June 12, 2017

Skeptical of BaltimoreLink? Sarcastically shocking!

It's just so darn easy to be skeptical about the comprehensive BaltimoreLink makeover of the MTA bus system that will be put in place less than a week from now. It's so easy that the prevailing feeling has been to simply and quietly sit back and brace ourselves for the harmonic convergence of slow-motion bus and train wrecks.

It's almost a zen feeling. Even the MTA is in on it. It's no "comfort" that they just ejected their Administrator, Paul Comfort, who was the alleged orchestrator of the whole thing, as if to say that BaltimoreLink now has a mind of its own. Fly away little birdie!

New West Baltimore MARC Station bus hub at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere" looking east -
one of the underrated keys to BaltimoreLink 

Yeah, in addition to $135 million to make-over the bus system, Paul Comfort spent an unauthorized $65,000 to make-over his downtown office. But it's the coincident timing and hush-hush nature of his dismissal that is most conspicuous. They won't even call it a firing. Things just don't shake down like that here in anti-Trump Maryland.

And the MTA's transit union doesn't like BaltimoreLink either. As if the bus drivers can get any more surly than they already are. The drivers mostly want to pick their bus routes to avoid getting riders who are even more surly than they are.

The most organized advocacy organization, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, with bigtime business backing, did a massive number crunching exercise to show that the BaltimoreLink plan was misguided, but CMTA's solution was basically just (surprise!) to spend more money!

And yes, a few specific criticisms have emerged in the mainstream media that service is being cut or eliminated here or there. The Sun keeps citing (including today) the elimination of service to Green Spring Station, a small commercial hub in the affluent semi-rural Falls Road corridor north of the Beltway. The real problem with such locations is that employers want to be near the sylvan countryside but still want their low income workers from the inner city to somehow be able to get out there, ignoring the basic need for jobs to be located near the city workers.

BaltimoreLink: A beginning


All this quibbling aside, the best thing about BaltimoreLink is that there is FINALLY a serious effort to organize the bus system in a rational comprehensive way instead of just following the fate of its historic evolution.

There have been many previous attempts to do this. The most recent was the Baltimore Network Improvement Program (or BNIP) which was launched amid great fanfare a few years ago with a massive data collection effort, then slipped into a mysterious veil of secrecy and finally was simply killed right before the last gubernatorial election.

So BNIP was a monumental disastrous failure. So compared to that, BaltimoreLink is already a big success.

The basic nature of bus routes is that they are constantly tweaked instead of comprehensively crafted. Yes, all that tweaking can and often does result in a chaotic disorganized mess, but since such is the nature of bus routes, we might as well make the most of it. In other words: Do the best we can, and then fix the resultant problems. But at least start somewhere.

But BNIP didn't even get to that square one. The MTA can't fix anything if they don't even try.

Specifically, fixes tend to be limited and isolated, so to complement that, BaltimoreLink needs to start out comprehensive and encompass the big picture. And that it does.

There are two primary aspects of looking at the big picture of a transit system: It should be hierarchical. And it should be connected.

BaltimoreLink satisfies the need for hierarchy by being built upon its twelve principal high-frequency CityLink bus lines which the rest of the system feeds into. It's virtually impossible to conceive comprehensively of every bus route in the entire transit system, so the twelve CityLink lines provide an overarching structure. Just like how its impossible to think about every word in the dictionary, so our twenty-six letter alphabet gives us a structure to organize all of them.

In turn, a strong route hierarchy will increase the dependency on transfers between routes, so it becomes even more important that the system be connected.

West Baltimore Transit Hub looking west toward Amtrak/MARC tracks - MTA rendering 

Transit hubs that work


Transfers have been the next greatest topic of criticism of BaltimoreLink. Transfers take riders out of their comfort zone and plop them at bus stops in the middle of their trips. So they really need to work. The system needs strong transit hubs. BaltimoreLink provides a needed step in this direction, but again, it's only a beginning.

The key to making transit hubs work is to make sure that the services you transfer from and transfer to are better than the service would be without the transfer. The most time-honored way to do that is a bus-rail transfer rather than a bus-bus transfer. That works well at the Mondawmin Metro Station and fairly well at the Patapsco Avenue light rail station, but not at most other transfer places in the Baltimore region.

The Metro is fast and reliable. The south portion of the light rail line that serves Patapsco Avenue is also fairly fast. Both lines have high capacity. The transfer allows the bus lines that feed them to be shorter and thus more reliable and better optimized for their communities than they would be otherwise.

The longer a bus route is, the less reliable and more confusing it will be. The less frequent the service is, the more crucial it is that the route must be reliable.

BaltimoreLink does strive to increase the dependence on bus-rail transfers, most notably at the Hopkins Hospital Metro station. However, it remains to be seen how successfully these transfers can be achieved. At Hopkins, the bus lines will be dispersed onto Broadway, Fayette, Monument and Madison Streets in a fairly messy and potentially confusing arrangement with no off-street facilities. However, things were so badly dispersed before that it is bound to be an improvement. But this is simply not a good location for a major terminal Metro rail station.

A bolder effort is taking place with the new bus-to-bus transfer hub at the West Baltimore MARC station at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere". While some riders will transfer to the MARC commuter rail line toward Washington, DC, which may achieve an increasingly local orientation in the future with more stations and transit oriented development, its near-term success will depend almost completely on bus-to-bus transfers.

This hub will have a new high capacity off-street bus loop which is still in the final stages of construction. The loop will accommodate four of the twelve principal color-coded CityLink bus routes. The potential is there for this hub facility to be a major foundation for the enhanced accessibility of all of West Baltimore.

In particular, the Blue CityLink bus line will utilize the high speed "Highway to Nowhere", which will allow it get downtown in a matter of just several minutes. This is essentially the current #40 express Quick Bus line, but the new bus hub will make it accessible to a greater number of riders.   

But it will still be seen as merely a bus line, using transfers from other bus lines. There will be no getting around that if service is mediocre. There will be no aura of the perceived superiority of rail transit.

Comparison with the defunct Red Line


Interestingly, the defunct light rail Red Line was given its own bus system reorganization plan prior to the failed BNIP plan. The plan called for a light rail station at the West Baltimore MARC Station, but with very little bus transfer activity. Nothing in the subsequent BNIP study ever changed that.

Instead, the largest bus transfer point along the entire 14 mile Red Line was planned to be the next station to the west, at the Edmondson/Poplar Grove intersection in Rosemont. However, no off-street loop or other bus facilities were planned for this station location at all, making for a clearly inferior transfer experience.

The new West Baltimore MARC Station bus hub will have better transfers and will be a faster ride (at least to the west edge of downtown) than was previously planned for the Red Line. The proposed new Amtrak tunnel plan through West Baltimore will also include a completely new MARC Station which will accommodate a far better exclusive rail and/or bus right of way.

The one aspect of the Red Line which is clearly superior to buses, however, is the potential for transit oriented development, which is sorely needed in the Franklin-Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere" corridor.

It should also be noted that on the east side of the city, the bus system reorganization plan for the Red Line also included different bus hub locations as well. The two major transfer locations were to have been at the Highlandtown Station, where bus transfers would have occurred on-street near the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Haven Street, and at the Brewers Hill Station, where an off-street hub would have been provided on the north side. But since the station itself was to be located in the  Boston Street median strip, transferring patrons would have still had to cross this busy street.

