May 28, 2006

FRANKLIN-MULBERRY:
PLENTY OF ROOM FOR EVERYTHING


Franklin-Mulberry is often cited as a classic example of an expressway that destroyed a city neighborhood. That may or may not be true, since many city neighborhoods have been destroyed without the aid of new expressways. But what is truly unforgivable is the way that the expressway ruins have been embalmed to virtually the exact same condition as when the expressway was built. Instead of trying to reweave the shattered city back together, the area remains remarkably as it was then. In that time, has there been any other part of the City that has been so devoid of change but has needed it so much?

The whole world has changed since 1976, but Franklin-Mulberry has not. The expressway was never connected up to the rest of the Interstate highway system. When I-70 was killed through Leakin Park, the Franklin-Mulberry leg just became Route 40. Even though it was built with three lanes in each direction, it effectively only has two, and it only needs two. Two grade separated and access controlled lanes can carry more traffic than three surface arterial lanes can anyway, so the third continuous lane is of little use, now or in the future.



A wide green swath of the median strip has always been reserved for a transit line. This was a common and expedient thing to do at the time, and in many cities like Chicago and Portland, rail transit lines were indeed built in expressway medians, but hardly anybody has ever been happy with them, cut off as they are from the cities they serve.



There is also a huge swath of leftover land on the north side of the "ditch" next to Franklin Street that has never been used for anything, and a narrower one on the south side next to Mulberry Street. These were even fenced in for many years, as if there was something in there to protect. They are not parkland, nor have they ever been proposed as such, except as some type of default land use born of inertia. For such large parcels of perfectly good land to sit vacant for so long, it can only be concluded that they must truly be considered worthless, even if such an estimation represents more of a defeat for good planning than a socially constructive evaluation.

Moreover, the traffic engineering for old Franklin and Mulberry Streets themselves has never been reevaluated. They are set up to major arterial streets just as they were before the expressway in the ditch was even built. Virtually all of the through traffic has either been diverted to the expressway, or could be very easily, but the streets remain the same.


In the past few years, there has finally been some movement in the fossilized Franklin-Mulberry corridor. The first significant sign of life was the Heritage Crossing community, just across Franklin and MLK Boulevard from the expressway. This attractive middle class neighborhood which replaced notorious high rise public housing "projects", has an astonishingly low density for a place so close to downtown. This reflects the very low value of this land - it was not felt that the land's value was sufficient to support a higher density.

As shown above, the planners also felt that Heritage Crossing required huge suburban style buffer strips to separate it from Franklin Street and MLK Boulevard. This is particularly ironic since Franklin hardly even carries any through traffic. It reflects the very suburban-style highway design and traffic engineering of Franklin Street, rather than the actual local function of the road.


The big catalyst for change for Franklin-Mulberry is hopefully finally upon us. That would be the "Red Line" transit line. Some urban designers believe it would be a mistake to build the Red Line in the highway median of the dead "ditch". But it would be an even bigger mistake to build the transit line up along Franklin and/or Mulberry Street like a slow old streetcar line. This didn't work on Howard Street, which was just as desolate after the light rail line was built in the early 90s as it was before.

Instead, what is needed is to treat the Franklin-Mulberry corridor as an entirely new and unique urban space, not just as an expressway corridor with a transit line. The grade separations created by the big retaining walls for the expressway can be used to make the transit line and the highway work efficiently without conflicts, but in a way that does not cut them off from the community.

The Red Line needs to have fast regional transit connections in order to make Franklin-Mulberry an advantageous location for new development, along with seamless connections between the transit line and the development sites. Creating the best of both worlds will require a unique relationship between the transit line and the surrounding area.


Here's what should be done:

1. Compress the entire expressway into the area on the south side of the "ditch" now occupied by the eastbound lanes. Two lanes in each direction will fit in this space, which is more than sufficient for any traffic volume that may be attracted.

2. Locate the transit Red Line immediately adjacent and north of the consolidated highway. This is the location where the transit line was originally intended, but it would no longer be isolated in the median.

