LIGHT ST. PAUL ST.: BALTIMORE'S MAIN STREET FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
"Main Street U.S.A." conjures up an image of olde-tyme Americana where everything came together in one place. Mythical Main Street handled the most traffic, the most transit and most importantly, was the front door for everything important.
Charles Street was Baltimore's traditional Main Street, but its role was greatly diminished by the emergence of the Inner Harbor as the new focal point in the 1970s. In the six blocks adjacent to the Inner Harbor south of Pratt Street, Charles Street became the back alley behind the big buildings facing the waterfront. This dead space subsequently diminished the rest of Charles Street, since anything not associated with the Inner Harbor became second string, hidden from view and attention.
Beyond that, the fall of Charles Street was commonly blamed on its conversion to one-way traffic flow in the 1950s. Obviously, any street that carries traffic in only one direction loses some of its geographic importance, at least as far as vehicles are concerned (although there's no law about which direction pedestrians must walk in.)
With the advent of the Inner Harbor, Pratt Street (also one-way) was supposed to replace Charles as the city's new Main Street. But Pratt has suffered from its own design flaws, and simply does not have the length and continuity to assume an expanded role as Main Street, commensurate with the scale of Baltimore's new expanded downtown. East of President Street and west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, Pratt is just another local street. Pratt also skirts the historic center of downtown to the north, so any focus on Pratt remains at the expense of the traditional downtown. The Inner Harbor portion of Pratt Street is now slated for redesign, but that will do nothing to expand its geographic significance.
If U2 had been from Baltimore instead of Ireland, they would have probably written a song called "Where the Streets Have Two Names". Such streetzophrenia happens all too frequently in around here, where everything seems to be caused by historic happenstance. But while Light and St. Paul St. suffer from a multiple personality crisis and almost criminally bad urban design, the street has built-in geographic advantages that no other street in Baltimore can match.
Light Saint Paul Street sees it all. It runs right to the front door of the Inner Harbor. It continues northward as the widest north-south street through most of downtown. It traverses the base of Mount Vernon Place. It serves Penn Station directly. It is at the center of the new Charles Village/Johns Hopkins University business district, and then proceeds northward through Guilford, Baltimore's premier neighborhood of fine old free-standing mansions.
South of the Inner Harbor, Light St. Paul St. is a central spine for the Federal Hill Business District and leads right up to the huge proposed Port Covington Edge City between Interstate 95 and the banks of the Middle Branch, which would make a great southern anchor.
Light St. Paul St. should be the street where Baltimore holds its parades. You know, those events attended by civic-minded folks trying to cling to the last shreds of our shared heritage - St. Patrick's Day, Flag Day, Cinco de Mayo, Gay Pride, This 'n' That - while everyone else just curses at the consequent traffic jams. The traffic jams wouldn't be as bad on a redesigned Light St. Paul as they are on Pratt or Charles Street, and Preston Gardens would add a multi-level experience, taking advantage of the retaining wall that topographically bisects it. Who knows? Light St. Paul Street just might turn parades into a mainstream activity again.
THE KEY TO BEING MAIN STREET:
MAKING LIGHT ST. PAUL STREET TWO-WAY
The biggest problem with Light St. Paul is that most of it carries oppressively huge amounts of traffic, but unlike most other such streets, this traffic problem can be rather easily solved.
The width of Light St. Paul varies wildly. It is extremely distgustingly wide in the Inner Harbor, then it remains fairly wide by Baltimore standards for a few blocks on either side, then it gets very narrow for two blocks in the heart of downtown, then it gets extremely wide again through Preston Gardens to Centre Street.
To create a unified, consistently functioning street, it needs to be made two-way throughout this area between the Inner Harbor and Preston Gardens, and slightly beyond. There actually is a service drive along the upper portion of Preston Gardens that flows in the opposite, or "wrong" direction, but this is rather meaningless and deadening in the context of the entire street. Since the overwhelming flood of traffic is southbound, it still feels like a one-way street.
I'm normally against creating two-way traffic flow merely for its own sake, because of the way it often arbitrarily and capriciously screws up traffic flow, but Light St. Paul could really take advantage of it - to bring the street together in a geographically transparent way to create Baltimore's new Main Street. Since it is possible to disperse much of the through traffic that currently plagues Light St. Paul Street, it should be feasible to make it a happy ceremonial two-way street of the type that urban designers drool over and delude themselves into thinking would spontaneously happen if not for the evil intentions of traffic engineers.
The impact of two-way traffic on transit is mixed. Transit riders benefit greatly by the "geographic transparency" of two-way traffic, to be able to get off and on a transit vehicle at the same place. On the other hand, transit usually suffers much more than automobiles from the congestion created by two-way traffic. Transit vehicles must follow a fixed route and cannot escape to avoid congestion. They also often have great difficulty maneuvering in and out of bottlenecks and lanes blocked by stalled or parked vehicles.
