August 6, 2015

Highway cavern can forge a new city transit culture

What Baltimore needs as desperately as better transit is a genuinely viable transit culture - where transit is a welcome and central part of the lifestyle, not just a necessary imposition. Unfortunately, transit in Baltimore is mostly the latter, and mostly limited to low income "captive riders" given greater scrutiny due to the recent West Baltimore "unrest".


The Harlem Park Red Line Station could look like this...

But West Baltimore's "Highway to Nowhere" is just sufficiently far to the fringe to pull off such a cultural transformation. Even if the Red Line is only reserved a future place of honor rather than built tomorrow, it can be done. The important thing is to simply create a good encompassing plan to replace the anachronistic highway and the massive abandoned Metro West Social Security complex.

We already know the highway isn't needed. It's been closed sporadically for the past several years with no significant ill-effects, even while its next major alternate route on Frederick Avenue was also closed for bridge rehab. If it ever was possible, it's now too late to create a plan based on weaving the highway corridor back into the surrounding neighborhoods - there's not enough of them left to do it.

Marc Szarkowski's rendering above, based on the MTA's rendering of the Harlem Park Red Line Station below, creates a world apart that could also create a world together. Development would have two street levels, one down in the new transit "ditch", and the other up at the level of Franklin and Mulberry Streets and their overpasses. The highway's retaining walls could either be demolished or retained to "wrap" around the new development. There would be a street for cars on one side of the transit line and a conflict-free street for people on the other side.
...but this was the MTA Plan for the Harlem Park Red Line Station inside the "Highway to Nowhere".

This kind of transformation is what is needed to create true "transit-oriented development" - a thus a true transit-oriented culture. Seeing literally becomes believing.

Light rail on Howard Street tried to do something like this, shoving off the street traffic in the 1980s. To be exact, Howard Street had already been converted to a vacuous bus mall before light rail came along, while already losing the battle for both the downtown retail and office markets.

The MTA's recently defunct $3 Billion Red Line plan was also a weak gesture toward a transit culture, but virtually everywhere it would have been fighting a losing battle for attention with traffic or burrowed out of the way deep in the ground.

The Red Line planners tried to pretend that the "Ice House" (left) north of the east end of the highway corridor was the pivotal site for transit oriented development, but that's just where through traffic is most concentrated to get through the Amtrak underpass. There was no chance for a true "orientation". Plus, the nearby MARC commuter rail station is now planned to ultimately move farther away to avoid the big curve in the tracks. And if MARC was somehow a great opportunity for new development, the Penn Station area would have taken off decades ago, instead of waiting for arts and education to become the true catalysts.

The best opportunities for urban integration are all at the opposite end of the highway corridor nearer downtown - not only the necessary and crucial redevelopment of the massive Metro West site, but also the University of Maryland campus, the gorgeous but isolated Heritage Crossing neighborhood, and transforming MLK Boulevard into a people place.

The state's recognition that the Red Line's downtown tunnel was fatally flawed also means the Red Line's goals must be changed, even if its west side alignment is kept all or mostly intact. The Red Line in any form will NOT transform the transit system. It was way too slow, low capacity and disconnected to do that. Only the bus system, the Metro, and their interrelationship can be the main elements of any MTA transformation.

Most basically, a far less expensive west-only Red Line should be designed for shorter trips. An effective transit-oriented development plan would augment this, encouraging more casual hop-on, hop-off trips that are actually part of a lifestyle. Just hop on and off to go to the MARC station, Lexington Market, a college class or wherever.

There could be up to three additional stations in the short new segment between the west Red Line and downtown, all encouraging shorter trips, such as:

  • At the Lexington Market Metro Station - Saratoga near Eutaw and Howard,
  • At the University of Maryland and Metro West - Saratoga near MLK Blvd or Pine Street.
  • At Heritage Crossing - at a newly reconnected Fremont Avenue.
Heritage Crossing with the empty Metro West Tower in the background, separated by two hidden but heavy highways, MLK Boulevard and the "Highway to Nowhere".

The redevelopment in these three areas must be planned at the same time as the "Highway to Nowhere" redevelopment. Strong possibilities for this would include a north expansion of the university campus along Pine Street into the Metro West site, a strengthened greenway path along the west side of MLK Boulevard (including compressing the roadway) and an expansion of Heritage Crossing to the south and west.
The dreary, dominant, depressive "Highway to Nowhere"

Urban designers will no doubt think of some great design details. How about replacing one block of the big "Highway to Nowhere" retaining wall with an amphitheater that steps down into the ditch?

This could all be part of a new culture. Most new Baltimore development has used the harbor as the organizing element for its cultural identity. Transit is a much more proactive way of doing the same thing.

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