3. New transit-oriented development would then be built at two levels on adjacent parcels. The lower level would be directly adjacent to the transit line, where the westbound expressway lanes are located now. The upper level would be between there and Franklin Street, in the wide green swath illustrated above. Thus, the transit line would have the advantage of total grade separation while also having the advantage of total integration with the new urban development space.

4. The retaining wall between the two levels could be maintained or demolished as needed to support the development. In the three blocks on the west end between Fulton Avenue and the MARC Commuter Rail Station, the retaining walls have been intended to come down anyway to create a permanent expressway terminus where it was originally supposed to have flyover ramps for I-70 to proceed toward Gwynns Falls and Leakin Parks. There is tremendous development potential in this area.

5. The ramp that currently exists between Franklin Street and the expressway adjacent to Heritage Crossing (see above photo) would be one location where the upper and lower levels could be very easily and efficiently connected. This ramp would be converted into a local service road connecting the upper and lower levels. In fact, this would serve as a way of seamlessly integrating Heritage Crossing (left edge of the photo) into the new space with a transit station, and allowing Heritage Crossing to serve as an anchor to demonstrate the marketability of the new development. The ramp and adjacent Franklin Street would be reconfigured to downsize them from Interstate highway design standards to that of local streets. The development potential at this location is particularly unique because of the topography and the huge width of the currently landlocked median strip area.

6. The Franklin Street ramp would be relocated to MLK Boulevard between Franklin and Mulberry, where it would no longer interfere with Heritage Crossing or the new development. This ramp serves almost exclusively MLK traffic anyway, since Franklin Street traffic can get on the expressway downtown just east of Greene Street.

It is indeed ironic that the MTA's Red Line consultants are considering the idea of narrowing Edmondson Avenue west of Franklin-Mulberry down to two lanes in each direction, in an area where such a squeeze would have a dire effect on traffic congestion. But in the Franklin-Mulberry Corridor, which for decades has been nothing but the remains of a dead plan, there is plenty of room for everything.

May 23, 2006

BROOKLYN: BALTIMORE'S MOST UNDISCOVERED NEIGHBORHOOD




This could be one of many Baltimore neighborhoods - modest but maintained, and affordable because it is unfashionable and because people who are willing to pay more don't want to live there. But housing priced so low is a double edged sword. Maintenance costs are not equally low. When maintenance costs are high relative to property values, houses eventually cease to be maintained. Baltimore has far too many sad examples where this has happened.

Brooklyn is one of those neighborhoods that needs to have its perceived value increased to its actual value. This would be a difficult task for some neighborhoods, but not Brooklyn - Baltimore's most undiscovered neighborhood.

May 22, 2006

Approaching Downtown on I-97


THE LOST HIGHWAY

There is an Interstate Highway approaching Baltimore from the south that hardly anyone uses because it has hardly any ramps that anyone can use. South of the Beltway, it is called I-97. Where it connects to the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, it is called I-895. But in between as shown here, it has no known route number.

May 11, 2006

BOSTON STREET:
THE WATERFRONT OVER THE DAM

While high-rise waterfront development in Harborview on Key Highway was pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition, Boston Street in Canton could have readily been developed to a much higher density without a wall of high rises. This view in front of the Canton Safeway illustrates that Boston Street is far from being an intimate transit and pedestrian-oriented urban street, but the Safeway, Starbucks and other attractions are popular with the locals and considered strong assets for the surrounding community. West of Canton Crossing (anchored by the oblisk shaped high rise in the background) , Boston Street is very close to its full build-out.

The waterfront was once a new Baltimore space. Urban pioneers came to Fells Point and Federal Hill, stopped an expressway, built a promenade, prevented a Miami Beach wall of sterile modern high rises, saved the neighborhoods for their fine old rowhouses, and created a wonderful place.

We take the intimate relationship between these neighborhoods and the waterfront for granted now, but at the time it was a radical departure from the old Baltimore. Even though Baltimore was built around the waterfront and was its very raison d'etre, the new waterfront was considered quite a bold departure, and was far from a sure success at the time.

The old Baltimore that declined from favor as the suburbs sprawled outward was tightly packed with houses and people. One of the first steps for waterfront revitalization was the destruction of many of these houses and the dispersal of its residents. This occurred not only because of well-documented residential, commercial and industrial abandonment, but also due to the clearance of large swaths for the planned expressway system that never came.

