June 26, 2018

Violetville: Best future MARC station suburb?

Signs for the future show great potential to build a MARC commuter rail station just inside the city line near the very attractive Violetville neighborhood. Violetville could become the very best railroad suburb in the whole Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Violetville has always been one of Baltimore's quiet strong working-class neighborhoods, which the city economy used to have in abundance but now has only a few. But whether Violetville can continue to resist the negative trends that continue to plague the city is an open question.

The key to making a Violetville Station a special place is to provide no parking - just part of a great neighborhood. Think of Harry Potter's Hogsmeade or Twilight Zone's Willoughby.

Site of a potential Violetville MARC station, looking south from Wilkens Avenue.
 A landlocked industrial site is to the left and Southwestern Boulevard is to the right.

The station would be located along Southwest Boulevard, Baltimore's original "Highway to Nowhere" which was supposed to get cars from US 1 through the city until the 1950s when the Harbor Tunnel Thruway was built.

Fixing Southwestern Boulevard

Very recently, the state finally completed a connection to the Beltway from Southwestern Boulevard, reducing it to a single lane in the process, thus finally recognizing that it's not a thruway anymore. Until a few years ago, Southwestern Boulevard looked like a poorly designed freeway, with 50 mph speed limits on some portions despite having uncontrolled crosswalks and pedestrian routes to the Halethorpe MARC rail station and other local destinations.

Crosswalks should not coexist with a 50 mph speed limit. If a motorist was actually to conform to the law, he'd have to slam on the brakes from 50 mph whenever a person was present in a crosswalk. No one did, of course. So Southwest Boulevard was a death trap.

The new improvements finally correct another major design flaw which had required Beltway-bound traffic to filter through Arbutus via local Leeds Avenue. This had also stood since this portion of the Beltway was built in the 1950s.

This long overdue change contrasts with the short city portion of Southwest Boulevard next to Violetville, which still looks like a grossly overdesigned freeway. Since such a design seldom exists in a vacuum, large semi-trailer trucks have spontaneously decided to use it as a parking lot and "rest area". Fortunately, the Oaklee neighborhood just to the west has managed to get this banned from their side of Southwest Boulevard (opposite Violetville and the railroad tracks), and truckers are no longer allowed to leave dis-attached trailers which created a longer term problem. Still, the constant presence of a long line of parked trucks prevents anything attractive from going into the strip of land between Southwest Boulevard and the Amtrak tracks.

But Southwest Boulevard can indeed be easily downsized to serve as a human-scaled front door for a train station and new housing, and create a narrow civilized link between the Violetville and Oaklee neighborhoods on either side of the street. All the traffic in both directions can easily be consolidated on the west (currently southbound) roadway with room left over for drop-offs, eliminating the roadway closest to the station.

Southwestern Boulevard looking north in front of impromptu truck parking, behind which is a beautiful virgin forest.
 All the traffic in both directions could easily be consolidated on the left roadway, with room left over for drop-offs.
The proposed Violetville MARC station would be on the right beyond the forest. 

Violetville's fate

Violetville is sufficiently isolated from the truck and highway problems which has served the neighborhood well thus far. However, the neighborhood is far more vulnerable and dependent on the future success or failure of the city as a whole.

Violetville has that in common with its two other smaller closest neighborhoods, Oaklee and Kensington, which are also somewhat isolated, although not to the same extent since they are adjacent to Arbutus in Baltimore County, which has a whole different public sector support system - schools, taxes, services, etc.

In particular, Kensington has extremely attractive single family houses, nestled into a small wedge between Wilkens Avenue, Loudon Park Cemetery, a small part of Yale Heights and the huge, fortress-like Charlestown senior housing complex on the edge of Catonsville.

Can these three neighborhoods continue to seem like lands that time forgot? In a city that has lost a third of its population, where the economy keeps getting more stressed and people continue to get older and move (such as to nearby Charlestown senior complex), this is doubtful. Change is a constant.

Big dead tree hovering over houses on Rock Hill Avenue in Violetville.

Here's a living metaphor: There is currently a huge dead tree hovering over a row of houses on Rock Hill Avenue in Violetville. It was once a beautiful healthy tree that provided shade to the neighborhood, but now it threatens the houses. No one has chopped it down. If a strong wind blows it down, it could severely damage the houses and perhaps the people in them. After such a catastrophe, would the houses be worth enough to get rebuilt, or would they just languish as a cancer for the neighborhood as a whole, as has happened in much of the city?

Of course, I'm not a tree expert and I haven't measured the risk. But this kind of metaphor has played out in many other neighborhoods throughout the city - to bad results. Having insurance is not enough. If the neighborhood is not worth investing in, the wise economic decision for victimized residents would be to simply take your money, move out and live elsewhere, regardless of the insurance check, leaving behind yet another neighborhood that needs help.

All neighborhoods have ups and downs, and it's usually difficult to recognize the tipping point. The nearby Cardinal Gibbons High School closed several years ago and it's not easy to measure that impact. On the other hand, St. Agnes Hospital has continued to grow. Things are seldom static even if they might appear that way.

Creating a MARC identity

So let's look at the long range trend. Much of Baltimore, away from Hopkins and the harbor, still does not have a strong identity. Perhaps Violetville, Oaklee and Kensington are economically strong enough to withstand what continues to bring down much of the rest of the city. But maybe not.

At some point, the best course may be to build a MARC rail station along the Amtrak tracks and establish these neighborhoods as viable suburbs for commuters to Washington, DC. This has been tried at the city's other three commuter rail stations, at Penn Station, Camden Yards and West Baltimore, but this is very well where it might work best to take advantage of the fact that Washington continues to boom as a world capital while Baltimore struggles.

In fact, this could become the best transit-oriented community in the entire Baltimore-Washington corridor. Virtually all of the other MARC station communities have competing and conflicting interests that Violetville would not have. Camden Station is downtown, and the CSX Camden line as a whole can't offer good enough service. The Penn Station area did not take off until arts and education supplanted commuting as the primary focus. West Baltimore, Halethorpe and BWI-Marshall are oriented to drive-in riders. The stations closer to Washington don't have enough of an economic advantage over other suburbs.

The isolation of Violetville, Oaklee and Kensington would work to their advantage in creating an environment that can truly work well with suburban transit commuting. The existing residential areas would remain virtually as-is. There would be no big oppressive parking lots or garages and no pressure to build them. New higher density residential development would be located closest to the train station, and specifically tailored to transit commuting, meaning that only a negligible amount of auto traffic would be generated.

The Kensington neighborhood, one of the city's hidden gems.
A building of the huge Charlestown senior living complex can be seen above in the distance.

Planning a Violetville MARC Station

A Violetville MARC Station would be laid out in a roughly similar manner to the recently rebuilt Halethorpe Station just over two miles to the south, except without the large parking areas. These would be replaced with new housing oriented the station. Southwestern Boulevard would be narrowed to a single lane in each direction to create more space and a better environment for this development, as well as an easy pedestrian crossing between the neighborhoods. The main entrance to the station would also be from Southwestern Boulevard.