In contrast, BaltimoreLink's major east side transfer points will be at the Hopkins Bayview Research Park, and at the previously discussed Hopkins Metro Station. These are superior bus transfer locations in most respects to what was planned for the Red Line. They also delineate what could become an extension of the Metro between these two major health campuses.

It all depends on how the rubber hits the road


When it comes to the MTA, skepticism is a justifiably healthy feeling. We're all just waiting to see what happens. The best that can be said about BaltimoreLink is that it is a stronger and clearer foundation for making further changes to the transit system than the series of historical evolutions which preceded it. This will be the start of a new evolutionary chain. When a problem happens, fix it.

June 2, 2017

Port Covington in ten years: Stubbornly suburban

Driving down Cromwell Street toward the new Sagamore Spirit whiskey distillery in Port Covington, it's obvious and not at all difficult to imagine what Baltimore's biggest-ever development plan will look like in ten years. Just take a mental picture of the distillery site with the periphery cropped out and replaced with what's in the mind's eye.

This view neutralizes any justification to change Cromwell Street in any significant way. The new two building waterfront distillery complex on one of Port Covington's most valuable real estate parcels has set the tone for what will follow. And what one sees in these attractive rustic buildings surrounded by patios and parking lots is basically... suburbia.

Suburbia at Port Covington has now become inevitable. That's why what Port Covington needs now is not its 20 or 40 year blue-sky plan used to acquire $660 Million in TIF bonds from the city, but a solid short-to-medium term ten year plan.

Sagamore Spirit Distillery from Cromwell Street - What you see is what you get, now and for many years

Yes, we are now faced with the real Port Covington - an outcome of real economic forces and not just aerial artist conceptions of what it's supposed to look like in forty years. The view of the distillery down Cromwell Street is what Port Covington looks like now and will continue to look like for quite a long time. It's nice, but that's all it is. Port Covington is a major, major development plan which could have a major impact on the city as a whole, but for the indefinite future, it's just suburbia within the city.

What Lucy Van Pelt really wants: Real Estate


It's all rooted in basic proven real estate economics, not those fanciful future architect's renderings. As when most large new development venture get started, land is the commodity in greatest supply and the best bargaining chip to get things going.

That's how Lucy summed up what she really wanted in the classic Peanuts Christmas Special. She wanted real estate. (Pulling the football away from woebegone Charlie Brown was just an attention grabber.)

That's why, when The Baltimore Sun became Port Covington's first occupant back in the late 1980s, they negotiated to get plenty of what the city and previous landowner CSX had to give in greatest abundance: Real estate. The Sun printing press was put on a site that was about five times larger than what they needed at the time, and infinitely larger than what they need today.

It was even unabashedly touted as suburban, with the catchphrase: "Hunt Valley by the Sea", evoking the office park and shopping mall in north suburbia beyond Towson and Timonium.

Then when the Sun complex didn't ignite a development frenzy, the city's next deal was to give Wal-Mart and Sam's Club another huge piece of raw acreage, ignoring that it's highest potential geographic value was in its adjacent waterfront. It was more Hunt Valley, less sea.

The Inner Harbor even got started this way back in the 1970s. Its first building, the Maryland Science Center, turned its back on the famous waterfront with a blank wall, just like Wal-Mart, and was only re-oriented later when it expanded. Then came psuedo-suburban Harborplace, which was very controversial at the time for being an intrusion on urban open space. This is back when the Howard Street downtown retail district was still hanging on and had grandiose plans of its own. Many people envisioned the Inner Harbor as being an oasis away from downtown, not part of it.

Despite its hyped-up success, the Inner Harbor has been trying to recover from this ever since. Right now, the whole swath from Harborplace and the McKeldin Fountain to Rash Field is being gutted and demolished to get it right this time, as if it was some forlorn part of town.

Even Harbor East, the city's most successful urban development since the Great Depression (yes, even including the vaunted Inner Harbor) got started this way. Through the 1970s, it was envisioned as just a future Interstate highway corridor. When that was replaced by a development plan in the 1980s, it called for an "urban village" of modest density. The adjacent land now known as Harbor Point was then designated to be open parkland.

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Victor's Cafe: Harbor East's first building, now gone, as seen from the water.
Only one building got built in conformance with the original Harbor East plan, Victor's Cafe, on its most valuable corner waterfront site. It was a very modest little building with vending machines and electric meters plopped just outside the front door, more like one would expect around Back River Neck Road near Middle River. Victor's Cafe was knocked down in the early 2000s to make way for the Legg Mason and Four Seasons towers.

In sum, all these developments started out with the value of the raw land being far greater than the buildings that got put on it. Other examples can be found in the relatively low density waterfront rowhouses with grass yards and parking pads built along Fell Street in Fells Point and Boston Street in Canton in the 1980s, and in the Key Highway corridor near Federal Hill where the Harborview project was originally supposed to have six high rise buildings but so far has still only gotten one. Most of the higher density development came later after property values increased, or in the case of Harborview, never came at all.

How Kevin Plank has really set the tone in Port Covington


The key to understanding Port Covington is not to think of Kevin Plank as some kind of development savior who will perform miracles to rescue the area from 30 years of malaise and failure. Simply think of what he's doing as the next step in the historical pattern.

What he's done so far fits that pattern. He recently built a nice but modest whiskey distillery on arguably the best piece of waterfront land, his version of Victor's Cafe in Inner Harbor East. He also took the nearby Sam's Club "big box" and re-oriented it to the water, just as the Science Center did.

Eventually Plank plans to knock down the giant Sun printing press and build something there too. The northern part of that huge parcel next to Interstate 95 (the least desirable part that's farthest from the water) is where seven high rise towers are supposed to go, but don't hold your breath. He's got The Sun paying rent every month (or beholden in some other way), so he'll just let that keep happening as long as necessary until development pressure builds. And there's so much land around it that the pressure will be near zero for a long time. Land supply is far higher than at any of the precedents, so it will continue to dwarf demand.

Current Port Covington plan bird's eye view. Highest density has been pushed away
from the existing Cromwell Street corridor in the middle, and toward the seven high rises next to Interstate 95
in the background and in the Under Armour campus in the foreground.

And just what has Kevin Plank done to induce that development demand to increase? Other than supply the hype, not much. Just look again at that distillery from Cromwell Street. Then look at the Sam's Club reoriented for Under Armour, which from a distance, doesn't look much different than when it was a "big box" retail store. And a distant view is the only view most folks will get, as long as that ominous security fence is in the way. Again, this just follows the pattern.

Those seven proposed high rise buildings next to I-95 look an awful lot like the six high rise buildings that were supposed to get built at Harborview on Key Highway, except those were right along the water within easy walking distance of Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor, in an area of relative land scarcity and high value.

The TIF Dimension: "Dawning of the Age of Aquarius?"


The biggest need in all this is to avoid getting intoxicated by Port Covington's $660 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) slush fund, which is mortgaged against the city's future property tax revenue. This money must be spent wisely on projects that clearly lead to new development that are capable of paying it back.

