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 was 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 such as 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.

March 1, 2017

Fix Pimlico and Preakness, shutdown Laurel Racetrack

In a horse race between Pimlico and Laurel, the "experts" and bean counters say Laurel is a much better racetrack and location than Pimlico. It has a larger market area, better access and it's in better condition. They even tout better parking as a selling point.

But it's still bad economics to close down Pimlico and move the Preakness to Laurel. Port Covington and Pigtown were previously promoted as better racetrack locations than Pimlico too, but that didn't mean we should build a new racetrack there either.

Three basic economic points should dictate the future of Pimlico Race Course:

   1. Horse racing is not now, nor is ever again likely to be, a major economic engine for growth in the city or state.
   2. The basic economic value of the Laurel Park racetrack site for virtually any kind of redevelopment is higher than Pimlico.
   3. Both the Pimlico and Laurel need to be redeveloped to serve as full-time economic generators 365 days a year, not just during the limited and sporadic racing seasons.
Pimlico Racetrack at Northern Parkway and Park Heights Avenue.
The Mount Washington and Park Heights neighborhoods are respectively to the north and south.

Talk of putting a new racetrack at Port Covington only came grinding to a halt when Under Armour came along and devised a multi-billion dollar plan for their corporate headquarters along with a major high density surrounding urban development. The same things that made Port Covington a good racetrack site - accessibility, visibility, market area, etc. - made it a far far better location for something much more valuable.

That's a law of economics. It's not just about value. It's about comparative value.

The same thing applies to Laurel. Its location halfway between Baltimore and Washington, with its own MARC rail station, has far more potential economic value than what it could ever return for horse racing, which has already pretty much reached its peak. Relative to its economic potential, Laurel needs a new land use and development plan just as much as Pimlico does.

The main difference is that major redevelopments in Baltimore must be catalysts for uplifting their surrounding areas, whereas Laurel is surrounded by the dynamic Washington metropolitan area where new development only needs to fit in and complement what is already there.

The fact that we're talking about Laurel versus Pimlico, one or the other, says that we're obviously not talking about horse racing as a burgeoning industry. However, it is still a highly visible and iconic industry.

Laurel simply doesn't need high visibility, but Pimlico and Baltimore does.

Even the warm and fuzzy "emotional" factors aren't so fuzzy when translated into economics. The annual Preakness "Triple Crown" race draws 135,000 people, and Laurel would be incapable of physically accommodating that many because it does not have a usable "infield" area inside the track. More importantly, the long storied tradition of this "Triple Crown" event isn't just emotion, it's everything. If we lose that tradition, we lose everything. It can't be remade from scratch.

The Preakness is very important to the state and city's marketing image, which is where the real value is.

So here is the agenda:


The Maryland Stadium Authority has just completed its Phase One Study of Pimlico, which concluded that a major racetrack makeover will cost approximately $300 Million. That's very reasonable in terms of recent price tags for major modern sports facilities, but it is far too much for a part-time venue that's only fully utilized once a year. The most important outcome of the study is that it appears that all involved parties want to proceed with a follow-up Phase Two.

So here is the way to proceed from here:

1. Create a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the entire Pimlico site, in which the renovated racetrack serves as an anchor motif, but which also includes other uses which can feed off the horse theme and create full-time year-around economic activity. The marketing theme is simply that people love horses and their unique traditions, and that can be a major attraction for year-around uses.

2. Then prepare an assessment of the value of redeveloping Laurel as well, based on closing down the racetrack and starting over with a clean sheet on a very valuable site.

3. Then begin partnership negotiations between the state and local governments on the one side and Stronach Group, which owns both race tracks, on the other. Negotiations that include both sites will provide more leeway than treating the two sites in isolation. A pot sweetener at one location may facilitate concessions at the other. It is beside the point that more money can be made from horse racing at Laurel. The overall bottom line for all uses on both sites is the key.

4. Include Timonium racetrack and fairgrounds in the discussion. Timonium is another valuable underutilized site with an obsolete racetrack, served by light rail and surrounded by very active suburban development. Perhaps Pimlico can be made into an exposition center and the Maryland State Fair can be moved there from nearby Timonium.

Stronach will contend that Laurel is the best home for racing because it requires the least investment on their part, creating the lowest priced baseline for their investment. This sets up the state as the investor that would spend the lion's share. Investors like to use other people's money.

The state needs to resist this position as much as possible, because private sector investors including Stronach would stand to gain the most from a maximum investment in redeveloping Laurel.

Here's a major precedent: Sites for a new Yankee Stadium were being considered in New York. The primary options were The Bronx, adjacent to the existing stadium, and Manhattan's west side. Manhattan had all the economic advantages, but The Bronx was ultimately the better choice. So the Bronx Bombers stayed in The Bronx right across the street from legendary old Yankee Stadium. And now the west side of Manhattan is prospering even more, with billions in new investment from the High Line to Hudson Yards to Hell's Kitchen. Of course, Laurel isn't Manhattan, but the point is the same. Laurel is at the intersection of four of the most affluent counties in the country: HoCo, MoCo, PG (#1 for AfrAms) and AA.

One could also think of horses as basically being Maryland's version of China's pandas. Nobody would ever suggest that pandas could or should become a major part of China's overall economic output, but they are a potent symbol for Chinese tradition and culture.

The same goes for horse racing at Pimlico. It's not fuzzy, vague or outmoded. Horse racing at Pimlico is simply a solid theme to build upon which adds real economic value.

February 22, 2017

Pigtown gateway roundabout shaped like a sausage

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

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

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

Gateway to Pigtown - Link to Carroll Park


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The special powers of roundabouts


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

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

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

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

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

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

January 30, 2017

Hopkins should expand into Bayview rail yard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution of the Hopkins Bayview Research Park campus


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

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

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

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

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

Fulfilling Bayview's promise


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 19, 2017

A simple specific ten-point city transportation agenda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The parallel role of new technology

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

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

Here is essentially the entirety of what the zillion page report says about the role of new technology (Section 4.1.3.1):

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

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

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

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

Other technologies are also in play, like automation and multi-modal vehicles such as the dual powered diesel-electric locomotives which are now being used by New Jersey Transit to enable trains of one mode to use tracks of another.
Dual powered diesel-electric locomotive used by NJ Transit - Richard Layman's blog
www.urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2012/08/dual-powered-diesel-electric-locomotive.html

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

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


We should be pro-active

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 22, 2016

A statue where Tupac Shakur first lived on the edge


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death as a career move


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to put the Tupak Shakur Statue?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 8, 2016

The new Lexington Market needs a grand staircase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A recent geographical history of Lexington Street


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stairway to heaven


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

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

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

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

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

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