July 5, 2016

A New Park from Questar Tower to McKeldin Fountain

The 44-story Questar Tower now under construction in the Inner Harbor is an attempt to breathe life into traffic-oppressed Light Street. But so far it looks like a losing battle. The same can be said for the Harborplace renovation slated to start soon across street. Light Street traffic is so nasty that the city had to fence-off its most important crosswalk at Conway Street - a very bad way to introduce arriving tourists to the Inner Harbor.

Now the city and its business allies appear to be willing to try anything - even demolishing the McKeldin Fountain - in what looks more like an exorcism than a renewal plan.

Here's a better solution: Make McKeldin Fountain the centerpiece of a major new park that splits Light Street in half instead of acting as a mere glorified median strip. This park would extend for at least three blocks, virtually free of traffic conflicts, from Pratt Street southward around the fountain, beyond Conway Street to the Questar Tower.

A major new proposed park along Light Street in the Inner Harbor -
from the Questar Tower south of Conway Street (shown at left as a Google Earth mock-up) 
northward to the fountain and Pratt Street (at right).

The case of the Questar Tower

With the massive new Questar Tower, the Inner Harbor will no longer be able to afford the current dysfunctional dangerous intersection next door at Light and Conway Streets.

But the new park plan would reconfigure the streets so that the traffic signals at Conway and Light can be designed to enable all traffic in all directions to stop and start at the same time. When any traffic is stopped, all traffic would be stopped. Pedestrians could then be free to walk unencumbered in all directions - a far cry from the current chaotic condition.

One would think that building the city's tallest-ever residential tower would be such a big story that it would call attention to this. But the Port Covington and Harbor Point plans have dominated recent development news, because they will be major self-contained "cities with in a city", with an image of being sealed-off from traditional urban ills like traffic and human riff-raff. They're selling the new communities, not just the individual buildings.

The Questar Tower doesn't have that luxury.

Harbor Point and Port Covington have made a virtue out of their isolation. This is good for them but not so good for the city, where new development needs to be a tool to revitalize nearby areas - in the case of Questar Tower, the old downtown.

Even within the Inner Harbor, most recent attention has gone to renewing Rash Field, which is significant but removed from the center of things. The long-range Inner Harbor 2.0 plan is to build a huge expensive pedestrian bridge from Rash Field to Pier 6 and Harbor East, diverting the focal point of the Inner Harbor away from downtown permanently.

This diversion process has already been going on for awhile in both the city and public psyche. Most iconic city harbor views such as on TV news and weather reports are now shot outward away from downtown instead of inward at the downtown skyline as they were for most of the 20th century.

Construction to start on 414 Light Street tower
Questar Tower architect's rendering, looking west from the Inner Harbor.
The Oriole Park Warehouse at Camden Yards can be seen in the background at the end of Conway Street.  

The Questar Tower can't sell an idyllic new urban community like Harbor Point or Port Covington. It's one of the last pieces of an old puzzle, on a site that has stood vacant since the old McCormick Spice headquarters was demolished back in the 1980s. At that time, new development seemed imminent, but various plans came and went until Questar picked up the property at a foreclosure auction several years ago. And most people didn't seem to believe their project would really get going until shovels went into the ground just a few weeks ago.

Now the city must make sure it does just become an isolated ivory tower, but will be part of making the entire area more attractive - most notably the old downtown. Harborplace can no longer attract people by itself. The entire west shore of the Inner Harbor must be strong enough to serve as a counter-balancing anchor for the ever-expanding waterfront developments to the east and south.
Looking north at the park from the Questar Tower (left) toward the fountain with Pratt Street at the top.
Plan view of the park. The Harborplace Light Street Pavilion is at the bottom center.

Create the new park by splitting Light Street in two

The key to all this is to tame Light Street and make it into a "people place", an extension of the Inner Harbor which forms a real linkage to the surrounding areas from downtown to Otterbein to Camden Yards. This is impossible with Light Street's existing ten-lane configuration, especially at the intersection with Conway Street at the Questar Tower.

The city had a plan to narrow it down to a "mere" eight-lanes, which they've claimed has been pending a traffic study for many years. That was given as one of the rationalizations for knocking down the McKeldin Fountain, since the alignment would consolidate all these lanes along the street's west side where the fountain is located. But eight fully contiguous traffic lanes would become even more of a barrier between the Inner Harbor and the west side of downtown and the Questar site.