Proposed Violetville MARC Station area shown in orange, straddling Amtrak tracks. The main entrance
 would be off of a narrowed Southwestern Boulevard (US 1) to the west (left).
A neighborhood entrance would be located to the east of the tracks. Adjacent parks would be on each side
 of the tracks to the south - the existing Violetville Park to the east and a new wooded passive park to the west..

From Violetville, on the other side of the tracks, there should probably also be adjacent new residential development that replaces the industrial complex behind the houses on Haverhill Road. This would include a pedestrian connection over or under the tracks, so that the station is accessible from the rest of Violetville.

Violetville MARC Station site under the power poles,
as seen from landlocked commercial operation located behind houses on Haverhill Road.

The development should also have an orientation to the Violetville Park to create more of a "people presence" for the park and foster its use and maintenance. The park is now hidden from almost the entire neighborhood, which discourages safety and encourages neglect. At present, the softball fields and tennis courts are in very poor condition, and even on a recent beautiful summer Sunday, hardly anyone was there. It would be advantageous to make the maintenance of this park the legal and financial responsibility of the new development.

Violetville Park looking toward the adjacent railroad tracks under the electric poles.
The park's softball fields and tennis courts are not maintained.

Surprisingly, there is also a large (nearly five acres) virgin forest area between the railroad tracks and Southwestern Boulevard, interrupted only by the adjacent constant lineup of trucks. An intelligent design for the new development and the station could also incorporate this forest into the Violetville Park, to create an open space for peace and contemplation to augment the current space for more active uses. Of course, economic realities would dictate what could actually be done, but on the other hand, nothing should be done unless it's of high enough quality to be beneficial.

South of this park and an adjacent cemetery and entering Baltimore County, there are other industrial areas that may eventually be redeveloped as well. The vast majority of this is east of the tracks with good direct access to well-used Benson Avenue, and so any changes would be of a lower priority.

The Violetville MARC Station would serve trains on the outer two of the four tracks, which make all the stops between Penn Station and BWI-Marshall Airport, before continuing to New Carrollton and Washington, while the two inner tracks would serve higher speed Acela and Regional Amtrak trains that would not stop here.

In sum, a new MARC station would provide the kind of major future option which is not afforded to most Baltimore neighborhoods, and Violetville could become the nicest station in the whole Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Willoughby and Hogsmeade only exist in our imaginations, but Violetville is real.

May 16, 2018

Politicians: Start acting like you really want a Red Line

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake set the tone for lack of effort to get the light rail Red Line built, and other politicians have fallen in line ever since. She promised that her staff would develop a viable alternative plan, and then she did absolutely nothing except continue to bash Governor Hogan for cancelling the $3 billion project.

Since then, much political rhetoric has been expended for the Red Line, but no action to back it up - right up to the current gubernatorial campaign to try to prevent Hogan's re-election in November.
The Red Line should go through this area in the median of the "Highway to Nowhere" near Fremont Avenue,
 as it was originally planned until it was relocated into a more lengthy downtown tunnel. 
Heritage Crossing is in the background and could be expanded here. (Metro West is to the right of the photo.)

All of this started well before Hogan was first elected or almost anyone had even ever heard of him. The majority of the Red Line (west of Fells Point) was originally slated for completion by 2014. But despite talk of urgency, Governor O'Malley kept delaying a full funding plan while the project kept getting more expensive.

In the city is was business as usual. On the east side of town, the big new glitzy waterfront development projects kept the proposed Red Line stations as far away as possible. On the west side, the city refused to consider closing the "Highway to Nowhere" to create transit oriented development sites.

Working class residents on Fremont Avenue in West Baltimore (not upper income east siders) sued the state for its late decision to expand the downtown tunnel to an alignment directly under the fronts of their houses at its shallowest point, instead of the previous "locally preferred alternative" which kept it in the highway median (see photo above) all the way to MLK Boulevard.

Kevin Kamenetz' Red Line legacy

The first official discord from politicians occurred when both Baltimore City and County balked at contributing to the Red Line's ever-increasing cost. The late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz took the heat for this, but the Baltimore mayor reaped the lion's share of the benefit, in an agreement with O'Malley that the 10% local contributions would go mostly for items that weren't even included in the Red Line's costs anyway. That left the State to pay close to the full tab, including cost overruns, outside of a hoped-for $900 million federal contribution for which the state never completed its application, and thus was never committed by the Obama or Trump Administrations.

Contrast this with the DC-suburban Purple Line, which is now signed, sealed and under construction. The entire Purple Line funding package was spelled out, then approved by Trump's Department of Transportation, including a long-term state commitment to pay upwards of $5 Billion to a "public-private partnership", and with Prince George's and Montgomery Counties paying their full shares with real cash in accordance with Federal Transit Administration regulations from the Obama Administration.

Kevin Kamenetz was the first major politician to foresee that the Red Line was going to be difficult if not impossible to build all at once, so he wanted Baltimore County's portion to the west to be built in an "early phase" as a condition of its funding contribution (Sun Editorial, July 15, 2014.) This was well before Larry Hogan made the cancellation of the Red Line an issue in his surprise upset win for governor. The Sun pilloried Kamenetz for this, but Kamenetz won the funding share battle with then-Governor O'Malley.

On the other hand, planners asserted that the $3 billion Red Line plan could not be built in phases, because the downtown tunnel dominated the costs and had to be built all at once. This is one of the reasons Hogan's Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn called the tunnel a "fatal flaw".

Christopher Muldor's recent call to action in The Sun

Fast forward four years and Kamentz is running for governor. Then on the same day Kamenetz had his sudden fatal heart attack, May 10, an op-ed in The Sun written by freelance writer Christopher Muldor declared that now was the time for politicians to focus on the areas that can really benefit from the Red Line in predominantly low-income West Baltimore, and not on the overly expensive tunnel under the mostly higher income downtown and east waterfront areas. Muldor stated:"There is overwhelming evidence that car-owning residents of affluent areas in Baltimore generally shun mass transit." That also could be said for the powerful developers who are trying to lure affluent people to these areas as well.

Inner city portion of RightRail Plan, with Red Line terminating at Lexington Market Hub.
Orange, Purple and Gray Lines would be streetcars. Green Line would be Metro extension to east.

Muldor then cited the Right Rail Coalition's plan for the Red Line as a potential solution, of which I was an author. He also cited a "long time transit planner" as being critical of the "disjointed" character of the previously planned Red Line within the transit system. This sounds like Muldor is referring to someone who wants to remain anonymous for professional reasons, and while such people certainly exist, but I'll offer my concurrence on the record (Me, Gerald Neily, transportation planner for the City Planning Department for 19 years.)

Muldor concludes his article by challenging Baltimore Mayor Pugh to take action, reminding everyone that she "supports mass transit and has emphasized her ability to work with Maryland's Republican Governor."

The Red Line in the governor's race

So this is where politics really comes in. It's the art of opposing someone one day and then working with them the next, even if they're from the opposing party. Through all this, the Red Line has remained an issue.

One of the remaining major Democratic candidates for governor is Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, whose county was involved in the funding negotiations to build the somewhat less expensive and less complex Purple Line. But he should know that Baltimore City is too poor to make the same kind of financial concessions to get the Red Line built that more affluent PG and especially Montgomery County were able to put together on the Purple Line.

