After Moshe Safdie’s thesis project in Montreal brought him instant fame in 1967, a chance to build in Baltimore turned into a reality check.
Safdie had made a dramatic debut with his McGill University thesis project at Habitat 67 when he was 29 years old. Subsequent projects, from Puerto Rico to Jerusalem, were mostly stuck on the drafting table. “Habitat was a big hit,” Safdie tells CityLab, “and for the next two years after that there were a wave of Habitat commissions. None of them got built.
“This was my first urban complex rather than just a housing project,” says Safdie. “Baltimore had a very strong civic leadership that was determined to turn [the city] around. I was determined to get this one built.”
But that was no guarantee. Some opponents argued that the area should be used for industrial uses. Others expressed doubts over whether a new neighborhood in heavily segregated Baltimore could be successfully integrated. Jay Brodie, then-Assistant Housing Commissioner, recalls a city councilman fretting that if black people moved in, whites wouldn’t. “I said, ‘I understand your point of view, but I hope you’re wrong.’” He was. While current figures on the racial composition of the complex are unclear, a variety of sources confirm that the population has been around one-third African American throughout its lifespan.
There were other more familiar and tedious NIMBY objections. Brodie recalls complaints that the project would drive away birds and squirrels. Safdie, after one such meeting, asked Brodie, “Do we have to do that again?” Local approval was secured through promises to protect the nearby Cylburn Arboretum and other parkland, and incorporate one acre of green space for every acre of construction. The project also included revitalization efforts directed at the adjacent neighborhood of Park Heights, including selective infill as well as commercial and transportation improvements. “They decided they needed to balance the new town with doing something about the old town,” says Safdie.