April 30, 2009

Oliver Street


(Reprinted from BaltimoreBrew.com)

- Oliver Street’s bizarre “S”-shaped curb separates the JFX ramp from the also-odd dumpster alcove. Penn Station’s in the background.

Little Oliver Street is arguably Baltimore’s most geographically important two-block-long street, connecting some of the city’s choicest real estate. At the east end is Midtown, Charles Street and Penn Station. At the west end is Bolton Hill, Mount Royal Avenue, light rail and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

In between is the University of Baltimore’s . . . dumpsters.

For decades, the city has done its best to discourage both pedestrians and vehicles from using Oliver Street to traverse this critical two-block east-west path, meaning that Penn Station is only accessible along a north-south axis. (Yes, it’s true, Oliver Street resumes on the other side of I-83. We’re just discussing this little stand-alone chunk of it.)
Now, at long last, Oliver Street may get a chance to live up to its potential, thanks to a new Barnes & Noble bookstore currently under construction.

At first, the city’s neglect of the little street was benign. There has never been a crosswalk or traffic signal where Oliver ends at Charles Street, in front of Penn Station. But when the Jones Falls Expressway was rebuilt in the 1980s, the substandard ramp to Maryland Avenue was also rebuilt in a way that completely cut off Oliver, making the ramp an even sharper alignment. This made life even more difficult for pedestrians.

A mistreated street

Human nature abhors a vacuum, so the shut-off Oliver Street became a natural location for the University of Baltimore to stick its dumpsters and ad hoc parking.

When the light rail line was built in the 1990s with a station at Oliver Street and Mount Royal, a spur was built to connect it to Penn Station. The spur has never functioned effectively. There are only two-trips per hour on it these days. A more sensible solution would have been to make Oliver Street more pedestrian-friendly and encourage people to simply walk the two blocks to the station.

View of Penn Station from the non-existent Oliver Street crosswalk across Charles Street

Lost opportunity

Things could have improved for poor Oliver more recently, when the city rebuilt the Charles Street bridge in front of Penn Station, with a new platform plaza extending its front yard down to Oliver. But when they did this, the City also eliminated still another pedestrian crosswalk on the expressway ramp on the left side of Charles Street. There is nothing to abate the steady stream of traffic entering this ramp across the Charles Street sidewalk.

The city also has a plan is to build an extension of Martin Luther King Boulevard into the expressway by 2020 which would have to cross Oliver Street. Its hard to see how this could possibly coexist with the University of Baltimore’s plans, but it’s still on the books in the Baltimore Metropolitan Council’s 2007 regional plan.

With its dumpsters, the University of Baltimore has, until now, been a co-conspirator in the city’s effort to make Oliver Street as uninviting as possible, but the Barnes & Noble bookstore deal changes all that.

The little street that could

The University’s original plan for a 275-unit apartment building and 1,250 space parking garage now under construction did not include a bookstore. But now that it does, it should make Oliver Street a little two-block linchpin to provide an attractive and direct connection between the Penn Station area, the University of Baltimore and Maryland Institute campuses and the Bolton Hill neighborhood.

The most dramatic change to Oliver Street will be the new “signature” law school building now being planned at its east end at Charles Street. Surely, law school alumnus and benefactor Peter Angelos will demand a crosswalk for Oliver Street if the city doesn’t provide it. Or the law students will get some great litigation practice.

The city should take the next step and relocate the hairpin expressway ramp directly onto Maryland Avenue and away from Oliver Street. This would provide a safer ramp for traffic, eliminate a pedestrian hazard, and allow Oliver to be a normal street instead of an alcove for dumpsters. It would also be a heck of a lot easier to do than building the planned connection to MLK Boulevard.

A place to shop in Bolton Hill

Moving the expressway ramp would also create new parcels for active street-oriented retail and other development along the rest of Oliver Street. Some 14,000 square feet of retail had to be eliminated from the University’s plan to accommodate the 20,000 square-foot Barnes & Noble store, including its requisite Starbucks cafe. This lost space could thus be recovered, and demand created for more retail space, spurred by the presence of the bookstore. Bolton Hill, although one of Baltimore’s most attractive neighborhoods, is woefully lacking in retail, and Oliver Street is a natural place to put it.

An Oliver Street bustling with college students, train riders and book lovers - what could be more natural?


  1. Could you diagram your suggested relocation of the Maryland ramp? Not sure of your location

  2. Gerald,

    What coincidence. Just yesterday, while studying at the UB Langsdale Library (Oliver & Maryland), I was pondering the history and the fate of this little street. The way that curb is separating the Maryland Ave offramp and the short portion west of Charles looks new. Was it ever possible to turn west from Charles and get through to Maryland?


    GIS Student & Roadgeek
    Towson U.

  3. Yes, the dumb "S" curb was built when the Maryland Avenue JFX ramp was rebuilt in the 90s. Before that, that block of Oliver was one-way eastbound from Maryland to Charles. I'd imagine that back in the 1950s and early 1960s before the JFX was built, Oliver was a normal two-way street.

  4. Gerald,

    Thanks for the quick response! Good to know.

    - Elliott

  5. This all sounds good but what about the U.S. Postal Service garage that has everything from small mail trucks to tractor trailers going in and out all day and night.