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.


  1. I like it! Pennsylvania Avenue SE's median in Capitol Hill is around 40 feet and it is quite comfortable for pedestrians. It's too bad there isn't a terminating view on North Ave. That's what makes waiting to cross the second half of Pennsylvania such a delight. Maybe you could add a large sculpture at either end of the square? Sure would fit with the arts district character!

  2. Definitely a good idea! I'm not far from North Ave and always felt it had such potential, but was overwhelmed by - among other things - the street itself.

    I'll also add that another prime example of a "median park" might be so successful it didn't even register as one... the medians that surround the Washington monument. Surely, the N-S parks on Charles are much wider, but the traffic flow is heavy. And while the E-W traffic on Monument might be lighter, their size is much more comparable. Of course, North Ave isn't Mt Vernon, but it's another sign that it can be done successfully and beome a place people think of as a true park and public space.

  3. I think this is a fantastic idea! The wonderful thing about this idea is that it reaches back to Baltimore's grand history of pleasant boulevards.

    Serene, parklike, tranquil medians were once the bread-and-butter of upper class Baltimore: If you look at old photos of upper Broadway or Eutaw Place, the lavish arrangements of street trees, flower beds, statuary, and fountains were so beautiful they make your heart ache for what was (largely) lost. Even today the four palatial squares radiating out from the Washington Monument show us that medians can be very pleasant.

    I'm glad you emphasized signal timing - being marooned on one of those narrow concrete strips while cars whiz past you is extremely unpleasant. But another median feature that I think is very important is the quality/"intactness" of the enclosing "street wall." O'Donnell Square, in addition to containing very generous, human-scaled geometries and spaces, was never marred by bad 20th century architecture. You feel secure and comfortable in that part of Canton because the beautiful, appealingly-sized buildings enclose you.

    Large parts of North Avenue, on the other hand, were casually butchered in the 20th century and now contain stretches of repellent parking lots, dismal modern architecture, and abandoned buildings. Even a beautiful median wouldn't encourage me to spend time along North Avenue if the enclosing buildings - where they still exist - were still ugly, shuttered, and rotting. There is a compelling set of photos in "Baltimore: Then and Now" that show a before-and-after scene of North Ave that would make you weep. A series of enticing shopfronts and attractive rowhouses were razed for single-story "landscrapers" (suburban transplant buildings), parking lots, and useless "green space" (empty lots). Who would ever want to walk to that, let alone spend any time there?

  4. Thanks, guys, for the warm thoughts and especially for making me think about the unthinkable against my will - Mount Vernon Place. I guess it's sacred aura must have given me a mental block. All my brain can actually see at the moment is McDonald's, probably North Avenue's most successful business. And when I think of an iconic monument as an end focal point, all I can envision is the Borofsky Man/Woman in exile from Penn Station. But it all works for me !!!!! Now it just needs to work for some brave creative urban designer.

    RE Mount Vernon Place: The Charles Street spaces are 70 feet wide surrounded by heavy traffic, and are much less successful than the Monument Street spaces which are 100 feet wide surrounded by light traffic. I'll have to go check out SE Pennsylvania Avenue in Capitol Hill. Again, thanks !!!!!!

  5. I like everything I've read in the article and the comments. What I'd like to see there, though, is not a re-imagining of lost early Baltimore, like Mt Vernon or O'Donnell square. So much of that old character has been destroyed on North Avenue, and while it could still have a bright future, it's going to be a decidedly modern, intensely urban one.

    It needs a square that is going to better fit the high traffic nature of the street, the dearth of attractive architecture, and its central placement in the city. Iron fences, grassy plots and trees are very well and good, but this is an excellent opportunity to do something bold and unique in character.

    With Station North butting up against it, the off-beat theaters on the west side of the square, and MICA not far away, there's a lot of potential for modern interpretation of the square to help define the future look and feel of the street's developments. I'm all for a quiet, grassy oasis in the middle of a city, but this sounds like it would be better served by a vibrant focal point that reminds you that you're in the city -- but in a good way.

  6. ^
    I dunno, Anonymous. In my experience, architects and urban designers that choose to take the "bold and unique," "modern interpretation," or "starchitecture" route almost always fail miserably and end up creating people-repellent places. I hate to generalize, but after so many decades of "bold, reinterpreted" starchitecture and urban design a la Koolhaas or Hadid or Libeskind, it seems to me they're more interested in creating narcissist, self-referential sculptures than in creating intimate, human-scaled/human-centric places. I think Penn Station's dismal "He-She" and MICA's dreary, blank-walled Brown Center are great cases in point (the latter offering absolutely nothing to the people walking by on Mt. Royal Ave) - they make for some faintly interesting abstract art, but what do they offer to the city's street life?