Until just a few years ago, there was a substantial political movement to convert Charles to a two-way street, despite the traffic nightmares this would have caused. It was only when the Charles Street Trolley project got serious that the two-way proposal for Charles got scuttled, because two-way traffic flow on Charles would have been even more difficult for streetcars than it would have been for cars. Yes, there were streetcars on two-way Charles back in the olden days, but despite hazy memories of PCC streetcars, Model T Fords, old codgers and Roger Rabbit, modern people would never have put up with how crappy transit really was back then, or how ill-suited it would be to modern society.
Light Street has also been proposed for conversion to two-way flow south of Baltimore Street in the Inner Harbor planning process now being conducted by Ayers Saint Gross and the streetcar planning process now being conducted by Kittelson & Associates. This segment of Light Street is sufficiently wide that the physical constraints of conversion to two-way flow which afflict most downtown streets can be avoided.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was ASG that had proposed that Pratt Street be widened into a two-way boulevard in the Inner Harbor - a plan which initially received the blessing of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, the Downtown Partnership and the Baltimore Development Corporation. Fortunately, they all later realized they were wrong, and that Baltimore InnerSpace was right - Pratt Street should not be made two-way. (Maybe someday they will all realize that this blog is virtually always right about such things.)
So what do we do with Charles Street? We're pretty much stuck with one-way traffic flow on the most important parts of Charles Street, south of 26th Street. There is irony in even calling it the "Charles Street Trolley" if Charles is to remain a one-way street. Obviously, the streetcars will only be on Charles in one direction (northbound) and will be forced to use other streets in the southbound direction.
As currently proposed, the southbound trolley route would use St. Paul north of Mount Royal, and then turn onto a street with quintuple identities - a.k.a. Maryland, Cathedral, Liberty, Hopkins Place and Sharp Street.
This would result in rail transit on four successive non-connecting streets (heavy rail under Eutaw, light rail on Howard, southbound trolleys on Hopkins Place et al, and northbound trolleys on Charles. Combined with the proposed non-connections of the Red Line, these perversions would result in sheer confusion. Most people already curse the lack of a connection between Baltimore's heavy and light rail lines, but this would be even worse.
The best solution to this problem is to instead put the trolleys on as much of the proposed two-way Light St. Paul St. as practicable, and then lend this geographic continuity to one-way Charles Street, one short block away.
Everyone seems to agree that Light Street is the obvious best location for the trolley in the Inner Harbor, where Charles suffers from its "back alley" image. Extending the trolley in both directions on the proposed two-way Light St. Paul St. northward through Preston Gardens would create the clearest possible linkage, and avoid the very narrow and congested portion of Charles Street between Saratoga and Mulberry. Keeping the trolley line on Light St. Paul slightly north of Preston Gardens also would bypass the sensitive issues of running trolleys around the Washington Monument at Mount Vernon Place.
The topography of Preston Gardens would also make it the ideal location for a tunnel portal to run the trolley line into the proposed rail transit center in the Charles Center "Down Under" parking garage (see previous blog article). The trolley line would run along the lower side of Preston Gardens, then into a tunnel which would proceed under Lexington Street westward for one block to Charles Street and then into the "Down Under" Garage. At this point, it would meet all the other rail transit lines in an integrated underground transit terminal - the Red Line, the existing subway, the light rail line (which would connect to the Red Line at Lombard Street) and any and all other trolley lines. An impossible Baltimore transit dream would come true, and our nightmare of unconnectedness would end.
The "Down Under" transit terminal would allow the Charles Street Trolley to serve Charles Street in an ideal way, taking advantage of various access points throughout Charles Center, just as with the existing parking garage. The trolley line would also essentially have no conflicts with cars all the way from Centre Street southward to Lombard Street, encompassing nine of the most congested blocks of the entire corridor.
The "Down Under" transit terminal would offer such tremendous benefits that it must be considered the only alternative - until somebody somehow proves that it won't work.
PUSHING THE THRU TRAFFIC ELSEWHERE
The key traffic issues to making Light St. Paul Street two-way are: (a) preventing as much through traffic as possible from getting to St. Paul Street, and (b) getting as much through traffic as possible that remains on St. Paul. to get off before it gets downtown.
There are four major extraneous sources of through traffic on St. Paul:
- CHARLES STREET - St. Paul Street originates as a branch off of Charles Street just south of Cold Spring Lane. Ironically, St. Paul and Charles both have more traffic capacity downstream from this point than Charles can feed from upstream at Cold Spring, which is a very congested intersection. Motorists are largely indifferent to whether they use Charles or St. Paul south of the branch. They can go either way.
- THE JONES FALLS EXPRESSWAY - The very poorly designed ramp from the southbound JFX to St. Paul at Mount Royal Avenue can be closed to prevent a huge infusion of traffic onto St. Paul. There are enough other exits - Maryland Avenue, Guilford Avenue, Pleasant Street and Fayette Street - to handle this traffic. This measure alone would alter traffic volumes and patterns sufficiently to reduce the required traffic capacity on St. Paul Street from three lanes to two.