Another candidate is Ben Jealous, who was national CEO of the NAACP not long before it filed a civil rights complaint on the Red Line cancellation. While the complaint cited discrimination against low income African-Americans, it specifically called for alternative projects to be pursued, rather than trying to revive the cancelled project.

The NAACP thus apparently realizes that it was the very expensive portion of the Red Line that ran through the more affluent mostly white areas that was the culprit of the cancellation. Therefore, coming up with a more equitable project would make more economic sense as well. It would thus follow that building the Red Line is not the very best way to allocate upwards of $3 Billion to help poor and disadvantaged people. While the NAACP case was ultimately dismissed, its arguments may still be applicable in the court of public opinion that is the upcoming election.

But the current Red Line inaction by Baker, Jealous and other candidates benefits Governor Hogan, who thus doesn't have to worry about playing defense as incumbents generally do. This plays into the strength that political pundits have attributed to him - being able to skillfully appropriate issues from others and make them his own. It would indeed be ironic if the man who has been excoriated for killing the Red Line ultimately became the man who saved it.

And it may actually be a fairly simple act to pull off such a political feat. Hogan had a trial run with his BaltimoreLink bus system overhaul. That one just about fell in his lap, being the follow-up to Governor O'Malley's BNIP (Bus Network Improvement Program) plan which failed miserably and was then quietly cancelled. But buses, important as they are, don't have much power to ignite a lot of enthusiasm, and trying to fix the system is a thankless job. In contrast, the Red Line retains some glamour for being bright and new even when the rest of the bus and rail transit system is not.

Eight-point challenge to Mayor Pugh

Mayor Pugh could be in the catbird's seat through all this. Despite Baltimore's numerous woes, one thing she is perceived as doing well is working with people of all persuasions, both Democrats and Republicans. She can make the planning of a new revised Red Line her issue, and thus invite support from all sides.

And compared to the original dead $3 billion-plus Red Line, this revised Red Line could offer numerous "easy winners" (cue Scott Joplin's ragtime classic). Even as few as one relatively inexpensive Red Line-related project could be a major victory. All winning streaks start with a single game, and this one could keep going long enough with various rail branches and extensions to make the $3 billion original look like a tinkertoy (which sadly is really what it was).

A major key to this is true coordination between a revised Red Line and its surrounding transit oriented development, something about which Baltimore has been tragically remiss since the first eight miles of the Metro were completed in the early 1980s, with a trail of failures including Howard/Lexington, State Center and Westport.

So here is a list of eight smaller Red Line "easy winners" that Mayor Pugh could get behind, individually and collectively, and promote to all prospective governors. The list is development-oriented, because development is unquestionably the city's responsibility and (unlike transit) has consistently remained a top priority over the years.

1. Lexington Market Transit Hub - This would finally create a physical connection between the Metro Station under Eutaw Street and the light rail station on Howard Street, using the elegant but vacant Hutzler's Department Street building in between. It would also serve buses, and would accommodate a downtown terminus for the Red Line on or under Saratoga Street.

2. Metro West - This vacant office complex of over a million square feet was originally supposed to be served by the Red Line on MLK Boulevard, but the proposed downtown tunnel had to be relocated away from this area (also connecting the University of Maryland campus). A revised Red Line plan along Saratoga Street would provide an even better connection, and a powerful incentive to make the site's redevelopment oriented to transit, something that the developer's early sketches have not done.

3. Heritage Crossing expansion - Ever since Mayor Schmoke's Administration, the city's flagship mixed-income redevelopment area has been considered for expansion into what is now the impenetrable "Highway to Nowhere". This could be greatly stimulated by a revamped Red Line (see top photo.).

4. Harlem Park - This is where the "Highway to Nowhere" is in a wide ditch, and thus could be replaced by truly innovative and unique development opportunities in a traffic-conflict free environment.

West Baltimore MARC Station - Ice House in the upper left, bus hub built as part of BaltimoreLink
 to the right, and "Highway to Nowhere" in the background, beyond the parking.

5. West Baltimore MARC Station - The adjacent "Ice House" was one of the few sites for a specific transit oriented development attributable to the defunct Red Line plan. More recently, the plan for a new Amtrak tunnel under West Baltimore has included plans for a whole new and greatly improved MARC station on relocated tracks. The revised Red Line plan needs to be coordinated closely with the Amtrak plan, so it is stronger and probably better to emphasize new development replacing the "Highway to Nowhere"and parking lots, along with a parking garage replacing the lots.

6. Uplands - This stalled but attractive mixed-income development has thus far been totally disoriented from the proposed Edmondson Village Red Line station, even though it was supposed to be completed well before the Red Line. Reigniting real momentum for the Red Line, if not its actual construction, could reignite this project as well. Increased density is greatly needed near the station on Edmondson Avenue.

7. Perkins Point - The redevelopment of the Perkins Homes public housing site has recently re-emerged in concert with the Old Town project to the north, to create by far the greatest mixed income development opportunity in Baltimore history. Bank Street, at its southern border with Fells Point and near Harbor East, offers a "blank slate" where a streetcar line could be built and tied into the earlier surface Red Line plan through the Inner Harbor and West Downtown which was in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The entire revised Red Line should be made "streetcar compatible" to serve as the trunk for new streetcar lines that branch out in all directions.

Proposed Red Line streetcar spur with new development, just north of Carroll Park, with the
B&O Museum Mount Clare Roundhouse in the background, as envisioned by Marc Szarkowski.

8. Mount Clare / Montgomery Park - A west side complement to the Perkins Point streetcar line would proceed beyond the Inner Harbor into the Mount Clare "First Mile" corridor of the B&O Railroad, one of the city's major historic treasures, where it would define a true urban development edge along the desolate north side of Carroll Park. It would then continue to the city's largest office building, the 1.3 million square foot Montgomery Park.

Building anything from this list would demonstrate the city's case to finally build a Red Line to fulfill its larger ambitions. And any of these projects could be supported by building just a very small initial phase of a complete Red Line, which could be built relatively inexpensively and quickly.

April 25, 2018

Druid Hill Park: 9 steps to bring it to the neighborhoods

Baltimore's best park is almost totally surrounded by major highways, which not only discourages people from getting to it except by car, but even more crucially, also prevents Druid Hill Park from having the needed positive effect on the health of nearby neighborhoods.

Here are nine critical points where a far better interface between the park and the neighborhoods can be created, presented in the order of how they can be implemented for maximum benefit and minimum disruption.
Nine steps to better Druid Hill Park neighborhood access:
(1) Eutaw Place, (2) Gwynns Falls Parkway, (3) Auchentoroly Terrace, (4) Park Circle,
 (5) Fulton Avenue, (6) Lakeview Avenue, (7) Liberty Heights Avenue, (8) Hampden, (9 ?) Streetcars

"Complete Neighborhoods" are key - not streets

Conditions at each of the nine critical points are different, and not amenable to a single uniform solution. This is how it usually is in traffic planning. The specific conditions, traffic patterns and neighborhood needs and desires of each location are the most important focus.

There's been a lot of talk recently about the concept of "complete streets". Yes, it's a clever rhyme, but uniformly attempting to make every street "complete" by serving every need is pointless, and usually ends up as an exercise in chopping up the pavement space to try to serve every need of cars, bikes, transit and anything leftover for parking, with lots of flexi-posts, signs and stripes to plot it all out. Instead, "Complete Neighborhoods" should be the catchphrase. But what rhymes with "neighborhoods"?

