February 28, 2012

Stacy Keibler at Penn Station

Penn Station: A new more popular Man-Woman Statue
After her recent universally acclaimed Oscar performance as George Clooney's arm candy, Stacy Keibler is now undoubtedly the world's most famous Baltimorean. So what could be a better follow up role than replacement of the reviled Man-Woman Statue in front of Penn Station?

February 9, 2012

A Town Square for North Avenue

The North Avenue space shown in green could be transformed into an elongated Town Square - looking west from the Centre Theatre (right) toward Charles Street and Maryland Avenue.

Now that the potentially dazzlingly moderne Centre Theatre on North Avenue near Charles Street has recently been announced for renovation, it's time to unify North Avenue's streetscapes into a Town Square, modelled after Canton's O'Donnell Square. Right now, North Avenue brutally slices through the area, creating a barrier which has served to spread blight over its entire length from east to west Baltimore. But as the widest section of Baltimore's widest east-west thoroughfare, it offers the greatest potential for reinvention as a central focal point.

The Station North neighborhood is also oriented far more to the north and south than to east and west. Thus the linkage to Penn Station, University of Baltimore, MICA, Downtown, Charles Village and Hopkins University would be enhanced by reducing the east-west expanse of North Avenue.

Widening and redesigning the median

The most offending element is the median strip, which makes North Avenue's extravagant width work against it, causing as much congestion as it relieves. The overall curb-to-curb street width of up to 100 feet or more requires long pedestrian "Walk" signal phases, which in turn requires long cycle lengths, which in turn increases vehicle stacking and delays.

The current North Avenue median is a wasted space occupied by a dense thicket of evergreen bushes.

North Avenue needs to be narrowed for the sake of both people and traffic, as well as their mutual interaction. The easiest, quickest and least expensive way to do this would be to leave the outer curbs alone, with their extensive and drain inlets, and focus on adjusting the median.

Baltimore has seen various attempts to make urban medians into people places. At McKeldin Square (Light Street) and Preston Gardens (St. Paul Street), this has been done in wide and extravagant but failed fashions. Now both are scheduled to be rebuilt yet again to atone for past urban design mistakes. A much more modest rebuild was done to the Broadway median in Upper Fells Point. At only about 16 to 32 feet in width (with or without the parking lanes), the Broadway median was still able to be transformed into an inviting linear pedestrian area.

O'Donnell Street in Canton is the best model for a median that looks and functions like a people place instead of a median. This is what North Avenue should aspire to, albeit in a somewhat narrower and longer configuration.

Creating a median that does not feel like a median

But the city's most successful urban median is O'Donnell Square in Canton, because it does not look or feel like a median at all. O'Donnell Street looks and operates like two separate streets, one eastbound and one westbound, with an inviting park in between. Putting the park between two such traffic arteries makes it as prominently public as possible. There is no possibility of the kind of public-private ambiguity seen elsewhere that can make parks into less defensible spaces. (The very public nature of McKeldin Square was why it worked for Occupy Baltimore even though it has largely failed as a park.) However, that's easier to do it with that median in Canton (80 feet width) than it would be at North Avenue, which can probably only be widened to a maximum of 40 to 50 feet.

Making east-west North Avenue feel more like two narrow streets than one wide one would be consistent with the corridor's overwhelming north-south orientation, and overcome the "barrier" effect. Hopefully, the resulting effect would function in a manner somewhere between Broadway and O'Donnell Street. But another problem is that North Avenue carries far more traffic than either of those other streets.

Having traffic coexist with a wider and more people-oriented median would require overcoming a combination of operational and psychological factors. Psychologically, it is important that pedestrians would perceive that the North Avenue median is not a mere "safety island" between the eastbound and westbound traffic flows. Pedestrians always want to cross such wide streets in one "Walk" signal phase, and when they can't, they feel very uncomfortable stranded in the middle. That's one reason why North Avenue, MLK Boulevard, President Street, Conway Street and other wide streets are such pedestrian failures.

Making the signal timing work

It's also why people tend to campaign for longer and longer "Walk" signal times, even though that also requires increasing the "Don't Walk" for one or more other crossings as well, resulting in pressure to increase overall signal cycle times. On the contrary, the best traffic/pedestrian environment is achieved when signal cycle lengths are minimized. Pedestrians should only have to wait through a brief "Don't Walk" and as soon as "Walk" comes up, they just walk, without worrying how long it will take. Countdown pedestrian signals are invaluable in reducing the anxiety, but motorists also need to be conditioned that once pedestrians are in a crosswalk, it belongs to them.

To make this work, pedestrians need to feel comfortable crossing only half of North Avenue at a time, and feel naturally at home when they get to the Town Square park in the median. The park must feel inviting and not be perceived as just an island.

Reducing the signal cycle lengths are also important to get traffic to cooperate. With fewer cars per signal cycle, the goal should be to eliminate the left turn lanes and green turn arrows, and have cars stay in the median space while waiting to turn left across opposing traffic. If this does not work, left turns would need to be prohibited during peak hours. It is also important to improve timing coordination between signals at adjacent intersections. North Avenue should thus be reducible to two lanes in each direction, which is the same as most of the rest of North Avenue throughout east and west Baltimore. It may also help to designate a double left turn lane from westbound North Avenue to southbound St. Paul Street, just east of the Town Square, to divert traffic and provide additional capacity just prior to the widened Town Square Park median.

Overview of the space that a North Avenue Town Square could occupy between Maryland Avenue (upper left), Charles Street (center) and St. Paul Street (right).

Putting it all together

By doing all this, the North Avenue median can hopefully be widened to around 50 feet between Maryland Avenue and Charles Street and about 38 feet in width between Charles and St. Paul Street. This should be wide enough to create a successful North Avenue Town Square Park. However, this will pose a challenge for the urban designers as well as for traffic planners and engineers, since it will still be far less than the 80 feet width in Canton's O'Donnell Square Park.

But North Avenue thirsts for such a highly visible and truly public urban square far more than does Canton, which is blessed with the waterfront promenade and several other major open spaces mere blocks away, including Patterson Park.

The benefits of a North Avenue Town Square are sufficiently great that it would be well worth taking maximum advantage of the opportunities available.

February 6, 2012

A Red Line plan to Exelon and Harbor Point
The Red Line's east terminus could be shifted to the heart of Harbor Point (lower right), at Exelon near Fells Point. Proposed streetcar lines are shown in yellow, existing subway in green and light rail in blue.

The recent decision to build the massive Exelon office complex in Harbor Point confirms downtown's strong eastward shift, and has rendered MTA's rail transit planning largely obsolete. Even more, it is a sign of the end of downtown as the central hub of a larger region. Major companies are no longer choosing downtown because of regional geographic advantages. While it is as necessary as ever for downtown to be the connecting hub for transit lines, suburb-to-downtown commutes represent a increasingly insignificant share of all trips.

In 2009, I devised a plan which anticipates and reflects for this. It would cost far less and do much more than the MTA's multi-billion dollar Red Line plan.

The MTA's Red Line plan is increasingly irrelevant

The elusive and fickle focus of downtown activity has been and still is a major problem for transit planners, and is probably the number one factor in Baltimore's failure to grow around its transit system. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Howard/Lexington retail district was downtown's most active place, and was an extremely important station location in the proposed rail transit system. But by the time the first rail leg was completed in the mid '80s, the retail district was already in serious decline. The MTA then doubled-down on its bet with the light rail system focused on adjacent Howard Street as well, which only made the decline even more precipitous.

The Red Line, originally devised around 2001, scrupulously attempted to avoid this problem by locating in the hottest areas along the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Canton. But now even those areas are getting far less attention, with the Inner Harbor spurned by Exelon, and Fells Point and Canton in a state of stable low-growth maturity, with Canton Crossing being built in a very auto-dominated manner.

Transit-oriented development has been a consistently auspicious flop in Baltimore. It actually appears that developers go out of their way to avoid transit. And Exelon's recent decision to build at Harbor Point, on an isolated peninsula that is about as far away from the transit system as they could get, is perhaps the best example yet.

The new Morgan Stanley building near the proposed Exelon building at Harbor Point, auto-oriented and isolated from the rest of downtown.

But to some extent, it's not just that developers are just avoiding transit, but that they are avoiding the whole traditional concept of downtown in the region. The suburbs are increasingly self-sufficient and auto-dominant, not tied to the classic suburb to downtown commute. Both the city and the suburbs are increasingly tied into a much larger super-region which revolves far more around Washington DC and even the northeast corridor of the U.S. as a whole.

