February 24, 2007

Leakin Park


It's finally happening. After 40 years, the stalemate has at last been broken. Leakin Park is now being torn up, hills are being flattened and trees are being bulldozed to make way for a major new transportation project.

The construction fury was unleashed by a "Nixon in China" type of event. Just as it took an inveterate anti-commie crusader like President Nixon to open Red China to the western world, it took the tree hugging environmentalists to agree to scorch some earth to open Leakin Park to western Baltimore.

Here's the punch line. The major transportation project in question is the Gwynns Falls Trail. This may be "only" a meandering recreational bikeway that will at best see very little commuter action, but it's a serious multi-million dollar construction project causing serious multi-million dollar disruption of the earth.

Hopefully it all will be worth it and will tap the vast potential of vast Leakin Park to provide recreational opportunities and breathe life and appreciation into what has been a dead place, whose reputation is mainly as a receptacle for dead bodies.

More pointedly, what the bikeway will hopefully do is create a new broader constituency of park users who will demand that Leakin Park be maintained to useful standards as a place for real people. Until now, most people really didn't really care about Leakin Park, and many had only a vague awareness that it even existed. This meant that the small minority who did care about the park was acting on behalf of everyone. Leakin Park is too big a place for that, in a city that needs to take advantage of every piece of real estate to fulfill its potential.

A related problem until now is that various debates regarding Leakin Park have been painted in the most simplistic black and white terms. The great Interstate 70 expressway debate of the 1960s and 1970s set the tone. The question was posed thusly: Do you want the park to be dominated by a freakin' gigantic Interstate highway or do you want the park to be God's pristine paradise wilderness untouched by sinful human hands?

To draw the battle lines in an even higher degree of contrast, the debate was fought amid a sea of legal regulations, lawsuit threats and counter threats. It was painful to watch, let alone participate.

We should all know how all that turned out. After a frantically breathless battle where the forces for Interstate highways lost by the skin of their teeth, the park was indeed untouched by human hands for decades. This gradually became neglect and finally something close to abandonment, except by the body dumpers. OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's the perception.

The brand new bikeway is Leakin Park's first step toward normalcy. Let's hope for the best.

It is ironic but instructive that the construction techniques used for a bikeway are so similar to those for any other transportation project. The photo above showing the hillside being carved out for the bikeway looks absolutely identical at this stage as it would if the construction was to widen Franklintown Road just for cars, which would raise quite a cry. But the world has changed since the 1970s. Environmental mitigation is now a big part of any transportation project. Even if a project starts as being a widening for cars, every element should be considered. Intelligent design can and should make conditions better for everyone after a project than before.

So where should Leakin Park go from here? The Gwynns Falls Trail should be the first step, not the last.

The next issue to be confronted is whether bikers and hikers will feel safe on the trail. There must be a "critical mass" of activity so that people do not feel isolated. If not, the constituency will die and the trail will gradually fade back into oblivion. Leakin Park is a big valley with very little proximity to neighborhoods. It is easy to feel isolated. There is also little active recreational space like playing fields, except for Leon Day Park which is at the far east end and thus not near most of the trail.

Recreational activity is very peaky. There will certainly be some days when there are plenty of people roaming the park like a big happy friendly family. However, there will inevitably also be other days when only the hearty few venture out on the trail, and there could be some big highly publicized criminal event that could destroy the good reputation gained on all the good days.

So we need to plan the park as a whole, to make it as active as possible. We should no longer be afraid to think of Leakin Park as a place for people.


The next big project in West Baltimore is the Red Line transit line. Like bikes and trails, transit has a good image with the environmental activist community and so they may be inclined to concede to major construction disruption if the ends justifies the means. But transit is expensive and space-consuming and in order to build a good project, we can't afford to waste either of those things.

There appears to be a consensus on the Red Line project that there should be a transit station at the end of the old Interstate 70 expressway stub where Cooks Lane becomes Security Boulevard at the west edge of Leakin Park (see above). This stub highway is now grossly underutilized, and is only used as an impromptu parking lot.