Now there's even a City Council bill to attempt to legislate "complete streets", with a proposal for a new citywide committee to micromanage the entire effort. These people must think the city transportation department is incompetent to do this themselves. Well... so far, they haven't done well in places like the vicinity of Druid Hill Park.

Focusing on specific points rather than whole streets is also a way to implement a plan in easy increments and learn from each step, rather than in one big gulp that may or may not work. So here are the nine critical locations and nine manageable steps to make the wonderful Druid Hill Park accessible to the communities around it:

1- At  Eutaw Place

Eutaw Place looking north to Druid Park Lake Drive - all that's needed is to narrow this street down
 to two normal width lanes and do the same to each direction of Druid Park Lake Drive.

This is Druid Hill Park's gateway from Reservoir Hill and all the downtown-oriented neighborhoods. It's also the "low hanging fruit" of all the proposals, requiring only pavement narrowings and no changes in traffic patterns.

The intersection of Druid Park Lake Drive and Eutaw Place simply has far too much pavement in all directions. There are no possible turns off Druid Park Lake Drive, so the third extra lane in each direction is totally extraneous, and ends beyond the intersection anyway. Similarly, the two lanes on Eutaw Place are far too wide and the "free flow" right turn lane was designed as if it is on a major suburban arterial and should be eliminated. Eutaw Place should simply be narrowed to two "normal"-sized lanes at the intersection.

As the current reconstruction of Druid Lake is completed, Eutaw Place will then be a great place to put a new grand pedestrian entrance to Druid Hill Park.

This plan was first presented in a 2013 article in the Baltimore Brew, with urban design aspects provided by Marc Szarkowski.

2- At Gwynns Falls Parkway

This intersection has great significance as the interface between Druid Hill Park and West Baltimore in the historic Olmsted Plan for the city's greenway system. 

In contrast to Eutaw Place, traffic patterns are a major problem here, particularly the heavy left turn from northbound Swan Drive into Gwynns Falls Parkway, which must immediately and unexpectedly stop for the opposing southbound traffic, causing major queueing, confusion and congestion. 

The best thing that could be done here would be to simply prohibit this left turn. There is far more capacity and fewer conflicts for this traffic at the adjacent intersections of Liberty Heights Avenue to the north and Fulton Avenue to the south. This should be tried on a trial basis to assess the impacts before permanent changes are made.

"Try before you buy" is a potent concept that the city should use more often, and is a major benefit of the incremental approach. The only question is whether the city bureaucrats are really prepared for all the ensuing public feedback they would get. But it's far better than some designated committee mulling over hypothetical effects or simply carving up the "pavement pie".

Once the results of this trial are known, the intersection can be redesigned in a far more efficient manner with much more people space and much less traffic space.

The next major benefit would be to redesign the Olmsted greenway connection from Druid Hill Park to Gwynns Falls Parkway, in a similar manner as is now being done on another Olmsted parkway - 33rd Street. Both of these are part of the 35-mile greenway trails network currently being planned by the Rails-to Trails Conservancy.

Finally, the redesign of this intersection must be compatible with the changes planned for the Step #3, discussed below. It's probably best to construct most of the permanent changes for both steps at the same time.

3- At Auchentoroly Terrace

Auchentoroly Terrace - shift both directions of thru traffic over to left side, away from the houses, and turn the median
 into a linear neighborhood park. Druid Hill Park's exquisite Rawlings Conservatory can be seen to the upper left.

This step is the top benefit of the whole nine-step plan. Auchentoroly Terrace has some of the city's most exquisite rowhouses which need to be treasured as befits the way they overlook the city's premiere park. But the adjacent heavy traffic destroys the relationship.

The best solution here is to build new southbound connections within the median strip which consolidate this traffic onto what is now the northbound roadway (called Swan Drive). This is exactly what was done with astounding success on Mount Royal Avenue in Bolton Hill. What was once an isolated median strip then became a linear park, intimately linked to the neighborhood.

Mount Royal Avenue used to have heavy traffic next to these Bolton Hill houses,
 until it was converted into a local street and all the traffic was pushed onto the roadway on the left (note the big truck).
 The same thing can be done to Auchentoroly Terrace.

This proposal was first introduced in a Baltimore Brew article in 2010. That article linked it to a larger plan that extended beyond Liberty Heights Avenue to the north. Christopher Nunn later made a thoughtful comment to the article explaining how an overpass at Liberty Heights Avenue could be avoided. He proposed a traffic dispersion plan that may or may not work, but demonstrated how too much change should not be attempted at once.

The easy part of this plan is the southbound connector links south of Liberty Heights Avenue and north of Fulton Avenue that would divert the heavy through traffic away from the houses on Auchentoroly Terrace, and open up the present median strip for use by the neighborhood.

New path for heavy southbound traffic between Liberty Heights Avenue (left) and Fulton Avenue (right),
 away from adjacent houses and freeing up the median strip to be used as a neighborhood oriented park.

The more difficult part is how to handle the intervening intersection with Gwynns Falls Parkway. However, that should be determined prior to this in Step #2. Physically, the design should become clean and clear, but for traffic operations, it may be tricky. That intersection is already set up operationally as if it was two separate signalized intersections, one with Swan Drive (northbound) and one with Auchentoroly Terrace (southbound). That odd arrangement is currently a disadvantage, with most turning traffic needing to stop twice, but it may be the key to actually making it work. We'll find out.

4 - At Park Circle

This five-legged intersection of Reisterstown Road, Park Heights Avenue and Druid Park Drive, at the extreme northwest corner of the park, was once actually a roundabout. Then in the 1950s, it was chopped up and made into the confusing auto-dominated hodge-podge intersection it is today, with the sixth leg into the park itself cut off completely.

About a decade ago, the city proposed that the roundabout be restored, but nothing became of that plan - probably because it was part of a larger plan to install roundabouts at all kinds of other crazy places, most notably Key Highway and Light Street in the Inner Harbor.

But Park Circle was actually designed originally to be a circle, and so it should be returned to being a circle. The primary benefit of roundabouts is that they subordinate the intersecting traffic streets and promote the place itself. Park Circle is indeed a place that needs to be celebrated as the southern culmination of the Park Heights neighborhood, its only gateway to Druid Hill Park, and really the only point at which that huge neighborhood interfaces with the rest of urban Baltimore.

Roundabouts aren't great for pedestrians, but Park Circle could certainly be made far better as a roundabout than it is now as a confusing five-legged intersection. And certainly better than its current all-but non-existent entrance to Druid Hill Park.

Something really special should be installed in the central focal point of the circle - a monument or sculpture. Traffic demands would dictate that this is off-limits to pedestrians, but that just means the object should avoid small inscriptions and could be made somewhat less vandalism-resistant than otherwise.

The original Park Circle also had to accommodate streetcars, which was no doubt another problem. So the new design should consider the needs of a possible future streetcar line (as per Step #9 below).

Rebuilding Park Circle could be done anytime, but since it would be a fairly expensive and time-consuming project, it is listed here as Step #4.

