June 15, 2006

Mt Vernon-Belvidere


Boundaries can have a huge effect on a neighborhood, and a perfect example of this is the effect of the Jones Falls Expressway corridor (JFX) on the Mount Vernon/Midtown neighborhood. Even before the expressway was built in the 1960s, the neighborhood was cut off from east of Guilford Avenue by various railroad tracks, an imposing elevated transit line and by The Fallsway, a highway so-named because it was built on top of the buried Jones Falls river. These interrupted the urban fabric without attracting enough people or cars to be very useful. While Charles Street three blocks to the west was considered Baltimore's main street, Mount Vernon turned its back on the Jones Falls corridor. The elevated transit line was torn down in 1950, the various railroad tracks were abandoned at various times, and when the JFX was built in the 1960s, the Fallsway was largely moved out of the way and converted to a northbound service drive.

Since that time, the greatest effect from the JFX's role as a neighborhood boundary has been to enable the expansion of the prison complex on the "other" side of the road. Over the past several decades, prisons have been one of the primary growth industries in Baltimore and now include facilities along the east edge of the expressway from Gay Street to Eager Street, the entire eight block extent of the elevated expressway. During this time, the City and State attempted to located prison facilities in other areas of the city, but it was much easier to sell prison projects to the residents of Mount Vernon and vicinity than anywhere else. After all, they already had prisons anyway and the JFX formed a strong physical and, more importantly, a psychological barrier between them.

The picture above looks southward from the transition point at Chase Street, showing one of the prisons to the left, the outback of Mount Vernon to the right, and the elevated expressway between them.

North of this point, the JFX becomes submerged below street level. While every through street has a bridge over the expressway, the effect of the expressway as a barrier is still as strong as to the south where the expressway is up in the air and far more conspicuous. To the east, there are bridges for Chase, Fallsway, Biddle and Preston Street between Mount Vernon and the Johnston Square, a predominately poor and blighted neighborhood that, unlike Mount Vernon, has no barrier separating it from the prisons.

To the north, there are bridges for Guilford, Calvert, St. Paul, Charles, and Maryland Avenue which separate Mount Vernon from Station North, a neighborhood that seemingly has one of the best locations in the entire city. However, until recently it has mostly failed to take advantage of its proximity to Mount Vernon, Penn Station and Charles Village. This is now finally changing, due in part to the hot DC commuter rail market and a heightened identification of Station North with arts and culture.

The picture above shows the relationship of the Jones Falls Expressway to the area at the bend between Preston Street to the south (just to the right) and Guilford Avenue to the west (beyond the left.) Right next to the JFX are two abandoned railroad tracks which remain among the many that used to be in this corridor. In the background is the very active Amtrak mainline railroad and beyond that is the historic Green Mount Cemetery, punctuated by the chapel spire located just beyond its only entrance. The Johnston Square neighborhood is beyond the top of the hill to the right, while off to the left and adjacent to the cemetery is an isolated and largely abandoned appendage of the Station North neighborhood.

The area in the picture above, between Mount Vernon and the Green Mount Cemetery, is the only portion of the JFX barrier where the land is actually physically cut off.

Green Mount Cemetery is truly one of the most beautiful places in all of Baltimore. The picture above shows a small bit of the Mount Vernon skyline in the left background and the incredible chapel spire to the right. The cemetery is a massive walled fortress of over twenty square blocks. Like the JFX, the cemetery's stone walls form yet another imposing barrier that shuts off the very low income neighborhoods that surround it on all sides.

Here is the one and only cemetery entrance, framing Mount Vernon's Belvedere Hotel (now condos) in the background. With its incredibly ornate Victorian mansard roof, the Belvedere Hotel is a kindred spirit to the Green Mount cemetery, and yet they are totally isolated from each other in space and mind, another example of the power of boundaries.

The street shown just beyond the cemetery gate is called Belvidere Street, which dead ends just above the Amtrak tracks. However, old nineteenth century maps show this street continuing onward toward Mount Vernon, creating a connection between the cemetery and the center of Baltimore culture at that time.

By historical happenstance, the hotel seen at the end of Belvidere Street is spelled "Belvedere", as is the northern portion of the Mount Vernon neighborhood which surrounds it. The spelling irony has been largely lost along with the physical connection.

A new connection using this street from the Green Mount Cemetery to Mount Vernon could be built without much difficulty, by building a new bridge from the south end of Belvidere Street over the Amtrak tracks. Above is a full view of the Green Mount entrance gate and chapel from near the south dead end of Belvidere Street.

The Green Mount Cemetery gate would be an ideal location for a roundabout, which is a traffic control device which is capable of handling almost any volume of traffic that can be fed to it by standard urban streets, while treating through traffic the same way it treats local traffic. Roundabouts and traffic circles have the unique characteristic of being perceived as destinations of their own, negating the powerful tendency of through streets to overwhelm the "sense of place" and act as psychological barriers. Roundabouts are also good for intersections such as this with five legs - the cemetery entrance, Oliver Street, Belvidere Street, and the two legs of Greenmount Avenue.

The Belvidere Street bridge over the Amtrak tracks would land on the abandoned railroad right of way shown above, shown just north of Preston Street and east of the JFX. The new bridge could land on Preston Street itself, east of Guilford Avenue and over the expressway; however, this portion of Preston has very little sense of place and would not provide much of a traffic advantage for motorists who might use it. The new Belvidere connector would be much more powerful from a traffic standpoint if it went directly onto the railroad right of way under Preston Street and along side the expressway. Proceeding southward, the abandoned rail right of way also goes underneath Biddle, Fallsway and Chase Street as well.

