February 22, 2017

Pigtown gateway roundabout shaped like a sausage

... or maybe shaped like a hot dog or a bun filled with whatever pork byproduct your heart desires. Pigtown would be at the center, like barbecued pork surrounded by a rotisserie of traffic.

I'm not a designer or a cook, so consider this as something sketched on a napkin along with blotches of relish and salsa. One of my blogging goals is to present spastic plans that someone who feels sorry for me but actually "gets it" can turn it into something attractive and artistic. Silk from a sow's ear, so to speak.

Proposed Pigtown Roundabout represented by the green splotches
 at the intersection of Bayard Street (left) and Washington Boulevard. Carroll Park is in the foreground.
Downtown skyline in the left background and M&T Bank Stadium (home of the Ravens) in the right background. 

Gateway to Pigtown - Link to Carroll Park

The concept is that Pigtown needs a gateway from the west along with the one from the east. To the east is Pigtown's access from the Inner Harbor and downtown, which introduces people to the "Real Baltimore" that resides behind that urban facade. I addressed that gateway with a concept called the Pigtown Parkway that would envelope the approach to Pigtown in greenery.

But from the west, there's already a huge expanse of greenery in the form of Carroll Park, Baltimore's most historic and most underappreciated park. What is needed is to link Carroll Park to Pigtown as directly and assertively as possible... Link, as in sausage link.

The place to do that is the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Bayard Street, at the southeast corner of the park. And a roundabout is the perfect means to do so, because it would provide the exclamation point to the long linearity of historic US Route 1, main street of the east coast, which starts in Key West, Florida, 90 miles from Cuba, and extends over 2300 miles all the way up the coast to Canada.

Many years ago, the official US 1 designation was redirected away from Washington Boulevard to Southwest Boulevard, up to Wilkens Avenue and ultimately to the Mount Clare neighborhood just north of Carroll Park. Then a few years ago, a roundabout was even built a block from the end of Wilkens Avenue at its intersection with Mount Street.

In concept, it was a good plan. But it needed to be a part of something much bigger. The key is to link it into the vast verdant glory of Carroll Park, which currently is separated from the neighborhood by an abandoned incongruous industrial wasteland. The Southwest Partnership has its own plan to address this: They propose to build a wall to keep the riff-raff out of the old B&O Railroad corridor and thus out of the park. (Shades of President Trump and his wall.)

I have my own alternate plan, prepared with the assistance of skillful artistic urban designer Marc Szarkowski, who obviously felt sorry for my lack of design skills. The plan is essentially to make the north edge of Carroll Park part of the Mount Clare neighborhood in the same manner that the east edge of Carroll Park is part and parcel with Pigtown.

The bottom line for both the Mount Clare and Pigtown neighborhoods is that a great park like Carroll Park is one of the best resources any neighborhood can have, and we need to make the most of it.

Overhead (plan) view of the proposed roundabout, drawn in Rorschach or Kandinsky style.
Washington Blvd. runs from lower left to upper right. Bayard Street runs from upper left to lower right.
Carroll Park at left. Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School at right.

The special powers of roundabouts

Like great parks, roundabouts are also unique and indispensable tools. Roundabouts have the unique ability to take a long dominant street like Washington Boulevard and "de-linearize" it, diffusing it into a place instead of just a street. Once you enter a roundabout, the roundabout itself becomes your reference rather than the street itself. Then you realize you're not just on Washington Boulevard, you're in Pigtown. That's also what a gateway intends to do.

Roundabouts are capable of handling large volumes of traffic including large buses and trucks, depending on how they're designed. Washington Boulevard creates the perception that it carries more traffic than it actually does, because of its extreme dominant length (all the way to Key West if you think about it).

So what kind of neighborhood icon artistic creation should we put in the middle of the roundabout? That discussion is a whole 'nother that I'll leave to another. Maybe a statue of a pig? Or are we pigged-out? Just remember that it will have to withstand centuries of scrutiny from the PC Police.

An important functional aspect of this specific roundabout is that it should accommodate pedestrians within the oval. Many roundabouts are designed to prevent pedestrian crossings but this one should not be. The direct diagonal passage of pedestrians between the majority of the neighborhood to the east and Carroll Park to the west is one of its key characteristics. The roundabout should feel like an extension of the park itself into the neighborhood, sort of how Columbus Circle next to New York's Central Park might have originally been designed before Manhattan traffic overwhelmed it. (By the way, that's next to Trump Tower - so maybe he'll give us some funding!)

Such a pedestrian park link would work well with the roundabout's elongated sausage-esque shape, which is a physical necessity anyway. since the intersection is too small to accommodate the roundabout in a circular or any other way.

It all fits together. As Porky would say: That's All Folks !!!!!!!!!!

January 30, 2017

Hopkins should expand into Bayview rail yard

Recent events point the way for the next expansion of Baltimore's ever-growing Johns Hopkins health care empire. The Hopkins Bayview Research Park should expand into the 70-plus acre Bayview rail yard immediately to the north. This would create the strong urban face for its campus and for Amtrak riders that Hopkins has been trying to achieve for decades.
Looking east along Lombard Street showing three possible new buildings located in the Bayview Rail Yard to the north
 and Bayview's existing National Institutes of Health to the south.

Here are the recent events (in reverse order) which make this a logical progression:

1 - Passenger rail: Most recently, the new Federal Railroad Administration's northeast corridor expansion plan calls for a "hub" Amtrak station at Bayview, which should provide magnitudes more service than the MARC commuter rail station that Hopkins had long sought.

2 - Freight rail: The Maryland Department of Transportation and CSX have announced a plan to enlarge the CSX rail tunnel under Howard Street to accommodate double-stack freight containers to fix a major bottleneck and create a long-needed viable freight route inland to the rest of the country.

3 - Port: The demolished steel works at the 3000 acre Sparrows Point are now being redeveloped as "Tradepoint Atlantic", which calls for a major investment by the private sector and the Maryland Port Administration in expanded port facilities.

What all this means is that the current Norfolk Southern freight rail yard at Bayview will likely become marginal if not totally obsolete, which makes it ripe for acquisition for an expansion of the Hopkins Bayview Research Park to the north. More than ever, freight rail facilities will need to be consolidated and expanded to be in total integration with the port, to create seamless intermodal connections. This includes existing port facilities at Canton, Seagirt and Dundalk, as well as the future facilities at Sparrows Point. The same thing happened previously on the west side of the harbor, beginning when CSX Transportation closed its Port Covington rail yard in the 1980s for redevelopment which has now led to the Under Armour Corporate Campus.

Container storage at the Norfolk Southern Railroad Bayview freight yard,
looking east along Lombard Street from Bioscience Drive

There will no longer be a significant reason to load containers onto freight trains at Bayview. This facility will make no more sense than the inland container terminal that CSX and the state proposed and then cancelled several years ago at various locations west of the port - Elkridge, Jessup, Morrell Park, Mount Winans - whereby freight would have to first be loaded from ships onto trucks travelling on local roads and highways and then subsequently loaded onto trains.

The Port of Baltimore has been investing in far more efficient facilities to load freight trains directly from ships, and Sparrows Point will provide new expansions of this capability.