5- At Fulton Avenue

The downsizing of the horribly oversized intersection of Fulton Avenue, Swan Drive, McCulloh Street, Druid Hill Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive was the focus of this recent 2017 blog post, which makes the case that it should be driven by major new adjacent development. The city isn't quite ready for that yet, so hopefully it will be by the time some of the previous steps take place.

This is a critical location because it is right where Reservoir Hill, Mondawmin, and much of the North Avenue corridor intersect.

6- At Lakeview Avenue

Lakeview Avenue in Reservoir Hill, looking toward Druid Park Lake Drive, with Druid Lake on top of the mound in the
 background. A pedestrian bridge to the lake can be built as part of new development on the vacant lot in the foreground.

Another park connection which would be development-driven is at the vacant lot in Reservoir Hill overlooking Druid Lake between Brookfield and Lakeview Avenues. The city has made numerous attempts to find a developer for this site and has always failed, indicating that it's still not ready. However, the neighborhood has been great progress so it should happen eventually, especially after the lake is rebuilt.

Other issues are that the site is quite submerged relative to the man-made lake, and traffic noise is quite high, so a high rise development will be necessary to disorient the building from the street level. So it should be a major project.

As such, including a pedestrian bridge to the development plan would be a valuable feature, to provide a direct connection to the lake and its jogging loop for residents and the rest of the Reservoir Hill neighborhood. And as always for pedestrian bridges, intelligent design is essential. No helix or switchback ramps! There's already one of those a block away over Mount Royal Terrace (built with the JFX in the early 1960s), and practically no one uses it.

7- At Liberty Heights and Greenspring Avenues

This location is a critical pedestrian connection between the Mondawmin Mall/Metro Station and the Maryland Zoo. This Baltimore Brew article makes the case for an overpass for Auchentoroly Terrace to create a direct  pedestrian connection underneath. Minimizing traffic conflicts would also enable the minimization of pavement, down to a single lane in each direction northward to Reisterstown Road, where there is now the equivalent of eight lanes through the park adjacent to the new Parks and People headquarters.

A two-lane bridge designed by subtly changing the surrounding topography could have the grace and elegance of similar bridges in New York's Central Park.

But such a project could be expensive overkill. An overpass would only accommodate through traffic, not the heavy turning volumes which could get even heavier. What is needed is to crunch the traffic volume numbers for all movements in the intersection at various stages, particularly after Step #3. Something should be done, but perhaps a less ambitious but more cost effective solution can be designed without an overpass.

8- At Hampden and the Jones Falls Valley

Possible new Hampden Gateway to Druid Hill Park shown in yellow at the end of Ash Street.
The connection would proceed underneath the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83).

The large Hampden neighborhood is totally segregated from Druid Hill Park by the big, bad Jones Falls Expressway (JFX, I-83). There is, however, one point where the JFX is up on a large overpass and the topography of the park is gentle enough to allow a gateway to be created. This location is in the vicinity of Ash Street and Clipper Mill Road, several block south of the west end of 36th Street.

All that would be needed is a small bridge over the Jones Falls stream bed and a grade crossing of the light rail tracks. The Jones Falls Valley has recently become an important regional recreational resource in its own right and this connection would enhance it greatly.

The Jones Falls greenway trail now provides good connections to the park from Woodberry to the north and Wyman Park / Remington to the southeast, but nothing in the vast section between.

Ever since the light rail line was being planned in the 1980s, a park connection has been contemplated to the Woodberry Station, which is well served from Union Avenue in Hampden. However, this is an extremely remote section of the park with very steep topography, so nothing has never gone anywhere with this idea.

A new Druid Hill Park gateway near Ash Street is the best alternative. Druid Hill Park is big enough and significant enough that it needs to serve the entire city as well as possible. Bringing in a larger citywide and regional clientele will then summon resources to improve the park for everyone.

9- For Streetcars

Druid Hill Park was originally developed with streetcar money, back in the glory days when the city's streetcar system was built with private money and was actually profitable enough to tax. (Nowadays of course, tax money flows into the transit system, not out.)

So streetcars in the park is not a far-fetched idea. One concept would be to start a streetcar line at the Mondawmin Metro Station transit hub, run it into the park along Liberty Heights and Greenspring Avenue to serve the zoo, then northward to Park Circle and along Park Heights Avenue to the prime Pimlico Racetrack development area (see three part Pimlico blog series that begins here). Park Heights Avenue in particular is perhaps the most suitable streetcar street in the entire city - big and wide and not too congested, and lined with what should be attractive houses.

South of Mondawmin, the streetcar line could run right through the Coppin University campus and then down North Avenue. (See my streetcar system slide show here.)

The most important rule for developing a streetcar line is that it MUST be driven by new development and urban design. The technical advantages of streetcars over buses are elusive enough that streetcars can practically never be justified only on the basis of mere transportation.

Washington DC's H Street corridor is a prime example of how to use streetcars as a catalyst for redevelopment. Baltimore's far more pretentious Howard Street corridor is a prime example of how NOT to do it. In both cases, the rail line itself has been just one factor in the development process.

So a streetcar line in this corridor must be driven by a very serious redevelopment plan for Mondawmin Mall, with real genuine transit orientation this time (not fake like the Target store and Shoppers Food Warehouse), plus a very serious plan for Pimlico Racetrack, plus a very serious plan for Park Heights Avenue itself (after numerous false starts over past years and decades).

But building the new and improved gateways into magnificent Druid Hill Park as proposed here would be a serious first eight steps.

March 31, 2018

Growth fueled by transit - but only in the right places

Lack of rail transit has always been included in the litany of reasons for Baltimore's steadily declining population, with critics usually pointing specifically to the cancelled Red Line, including The Baltimore Sun's recent (March 26) editorial.

But there has never been a correlation between rail transit and growth in Baltimore. There could and should be - but there hasn't been. Rail transit has its advocates, and so does development, but they seldom properly put them together. It even looks like a conspiracy with rich developers and normal working folks working together to keep them apart. Such unity of purpose is rare in this city.
Oldham Crossing - a project made possible by the cancellation of the Red Line,
which would have been on a 70 foot high elevated structure where houses are getting ready to be built.

Red Line experience

Developers actually wanted to keep the proposed Red Line stations as far away from growth as possible. Harbor East developer John Paterakis forced that area's station to be pushed as far away as possible from the critical Central Avenue development corridor, which is also the spine for Harbor Point which is now under construction by Michael Beatty.

The same is also true for the Canton Crossing development, where the proposed Red Line station was pushed into the median strip of Boston Street so that the ongoing development could be as disoriented from transit as possible, with full resemblance to a typical auto-dominated suburban strip center.

All these areas are booming right now, even with the dead Red Line. Other projects that have benefited include the 173-unit Oldham Crossing townhouse development between Greektown and Bayview. The Red Line was supposed to bisect through the heart of that site on a 70 foot high elevated structure which was necessary to climb over the railroad tracks to the west and Interstate 895 to the east. Without the death of the Red Line, it is highly doubtful that this project would have ever happened.