Ironically, much if not most of Baltimore's waterfront development resembles suburbia more than it does the tightly packed development that epitomized the old Baltimore. The population densities are much lower than historic Baltimore levels, both because of the "empty nest" phenomenon and the consolidation of separate apartments into single family dwellings, but also simply because there is now more open space. Boston Street on the east side is lined by waterfront parks, soccer fields, a Korean War memorial, various landscaped buffers and a Safeway supermarket that is larger and has more parking than anyone could have ever envisoned in the 1940s or 1950s.

Much of the lower density has also been the result of political pressure. There is a park at the confluence of Boston and O'Donnell Streets in Canton that is almost never used for anything but a quick pass-through because much more attractive parks are nearby in Canton Square, O'Donnell Square and along the water. The only apparent reason for that park is that adjacent residents don't want it developed. There is an even more useless and desolate walled-in park at the intersection of Key and Light Streets that preserves the incredible views of the Montgomery Street houses behind it.

The water itself also contributes to the feeling of a much lower density than urban Baltimore is accustomed to. The Inner Harbor water is essentially a massive open space, which not only creates expansive vistas, but also contributes greatly to the "breathing room" of that which surrounds it. If one adds the liquid acreage of the inner harbor to that of the surrounding waterfront, the total density is less than that of many suburbs.

Many politically-minded waterfront denizens tried to reduce the planned density even more. They tried to convince the City government to set aside the huge peninsula that was once Allied Chemical as a waterfront park, and almost succeeded until the plan for Harbor Point was established. Residents also succeeded in getting a lower density plan for Harbor East, but the City reneged and a forest of high rises has risen in its wake, despite the fact that much of the brand new street and utility system then had to be ripped up and rebuilt to support the higher density development.

On the other side of the harbor on Key Highway, the community had the last laugh. The City approved the Harborview plan for a wall of high rise condos, but the first building didn't sell very well and much of the remaining acreage has been developed with townhouses instead. It has only been recently that the economic viability of high rise condos has finally been established. The harbor views from most of the many rooftop decks of the surrounding rowhouses have thus been preserved. These rooftop views are yet another unquantifiable product of the lower than traditional urban densities, and create a much lower density milieu for the waterfront neighborhoods than the traditional front stoop gathering places of old Baltimore.

In sum, the waterfront is now the showpiece of Baltimore - a highly visible focal point. But it is not typical urban living - not today, not yesterday and not tomorrow.

For planning purposes, the Baltimore waterfront is water over the dam. Almost all the land is spoken for. The formula has been cast. Even in some underdeveloped neighborhoods like Westport, there are practically no basic issues yet to be resolved. The citizens of the waterfont neighborhoods, as well as their aspirations, are not typical of any that came before or will come again.

More importantly, the development density of the waterfront neighborhoods is not really high enough to support the services that urban neighborhoods should have. Of course, the typical service levels in most of Baltimore are pathetically low, but the fact that Canton has a huge waterfront Safeway and Port Covington has a huge waterfront Wal-Mart, while most neighborhoods do not, is just an anomoly reflecting Baltimore's traditionally bad demographics and marketing.

Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill will continue to have their trendy, upscale boutiques reflecting the neighborhoods' tone and cache, but their future prospects for serious middle class mass retailing are slim, which might come as a relief to many local yuppies.

Efficient and optimal mass transit is another service that is relatively unsuited to the waterfront. Currently, the waterfront has even worse mass transit than most of Baltimore, which is not surprising given how far behind the times the MTA always is. But the thing that counters conventional wisdom is how well the waterfront residents have managed to thrive without good mass transit. The upper income residents are wed to their cars, as are most high-enders everywhere. It would be nice to have good mass transit along the waterfront, but it is far more crucial to create a good mass transit system for the rest of the City, where lower incomes, higher development densities and the needs for economic stimulus demand it.

The future of Baltimore will not be determined at the waterfront. And if it somehow is, that does not bode well. If new development somehow stops a mile from the harbor, the City's future will be bleak. The planning decisions that are made beyond the waterfront are the ones that will determine Baltimore's real future.