August 20, 2011

North Avenue

Coppin campus planners weren't dumb. They put a pedestrian bridge over North Avenue even though urban designers hate those things. They didn't want to deal with the typical squalid, boarded-up failures of North Avenue

The key to fixing North Avenue:
De-emphasize it

Lou Fields, head of the African American Tourism Council of Maryland, wants to spearhead a revitalization movement for North Avenue, Baltimore's widest, straightest, most continuous and most troubled east-west artery, as chronicled in yesterday's Sun.

But he's way off-base in suggesting Pratt Street as role model.

Pratt is the city's very prominent "front door" which  for decades has continuously received millions in taxpayer funds for such incongruous elements as pedestrian streetscapes, 180 mph Grand Prix racers and subsidized new development. Despite such conflicts, Pratt Street still has a strong positive image, which is why it continues to be the "go to" street for events such as parades, the Grand Prix, the proposed billion dollar convention center expansion and many other costly efforts.

The main reason Pratt Street is kept up is because the city has to. North Avenue couldn't possibly maintain that kind of prominence, which is just as well.

The painful lessons from Howard Street

A better but cautionary example for North Avenue is Howard Street, which was once a great street and has also received hundreds of millions in public funds, but continues to languish without a positive image or new momentum. Howard Street now has light rail, Camden Yards, the new convention center hotel, the retail Superblock and State Center, while North Avenue has the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Coppin State University, Station North Arts Cafe and Joe Squared Pizza, but neither street has any potent unifying elements.

Howard, a north-south street, has failed because what it desperately needs is strong east-west lateral linkages from the heart of downtown and Mount Vernon into the west side. The 1960s development of Charles Center and the Civic Center (now First Mariner Arena) was the first nail in the coffin, cutting off the downtown vitality of Redwood and Lexington Streets. Further north, Howard Street was harmed by the destruction of the urban grid to build State Center, Baltimore Life Insurance (now Symphony Center), MLK Boulevard's north terminus and what became the site of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The new State Center mega-plan would promise to create even more problems by making Howard a physical continuation of MLK Boulevard's oppressive traffic flow.

If all the money, energy and hype that has been lavished on Howard Street over the past four decades hasn't worked, what hope is there for North Avenue?

Believe it or not, that's North Avenue in the background, right around the corner from these elegant Mount Royal Terrace townhouses in Reservoir Hill. Residents try to forget North Avenue is there, so there is virtually no mutual benefit.

De-emphasize North Avenue

North Avenue has been similarly abused. It is the official designated truck route away from downtown and the waterfront, but it provides very little unity between its adjacent neighborhoods such as Station North to Charles Village, Bolton Hill to Reservoir Hill, Upton to Mondawmin, Rosemont to Walbrook, or Oliver to Midway. Where revitalization has happened, it has happened in spite of North Avenue, not because of it.

The lesson for North Avenue should be clear: The key to revitalization is not to promote North Avenue, but to de-emphasize it in favor of the communities which surround it. The long slow revitalization of Reservoir Hill would benefit greatly by drastically narrowing adjacent North Avenue to minimize the physical and psychological gap between Reservoir and Bolton Hill. This segment of North Avenue was widened about four decades ago while the street oriented buildings, which might have been the beneficiaries of any redevelopment, were demolished. It was a classic example of destroying the village to save it. This section of North Avenue could easily be narrowed from nearly 100 feet to about 50 feet while still accommodating all the traffic.

Pennsylvania Avenue and Charles Street, which have also had some modest success at creating positive identities for themselves, could undergo similar plans. North Avenue has been widened over the years at both locations, and re-narrowing would be an opportunity to promote the lateral redevelopment of these communities which have suffered greatly because of their proximity to North Avenue.

The oppressive traffic on North Avenue is a severe burden, and the traffic isn't going anywhere. This limits the ability of North Avenue itself to be the linchpin for any revitalization, but it should not prevent surrounding community efforts from succeeding.

Another major problem is the longstanding emphasis on commercial uses. Commercial is usually the last step in revitalization, and the first step in deterioration. Great communities are needed first. It has taken many decades for Station North to achieve its modest commercial success, and this has only finally started to come with association to the Charles Street communities, Penn Station, Maryland Institute - and anything else except North Avenue itself. When businesses locate on North Avenue, they don't emphasize their association with North Avenue.

The section of North Avenue between Bolton and Reservoir Hills has lots of parking and is plenty "clean and green", to use former Mayor Dixon's catchphrase (as the Sun did). But Madison Park North very harmfully cuts off these two communities from each other along the wide swath of North Avenue.

A roundabout solution

Traffic roundabouts are a unique tool which could be used in this effort. Unlike most "traffic calming" measures, a properly designed roundabout is capable of handling huge volumes of traffic. Roundabouts also have the unique ability to dis-orient perceptions away from major streets, and promote the "sense of place" of the roundabout location itself. Despite the fact that traffic and pedestrian conflicts at roundabouts remain formidable, these locations become landmarks that reflect on the surrounding communities. As such, roundabouts create great focal points for art, statues, and other unique urban design elements. Washington DC's traffic circles such as DuPont Circle have become fashionable community names, in spite of the nasty traffic challenges, and the Towson Circle has had a similar effect in spite of (or maybe because of) its notoriety.

Fulton Avenue, Eutaw Place, Broadway and Belair Road/Gay Street could be prime candidates for roundabouts along North Avenue.

In sum, streets are how we see the city, but it is communities which allow the city to grow and prosper. North Avenue, like Howard Street, is not a good "vehicle" for revitalization. The current vision exercise for North Avenue needs to realize that the more North Avenue itself can be downplayed, the better off its surrounding communities will be.

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