Another project which had previously been cancelled due to Red Line construction was the rebuilding of the Broadway Market adjacent to the underground Fells Point Station at Fleet Street. The two-block market has now been revived by a different developer, with construction to begin this summer on its first phase on the north block and completed in 2019 to the south. With the half empty market acting as a barrier, Broadway has had the feel of two different streets - the touristy Fells Point waterfront to the south and the Latino-flavored Upper Fells Point to the north.

It is crucial to the integration and continued growth of southeast Baltimore to dissolve this barrier, because Broadway is its main north-south street which needs to serve as a spine for the larger community extending north to Hopkins Hospital and beyond. However, there is still a strong feeling among many that such growth is a threat to either the Latino business district to the north, the tourist restaurants to the south, or both. And there has never been confidence that either the new Broadway Market or the Red Line could solve this problem in a satisfactory way.

Threatening sign at the intersection of Broadway and Lombard Street, just north of the previously proposed Red Line Station, and several weeks after the annual deadline for police enforcement.

Adding to this controversy is the city's "official" policy of cracking down on employers who pick up workers along Broadway, who are otherwise seen as loiterers. However, despite the longtime presence of signs threatening that police will provide enforcement, this policy seems to be a "nod and a wink", unlike similar signs and policies elsewhere in the city aimed at homeless camps. The threatening signs don't even have a stated year of applicability, so as soon as the doomsday deadline passes for one year, as it did a few weeks ago on March 3rd, the threat simply renews for the next.

Meanwhile, the growing Latino population is one of the city's few bright spots in terms of both growth and diversity, amid the continuing fleeing to the suburbs by whites and blacks alike. However, long term trends may point to increasing Latinos, Asians and other ethnic groups fleeing to the suburbs as well. There's not much evidence that any one ethnic or racial group inherently likes the city any more or less than the others. Washington, DC has gotten publicity from its growing white population, with blacks no longer being in a majority, but there is no evidence that this could repeat in Baltimore.

Harlem Park Red Line Station - the official plan is shown on the bottom, with no adjacent transit oriented development,
 just the "Highway to Nowhere". Some community folks preferred no development, which they viewed as a gentrification threat.
Replacing the highway with transit oriented development is shown on the top view.

Meanwhile on the west side of town

On the west side of town, the Red Line was planned to be down in the trench of the "Highway to Nowhere" where it would be as far away from its surrounding urban activity as possible. This truncated Interstate highway has proven to be obsolete, but the planners have steadfastly avoided any push to get rid of it and replace it with new urban growth.

Low income residents have to a large extent been like-minded with the high-powered developers. Many of them feared that the Red Line would bring "gentrification" where new higher income development would push the existing low income residents out of their communities. So even though the attraction of new development is virtually the very definition of growth, they opposed it. Instead of gentrification, they wanted any new higher income development to be linked to a proportional amount of new low income development, which has previously been a stumbling block to getting any development at all.

This process has played out at the Uplands housing development just south of what would be the Edmondson Village Red Line station. But only the first phase has been built and the project started languishing long before the Red Line was cancelled. There is still hope for the project, its large swaths of vacant land and its incredible but crumbling historic mansion, but the plan has never been physically oriented or integrated to the planned Red Line in any meaningful way.

Previously built rail transit lines - and the future

None of these trends are new or unique to the Red Line plan. The Baltimore Metro rail line built in the early 1980s, was supposed to attract new growth to the State Center, Mondawmin and Reisterstown Plaza stations, among others. A limited amount of nearby new development has occurred over the ensuing four decades, but virtually none of it has actually been oriented to the transit stations.

In the early 1990s, the Metro was augmented by the central light rail line. The State Center and Lexington Market station areas served both lines, and both corridors have only become increasingly desolate over the years. Attempts to attract new development have increasingly called for major subsidies, even though many hundreds of millions were already spent to build the transit lines in the first place. And even these major subsidies have been futile.

Two other station areas along the light rail line were specifically targeted for transit oriented development - Westport and Cold Spring Lane. Both have gotten practically nothing in the four decades since.

At this point, the future remains grim, and closely follows the well-established trends. The multi-billion dollar Port Covington project does call for a short spur from the central light rail line into the development site, but this would be located along the extreme northern edge of the site underneath the Interstate 95 Viaduct, as far away from most of the new development as possible.

The Port Covington developer, Kevin Plank, also owns the nearby vacant Westport property which is already served by light rail, but the Westport development has been placed on the back burner so that it won't compete in the foreseeable future.

Ironically, in Plank's effort to attract Amazon to build its second headquarters at Port Covington, some people blamed the death of the geographically far-away Red Line for the failure. But Plank's proposal to Amazon barely even mentioned that the Westport site was ready and available and already had excellent light rail access to downtown, BWI-Marshall Airport and other destinations. If rail transit was so important, the Westport site should have been made into a major selling point.

The challenge: Integration instead of isolation

The apparent bottom line is that isolation is now the number one selling point for major new development in Baltimore, rather than connectivity or integration. Both of the city's current top development sites, Harbor Point and Port Covington, are located out on waterfront peninsulas where they are perceived as divorced from the city's urban and social problems. This also means they are away from most of the city's transit system.

As a result, there are calls for the transit system to be extended, so that low income, transit-captive city residents can gain access to the new development. But the new development would not be oriented to the transit, so the low income residents would remain in the background.

This perpetuates the theme of "Two Baltimores", one rich and one poor. Actually, many people on both sides appear to like it that way. The anti-gentrification faction doesn't want the rich and poor to mingle together for fear of displacement, and the developers are only too willing to comply. Of course, this compliance would be on their own terms, because obviously development will not happen unless developers are willing to do it.

So where do we go from here? If there is one simple basic lesson over the past forty years, it is that expensive, comprehensive, sweeping visions have not worked. During all this time, Baltimore is still grappling with the same basic problems of simply getting developers to oriented their development to transit. Sure, the city could subsidize the bejeebers out of it, as we have already attempted. But such force-feeding is merely a ploy to avoid the real trends.

The city simply needs to identify one or more projects that beat all the negative trends that have been building over the past forty years - projects that truly orient the transit system to new development, that truly unify rather than divide the city, and that are actually affordable and buildable.

These projects don't need to be on a new transit line. They simply need to promote a culture of transit. Large numbers of people don't tend to use transit unless they really need to. Even in New York City, a major transit capital of the world, people basically use transit simply because they need to.

The primary selection criterion should be that the initial scope of the project should be limited, but its ultimate ambition should be open-ended. Projects should feed off each other rather than competing with each other.

Often, the value of a project is based on creating the perception of scarcity. Port Covington and Harbor Point are both inherently like this because they are on peninsulas. It's the old sales pitch: "Quantities are limited so buy now !!!!"

The real city works in exactly the opposite manner: Potential is unlimited, which depresses the urgency to buy in the short-term. It's very risky to be a lone pioneer.

The best way to counteract this problem is to create projects with significant increases in property value which can support high densities. Too much of Baltimore has become dirt-cheap land which is only developable with massive subsidies.

Top Ten Candidate Development Projects

OK, here is a Top Ten list of candidate projects, drawn from throughout this blog, that can move the city out of its current conundrum and toward its unlimited future potential. They are all related to transit, because long-term urban growth is always dependent on transit, but they are not contingent upon building any particular new transit line.

May the best project win!