    I suppose you could make the avenue feel "more urban" by raising the height of the enclosing buildings - that way the avenue would feel narrower and more enclosed to the pedestrian. That doesn't mean the square has to act like a rural retreat (Mt. Vernon Place still feels plenty urban), but that it just shouldn't emphasize glossy, textureless, placeless, "urban" materials like concrete, steel, and glass. Those kinds of blank, banal surfaces are not at all appealing to pedestrians, even though all the architects continue to insist on serving up places and buildings with those kinds of "modern, urban" materials.

    I would definitely agree that, whatever the aesthetics or design, the square would probably benefit from serving as a prominent focal point - how about a huge statue to a famous Baltimorean like 2Pac? That would easily "remind everyone they're in the city." :-D

  7. Marc -
    good points, and certainly a great concern... but I think it's a mistake to clump all bold, modern designs together. Rather, there is good and bad design, and good or bad locations for that design, whether modern or traditional. It would be just as bad to have a stagnant and uninteresting traditional design that has no warmth, human interest or reason to exist in that space. I'm not suggesting something revolutionary, but simply something that will have the appeal of the unexpected, and not seem like a desperate tacked-on addition, out of place for the neighborhood. That's exactly what's wrong with the He-She space, putting aside the (many) artistic complaints. My suggestion was simply that section of North Avenue, having had its traditional character destroyed yet being so close to a hopefully growing artistic center, might be an ideal place to do something different.

    You're right in suggesting that Baltimore doesn't have a very good track record in that respect, and that's what I'd like to see change. Certainly it can be done well, though. Chicago's waterfront parks, London and yes, even cities the size of Baltimore and smaller, have all managed to create friendly, modern spaces that exist in otherwise very traditional cityscapes. Urban and modern doesn't have to mean stark, uniform expanses of metal and glass... it can still be human scaled, compelling and full of literal and metaphoric texture. It can be a place people enjoy. But only if the city is willing to invest in doing it right. Otherwise, all that's left is to abandon progress and pretend we're in the late 19th century each and every time we take on a new project.

  8. ^
    Great points! Good design knows no style, but I would definitely argue that - in the US at least - the best people-centric urban places tend to date from before WWII, and the worst from after WWII.

    By the way, I don't think a desire to use "traditional" or overtly 19th century design motifs necessarily means that people want to "abandon progress" and live in another time period. More often people only want to resurrect the human-scaled elements from that era's architecture (the ornament, the rich, comforting textures and sensations from non-machine aesthetic materials like brick and masonry, well-defined components like actual windows and balconies instead of scaleless curtain walls and sleek metal surfaces, etc.) to create a place that reflects humanity rather than confounding/disturbing/shocking it (which is what many starchitects explicitly say they want to do). It really has nothing to do with desiring to live in any specific time period. After all, the use of traditional features is not necessarily "historicist" - cornices and pilasters have no expiration dates! :-)

    So far not a single architect or urban designer working in an explicitly modern or purported post-history (avant garde) style has managed to create a place that appeals to me as emotionally and sensually as someone working in a "traditional" style. B'more actually has many examples of contemporary "traditional" public spaces and streetscapes done right - infill rowhouses in Fed Hill and Fells Point, brick streetscapes in Harbor East, new public housing rowhouses replacing the dismal, experimental old tower blocks, restoration to bits of the Eutaw Place median and rowhouse street wall, etc. - which I why I'm confident a new design that respects/blends in with North Ave's surviving vestiges of history could probably be pulled off quite beautifully.

  9. The space here would be so abnormally long and skinny that it would appear to really call for something untraditional, and as Phil said, something with big icons on each end. I'm thinking now that we'd ought to ban left turns onto Charles so pedestrians (and bikes?) could easily cross from one median to the next.

    I like the Tupac concept! Put "East Coast" Tupac Shakur at the east end, commemorating his formative Baltimore years, his hard upbringing and artistic promise. Then put the famous "West Coast" Gangsta Tupac at the west end. The whole thing would be an allegorical narrative, a sort of tragic American urban version of the Vietnam Memorial that one would follow by walking along. A place so intertwined with the rhythms of "The Street" would be a fitting.

    Yeah, that could really be "Bad", and not just in the vernacular Michael Jackson/Off the Wall/Thriller /Dangerous way. Just bad. (Although as Michael and now Whitney remind us, early death is highly saleable). But I'm no designer. I'm listening to Mahler's "Tragic" Symphony on the radio as I think this up, hosted by another Baltimorean, Lisa Simeone, who has recently suffered for the expression of her beliefs, being canned by NPR a la Juan Williams. So maybe it could be a monument to her...