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.

March 20, 2017

Metro West should become Heritage Crossing South

The vacant desolate Metro West office complex and the beautiful but isolated Heritage Crossing neighborhood next door need each other, as does the rest of northwest Baltimore beyond.

Former City Housing Director Dan Henson, the man in charge when Heritage Crossing was being developed in the 1990s, wanted the new neighborhood extended southward to take over the land now squandered on the "Highway to Nowhere". The time has finally come to achieve Henson's vision, now that planning has begun for redevelopment of the huge Metro West complex after its abandonment by the Social Security Administration.

Looking south from Perkins Park along Myrtle Avenue in Heritage Crossing, toward the Metro West tower,
which seems more accessible than it really is because the intervening "Highway to Nowhere" wall is hidden from view.

The elements for success are there. One can see the Metro West tower majestically in the distance from Heritage Crossing's lovely Perkins Park and imagine a large, connected and prosperous community, just as Dan Henson did in the 1990s.

But the contrasting reality is jarring. Beautiful Heritage Crossing stands adjacent to vacant hulks of abandoned rowhouses. Homeless people have been chased by the city from one campsite to another under and around the "Highway to Nowhere".

Economically, the biggest danger sign is that Caves Valley Partners was able to buy the million-plus square foot six-square block Metro West complex from the federal government for a mere $7.1 million. Contrast that with the recent Harbor East real estate deal that valued the single Legg Mason building at nearly $300 million for about half the square footage.

Events at Metro West have proceeded rather predictably from the account just over a year ago in my blog.

A design for a 2,200-car parking garage at Metro West was rejected by UDARP Thursday.
Metro West parking garage proposed by developer Caves Valley Partners, with retail frontage
along Saratoga Street to the south. MLK Boulevard is to the left (west) foreground
 and a bit of the "Highway to Nowhere" eastbound overpass can be seen in the left (north) background.

Step Minus One: Proposed massive Metro West parking garage


The first step in Metro West's redevelopment process has been a very bad one. The developer's recent plan plops a huge 2200 car parking garage down on a large vacant parcel (shown above) with no clue as to how it relates to anything, thus violating just about every principle of good planning. This parking garage plan was quickly rejected by the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel.

The fundamental problem with the monster Metro West parking garage proposal isn't simply how big, ugly and imposing it is. The problem is that it needs to fit properly into a comprehensive plan for the entire six square block site, and it just can't.

The parking garage site simply eludes all possibilities for good planning. It sit on a "superblock" that is far too big, bounded by Saratoga, Greene and Mulberry Streets and Martin Luther King Boulevard, equivalent in size to three square blocks, which creates a fortress mentality. This means it inevitably creates dead spaces, or "border vacuums" as Jane Jacobs called them in her seminal book, "Death and Life of Great American Cities".

The small ground level retail space shown on the Saratoga street frontage is a very lame attempt to address this problem. The chances of any kind of healthy retail being attracted here is somewhere between slim and none.

But all the frontages surrounding this garage site would be similarly desolate. To the south, the other side of Saratoga Street is the derriere end of the University of Maryland campus. MLK Boulevard to the west is just a huge congested traffic artery. To the east is the rear "service entrance" for the existing Metro West complex and to the north is the "Highway to Nowhere" as it slices through the site - possibly the next location for the nomadic homeless camp as the city chases it away from site after site.

Planners can deal with perhaps one, two or maybe even three dead sides to a development site, but not all four. Here they decided to pretend that the Saratoga Street frontage was somehow viable, but it really isn't.

Proposed connection of Myrtle Avenue in Heritage Crossing (left, northwest) and Pine Street through Metro West
 (right, southeast) which I proposed in 2011. This plan also includes the elimination of the north (westbound) overpass
 of the "Highway to Nowhere" over MLK Boulevard and the southward relocation of Franklin Street (foreground, west).
 (I apologize for showing the new buildings about twice as tall as I should.)  

Steps One to Five to fix the problem


The problems created by the proposed parking garage cannot be solved in isolation, but can be solved with a wide-ranging step-by-step plan:

1. Create an attractive human-scale street spine through the Metro West site - Fortunately, this is possible to do. Pine Street to the south through the University of Maryland campus has the potential to be such a street. Myrtle Avenue to the north through Heritage Crossing, flanking beautiful Perkins Park, is already such a street. They simply need to be connected, which is what the meandering (a la Olmsted) yellow line through the graphic above indicates. This street could be designed to carry no through traffic, since it could have no median opening at its crossing of MLK Boulevard adjacent to Heritage Crossing. It would approximate the southern extension of Myrtle Avenue which existed from the nineteenth century until MLK Boulevard was built in the late 1970s.

