August 23, 2012


Introducing The LOW LINE:
Baltimore's answer to New York's High Line

Here's a Slide Show presenting graphics and photos that Peter Tocco and I have developed over the years for transforming the "Highway to Nowhere" into The LOW LINE.

Manhattan's High Line has taken the urban world by storm, and not just because it's an abandoned freight railroad transformed into a linear one-mile park in the sky. The High Line provides new insight into how unique urban environments can be beneficially fit into the city.

West Baltimore has just such an environment - the one-mile-plus "Highway to Nowhere" which has been wreaking havoc on the surrounding communities ever since it was first conceived way back in the 1960s.

The usual urban prescriptions have been tried and failed to turn these communities around: Rehabbed housing. Fighting crime. Social services. Brand new urban housing. Brand new suburban-style housing. 21st century biotech jobs. All of these have achieved only isolated successes.

Defenders of these programs say justifiably that isolated successes are a start, but it amounts to running just to stand still. The common aspect of all the solutions is that they attempt to celebrate normalcy - law-abiding guys with steady jobs who live in houses that are not boarded up.

The answer is not normalcy

But there's nothing normal about West Baltimore. To achieve normalcy there, you have to constantly shield yourself. Some do it with guns or gangs. The Heritage Crossing suburban-style enclave does it with earth berms. The biotech park does it with fumigated demolition and decked parking to minimize adverse community interactions. The city even proposed building a jogging/bike track encircling the upper rim of the "Highway to Nowhere" (applying for federal money of course) so people can get exercise while they're trying to survive their community's onslaught.

The big future multi-billion dollar transit project portends to make matters worse. The proposed Red Line would permanently embalm the "Highway to Nowhere" by using it to encase a new transit line - another solution that has been tried without success elsewhere in Baltimore. For many years, the city  even proposed building a cap over the "Highway to Nowhere" so we can just pretend it doesn't exist - a very expensive attempt at normalcy. New York went through the same process with the High Line. New York's previous effort was to simply demolish the old railroad structure and return to normalcy, which would have prevented the High Line from ever happening.

Physically, what West Baltimore needs is not normalcy. It needs a truly unique world-class environment to truly attract people, but with enough carefully designed access to its surroundings to plant the seeds of rejuvenation - to be apart from, yet a part of, the community.

This is what the High Line has done for Manhattan's West Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen communities, succeeding where the monster Javits Convention Center has not.

And this is what the LOW LINE can do for West Baltimore, connecting to Heritage Crossing, the MARC rail and Red Lines, the University of Maryland and downtown, but most importantly to itself and the adjacent forlorn communities.

Until now, the most successful Baltimore developments have clung to isolation and peninsulas and the waterfront. The LOW LINE finally offers a way to succeed by doing just the opposite.


  1. I'm sorry Gerald, but I just don't see the appeal. The High Line works for two reasons: 1) Manhattanites live in a very high density environment with few outdoor green spaces and 2) the route of the High Line offers views of great architecture residents and visitors couldn't get otherwise. West Baltimore residents have no shortage of parks, and if the Low Line is trying to capitalize on the Baltimore skyline, well, it's a ditch, so there are no views. What the Highway to Nowhere offers is the opportunity to live in an isolated place, so you might get some people who want that in combination with a direct transit link to Downtown, but building on that "positive" attribute defeats the goal of your proposal.

    If we want to make West Baltimore's quirkiness part of its revitalization, then it's best to go where the quirkiness is. The Hollins Market neighborhood and the Baltimore Street corridor could someday attract the types of people who avoid normalcy: artists, hipsters, and gay men and women. Thing is, Baltimore only has so many people who fit into these groups, and most of them are tied up working on Station North. And West Baltimore is at least third on the list after Old Goucher/25th Street and Howard Street. I'll argue that if the City wants to revitalize areas other than Station North, then it needs to speed up the process there.