The city's track record on this kind of funding is poor. The city built a Hilton Hotel in Camden Yards with TIF funds, and it has been a perennial money loser ever since. Harbor Point is being largely subsidized with TIF funds even though it's anchor project, the Exelon Tower, was legally obliged to locate in the City of Baltimore even without subsidies.

Harbor East also failed on this count, although its saving grace was that TIF funding was never used. But a large portion of its infrastructure in streets, promenades and utilities had to be ripped up and rebuilt soon after it was completed in order to accommodate revisions to the original "urban village" plan.

And the entire southeast waterfront of Harbor East, Harbor Point, Fells Point and Canton as we know it was never supposed to be developed at all. Until the 1980s, alleged visionary Mayor Schaefer didn't want any of it. He wanted it to be an Interstate Highway corridor. But plans do change.

A saving grace for Port Covington is that the Under Armour corporate headquarters campus which is planned to occupy the vast majority of the waterfront land south of Cromwell Street is not part of the TIF district, and so is protected from that particular financial "house of cards".

The Under Armour campus is also considered the major "catalyst" for the rest of the development, but this is a dubious assumption. Land glutted suburban-style development just doesn't work that way. Suburbia begets more suburbia. Under Armour will be governed far more by its own financial performance against its corporate competitors like Nike and Adidas.

Lessons to be learned: A short-term Port Covington plan


The entire Port Covington planning process has been an attempt to induce top-down proactive development by sheer force of will. It has been a fight against the forces of "organic development" that occurs at its own pace in response to the overall forces of economics.

But Port Covington can't be developed that way. The overall real estate market will have the final say and must be respected. Land parcels will be developed one at a time. All the resources at the disposal of both sides, buyers and seller, will be negotiable. And the resource in greatest abundance is land. The market will proceed at its own pace and the market will prevail.

What Port Covington needs is a short-term plan that recognizes and respects the realities. Here are the major points:

1 - Cromwell Street should be maintained as-is, a four to six lane boulevard, as the major spine of Port Covington. Such wide boulevards can be made into attractive people places in spite of heavy traffic which is inevitable as a sign of growth and vitality. It has already been tweaked with landscaping, bike lanes and on-street parking, and more can be done. It's adjacent suburban trappings are a bigger question than the street itself.

2 - For the foreseeable future, all new development in Port Covington east of Hanover Street will use Cromwell Street. Period. Make the most of it.

3 - The configuration of the east end of Cromwell Street, on the other hand, will likely need major improvement within this time frame, from where it intersects McComas Street proceeding eastward to Key Highway and accessing I-95. But new I-95 ramps are not in the offing and would be of dubious usefulness anyway.

4 - A serious rail transit plan must also be developed right now, so it can be integrated with a solid transit-oriented development plan which is crucial to the ultimate success of any major urban development. Right of way must be reserved. It cannot be an afterthought, as it has been with the abysmal failure rate of transit-oriented development in the rest of Baltimore.

5 - The rail transit plan cannot be relegated to the northernmost part of Port Covington along the McComas Street catacombs underneath Interstate 95, as is the current intention. Rail transit also cannot be made dependent upon those seven high rise buildings which are proposed to flank Interstate 95. That plan is simply not real enough.

6 - Another unavoidable point is that lower income people are the backbone of any urban transit system, not the prospective affluent market for those seven high rises (with or without a lucky few poor residents winning the "inclusionary zoning" lottery.) That's a strong reason for extending the proposed light rail spur southward to Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

7 - The proposed separate disjointed "closed circuit" streetcar line plan is also not real enough, and needs to be scrapped. Like the distillery, too much of Port Covington will be of insufficient density for it to have any reasonable chance of success (cue Procol Harum's "Whiskey Train"). The rail transit system must be as integrated and connected as possible, which has been a huge problem in the rest of the city.

8 - Renovating the abandoned railroad bridge across the Middle Branch to link Port Covington to Westport and West Baltimore should be a priority, whether for people, light rail vehicles or likely both.

9 - The existing central light rail line should be made Port Covington-ready. That means building a new North Westport Station on the existing light rail line to serve future new Westport waterfront development as well as the rail spur to Port Covington. It would also be a transfer station for Port Covington rail riders to connect to the south, most notably to the airport.

So where is the best place in Kevin Plank's Port Covington real estate empire to put transit-oriented development? The best place might not be in Port Covington at all. It's more likely in his fallow landholding on the Westport waterfront just across the Middle Branch, where the central light rail line already goes and where the local working-class neighborhood already supports it.

Earlier highly urbanized conception by Design Collective for Port Covington. It's not going to look like this, ever.

The continuing intensification of real estate pressures toward higher density development is currently focused away from Port Covington - to Locust Point and the rest of the South Baltimore peninsula including Federal Hill and Sharp-Leadenhall, as well as southeast waterfront areas from Harbor East and Harbor Point to Canton Crossing and Brewer's Hill. Port Covington must compete with all this.

The Westport waterfront should become an active part of the Port Covington real estate sales portfolio. With the right planning and marketing, it may become the most attractive site for early urban development before much of the Port Covington "suburbia" dwarfs and the seven I-95 high rise giants on the Baltimore Sun site.

Kevin Plank has built a waterfront whiskey distillery and renovated the abandoned Sam's Club, while the rest of Port Covington waits. Cromwell Street sets the tone.

May 22, 2017

'Stable' Pimlico neighborhood for a one-horse town

Sports are traditionally an important way to transcend the black-white racial divide, but at Pimlico racetrack, the city needs to take a big step beyond that. The Preakness race is great, but that's only once a year, beyond which "race" has other highly charged meanings. Pimlico needs a full-time solution - a neighborhood that lets us step out of ourselves.

Could the Pimlico racetrack neighborhood look like this? (Horse-drawn rides are always popular.)

The city that revolutionized baseball at Camden Yards now needs an even more radical change involving the way people see horse racing at Pimlico. Historic Pimlico racetrack is already Camden Yards, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field rolled up in one. Now it's a matter of recreating a feeling that transcends history, that elevates us inside and outside the racetrack.

The geography of change


Pimlico's surrounding geography can fully cooperate. Much has been made of the contrast between white affluent Mount Washington neighborhood to the north and black lower income Park Heights to the south. But physically, the racetrack itself creates an east-west split, not a north-south split. Both the east and west sides of the track include sections of both Mount Washington and Park Heights, but the east side also includes the Levindale neighborhood just to the south, which is one of the most stable attractive sections of Park Heights, along with the large Lifebridge Health complex of the Sinai and Levindale Hospitals.

Distinctive and attractive genuine stone houses on Laurel Avenue in the Levindale section of Park Heights,
two blocks south of the racetrack property.



The track is physically hemmed in by two east-west arteries, major Northern Parkway and minor Belvedere Avenue, but not by north-south streets. The east-west divide could be dealt with by a wide attractive tunnel under the track linking the infield, which could also address Northern Parkway. Belvedere is narrow enough to pose no problem. Back in the 1970s, Pimlico Road was closed through the racetrack site and replaced with Preakness Way farther east. There is nothing permanent about this, however, and there is flexibility to reconfigure the street system to integrate the track with its surroundings.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards taught much about this in the 1990s. The adjacent Ridgely's Delight and Otterbein neighborhoods see Camden Yards as a unique asset. Parking can be taken care of with residential permits, although for an annual event as huge as the Preakness, the neighborhoods participate fully as resident hosts, embracing rather than shunning their outside guests. Parking can be managed. It is absurd for economic development "experts" to use parking as a primary criterion for urban vs. suburban racetrack comparisons.

