The 1960s style Center Plaza, is a $7.5 million renovation project. Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro, JR was the first to undertake the Charles Center project in 1958. Olivia Klose in her article, “Urban Renewal Renewed: A Makeover for Baltimore’s Center Plaza Baltimore, Maryland” explicates that, in 2002, the local architecture of Brown and Craig redesigned the Center Plaza. The RTKL associates were the consulting architects to the Charles Center Urban renewal project. George Kostritsky of RTKL associates envisaged a futuristic appearance for the three plazas (Charles Center, Center Plaza and Hopkins Plaza), located on the interior of the two superblocks. He visualized a circulation pattern of linking the plazas through elevated walkways and escalators, to create a series of “pedestrian islands” and to separate pedestrian and vehicular traffic. However, the City government did not hold the ownership of the open spaces and the infrastructure. So the individual owners were responsible for services, amenities and maintenance.
“Steven Overly in his article “Downtowners delight in Baltimore’s $7.5 million renovation of Center” reveals that, the “cost of construction of Center Plaza is split among the city, state and federal governments, as well as the property owners flanking the plaza – BGE, Southern Management Corp. and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.”
Characteristics of the Plaza contributing to a sense of place
The Center Plaza is observed and analyzed with respect to it location, balance in space, pattern of use, rhythms in plaza life, type of people using the plaza, self-congestion, sitting space, greenscaping, outdoor cafes and its ambient nighttime lighting, the integral relationship of the plaza with the streets and pedestrian flows. Sun, trees and water are also the major design elements of the Plaza.
Features, Location and Pattern of use
The design of Center Plaza incorporates both the hard and the soft spaces. As explained earlier, the Center Plaza is conveniently located amidst the office complexes, residential building, cafes, retail stores and hotels in the heart of Baltimore. William Whyte in his book “The social life of small urban spaces” expounds that, the most plaza users are young office workers from nearby office buildings and that the commuter distance between the office building and the Plaza is not more than three blocks. The Center Plaza is busy and live with human activity during weekdays. However, on the weekends the plaza is like a ghost town.
Although Office complexes and other main buildings surround the Plaza, the people mainly use it for crossing over. Office workers do use the space but the usage is peak and mainly during the lunch hours. An unevenness of space is observed in plaza and the surrounding areas. The metro station just a few minutes’ walk from the plaza, Hotels like Sheraton and Radisson is located across the street, entrances to the office buildings like the BGE, One Charles Center, 2 Charles Center, Brick bodies, Cafes, other eat outs and bus stop surrounding the Plaza are usually busy with activities. Whereas the busyness in the core plaza area is relatively low.
Eminent researchers and authors on public spaces explain that good urban spaces build new constituency, create paths to and from work, bring people of all kinds to meet, pause and have fun. This is to some extent seen in Center Plaza where variety of people and kids use the area although the majority of users being the office workers especially during the peak hours. When the temperature is bright and sunny the chairs and tables of the cafes are generally out and the area lightens up from noon to 2pm during weekdays. Other than the lunch hour traffic and the crossing over by the people, the Plaza is not used as a best social place for people meeting in groups, exchanging goodbyes or by the couples.
Plaza being used mainly for crossing over
Rhythms of Plaza Life, Streets and Pedestrian Flow
The good aspect of design of this Plaza is that there is an integrated relationship of the Plaza and the streets nearby. The ease of accessibility from the streets usually draws the people to the Plaza. Fayette Street, Liberty Street and Charles Street are the major streets neighboring the Plaza. These streets are busy because of the bus stop, stores, hotels and the office buildings situated on the streets. There is considerable two-way traffic back and forth to Plaza and street but no noticeable bunching patterns of the pedestrians.
The morning hours are sporadic in this Plaza. Street vendor setting up his cart, platform seller arranging his goods for sale; maintenance staff checking the trash bags and construction hats on the streets who occasionally crossed the plaza are all the recurring morning events. As referred earlier the plaza lightens up only at noon.
During cold days people usually use the plaza for taking carryout from the cafes. There is also a small urban space outside the One Charles Center office complex at a higher level to the Center Plaza. Activities are noticed in these areas during late morning hours where people stop by to smoke their cigars.