    1. Excellent comment, Phil, but not an argument against quirkiness. Yes, Hollins Market long ago lost its quirkiness competition, first to Fells Point, then to Station North et al. Yes, there are only so many clients of that kind of quirkiness to go around. And if Baltimore only caters to those people, it won't be quirky anymore.

      Obviously, everything in the Low Line would be brand new (not old) so it in no way would replicate THAT experience, and I also tried to make it clear that I'm not trying to replicate the NYC High Line experience here - even in the name. But any kind of topo change can create views. The Low Line would simply have views looking UP, not DOWN.

      Bottom line: 21st century cities are niche markets. We have to constantly come up with new niches, not replicating the same old hipster thing or anything else. I'm not a designer, but what I know about designers is that you need to give them unique environments to stimulate their creative juices. What we should NOT do with the Franklin-Mulberry corridor is build an expensive cap to cover over any potential uniqueness or pretend that any individuality does not exist.

  2. I think a Low Line could work provided *both* retaining walls were removed and graded into buildable slopes.

    As the scheme appears right now, I can't imagine many people on the graded north side of the ditch wanting a view of the concrete retaining wall on the south side, even it it was, say, covered with "hopetimistic" murals (we already know what blank walls do to the vitality of an area). You'd still be in a half-ditch, and you just can't get nice views if you're in a sunken area (which is why the High Line works: it's up in the air). However, if the infill architecture was nice - a big if - it's possible that that would attract more people than strict "views" per se.

    I assume the southern retaining wall was kept because the current highway was conceptually shrunken to a new two-lane highway. There is the assumption that this would still be rather unpleasant, thus the idea to buffer it via the Red Line tracks and the extant retaining wall. But why should the new shrunken highway be unpleasant (i.e. why maintain its current limited-access status)? Why not go the whole hog and make it a pleasant avenue, with sidewalks and enfronting buildings and everything? That way you'd still have a corridor that could handle relatively fast-moving cars, but you wouldn't get "one sided" urbanism with a barrier and all the other accompanying limitations. And you'd have double the building frontage (more money to be made!), plus better access to the Red Line (from both sides).

    Sorta off topic, but it's interesting how other cities are eager to copy the High Line (I'm thinking of Buffalo and Philly in particular). What I suspect the emulators will discover is that their High Lines won't be nearly as successful as NYC's unless they engage in a LOT of infill. NYC's HL works because it's tightly enclosed by a lot of former high-density warehouses turned residences, plus there's a dearth of alternative parks in the area. The *context* made it successful:

    Emulator cities would have to work on their context (Philly's Reading Viaduct, for example, is surrounded mostly by warehouses, office buildings, and empty lots, not by high-density residential stuff) if they want their own HLs to be successful. Too often we forget that the context determines the success of the amenity: build a good mixed-use context, and the amenity will be populated and used. Leave out the context, and the amenity will be a vacant white elephant.

  3. Marc, that was just the article I was trying to find when I wrote my comment!

    By the way, "hopetimistic"--great term. I'll have to remember that one.

  4. I really appreciate your thinking on this, Marc. Witold Rybczynski's article is very relevant. Thank you. Yes, if Baltimore or any other city thinks they can just copy the NY High Line formula, they're dead wrong. And Franklin-Mulberry's "context" is as bad as most anything in Buffalo or other cities. We need to create our own whole new context. And we need to do it before the Red Line boxes us in. (Yeah, maybe that gives us another 50 years. Ha ha.)

    My philosophy is to plan and let the designers design. That meant focusing on getting the interactions right. Yes, this is a real design challenge. The designers need to rise to it, which most of them refuse to do. I tried to cram the maximum amount of the total traffic into the smallest and most unobtrusive possible area, which is the rationale for the two-lane controlled access road. I'm not too hot on a "hopetimistic" mural (Peter Tocco tried out a few designs), but what do I know?

