to gauge the casino’s popularity each night by counting the parked cars.

Strong contributors to the building boom remain the universities, including two biotech parks. Morgan State University is putting the finishing touches on a landmark $72 million business school and dwindling Coppin State University is giving us an $80 million science center on North Avenue.

Not every new building can or should make a monumental statement. The new 400-apartment Jefferson Square complex just south of Johns Hopkins Hospital on Fayette and Wolfe streets represents significant, yet subdued urban infill.

And then there is the imitation of the suburb, such as the phase one homes in the eventually 1,000-home Uplands community near Edmondson Village with the shockingly honest motto: “urban convenience, suburban charm.”

Suburban-style “charm” also exudes from the big-box shopping center known as Canton Crossing, a triumph of convenience over design. Its instant popularity proves that the developers could have afforded to provide real urban retail as an appropriate match for the adjacent Brewer’s Hill community where the former Gunther and Natty Boh brewery complexes have undergone extraordinary transformations into shops and apartments.

Indeed, wonderful adaptive reuse projects like those are a great hedge against becoming “Anytown, USA.” Baltimore is one of the national masters of reviving the shells of departed industries. The recycling of old industrial buildings gave us classics such as Tindeco Wharf on Boston Street, Clipper Mill in Woodberry, the Under Armour Inc. headquarters in the former Procter & Gamble soap factory and Silo Point, both in Locust Point (all designed by local architects).

The trend of new-life-in-old-shells continued in 2014 with projects like the 400-unit 10 Light St. conversion; Mill No. 1 on Falls Road; 520 Park Ave. and lovely smaller projects like the Parts & Labor butcher shop/restaurant/theater combo crafted from a car repair garage in Remington or the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. theater in a historic bank downtown.

These renovations give users a one-of-a-kind experience, the authenticity that apartment renters, restaurant visitors and theater goers are looking for in a time of predictability and sameness.

Paired with its proverbial grit, this creative architecture has made Baltimore such an attractive place for the coveted millennial demographic that entire neighborhoods such as Station North, Remington, Barclay and Highlandtown are coming back to life.