Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer located in New York City. He's contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Metropolis, Architectural Record, and other publications.
After Moshe Safdie’s thesis project in Montreal brought him instant fame in 1967, a chance to build a new community in Baltimore turned into a reality check.
Moshe Safdie’s first project, Habitat 67 in Montreal, defines his career to this day. But in Baltimore, an incomplete work showcases both the promises and the realities of ambitious community planning in the U.S.
Designed to fill one of the the city’s largest undeveloped areas north of downtown, Coldspring Newtown hosts 225 housing units of an originally planned 3,780. Its projected 100,000 square feet of retail space, 250,000 square feet of office space, a conference center, multiple schools, community facilities, a mini-bus network, and rapid transit service were never built. Yet, in spite of its nearly invisible presence in the city, it’s still a community—one which has housed many satisfied residents.
Robert Embry, the city’s Housing Commissioner from 1967 to 1977, tells CityLab that he saw in Coldspring a large-scale opportunity to reverse middle-class egress from the city. The unused hilly area was situated between Park Heights (a working-class African-American neighborhood), two parks, and the Jones Falls Valley, across from Roland Park (an affluent white neighborhood designed by the Olmsted Brothers). The city’s plan would be realized through ambitious architecture. “I hired Safdie because of his Montreal Habitat project,” says Embry. “He was an exciting young architect who thought out of the box and would create something distinctive.”
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.
Coldspring was unusual as an effort spearheaded not by federal or state government bodies but by a city. Embry, with the aid of then-mayor William Donald Schaefer, was able to launch the project in 1972 thanks to a city tax-exempt revenue bond issue which enabled subsidized mortgages at a 7.5 percent interest rate. Coldspring was widely advertised as a New Town in Town, the rubric for a wide range of efforts to build communities in cities in the 1960s and 1970s. These usually featured modern designs that mimicked the attractions of suburban life while also promoting density and sustainability.
The project’s main objective was to bring middle-income residents back into city limits, but it also designated 30 percent of its units as affordable housing. Although built by the F.D. Rich Company, city grants covered the expense of the land, roads, sewage infrastructure, and innovative parking decks that connected the entire community with pedestrian-only routes that submerged car activity.
While Habitat 67 was built on a flat island, Coldspring’s terrain was quite different, which lent a different shape to plans even from their very start in the studio.
“I began by making a cork model of the entire site at quite a large scale,” says Safdie. “This became the method we employed in Coldspring, of working physically on the model. You lay the roads on the model with tape, you physically build the town with bodies of wood, and you physically grasp what you’re doing. Every building in Coldspring is a result of the topography and is an outcome of the topography it has to accommodate.”
Safdie’s interest in articulating the human scale of residences was manifested in Baltimore. He wrote in For Everyone a Garden:
It’s fairly easy to say that in grouping people together to make up a community it seems desirable to make the scale of the family unit apparent. A steel and glass apartment building has no expression whatsoever of the number of people living in it. The opposite extreme is the casbah. The casbah corresponds with people’s desire for identity and notion of the scale of the community and their place within it. So the identity of the units that make the community and the identity of each person’s place are important. When you separate houses in space to express their identity you create another quality of environment, one that is easy to appreciate.
Safdie has adapted this vision to a variety of sites in his career. He cited Chatham Village in Pittsburgh—Garden City-styled affordable housing at a medium scale on a sloped side—as inspiration. Coldspring’s original plan included three types of housing: hillside clusters, deck houses, and high-rises. Only deck units were completed in Baltimore.
Of the finished product, built in 1981, the most common format consists of two stacked units that take advantage of hilly or irregular sites in order to create density that doesn’t domineer. Even if the “hillside” units weren’t built, the deck homes still engage skillfully with uneven topography. The fact that you’re surrounded by five-story buildings registers only from odd angles, as most units only rise three stories from pedestrian paths and conceal the remainder of their bulk down hillsides. Safdie settled on deck clusters of 20 to 30 families, a scale that wouldn’t overwhelm and could create a “local feeling” resembling a traditional streetscape, with private balconies or yards in the rear abutting greenery.
The homes themselves do not adopt any regular form. Units are mostly staggered diagonally at their base, upper levels mildly cantilevered above, and units spilling down slopes in the rear, ensuring visual variety throughout. Diagonal angles are suited to the hillside sites and, Safdie explains, “a way of breaking up the boxiness of things.” The buildings themselves feature plenty of concrete but also stucco panels, bronze-colored aluminum, and frequent flowerboxes.
A few homes have upper levels that span pedestrian paths. “I did that to create visual interest,” says Safdie. “I did more of that in Jerusalem because of the climate but here it was to do something different.” He notes that his own home in Jerusalem, “an Ottoman house, is a bridge over the street.”
Freestanding concrete stairways provide access to upper units, accentuating the futurist visual character of the site while drawing on venerable antecedents. Safdie says that these stairways were inspired by old Montreal housing, where “upper units all have their own stairs.” The stairways, he explains, help establish the individual nature of the homes and provide “additional places where you interact with the street.”
The majority of the decks and pedestrian pathways interweave red brick paths with steps, sloped walkways, trees, benches, and playgrounds. The constant shifts of ramps, sunken trees, bridges, and stairs creates a winding and vertiginous atmosphere—a playground for anyone. There are no barren parade-ground plazas here, but a fine-grained and human-scaled sphere for the walker.
