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Man With a Plan

David Wallace

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 12/29/2004

David A. Wallace was known for taking the long view, for envisioning projects from beginning to end with no detail overlooked, and it was a skill he brought to every project he engineered, including his own death.

He was born in 1918 in Chicago, a place and time rife with vigorous development and new ideas about how people could live. But it was his childhood in Philadelphia that shaped his interest in the intersection between public space and private life. As he wrote in his autobiography, Urban Planning/My Way, he was “initiated into problems of race and poverty” during his Philly boyhood, and with the encouragement of his social-worker mother he soon began mulling how such problems could be addressed by city planning. After studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he followed his interests to California, where he spent a year examining “slum problems” in Los Angeles under prominent African-American architect Paul R. Willliams. From there, he went on to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of urban planning on segregation in Chicago.

But it was in Baltimore where Wallace began putting his ideas into practice. In 1957, he became director of the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Planning Council and was charged with injecting new life into Charm City’s derelict downtown. His solution was estimable in its ambition: 33 solid acres of mixed-use development—offices, shops, entertainment venues, and apartments—and by the mid-1960s the vision was realized as Charles Center, the complex that remains the core of the city’s business district. In addition to its mixed-use approach—an idea that wouldn’t reach mainstream acceptance until the 1990s—Wallace’s vision was also remarkable for its architectural sensitivity. While “urban renewal” would become code, by the 1970s, for tearing down old buildings to put up new ones, Wallace developed Charles Center around existing structures and streets, believing the character of a city to be enshrined in its built environment.

So when Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin announced plans to revitalize the city’s abandoned harbor in 1963, Wallace seemed the right man for the job. Again, his approach was uncommonly comprehensive, taking the entire urban core under consideration. His thinking, carried out with three other planning partners, was to once more dangle mixed-use development as a carrot to attract visitors and residents, primarily in low-slung buildings along the shoreline, with larger structures stepping back toward the city core. It proved to be a career-making turn. While some modern wags describe it as a kind of urban-planning candyland, the Inner Harbor became a model for American urban revitalization. And its success sparked a host of high-profile commissions—like developing land around the then-nascent World Trade Center in New York and Philadelphia’s Liberty Place—which lasted until his retirement in 1992.

It wasn’t until this summer, however, that Wallace’s notoriously thorough vision would be brought to bear on his own fate. Suffering from prostate cancer while his wife, Joan, labored under the effects of terminal heart disease, the couple took their own lives in their Philadelphia home (their bodies were found July 19). The Wallaces crushed pills into alcohol, wrapped plastic bags around their heads, and lay down in their bed. On the front door, Wallace dutifully posted a note for whoever the next visitor might be, reading come in.

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