A genuine solution would be to split Light Street into two completely separate streets, with a real park in between instead of a glorified median strip. (Such a plan was first outlined in a Baltimore Brew article I wrote two years ago.)

The west street would serve only the heavy through traffic between Conway and downtown, while the east street would serve the more localized traffic around the Inner Harbor to South Baltimore. Both streets would probably need four lanes, two in each direction, leaving the remaining two lanes to be added to the existing median to create parkland. 

Most of the park, near the Questar Tower and McKeldin Fountain anchors, would be far wider than that.

The single lane that currently turns right along the south curb of Conway to southbound Light Street should also be retained for local circulation. Since it is the only lane that would cross the park, it should be given special pavement treatment and traffic control.

How to surround the fountain

The new park would essentially serve as the Questar Tower's front yard and its linkage to both the Inner Harbor and to the downtown spine along Pratt Street to the north. McKeldin Fountain would be its centerpiece.

Criticism of the fountain by proponents of demolition has focused on how massive and imposing it is. But for a much larger and more sprawling park, this mass would be a key advantage. From the south end of the park near the Questar Tower, the fountain would just look like a distant landmark. Moreover, by opening up the fountain with full 360-degree access, it would no longer be seen as a barrier.

Talented architects can certainly rise to the challenge of figuring out how to design the park to take maximum advantage of this new space and pedestrian access. Additional street crosswalks in the two blocks between Pratt and Conway Street across from Harborplace and the Hyatt Hotel can also be easily provided.

The upcoming long-awaited renovation of Harborplace provides additional opportunities. A significant aspect of the plan is to give its pavilions more "street presence" and de-emphasize the imposing truck loading facilities. The inward oriented marketplace as conceived in the 1970s by The Rouse Company will give way to a more outward orientation. This can work hand-in-hand with the new park plan.

McKeldin Fountain from its landlocked seldom seen backside. 
This would be its view from the south end of the park near the Questar Tower.

Let McKeldin Fountain flow - for water, traffic and people

A death watch seems to be on for the McKeldin Fountain, like Baltimore's muggy summer calm before the storm when water is suspended in mid-air.

The fountain was totally dry this past Fourth of July weekend when the Inner Harbor was supposed to looks its best. The crowds were heavy enough to gather by the fountain anyway, but it just stood there like an inanimate prop.

Water had been flowing through the fountain just a few weeks before when fewer people were paying attention. For at least several years, the Downtown Partnership has been lobbying and raising money for its demolition, saying that the fountain had just about seen its last days due to bad pumps. But it has been working much of the time since then.

Worn out pumps are a very poor excuse to demolish the fountain. And using the fountain as a scapegoat for traffic or design problems is even worse. Its design style has been dubbed "brutalism", which means it was never meant to be subtle or inoffensive. It simply needs the proper setting where water, traffic and people can flow together.


  1. Thank you for your visionary plan to make the Inner Harbor more of an urban sanctuary for residents and visitors. By surrounding the spectacular McKeldin fountain with expanded parks, you'd replace the dismal hardscape with a memorable and inviting gardenscape. I appreciate that you've been working-out the traffic concerns along the waterfront. -Mike Pugh

  2. I love the vision of this plan. I agree that Light Street in its current form is too wide and that the Questar Tower provides the perfect opportunity to revision this street to be more pedestrian friendly. However, I am curious how your traffic plan will support southbound traffic from north Baltimore into Federal Hill. Currently, southbound traffic on Light would continue past Conway to Federal Hill, but this would not be possible under your plan. You mentioned that both lanes would be two way traffic, but I don't see cars will reach the southbound local lanes as Calvert and Pratt Streets are both one way.

    1. Thank you. The short answer is that Light Street traffic would take a short one block zig-zag at Pratt to reach southbound Calvert Street.

      I covered traffic more in the Brew article, the basic idea being that the plan would be implemented on a trial basis to evaluate the impact and test various tweaks to make it work. Traffic would be dispersed overall, resulting in an overall reduction in congestion that would create opportunities.