A transit station at this location should be an impetus to completely transform this entire area. What it could be is a prominent front door for Leakin Park. There is a huge amount of space available.

The adjacent interchange which was built to accommodate traffic when the expressway was expected to extend through downtown spreads out all the way to Ingleside Avenue. This big sprawling interchange is no longer needed and could be replaced with more subdued connections. The intersection of Security Boulevard with Ingleside and Forest Park Avenue (upper right on the photo above) would be a great formal focal point for the park.

Leakin Park could be expanded westward along the former Interstate 70 stub, as far as desired. The highway only carries enough traffic to require one lane in each direction, which is exactly what it has at the choke points at its junction with the Beltway interchange ramps. Approximately two additional lanes would be occupied by the transit line.

All the other space is superfluous and with creative design, it could be taken over by other uses to expand Leakin Park. This would include well more than half of the current highway width (see above), plus all the space on the north side of the highway up to Parallel Drive, which would then also essentially become a park road (see below).

A great advantage of this expanded Leakin Park is that since much of it would be in Baltimore County, it would no longer be considered exclusively a Baltimore City park. This would expand the park constiuency and could do wonders for the park's image among folks who might be inclined to make a hasty judgment about it. The land now occupied by the expressway stub is owned by the State of Maryland. How does a promotion to the name "Leakin State Park" sound?

Perhaps the best neighbor Leakin Park could have would be the largest employer in the Baltimore metropolitan area - the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration property backs up directly adjacent to the expressway stub. Its thousands of employees would provide the biggest possible constituency for Leakin Park, as well as for the Red Line.

What's more, the Social Security Administration land in question is just a parking lot right now. It should be developed as active uses, perhaps related to Social Security or maybe not. The new development could be designed intelligently to create an active edge oriented both to the transit line and to the park. The transit line would also enable many employees to get out of their cars, thus reducing demand for parking and freeing up space for new development. Parking could also be consolidated in garages instead of surface lots.

The expanded Leakin Park should also provide an opportunity to redesign the existing Leakin Park in the City. Common motifs should be used so that the new blends as seamlessly as possible with the old, minimizing any tendency to unfairly favor one area over another.

With the expansion of Leakin Park into the County, it may also be advantageous to rethink the use of some of the City parkland for other more active uses. There are legal regulations governing things like that, and while it seems distasteful to invoke dry legal regulations instead of creative design, there must be a balance of both. But one acre of parkland is seldom exactly equal to another, and parks should not be designed by lawyers or accountants. Until now, the lawyers and regulation wielders have held too much sway. Planners and designers have been afraid to do anything with the park for fear of having the book thrown at them.

This attitude has been painfully prevalent in planning for the Red Line. There is a real problem in attempting to put the Red Line on Cooks Lane, which with only one travel lane in each direction and rowhouses close to the road on both sides, is much too narrow to add a transit line. Yet it appears that is where the planners feel they need to put the transit line, in fear of the regulations governing parks.

But putting the Red Line in Leakin Park is an obvious alternative. There is full consensus that there must be a station at Edmondson Village Shopping Center on Route 40, but west of that point, the transit line could be placed in a short tunnel under the Hunting Ridge neighborhood and emerging in Leakin Park.

That is really the only reasonable option. Cooks Lane is not.

The expansion and re-conception of all of Leakin Park should provide the impetus to design a Red Line alignment within Leakin Park which would have a positive impact on both the park and the community, and provide an efficient transit link between Edmondson Village and the Security corridor. The current construction of the Gwynns Falls Trail provides a demonstration of how some bulldozer disruption can be put in perspective relative to the much greater resultant benefit for the park and the people.


Here's another important issue. Roadway planning should also be an integral part of park planning and transit planning. The Red Line will affect the road and traffic patterns. It is necessary to ensure that this be a net positive rather than a negative effect.

