December 8, 2016

The new Lexington Market needs a grand staircase

The most important part of the new Lexington Market plan is the creation of its new outdoor space. That alone is sufficient reason to knock down the existing market and replace it with a new one with a glassy expanse that overlooks it.

The proposed new Lexington Market has some grand shoes to fill. It is essentially the last vestige of the transformational grandeur that was supposed to happen with the massive failed "Superblock" project. Before that, Baltimore's two rail transit lines, which almost but don't quite come together nearby, were supposed to trigger the transformation. But now there's not really a whole lot here to build upon - not even any of the great architecture that exists in abundance nearby but not here.

What the latest Lexington Market plan needs is a grand staircase - something sculptural, something iconic, something that adds the decisive vertical dimension. Something you can hang out on, something you can run up and down, not just in short choppy steps, but triumphantly like Rocky,

Designer's first draft: A stairway that's just a stairway - too steep, too plain,
and surrounded by plants where it should be surrounded by people.

The goal must still be for the new Lexington Market to establish a prominent place for itself in the center of the city, and reverse decades of de-emphasis of this area in Baltimore's overall geography. Now that downtown as a whole has also been de-emphasized as the center of the region, in favor of being just a neighborhood, this repositioning is more important than ever.

Basically, the new Lexington Market is being called upon to perform the same feat of urban development that the "Superblock" mega-project was called upon and failed to accomplish over the past two decades, and a series of other grandiose proposals also failed to do going all the way back to the 1970s. The city just needs to plan smarter.

The latest concept for the market is basically a good one. The new market needs to be glassy and extroverted, in contrast to the existing market which looks in on itself. That's about all that can be asked of the building's architects. What's critical is that the new market must look out upon something that warrants our attention, and that's where the adjacent proposed park and stairway must do their job.

Here's an example of a big iconic public stairway that successfully defines an urban space,
and could be a model for the Lexington Market Park. The central bulls-eye could also serve as a performance stage.

The new stairway should be a place to look out at and to look at from, a place to eat and to listen to musical performances and to watch the whole urban theater that unfolds around it. It should encompass the entire park, from Paca Street where it embraces the expanding University of Maryland campus, all the way to Eutaw Street and the expanding Lexington Market Metro Transit Hub.

A recent geographical history of Lexington Street

The current Lexington Market was expanded to engulf the adjacent block of Lexington Street from Paca to Eutaw in the early 1980s, the final step in the systematic elimination of six blocks of Lexington all the way from Charles Street to the east, which began in the 1960s, thus cutting off this area from the rest of downtown.

Into the 1950s, Lexington was one of Baltimore's main east-west streets, its retail district extending all the way eastward to Charles Street. First, the block between Liberty and Charles was eliminated in the 1960s with the creation of the Charles Center plan. It then remained as a construction zone well into the 1980s, the last portion of Charles Center that was completed. It was not just cut off to cars, but to everyone, until a large stairway was built just east of where Lexington once connected to Charles Street.

Another drab steep stairway that doesn't work well - where Lexington Street once existed into the 1960s
 and is now inside Charles Center. Charles Street is at the top of the photo. The Center Plaza park is in the foreground below.

This was essentially an afterthought to the rest of the Charles Center plan, although it was sold as a resolution of the conflicts of cars versus people. In the 1970s, Lexington Street was also closed to cars to the west between Liberty and Howard Street and turned into a pedestrian mall. Howard Street was then made into a "bus mall" as well, and later added light rail. Finally, after the retail business had dropped precipitously and there were no longer enough pedestrians to justify it, Lexington Street was rebuilt again and de-malled to accommodate cars.

Howard Street was also reopened to cars, although its orientation to transit made the average speed too slow to attract many cars. This garnered many complaints. People complain when traffic is too fast, but also when it's too slow. You just can't win when the conflict is expressed as cars versus people, when the real conflict is simply between streets that work and those that don't.

Amid all this, the Howard/Lexington retail district, once the flagship for the entire region, descended into irrelevance. Then more recently amid the rise of the Inner Harbor and its further drift to the southeast, downtown as a whole had to be rebranded as a neighborhood. So now we're back to square one, with the Lexington Market area searching for a new identity.

The new Lexington Market plan calls for a new somewhat smaller building on the vacant lot just to the south, with a bright glassy airy look that reminds everyone that they're in the middle of the city. This would allow adjacent Lexington Street to be reopened to pedestrians, but not to traffic, and incorporated into a park just to the north.

But parks have previously been promoted as the area's salvation. Fairly recently when the city was still trying to save the grandiose "Superblock" plan, the Baltimore Arena site several blocks away was proposed as a much larger park, to be financed by alleged tax revenue growth in a "TIF Bond District" throughout the west side of downtown. The Center Plaza park in Charles Center (see photo above) was also totally rebuilt about a decade ago, but it still suffers from the same basic problem of being an "inner block park" which violates the laws of urban geography that parks must be integrated with the street network for proper surveillance and exposure.

So the design of the new Lexington Market Park is critical in order to avoid the pitfalls of these other park attempts. It must feel like part of the market and also a natural extension of the surrounding streets, with space that is conducive to gathering. Hopefully, the much smaller and more purposeful Lexington Market Park will succeed and help purge all the previous park planning attempts at grandiosity.

Stairway to heaven

The proposed park's dominant physical element is a 15 foot elevation drop between Paca and Eutaw Street. This is a golden opportunity to build something grand - an iconic staircase designed around people - and not just any staircase. It should be designed like a big grandstand where people oversee other people. At the bottom should be a stage for performers, not just artists paid by the city or the market but any impromptu street performers who just happen to show up.

Grand mansions are built around grand staircases, and grand cities should be too. This should be the place where Baltimore's version of Rocky (Charles "Roc" Dutton? Rocky Carroll?) runs to the top and then congratulates himself for being himself. Large public stairways have an obligation to be designed to rise to the occasion to justify themselves.

If a 15 foot elevation differential is good, a much larger change would be even better. So if possible, the Lexington Market Park should be incorporated into the adjacent Metro Station down underneath Eutaw Street. This is destined to be and to remain the central transit hub for the entire regional transit system, since it's where the heavy and light rail lines come together, so it needs all the prominence it can get.

But unlike the smaller but similar subway entrance on the other side of Lexington and Eutaw which was designed around escalators, this one can give more priority to being artful rather than only a way to get from A to B, bringing more light and air into the otherwise dank expanses of the subway station . Perhaps this is where the performance stage should be, so sounds can waft into the subway, with maximum audience room above it toward the market.

Ultimately, the new Lexington Market needs to achieve the same transformative vision with this relatively modest project that the much more grandiose "superblock" was supposed to do.

Bunker Hill steps in Los Angeles - This perhaps shows an inkling of the kind of design that is needed
 in front of Lexington Market. (

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