Studio Report Envisions a Different Future for Baltimore’s Historic Westside
Last month, sixteen second-year masters students from the University of Maryland’s Urban Studies Program presented a report to the City of Baltimore that could help shape the future of one of the city’s most historic neighborhoods. The result of a semester-long fall planning studio, the students’ study examined Baltimore’s Westside district, a once-popular retail destination located north of Inner Harbor. The students explored the scale and paradigm of the current development plan and the desired neighborhood identity, intending to define the Westside district’s role in Baltimore’s economic market and determine what sort of development would revive the neighborhood and its residents to a new economic vitality. The presentation was delivered to city officials, the University of Maryland-Baltimore and stakeholders at Baltimore’s Bio Tech Center.
Led by Assistant Professor Dr. Scott Dempwolf and Professor Dr. Marie Howland, the Westside planning studio reflects the ongoing mission of the UMD-Morgan State Center for Economic Development (EDA University Center), which utilizes University resources to advance economic development in Maryland communities. This is the second annual studio dedicated to the EDA University Center’s goals since the Center’s launch in 2012; last year, students examined maritime industrial land use in Baltimore.
“These studios are two-fold, in that they provide our students with an opportunity to fill a community need while putting their skills to practice on a real-world urban challenge,” says Dempwolf, who is also director of the EDA University Center. “Students often use their work in the studio to demonstrate their skills and capabilities when they enter the job market the following spring.”
A Closer Look at Westside
For decades, the Westside district was Baltimore’s historic downtown retail hub, home to the iconic Lexington Market and once hosting such major retailers as Hecht’s and Stewart’s. Yet Baltimore’s suburban boom, followed by years of neglect and divestment, has since changed the face of the Westside. The district has recently shown glimmers of revitalization, however, including new high-end residential units and the continued popularity of cultural destinations like the Hippodrome theatre. Proximity to the University of Maryland, the downtown, Lexington Market and the Inner Harbor all give redevelopment possibilities promise.
In approaching the Westside project, the students enlisted three key questions to guide their study, looking closely at appropriate scale of development, Baltimore’s existing “mega-project” paradigm and the Westside area’s unique identity. By examining five distinct urban scales within the district—the retail Superblock, Lexington Market, UMD-Baltimore, Howard Street corridor and the Westside district as a whole—the students offered a fresh perspective on these questions. Starting with the 2001 Strategic Plan from the Design Collective, the 2010 Urban Land Institute Report and interviews with citizens and city officials, they developed a set of best practices for future development of the Westside district that best fits the current marketplace while preserving the area’s unique identity.
Perspectives on Westside’s Future
While projects like the Inner Harbor have been economic successes for the City of Baltimore, the team found that such a project would jeopardize the historic architecture and blooming social scene of the Westside district. The suggested student vision is a small-scale movement that nurtures the Westside’s existing assets by capitalizing on the creative energy from nearby educational institutions, the entrepreneurial spirit of retail markets, unique physical spaces and multiple identities and communities.
"I really enjoyed hearing the ideas presented by the UMD Community Planning students,” said Mary Kendall, Project Manager for The Maryland Department of Housing & Community Development’s Division of Neighborhood Revitalization. “Their fresh and focused perspectives on the revitalization of the area were quite practical and ‘implementable,’ especially in the short-term. I look forward to seeing the final and full report."
“Even though many of our studio students were not specializing in economic development, they quickly came to terms with the complexity and difficulties of bringing economic development to a large and inhabited district,” said Howland. “
A full report will be completed later this spring, in time for the students to share their experience in a presentation at the American Planning Association’s National Conference. The students involved in the Westside studio are: Kayla Anthony, Rebecca Bankard, Jessica Bellah, Janay Brunson, Andrew Casavant, Alexander Conway, Matthew Dolamore, Matthew Earls, Daniel Engelberg, Matthew Grooms, Basheer M. Saeed, Mary O’Connell, Oluseyi Olugbenle, Joshua Schnitzlein, James Spatz and Andrew Van Gordon.