    Regrading both retaining walls is an intriguing idea. There's not too much space to be gained between the south wall and Mulberry, but there's some. If we replaced the highway with an ordinary arterial street, much of the through traffic would probably stay up on Franklin and Mulberry, so we'd want to knock down both MLK overpasses and not just one. Planning and designing the east end where Downtown, Metro West, U of M and Heritage Crossing come together is probably an even more important aspect than how the "ditch" works. I think my single MLK overpass solution works really well here. #1 priority: This area needs to feel like a "downtown neighborhood".

    In sum, I admit I didn't give the blank retaining wall a lot of thought. But the stakes are too high to allow it to be a fatal flaw. The MTA designers just proposed putting greenery against the walls. Whatever. Maybe there is some other way to divert attention away from the wall through topo and/or a curvilinear street/building layout. Let's rise to the challenge.

    1. I definitely agree that getting the east end right (and the west end too) is more important than dissolving the ditch itself. There are many (not too difficult) ways to dissolve a barrier like a ditch, but if the connections on the ends of the ditch aren't done well, then that might severely limit the future utility of whatever's put in the middle. So I particularly like this proposal's emphasis on physically reintroducing connections (on the ends) that were severed in the past.

      Unfortunately there may be a lot of resistance to reintroducing connections that no planner or designer will be able to overcome until the city's social issues (crime) are overcome. To me it seems like many of the city's stabler neighborhoods actively promote barriers on the (very understandable) desire to separate themselves from crime and disorder. So the city ends up with insular neighborhoods and things like traffic diverters in intersections, berms, streets that wind in on themselves to avoid connections, inwardly-focused infill that functions like a gated neighborhood, "boulevards" and rail lines as dividing walls, transit stations banished to isolated areas, etc., etc. Even if there are excellent planning and design ideas for dissolving all these barriers, I suspect it won't happen until the crime goes away. It happened in other cities: once the social problems were dealt with, the resistance to connecting to neighbors faded away.

    2. Marc, you're absolutely right. The lure of the city waterfront itself is in very large part due to its barrier effect. The waterfront neighborhoods have thus been fed by their escape from the rest of the city's pain ("crime and disorder", even in many neighborhoods that would otherwise be paragons of New Urbanism.) So you inspired me to refer back to the Gospel According to Jane Jacobs, D+L of GAC Chapter 14, "The Curse of Border Vacuums", in which Saint Jane sayeth near the end, "It is hopeless to convert some borders into seams... The only way, I think, in these cases is to rely on extraordinarily strong counterforces nearby."

      So be it. There will still be borders, and they will hopefully serve a political as well as a practical purpose. But the east end confluence of the University campus, Metro West and Heritage Crossing must be made GREAT (e.g. by retaining one highway overpass to avoid feeding the godawful MLK intersections). The west end MARC station environment can be made GREAT by stuffing as much of the traffic as possible through the Mulberry Amtrak underpass and making Franklin Street urban and civilized adjacent to the MARC station and the Ice House. And then we must make the spine between them (The Low Line) the absolute best it can be. Views are nice and blank walls are bad, but we need to deal with all five senses and all four dimensions.

      And I must retract the suggestion I just made for a curvilinear street layout. The Low Line's spine must be totally straight to make that east-west axis as strong as possible, although by necessity there will be some non-linearity to the north-south connections - perhaps some cool Lombard Street style switchbacks (SanFran Russian Hill, not Bmore Downtown) and of course the stairs/escalators/elevators from the Red Line station(s) to the adjacent bridges. All this needs to be done right! West Baltimore desperately needs it!!!

  5. The LowLine proposal looks like an interesting concept for a corporate campus. Vast downtown greenfields such as this one are few in North America, and clever architects could doubtless make a fascinating environment of it. Macrosoft Mid-Atlantic? Facebookworm East? Entirely plausible, and worth a marketing attempt.

    The plot of land itself resembles a huge below-grade terminus train station stripped of its tracks and shed. No one would choose it as a place to live, unless it were filled in or covered over, and the neighbourhoods on either side of it gentrified.