Evolution of the Hopkins Bayview Research Park campus

The Hopkins Bayview campus now looks much different from how it was originally planned when Johns Hopkins originally bought it from the City in the 1980s. The original plan was to demolish the large building that originally served as City Hospital. This would have created a "blank slate" for a whole new campus which would have integrated the hospital with various health care research and support facilities, built around a "campus green" that in turn would be integrated with the large open space to the south toward Eastern Avenue.

Norfolk Southern's Bayview Rail Yard bounded by Lombard Street to the south,
 Interstate 95 to the east, Interstate 895 to the west and the Amtrak tracks to the north.
The existing Hopkins Bayview Research Park is shown to the south between Lombard Street and  Eastern Avenue.
But this plan was scuttled when it was determined that the old hospital building, now called the Mason Lord Tower, could be more efficiently renovated as offices than demolished for brand new construction. This then led to the decision to build a whole new hospital complex to the east rather than to integrate it with the offices to the west. Then they confronted the economic reality that it was far more feasible to build at lower densities and rely predominantly on surface parking lots rather than garages.

This has been a recipe for success for the Bayview Campus, but it has also resulted in lower density sprawl. Without a tight campus configuration, there is no true focal point that justifies a higher density and hiding the parking away. Bayview looks and functions pretty much like generic suburbia with large parking lot dead zones.

The cancelled light rail Red Line wouldn't have helped much either. It would have slowly wound around the campus much like the current central light rail line winds around Hunt Valley at its north suburban terminus. If anything, Hunt Valley has less sprawl than Bayview, with a higher density and more land use diversity with its attractive open air multi-level shopping plaza having replaced its dead mall, But as with the Red Line, the slow speed and mediocre quality of the light rail service has not justified creating a true transit-oriented focal point for Hunt Valley.

Perhaps an even greater stumbling block is that once a "culture" develops for a particular area, it is very difficult to change it. Areas like Bayview, Hunt Valley and many others have grown up around the automobile with plentiful land and parking, and interjecting light rail is not going to change it. Even newer very urban higher density areas like Harbor East, Harbor Point and Canton Crossing have trouble orienting to rail transit. Harbor East proved unwilling to make the necessary concessions to accommodate a subway station for the Red Line as part of its development, while at Canton Crossing, the developers banished the proposed station to the Boston Street median strip as they proceeded with their suburban inspired auto-oriented development.

Fulfilling Bayview's promise

Expanding Hopkins Bayview into what is now the Norfolk Southern rail yard would create a whole new opportunity for a cultural environment built around transit as the focal point. In turn, such a focal point would create a location of maximum value to justify new high density development.

The transit access would be superior to anything previously proposed - expanded MARC commuter rail to Washington right next to the campus office and research facilities, and potential rail service to Philadelphia, New York and places in between.

This arrangement also creates yet another reason to extend the "heavy rail" Metro from the main Hopkins Hospital to the east along the Amtrak right-of-way, providing the most direct and best possible transit between them and to downtown, and far, far better than the dead Red Line.

The corridor between the main Hopkins Hospital and the Hopkins Bayview campus would then become a "Health Corridor", including intervening Metro stations at the growing "Station East" neighborhood and the large undeveloped Edison Highway/Monument Street site. The latter would still make a very good alternative to Bayview as a comprehensive transit hub serving the Metro, MARC commuter rail and buses. However, if transit-oriented development could be introduced at the Bayview Yard, it would then become the odds-on favorite for the multi-modal transit hub as well. And since the new Federal Rail Administration report selected it as a hub station for expanded service, it's now firmly heading in that direction.

The site plan for the Bayview MARC station which had been created as part of the Red Line plan was totally inadequate. To enable the train station to coexist with the freight yard, the plan required it to be located out on an isolated island in the middle of the yard, with a long pedestrian bridge connecting it to the Red Line station and to its access point. Closing the freight yard will allow the two rail stations to be fully integrated with each other and with multiple access points and transit-oriented development, commensurate with their increasing importance.

Introducing residential, retail and other more diverse land uses into Bayview could also be a great benefit, both for added value and to enhance the "culture" as a true community and not just a work place.

Expanding the Hopkins Bayview Research Park into the Bayview Yard along with an Amtrak station could fulfill all the potential that Hopkins envisioned when development began in the 1980s, and much more.

January 19, 2017

A simple specific ten-point city transportation agenda

Skip the platitudes. Here's just what Baltimore should do to make its transportation system work for the city (with links to various blog articles):

1. Re-time the traffic signals: Green, yellow, red. Green, yellow, red... Reduce the signal cycle times to 60 seconds so traffic moves slower but more often. Take control of the city's heartbeat.

2. Spin-off the Charm City Circulator: The city government can't run it properly, even if it somehow could afford to. Merge it with all the other shuttle buses run by colleges and institutions to create a comprehensive circulator system. In the process, adjust the MTA bus system to eliminate all its redundancies.

3. Create a Lexington Market Transit Hub: This is the first step in creating a truly connected system of Metro, light rail and bus routes, and a fitting complement to the planned new Lexington Market.

The MTA's Harlem Park Red Line Station rendering - but with the surrounding "Highway to Nowhere" replaced by a vibrant
 transit-oriented neighborhood as envisioned by Marc Szarkowski. This is the part of the Red Line that should be built ASAP,
 terminating at a Lexington Market Transit Hub. It would also be part of a Six-Mile West Baltimore Greenway Loop. 

4. Get rid of the "Highway to Nowhere": Transform the desolate corridor into a new neighborhood that is truly built around a "transit culture", anchored by the redevelopment of the downtown Metro West complex to the east, an expanded Heritage Crossing to the north and the all-new West Baltimore train station that Amtrak wants to build to the west.

5. Build the buildable part of the Red Line: Abandon the "fatally flawed", ill-conceived, disconnected and inordinately expensive downtown tunnel. Build the western portion of the Red Line, which has already been mostly designed, and tie it into the Lexington Market Metro Hub, .

6. Make light rail the central access mode for Port Covington instead of an afterthought: Design the planned light rail spur to make the huge Port Covington development a central part of the city, even while it is still remains a world apart.

7. Make the city's bike route network neighborhood-centric: Livable neighborhoods and safe routes for bicycles should go hand-in-hand, while high volume auto routes should be pushed to the periphery.

8. Build a Six-Mile West Baltimore Greenway Loop: This is the key to creating attractive livable neighborhoods in West Baltimore. The six mile greenway loop would include the neighborhood that replaces the "Highway to Nowhere", a narrower and less imposing MLK Boulevard, the historic "First Mile" of the B&O Railroad (one of the city's best tourist resources), and an enhanced greenway from the north edge of Carroll Park to the Gwynns Falls Valley.

9. Make the light rail system "streetcar compatible": The light rail system should be the foundation for a streetcar system that serves shorter and more locally oriented trips with smaller vehicles. The best candidate for early implementation would be from Howard Street to Penn Station. After that would come the links between the new Lexington Market Hub (#3 above) and MLK Boulevard, the Inner Harbor, the Southeast Baltimore Perkins Homes redevelopment and the B&O "First Mile" corridor to Montgomery Park (the city's largest office building).

10. Build a Middle Branch Parkway: A narrow new "spine road" between Conway Street at Camden Yards and Waterview Avenue at Cherry Hill would jump-start development in between, including Westport, the Casino-Camden Yards Entertainment District and a campus for expansion of the Convention Center. Portions of this could be closed to make room for recreation on weekends and for special events.