2. Distribute the new parking with new development - Instead of building a single dominant 2200 space parking structure as recently proposed, the parking should be spread to at least two major new structures with "wrap around" office space or other new development along its outer edges. The new Myrtle-Pine spine would actually facilitate this by created an attractive local street frontage for both development sites on either side of Mulberry Street, while not seriously reducing the footprint size of the buildings.

The developer's proposed retail frontage along Saratoga Street would then have a context to be able to function properly, and more retail frontage could be added along the new spine. Saratoga is also proposed as a street to locate a revised west-only light rail Red Line, and this would be an ideal place to put a station, although we know from the Howard Street experience that this alone is not sufficient for revitalization. The retail uses would also compliment the free-standing suburban-style Rite Aid drug store just across MLK Boulevard, which was recently renovated after suffering major damage in the 2015 riots. In the long run, this Rite Aid could be replaced by higher density development as the depressed property values hopefully increase to what they should be.

3. Tear down the northern overpass of the "Highway to Nowhere" and consolidate traffic on the southern half - We know that the "Highway to Nowhere" can be closed with little adverse effect to traffic, as has already been done numerous times for various peripheral construction projects. But while the "Highway to Nowhere" is extremely detrimental to its adjacent community environments, it is probably best to retain one of its two overpasses over MLK Boulevard so that all its traffic does not need to use the intersections with the similarly heavy MLK traffic. Consolidating traffic on the southern overpass would keep it as far as possible away from Heritage Crossing, to facilitate its expansion. This traffic diversion should also allow Franklin Street to be shifted away from Heritage Crossing as well, and perhaps even allow Mulberry Street to be closed just east of MLK to serve only as part of the Pine Street local circulation for Metro West.

In any event, demolishing just one overpass would eliminate the worst aspect of the "Highway to Nowhere", which is its isolated dead space between the eastbound and westbound highways. The single remaining overpass would actually be quite open and airy, and very compatible with an attractive development plan for the adjacent parcels. MLK Boulevard will remain a formidable barrier and the single overpass, open to both people and vehicles, will bridge it.

4. Restore and reopen Fremont Avenue between Franklin and Mulberry Streets through the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor - Old Fremont Avenue is the point where the highway makes its transition from being down in a ditch to the west, to being up on overpasses to the east. It is also the point where pedestrians now dangerously walk across the formerly Interstate highway. By rebuilding and reconnecting Fremont Avenue with traffic signals, the communities would become more unified and the crossings would be safer and more pedestrian-friendly.

A newly reconnected Fremont Avenue would also make an ideal location for an additional station in a revised Red Line plan, because it would not be down in the "ditch" like the planned Harlem Park station to the west. The community of Fremont homeowners just to the south sued the MTA to stop the Red Line tunnel under Fremont from the cancelled Red Line plan.

5. Get rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" in up to six phases to accommodate new development - The city doesn't need to get rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" all at once. The first two steps were already taken at the west end of the highway when its retaining wall was demolished and Payson Street was reconnected through the corridor. These projects were time consuming and lauded as a big deal, but they were really just preliminary. The third step would be to build the connecting roads that will enable the north (westbound) bridge over MLK Boulevard to be knocked down and allow both directions of traffic to be consolidated on the south overpass. One lane in each direction will be sufficient on this bridge and even leave room for new sidewalks and bike lanes, since this will no longer be an expressway.

The fourth and fifth steps will be to complete the new local north-south streets: Fremont Avenue across the corridor and Pine Street underneath the overpass to Myrtle Avenue in Heritage Crossing. The sixth and final step would be to close the remainder of the "Highway to Nowhere" in the mile-long ditch between Fremont and Payson to create a development and greenway corridor, as depicted in the rendering below.

MTA rendering of the Harlem Park Red Line Station, with the "Highway to Nowhere" removed and replaced with new development
 by Marc Szarkowski, The existing Calhoun Street overpass is seen in the background (to the west).



Step Zero: Plan comprehensively !!!


Right now, Metro West's developer appears to be acting under the assumption that since it paid a bargain basement price for the property, this will be a bargain basement project. Not only did they recently submit a bare-bones generic garage plan, they have also advertised for a "pad site" development, which is real estate parlance for a free-standing suburban-style use like a gas-convenience-fast food outlet.