And building luxury suites? They're soooo 1980s. Yeah sure, if some rich guys want to shut out the crowd and encapsulate their entourages in private cocoons without participating in the action and interaction, that's fine. They even provide big screen TVs, as if recreating the feeling of a club basement "man cave" is the goal. But luxury suites have nothing to do with the overall experience at Pimlico, Laurel racetrack or anyplace else - not even at allegedly "state of the art" Churchill Downs or Jerry Jones' Dallas football palace. They're an irrelevant oxymoron that's just hanging on like "Reality TV".

The time is over when suburban places like Laurel are seen as the solution to urban problems. So when will we learn? Back when horses rather than cars were dominant in cities, pollution was just the mundane stuff on the street you accidentally stepped in. And a "stable neighborhood" referred to the horse houses behind where the wealthy lived.



But now in ironic postmodern times, it may be possible to create a lucrative niche real estate market where the romantic equestrian clippety-clop is a common sight and sound in front of your house. Such things have already happened in rural communities. So as often happens, cities are the final frontier. And where better to do it than as a backdrop to the Home of the Preakness, second jewel of thoroughbred racing's triple crown?

Image result for urban horse riding
Here's what a horse neighborhood could look like. Imagine this as a Pimlico backdrop.

South Mount Washington: Putting the horse before the cart (or car)


So here's the concept: Create a new kind of neighborhood just east of the racetrack that would be physically integrated with both Mount Washington to the north and Park Heights to the south, but with a totally unique environment.

While much is made of black vs. white, here horses would be #1 and humans would be #2, regardless of breed. Everything would be optimized for horses, so all the issues of animal rights activists would be addressed. The mundane ramshackle horse stables that currently flank the racetrack periphery would be replaced with stables of suitable grandeur. Horse-people would then live above them, just as they did in the 19th century.

Street surfaces would be horse friendly. Traffic speeds would be governed by the horses, just as they are by the culture in Amish country.

This could be a "gated community" for the purposes of keeping the horses inside, rather than with any of the usual exclusionary connotations. Well designed entrance gates would also actually become an attraction of their own, since they would be the focal point at which the neighborhood reaches out to its surroundings. Additional suitable security measures to protect valuable thoroughbreds would also be implemented. (In horse culture, it's not yet politically incorrect to say "well-bred".)

Looking south toward the dense wooded periphery of the racetrack site just east of Preakness Way (seen to the right).
This woodland would be ideal for a "bridle path" to ride horses eastward to Cylburn Park.

Pimlico Road should be reopened in some form to provide the greatest integration with the racetrack and the surrounding communities. A strong neighborhood interface with the Lifebridge Health complex should also be created, including common use of its attractive densely wooded green spaces, which should be expanded by replacing some of its parking lots with structured parking. A bucolic "bridle path" through this area, eastward to Cylburn Park, would also be a great addition.

Proposed South Mount Washington "horse neighborhood". Existing rows of stables
are to the left, adjacent to the racetrack. Proposed "bridle path" is shown in orange,
from  Preakness Way east to Cylburn Park, just north of the Levindale Health Center.
The Mount Washington neighborhood is to the upper right. Park Heights neighborhood is to the bottom. 

The name of this new equestrian neighborhood should be decided by the real estate experts, but "South Mount Washington" might be appropriate because it already lends cachet and value (cache?cash, eh?) as the identity of one of the city's most rustically attractive neighborhoods. (No offense, Park Heights, you benefit as well.)

The area's new 21st century amenities, geared to larger crowds of jobs and visitors with more general purposes, would be focused on the area west of the racetrack, north of the intersection of Park Heights and Belvedere Avenues.

Living in South Mount Washington would not be for everyone. It would be for horse people. But urban living in general is already increasingly a niche market as suburbs dominate demographics. Economic development also calls for far different measures in different places, like Pimlico and its suburban rival in Laurel. Just as Pimlico's Preakness is unique as the middle jewel of the triple crown, there would be only one South Mount Washington neighborhood.

Image result for urban horse riding
Horses from the Pimlico horse neighborhood could serve as ambassadors to the surrounding neighborhoods.
This may also create a viable and acceptable way to resurrect the "A-Rab" produce carts.

It would spread some of that Preakness feeling over the other 364 days a year, although people probably wouldn't wear those crazy Preakness fashions every day. By celebrating horses, both at Pimlico and its surroundings, we would all get beyond ourselves to celebrate, strengthen and revitalize life as a whole.

May 16, 2017

New bi-level Pimlico: Racetrack-infield-neighborhoods

Here's a plan to fix Pimlico Racetrack by turning part of it inside-out, thus transforming the teetering  home of the Preakness into something that has never been seen before - while preserving everything that makes the track a historic legend.

The racetrack's biggest complaint is that it's located in a bad neighborhood. This is wrong, but it's a major perceptual problem that could nevertheless lead to its demise.

Lush lovely Ken Oak Road looking west toward Pimlico Road in Mount Washington, only a block north of the racetrack.
The large attractive houses are set back so far from the street trees that you have to look hard to see them.

The solution is to rebuild the existing track as proposed by the Maryland Stadium Authority, but with one key difference: Simply lower the a wide prominent portion at the north end so that it goes under the track and integrates the infield with the rest of the site to the east and west. The vast infield area, which is now connected only through a narrow dank tunnel, would then become a central focus of the entire racetrack site.

The new orientation and grading would mean the infield would no longer feel like an afterthought. Instead, it would be a highlight - just as it already is for the hundred thousand patrons who attend its party once a year on Preakness Day. The infield and its lower corridor connections would then be integral parts of the expansion of Pimlico into a full-time, multi-use activity center for the community, the city and the region - with horse racing as its theme and motif - as recommended in this previous blog post.

Here's the most audacious idea: Relocate Northern Parkway so that it runs through this below-grade corridor underneath the racetrack. Everyone driving on Northern Parkway every day would get the Pimlico experience. And the traffic flow would instill life and movement to the track even on days when there are no events.

Now here's the best part: With Northern Parkway relocated below-grade, it would no longer be a major barrier between the racetrack and the Mount Washington neighborhood to the north. While the most often cited criticism of Pimlico is about its surrounding neighborhoods, this really refers to the lower income Park Heights neighborhood to the south. What is seldom mentioned is that Mount Washington to the north is actually one of Baltimore's highest income neighborhoods.

This distorted narrative actually suits a narrow agenda of some who desire the racetrack to remain a barrier between the two disparate neighborhoods. But it's very harmful to the larger interests of the city and region as a whole. The common view in both neighborhoods that Pimlico must succeed in order for the surrounding areas to succeed. The only real alternative is to close down the racetrack and turn it into an empty development site and a blank slate. That's a can of worms and pitfalls that no one has ever been able to address. What would replace the racetrack?

