June 28, 2017

Rash Field plan is now a McKeldin Park-style tweak

Inner Harbor planning is becoming more like an exorcism and less like a plan.

It starts out with sweeping grandiose "game changing" ideas and ends up as just a campaign to bury various problems and annoyances under a bunch of landscaping and hardscaping. So now planning for Rash Field is lurching to the next phase, just as the grand opening took place for the new McKeldin Park.

Brand new McKeldin Park with the massive fountain demolished and gone - desolate on a beautiful
low-humidity summer day. The Questar Tower is under construction in the background (to the south).

The weather was glorious this past weekend and the Inner Harbor was well populated with tourists and visitors, but the brand new hyped-up McKeldin Park attracted only a few curiosity-seekers. Why would anyone hang out in a glorified median strip surrounded by traffic snarls when they could instead join the happy throngs promenading around the waterfront?

In the new McKeldin Park behind the west shore, there's nothing to explore and no place to go. There used to be a huge interactive fountain that some people loved and some hated, but everyone was transfixed by. Now there's just some benches and landscaped dirt bunkers.

Here's the blog article that shows what McKeldin Park used to look like with its massive fountain, and what it could look like with pedestrian connections that work.

Then this past sunny Monday, they brought in a new attraction to enliven the deader than ever open space. They parked a huge tractor-trailer inside McKeldin Park to promote some new movie that opens in theaters this week. The truck was basically a mobile billboard with visitors invited to interrupt their harbor walk by coming into the rear of the trailer to see some kind of promotional blurb for the movie. This is what the Inner Harbor has come to.

On to Rash Field

Now as an encore, the city's usual planning consultants have taken their act to Rash Field on the Inner Harbor's south shore. Rash Field does have some basic advantages over McKeldin Park, but they're  attributable to geography, not planning intelligence. Rash Field is big, it's right on the water, and it sits in the formidable shadow of magnificent Federal Hill. But so far it has never amounted to much despite many attempts. At least their new plan doesn't include tractor trailers, but it does include smaller trucks (explained below).

Because it's location is so good, Rash Field has found a home with beach volleyball players. Some powers-that-be hated this, just as some hated McKeldin Fountain, but gradually the planners ran out of other workable ideas so the volleyball enthusiasts will survive for now. After all, it's just a sand pit.

The latest plan is presented at www.rashfield.org with lots of pretty pictures and buzzwords but practically no context as to how it would fit with the rest of the Inner Harbor or its surroundings.

This year old rendering has been revised slightly since, and shows more context than anything in the latest presentation.
But the context - Federal Hill to the top - is basically irrelevant.

Renderings of the new revised Rash Field plan basically follow the same old formula - show lots of aimless people to suggest that there's something new to attract them. Then show lots of meandering paths with lots of landscaping and trees. This is now called planning.

From special spatial to prosaic programmatic

As with McKeldin Fountain, this devolution happened essentially as the dollars dwindled and the plan went from being spatial in nature to being programmatic in nature. What "programmatic" means is just a laundry list of the stuff that is customarily found in parks - you know, sports, trees, etc. It's brought up to date in the 21st century with "extreme fitness" (entertainment for the rest of the fat slobs), a skate park (emulating what's already in the Hampden and Carroll Park neighborhoods) and the latest trend, food trucks.

Food trucks! As if all the permanent restaurants and food stands around the Inner Harbor are lacking in some way. As if driving a truck onto the scene is something unique for the "world-class" Inner Harbor! Unique, that is, unless the food truck driver decides to start his motor and move on to the next street.

What concept could possibly be less relevant to a permanent plan than food trucks? Well, maybe the answer is the adjacent Science Center's parking lot, which is canopied by solar panels which may have been "cutting edge" a few years ago, but now look like they belong to a 1950s drive-in burger joint. Now if they could just hire kids on roller skates to come out to the parking lot and take your food truck order, maybe they'd be onto something. At least for a week or two.

