November 3, 2015

Station East: Where's the Station?

"Picture yourself in a train in a station, with plasticine porters, with looking glass ties..."
-John Lennon, The Beatles, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

If you don't have a station, perhaps the best thing to do is pretend.

That's what's happening in the neighborhood a few blocks east of the Hopkins Hospital "campus" and north of Patterson Park, previously best known as the desolate post-apocalyptic scene Amtrak riders complained about from their windows. Now after years of cataclysmic abandonment, demolition and new development swirling around them, community leaders have decided it's now time to take control of their destiny.

So the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC) has decided to name the neighborhood closest to the Amtrak tracks, "Station East" even though there is no station.

"Station East" houses for sale on Milton Avenue looking north toward the Amtrak overpass -
along which an actual Metro station could be built, thus fulfilling the prophesy of "Station East".

Station East's station in life

Calling it "Station East" may be the first step in actually getting a station. It just so happens that Station East would be the best place to locate the next Metro station beyond Hopkins Hospital, if and when the Metro is ever extended, which it should be.

Currently, the future of transit beyond the Hopkins Hospital Metro station is extremely muddled. That station is a terrible location for a rail terminus, having been previously rejected for the kind of feeder bus hub which is essential to any major modern urban rail-based system. The Maryland Transit Administration studied extending the Metro northward as part of its 2002 regional plan, and found it to be utterly infeasible from a cost effectiveness standpoint, so they pulled the plug.

The 2002 plan also called for two new MARC "commuter rail" stations only about two miles away from each other in East Baltimore, one serving the defunct Metro extension on Broadway and one for the defunct Red Line north of Bayview. Both are also terrible locations from almost every perspective (impact on rail operations, access, siting, community benefit, etc.), so trying to build even one of them is futile, much less both.

But there's a far better, less expensive and more cost effective solution: The Metro should be extended eastward rather than northward, along the Amtrak tracks, in a shallow "cut and cover" tunnel that would emerge from its deeper bored tunnel at a station somewhere in Station East along Eager Street. There's your station in Station East.

Then once the Metro climbs to the surface somewhere near Station East, the next station eastward beyond be a comprehensive MARC/Metro/bus and (possibly) Amtrak hub on the large vacant parcel at Edison Highway and Monument Street. That's yet another station for Station East.

The Metro could then eventually be extended in a surface and elevated alignment to Bayview, Dundalk, Middle River and/or White Marsh - making Station East as much the center of things as is Station North.

Station East's neighborhood vision has come first. Then comes the station itself.

Modeled after "Station North"

Naming a neighborhood "Station" may become the 21st century equivalent of the "Hills" of the 20th century - Bolton, Reservoir, Federal, Butchers, Brewers. The first was "Station North", which became a popular name for the area north of Penn Station after decades of failure as "Penn North Charles".

Ironically, Station North's renewal ultimately has been less due to the Amtrak station and more to the community leadership with schools like the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and Johns Hopkins. But even the proposed shopping center a mile to the north (originally to have included a Wal-Mart and Lowe's) was dubbed "25th Street Station".

So the "station" theme caught on. In Station East, MICA has partnered with Hopkins again to create a community-oriented arts graduate education program in "Station East" in an old church just south of the new Henderson Hopkins school which itself is supposed to be a model for education innovation.

Neighborhood branding and identity

The first step in creating a new real estate marketing identity for "Station East" was probably the recognition that all that multi-billion dollar mass destruction and new building around Hopkins Hospital was a given, and they need to run with it rather than try to fight it. A basic Baltimore rule is that you can't fight Hopkins.

The neighborhoods east of Hopkins Hospital, north of Orleans Street and south of the Amtrak tracks (in yellow). "Station East" is now only the northwest (upper left) portion, but real estate agents and developers may decide to expand it.

Secondly, contrary to earlier expectations, the neighborhood renewal north of Patterson Park has indeed now jumped beyond the heavily trafficked Orleans Street (US 40), through McElderry Park and right to the door of Station East. That highly successful renewal was first led by Neighborhood Housing Services under Ed Rutkowski.

Real estate marketers and agents are ultimately who determines how neighborhoods are defined. It's a process of establishing landmarks, creating brand identities and then waiting for peripheral areas to latch onto successful ones within geographic boundaries.

As such, it appears that "Station East" (if the popularity of that name catches on) could ultimately become applied to more of the area south of the Amtrak tracks, east of Patterson Park Avenue, north of Orleans Street, and west of Edison Highway and Linwood Avenue.

Dissolution of the Orleans Street traffic barrier

While Ed Rutkowski's organization successfully focused on the three block strip anchored by Patterson Park to the south and bound-in by Orleans Street to the north, he realized that making Orleans a barrier was not good. Along with Bill Henry (before being elected to the City Council), they even looked at ways to soften the barrier effect of Orleans Street.

But as it turned out, Orleans has not been all that much of a problem. It never was a physical barrier, unlike many parts of the Hopkins' so-called "campus" as well as the Amtrak tracks to the north. Hopkins has used these barriers to help define and reinforce their empire. Hopkins even cut themselves off from the "good" neighborhoods directly to the south, Washington Hill and Fells Point, by replacing the Ann Street corridor with a massive parking garage and loading facility.

In Station East, the closest example of Hopkins' fortress building is the new Henderson Hopkins School, which was a product of maximum demolition and the closure of Eager Street to reinforce the barrier along the Amtrak tracks and Patterson Park Avenue.

The lesson on Orleans Street is that traffic is not an insurmountable barrier to neighborhood development. Orleans is about the same width and physical configuration as any of the other streets in the area which have had successful renewal. All housing choices involve compromises.While it is indeed nasty to have no on-street parking and whizzing traffic ten feet in front of your house, many people don't have cars and have more important housing priorities such as overall location for access to good jobs and schools. Houses on busy streets can now play the role of providing "worker housing" the same way that small alley houses originally did back in the 19th century.

The kinds of socially-engineered mixed-income housing which has been placed in innately high value locations like Broadway Overlook in Washington Hill and Albemarle Square in Jonestown would be better off put in critical lower value corridors like Orleans Street, where it would actually blend in better. Slowly this seems to be happening. Of course, low income folks need the flexibility of a variety of options just like everyone else.

Station East's future station identity

That still leaves the need for a strong neighborhood identity landmark. Patterson Park has served this need exquisitely well for the area south of Orleans, but the Station East area is just a bit too remote to pull that off. But even Patterson Park's identity had to be shaped by the neighborhood, rather than vice-versa. Patterson Park had a bad though undeserved reputation until into the 1980s when it became associated with quickly improving neighborhoods surrounding it, which in turn drove the renewal of the park.

So it isn't even essential that there be a station at Station East, except in our collective vision, as the real estate marketers apparently realize. Vision of the future is what drives it.


  1. I seem to recall the late btco/ghostsofbaltimore website had pictures of the remains of a train station in that area. Which I've noticed when riding MARC .

    1. Interesting... I've never noticed that, and surprising since I don't recall the Pennsylvania RR ever running commuter service north of Penn Station. There WAS a bare-bones station at Frederick Avenue in West Baltimore that I don't think was discontinued until the late '70s/early '80s when the West Baltimore MARC station was moved slightly southward from Edmondson to Franklin. But I'm no historian and my memory is far from infallible.

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  3. I think this area has the potential to be another hot neighborhood in Baltimore, at least that is what I hope. I'm buying one of the newly renovated homes there and plan to do my part in uplifting the neighborhood. By the way I enjoy your blog, keep up the good work.

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