Finally, the platitudes: The theme here is to use transportation as a tool for community and economic development, to unify the city. This can be done far more effectively through effective physical planning than the various social and legal remedies that people have been talking about for what seems like forever.

We must make as much of Baltimore as attractive as possible - to increase property values, to make investment worthwhile and to shatter preconceived biases. Enacting new laws and police rules won't do it. Creating island fortresses of prosperity won't do it. Giving a few lucky poor folks subsidized waterfront housing among the yuppies won't do it. Pouring tons of money into neighborhoods that aren't worth it won't do it. (That's economics, not racism.)

Creating One Baltimore is a physical change that requires a new way of thinking. Transportation is how we experience the city. Or as George "P-Funk" Clinton (no relation to Hillary 'n' Bill) said: "Free your mind... and your ass will follow."

January 3, 2017

New Amtrak plan: $128 Billion for routine repairs/fixes

The latest federal plan for the Amtrak corridor between Washington and Boston is staggeringly expensive, but would not really result in high speed rail nor is it really even much of a plan. But all that is OK. The unfunded $128 Billion (that's BILLION) plan is still useful as a collection of projects that shows what could and can be done to upgrade the vital rail line as may be necessary. Each specific project in the plan will still need to be justified based on its own merits and costs.

So don't get too excited by the plan's indefinite future best-case scenario which maybe could result in a 20 minute time savings between Baltimore and New York - the latest definition of a "New York Minute".

Amtrak line through Baltimore as depicted in the new plan, with a new Bayview station and two route deviations

The challenge now is to keep our focus straight. This vital public infrastructure must be kept running and in good repair and its passenger carrying capacity must be kept ahead of increasing demand. But there has been no timetable and little justification for actually doing the entire plan, now or even eventually.

That's because as gigantically expensive as it is, the eighth of a trillion dollar rail plan (in old pre-inflated 2014 dollars yet) is only a small piece of the whole transportation system puzzle.

Despite the plan's zillion pages, it hardly even addresses the northeast corridor's constantly shifting urban development patterns or the huge challenge of actually feeding the rail line from the urban areas it serves. And the plan is perhaps most conspicuously silent on transportation's rapidly advancing technology.

But thanks to the plan, there are plenty of issues which should now be coming into sharper focus so we can confront them intelligently and in coordinated ways.

Where Baltimore stands: Is it the new "flyover country"?

The plan finally confirms that existing Penn Station will be Baltimore's principal center city Amtrak station from now on. But unless the city adapts, this will threaten to reduce Baltimore's ability to benefit from the new billions which are to be invested in the Amtrak corridor.

Being an integral part of the burgeoning Northeast U.S. Corridor is one of Baltimore's most intrinsic and advantageous selling points as a city. It's what separates Baltimore from Cleveland, Detroit and other rust belt "flyover" cities.

But the new plan suggests that with the new wider four track tunnel through West Baltimore, there is potential for "express" trains to skip the stop in Baltimore. In the absence of true high speed rail (all trains will still need to crawl through the Penn Station area), the five or so minute time savings from not stopping in Baltimore will be just about the only high speed hype value they can get. Amtrak could end up treating Baltimore like Aberdeen or Metropark, New Jersey. The indignity of it all!

Among Amtrak stations, Baltimore's Penn Station has a unique relationship to the city it serves. It is not downtown. It's close, but not close enough. This is somewhat similar to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, but that Amtrak station has excellent light, heavy, light and commuter rail connections to the center city, while Baltimore does not.

Moreover, new downtown development in Philadelphia has been moving closer to the train station, while in Baltimore it has been moving in the opposite direction toward the waterfront. Yes, Station North has recently been a development success story - but as a neighborhood, not as a new downtown.

So Baltimore's light rail stub branch to Penn Station needs to be treated less like a stepchild / orphan. It needs better coordination with traffic signals on Howard Street, better integration with the rest of the rail system, and the counterbalance of a new southern branch that serves not only Port Covington (the "Plank Line"), but the underdeveloped Cherry Hill and Brooklyn waterfronts as well.

The new Amtrak plan also includes provisions for new "hub" station at Bayview - "hub" being their parlance for getting some kind of future Amtrak intercity service in addition to MARC commuter rail. (The report confusingly does not use the term "regional" the same way Amtrak does.) So making Bayview work well is critical - not just with a lame expensive Red Line that would slowly meander down to the waterfront without being much if any improvement over the current Penn Station light rail stub.

Baltimore needs a great heavy rail connection at Bayview, not the dead light rail Red Line. The city also needs to create the best possible transit with the planned replacement for the West Baltimore rail station.

The parallel role of new technology

The report totally sidesteps the rapidly evolving technological landscape. What they're recommending is essentially no significant advance whatsoever above the state-of-the-art in high speed rail from 50 years ago.

This dodge is understandable, but it must be fully recognized as a huge limitation. Technology is a profound "X Factor". With automated cars now being tested in the real world, technology is moving too fast to be dealt with. New technology is also the predominant domain of the private sector. In contrast, this report was prepared mostly by planners, civil engineers and other government types and their consultants.

Here is essentially the entirety of what the zillion page report says about the role of new technology (Section

"An advanced guideway system, such as magnetic levitation technology, could be used to develop a second spine or portions thereof. This system would require separate stations, and would not support run-through trains from connecting corridors nor offer proven integration efficiencies with today's NEC infrastructure and operators. Furthermore, these technologies remain under development, with few systems in operation internationally. For these reasons, the FRA did not incorporate advanced guideway or similar new technologies in the Action Alternatives. However, such technologies could be studied separately, and are not precluded as a future transformative investment in the regional transportation system. Other potential applications of new technology transportation systems could support the NEC passenger rail network by connecting off-corridor markets to the NEC, or a major market to the NEC."

Translation: A new technology like MagLev would be a separate entity to the NEC (Northeast Corridor), but it could support or feed into it. Fair enough. The FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) just didn't want to deal with it.

It's also just as likely that any new transit mode would create new access and connections to the existing rail corridor, as it would be to replace anything. The most certain thing that could be said is that something like MagLev would be built in an incremental way, just as would the proposed improvements to the existing Amtrak line.

Baltimore is probably likely to benefit more from a MagLev project than any other place, because it's Amtrak station is not located downtown. And if a big pot of billions in foreign or private sector investment came along, such as from the folks Governor Hogan visited in China, the money would do the talking. They would have much to say in where and what would be done.

Other technologies are also in play, like automation and multi-modal vehicles such as the dual powered diesel-electric locomotives which are now being used by New Jersey Transit to enable trains of one mode to use tracks of another.
Dual powered diesel-electric locomotive used by NJ Transit - Richard Layman's blog

Even the role of the old Interstate 95 between Washington and Boston will evolve. In the future, it could carry more buses, Zipcars, Google Cars, Ubers and Lyfts than conventional private cars, and all will pay for the privilege with steep demand-responsive dynamic pricing (that means expensive variable tolls).

So MagLev isn't going to replace or preclude improvements to the Amtrak corridor as a whole between Washington and Boston, but it could have a major impact. And when something "transformative" happens, we'll go from there.

We should be pro-active

The new Amtrak plan for the Northeast U.S. Corridor is really just $128 Billion worth of status-quo business-as-usual. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as New Yawk's Seinfeld used to say.