Bi-level Pimlico Plan: The blue line is the realignment of Northern Parkway between Key Ave (left, west) and
Preakness Way (right, east). The yellow land areas would be excavated in a tapered manner to create a wide corridor
to and through the racetrack infield (center). Mt. Washington is the neighborhood to the north (top).

Conceptual possibilities


Since the Maryland Stadium Authority is currently studying rebuilding the racetrack virtually from the ground-up, going below the ground would not add significantly to the disruption or even the cost. There are many conceptual possibilities, but here's one way a bi-level Pimlico could be designed.

The re-grading would roughly encompass the area between existing Northern Parkway and the north circle of the racetrack oval inside and outside the infield. The track itself would remain just where it is now.

Northern Parkway would be lowered and shifted southward between about Key Avenue to the west and Preakness Way to the east.

The re-grading would be tapered gradually in most places, to create an airy, open, accessible environment. Existing Northern Parkway would remain in place as a local street for the Mount Washington neighborhood, but with far less traffic. The digging would be deeper to the west because the land is flat. Northern Parkway is on a hill to the east.

The "tunnel" under the racetrack which would connect both sides to and through the infield would be as wide as necessary so that it can be designed to not feel like a tunnel at all. The northern edge of this tunnel would contain the relocated Northern Parkway, which would be narrowed from six lanes and a median strip down to four lanes (44 feet) or perhaps only two lanes if enough traffic still uses the existing upper Northern Parkway, including all traffic that wants to access the neighborhoods and the racetrack site.

Designers would no doubt rise to the challenge to make the grade changes as interesting as possible. The taper in the infield could contain a stage for performance events during the Preakness and the rest of the year. The taper next to the main grandstand west of the infield could be integrated into a new below-ground concourse to serve race patrons.

With the diversion of the heavy Northern Parkway through traffic into the tunnel and away from the neighborhood, the interface between the racetrack and Mount Washington neighborhood would have an entirely new feel. Without the heavy thru traffic, existing Northern Parkway could be made to feel similar to the slow elegant parkways inside the neighborhood, like Ken Oak Road (pictured above) and Cross Country Boulevard. On the south side of the street, the racetrack or its multiple new uses could be oriented to feel like they are directly associated with upper-crust Mount Washington, reinforcing the image of horse racing as "the sport of kings".

Since the established boundary of Mount Washington is in fact Northern Parkway, the neighborhood would essentially be expanded by a block to the south of the existing roadway, and the new development on this land would be Mount Washington development.

This design would also enable the Park Heights neighborhood to the south to be integrated as well, with a gradual transition northward to Mount Washington instead of the current abrupt border feeling. Like in Mount Washington, the racetrack plan would essentially expand the Park Heights neighborhood toward the racetrack, especially near the central intersection of Park Heights and Belvedere Avenues. Unlike in Mount Washington, however, pretty much all previous racetrack plans called for this change. However, until now, there was never a strong enough justification to actually do it.

Most importantly, the racetrack needs to be reinvented as a year-round attraction. All the raw material to accomplish this is there, most notably the rich historic legacy and the eager host neighborhoods where life already happens every day.

The current Pimlico planning process is the city's last best chance to do it right.

May 2, 2017

North Av/Reservoir Hill riot redux: Don't blow it again!

On North Avenue, less than a mile east of the center of the 2015 riots, the redevelopment that happened after the 1968 riots has just been knocked down so it can be redeveloped yet again.

The 1970s Madison Park North development was notoriously nicknamed "Murder Mall" for its chronic crime. It was arguably the most awful new design anywhere in Baltimore in the past 50 years - a bad shotgun wedding of urban and suburban style elements. While the rest of the Reservoir Hill neighborhood has since recovered well, if slowly, the only recourse remaining for Murder Mall was its recent demolition.

Beautiful Bolton Street in Reservoir Hill, looking south directly at the rear of the last remaining structure in Murder Mall. 

In fact, the stately century-old rowhouses on adjacent Bolton Street just north of the site in Reservoir Hill, once largely in shambles, now look just about as well preserved as its mirror image blocks to the south in "blue-blood" Bolton Hill, which have been almost continuously prosperous since the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, despite Reservoir Hill's recent success and the fact that the 2015 riots missed this area, it's all-too-easy to envision the same mistakes being made again in the new redevelopment. But the one clear tool to making the plan work may be to redesign this portion of North Avenue itself, which now acts as a formidable geographic barrier between the old-guard Bolton Hill and newly-emerging Reservoir Hill neighborhoods.

The Murder Mall demolition site, looking east. Reservoir Hill is to the left (Lennox Street)
and in the background (Park Avenue). The site's lone remaining structure is to the right.

Redevelopment as it looks so far


The fate of Murder Mall demonstrates the ruinous power of bad design. And it's not just high rise low income "projects" that become doomed. Innocuous low-rise "mixed use" (often seen as a panacea) development such as this can be doomed too, if the design is bad enough.

I won't enumerate the crime history or all the design sins of Murder Mall. It's pretty much gone now. This isn't a design blog anyway. It's a planning blog, so it's time to look toward the future, not the past, as Mayor Pugh would say.

And there are a lot of intelligent people with an interest in the Murder Mall redevelopment project, either as hired professionals, nearby residents, stakeholders or interested bystanders. So I'll let them do their thing and see what they kind of design come up with.

But for some reason, I'm nervous. So far, the posted website is just about a total blank. It doesn't even say whose website it is. It only asks you to tell them your email address, just like any two-bit internet hustler. This is a bad sign.

On the other hand, the website's only picture is of those beautiful rowhouses nearby - an effective attempt at tacit reassurance that they know what an asset the existing neighborhoods are to the project, and that they will hopefully try to compliment them in the new design.

But there's also a rendering of a redevelopment scenario posted in various other places, which looks like a high budget glass version of Murder Mall, defying anyone to break the glass and start another riot. This glass style reminiscent of "star-chitect" Mies van der Rohe was fashionable at the same time in the 1960s when the ghetto bunker-style Murder Mall was built. Can't we get out of that era? Oops, newer post-modern architecture is often not relevant either.

Madison Park North Redevelopment Will 'Create Something Transformative For West Baltimore'
The first rendering of the Murder Mall redevelopment stands out with 1960s modern international-style architecture,
but with a similar "superblock" layout and North Avenue essentially unchanged in the foreground.

Contradicting all that, the largest building in Murder Mall has not yet been demolished. With everything else gone, this building just sticks out and would block any reconnection of the single remaining block of Bolton Street in Reservoir Hill. Keeping this building is the main thing that prevents the site's reintegration with the communities and creates a "superblock" fortress environment that was one of the primary reasons Murder Mall was such a disaster in the first place.

But that remaining building is a usable shell for a new supermarket, which seems to be what the surrounding communities want most, even though it is the land use with the most suburban roots. A supermarket is what debates over the nearby State Center project have talked about most, even though its really big issues are the massive guaranteed state government rent payments and the need for transit-oriented development.

On the plus side, the rendering suggests that such a supermarket would be integrated creatively if it was to be included in the project, rather than just occupying the same old failed building. The rendering's architecture also suggests an emphasis on uses other than residential - meaning retail and jobs, the two things needed most. There's already plenty of residential in the surrounding areas.

