February 26, 2009

Monument Street Marketplace


A unique opportunity - 27 vacant acres along the Amtrak tracks in East Baltimore, perfectly suited for a comprehensive transit hub, but the City just wants another shopping center.

The Baltimore Development Corporation has recently selected a developer for a 27 acre vacant site in East Baltimore that was supposed to be a MARC Commuter Rail station in the MTA 2002 regional rail plan. But the proposed development makes no effort to exploit the potential for a transit station.

The Monument Street Marketplace would include a 183,700 square foot shopping center, probably anchored by a large supermarket and/or "big box" retail, and 63,000 square feet of flex office space - the kind of space that accommodates truck loading docks next to offices. There would probably be close to a thousand surface parking spaces if accepted standards are met. The site is located on a former landfill bounded by Monument and Madison Street, Edison Highway and the Amtrak tracks.

The Maryland Transit Administration's 2002 regional rail system plan, still the most recent document guiding overall transit development, calls for a MARC Commuter Rail Station for the "Purple Line" at this location. The 2002 plan designates this a "Phase One Priority Project", along with the Red and Green Lines, although no project planning has been done on it so far.

Unlike the rest of the MARC system which serves the entire corridor to Washington DC, the initial phase of the Purple Line would provide local service only between Madison Park and Middle River. This would require an extension of the existing Metro subway, also called the Green Line, beyond its current terminus at Hopkins Hospital. The first subsequent station would be at Madison Park, serving the Purple Line, and eventually the Green Line would extend in a giant arc northward to Morgan State, eastward to Hamilton, northeastward to White Marsh and then southward around to the same Middle River station near Martin Airport that now serves MARC and the proposed Purple Line.

This proposed Green Line extension is now in trouble because the MTA has repeatedly stressed that heavy rail transit is now too expensive to be cost effective. Because of this, the MTA has ruled out heavy rail as a vehicle mode for the Red Line. However, the Green Line is already heavy rail, so ruling out further heavy rail construction would be tantamount to ruling out the entire project.

Meanwhile, even without heavy rail, the Red Line has gotten too expensive to meet federal cost effectiveness standards because of pressure from many quarters to build much of it in tunnels instead of on surface streets.

With the problems facing the Red and Green Lines, it is no wonder that the Purple Line has faded onto the back burner. Into this vacuum, the Baltimore Development Corporation has recently selected a development plan for the site with little or no regard for its potential transit orientation.


As far as rail transit is concerned, the MTA and the City are betting everything on the Red Line, even though the favored alternative fails the federal cost effectiveness test. The Red Line would also have a new East Baltimore station on the MARC Commuter rail line, but it would be located farther out north of Bayview, which would require a cumbersome and expensive overhead pedestrian connection to avoid the adjacent intermodal freight yard.

The key to the success of any MARC station is to make the MARC line heading to the east toward Middle River and Harford and Cecil Counties into a true commuter route into Downtown Baltimore. In this regard, Penn Station simply has not worked.

To make the Red Line work as a connection from MARC to Downtown, it would have to be fast. That means that it must be built to a very high standard, which means extensive tunneling under Downtown, Fells Point and perhaps Canton, which further increases its price tag beyond the bounds of feasibility and affordability. Moreover, if the MTA succumbs to the pressure to bury the Red Line in East Baltimore, it will make it very difficult for them to say "no" to the many voices insisting that they bury it in West Baltimore as well.

If the Red Line process fails, the MTA may find itself with no feasible rail transit projects available at all.

To get out of this bind, the MTA needs to maintain its options for the vacant unencumbered 27 acre site at Edison and Monument. Building a MARC station and a Green Line connection to this site would be the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of connecting both to Downtown Baltimore. The Green Line could emerge from underground immediately north of the existing Hopkins Hospital Metro Station, then run east along the Amtrak tracks to the new station. There is no need for an expensive tunnel, no freight yard in the way, and the rest of the rail transit line is already built into and under downtown and then out to Owings Mills.

Perhaps best of all, it will allow the MTA to build the Red Line through Canton, Fells Point and Downtown as a simple, inexpensive, cost effective and politically popular surface streetcar line. It will no longer have to be big and fast enough to handle long distance commuter trips.

The shopping center plan for the Monument landfill site needs to be put back on the drawing board, until the MTA gets its act together to nail down a coherent rail transit plan for East Baltimore. Large vacant urban properties adjacent to the MARC system are too precious to be wasted on anything except transit and transit oriented development.


  1. Totally agree, of course. Why is the BDC allowed to operate in a way that is so completely divorced from everything else the City and State are trying to do?

  2. One way to defer costs from the MTA and still build a quality comprehensive system is to make developers share the cost of building the lines. I call this "transit fund bundling" I wrote a post on it. Here it is http://baltimorefuture.blogspot.com/2009/02/transit-fund-bundling.html

  3. Wouldn't a project like this being abundantly more valuable with a built-in transit hub? Can the current efforts be done in a way to allow for a Marc station in the future?