Amtrak is basically a "calling card" that allows Baltimore to hang out with the big boys in the Northeast Corridor - Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston - who are just as likely to treat us like one of their other little siblings like Wilmington, Trenton, New Haven and Providence.

So Baltimore and Maryland need to look out for themselves to fit in and stand out. That means projects like a high speed MagLev line for a 15 minute trip from downtown Baltimore to Washington should be as alive as ever. Maybe it starts with a "Mag-Leg" between the Greenbelt DC Metro Station and BWI Airport or the UMBC Research Park. Whatever.

Another interesting prospect would be to integrate Baltimore's underused heavy rail Metro line and the Amtrak system in a dual-mode type of arrangement. Dual mode trains could run in the Amtrak corridor from Aberdeen or White Marsh or Eastpoint, and enter the Metro line at the new Bayview Amtrak station to continue to Station East, Hopkins Hospital, and the Charles Center Station in the middle of downtown.

The trains could then continue to Owings Mills, or proceed back to the Amtrak corridor via the Franklin-Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere" corridor and end up at Washington, DC's Union Station.

Stay tuned. Now that we've gotten Amtrak's $128 Billion routine upgrade wish-list, we can start the real planning.

December 22, 2016

A statue where Tupac Shakur first lived on the edge

Now that Tupac Shakur is being inducted into immortality at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Baltimore needs to recognize its place in his musical geography. Baltimore needs a statue to Tupac.

Through the label of "West Coast Hip-Hop", Tupac melded music and geography. Baltimore was the last place he lived in middle and high school before moving to the west coast.

His family lived in the kind of rowhouse Baltimore is known for, in what ought to be an attractive setting on Greenmount Avenue. It sits right on the edge of the working class Penn Lucy neighborhood, where it abuts the affluent Guilford neighborhood.

Chez Shakur is the second house from the left in these two groups of three - 3955 Greenmount Avenue -
as seen from the green Guilford courtyard across the street that masks the busy traffic barrier.
Greenmount Avenue is thus known as an economic and racial barrier. Unfair, overgeneralized and overplayed or not, it's regarded as "poor and black" to the east and "rich and white" to the west. Conflicts and contrasts are always simmering, just as they were in 2Pac's time between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop cultures. Ultimately this framed the narrative of his drive-by assassination in Las Vegas twenty years ago at age 25.

Labels like east versus west applied to hip-hop or Greenmount Avenue are very easy convenient concepts to hang onto, which accounts for their power. We address conflicts though geography as varied as sports where we root for the home team to politics where we choose our President through our state representations in the Electoral College. Economic aid is given to distressed neighborhoods or cities beyond what we give to distressed people.

Greenmount Avenue is a very long straight street which becomes York Road just to the north of Tupac's house and then extends northward all the way into Pennsylvania. As a pre-automotive city, streets with  that much continuity are rare in Baltimore. On the south end, Greenmount gets enticingly close to downtown Baltimore, but then gently pivots in front of the city's prison complex and then ends in Old Town, which has never recovered from the 1968 riots brought on by the assassination of Martin Luther King.

There are many very attractive houses and streets, and many dedicated residents on both sides of Greenmount Avenue, but that doesn't change the narrative.

Greenmount Avenue gets its power from its linearity. It's like a passive line in the sand which becomes a provocation. But Baltimore needs to use it to negotiate for good instead of bad, so we don't end up like Tupac did in Las Vegas.

Death as a career move

It is often said that in show-biz, from Elvis to Michael Jackson, death is a good career move. Baltimore has two other inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they're dead too - Frank Zappa and Mama Cass Elliott. Of course, all three had to leave Baltimore to acquire fame and fortune. Frank Zappa's musical influence as a writer and performer transcended genres perhaps more than anyone in American history except Duke Ellington or George Gershwin, who were much more apparently rooted in American geography.

Mention should also be given to David Byrne of the "New Wave" Talking Heads who grew up in the Baltimore suburb of Arbutus and went to New York to become recognized, and is still very much alive.

Mama Cass came to fame by way of the Mamas and Papas folk-rock group, where John Phillips was the leader and songwriter, although Cass was their most distinctive, beloved and "weighty" singer. She was just starting to shed the "mama" moniker, which she didn't like, when she died. Even in death, people mischaracterized her, saying she choked on a ham sandwich, which was untrue even though it stuck.

Frank Zappa has gotten a statue in front of the Highlandtown library, which is very nice but has very little significance beyond its face value. He grew up on the other side of town.

Image result for frank zappa baltimore statue
Zappa statue in Highlandtown with Baltimore Mayor
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (in blue), Zappa Family and others.
http://thechronopages.com )
Frank Zappa's statue does, however, serve as a precedent and prototype for what should be done for Tupac Shakur. The most striking thing about it is its verticality, which creates an appropriately "larger than life" aura. But it does not command attention from passers-by, whether walking or driving. It's easy to ignore, unlike Zappa himself. Maybe that was intentional, conveying that Zappa didn't quite fit into Highlandtown's commercial branding strategy.

The stakes are higher for the legacy of Tupac Shakur. Statues are an element of geography, and geography played a major role in his life and musical career. In turn, race itself plays a prominent role in geography, especially in Baltimore and especially on Greenmount Avenue.

Meanwhile, the city is still engaged in a great municipal reappraisal of our historic Civil War monuments. Who among the statues are capable of withstanding 150 years of scrutiny? A who among them will now be declared unworthy and dismantled? The Mayor ducked the verdicts of her task force before she left office last week, leaving the statues in limbo.

The kind of controversy Baltimore appears to be capable of resolving is whether last year's Freddie Gray "Black Lives Matter" rioters should be called "thugs". After much debate, the answer is apparently "no". But of course, 2Pac had no qualms about using words like "thug", as well as a lot stronger words, including that one that begins with an "N".

Ah, but he's an artiste. His zeal for freedom of expression against "political correctness" was something he had in common with Frank Zappa, who once testified as such to Congress.

Statues to both Frank Zappa and Tupac Shakur will thus have to withstand another 150 years of scrutiny and reappraisal against constantly changing political standards.

The Best of 2Pac - Pt. 1: Thug
"The Best of 2Pac: Thug" album cover

Where to put the Tupak Shakur Statue?

Baltimore is a big city with lots of nooks and crannies in which to install statues. But Tupac needs to be noticed and reckoned with. He should also have geographic context. Context, however, is a multiple edge sword. Explanatory context was supposed to resolve the Civil War monument controversies - add some explanatory text saying that of course don't believe in slavery anymore and have evolved into far superior human beings. Of course.

The most obvious candidate location is the wide median on 33rd Street in the middle of the Waverly business district just a few blocks south on Greenmount from the Shakur House. But can Waverly withstand the Tupac brand as well as Highlandtown dealt with Zappa?

I'd say the answer is a resounding "No". Waverly's biggest retail plum over the past 50 years since James Rouse built the Waverly Towers shopping center at 29th Street was to get a Giant Supermarket, but the design turned its back to the entire rest of the business district. Most recently, Charles Village, the ivory tower Johns Hopkins University neighborhood just to the west decided it needed to expand its own retail district - which has turned out to be at the expense of its students shopping in Waverly.

Waverly probably can't withstand sharing its iconography with 2Pac.