On the minus side, the rendering also shows existing North Avenue retained in pretty much the same oppressively wide suburban way as it was rebuilt after the 1960s riots. Mixing urban and suburban style environments is a strategy fraught with pitfalls. That might be the largest lesson to be learned by the failure of Murder Mall.

That also describes the pitfalls of the redevelopment process. Recreating suburbia won't work, but suburban models are what are most successful... in suburbia. People just want a supermarket, rather than getting hung up in issues like architectural styles, urban versus suburban, and superblocks versus grids.

Bottom Line: Blending in


The simplest way to express the lesson which must be learned is this: The project needs to blend into the beautiful successful neighborhoods to the south and north - Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill. Because of the surrounding neighborhoods' success, failure here would be all the more spectacular - unlike Old Town where the post-riot design was pretty decent in its own way but the surroundings kept it from working anyway.

Bolton Hill probably won't or can't be changed. They've already solidified their outer edge along North Avenue to turn inward. There's virtually no access to anything in Bolton Hill along the entire North Avenue border, except the intersection at Park Avenue (there always seems to be a "token"). It would be great to change that, but there are no "soft" properties where it could readily be done.

Of course, the Reservoir Hill neighborhood to the north also has its own internal agenda. It's a wonderfully diverse neighborhood that has accomplished much and needs to get along with each other to come up with some kind of united front for the project. The city needs to respect that.

That leaves North Avenue itself as the most likely instrument of change, because it's nobody's turf. Right now, it's nearly 100 feet wide adjacent to the site, even though much of it elsewhere is only 60 feet wide, and the two lanes in each direction which traffic ostensibly needs would only require 40 to 44 feet. That leaves a lot of leeway. On-street parking is also of little use here, unless the new development is designed for it.

Since the south (Bolton Hill) side of the street is likely already a "hard" impenetrable barrier, probably the best thing to do is to push all four lanes of through traffic to the south side. That would free up the north half (or more) of the roadway to be used to compliment the design of the redevelopment project. The most common and most urban way to do this is by designing a "service drive" to make the adjacent portion of North Avenue into a slow moving local street, rather than a main east-west artery.

Murder Mall before it was demolished, with suburban style housing
situated amid open nooks and crannies where crime happened.
This "superblock" is bounded by North Avenue to the south, Park Ave. to the east, Lennox Street to the north
and Linden Avenue to the west. Bolton Hill is south of North Avenue and Reservoir Hill is to the north

Another more all-encompassing possible element would be to construct one or more roundabouts at key locations along North Avenue, such as Park Avenue (shown), Linden Avenue (at the southwest corner of the site) and Eutaw Place (further west). Roundabouts have the unique ability to interrupt major thoroughfares in a way that focuses attention on the local "place" instead of on an entire corridor, which can reinforce the barrier aspect. Roundabouts could also effectively sort out the conflicts of traffic turning into and out of the service drive.

A proposed North Avenue streetcar line, as has been discussed lately, but that would do exactly the opposite, so it's hard to see how that would be a successful catalyst for change.

Possible roundabout at North and Park Avenues. Development site is in the upper left corner.
West of the roundabout, North Avenue would be split with both directions of through traffic south of the median
and a local service drive north of the median.

In sum, the Murder Mall superblock was a product of the demolition frenzy of the early 1970s that also included the widening of North Avenue to make it even more of a barrier between Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill than it was before, and even though urbanist Jane Jacobs explained a decade earlier the diametrically right way to do it and avoid border vacuums that breed crime.

The new development needs to unify communities, but this may be as difficult to do in the current age as it was in the riot-torn 1960s. Changing the design of North Avenue may be the one effective action in "neutral territory" that everyone can agree on to bring people together.

April 25, 2017

New MARC stations: North/Mt Royal, Upton, Sandtown

The chosen plan for the new Amtrak tunnel in West Baltimore would provide enough trackage for all anticipated future train service. The old existing tunnel would thus be free to be used for anything. This means the old tunnel can be rehabbed in a way that is optimized for critical local needs - not Amtrak's - and new stations can be provided to support neighborhood development opportunities.
Seldom seen view of the southwest corner of Mount Royal and North Avenues, looking west.
The ancient brick enclosure for the tracks entering the Amtrak tunnel (in the foreground)
could be opened up to create a new local MARC station and lead into a "campus green"
that connects to the MICA buildings in the background. North Avenue is barely visible to the upper right.

The recent Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) "Record of Decision" calls for a new $4.5 Billion replacement tunnel that includes four tracks rather than the current two tracks. But the alignment for the new four-track tunnel would still make it possible to retain connections to the old existing two-track tunnel. As stated in the FRA Record of Decision: "The existing B&P Tunnel, a contributing element of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad historic district, will be abandoned in a manner that will allow for future transportation use." This specific point is also spelled out as one of the top five "Project Benefits" as listed on the Amtrak website.

So while future Amtrak trains and most (if not all) MARC commuter rail trains will be whizzing through the new modern tunnel, the existing historic tunnel can be uniquely reconfigured to position West Baltimore growth and development as a vital part of the burgeoning Baltimore-Washington corridor.

OLD AMTRAK TUNNEL - Going west out of Penn Station (right) toward Washington, DC, the tunnel begins
just prior to North Avenue and ends at Gilmor Street in Sandtown. Three new MARC stations can be accommodated
at the beginning, middle and end of the tunnel at North Avenue/Mount Royal, Upton and Sandtown.


Three new West Baltimore MARC Stations


Unlike the proposed new Amtrak tunnel which would be bored deep in the ground, the existing tunnel is located directly below the surface. New stations along the old route can therefore be intimately integrated with surface activities and development in the local communities, unhampered by demands for high speed and high capacity. This line could use shorter self-powered trains that consist essentially of a cross between commuter rail and light rail vehicles, even allowing riders to walk across the track at selected locations, which is forbidden in the Amtrak corridor.

The stations could then be configured as a kind of "transit mall" to bring the passengers as close to the communities as possible. The three proposed new stations also happen to be located at open-air interruptions in the tunnel, which would further reduce the separation between the station and community environments. The line could probably also be reduced to a single track in confined locations if necessary where pedestrians and platforms need the space.

The old tunnel has been designated as its own historic district and consists of fascinating nineteenth century stone and brick work that heretofore has mostly been seen only in dark, dank, dirty fleeting views seen by train riders with their faces pressed against the windows. A challenge to designers will be to present the historic aspects of this tunnel in the best possible perspectives and light.

Here are three key places for proposed new MARC stations between Penn Station and West Baltimore Station at US 40 (which would also be totally rebuilt and slightly relocated under the FRA's chosen plan):

NORTH AVENUE / MOUNT ROYAL STATION - connecting to North Avenue light rail station at the upper right,
and Maryland Institute College of Art buildings to the left and center.

1. North Avenue Station at Mount Royal

This new station could be built around a submerged "campus green" between the two North Avenue buildings of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) which are located on either side of the Mount Royal Avenue intersection between the Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill neighborhoods. This "campus green" would create intimate access to the station and generate activity by college students even when there are no trains. The new station space would also circumvent the major traffic conflicts at the busy intersection above. The current opening in the rail tunnel to the sky, located southwest of the intersection, could be enlarged to ensure it is a bright attractive place.