From a regional standpoint, a new connector roadway from Greenmount Avenue to the abandoned right of way along side the JFX would be extremely powerful. The entire northeast quadrant of Baltimore, from due-north Greenmount Avenue to due-east Sinclair Lane, currently has absolutely no direct radial route into downtown Baltimore. This accounts for much of the massive traffic overload on the radial streets just to the west through Mount Vernon - Calvert, St. Paul, Charles and Maryland Avenue. It also accounts for the relative underutilization of Greenmount Avenue south of 25th Street. Unlike most of the city's radial routes, Greenmount carries more traffic and has more congestion away from downtown, from around 33rd Street up to York Road and Towson, than it does in the inner city where it veers away from downtown.

The new Belvidere connector would be particularly valuable as a southward extension for Loch Raven Boulevard, which now ends unceremoniously at 24th Street. Loch Raven could be connected directly to Greenmount Avenue at that point, to continue southward toward downtown via the Belvidere connector.

The best location for a southern terminus of the Belvidere connector is in the location shown in the first picture at the top of this article, underneath the expressway, where it would join southbound Guilford Avenue near Madison Street. At this point, Guilford Avenue is very underutilized and would entice through traffic away from the overused St. Paul Street in Mount Vernon. Northbound, the connector could be tied into the JFX off-ramp to Chase Street and Fallsway.

This portion of the JFX adjacent to the prisons would remain a barrier and a neighborhood boundary, but it would allow a large portion of northeast Baltimore to have less of a barrier.
Proposals have been made to tear down the elevated portion of the Jones Falls Expressway adjacent to the prisons between Gay and Eager Streets to make a surface street boulevard and less of a barrier. People who have made these proposals assert that with good design, new development could be oriented in such a way that the proximity to the prisons could be de-emphasized and not call attention to itself. Physically, the southern terminus of the proposed Belvidere connector could be tied into a new at-grade Jones Falls Boulevard, and the lack of an elevated expressway would make the connector more visible and perhaps more visually attractive.

The fatal flaw of doing this, however, would be traffic congestion. Where the south end of the Jones Falls Expressway currently turns into the surface President Street at Fayette Street is a traffic and pedestrian nightmare. Extending a President Street type of treatment farther north would compound the problem. Even worse, much of the Jones Falls Expressway traffic would bail out onto the parallel surface streets of Mount Vernon. Traffic already does this to a large extent, as indicated by the heavy traffic volumes on the JFX ramps to St. Paul and Maryland Avenue and from Charles Street, but they would do it in even greater numbers.

Moreover, a surface Jones Falls Boulevard would eliminate the current very strong opportunities to make the JFX an even better bypass for through traffic around Mount Vernon. The Belvidere connector is just one of these opportunities, and there are at least several others. Any roadway modification that could be done to divert traffic onto the expressway or the adjacent corridor would be subverted.

The JFX is perfectly situated to absorb traffic that can make the Mount Vernon neighborhood streets work better.

Creating such a new connection would also forge a linkage between Mount Vernon and the isolated eastern portion of the Station North neighborhood next to Green Mount Cemetery. The picture above shows the houses on Federal Street from the cemetery, a block north of the gate. The isolation of this portion of Station North - with barriers formed by the cemetery to the east, Amtrak tracks to the south, North Avenue to the north, and only Lanvale and Lafayette going through to the west - has given the neighborhood an embalmed sort of quality, as if it was just waiting around for something to happen.

The proposed Belvidere connector would reinforce two of the Midtown area's strong boundaries, the Jones Falls Expressway and the Green Mount Cemetery, to strengthen the bonds within the community. Good boundaries create good neighborhoods.


  1. Gerry,

    I think the city has ghost plans of such. Not a bad idea, but.......

    That old RR ROW is part of the CAC plan for the Red Line! Additionally, that plan calls for demolition of the Guilford Ave bridge to accomodate the alignment. I think this ROW should really be preserved until we've fully decided on that segment of our rail system.


  2. Gerald,

    Great write up! I live in Mid-town on Hunter Street, 1000 block. Even more access to I-83 would be a great thing, and I too am opposed to the tearing down of the elevated portion.

    I'd like to request an article from you, if possible. I've been digging for some history of the central Baltimore "alleys," namely Hunter, Hargrove, and Lovegrove, without much success. With your vast knowledge of the street culture of the city, could you give us some background on the streets, and why the city chose to name its alleys. I'm also interested in how building were able to just build right across them, segmenting parts throughout. For instance the SHA Building on Calvert has some sort of Garage looking thing on Hunter and there is a fence across it just south of Mount Royal.

    The best information I've ever found is a City Paper article here: http://www.citypaper.com/printStory.asp?id=8573

    Thank you,


  3. New development is happening that would benefit from this connector: http://www.bizjournals.com/undefined/baltimore/blog/cyberbizblog/2015/09/first-look-at-plans-for-artist-incubator-open.html

    1. Thanks, Squalem, for digging out my six year old post, which is even more relevant now. I ought to update it - I wasn't even using Google earth yet. Your link to the new Station North artist project on Belvidere Ave. doesn't quite work. He's the fixed link: