August 23, 2012


Introducing The LOW LINE:
Baltimore's answer to New York's High Line

Here's a Slide Show presenting graphics and photos that Peter Tocco and I have developed over the years for transforming the "Highway to Nowhere" into The LOW LINE.

Manhattan's High Line has taken the urban world by storm, and not just because it's an abandoned freight railroad transformed into a linear one-mile park in the sky. The High Line provides new insight into how unique urban environments can be beneficially fit into the city.

West Baltimore has just such an environment - the one-mile-plus "Highway to Nowhere" which has been wreaking havoc on the surrounding communities ever since it was first conceived way back in the 1960s.

The usual urban prescriptions have been tried and failed to turn these communities around: Rehabbed housing. Fighting crime. Social services. Brand new urban housing. Brand new suburban-style housing. 21st century biotech jobs. All of these have achieved only isolated successes.

Defenders of these programs say justifiably that isolated successes are a start, but it amounts to running just to stand still. The common aspect of all the solutions is that they attempt to celebrate normalcy - law-abiding guys with steady jobs who live in houses that are not boarded up.

The answer is not normalcy

But there's nothing normal about West Baltimore. To achieve normalcy there, you have to constantly shield yourself. Some do it with guns or gangs. The Heritage Crossing suburban-style enclave does it with earth berms. The biotech park does it with fumigated demolition and decked parking to minimize adverse community interactions. The city even proposed building a jogging/bike track encircling the upper rim of the "Highway to Nowhere" (applying for federal money of course) so people can get exercise while they're trying to survive their community's onslaught.

The big future multi-billion dollar transit project portends to make matters worse. The proposed Red Line would permanently embalm the "Highway to Nowhere" by using it to encase a new transit line - another solution that has been tried without success elsewhere in Baltimore. For many years, the city  even proposed building a cap over the "Highway to Nowhere" so we can just pretend it doesn't exist - a very expensive attempt at normalcy. New York went through the same process with the High Line. New York's previous effort was to simply demolish the old railroad structure and return to normalcy, which would have prevented the High Line from ever happening.

Physically, what West Baltimore needs is not normalcy. It needs a truly unique world-class environment to truly attract people, but with enough carefully designed access to its surroundings to plant the seeds of rejuvenation - to be apart from, yet a part of, the community.

This is what the High Line has done for Manhattan's West Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen communities, succeeding where the monster Javits Convention Center has not.

And this is what the LOW LINE can do for West Baltimore, connecting to Heritage Crossing, the MARC rail and Red Lines, the University of Maryland and downtown, but most importantly to itself and the adjacent forlorn communities.

Until now, the most successful Baltimore developments have clung to isolation and peninsulas and the waterfront. The LOW LINE finally offers a way to succeed by doing just the opposite.