If not Waverly, then where? Upton is the place where a nascent African-American Historic District has been gestating for many decades (while its history continues to crumble or be demolished). But that's a long way from Greenmount Avenue. In a city that's two-thirds black, do we still put everything that's really black all in one place?

Then there's "historically black" Morgan State University which is not too far east. That would probably work politically in an antiseptic ivory tower kind of way. Would Tupac approve?

It was previously proposed by one of my dear blog commenters that the city put it in a park which I had proposed at North Avenue and Charles Street, which is now undergoing a funky organic "arts district" kind of gentrification, near three colleges - Johns Hopkins, Maryland Institute and University of Baltimore. It's culturally and racially neutral territory. and is at the very geographic center of the entire city. This would work!

But the best site for a Tupak Shakur Shrine is...

... just two blocks north of Tupak's house near where Greenmount Avenue becomes York Road at Northway.

At this point, York Road becomes about ten feet wider than Greenmount, so the city installed a grass median strip a few years ago in an attempt at "beautification". It also becomes a commercial rather than a residential area, with the kind of nondescript businesses that have no cultural identity whatsoever. In other words, it's racially neutral territory.

The downside is that with no residents and no cultural identity, there is no constituency for maintaining any beautification, so the new median has become a mere nondescript grassy patch.

York Road looking south from Northway. Tupak's Greenmount Avenue neighborhood begins
 up ahead where the road narrows, the median ends and the trees get more plentiful.

So this median strip is the perfect place for a tall Tupac shrine that everyone must see but no one will have to confront.

But the piece de resistance is directly at the intersection of York Road and Northway - a magnificent stone wall that separates the exclusive Guilford neighborhood to the west from York Road to the east.

The wall is entirely symbolic. It is totally open for the free movement of pedestrians and vehicles (one-way outbound away from the neighborhood). The wall exists only as a beautiful icon. It's the kind of beauty Donald Trump sees when he when waxes poetic about his proposed wall at the Mexican border and which Hillary Clinton describes as Un-American and The Pope describes as sinful (as if The Vatican doesn't have a wall.)

Another alternative is a block closer to Chez Shakur at the intersection of Underwood Road, but it is in a more natural vegetative state and is more residential, with no iconic wall and less room for the shrine.

The Northway wall looking west into the affluent Guilford neighborhood from York Road

At Northway, there is plenty of room for the adjacent York Road sidewalk to be upgraded as a viewing area for the statue with explanatory verbiage. An endowment fund can be established by affluent liberals to pay for maintenance and to manage any artifacts of "self-expression" left by tourists and fans.

This is the wall that young Tupak Shakur grew up with before he joined the war between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop.

December 8, 2016

The new Lexington Market needs a grand staircase

The most important part of the new Lexington Market plan is the creation of its new outdoor space. That alone is sufficient reason to knock down the existing market and replace it with a new one with a glassy expanse that overlooks it.

The proposed new Lexington Market has some grand shoes to fill. It is essentially the last vestige of the transformational grandeur that was supposed to happen with the massive failed "Superblock" project. Before that, Baltimore's two rail transit lines, which almost but don't quite come together nearby, were supposed to trigger the transformation. But now there's not really a whole lot here to build upon - not even any of the great architecture that exists in abundance nearby but not here.

What the latest Lexington Market plan needs is a grand staircase - something sculptural, something iconic, something that adds the decisive vertical dimension. Something you can hang out on, something you can run up and down, not just in short choppy steps, but triumphantly like Rocky,

Designer's first draft: A stairway that's just a stairway - too steep, too plain,
and surrounded by plants where it should be surrounded by people.

The goal must still be for the new Lexington Market to establish a prominent place for itself in the center of the city, and reverse decades of de-emphasis of this area in Baltimore's overall geography. Now that downtown as a whole has also been de-emphasized as the center of the region, in favor of being just a neighborhood, this repositioning is more important than ever.

Basically, the new Lexington Market is being called upon to perform the same feat of urban development that the "Superblock" mega-project was called upon and failed to accomplish over the past two decades, and a series of other grandiose proposals also failed to do going all the way back to the 1970s. The city just needs to plan smarter.

The latest concept for the market is basically a good one. The new market needs to be glassy and extroverted, in contrast to the existing market which looks in on itself. That's about all that can be asked of the building's architects. What's critical is that the new market must look out upon something that warrants our attention, and that's where the adjacent proposed park and stairway must do their job.

Here's an example of a big iconic public stairway that successfully defines an urban space,
and could be a model for the Lexington Market Park. The central bulls-eye could also serve as a performance stage.

The new stairway should be a place to look out at and to look at from, a place to eat and to listen to musical performances and to watch the whole urban theater that unfolds around it. It should encompass the entire park, from Paca Street where it embraces the expanding University of Maryland campus, all the way to Eutaw Street and the expanding Lexington Market Metro Transit Hub.

A recent geographical history of Lexington Street

The current Lexington Market was expanded to engulf the adjacent block of Lexington Street from Paca to Eutaw in the early 1980s, the final step in the systematic elimination of six blocks of Lexington all the way from Charles Street to the east, which began in the 1960s, thus cutting off this area from the rest of downtown.

Into the 1950s, Lexington was one of Baltimore's main east-west streets, its retail district extending all the way eastward to Charles Street. First, the block between Liberty and Charles was eliminated in the 1960s with the creation of the Charles Center plan. It then remained as a construction zone well into the 1980s, the last portion of Charles Center that was completed. It was not just cut off to cars, but to everyone, until a large stairway was built just east of where Lexington once connected to Charles Street.

Another drab steep stairway that doesn't work well - where Lexington Street once existed into the 1960s
 and is now inside Charles Center. Charles Street is at the top of the photo. The Center Plaza park is in the foreground below.

This was essentially an afterthought to the rest of the Charles Center plan, although it was sold as a resolution of the conflicts of cars versus people. In the 1970s, Lexington Street was also closed to cars to the west between Liberty and Howard Street and turned into a pedestrian mall. Howard Street was then made into a "bus mall" as well, and later added light rail. Finally, after the retail business had dropped precipitously and there were no longer enough pedestrians to justify it, Lexington Street was rebuilt again and de-malled to accommodate cars.

Howard Street was also reopened to cars, although its orientation to transit made the average speed too slow to attract many cars. This garnered many complaints. People complain when traffic is too fast, but also when it's too slow. You just can't win when the conflict is expressed as cars versus people, when the real conflict is simply between streets that work and those that don't.

Amid all this, the Howard/Lexington retail district, once the flagship for the entire region, descended into irrelevance. Then more recently amid the rise of the Inner Harbor and its further drift to the southeast, downtown as a whole had to be rebranded as a neighborhood. So now we're back to square one, with the Lexington Market area searching for a new identity.

The new Lexington Market plan calls for a new somewhat smaller building on the vacant lot just to the south, with a bright glassy airy look that reminds everyone that they're in the middle of the city. This would allow adjacent Lexington Street to be reopened to pedestrians, but not to traffic, and incorporated into a park just to the north.

But parks have previously been promoted as the area's salvation. Fairly recently when the city was still trying to save the grandiose "Superblock" plan, the Baltimore Arena site several blocks away was proposed as a much larger park, to be financed by alleged tax revenue growth in a "TIF Bond District" throughout the west side of downtown. The Center Plaza park in Charles Center (see photo above) was also totally rebuilt about a decade ago, but it still suffers from the same basic problem of being an "inner block park" which violates the laws of urban geography that parks must be integrated with the street network for proper surveillance and exposure.