What's really pathetic is that the plans didn't start out anything like this. Instead, the basic, now ignored question was: How can the Inner Harbor plans fit in with the surrounding area?

The view from the top of Federal Hill toward the Inner Harbor's west promenade is interrupted by assorted multi-level doo-daddery. What's needed instead is a straight pedestrian connection from the west promenade to the foot of the hill. Rash Field is to the right. Science Center is to the left, in front of which is their solar paneled parking lot. The Questar Tower is under construction in the center background.

At McKeldin Fountain, the big spatial concept was to realign northbound Light Street traffic away from the Inner Harbor by widening the southbound roadway for two-way flow, so that the park could be physically merged with the rest of the Inner Harbor instead of being isolated in a median strip. The city promised a traffic study of this concept about a decade ago, but has kept the results (if any) under wraps since then. That would have certainly changed the space in a fundamental way, though not for the better. Somebody among the powers-that-be probably now realizes that.

The Inner Harbor does not need to become an even bigger land mass than it already is. McKeldin Park needs to have its own identity, and now without the fountain, any semblance of a unique identity has been lost to greenery and shrubs.

At Rash Field, the big concept was to build a huge pedestrian drawbridge over the Inner Harbor to Pier Six near Harbor East, fundamentally changing the spatial nature of the entire Inner Harbor from being a Chesapeake Bay inlet to being like an enclosed lake. It would also have completed the recentralization of the entire city to focus on Harbor East (and secondarily Federal Hill) instead of the traditional downtown. Downtown would essentially no longer be downtown. Talk about radical!

But somehow, the planners have now gone from that seismic spatial shift to a skate park and food trucks. That may seem odd until you realize that it's totally consistent with bringing in tractor trailer movie promotion trucks.

The next step will be for planners to argue that their previous grandiose plans for the McKeldin Park and Rash Field areas are still on the table and that what they've done recently is merely Phase One. The problem with that is that nothing in their phase ones helps at all in preparing for their ultimate future. Just think back to what planners of the initial Inner Harbor were doing in the 1970s and 1980s. Did they think of any of their work as being phase one for what's happening now? Of course not.

In any event, go ahead and enjoy the volleyball.

What's needed: Real spatial plans

First and foremost, the new Rash Field plan simply needs to connect to the area's surrounding landmarks. Why is that so difficult? The planners seem to treat the surroundings as some kind of distraction. They go out of their way to avoid them. Federal Hill is just this "thing" that hovers in the background. The adjacent highly praised Visionary Arts Museum at the foot of the hill is obliterated completely.

The planners know how to do it, as shown in the previous discarded plan - the plan that was sidetracked by the domination of that giant pedestrian bridge.

The first rule is that "edges" are crucial to site planning. It's how people see things - the curb appeal - and it's how they get in and out and how activity is generated. The latest Rash Field site plans completely ignore the edges.   

Previous grandiose Rash Field plan with drawbridge to Harbor East. The highest priority should be the diagonal promenade from the west shore (bottom) directly to the foot of Federal Hill (right center) but has been removed from the latest plans.

Here are the two essential elements to create the edges that the planners need to get back to:

1. Establish the diagonal spine between the west shore promenade and Federal Hill - The wide straight west shore promenade is the pedestrian "main street" for the entire Inner Harbor. When pedestrians get to its south end near the Science Center, they must think, "Where do I go now?" For the past 40 years, the south shore promenade has not been a strong enough choice, and nothing in the latest Rash Field plans changes that.

The obvious solution is to extend the short diagonal that already exists at the south corner of the west promenade toward Federal Hill. The hill itself can and should be a huge beacon to beckon pedestrians. It doesn't even matter whether or not they get there, but they must be encouraged as much as possible. Federal Hill is a great unique place that exudes real Baltimore far more than any skate park or other sports facility. It must be exploited.

This diagonal promenade is shown in the previous plans (see above), but was removed because it was a short-term annoyance for the planners. Put it back and make it as strong as possible!