As for the cars, Safdie’s aim was to create a “a pedestrian precinct where cars are invisible,” as he describes it. While they’re occasionally in sight, they’re discreet. Parking stub-roads were created beneath paths, providing sheltered underground parking directly accessible from the lower units via stairs. Trash and recycling chutes on the deck level lead to trash bins beneath. Roads are otherwise crossed by pedestrian bridges.
Sandy Rosenberg, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, is the longest-term resident at Coldspring. He moved into the development in 1977, eventually combining his unit with another one he purchased in 1992. A visit to his home revealed a spacious home with split-level elements (each unit consists of two and a half levels) admitting ample light throughout the home through clerestory and large rear windows. “I like the openness,” says Rosenberg. “That’s what I replicated—my one input into the first expansion.”
Rosenberg says he wasn’t necessarily drawn to Coldspring for its architecture, but others were. Safdie had a unit at Coldspring for several years, as did other architects. So did the son of the project developer, several city council members, and the head of the Port Authority. Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is a current resident.
Brodie, who succeeded Embry as the city’s Housing Commissioner in 1977, was another Coldspring resident attracted by its then-contemporary vision. He, too, expanded his first Coldspring home into another unit, before moving away in the late ‘90s. “This is a very conservative city. With Baltimore’s rowhouses, nobody had seen anything like this.” Initial years offered tastes of pioneer living. His basement floor was originally dirt, and when he experienced his first snow storm as a tenant, the city plow team couldn’t even find his street on a city map.
Rosenberg remains a very satisfied resident but he does note that property values continue to lag compared to nearby neighborhoods. He also mentions that persistent roof leaks were resolved after a 1980s lawsuit. “I’ve met many people who have become lifelong friends,” he says. “I think it’s a great community. The location is great. You’re in this bucolic setting.”
Some features have fallen into disuse. “In the early days in nice weather people would sit outside on the benches. There was a very nice sort of communal feeling but that went away after a while,” says Rosenberg. This appears to be, at least partially, a result of every unit having private outdoor space, but also an inevitable consequence of a project never realizing its full, much grander plan. With under a tenth of the desired housing units built, Coldspring never achieved the population that might have filled those benches. The lack of commercial space also holds back Coldspring’s potential. It’s slightly odd to wander around this modern vision and end up at any end in anonymous suburbia again. “The thing that made my wife want to move [away] was that we were tired of getting in the car every time we wanted to buy a loaf of bread,” says Brodie.
Work on the project stopped after phase one, a casualty of the city’s political and economic misfortunes and indirect result of federal disinvestment in cities. The remainder of the project was formally cancelled in 1994. Some additional housing was built in a more conventionally suburban style since. There’s a private school, a holistic health center, a pool, and access to a bike trail. The site isn’t far from a light rail stop, but that involves traversing a winding hillside road and a six-lane street. A bus does run to a Baltimore subway stop, but that’s even farther away. Ironically, this pedestrian dreamland is most convenient to downtown Baltimore by car—a ten-minute drive down nearby I-83.
The greatest loss might be a proposed 20-story tower which, Safdie says, was “more in the model of Habitat,” lining three sides of an abandoned quarry. His idea was a “crescent of housing in a horseshoe shape” that would ring the quarry. Access would be from the upper portion of the building, with much of the structure’s height descending the sides of the quarry. “As we made the model I thought, ‘What if we make a pond at the bottom?’ In fact, when I went to visit the site there was already water in it.”
The quarry eventually met a more humiliating fate. “The whole project was abandoned in part because Mayor Schaefer decided to fill in the quarry,” he recalls. “I don’t know what his thought was, who argued with him, or whether he discussed it with anyone. But in any event, they filled it with trash.” Loyola University Maryland eventually built their stadium on the site.
Undeveloped parcels still remain on a site still underdeveloped by Baltimore standards. “You could expand it more, but I don’t think there’s any will to do it,” says Embry. “Public support for middle-class housing doesn’t really exist.” He regrets the abridged state of the project. “It’s a real lost opportunity as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any architectural statement in Baltimore that’s of worldwide significance.”
“All of us who were involved are proud of what we’ve done and wistful it couldn’t have been more,” says Brodie.
“I can’t detach myself from the big moves the U.S. has gone through,” says Safdie. “They had ambitious programs to help the poor and politicians that came in who didn’t give a shit. Period.”
“These big policy shifts have a tremendous impact,” he adds. “We have deteriorating infrastructure in the U.S. right now and it’s despicable, it’s terrible. It’s the result of years of policy of starving housing, infrastructure, and transportation.”
Safdie is still glad that something happened at all, though. “In a sense it was a disappointment. The only thing that was not a disappointment is that some of it was built and well used.” He integrated elements devised for Coldspring in later projects, such as David’s Village in Jerusalem and the new city of Modi’in, using stacked housing and similar elements. Coldspring was a bit of a reality check after seeing his thesis turned into a internationally admired design in Montreal.
“I came down to earth from the Habitat scheme,” says Safdie. “It was a very important stage in my career as a young person and such a dramatic first success. Not everything can be a World’s Fair.”