- PLEASANT STREET - This westbound street, an extension of the Harford Road corridor, ends at St. Paul, where it dumps all its traffic in the middle of the Mercy Hospital complex. This traffic can be squeezed so that most of it will turn onto Guilford Avenue instead.
- LOCH RAVEN BOULEVARD CORRIDOR - This major northeast Baltimore arterial ends in the vicinity of 25th Street and Greenmount Avenue. As a result, much of its downtown-bound traffic ends up on St. Paul Street, via Argonne Drive (39th Street), 33rd Street, 29th Street or various other routes. A Greenmount to Jones Falls connector should be built as a powerful alternative route into downtown (see Belvidere blog article).
There are also two major connections that could be used to siphon off through traffic after it gets on St. Paul Street:
- MOUNT ROYAL AVENUE - St. Paul is wide enough approaching Mount Royal from the north so that a left-turn only lane could be striped to funnel traffic onto eastbound Mount Royal Avenue and then onto southbound Guilford Avenue.
- EAGER STREET - A mandatory left turn only lane should be designated on St. Paul Street at his intersection to siphon off traffic and lead it to the Eager Street ramp onto the Jones Falls Expressway.
These six alternative routes would have the cumulative effect of diverting traffic away from St. Paul Street such that, south of Eager Street, it could be reduced to merely one lane's worth of traffic as it approaches downtown. This would make it feasible to convert St. Paul to two-way flow approximately as far north as Eager Street (or perhaps Madison or Reed Street in order to achieve a smooth transition.)
The primary route for most of the diverted traffic would be the Jones Falls Expressway corridor. It is therefore incumbent that the traffic flow there be handled in a most efficient manner, and not fall prey to some kind of Champs Elysees Faux Boulevard des Prisons.
REDESIGNING LIGHT ST. PAUL TO BE WORTHY OF ITS NAMES
Once the decision is made to make Light St. Paul Street two-way north of the Inner Harbor, and to divert away the excess through traffic, the next issue is how it should be redesigned to take advantage of this. Here are some guidelines:
1. South of Pratt Street - Light Street in the Inner Harbor needs to be drastically narrowed from its current ultra-bloated ten lane width to a more human scale, to take advantage of its direct and immediate proximity to the Inner Harbor. Between Conway Street and Key Highway, this narrowing should be particularly drastic because the volume which is siphoned off onto Conway is so great that there simply isn't that much traffic left. The photo above shows how hopelessly out of scale this portion of Light Street is now.
2. Between Pratt and Baltimore Street - The new design motif for Light Street south of Pratt should be extended northward to Baltimore Street. This is the best way to finally achieve a long-time urban design goal - to bring the feel of the Inner Harbor into the heart of downtown. This segment of Light Street is sufficiently wide to afford the street designers' much latitude to achieve this goal.
3. Between Baltimore and Lexington Street - In the two blocks north of Baltimore Street to Lexington, Light St. Paul is too narrow to provide a lot of options, but some kind of linkage needs to be made.
4. North of Lexington Street - Here, St. Paul widens again into Preston Gardens. The first and southernmost block must be drastically redesigned as the gateway to Preston Gardens from the center of Downtown and to be a real people magnet. Currently, the traffic islands in this area look superficially nice with green grass and seasonal flowers, but the area is totally devoid of any human-scale activity, a scandalously inexcusable urban design nightmare no-man's land (see blog article on Preston Gardens).
5. Lexington to Centre Street - In the five blocks of Preston Gardens, there must be complete continuity. The traffic islands, loop ramps, and the Orleans Street Viaduct should no longer be allowed to cut off pedestrians. There should also be some kind of urban design motif on the north end of Preston Gardens at Centre Street which establishes unity with the all-important south end at Lexington Street. (These photos show the massive excavation for the Mercy Hospital expansion.)
6. North of Preston Gardens - The photo above shows the north end of Preston Gardens at Centre Street, with the Washington Monument peaking over the tops of the buildings in the upper left corner. At Monument Street, one block north of Centre Street, there should be some kind of design motif which creates a direct linkage between St. Paul Street and Mount Vernon Place. This should also create a unity between St. Paul and Charles Streets - creating a sort of parity between Charles, Baltimore's Main Street of old, and St. Paul - the new Main Street upstart.
7. North of Mount Vernon Place - Here, the distinction between the old and new Main Streets will become blurred as Charles and St. Paul will remain as a one-way traffic couplet.
In sum, all this should make it perfectly clear that Main Street-edness is not a zero-sum game, and that every street can benefit from optimizing the traffic patterns. While most of the attention until now has been lavished on trying to restore Charles Street's past pre-eminence, and while the environment of Light St. Paul St. has a vast potential for improvement, both streets can benefit greatly by each doing what each can do best.