June 17, 2011

How to fix Old Town

Old Town is perfectly poised to be the neighborhood to bring out the most urbanely scaled side of the Hopkins Hospital campus. The key is to extend McElderry Street (shown in yellow) from the foot of the iconic Hopkins Dome Building (background) to the center of Old Town at Gay Street (foreground), then continue it westward to Mount Vernon and Downtown.

Old Town is currently one of Baltimore's saddest and most forsaken neighborhoods. It is most infamous as the scene of a 1968 race riot, then was completely rebuilt to much fanfare in the mid-'70s. But almost as quickly, it started to deteriorate again, until by now it has suffered far more damage and abandonment than was ever inflicted by the riot.

Old Town is bounded roughly by the Jones Falls Expressway (JFX) on the west, Orleans Street to the south, Caroline Street to the east and Monument Street to the north. It is mostly vacant lots, vacant buildings, and parking lots.

Old Town's biggest problem has been an intense obsession with the negative - proximity to the JFX expressway overpass to the west and the prison district to the north - which seem to have completely blinded people to the area's strengths which should be far more obvious than they apparently are.

But the prisons aren't going away. And the city's proposed JFX "solution" is a billion dollar project to knock down the overpass and convert it to a surface boulevard that, aside from its prohibitive cost and nebulous time frame, would make it far more of a traffic obstacle than it is now and would cause severe traffic spillovers.

Stirling Street in Old Town looking south toward Downtown

Old Town's squandered assets

The most obvious asset is its uniquely centralized location at the crossing point of the city's primary north-south (I-83) and east-west (US 40) thoroughfares. Why has it become so trendy to sulk about being located next to major highways rather than reaping the benefits?

Old Town's second major asset is the tenacity of the Stirling Street residents, occupants of Baltimore's original dollar historic homesteading houses which still look at lovely as ever. While virtually everything around them has crumbled, Stirling Street has held on, a testament to the power of historic preservation. They stand ready to serve as anchor and role model for all the needed redevelopment around them. Despite all the dishevelment, there are still many other distinctive historic buildings still standing, if only just barely.

The rear of Old Town Mall from what was formerly Somerset Homes, along the spine of what could be the McElderry Street extension from Hopkins Hospital.

But the game-changing impetus to finally get Old Town moving forward should be the recent demolition of the Somerset Homes low income projects in the blocks between Central and Caroline Streets. This demolition has made Old Town's eastward proximity to the gigantic Hopkins Hospital campus, the nation's top rated medical institution, almost palpable.

McElderry looking east toward the Hopkins Dome from near Central Avenue. Dunbar Middle School is on the right.

Making the most of Johns Hopkins

Best of all, Old Town is oriented to the most attractive side of the huge Johns Hopkins campus. In the other three directions, Hopkins' periphery is lined mostly with parking garages, blank walls, loading docks and the like. To the south, the renovated Butchers Hill and Washington Hill neighborhoods have succeeded mostly by turning their backs to Hopkins as much as Hopkins has turned its back to them. To the east, periodic attempts to remake the Monument Market and business district have had lackluster results. And most famously to the north, things got so bad that virtually the entire neighborhood was leveled to the ground to be rebuilt as a biotech park.

The key to inextricably linking Old Town with the very best of Hopkins is McElderry Street, which extends westward from the iconic and historic Johns Hopkins Dome building toward Old Town. McElderry Street is oriented to the Hopkins Dome building the same way downtown Annapolis is oriented to the Maryland State House, which hovers over the radiating streets of Annapolis like a grand sentinel. Or for a somewhat exaggerated comparison, think of how the U.S. Capitol looks out over Pennsylvania Avenue or the Philadelphia Museum of Art looks out over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (but without Rocky Balboa).

Starting here at the east end of McElderry Street at Broadway, a whole new memorable ceremonial avenue can be built all the way through Old Town to the Jones Falls Expressway, about three-fourths of a mile. At the east end would be the Hopkins Dome Building. To the west would be the Jones Falls and Centre Street through the Mount Vernon neighborhood and downtown.

The Johns Hopkins medical complex needs such a grand formal gateway and downtown linkage, befitting its status as a world class institution and Baltimore's leading employer, even more than Old Town does. Johns Hopkins is as image-conscious as any modern hospital, but even their massive demolition and rebuilding program has not created such a top quality environment.

Even the city pouring millions into the reconstruction of Orleans Street as a tree-lined boulevard has not done the trick, because of its heavy through traffic and parking garages. While Orleans is an asset for accommodating traffic, McElderry has the distinct advantage of having the Hopkins Dome building as its culmination, meaning it would continue to carry virtually no through traffic. It could and should also be a lively pedestrian dominated environment, with direct access to the Hopkins Metro station.

Looking west from Hopkins Hospital campus along a McElderry extension (yellow) toward Old Town and Downtown

Making the Dome the focal point

Here is how McElderry Street can be transformed into the grand ceremonial parkway linking Hopkins Hospital, Old Town, Mount Vernon and Downtown.

