The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is an almost perfect microcosm of what needs to be fixed in the physical planning of Baltimore. The photograph above is the closest intersection to the Zoo's main entrance, Liberty Heights Avenue and Auchentoroly Terrace. Where is the zoo? The sign tells you to turn right from Liberty Heights, then proceed several blocks on Auchentoroly and turn left again at Gwynns Falls Parkway, then turn left again onto a road which meanders through Druid Hill Park, over a few speed humps and finally comes upon the Zoo's makeshift parking lots nearly a half-mile later.
If you're a pedestrian, this route is particularly absurd, but there is scarcely a clue to tell you to do otherwise.
But yes, there is a clue. Where is the zoo? The clue is in the green roof that looms barely over the horizon between the trees to the left of the sign that tells you to turn right. This is the zoo's main entrance gate, and it is barely visible from the closest intersection only because the photo was taken on the zoo's grand opening day of March 3rd, before the trees have sprouted the leaves of Spring.
Anyone who knows better can ignore the sign telling you to turn right and go another half mile or so. Anyone who knows can just proceed straight ahead across the intersection, then down a grassy hill in the park next to the parking area to the main zoo entrance house.
That is what a family of four is doing in this view of the Zoo entrance, taken from the crest of the hill just beyond the intersection of Liberty Heights and Auchentoroly Terrace shown in the first picture. This improvised path to the Zoo is particularly important because it is only two blocks from the Mondawmin Metro Station, the foremost rail and bus mass transit hub in the entire Baltimore Metropolitan area, which is also located at Mondawmin Mall, one of the city's foremost retail shopping hubs.
But obviously, this is not the way most people get to the zoo. On opening day for the 2007 zoo season, there was a bumper-to-bumper traffic backup extending well over a mile from the zoo to the Jones Falls Expressway interchange at Druid Park Lake Drive. Folks were taking advantage of the free zoo weekend and the zoo parking lots were filled to overflowing soon after the zoo opened.
The zoo is reportedly struggling financially and they have often asked the city to pave over more of Druid Hill Park to accommodate more parking to accommodate more customers. So the planning microcosm starts here: "Pave paradise and put up a parking lot" as sings Joni Mitchell.
But even if the zoo could pave more of the park, it would only address the margin of a much more fundamental problem. If zoo attendance is limited by parking, that puts a very severe limitation on the zoo's potential, just as it does for cities as a whole. No city or urban institution within it can grow significantly if it just relies on parking. Zoos are particularly vulnerable because their attendance is so highly concentrated in peak periods. The lots fill up, and then what?
More parking. More traffic. More congestion. More zoo patrons attracted by free admission, subsidized by our tax dollars and not contributing to improving the zoo's financial situation. And zoo attendance stagnates.
On the neighborhood side, there is a grossly underutilized mass transit system that could accommodate many more zoo patrons without imposing on the area's road system or cause pressure to pave more parkland. There is also a neighborhood that the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore turns its back away from, and Mondawmin Mall which could use the increased presence that zoo patrons could provide.
Here is the view of the Mondawmin Metro station and bus hub from the intersection adjacent to the main zoo entrance. Just beyond the transit station is the building that used to be Sears, and has now been chopped up for small stores and offices. On the right is an empty overgrown piece of Druid Hill Park.
Mondawmin Mall is now in the planning stages for a major upgrade and expansion, including a large new Target store, which would be the only one in the city. Mondawmin should be re-made to become a major transit-oriented hub for all kinds of activity, and the zoo should be a major part of this new image. If anyone can convince people that the trendy thing to do is to shop at Mondawmin on the way to the zoo, Target can.
The Baltimore Aquarium has demonstrated the degree to which cultural destinations can be a commanding visual presence for the surrounding area. The Aquarium is one of the visual centerpieces of the Inner Harbor, which in turn is the unquestioned centerpiece for the entire region.
Compare this to the Maryland Zoo which is hidden away in the inner crevices of Druid Hill Park where even street signs can't lead in any kind of rational or direct way. A potentially incredible cultural resource and indentity for the surrounding community is squandered.
Here's what needs to be done:
1. The Maryland Zoo should get a commanding and visually imposing pedestrian gateway at the intersection of Liberty Heights Avenue and Auchentoroly Terrace. This is the very end of Liberty Heights Avenue, a road that extends westward for 40 miles all the way to Frederick.
2. The zoo should start charging for parking. This could be done in conjunction with lower admission prices, which would not only encourage people to use transit and reduce the strain on the parking lots but would also be a boon to families who would pay for parking only once instead of indirectly through the admission price for every family member. There could still be special "free parking days" used to publicize the zoo during slow times when the parking lots are not going to fill up anyway. People would feel they were getting something for nothing.
3. Mondawmin Mall should become a major part of the zoo's promotional efforts. The mall should be made part of the zoo community, as indeed should the community.
4. The vacant triangular lot between the mall and the zoo, bounded by Liberty Heights, Auchentoroly and Reisterstown Road, should be redeveloped to create the strongest possible activity link between the mall, transit hub and zoo. Technically, this parcel appears to be part of the park, but they have wisely allowed it to go to seed in order to divert attention and resources to the main part of the park. But this parcel is in a crucial location to create a physical, psychological and emotional connection between the mall, zoo, park and neighborhood, and should be occupied by something truly special. On the site is the ruins of two fantastic old houses, which should provide an inspirational starting point for planners and designers.
This house about half way between Mondawmin and the Zoo should be part of a new public attraction to create a linkage between them and the surrounding community.
5. The portion of Auchentoroly Terrace adjacent to this parcel should be significantly narrowed, between Liberty Heights and Reisterstown Road. One could argue that all of Auchentoroly adjacent to Druid Hill Park should be narrowed, but in particular, the section north of Liberty Heights Avenue is RIDICULOUSLY WIDE relative to the traffic it carries and its role in the area street system. It has the equivalent of eight lanes, yet it essentially has a single lane merge and diverge with Reisterstown Road to the north. So it may be possible to narrow it from eight lanes down to two or three. It may also be feasible to combine this piece of roadway with the end of Greenspring Avenue, which has the equivalent width of four more lanes for a total of twelve, reducing the total pavement even more and further weaving the area into the park and the community. With the elimination of pavement, it may even be possible to actually achieve a net increase in park acreage despite the development of a part of the adjacent triangular parcel.
This section of Auchentoroly Terrace just north of Liberty Heights Avenue is grossly wider than it should be, and is a needless impediment to the integration of the park, the zoo, the community and the transit station. Just to the right is Greenspring Avenue, with the Zoo just beyond that. The two old stone house ruins are just to the left.
6. A roundabout should be considered at the intersection of Auchentoroly, Liberty Heights and Greenspring. There once was a roundabout just a few blocks north at what was known as Park Circle, but this could be a much better location, with a much higher proportion of turning traffic and necessary transitions in street widths.
So in sum, fixing the zoo requires the same ingredients as fixing the rest of Baltimore. More use of mass transit. Less traffic. Less parking subsidies. More walking. Positive community themes. Historic preservation. Intelligent traffic planning. And opening up parks for people.
And of course, another important requirement is that all living creatures must live together in harmony - reptiles, birds, amphibians, mammals and all other denizens of the zoo we all live in.