1 - Replace the "HIGHWAY  TO NOWHERE" with a transit-oriented development greenway from the Metro West site, through Heritage Crossing to the West Baltimore MARC Station.

2 - Create a transit oriented development plan for the COLD SPRING LANE light rail station, renamed "WEST ROLAND PARK", incorporating and integrating the areas from Cylburn Park to Cross Keys.

3 - Create a transit oriented development plan for the WESTPORT light rail station area that really works.

4 - Create a transit oriented development plan for STATE CENTER that really works.

5 - Create a transit oriented development plan for PERKINS POINT - currently the Perkins Homes public housing complex, that really works.

6 - Create a LEXINGTON MARKET TRANSIT HUB, incorporating and integrating the Metro and light rail stations.

7 - Create a transit oriented development greenway along the "B&O RAILROAD FIRST MILE" and the north edge of Carroll Park from Mount Clare to Montgomery Park.

8 - Create a transit oriented development SOUTH WATERFRONT GREENWAY from the Middle Branch at North Westport, though Port Covington and the Locke Insulator site to Cherry Hill and the Harbor Hospital site to Brooklyn and finally to the Masonville Cove nature preserve.

9 - Create a transit oriented development JOHNS HOPKINS HEALTH CORRIDOR from the main medical campus to Bayview.

10 - Create a new UPLANDS PLAN with more upscale housing oriented to the nearby high-end Ten Hills neighborhood and the incredible Uplands mansion.

The purpose of the higher end housing is not just to make more money or to kowtow to disgusting rich people who we all love to hate. The purpose is to create higher land values to support higher density and to create a transit orientation. Once this is established, wonderful "salt of the earth" poor folks will willingly move into smaller, lower cost co-op or rental units. "The meek shall inherit the earth."

February 8, 2018

Shovels "ready" - but Amazon says Baltimore isn't

Not ready. That's how Susan Yum of the Baltimore Development Corporation, the quasi-public arm of city government, described why Amazon rejected Baltimore for its new headquarters (according to the January 27th Baltimore Sun): "Amazon didn't think Baltimore was ready to host its new office complex..."
This shovel is ready for Amazon, poised on the large front lawn of the Baltimore Sun Printing Plant in Port Covington.
Interstate 95 is in the background to the right..

In a twist of irony, "ready" is also exactly the word that Mayor Pugh used to tout Baltimore's unique advantage over the other 237 proposals from other cities. But the mayor was referring to shovels, as in "shovel ready", not to cities.

Yes, those inanimate shovels are ready. They're poised at Port Covington, behind the new Under Armour sportswear campus and next to the Baltimore Sun's printing plant, bastion of the pre-internet  world that Amazon has been efficiently demolishing ever since it was founded by Jeff Bezos.

Baltimore has been acting as if Amazon would be incapable of getting any shovels ready on its own. As if Amazon was thus going to evaluate all the cities' proposals on the basis of their shovels, not their cities.

It's deja-vu to the 2008-9 "Great Recession", when being "shovel ready" was the top criterion for spending the federal trillion dollar stimulus package, rather than best preparing for the future. As a result, that was the last time that Baltimore had a strong road paving program ("Operation Orange Cone"), but now the roads are crumbling again as the big infrastructure expenditures have now turned to the city's obsolete sewer system and deteriorating schools.

In the interim, the city's big infrastructure project was supposed to be the three billion dollar light rail Red Line. When that imploded or was exploded (take your pick), instead of finding a way to actually make it work, it has just become a weapon for various "I told you so's."

City apologists practically prodded Amazon to say that the lack of the Red Line (which wouldn't have gone anywhere near their site) was the smoking gun that killed Baltimore's proposal.

Of course, Amazon didn't bite. Amazon wasn't even critical of the city's murder rate or school system, much less its transit system. Nashville, Raleigh, Austin, Columbus and Indianapolis all made Amazon's candidate list with clearly meager mass transit systems, while the State of Maryland did promise to build a light rail line to the proposed Port Covington Amazon site.

Baltimore's basic problem is that is always fixated on one project, issue or development site at a time. The shovels should be construed as the last step, not the first.

Baltimore has plenty of great sites for a major new corporate headquarters. Port Covington is only one. Here are ten of them that I quickly identified right after Amazon announced they were looking.

Six Chicago sites for Amazon's new headquarters within several miles of the city center. (City of Chicago)

Other cities did not limit their proposals to one site. For example, Chicago also identified ten sites. Here's a map of six of Chicago's sites within just over two mile of the city center: https://chicago.curbed.com/2017/10/23/16512138/chicago-amazon-hq2-bid

Any proposal can also include phantasmagorical architectural images. Below is an image of one of Chicago's sites rendered by a consultant working for architectural giant Skidmore Owings and Merrill. This site has been dubbed "The 78" because it is not part of any of the city's 77 official neighborhoods. Not being part of the city's neighborhood fabric is thus being sold as an advantage.

These kinds of images may impress the Baltimore City Council and the Sun Editorial Board, but Amazon has probably seen so many of them in the past few months that their eyes have glazed over. Getting out the shovels to build it is the least of their issues.

Image of a proposed Chicago site for Amazon, but it could just as easily be Baltimore (ICON)

So "Amazon didn't think Baltimore was ready..." That's such a succinct, all encompassing way to describe the city's rejection.

What it says is: Yes, Baltimore is definitely moving on down the road. What it doesn't say is where the city as a whole is actually going.

So at the same time, Amazon will be moving down a different road.

February 5, 2018

No Inner Harbor "End Game" for dormant Harborplace

In the 1980s, Harborplace defined the Inner Harbor, so much so that its developer, James Rouse, was often given credit for the entire celebrated waterfront revitalization. But now and for the past year and a half, most of its small shops and eateries have been closed, awaiting a renovation that was supposed to take six months but still has no completion date.
Harborplace with the Questar Tower under construction in the background,
and behind that another residential tower, Harbor Court.

The odd thing is that Harborplace no longer seems to matter all that much, despite what it once meant to the city's image. 

Most of the larger tenants remained open, but they are now practically all national chains like Hooters, H&M, Bubba Gump, Ripley's Believe it or Not, Uno's Chicago Pizzeria and Cheesecake Factory that could be found almost anywhere. Over the years, there had been a previous wave of closures of the original anchors who were unique to Baltimore. The largest and most successful, Phillips Seafood, moved only several blocks to the Power Plant, but most disappeared completely.

Now even the national chains are taking a hit. One of Harborplace's largest retailers, Urban Outfitters, closed this past January 7th. They still have stores in Towson, Tulsa, Spokane, Boise and dozens of other towns and cities, but not here in Baltimore.

The previous September, Harborplace's owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp, announced that one of the two pavilions would be completed in time for the holidays, but that didn't happen and little visible progress has been made.
Harborplace's crapped-up interior mall has been sitting like this for over a year., but now without Urban Outfitters.
 Who knows what's been happening behind those construction walls? 

Inner Harbor 2.0: Tourist mecca

All of this has not kept the city from preparing ambitious "revisioning" plans for the Inner Harbor and its interface with the rest of the city. Amid all this, much change has actually occurred, but mostly not following any script of those visions. And not involving Harborplace, which is ironic considering what it once meant to the Inner Harbor, and still does in legends, lore and iconography.