This station space should also be extended to the east in the existing tunnel under North Avenue and the Jones Falls Expressway to the adjacent light rail station. This would provide an important new transfer point so that all light rail trains could connect to MARC, not just the very limited number that traverse the stub branch from Howard Street to Penn Station. This new station would thus provide a valuable amenity not only for Maryland Institute and the neighborhoods, but for the whole region.

UPTON STATION - looking east into the tunnel under Pennsylvania Avenue,
with buildings on both sides of the street seen above the tunnel portal. The "Avenue Market" is just off to the left
and a pedestrian connection to the Metro subway station mezzanine could be provided below it.

2. Upton Station at Pennsylvania Avenue

The anchor for this station would be a connection to the Upton Metro Station, located under and next to the "Avenue Market" on Pennsylvania Avenue between Laurens and Pitcher Street. The new MARC station would be located in the existing open-air interruption in the rail tunnel between Pennsylvania Avenue and Fremont Avenue (see photo above).

It would probably be best to completely rebuild the market to integrate it with the new station and facilitate the below-ground connection to the Metro station mezzanine, with a much larger site footprint that encompasses both blocks to the north and south sides of the tracks. The combined Metro and MARC station would then be a major focal point of the Upton community, instead of being hidden away as it is now.

SANDTOWN STATION - in an open air cut just west of the tunnel portal
from Gilmor Street (east, right) to Monroe Street (US 1 - west, left)

3. Sandtown Station between Gilmor and Monroe Streets

This station would be located just beyond the west end of the tunnel between Gilmor and Monroe Streets. Since it would be open to the sky, it would be the most visible, accessible, largest and easiest place of all to develop a new station.

This fringe area of the "Freddie Gray" neighborhood around the heavily used Fulton/Monroe Street couplet is rough even by Sandtown norms, so it's not a neighborhood that's likely to be too attractive to affluent Washington-Baltimore commuters for a while. But since this is a long range plan, every step helps and every job is important. There is also a huge amount of underutilized industrial land just west of Monroe Street toward Rosemont and Walbrook that can be redeveloped to a higher intensity.

Other alternatives and variations


It should also be mentioned that another alternative exists that would provide a West Baltimore Metro-MARC connection without using the existing tunnel at all. A MARC spur could be built onto the old West Maryland Railroad line (now owned by CSX) north from the current West Baltimore MARC station to either the Cold Spring Lane, Rogers Avenue or Reisterstown Plaza Metro Stations. An intermediate stop could also be provided where the tracks cross over North Avenue near Coppin State University. This line would require passenger service to be share the tracks with freight service.

All the concepts set forth here are an evolution of the previous plans for a localized type of MARC service that were part of the 2002 regional rail transit system plan. At that time, this was designated as a "high priority", but the idea self-destructed almost as soon as the plan was published, most plausibly due to inevitable serious conflicts with existing longer-distance Amtrak and MARC service on the same tracks.

That plan would have been far more limited than this one. The 2002 plan had only a new station at Sandtown-Winchester, but not at Upton or Mount Royal. It therefore would have connected to the existing rail transit system only at the very limited light rail stop at Penn Station. It was also planned to operate only in the Baltimore metropolitan area, as far south as BWI-Marshall Airport and Odenton.

However, a Washington connection would be very important, either running the service all the way to Washington Union Station or at least as far as the New Carrollton Station of the Washington Metro. Amtrak would have the final word on this. Union Station is currently very congested and train traffic will continue to increase..

There may also be some locations elsewhere between Baltimore and Washington where a similar kind of smaller and more localized kind of station is appropriate, which could then be linked to the local West Baltimore service. It may also enable some existing MARC service to be redirected away from smaller stations, which could improve travel times for some trains.

This is the point in the project planning process where these kinds of local amenities and mitigations can begin to be discussed, and where the negotiating power of the local communities can be used to their advantage.

The recent decision by the Federal Railroad Administration, in concert with Amtrak and the state, to abandon the old West Baltimore rail tunnel, now breathes new life into all these concepts. They are also fed by the urgent need to stimulate new growth and optimism for the future of West Baltimore.

April 18, 2017

Stump Dump solution is a bridge to Roland Park

The city's crappy Stump Dump sits in one of the city's most valuable and significant sites. But like many blighting influences, the stump dump doesn't need to disappear right away. It just needs to be exposed. Like alcoholism, the first step to redemption is simply to admit there's a problem.

The basic problem is that the Stump Dump has been sufficiently isolated from the urban fabric that it doesn't offend any particular persons or groups to the point of action. It's an affront on the need for transit-oriented development near light rail stations, but not nearly as much as State Center. It's a blot on adjacent beautiful Cylburn Park, so the park simply turns its back to it. It's adjacent to the banks of the Jones Falls, a lovely river that's mostly ignored anyway. It's right next to an Interstate highway interchange with potentially great access. And it is just far enough removed from the city's elite Roland Park neighborhood that no ruckus has been raised there to get rid of it, despite being home of many of the city's most well-connected movers and shakers.

The solution is to build a bridge. Sounds metaphorical, right? Yes, but it's also real.

West Roland Park - shaded in purple - created by a new bridge over Interstate 83 in yellow.
The Poly-Western High School campus is to the east (right). The Stump Dump is to the upper west
between the new bridge and Cylburn Park. The existing light rail station is the blue bar at the bottom,
and its proposed relocation is the blue bar at the top next to the new bridge.



Something has recently been going on at the Stump Dump. The stumpers appear to have been cleaning up their act a bit. From a distance, the place now looks more organized instead of in chaos. And they've apparently chopped down and mulched a few more trees along the abutting edge of Cylburn Park to create a nice defined edge, along with installing erosion and runoff control measures to demonstrate that they're following some kind of plan. There is starting to be some kind of "there" there.

The City Stump Dump - looking north toward a big pile of logs with Cylburn Park in the background.

The Stump Dump will continue at this location until the city is good and ready to move it out. But surrounding progress should not wait for that. There have been sporadic murmurs of future development plans - for the treasured green space of the Roland Park Country Club east of Falls Road and for the light rail station area south of Cold Spring Lane. A new police station was built on an isolated chunk of this land a few years ago, even when communities were clamoring instead to put it in a real neighborhood where the people are.

The most important priority is to create linkages so that plans can unfold when the time is right and the constituencies will be there to make sure everything fits together, which is what living in a city is all about.

A bridge to a higher power


Again like addressing alcoholism, the second step is to build a bridge to a higher power - an actual roadway bridge across the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83) between the Poly-Western High School campus, the Stump Dump and Cold Spring Lane. The "higher power" is that would then connect to the Roland Park community, east of Falls Road (Route 25). This will give them a sense of ownership and commitment to create a positive fate for the Stump Dump.

How much or how little traffic the new bridge carries is a secondary issue. Access and exposure are the keys.

The most basic issue is whether the new bridge should accommodate cars, or should be for pedestrians and bikes only. Designing a bridge for all people and vehicles would actually be easier because it would not limit future land use possibilities. The bridge approaches would be a trunk for any connections - a major or minor future gateway to Cylburn Park supported by any kind of compatible new development.