So the design of the new Lexington Market Park is critical in order to avoid the pitfalls of these other park attempts. It must feel like part of the market and also a natural extension of the surrounding streets, with space that is conducive to gathering. Hopefully, the much smaller and more purposeful Lexington Market Park will succeed and help purge all the previous park planning attempts at grandiosity.

Stairway to heaven

The proposed park's dominant physical element is a 15 foot elevation drop between Paca and Eutaw Street. This is a golden opportunity to build something grand - an iconic staircase designed around people - and not just any staircase. It should be designed like a big grandstand where people oversee other people. At the bottom should be a stage for performers, not just artists paid by the city or the market but any impromptu street performers who just happen to show up.

Grand mansions are built around grand staircases, and grand cities should be too. This should be the place where Baltimore's version of Rocky (Charles "Roc" Dutton? Rocky Carroll?) runs to the top and then congratulates himself for being himself. Large public stairways have an obligation to be designed to rise to the occasion to justify themselves.

If a 15 foot elevation differential is good, a much larger change would be even better. So if possible, the Lexington Market Park should be incorporated into the adjacent Metro Station down underneath Eutaw Street. This is destined to be and to remain the central transit hub for the entire regional transit system, since it's where the heavy and light rail lines come together, so it needs all the prominence it can get.

But unlike the smaller but similar subway entrance on the other side of Lexington and Eutaw which was designed around escalators, this one can give more priority to being artful rather than only a way to get from A to B, bringing more light and air into the otherwise dank expanses of the subway station . Perhaps this is where the performance stage should be, so sounds can waft into the subway, with maximum audience room above it toward the market.

Ultimately, the new Lexington Market needs to achieve the same transformative vision with this relatively modest project that the much more grandiose "superblock" was supposed to do.

Bunker Hill steps in Los Angeles - This perhaps shows an inkling of the kind of design that is needed
 in front of Lexington Market. (landscapevoice.com/bunker-hill-steps)

December 2, 2016

New Amtrak tunnel can help freight and local agendas

The latest $4.52 billion cost estimate for the replacement Amtrak tunnel under West Baltimore demonstrates the high stakes in infrastructure investment. But if all that money can enable the project to be done right, then that's how it should be done. (Who's money? That's still to be addressed.)

This project essentially creates a starting point from which all agendas can be served: Not just for the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, but also the freight rail system, the MARC Commuter rail system, and the local communities such as around the West Baltimore MARC Station. Everyone can win.

One of the gaps in the existing 1873 Amtrak tunnel which shows just how close to the surface it is.
The proposed tunnel would be much deeper.

What's not included: Speed

But first for the record, this expensive new tunnel doesn't have anything to do with vaunted "high speed rail" ambitions for the Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York. The proposed 1.4 mile tunnel would only allow train speeds to increase from "creaky" to "slow". The whole issue of true high speed rail is not being addressed - whether from Magnetic Levitation or even conventional European/Japanese technology (which is rooted in the 20th rather than 21st century).

Speed is addictive, however, which is why Amtrak got pushed to the back burner in the first place, in favor of faster airplanes (remember the supersonic Concorde?) and even Interstate highways (think General Motors' Futurama).

So the proposed West Baltimore Amtrak tunnel merely allows us to catch up with the present, or maybe not even that far. The current tunnel is an 1873 model. Think of this project like an upgrade to a serviceable used car that just whets your appetite for that future Ferrari.

But a functioning 1973 Chevy Chevelle would still be very useful in getting us from Point "A" to Point "B". It will just allow Baltimore and the Northeast Corridor to "move forward, not backward", as our new Mayor Pugh would put it.

Amtrak's agenda: Averting disaster and promoting Penn Station development

Point One: The existing ancient tunnel is a disaster waiting to happen. Anything bad that happens down there could paralyze the Northeast Corridor for days, months or even years.

The existing tunnel cannot even be properly maintained. At the very least, a new tunnel is needed so that the existing tunnel can be closed to await long-needed renovations for whatever purpose it ends up with in the future. The new tunnel would have four tracks to serve both Amtrak and MARC.

Secondly, Amtrak has an important side-business in promoting development around its stations. Amtrak stresses its "downtown-to-downtown" service, but downtown is not what it used to be. Most of its stations are on the edge of things, and need to be pulled into the center. The epicenter of the Amtrak universe at New York's Penn Station is next to Hell's Kitchen, which is now being transformed by a multi-billion dollar development above the train yard. Similarly, Philadelphia's station is on the "wrong side" of the Susquehanna River, which Amtrak and others have been busy developing into the "right side".

Amtrak land around Baltimore's Penn Station has been contemplated for similar ambitious development for decades. After many false premature starts, it is now being led by Michael Beatty, the developer behind Harbor Point.

The proposed new tunnel immediately to the west is Amtrak's way of ensuring that this development can be marketed to people along the entire Northeast Corridor, and not be merely an alternative to Harbor Point (or Port Covington), which are being planned for relative isolation from the rail corridor. Amtrak feels a need to get part of the action.

MARC's commuter rail agenda: The West Baltimore Station

The southwest end of the Amtrak tunnel project will be the West Baltimore MARC Station, which is at the west end of the US 40 Franklin-Mulberry corridor. This station is totally substandard for handling passengers and needs to be relocated. It is on a curve, it cannot be upgraded for the disabled, and boarding occurs on the center tracks, which now requires crossing the outer tracks to get there.  

A new station needs to be built in concert with the new tunnel, the portal of which will be on the revised alignment just to the north. This new alignment will cause much disruption to the surrounding communities, which should be made into an opportunity to promote revitalization of these communities, as well as the adjacent "Highway to Nowhere" which has been a scar for West Baltimore for many decades.

The new West Baltimore MARC Station would also be on a brand new bridge over Franklin and Mulberry Streets, so there is no need to cram all the street traffic, pedestrians and the rail station patrons into the narrow scary underpasses adjacent to the two streets. If and when the Red Line is built, it would also not have to be crammed into these underpasses as well.

Beyond that, the relationship between regional Amtrak service and more localized MARC service needs to be redefined. The needs of the various rider markets need to be more focused. Right now, MARC serves very few riders with Baltimore as their destination, but in the future, there will be a need for service which has more of the the flexibility and efficiency of a conventional random on/off rapid transit line.

This not only applies to the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but up to Philadelphia as well. Right now, MARC comes within only a few miles of the comparable SEPTA commuter rail service around the Delaware border. This gap not only needs to be closed, but this arbitrary seam needs be eliminated. Why end MARC service at Perryville or Wilmington? If the MARC trains go that far, they should go all the way to Philadelphia. And if that happens, the distinction between the roles of commuter rail and Amtrak will need to be redefined.

The West Baltimore MARC Station, along with others such as Halethorpe and Odenton, will thus function more like Amtrak stations, which will strengthen the entire system and the communities they serve.

The freight agenda: The Howard Street CSX tunnel

The new Amtrak tunnel will also be more attractive for freight trains, which on face value is a good thing. But that's mainly just because the existing CSX freight line and tunnel under Howard Street is so bad, in terms of safety, disruption and lack of capacity.

