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.
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.