2. Put a truly special and attractive landmark at the east end of the south promenade - Right now, there's the Rusty Scupper Restaurant (suggested new slogan: it's better than a food truck) and a squat ugly parking garage. The parking garage, which is slated for demolition, should be replaced by an extension of Covington Street to the waterfront promenade from the Visionary Art Museum at Key Highway in order to create an active "edge". Something really special must then be installed at this waterfront promontory - something that at least attempts the grandeur of the pedestrian bridge - to serve as a beacon for those pedestrians.

Instead, planners think this spine is so unimportant that it is where they just chop off their graphics. Sorry, we're not falling for that old trick! Edges are the most important part of the plan! Certainly the planners can do better - perhaps adapting the reconfigured memorial to the deceased "Pride of Baltimore" crew for this very special waterfront location.

Recommended Rash Field Pedestrian Connections - Shown in Yellow -
Keep it simple, with a direct diagonal from the popular West Promenade to Federal Hill
and a direct link from the Rusty Scupper Restaurant to the Visionary Art Museum.
Rash Field is already a very special geographic location, so those two elements should be enough to attract the throngs to whatever activities take place there, be it volleyball, skateboarding or even... food trucks!

In the Inner Harbor Visitors Center a while back, I overheard a mother asking what was there to do for free with kids. The helpful dedicated volunteer's answer hit the bullseye: Visit the playground at the top of Federal Hill.

As playgrounds go, its nothing out of the ordinary, unlike the new artsy/educational kids' park on Pier 6. But it allows kids to get wrapped up in their own world while the adults revel in the extraordinary park that's part of a real neighborhood at the apex of the city. In contrast, the Pier 6 park is just something to pass through amid the parking lots and buildings. But in Federal Hill Park, you feel like you've really arrived.

The Visitors Center volunteer understood how the Inner Harbor relates to the Real Baltimore better than the planners do. Just as McKeldin Park must be a gateway between the Inner Harbor and Downtown, Rash Field must be a gateway between the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill.


  1. Well said, as always. Federal Hill is literally just across the street. Id' also appreciate some signage to the Museum of Industry, less than a mile away. The signage could be along the sidewalk on the harbor around or east of Rusty Scupper. It's too bad the museum isn't even closer to Rash Park. On the other hand, perhaps it invites an opportunity further down the harbor to extend the prominent pedestrian path and add another attraction or two. There appears to be some potential land on either side of Key Highway just south of E Cross Street. And there seems to be some vacant land between Little Havana Restaurant and the Museum of Industry.

    I would definitely appreciate a pedestrian bridge. Do you think it's practical for ships to get by? I assume it wouldn't be a drawbridge. Is it still on the table, even if it wouldn't happen for years?

    1. Thanks for the comment! I'd say my general inclination is that anything beyond Rash Field should be a low priority for the City. There's so much more that needs to be done! Rash Field needs to be fixed, of course, because its part of the original Inner Harbor, and Federal Hill is an original city icon. And good signage is a no brainer. But beyond that, things in South Baltimore seem to be doing pretty well on their own.

      The Museum of Industry needs to do its own planning. Things are pretty shabby down there, but it's great real estate so they should be able to attract investment. I heard that Kevin Plank had been interested before he got focused on Port Covington. They should have pounced on that!

      That ped bridge would certainly be a huge deal, but this city needs so many things! The middle span of the bridge is supposed to pivot to let tall ships through. An idea like that will never go off the table. Maybe the naming rights would be so valuable that some rich guy would be willing to pay for it. How does "The Golden Plank" sound?

    2. Fair point. I did overlook that the Museum of Industry is oriented a bit more toward Locust Point than the Inner Harbor, anyway.

      That sounds like an interesting idea for a pedestrian bridge! I wonder how pedestrians would be kept off the bridge when the middle span opens. Do you happen to know where I can find more info on that? I'm with you on that very creative name. Maybe you can sell the idea to Mr. Plank. =)