      The main two beneficiaries of this would be: (1) the traffic volume in the current right-turn only lane from Pratt to southbound Light would fall to close to zero, so this lane could be carried through the intersection to Calvert. Pratt could also easily be widened in that block to create a new lane there adjacent to the square. And (2) the traffic demand in the current TRIPLE left-turn lanes from Lombard to Light would be reduced. That very nasty intersection is essentially the bottleneck of the entire grid. Calvert could then easily be converted to two-way flow in the block between Lombard and Pratt to attract much of that traffic.

      Charles Street south of Lombard Street could also be converted to two-way flow to disperse traffic.

  3. NEWS FLASH: It appears that the demolition of the fountain has now begun. Today there is an opaque chain link fence around the fountain as a sort of "body bag" veil, the square has been turned into a parking lot for construction vehicles, and Light Street has been closed.

    The good news is that closure of Light Street demonstrates that traffic can still function, and the city could monitor and learn from this in evaluating future traffic patterns. Not that they will.

    1. DOT hold all the cards but they do not seem to understand how to make it all work together. Keep in mind that the deadly intersection by the science center is slated to be rebuild in the near future which was supposed to be a circle is now just some added medians, what a missed opportunity.

    2. Also, I really like this idea of extending the park in a more meaningful manner without having to completely reconfigure traffic. Very clever. I always found Conway to be such an eye sore as someone once called the JFX a "straw" that cuts into the North edge of the city, Conway does the same thing to the Southern edge by cutting off the peninsula to downtown especially on peak traffic hours during rush hour or sporting events.

    3. I agree on all counts, MSC. I must admit to deserving some of the blame for the new alignment of the Key Highway / Light Street intersection. After the community finally convinced the City that the roundabout was a bad idea, the city pretty much stole their design from mine, which I published in January 2012 - http://baltimoreinnerspace.blogspot.com/2012/01/key-highway-light-street-update.html

      I intended those islands to be temporary until the real fix of narrowing Light Street from its outrageous 10 lane width to maybe 4 or 5 lanes could be implemented. The city doesn't want to commit to that, however, as long as their ultimate plan is still alive for an 8 lane Light Street next to McKeldin Square without the fountain.

      This city has a real problem with distinguishing temporary solutions from permanent ones. Their temporary solutions are not motivated to fix problems, but to act when it is politically expedient. That's why they're getting ready to knock down the fountain right now and replace it with some cheap crappy thing. They know the longer they wait, the more the opposition will grow.

      Knocking down the Mechanic Theater was another example of this, as was building a Greyhound Bus Station on the Middle Branch waterfront peninsula. That was supposed to be temporary but now it's permanent, because it's in a hidden, politically neutral "no man's land".

      Urban designers seem to love that Conway Street design, for reasons only heaven knows. They wanted to make Pratt into another Conway (until they came to their senses) and now they want to make Hanover Street thru Port Covington into another Conway.

    4. I missed your reply until just now. Thanks for the insight and providing your 2012 article. As you stated DOT copied your plan straight up and again as you stated it will be "temporary" solution that becomes permanent. In the meantime I have been working on expanding your front porch park idea all the way down Light Street and to this intersection. I have also been in touch with a contact I made in DOT about opening a dialogue on this matter. A nice little treat I found out from the DOT contact I made was that she had no clue about the 8 lane or any new configuration around McKeldin Fountain. She was in shock to hear any of this news from the ASG or Mahan Rykiel designs. Back to your idea, I have also worked on a basic directional traffic map that provides the current traffic patterns off lovely Conway as you pointed out is the source of all the mess on Light Street. Also, I worked a revised traffic pattern map that shows the handful of changes that need to be made to get your plan with some revisions to work. I plan to share this with DOT and the councilman to push this forward instead of playing the waiting game as well watching the increased traffic grow and grow in the waterfront area.

    5. Oh and I think I found a way to prevent having to adding a right turn lane from Conway to Light Street which keeps the integrity of the new park connected with pedestrian walk ways unseparated by a lane of traffic. This would be potentially solved by converting S Charles right at Questar from the current one way traffic to two-way traffic instead of changing at Lee Street from two to one way. If a car was coming from 95 to 395 and trying to get to Harborview they would have to go through Federal Hill to get there or cut back by turning left from S Charles to Montgomery St.

    6. Thanks for pursuing all this, MSC! You have to be brave to deal with the city bureaucracy. Good luck! I'm here if you need me. I even have an email address published somewhere. People somehow find it, wherever it is. I don't want to write it here.