The third block between Caroline and Central has the distinctively classic gothic Dunbar Middle School. The school should be framed by the street, but it has been converted to a makeshift parking lot, which fortunately can easily be undone and made back into a street again.

Looking east toward the Hopkins Dome from Aisquith Street, past the low-rise NAF Prep School. The Dunbar Middle School is behind to the right. 

There is one building blocking the reconnection of the street just east of Central Avenue, the NAF Prep School. (Please accept my apologies if I've gotten any school names wrong; they seem to change even more quickly than banks.) However, there are almost unlimited options for rebuilding this school nearby so that McElderry Street can be reconnected.

At the Old Town Mall, a slight southward shift can take the street all the way to the Jones Falls Expressway at Centre Street. A few more buildings would need to be knocked down to get there, but any valuable ones should be bypassable with an appropriate zig or zag. Centre Street has its own iconic view of the Washington Monument at Charles Street, which would make a nice western bookend to the commanding view of the Hopkins Dome at the east end.

In the long term, if the expressway is ever knocked down, this new street could be hooked up to the south end of the JFX. In such a case, the parkway could be made into an important link to help disperse the expressway traffic onto Orleans, Central, and Caroline, instead of overloading President Street as it otherwise does.

Proposed McElderry extension looking east toward the Hopkins Dome from Old Town west of Central Avenue. The new building drawn at left just across Central could be the new NAF Prep School. 

Putting Old Town on the map

A McElderry Street extension can finally give Old Town a workable context and theme for redevelopment. Many reasons have been given for Old Town's past failure. Even though it is at one of the main crossroads of the entire city between the JFX and Orleans Street (US 40), it doesn't particularly relate to anything. The emphasis on retail at Old Town Mall was particularly difficult. Pedestrian malls have long gone out of fashion, especially when crime can be perceived as an issue. Retail always seemed to be a crapshoot in Baltimore. Retail markets are fickle. Places like Howard/Lexington and Belvedere Square have had multiple rebirths. If something isn't right, stores can pack up and leave at a moment's notice. And they do.

In contrast, the historic houses on Stirling Street, just behind Old Town Mall, still look just as good as they ever have. The original homesteaders and their successors have tenaciously stood their ground in the face of the abandonment and devastation around them. Property values have suffered, leaving nothing to build upon, but the community has held on, and would ideally benefit from Old Town's new key position between the Jones Falls and Hopkins Hospital.

Empty Old Town Mall (Gay Street) on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

Gay Street obviously needs to be unmalled and reopened to local traffic. Urban designers love unlimited ground floor retail but they need to get real, since Baltimore is littered with failed ground floor retail. And "big box" retail may be just as bad a bet in the long run. Most of the historic buildings on the Gay Street Mall have a significant amount of floor space on upper floors so office development should be a major part of the mix, with space that can appeal to prospective tenants looking for something distinctive, a perfect compliment to the sterile modern environment of the new EBDI Biotech Park. The new McElderry parkway would wrap around the rear of some of the largest buildings, which would have great views looking eastward directly onto the axis of the Hopkins Dome.

Real estate marketers should be the ones to determine just who can be enticed to a new reinvented Old Town. It does not necessarily have to be limited to healthcare or biotech types. It only needs to be people who recognize that modern Baltimore largely revolves around Johns Hopkins, which should be just about anybody.

Having the iconic Hopkins Dome building presiding over Old Town would give both the prominence they deserve.


  1. I grew up at 619 Stirling Street as a child and my mother still actually owns our house, although it sits vacant. It was great to read your article! Our house on Stirling is probably one of my favorite memories of Baltimore. All of the history that is contained in Old Town is important to the city and the community. I only hope that some how the city can preserve and revamp the area! Baltimore is filled with beauty it just needs some TLC!

    1. are you will to sell your vacant property to a non profit organization whos looking to rebuild the community??
      if so please email me sherron.huey@yahoo.com

  2. part of the problem is people sitting on vacant properties instead of selling them

  3. It looks like developers want to open up McElderry like you proposed long ago. I'm disappointed to see UDARP complaining about parking. It sounds like it is designed on a pedestrian scale as it should be.


    1. Thanks for the articles! I was five years ahead of my time, and this article is my #3 alltime hit leader. I'd like to think the developers got the idea from me, but of course, no one ever admits that. Just like I'm sure no one will give me credit for the "Plank Line" light rail spur to Port Covington.

      I would have seen the Sun story when it finally made the dead tree edition, which I still read, but I really appreciate the heads-up.

      My critique of the new plan is that they didn't extend the McElderry Street east-west axis far enough west. It should go all the way through the big Edison parking lot, zig-zagging as necessary, then underneath the JFX to Mount Vernon. Especially now that The Sun is trying to sell-out their headquarters to a developer as well. The same rules of flow apply to the west as to the east.

      I wonder if Edison is still waging their big campaign to get the JFX knocked down. In this era of crazy unlimited TIF money, they've probably got a chance, unless the city's credit card balance hits the wall first.

      It's probably too early in the process to worry much about parking. Any supermarket will tell them exactly what they want, and the developer will probably jump up and do it. That's how it works, for better or worse.