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News : Accidental monuments

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A building permit is more than just a green light

Baltimore’s inner harbor is under construction. Across the water from my hotel, future Ritz-Carlton residences are announced with a mammoth banner. To the north, I can glimpse fresh red brick and shiny windows behind black scaffolding on a phalanx of new offices. Nearby, in a much older structure, the Baltimore Museum of Public Works keeps tourist hours.

Housed in a circa-1911 pumping station, the museum is a monument to, in its own words, the “fascinating technology behind tunnels, roads, bridges, clean water, wastewater, and recycling.” Snicker if you must, but I’m sure young kids can’t resist the old steamroller parked out front, and the jungle gym modeled on a sewer system out back.

I was a little disappointed with the subject matter at first, however, because when I saw the building another type of public work came to mind: I thought of parks, public art, museums — the entire visual fabric of the city. And I thought of the crucial role government plays in shaping our urban environment. These days, we have the free-market mantra down pat. No one bats an eye when developers cry infringement if the public tries to assert its right to a livable city.

But bad development can scar a city for generations, discouraging employers, lowering real-estate values, and leaving ugly architecture in its wake. While Baltimore’s “world-famous” inner harbor is beautiful by many measures, it’s marred by too many chain restaurants. On a lunch excursion, my choices included Hard Rock Café and The Cheesecake Factory, and Fleming’s is just across the street from the hotel. Nothing wrong with those restaurants, per se, but when in Baltimore I’d like to eat as the Baltimoreans eat. If this were the only part of the city I saw, I would still enjoy my visit, but not feel any urgency to return for a vacation. And waterfront views and Ritz-Carlton’s cache notwithstanding, it’s not the neighborhood I’d choose to settle in if I lived here.

But this isn’t another call to action to limit chain restaurants on the River Walk — not entirely. No sooner was I back in my room, googling “Baltimore” and “crab cakes” than a press release from the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau arrived in my inbox. The city recently announced details for a planned 12-acre, $81-million park in downtown Houston, the e-mail gushed, which will include an amphitheater and a pond for model boats. The main feature? The Great Lawn, suitable for croquet (in a bold move to woo gay professionals), and flag football.

We are, in short, about to be one-upped again by a city that is infamous for its (lack of) zoning laws, and that got traffic flow so wrong it’s still the main topic for bitching by visitors and natives alike. But one thing Houston has never failed to deliver is the bold stroke.

Our mayor has been proposing bold strokes that would shape our urban environment for the better for generations: A new park, a virtual moratorium on chain restaurants downtown, a central plaza where students from the UTSA downtown campus, tourists, workers, and residents can all congregate.

None of these proposals arrived on the table ready to implement; they all need some adjustment, particularly the formula-restaurant ban. But the need for tweaking shouldn’t become a rationale for dismissal.

Whether we conceive of it this way or not, the decision to build a park, a condo development, or a chain restaurant creates a public monument that tells prospective residents and businesses, visitors, and, most importantly, future generations, what we as a city believe in and how highly we value ourselves.

Hardberger’s proposals taken together will help us build a city that says we believe in the uniqueness of our local culture, in green public spaces, and in a high quality of life for all residents. And if we someday build a public-works museum of our own, the early 21st century will be lauded as a time not only of tunnels, bridges, and new housing starts, but as an era when we laid a great public cornerstone for our future.


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