A pedestrian-only bridge would be less expensive, but would not be perceived as having nearly as strong linkages, so some of those linkages would need to be addressed immediately instead of later. It would also not be as safe for pedestrians and bikes without surveillance from occasional auto traffic. The least expensive and least secure pedestrian bridge option could go underneath the expressway, sharing the same underpass as the Jones Falls itself. So that's another option. An example of this kind of design is the underpass between the Mount Washington light rail station and the Whole Foods supermarket on the other side of the expressway. The paradox is that the most conflict-free environment for pedestrians and bikes is not the one with the best linkages.

The ideal goal would be for the new bridge to feed the Jones Falls Trail, and this could be done in a very attractive manner along the bank of the Jones Falls and under the Cold Spring Lane overpass (see photo below). But this is very hidden and isolated. Would this be where Poly-Western students go to smoke cigarettes - tobacco or the newly legalized "medicinal" kind or some kind of worse activity?

The Jones Falls - looking south between the Stump Dump and Cold Spring Lane (overpass in the background).
This hidden area would be a lovely place for a path between the Jones Falls Trail,
under Cold Spring Lane, to the new bridge to Poly-Western High School and Roland Park.

This is in stark contrast to the conflicts between pedestrians and traffic on Cold Spring Lane itself at its interchange with the expressway, which has exactly the opposite kind of safety problem - far too much traffic, not too little. Cold Spring Lane attracts very heavy traffic from all over the city which also dissipates any sense of local ownership or control. The current path along this interchange from the light rail station to Poly-Western is very dangerous for pedestrians trying to negotiate the ramps and intersections, most notably for the Poly-Western students, who are among the city's best and brightest.

The best location for a new bridge is as an extension of the roadway that already dissects the large high school campus and then extends east across Falls Road into Roland Park on Hillside Road, creating the best possible physical linkage.

The proposed bridge over the expressway (I-83) between Poly-Western High School (east, right)
and Cold Spring Lane (lower left). The Stump Dump is at the left top (north)
with a Vinegar Plant nestled between the Jones Falls and the expressway interchange.
The existing light rail station is at the bottom (in blue) and a proposed relocation is at the top.

Many possible subsequent steps


Of course, there should be a much larger plan for how to integrate the new bridge into the surrounding area. Here are some elements which could be incorporated into such a plan:

1. Move the Cold Spring light rail station northward adjacent to the new bridge

The existing station is in a terrible location down in a gully and as previously noted, is very dangerous for pedestrians (e.g. students) to and from Cold Spring Lane. A relocated station would also create far better, safer and more direct access for all the surrounding communities, most notably Roland Park, Cross Keys and Coldspring New Town. In fact, the station was originally intended to be located there, but cost overruns and budget cuts on the entire rail line killed it.

2. Expand the Poly-Western campus to include more citywide education-related facilities

While it is already one of the city's premiere "magnet" high schools and a "go-to" facility for other education-related functions for the city as a whole, there is great potential to do more, including more partnerships with the private and nonprofit sectors to bring education and training into the "real world". The modern buzzword is to create an "anchor institution" for the surrounding area. As is, Poly-Western's campus still resembles a self-enclosed suburban design like a 1960s shopping mall with its ring-road. There is tremendous potential to change that.

The hidden Jones Falls looking north from the proposed bridge toward Cross Keys (high-rise in the upper right).
Cylburn Park is in the upper left (west), just beyond the light rail line and the expressway. The school campus area
to the right (east) of the stream could make a great linkage between the new bridge and Cross Keys. 

3. Open up the Cross Keys neighborhood

Like Poly-Western, Cross Keys just to the north was developed in the 1960s as a self-enclosed community, even including "gates" to give it an exclusive auto-oriented aura. This kind of design is now totally obsolete and prevents Cross Keys from reaching out to the city as a whole which a mixed-use community needs to do, especially with its major retail component. Integrating the north side of Poly with the south edge of Cross Keys would create new facets for both, and also link Cross Keys to the new community bridge to the light rail line. The now neglected Jones Falls (see above photo) would be an ideal spine for this connection.

Falls Road looking north toward Cross Keys (upper left) with the Baltimore Country Club property
in the Roland Park neighborhood to the right. Developing this portion of the property would integrate Falls Road
with Roland Park and enable the rest of the site to remain as open green space.

4. Transform Falls Road into an integral part of Roland Park

There's no reason why Falls Road can't feel like part of the Roland Park community too, instead of just another auto artery. With the enhancements to Poly-Western, Cross Keys and the new West Roland Park bridge, Falls Road could function like its part of the center of Roland Park, not off on its west edge. These improvements would also create a more intimate scale to increase Falls Road's orientation to pedestrians. This could also lead to a solution to the long development controversy between the Baltimore Country Club and the community (see my blog from way back in 2008). The Country Club could be encouraged to develop a narrow strip of their property adjacent to Falls Road, with sufficient quality and density to make it feasible for them to leave the rest of their property as open green space, as the surrounding Roland Park community has long insisted.

5. Create a new east gateway to Cylburn Park

Huge Cylburn Park currently turns its back on Roland Park and everything else to the west. That's like Sherwood Gardens turning its back on Guilford (unthinkable !!!) The ultimate goal in getting rid of the Stump Dump would be to create a new entrance to Cylburn that would link it to all that's gracious and classy - and then the rest of us Baltimorons could tag along too !!!

6. Link all of this to the Jones Falls Trail and Cold Spring New Town

The original 1970s plan for Cold Spring New Town was intended to include the entire Stump Dump area, along a roadway alignment that was already partially graded along the Jones Falls Trail which was finally built just a few years ago. A new plan could be devised to do something similar between the Jones Falls Trail and the new bridge to Poly and Roland Park, although due to the steep topography, it would probably be best to make this linkage for pedestrians and bikes only.

7. Create transit-oriented development

Among the various area sites for transit-oriented development, the best is probably adjacent to the existing light rail station south of Cold Spring Lane, rather than the proposed station relocation. However, as has been the experience elsewhere in Baltimore (State Center, Westport, Howard Street), rail transit has been an insufficient inducement to promote new development. All the other new linkages and area plans discussed above would likely be a much stronger inducement.

The bottom line is that the new linkages would enable developers and real estate agents to call this area "West Roland Park" - a name that could be worth millions. As a small example, the Fleischmann's Vinegar plant hidden away in the stream gully, which features some great old architecture, could be rebranded as something like "Ye Olde Craft Boutique Vinegar Works".

It all begins with building a bridge


Each of these concepts would add value to the others, creating collective momentum to do all of them. After a while, even the Baltimore City government could not resist the elimination of the Stump Dump in favor of more attractive and compatible uses.

Ultimately, the greatest inducement would probably be the ability to create a new gateway to Cylburn Park where the Stump Dump is now, with the best payoff being the ability to call Cylburn Park a part of Roland Park. When arguing against the development of the Baltimore Country Club site, Roland Park residents have raised the point that there is currently no park at all in Roland Park. Claiming Cylburn Park as part of Roland Park may be the biggest prize of all.

And it all begins with building a bridge.