Side Walks near Stores and Café
Sunday Morning Monday Morning
Small social urban space outside the One Charles Center
Rhythm of social life. Office workers in the walkway outside having cigars
Street vendor setting his cart
Hopkins Plaza adjacent to Center Plaza
Research indicates that there would generally be significant choice of people using the space during the free time. Like men normally tend to prefer the front rows, women are spotted in secluded areas and lovers in the out front space. As the Center Plaza is mainly used as a passage, there isn’t any particular preference or group of people using it in the off peak time. The Plaza also lacks strong ‘Self Congestion’ like people having conversation in the main flow in the pedestrian path and no intense social attraction in the intersection of the traffic and plaza lines. However the area is encircled with retail stores, windows with displays and signs to attract attention of the people.
Sitting and open space
Fixed metal benches and ledges are the seating facilities of the plaza. The metal benches are comfortable with backrests. There is only fixed seating available at the plaza except for the movable chairs that would be out of the cafes. The good part of the seating features are that it is deficient of the awkward fixed single seats wasting space around them and love seats, which are uncomfortable for strangers. The seating heights fall within the comfortable range of one foot and three. The comfortable depth range of ledges is usually 36″ but the linear concrete sitting structures here are little narrow. There is also sitting provisions for every thirty square feet of plaza. People are found using all the provisions including the ledges with their legs crouched.
People in groups usually gravitate to corners in urban plazas that are functional in steps and are good for face-to-face sitting. There are a series of steps here from the Plaza leading to offices, streets and other areas with moderate traffic but people do not sit in these steps. The steps abide the zoning laws of 11″ depth and 7.5″ rise. However, ramps are not provided on the sides. The notable feature of traffic flow is that the pedestrians prefer the diagonal path between building entrance and corners of the steps. People generally tend to take the shorter route. The diagonal pathway is the striking design factor of the plaza and is unanimously chosen by everyone.
People taking the short cuts, the pedestrian flow in the diagonal pathway
Sun, trees, water and other elements
The Plaza has a maximum of southern exposure to the sun, which is generally considered good for any plaza design. People sit where there is sun. There are adequate trees in Center Plaza are at a regular interval of 10′. The trees are flush to the ground and are closely related to the sitting spaces. There are planting beds in the ledges but not at the ground level. As the trees are closely planted, they offer combinations of shade, sunlight and foliage relative to the seasons. Water is the significant missing element of the plaza. Although there is a small fountain outside the One Charles Center office space, the core or the focal point of the plaza lacks any water form. There are basic food facilities, chairs and tables to seed the activity. There are two statues in front of the One Center Plaza overlooking the Plaza in honor of the Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro JR. Though there is a flagpole near the statues no remarkable inclination of the people to the steps or the statues are found.
Plaza having maximum exposure to sun
As discussed earlier the location of the Plaza, its inherent basic design, its relationship with the streets, the seating spaces and other elements provided, contribute to the characteristics of sense of place. However, there are strength and limitations of the design. Center Plaza being the focal point of Baltimore’s urban renewal project, extra care should be taken and incorporated in the design elements. The Charles center and the Hopkins plaza nearby have the inspiration of Italian Renaissance and the urban renewal movement with fountains, sculptures, flags, flowers and trees. Though there are various features in the plaza, the focal point of the plaza, the center of diagonal pathway lacks a striking and an eye catchy sculpture. Such a design feature would definitely attract people. The existing statue is not even noticeable to the people.
Centre Plaza is definitely not a dead space. It is good, likeable and a successful urban space. It is surrounded by busy streets and is in amidst of office complexes and major buildings. However, it is visible only though the Fayette street. People from Liberty Street, Lexington Street and Charles Street have to take a flight of steps to get to the plaza. Steps do not add ambiguity of movement. Though the fixed seating arrangements are comfortable a few movable chairs should also be provided in an interesting manner to attract more people. In doing so people will start using the plaza actively apart from using it for passing over. Circulation and amenities should be provided having handicaps in mind.
- Olivia Klose. Urban Renewal Renewed webpage: “A Makeover for Baltimore’s Center Plaza Baltimore, Maryland” http://www.tclf.org/features/baltimore_centerplaza/index.html
Business network webpage. Steven Overly. ” Downtowners delight in Baltimore’s $7.5 million renovation of Center, Daily Record, The (Baltimore), Jun 19, 2007
- William H Whyte. The social life of small urban spaces. Ninth printing, Oct 1995, Edwards Brothers Inc, Ann Arbor, Michigan