The big plans have mostly revolved around tourism and visitors. The flagship was a billion dollar replacement and expansion for most of the convention center which would include a huge new arena, hotel and still more retail. Then there was the Baltimore Grand Prix, a "world class" sports event that lasted two years, until a scheduling snafu derailed it long enough so it could be conveniently forgotten. But can we forget what our leaders promised us?

Pratt Street was supposed to be rebuilt as a two-way boulevard with narrower berms and sidewalks to make room for still more retail. A tiny bit of that retail has actually happened - a Shake Shack, Chick-Fil-A and a CVS Drug Store that moved down from a block north. A bikeway was also built that's basically just a glorified sidewalk. Aren't bikes supposed to stay off sidewalks?
One very well received Inner Harbor revision was to widen Pratt Street into a two-way boulevard
 with narrower sidewalks (similar to Conway Street) with a giant video screen replacing McKeldin Fountain
near Light Street to block people's attention away from the old boring Inner Harbor. (Prepared by Ayers Saint Gross)

The major recent project near Harborplace was to demolish the massive McKeldin Fountain which was built soon afterward in the 1980s, essentially reverting the median between Light and Calvert Street to its condition as the grassy two-dimensional "Sam Smith Park" which existed in the 1960s and 1970s. A "Phase Two" has also been talked about, which was geared to a traffic plan that was supposed to be studied a decade ago, the outcome of which was never released.

There have also been many iterations of plans to "reinvent" Rash Field near Federal Hill, most ambitiously as a gateway to a proposed huge pedestrian drawbridge over the Inner Harbor to Pier Six. Rash Field itself would be transformed into an answer to Chicago's touristy Millennium Park. Another idea was to rebuild the park as the roof of a parking garage underneath. Amusement park rides were another idea, and two carousels have appeared over the years, then deteriorated and disappeared. With the onset of time and financial realities, the various plans have continually gotten less sweeping and ambitious, and became more just dabs of this 'n' that.

Inner Harbor is now a neighborhood

Fortunately, all these recent tourism and retail travails have not negatively affected the residential sector, which has been booming near the Inner Harbor. This has been led by the city's tallest residential tower now under construction by Questar Development across Light Street on the McCormick Spice Company site, which has been a parking lot since soon after Harborplace opened in the 1980s. Just a few blocks north on Light Street are the recent conversion of the 34 story Art Deco masterpiece at Ten Light Street from office to luxury residential and a new tower across the street on the Southern Hotel site which stood vacant for decades.

The reasons people are being attracted to live in these high rent buildings is a lively topic for speculation, but an abundance of nearby retail stores is certainly not among them. And office development is not it either, because much of the new residential replaced office buildings.

Tourism and conventions? Highly doubtful. To listen to city leaders over the years, Baltimore's tourism industry has always been only one or two major projects away from fulfilling its vaunted promise, whether it be the billion dollar mega-convention-hotel-arena, the Grand Prix or a pedestrian drawbridge from Rash Field to Pier Six.
Proposed pedestrian drawbridge across the Inner Harbor from redesigned Rash Field (right) to a new center of downtown
 near Harbor East and Harbor Point, that would divert attention way from Harborplace and the old downtown.   

And the rest have been projects that mostly attempt to undo what has already been done. That includes the attempt to turn Pratt Street into a two-way boulevard with narrower building setbacks like the rest of the city, the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain or the various alternative reworkings Rash Field as another Millennium Park.

In fact, much of the recent residential success has happened as a Plan B, after previous Plan A failures for offices, retail or tourism. Then Harbor East became the hot address for both new office and residential, along with Federal Hill and Locust Point. The Questar apartment tower had previously been touted as a site for the Exelon office headquarters before they decided on Harbor Point instead.

Maybe the recent residential boom is merely a product of external economic and demographic factors for which the city has little control.

Maybe the mystique of the Inner Harbor is only a secondary factor. Maybe it's not the brilliance and vision of Baltimore's leaders (usually pointing at Mayor William Donald Schaefer with a bit of help from those who came before and after) who inspired City Planners to create a timeless urban masterpiece.

Just maybe... the Inner Harbor's success was merely a fortuitous outcome of unique urban geography... an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay that fully penetrates into the gut of the city. And so people want to live there.

What goes around comes around

Recently, the city has devoted most of its available resources to other nearby playgrounds for the rich  like Harbor East, Harbor Point and Port Covington that were heretofore seen as offshoots of the Inner Harbor's success. But now the tables have turned the other way. Now the Inner Harbor is the offshoot of those other places.

So the Inner Harbor has already had its turn in the spotlight. It shouldn't demand hundreds of millions more dollars to subsidize the rich. Maybe the rich will embrace the Questar Tower anyway, or maybe it will not command the rents the developers expect, at least not indefinitely. The rich are a choosy lot. The great thing about the law of trickle-down economics is that if it starts trickling from a high enough stratum, it has plenty of room to trickle to the mere well-to-do and then to the middle class.

Trickle-down is only a problem when housing can no longer serve the lower class, and there is no one left to trickle down to. That's when housing is abandoned, as has happened all too much in Baltimore.

But Baltimore now has a unique opportunity near the Inner Harbor to make affordable housing work on a large scale - the Perkins Homes public housing complex redevelopment just north of Fells Point and Harbor Point, which hence could be called Perkins Point. In most instances, density works against the economics of mixed income projects which significantly limits them. But Perkins Point is a rare opportunity where high density can really work because the land has such high value.

This sign is currently (2018) on various mall walls inside Harborplace where retail shops once were. 

As for the constantly changing retail environment, it's a conundrum that's not worth attempts at deciphering by ordinary mortals. Yes, the internet has hurt brick 'n' mortar retail. But since the suburbs had previously clobbered Baltimore's retail sector before the internet ever came along, the internet has actually leveled the playing field.

So the Questar Tower won't have an Urban Outfitters right across the street. Who cares? Just order online, like anyone else.

If anyone actually understands retail anymore, it would be Amazon, which decided to buy Whole Foods Market, which is building a very large new store in Harbor East. Good for them.

And for something a bit more bourgeois bohemian, there's the Broadway corridor in Upper Fells Point, where the strong Latino influence has already withstood the trappings of gentrification. Along with Amazon, ethnic groups seem to have the greatest semblance of understanding urban retail. The Broadway Market has a long woeful tale of attempted renovation similar to Harborplace, but the future should be bright.

In sum, the Inner Harbor has had its heyday. It needs to grow old gracefully and let other places have their share of attention. This too shall pass.

The moral is to invest in intrinsic improvements that genuinely increase value, and don't just feed someone's quixotic or idiosyncratic visions. Real problems need to be solved, like access and traffic conflicts, instead of playing zero-sum games. Was getting rid of McKeldin Fountain really that important? Will a new Rash Field really be a "game changer"? The simple answer is "no".

A strong feasible transformative project that would actually be successful is to narrow down Light Street to what it should have been in the first place.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of Baltimore's Inner Harbor experience is what we can learn from it, as attention moves onward to Harbor Point, Port Covington and the rest of the city. When all is said and done, despite its history of hype, Harborplace will be just a place on the harbor.