To summarize the issues:

1. Edmondson Avenue (Route 40) will be very significantly affected by the Red Line, if it is located there. Each transit lane takes up as much space as a standard lane. The road must either be widened, for which space is extremely tight and the impact would be immense, or else existing well-used travel lanes must be eliminated.

2. Any traffic improvements should be made at the same time as the transit line, so that disruption is minimized and costs are spread between the two modes. (The extreme example of this was the construction of Interstate 795 to Owings Mills while the Metro was built in the median, which saved many millions.)

3. As previously discussed, the expanded Leakin Park should be as seamless as possible between the existing city portion and the new County portion.

Considering these issues, the best course of action is to create a continuous parkway along Franklintown Road in Leakin Park from the I-70 expressway stub to Hilton Parkway.

A Franklintown Parkway would only need to be one lane in each direction, and in many locations, hardly anything would need to be done to the existing Franklintown Road through the park in order to make it suitable as a parkway. The widening of Franklintown Road now being done for the bikeway (see the third photo in the first Leakin Park story above) is actually of a similar or greater extent to what would be necessary for a parkway. The parkway would not affect the neighborhoods of Franklintown on the west side of the park (including the location in the same picture) or Rosemont on the east side of the park.

The primary purpose of the Franklintown Parkway would be to connect the stub of I-70 to Hilton Parkway to divert traffic off of Edmondson Avenue, in order to create a better environment for the neighborhoods oriented to the transit Red Line.

Ideally, the Red Line would re-orient these neighborhoods to Edmondson Avenue, which should rightfully be their spine of activity. Unfortunately, Edmondson Avenue (Route 40) has become a traffic sewer and the adjacent neighborhoods have turned their back on this street as much as possible.

The neighborhoods behind the street, including Rognel Heights, Hunting Ridge, Ten Hills, Allendale and Edmondson Village, are all great neighborhoods, but the tens of thousands of people who drive down Route 40 every day are almost totally unaware of that. All that motorists see is the crushing traffic load and the vulnerable houses watching back from their small or non-existent front yards. Those unfortunate houses set the tone for the rest of the neighborhoods out of view behind them.

The Red Line cannot succeed in this type of environment. If neighborhoods are inundated with heavy traffic, they cannot be well oriented to transit. People waiting for the transit vehicles need to have a comfortable experience instead of being overwhelmed surrounding by traffic. The buildings along Route 40 need to be oriented to the transit line as well, instead of being defensive about it.

The solution is to divert much of the traffic along Route 40 onto the Franklintown Parkway so that Edmondson Avenue can be given back to the neighborhoods. One good high capacity lane through the park in each direction should be enough. A lane on Franklintown Parkway should be able to carry more traffic than a lane on Edmondson Avenue. Franklintown Parkway also does not need wide curves to accommodate high speeds - 30 mph is sufficient to maximize the ability of the lanes to carry traffic (see "Traffic 101" blog article). More important is proper design of intersections to maintain steady traffic flow and prevent congestion. Occasional turn-outs for park users and disabled vehicles are also important.

The biggest engineering challenge for Franklintown Parkway is designing ramps to conect it with Hilton Parkway. Hilton is shown as the beautiful bridge in the above photo, with Franklintown underneath. Hilton Parkway was artfully realigned and rebuilt a few years ago, which should facilitate connections with Franklintown Parkway. Hilton Parkway serves as an excellent example of how a major road can coexist nicely with a park, although it has four lanes and carries trucks, whereas Franklintown Parkway should need only two lanes for small vehicles only.

Perhaps an even better model for Franklintown Parkway is Rock Creek Parkway in Washington DC. Rock Creek Park is located in a very deep valley similar to Leakin Park. Thousands of cars coexist nicely with nearby bikers, hikers and joggers, and the presence of traffic actually increases the sense of security and reduces isolation for them. During weekends and other peak recreational times, Rock Creek Parkway is closed to through traffic and even more space is thus made available for park users. There are actually lots of great urban parkways around the country, although very few have been built since the Interstate highway system poisoned the relationship between highway and park design.