But the city can't afford cheap shortcuts because this is a critical location and resource for the success of all the west downtown and northwest city neighborhoods, which are now suffering greatly. That's why the price was so low in the first place.

The city and state have already spent hundreds of millions on various projects in this area, including Heritage Crossing, the University of Maryland, and its Biopark, and have been trying to spend much more on the Howard/Lexington area, the La Cite development in Poppleton and other projects. And all this is just the beginning. Much more investment is needed in Lafayette Square, Harlem Park, Upton and other nearby neighborhoods. Metro Center is as critical as any of them, or perhaps more so because it sits on the fulcrum of downtown and the city's entire northwest corridor.

The first step in all of this is for Caves Valley to work with the city revise the design for the Saratoga Street parking garage so that it fits into a quality comprehensive plan instead of simply appearing to be plopped down on the site. The quality and coherence of Metro West must meet the standards that have already been set by Heritage Crossing, just as any new development would in any high quality city neighborhood.

March 15, 2017

33rd St. to Gwynns Falls: Updating Olmsted's Parkways

At the beginning of the automotive age over a hundred years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted conceived one of America's original parkway systems right here in Baltimore. While the lush green appearance of Gwynns Falls Parkway, 33rd Street and The Alameda have changed remarkably little over the years, the way they function and serve the city has always been in flux.

Olmsted's 1904 report stated very clearly that the parkways mission was always about the big picture as well as the design details: The parkways should "be treated as far as possible like extensions of the parks to bring them to the people and place them in touch with each other.”

Inside median view of 33rd Street looking east from The Alameda toward Lake Montebello.
It's already a very attractive greenway, but the challenge is to make it feel like a park.
The festering trash is a sign that this is now a "no man's land"

A lifetime of riding on various parkways has conditioned us to see them from off to the side, either on the road or sidewalk. But the real Baltimore parkway experience can only be had from being inside the median itself. Their typical width of about 40 feet is enough that the surrounding heavy traffic can feel like mere background. The Olmsted parkway medians really can be treated like parks if we would only let them.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is promoting a proposed 35 mile greenway loop that seeks to link and maximize the use of 25 miles of trails that already exist, to "create a powerful interconnected trail network around Baltimore City." But two of the critical gaps in this loop network are Olmsted parkways - 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway.

The RTC's trail network proposal is precisely the means to treat the parkways "like extensions of the parks to bring them to the people and place them in touch with each other" as Olmsted envisioned. The parkway medians need their own trail. 

Baltimore Greenway Trails Network Map
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Plan for a 35 mile greenway loop, including Gwynns Falls Parkway (#2) and 33rd Street (#4)
 and encompassing the existing Gwynns Falls Trail (#1) and the Inner Harbor (#8).

What would Olmsted do?


In over a hundred years, traffic and other conditions have changed dramatically, but the Rails-to-Trails goal remains the same as the original Olmsted goal: Treat the parkways like parks.

Back then, the neighborhoods around these parkways were considered suburban, and the whole concept of suburbs was relatively new. As conditions evolved, the parkways came to be considered extensions of the houses' front yards. Then as the traffic grew, the gentry moved farther out into suburbia and the green space inside the parkway medians became more isolated - a pretty sight but little else. So now it's time to rededicate to Olmsted's goal by making the parkway medians a people place.

One of RTC's plan options would do that: Create a pathway inside the medians for people to experience them up-close as extensions of the parks.

Along most of 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway, this would actually be fairly simple to do. Of course, simply laying down a 12 foot strip of asphalt would not do justice to the legacy of high quality design that Olmsted and his successors are known for, most notably in the presence of the stately rows of magnificent trees which line the median.

We also know that high quality design requires a variety of disciplines - not only landscape and urban design but also environmental and traffic engineering. We know that the new pathway must respect the trees. We also know that the pathway must not harm the permeability of the median to avoid poor drainage and excessive runoff. And we know that traffic can be controlled but it can't be eliminated.

In sum, the proposed pathway will create opportunities that can work very well in some respects but there will be limitations. It should not be cheapened with bad compromises.

How to make the parkway paths work


The way to accommodate people on pathways inside the parkways is simply to minimize conflicts between cars and people. This can be accomplished to four different levels:

1 - Gaps in the parkway median should be closed where possible. There does not need to be an opening in the median at every intersection, with full access to and from each of the low-traffic local streets. Cutting back access will also be beneficial to the neighborhoods by reducing traffic short-cutting thru the neighborhoods. It will also be a welcome sight to be able to see the attractive green parkway in the view corridor at the ends of these streets instead of just seeing more pavement.