All of the adjacent communities around the new and old Amtrak tunnels, as well as along the CSX freight lines, are concerned about this. But failing to improve the rail lines is no solution. Trains are not going to disappear.

Fortunately, a viable plan to enlarge and upgrade the Howard Street freight tunnel is now available after many years of hand-wringing. This is where the freight trains ought to be. The current situation where a few freight trains use the Amtrak line in the middle of the night is clearly a stopgap at best.

Groups such as in Reservoir Hill who have been fighting the new Amtrak tunnel would be better served by pushing for the Howard Street freight tunnel upgrade to be built as a prerequisite for the Amtrak project. This would allow the Amtrak tunnel to be strictly passengers-only while the CSX tunnel would be freight-only. That's a win-win for everybody.

In sum, Amtrak riders may be the smallest beneficiaries of the new tunnel. They will save a couple minutes at most traversing the current 1.4 mile distance. What's most important is to ensure that other agendas are best served as well: Building better communities around Penn Station and the West Baltimore MARC Station, upgrading and redefining the MARC system, and providing safe and efficient movement for both freight and passengers on the CSX and Amtrak lines.

October 25, 2016

Trenchant unity for Highlandtown and Greektown

Back in the 1980s, City Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro didn't like the name Greektown, fearing folks would think the neighborhood was just for Greeks. Instead, he wanted it to be called East Highlandtown.

The legendary Councilman who was also referred to as "Mayor of Highlandtown" had a good point. Unity among neighborhoods should be an overriding goal. The quaint old notion of Baltimore being a city of separate autonomous neighborhoods has often been misused as an excuse to deflect issues of segregation and disparity and to reinforce "border vacuums", as Jane Jacobs called the intervening dead zones.

There is indeed such a border vacuum between Highlandtown and Greektown, in the walled trench that carries Eastern Avenue under a series of railroad tracks. It's a particularly depressing experience for pedestrians to be confined to a narrow sidewalk inside the trench between massive retaining walls and speeding traffic.

Eastern Avenue is a dense local street through the Highlandtown and Greektown business districts,
 but in between it suddenly opens up as an expressway inside a trench under a series of railroad overpasses,
 isolated from distinctive but crumbling old industrial buildings and dwarfing the lone pedestrians.

As the old industrial uses which occupied this dead zone have deteriorated and been abandoned, the border vacuum has become worse. The communities has long recognized this, and have steadfastly worked to create new development plans for a mixed-use "Loft District" that would turn this industrial area into a vibrant people place.

It has now become increasingly clear that the key to fulfilling this promise is to transform the Eastern Avenue trench which currently prevents the unification of Highlandtown and Greektown.

The Neighborhood Name Game

Mimi DiPietro lost his name game and Greektown still retains its distinct identity. For most people, the Greek in Greektown applies first and foremost to the restaurants. Marketing is really what neighborhood names are mainly all about.

Perhaps the ideal slogan would be "In unity there is strength", but for the purposes of marketing, it could just as easily be "It's all Greek to me." Since the DiPietro days, Highlandtown has actually been trying to catch up with Greektown and fill the major void left by the loss of its most famous restaurant, Haussner's.

Highlandtown has also been losing its border battle with Canton to the south. Now just about anything more than a block south of the Eastern Avenue business district in Highlandtown is referred to as Canton, if not Brewers Hill (a name that didn't even exist yet in the 1980s).

But what benefits Canton or Greektown or Highlandtown should benefit all of them. This also goes for the expanding Latino population as well. While the central Latino business district has become Broadway in Upper Fells Point, their population has shifted mostly toward north Highlandtown around Fayette Street. Baltimore is big enough for everyone.

The Highlandtown-Greektown Highway Trench

The Eastern Avenue trench was originally built for the "Red Rocket" streetcar line to the Sparrows Point steel mill. The Red Rocket was as close to modern light rail as Baltimore's old streetcar system ever got, with multi-car trains and high speed gate-controlled operation in its outer reaches.

This trench was later enlarged to accommodate automotive traffic. Then throughout the 1950s, the streetcar line was dismantled piece by piece, first in the inner city where the streets could not easily accommodate such heavy duty vehicles. By the end of the 1950s, there was nothing left.

Without the streetcar line, the entire trench was converted to what was essentially a four-lane expressway - a sort of mini-prototype of West Baltimore's later notorious "Highway to Nowhere". This never made any sense. since it connected at both ends to slow-moving local commercial streets which served the respective Highlandtown and Greektown business districts.

The Eastern Avenue trench looking west toward the Highlandtown business district on the distant horizon at the end. 

Eastern Avenue continued in that configuration to this day. This is particularly harmful on the Greektown end, since it is accompanied by peak period parking restrictions which greatly hamper the local businesses and restaurants, and make an uncomfortable sidewalk environment with no parking to buffer traffic.

Over the years, the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) has served as a consultant to community organizations for both Highlandtown and Greektown. (I was a volunteer traffic consultant in some of those efforts.) The studies found that traffic was actually heavier on the Highlandtown end of Eastern Avenue where it was confined to one lane in each direction than it was at the Greektown end where it had two lanes during peak periods.

The City implemented some of NDC's recommendations, including installing turn-lanes at Haven Street in Highlandtown and constructing a channelization island at the trench entrance in Greektown, but they refused to remove the parking restrictions in the Greektown business district. The City has also retained lane designations at the two intersections of Eastern Avenue and Ponca Street which add congestion that nullifies most of the advantage for traffic from restricting parking in the first place.

As a result, the highway trench is still having a very bad influence on both Highlandtown and Greektown, as well as on the border vacuum in between.

Pre- and Post-Red Line Planning

The original 2002 Red Line plan called for two east light rail branches, one down Boston Street through Canton and the other along Eastern Avenue through Highlandtown to Bayview. That was always obvious overkill and various other options were subsequently proposed.

The Southeast Community Development Corporation came up with a promising concept for a rail transit corridor between Canton and Highlandtown as a way to organize new development in the deteriorating industrial area between Highlandtown and Greektown.

An early infeasible plan for the industrial area by the Southeast Community Development Corporation,
 showing a streetcar-style Red Line along a development street that would extend south to Brewers Hill and Canton.

As can be seen from this rendering commissioned by the Southeast CDC, the idea was a very locally-oriented streetcar-style Red Line in the middle of a development street, not like anything resembling a high-speed regional rail line.

Eventually however, the Red Line alignment was dictated by the need to maintain the freight railroad right-of-way which had previously been vacated by Norfolk Southern, but which they wanted to preserve for future use to serve the burgeoning port to the south. The Red Line thus had to be squeezed into the corridor rather than serving as a development spine. North of Eastern Avenue, this required a huge viaduct of up to 70 feet high to carry the Red Line over the freight tracks, the north fringe of Greektown and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway to bring it into Bayview.

The early plan for the industrial area would have created pedestrian plazas that extend across the railroad tracks,
 but would have kept the Eastern Avenue highway trench largely as-is. But future freight trains crowded this plan out.

The Red Line would have still occupied pretty much the same space on the existing Eastern Avenue overpass as the Southeast CDC rendering above had envisioned. But unlike the rendering, it would not have been flanked by a transit station and adjacent new development, but instead by freight tracks which would have necessarily been off-limits to pedestrians.