As with Morgan Stanley and Legg Mason, Exelon saw no significant advantage to being in the hub of downtown, just as UnderArmour similarly decided in its recent decision to locate its corporate campus headquarters in Locust Point, again about as far from transit as possible.

Increasingly, downtown is just an environment and a lifestyle, based on the unique attributes of the waterfront, historic architecture and high density interaction, but not the hub of anything.

Regional access is still important, but mostly just to create the linkages of a true transit system, not as an end hub in itself. It is important that the rail transit system have a true backbone, to create a logical organizational structure. Downtown is the place where transit riders transfer between the system's bus and rail lines. The system's rail "trunk" must be as fast and efficient as possible. The Mondawmin Metro Station is the system's one very successful example of this, where myriad bus lines converge with easy transfers to the much faster and more efficient Metro. But the rest of the system fails to compliment this.

The MTA's proposed Red Line would only make matters worse, not even connecting to the Metro except through a two block long pedestrian tunnel. It's also too slow for such a long line (over 14 miles) as it meanders between far east and west Baltimore.

The fact that the rail system does not even serve Harbor Point as the new downtown growth center further adds to the problems. And the isolation of Harbor Point emphasizes its lack of spin-off development opportunities. Harbor Point would be about a third of a mile from the closest Red Line station, and that is contingent upon building a controversial Central Avenue bridge which would cut off the Living Classrooms campus from the harbor. If the rail system itself is not a catalyst for redevelopment, as demonstrated on Howard Street, and isolated Harbor Point is not either, one of rail transit's biggest selling points of being an agent for growth vanishes.

The Red Line tries to serve the system and to enhance development opportunities, and ends up doing a very poor job of both.

Running the Red Line straight into Harbor Point instead

The solution is a rail transit plan that puts connectivity first, then relies on a system hierarchy from fast heavy rail to medium speed light rail to local streetcars to create and support development opportunities, and acknowledges that what was once known as downtown is now too dispersed to serve in any other way.

In such a plan, the Red Line would be located in a very short tunnel under Fayette Street, where it would be close enough to the Charles Center Metro station and Howard/Lexington retail district and light rail line for optimum connections. The very short tunnel would extend only from about MLK Boulevard to Gay Street (near City Hall), greatly reducing its cost and increasing its flexibility. It could even be built to accommodate buses as well, like the Seattle system, as well as an extension of the existing central light rail line from Penn Station through the Jones Falls corridor.

East of the tunnel, the Red Line would turn into Central Avenue, and proceed to a terminus in the heart of Harbor Point, immediately adjacent to Exelon, the recently completed Morgan Stanley building and the west edge of Fells Point near Thames Street.

Sojourner-Douglass college is one of a few signs of life along Central Avenue near Fayette Street, looking south toward Harbor East and Harbor Point along a potential Red Line alignment.

A whole new transit-oriented corridor would open up along Central Avenue between Sojourner-Douglass College and Harbor Point. The proposed bridge into Harbor Point could be designed as a high arch for transit   vehicles rather than cars, which would create a distinctive attraction and still let Living Classrooms boats go underneath. Pedestrians could also be accommodated secondarily.

The portion of the Red Line from the Inner Harbor to Canton, Highlandtown and Bayview would then be built as a streetcar line, linked to the proposed Charles Street Trolley system, as well as to the light and heavy rail lines, with the alignments optimized for the increasingly important localized rather than longer regional trips. As such, the streetcars would far more conveniently traverse Pratt Street and Piers 5 and 6 directly through the Inner Harbor rather than buried under auto-dominated Lombard Street.

All of this would cost far less than the $2.2 billion Red Line, because of the drastic reduction of counterproductive tunneling, and serve far more. And perhaps even more importantly, the system could far more easily and feasibly be built in affordable stages rather than all at once.

Such a system would reflect what most people, including Exelon and their local Constellation Energy division, already realize - That downtown is increasingly an environment and a lifestyle rather than the traditional geographic entity, which can only capitalize on transit which is integrated conveniently and attractively into the landscape, rather than built into expensive, outmoded and isolated tunnels such as with the MTA's proposed Red Line.