Creation of a Franklintown Parkway would open up many possibilities for Edmondson Avenue. With the diversion of through traffic, one of the three traffic lanes in each direction on Edmondson could be eliminated. Full-time on-street parking could be restored. It could be made less of a traffic street and more of a neighborhood street, which in turn, could make it more of a transit street.

These options should also be considered in combination with the prohibition of left turns and elimination of left turn lanes. While left turn lanes increase access to the neighborhood, they make it much more difficult to establish calm and smooth traffic flow for both cars and transit vehicles and for pedestrian crossings. If the domination of traffic on the communities is to be reduced, this should be given serious consideration. Some inconvenience for traffic could result in a much better environment for people.

In sum, planning for Leakin Park, the surrounding communities and for transit should have one bottom line - planning for people. Leakin Park is a fantastic resource and all options should be explored to promote the happy coexistence of all. Hopefully, we've come a long way since the "all or nothing" planning of the Interstate Highway era. Leakin Park should not be placed off limits to progress.


  1. I wouldn't be so kind in my own judgement of trail construction: I find it amazing how we build trails these days (I know, all in the name of ADA). I was aghast about this when a new trail was blazed along Patapsco River near Ellicott City ( a long contested project where the dam is). I used to hike there a lot and the project left nothing as it was. It costs a lot of money and causes a lot of erosion and damage this way. The new trail along the Patapsco got already washed out along several portions because in spite of all the impacts it was not engineered well enough. As a biker/hiker and trail user I don't like to cruise along "autobahns" in the woods with mowed shoulders, many signs, guardrails and separate lanes. It all takes away from the experience for which we go out there: To smell, feel and touch nature. Somehow we need to overcome the lawyers who are breathing down the neck of engineers.

    Regarding the point of traffic diversion:
    I agree that Franklintown Road could somehow be similar to Rock Creek Parkway. In many respects, it already is. Its pretty heavily used at rush hours. I'd say we don't need to make this bigger before we can take a lane out at Edmondson Ave to make room for the Red Line. The lane to be taken would be the curb lane that has off-peak parking on it. Turn this into permanent parking, its better for the residents and moves the moving lanes away from the curb, much better for pedestrians as well. The space left between the curbs would essentially accommodate the Red Line in the center with two moving lanes on each side. All that would happen is that during rush hour there would be the congestion we see every other day anyway, when people park there during rush hour or eviction furniture graces the third lane or endless buses dwell at endless bus stops.(For those who don't think 4 lanes can handle the traffic, there is a 6 lane option as well).
    The thoughts on park extension and re-appropriation of the wasted I-70 east space are excellent.

  2. Love the blog. I am also an avid Baltimore City advocate. I have also started a blog relating directly to this. It's called baltimorefuture.blogspot.com it discusses my predictions for the future of Baltimore and its many neighborhoods on all levels.

  3. Good comments. I didn't really intend to defend the bigtime trail construction, but yes, that's how it's done these days, but if it gets more people to use the park, it's worth it.

    The point about peak traffic already being pretty heavy on Franklintown Road is also good. Motorists are already trying to avoid Route 40 congestion. The Franklintown neighborhood has been bothered enough by traffic to get the city to install speed humps. It could very get a lot heavier even if nothing else is done, since congestion can get worse on Route 40. The area where much more traffic could really be harmful is in Rosemont to the east of Hilton, which is why I proposed that the parkway feed into Hilton instead. Yes, all planning should be coordinated with the Red Line.

  4. Drove in to work this morning and noticed the Detour signs were gone. YIPPEE! After months of being closed for drainage work related to the Gwynns Falls Trail (which is also just about done- YIPPEE!), Franklintown Road is open again from Dogwood Road all the way through Rosemont.

    No more sitting in traffic on Cooks Lane and Edmonson Ave!! No more cutting through Westhills to avoid Cooks Lane! Using Franklintown Road cuts my morning commute time by almost 50%!