January 26, 2011

Fort McHenry Promenade

There's been a lot of talk lately in Baltimore about creating more vibrant parks. The key to vibrant parks is creating vibrant street edges, and one of the best opportunities to do that is along Fort Avenue between the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry. From my June '09 story in the Baltimore Brew, here's how:
Oh say, can you extend the Inner Harbor promenade to Fort McHenry?
Fort McHenry is on a peninsula, but it might as well be an island. Baltimore’s most important and enduring tourist attraction, the birthplace of our national anthem, is also its most isolated. When befuddled tourists discover they can’t get there by following the Inner Harbor waterfront promenade, many just give up.

But extending the promenade to Fort McHenry should be much easier than anyone has imagined. Unlike some of the more out-there proposals for spiffing up the city (gondolas over the Inner Harbor, knocking down the Jones Falls Expressway, turning a century-old derelict railroad bridge into the centerpiece of walking trail to a developer’s upscale develoment) this promenade idea would face few political or physical impediments, isn’t horribly expensive and could actually happen quickly. It should be planned now, in fact, to complement the new $14 million visitors center which recently began construction.

The current south end of the Inner Harbor promenade was the outcome of the longtime battle between the forces for old waterfront industry and the forces for new public access. You’re walking along the Inner Harbor promenade past the million dollar condos – and wham! – you can go no further. You’ve come to the end of the world of Inner Harbor tourism and smacked headlong into the world of private industry. Resolution has been drawn from stalemate.

People love to pose land use issues in terms of battles between various groups – yuppies versus real people, rich versus poor, tourists versus locals, residents versus industrialists, bikers versus joggers, etc. But in those terms, now that the land use decisions in the neighborhoods between the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry – South Baltimore and Locust Point – have practically all been settled, it’s simply a matter of good “down to earth” design that will allow people to navigate the terrain.

Compared to most of depopulated Baltimore, this area has had a lot more winners than losers. The lines of demarcation between industry and neighborhoods are mostly clear and concise. Postmodern industry is a much better neighbor than the soot-belching sweatshops of old, so that their juxtapostion with million dollar condos actually evokes a romantic aspect. Numerous hardcore bicyclists and runners have discovered the road to Fort McHenry as well, and have fewer problems dealing with traffic and industrial conflicts here than elsewhere.

But for tourists (spelled “touri$t$”) and casual urban wanderers, Fort McHenry is still much more of a secret than it should be.

So, here’s the deal

The Museum of Industry, at Key Highway and Lawrence Street, is the current south end of the Inner Harbor waterfront promenade. Lawrence Street is so wide at this point that the city has proposed a median strip in its center and an unimpeded “view corridor” from Fort Avenue down to Key Highway and the waterfront. But instead of building a median strip, Lawrence Street should be narrowed on the east side to make room for a greenway park with an all-purpose bike/hike/walk trail which would function as an inland extension of the Inner Harbor promenade.

Beyond that, there is a large vacant lot in the east corner where Lawrence intersects Fort Avenue, which can gently guide this proposed new inland promenade eastward toward Fort McHenry. East of this lot, Fort Avenue can easily be narrowed to provide the new promenade with a safe identifiable crosswalk to the south side of street.

All the way from this point to Fort McHenry, about a mile, the south side of Fort Avenue is a natural place for a long lush leafy linear greenway park to envelop the new promenade and create an attractive new environment framing the street.

Some of this has already been done, like this view of the Fort Avenue sidewalk along Latrobe Park. Practically the whole stretch to Fort McHenry can easily be made to look like this. Much of it is already industrial buffers and simply needs to be translated into a more unified design. Much of this land is state and city owned, including play fields and a fire station. Much is parking lots that can be reconfigured to provide buffers.

Very little is actually built up all the way to the street. There is only one through street intersection - Andre Street. Fort Avenue is sufficiently wide so that it can be narrowed where necessary to maintain the continuity of this new promenade. This includes several bridges, one of which needs to be rebuilt anyway and so provides the opportunity to be widened to expand the promenade.

All of this is simply a matter of taking advantage of opportunities. After all, this is Fort McHenry we’re talking about here… The land of the free, the home of the brave, where that star spangled banner yet waves… Please stand up while you read that.

This is also a national landmark, and thus a legitimate reason for federal money to be spent. The feds have already financed most of the cost of the new Fort McHenry visitors center. The area around a national landmark up the road, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, got some major sprucing-up with federal dollars and Baltimore’s national treasure, Fort McHenry, could get that kind of treatment too.
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor promenade is already a tremendous success story. Extending it by slightly over a mile to Fort McHenry will create a new symmetry with the leg on the opposite side of the harbor to Canton. It’s as natural as singing “O” at the proper moment.

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