As shown in the rendering, this concept plan also did not really deal with the overdesigned Eastern Avenue highway trench either. The drawing instead shows pedestrian plazas leading up to the Red Line and the new development on either side of Eastern Avenue which attract people away from the trench. This concept would not have been feasible with the presence of active freight railroads.

With the Red Line now dead but with the freight railroad revival more alive than ever, a new revised development plan for this area is still needed. Opponents of this kind of community-oriented development have recently tried to prevent a zoning change to enable mixed use development, arguing that it is incompatible with the increasing freight rail traffic, but the zoning change is now on track to approval as part of the city's new comprehensive Trans Form zoning code.

The Trench is Key

So with the freight railroads being a permanent barrier, fixing the Eastern Avenue trench is now paramount. The trench stands as the only viable way to get from Highlandtown to Greektown and points in between.

The entire trench therefore needs to be converted from a high speed highway corridor to a "people place". There are actually three railroad lines which need to be avoided - one CSX line and two Norfolk Southern lines.

The area of the trench devoted to pedestrians can be greatly expanded by narrowing the roadway space from two to one lane in each direction, matching the single lanes in the Greektown and Highlandtown business districts to the east and west. Traffic would still be able to flow better inside than outside the trench by controlling access. Driveway intersections leading up to the development areas could be provided, along with a third lane for left turns as needed.

This view looking up at an industrial building surrounded by wild greenery
 from down in the trench is isolated but attractive. 

Creative designs can be introduced which would to bring new development down to the grade inside the trench, and to raise the grade of key portions of the trench to meet the development on the upper levels. Designers are often liberated by multi-level opportunities. For example, oppressive retaining walls abutting speeding traffic could be replaced by sidewalk cafes.

Eastern Avenue is already the organizing "spine" of both Highlandtown and Greektown. As such, the future of both of these neighborhoods depends on the health of Eastern Avenue. So it only stands to reason that their unification around the development of a new mixed use "Loft District" between them should also be predicated on a redesign of the Eastern Avenue trench.

September 23, 2016

The next Port Covington could be Patapsco Hill

Now that the Port Covington deal seems to be done, the post-game analysis has begun. The word most often used to describe the massive Under Armour/Sagamore development is "unprecedented". It clearly breaks the previous rules.

Most Baltimoreans want to know how the deal will affect the city's overall fiscal health and economic climate, while some are more concerned with specific job and housing opportunities for low income residents.

But to Corporate America, the question will be: Where can we find another deal like that?

While Port Covington is unique, there is another very large site nearby with the same critical geographic attributes, being in Baltimore but not of Baltimore. It's an isolated site of roughly 50 acres that could be called "Patapsco Hill".

Patapsco Hill development as it could be seen looking west from the Patapsco Avenue bridge over the Patapsco River.
 The tallest tower at left is shown at a height of about 400 feet - just because Google Earth can do it.

Patapsco Hill

The Patapsco Hill site is roughly bounded by Patapsco Avenue to the north, the Patapsco River to the east, Southwest Park in Baltimore County to the south and the Central Light Rail Line to the west.

The city of Baltimore is often said to be "on" the Patapsco River, but really only a very small portion is - mainly Reedbird Park between Cherry Hill and Brooklyn. The Inner Harbor, Middle Branch, Northwest Branch and Outer Harbor are actually an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay.

Patapsco Hill is the only large developable land mass in the city that can accurately be described as being on the Patapsco River.

The site is currently being used as a truck and junk storage yard and was formerly a landfill, which accounts for its lofty ridge above the riverfront parkland to the south. In this age of "brownfields" remediation and "smart growth", and with the Patapsco Avenue light rail station located conveniently along its border, this site of about 50 acres is crying out for a better and more environmentally responsible use.

The river has most recently been known for the tragic and destructive flooding upstream in historic Ellicott City. Cleaning up Patapsco Hill for efficient high density development would be a great alternative to more flood-inducing suburban sprawl near the sources of the river watershed.

Patapsco Hill is as similar to Port Covington as is likely to be possible. It has a waterfront with boat access along the wide and wild portion of the Patapsco River, so it's kayak-ready. The 230 acre Southwest Park right at its doorstep can also provide many other recreation opportunities, yet is vast enough to swallow up a large population of users while retaining its rustic character.

With the adjacent light rail station already in place, there is easy access to downtown and even easier access to BWI-Marshall Airport. It's also close to the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (Interstate 895), although like Port Covington, a developer would probably ask for new and improved ramps. The adjacent portion of six-lane Patapsco Avenue is also extremely underutilized.

Patapsco Hill location - about two miles south of Port Covington.

All the same hype as Port Covington about attracting the "millennial" generation could apply to Patapsco Hill, although they'd perhaps be a bit more suburban-oriented millennials. But even Port Covington's design combines urban and suburban trappings. We want it all: urban, suburban and back-to-nature.

The Patapsco Hill site is also extremely isolated, as demonstrated by the fact that no one ever seems to talk about it. While it is near the city neighborhoods of Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, the Baltimore County neighborhood of Baltimore Highlands and Anne Arundel County's Brooklyn Park, it has no access from any of them, being cut off by two railroad lines (one freight, one light rail) and the Patapsco River.

Patapsco Hill looking eastward along Patapsco Avenue, with its light rail station in the foreground.
 The Cherry Hill community is seen to the left behind the CSX freight railroad tracks.
 Brooklyn and Brooklyn Park communities are in the top background beyond the Patapsco River and I-895.

Twice in a Lifetime Opportunity?

The fact that another site exists with such similar attributes to Port Covington also demonstrates that the city should not bargain from the presumption of scarcity. Baltimore is a very large city with lots of opportunities all around. The only scarcity is that each of us has only "one life to live" - to evoke a defunct soap opera. That's fitting, because the dealmaking in this city often resembles a soap opera with a new episode every day. There will be a new "search for tomorrow" and if the city is not prepared, all we can say is "now what?"

As such, the Port Covington deal has not prepared Baltimore for the next one. The project evidently exhausts the city's borrowing limit for Tax Increment Financing. There is no funding source for the new expressway ramps. The city still has a school aid shortfall. The next developer will still face the same angry crowds demanding more community benefit funds. And the real negotiation took place in secret, so we don't really know how it proceeded and what the city actually agreed to. One of the few things we can infer is that the vaunted "but for" rule has been thrown on the scrapheap of history.

The word "unprecedented" is fitting because with no guidelines, the next deal will be unprecedented too.

This distant northward view of Patapsco Hill from the Patapsco River shows the vastness
of  the adjacent 230 acre Southwest Park, and the relationship to the downtown skyline,
 barely seen on the distant horizon. To the right is the split of the Harbor Tunnel Thruway
 into two legs, toward I-97 to Annapolis and I-95 to Washington, DC.

What the City needs even more than exciting new development opportunities is an economic climate which is conducive to such plans. Developers need to know what they will be facing, especially out-of-town developers who have no local political expertise but have access to a whole world of capital funding. Each new plan should demonstrate what is possible and thus pave the way for the next one.

The Patapsco Hill site is partially in Baltimore County and abuts Anne Arundel County, so it also calls for an even broader political consensus. The city should not act like we follow only our own rules without regard for the rest of the state or the increasingly global economic arena.

Or even worse, making up new rules as the game is played.

Patapsco Hill as seen looking northward from the Baltimore Highlands Light Rail Station through Southwest Park.