September 14, 2015

Six-Mile Greenway Loop would rebuild West Baltimore

Unify the communities by unifying their geography - 

Southeast Baltimore has the waterfront... West Baltimore needs a comparable large, defining public space - a place that tells you where you are and makes you glad you're there. A place that confirms that West Baltimore is special and purposeful and tied together.

It just so happens that a six-mile greenway loop is available to fill the bill - an ideal shape for such a space - for pedestrians, bikes, joggers, transit and a magnet for new development.
Martin Luther King Blvd. frontage has the right idea here: A greenway oriented to housing.
It just needs to be expanded into a real linear park.
But unfortunately, the latest Southwest Plan looks inward where it should look outward. It turns its back to the very spaces that should define it. The area of West Baltimore to the north, including Harlem Park and Sandtown, is just beginning an agonizing reappraisal in light of the recent unrest. It urgently needs a strong linkage toward the city beyond.

This six-mile loop would serve both the northwest and southwest. It would have it all in spectacular contrast - academia, funk, history, organized nature, wild nature, golf, Baltimore's two largest office buildings, other commercial sites and a postmodern urban world apart.

West Baltimore already has the raw material: Huge historic Carroll Park, attached to a golf course, both of which are now isolated from all the nearby neighborhoods to the north. It has a major downtown college campus - the University of Maryland - which is far less of a campus than it could be. It has the very natural and very historic Gwynns Falls Greenway, which again is very isolated.

West Baltimore also has two great rail transit corridors - one of which happens to be the oldest rail corridor in America at nearly 200 years old (The B&O Railroad). The other is so new that it hasn't even been developed yet, despite 50 years of trying (the "Highway to Nowhere").

Nearest to the northwest is Heritage Crossing, the beautiful neo-Olmstedian neighborhood built in the 1990s as a catalyst to rebuild its surroundings, at which it has failed, including the fine but crumbing Victorian architecture of Lafayette Square.

The problem here is that we have allowed borders to divide instead of unite us. But borders are actually the best place to put a defining space, because they can take advantage of unique geography while minimizing conflicts, while bringing both sides together. Making these spaces the focal point for development is essential. Borders cannot succeed in a vacuum.

Most of this six-mile loop is already in the city's bike plan and various park plans. It simply has not been thought out together in the context of the whole city.

Let's make this work, folks! West Baltimore has too much going for it to fail.

The West Baltimore Six-Mile Loop

Here's the greenway loop, in six color-keyed segments, starting to the east (right) at the downtown end and going clockwise:

Six-mile West Baltimore Greenway Loop with six color-keyed segments

1 - Martin Luther King Boulevard - Purple - This major downtown bypass built in the early 1980s was originally supposed to be an expressway, and so had many odd leftover land parcels that are already lush and attractive (see top photo) but never really related to much. The boulevard can easily be shrunk by narrowing the median and eliminating some right-turn lane space without adversely affecting traffic flow.

This leftover space can be consolidated on the west side to create a great linear park oriented to adjacent development parcels. This can also serve as a great campus space for the University of Maryland, which has been striving to link its downtown campus westward across MLK Boulevard to its biotech park.

Read more about this in a 2014 article in the BaltimoreBrew.

2 - Pigtown Gateway - Orange - Between Pratt Street and Washington Boulevard, the loop would turn westward into the community to the B&O Railroad Museum. Besides those two streets, which carry more traffic, Ramsay and McHenry Streets in between would also be candidates for the loop, as would any two, three or all four.

Pigtown's recent plan identifies this area as a business district gateway to lure new customers from downtown and MLK Boulevard through traffic. This portion of the loop has the particular advantage of being the most affluent, including Barre Circle and Camden Crossing, which establishes the desired more upscale image to set the tone for business.

This type of association has often been the key to upgrading city neighborhood business districts, notably in Hampden, Federal Hill, Canton, Lauraville, Charles Village and Mount Vernon, while retaining their "funky" characters.

Large planters have been put in the middle of Ramsay Street to prevent through traffic, which is ideal for bikes and pedestrians.

3 - B&O Railroad "First Mile" - Royal Blue - The B&O Railroad Museum, terminus of the first mile of American railroading, is a truly world-class institution and historic treasure. Unfortunately, the track area has been allowed to become a dangerous urban "no man's land", officially off-limits but still an extremely important space at the north edge of lovely large Carroll Park overseen by the city's oldest and most significant mansion.

These tracks have had several lifetimes, from the original narrow-gauge "Tom Thumb" to the city's first major passenger terminal to a major railroad maintenance yard and then a short tourist ride. Now this corridor must be redefined once again to serve the communities. Urban parks such as Carroll Park need urban edges to draw people in and create a viable constituency. (This plan was first presented in this February 2014 BaltimoreBrew story.)

Carroll Park North Edge - "First Mile" schematic concept by Marc Szarkowski
Here is the concept (illustrated above and below). Just north of Carroll Park (starting from the left), a parkfront address would be established for new urban development along a public street, which could be named "First Mile Avenue". Next to that would be the railroad tracks, suitable for museum trains and/or streetcars (possibly serving a new streetcar museum) and echoing the corridor's historic roots. The streetcar line could even be branched-off a downsized Red Line.

Next to that would be the bike/pedestrian greenway trail. Finally on the south edge of the corridor would be steps down to enter the north edge of Carroll Park.

View of the iconic B&O Museum roundhouse would provide a memorable focal point
for the east end of the "First Mile" corridor. (by Marc Szarkowski)

The west end of this corridor is anchored by the city's largest office building, Montgomery Park, as well as the Carroll Park Golf Course. The golf course is blocked by active CSX railroad tracks, which in 1907 the Olmsted Brothers recommended be linked with a short tunnel (before the golf course was built).