As an example, closing the three median openings on 33rd Street between The Alameda and Hillen Road at Lake Montebello - at Tivoly, Fenwick and an alley - would create a continuous traffic conflict-free greenway of nearly a third of a mile in length.

A continuous greenway of almost a third of a mile, uninterrupted by traffic, can be created
 between Lake Montebello (top right, east) and The Alameda (left, west) in the 33rd Street median,
due to the lengthy blocks in the Lakeside (top) and Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello (bottom) neighborhoods.

2 - Gaps in the parkway which cannot be closed should be made as small as possible. There is very little need for the pavement openings in the parkways to be as large as they are now. They should only be large enough to track the traffic paths and no larger.

An example of this is the 33rd Street intersection with Old York Road. "Flexi-posts" have already been installed in the median opening as a cheap traffic-calming and diversion measure. Although the better solution is to close the median opening altogether, the second best alternative is to extend the median out to where the flexi-posts are now located.

This Old York Road median opening was already the very smallest (45 feet) along the entire length of 33rd Street. The flexi-posts have reduced it to about 20 feet. But the median openings for the other minor intersections on 33rd Street range all the way up to over 80 feet at Ednor Road - the equivalent of crossing an eight-lane highway! The median opening at the Guilford Avenue "Bike Boulevard" is a less-than-average 60 feet, but designing it for bikes-only would be appropriate, essentially bringing the width down to zero. All in all, there is great potential for increasing green space and the integrity of the parkway simply by putting the 33rd Street median on a pavement diet.

These "flexi-posts" in the 33rd Street median opening at Old York Road (looking west) are a cheapo temporary way
 of doing what needs to be done - reduce the size of the median opening to only what is needed.
Better yet, close the median opening altogether. The "Waverly Village" sign is also very non-park like
 and blocks the greenway, more like one would expect to see in suburbia than a park setting. 

3 - Wherever the parkway median must remain open, left-turns from the parkway should then be prohibited if possible. This means left-turn traffic would be accommodated from the side streets, but not onto the side streets. This further prioritizes the local neighborhood streets for residents. Also, the necessary size of a median openings for left-turns from side streets would be smaller than that from the parkways, because these vehicles can make wider turns.

4 - Wherever significant traffic conflicts remain, special signalization for pedestrians and bikes along the greenway should be provided. At some major intersections - Charles, St. Paul, Loch Raven, Alameda and Hillen - left-turns are sufficiently heavy that signalization is the only solution. At Charles and St. Paul in particular, the left turns are so heavy that it probably justifies the current lack of any median at all in the block between them. In that case, it is probably best to use signals to direct pedestrians and bikes to the existing sidewalks and bike lanes, for which further improvements are no doubt possible.

The goal should be to create the highest quality and most park-like environment inside the medians for people. With this priority, the pathways will not provide the best possible speed and connections for bicycles. Many skilled and commuter bicyclists will find it more advantageous to use bike lanes and routes along the streets than to use the pathways inside the parkways. This will also help resolve conflicts between bikes and pedestrian users of the parkway trails.

Better solutions may also be available for specific locations. In particular, the critical intersection of Gwynns Falls Parkway and Auchentoroly Terrace on the edge of Druid Hill Park is very poorly designed for anyone - pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and the neighborhood as a whole. This intersection, as well as Druid Hill Park's entire edge highway system, needs a major redesign and realignment (see my 2010 BaltimoreBrew story - update coming soon).

The Gwynns Falls Parkway is particularly beautiful adjacent to Hanlon Park (to the left/north).
The median and park should be integrated in human design as Olmsted intended.
Gwynns Falls Parkway also provides great opportunities. Perhaps the most beautiful segment of the entire parkway system is adjacent to Hanlon Park. The new greenway path in the median of Gwynns Falls Parkway is an opportunity to extend the pathway system into Hanlon Park and northward to lovely Lake Ashburton. This should be given attention before the upcoming reconstruction of Druid Lake takes place to give the community more options during its severe disruption.

The large 35-mile RTC greenway loop is also a framework for an even larger system. Alameda, proceeding from Clifton Park to 33rd Street and northward, should also be given similar attention to 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway. The 6-mile West Baltimore greenway loop which I have proposed would also coincide with the RTC loop system along the Gwynns Falls Trail. This trail and others may be seen as tools for redeveloping the city as much as for access and recreation.

Urban parks are precious. Even after a century, the Olmsted parkways are as invaluable as ever to maximize the use of Baltimore's parks and green space for urban living.