Proposed Carroll Park Clubhouse could link the golf course to the rest of the park and anchor the greenway,
with an entryway under the active CSX railroad track. (Marc Szarkowski)

Such an Olmsted railroad underpass could be incorporated into a new golf clubhouse on the isolated park fragment north of Montgomery Park along Monroe Street, creating a memorable complimentary anchor to the B&O Roundhouse at the other end of the "First Mile" (illustrated above).

The golf course could be reoriented to this site and, for the first time, actually feel like a true urban golf course and an integral part of Carroll Park instead of just being a separate place off of the Interstate 95/Washington Boulevard 95 interchange. Imagine downtown workers catching a streetcar to play nine holes after a short day at the office.

Between the north edge of the golf course and the CSX tracks, the greenway would traverse one of the most beautiful, bucolic and obscure areas in all of Baltimore. Except for the litter, it's hard to believe the area in the photo below is practically right next to the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood.

Area between Carroll Park Golf Course and Southwest communities with a mostly unused dead-end trail branch 

4- Gwynns Falls Trail - Green - Westward from the golf course, the loop would join the existing trail near its most memorable point where it goes under the Carrollton Viaduct, America's oldest railroad bridge (photo below). This beautiful trail continues up to Baltimore Street, at which point the existing path continues northwestward to Leakin Park, historic Dickeyville and into Baltimore County, while the new West Baltimore loop would veer off back to the northeast.

Carrollton Viaduct - America's oldest railroad  bridge - from the trail

5 - Amtrak Trail - Red - The greenway would then proceed from Baltimore Street near the Gwynns Falls along the Amtrak right of way and adjacent miscellaneous industrial parcels. Amtrak, the state and Federal Railroad Administrations are currently studying a billion-plus dollar upgrade to the Amtrak line. The study is focused primarily on replacing the tunnel toward Penn Station, but it could have a major impact on this area was well. The MARC station at Franklin/Mulberry is also in great need of replacement, and sites in this area could be selected because they are on straight track, which is a requirement for stations. This trail, which is included in the city's bike plan, could be built as an early phase in what could eventually be a huge project.

6 - Franklin/Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere" - Light Blue - The final segment of this clockwise loop six-mile tour is the only one not currently included in the city's bike plan, but its significance would far transcend that of just bikes. (Instead the city has proposed a small four-block bike/jogging loop along the top rim of the highway's walls and bridges east of Fulton Avenue, a project of very limited use.)

The largest issue is whether the "Highway to Nowhere" should be eliminated to enhance redevelopment, of which the greenway loop would be an integral part. Recently, the highway has been closed numerous times in one or both directions for various reasons, even simultaneously with the closure of the Frederick Avenue bridge, with no significant ill-effects. The city was also willing to reduce the peak through capacity of US 40 by 50-percent (3 to 2 lanes) to squeeze in the Red Line, which was acknowledged to cause far greater congestion and traffic diversion impacts.

Eliminating the "Highway to Nowhere" to create a new redevelopment corridor would have a far better impact than even building the $3 billion-plus Red Line (although they don't preclude each other at all). This would be a unique new urban geographic feature, free of traffic conflicts, with tremendous possibilities comparable (but not at all similar) to the potential which was unleashed when the portion of the proposed expressway system was cancelled along the southeast waterfront in the 1980s.

Proposed Harlem Park Red Line Station with elimination of the "Highway to Nowhere".
(MTA rendering modified by Marc Szarkowski)

The greenway loop would be the element which most orients the new development corridor to the energy of the rest of the city, especially downtown. In the rendering above, the greenway is the frontage along the lower level of the buildings along Mulberry Street (to the left), off limits to auto traffic. The buildings along the roadway to the right would accommodate larger-scale uses for which auto access is desirable along both the lower level (street shown) and upper level (Franklin Street).

This rendering was adapted from the MTA's depiction of the Harlem Park Red Line Station isolated in the highway median strip. Considering the Baltimore region's abysmal track record on "transit oriented development", this is a far more effective plan than the MTA and city's concept which retains the depressive highway. (See blog post.)

Full-Circle to Downtown

That brings us full-circle along the greenway loop to the interchange of the "Highway to Nowhere" and Martin Luther King Boulevard. This is where the Social Security Administration recently abandoned the city's second largest office building. (Yes, along with Montgomery Park, this greenway would serve both of the city's largest office buildings at its opposite ends.)

It is crucial to the future of the entire city that this massive office complex be redeveloped, and yet the current highway configuration (going directly underneath) makes this extremely difficult. Getting rid of the interstate highway remnant is the best course for creating a viable redevelopment site, and adding the greenway loop would make it even better.

Furthermore, this site is the best opportunity for all of west and southwest Baltimore to feed off the energy of downtown. While until now, MLK Boulevard and the "Highway to Nowhere" have divided these areas from downtown and each other, here is the opportunity to tear down the barriers and create real unity.

Special credit to Marc Szarkowski for the great graphics, and the intelligence behind them!


  1. Cool article. My concern would be that nobody uses it. The Gwynns Falls Trail is so underutilized. I run on it a few times per year along with my friends and it's rare to find other people out there using it on a weekend morning.

    Being a runner who typically covers ~10 miles on a typical weekday, this would be a great run to do from my home in Canton!

    1. Thanks Graham. You'll notice this Greenway Loop plan is, first and foremost, a development plan - for which the Greenway would be a major amenity. That would create new users for the Gwynns Falls portion.