August 1, 2016

The "Perkins Line": Best bet for southeast rail transit

A streetcar line through downtown to the Perkins Homes site would be nothing like the failed Red Line plan, and would be just what the Red Line should have been but wasn't - visible, compatible, affordable, buildable and connected.

The equation for the proposed replacement of the Perkins Home low income "projects" with a modern mixed income community is complex - as attested by the recent withdrawal of the city's selected developer, CRC Partners. Indications are that in order to make the financial numbers work, the density of the development will have to be ratcheted upward so that a sufficient number of "market rate" dwelling units can support the mandated lower income units.

High density means there's an urgent need for high quality transit. And since the site is six to eight blocks from the waterfront, and thus away from the high and ultra-high income Harbor East and Harbor Point areas, there will be a large service area of people who will actually want and use transit.

The "Perkins Line" would be a short streetcar extension of the surface Red Line alternative
 from the Inner Harbor eastward on lightly travelled Trinity and Bank Streets
to the large Perkins Homes redevelopment site, just west of  Broadway in Upper Fells Point.

A streetcar line would fit in well. Streetcars create a distinctive and highly visible "signature identity" for a neighborhood trying to be recognized. Look at what streetcars did for the New Orleans Garden District or the hills of San Francisco. Even the disastrously managed new H Street line in Washington, DC has been a huge success at drawing interest and new development.

Traffic congestion is already a problem and has been projected to get even worse as Harbor Point is built out, with or without the Red Line. Despite that, the developers forced the Harbor East station to be moved further away from Harbor Point and the other new growth areas, prior to the Red Line dieing altogether. The Red Line was also poor at serving short trips because its inner city stations were inconveniently isolated deep in the ground.

So a transit plan must balance on the fine line of accommodating high density while avoiding the congestion that high density creates.

The Perkins Homes site

The Perkins Homes development may be the last best chance for a buildable and workable rail transit line to serve southeast Baltimore. The site has the two crucial requirements: It is large enough so that it can actually be oriented to transit. And it is located away from the area's heavily congested streets.

The best location for a streetcar line would be Bank Street, on the southern edge of the site. Bank Street carries little traffic and is congestion free, so a streetcar line which is oriented to serve predominately shorter and more localized trips would fit in well. The new development is also a "clean sheet" to design the street and streetcar line so they truly fit in. The rail line would not need to be shoehorned into a fixed predetermined width. Other street amenities like pedestrian plazas, setbacks and on-street parking would be part of this design process. That's how transit-oriented development becomes development-oriented transit.

Bank Street looking east from Central Avenue toward the Perkins Homes in the mid-background.

The line should probably be designed in anticipation of a permanent terminus station near Broadway, but alternately, the line could possibly be extended north and/or south on Broadway at some point in the future. Streetcar lines offer this flexibility because they are tailored to shorter trips. Several proposals for streetcar lines on Broadway have been made over the years, but the obvious problem has always been how to connect it. The "Perkins Line" provides a way.

There's probably no chance the streetcar line would ever be extended further east along Bank Street through the stable rowhouse neighborhoods of Upper Fells Point and Fells Prospect. However, a strong physical integration to the Broadway "Spanish Town" business district would be essential.

Further westward, another station would likely be located in the vicinity of Bank and Caroline Street, near the southwest corner of the Perkins site which extends one more block to Eden Street.

Through Little Italy

The intersection of Bank Street and Central Avenue, one block west of Eden, is now poised to become an important iconic gateway to Little Italy, and a crossroads to the front door of Harbor Point to the south and the "sleeping giant" Old Town neighborhood to the north. Central Avenue is also destined to become southeast Baltimore's major north-south main street, even more than Broadway.

When developer John Paterakis forced the planned Red Line station to be moved away from Central Avenue, it was a heavy blow to the transit line's ability to guide new development. A streetcar station two blocks north at Central and Bank would be an essential substitute without the negative impacts.

Central Avenue looking southward from Bank Street toward the gateway to Harbor Point at the Exelon Tower.
 A streetcar station at this location would be essential to encourage spillover development
 from Harbor Point toward Old Town to the north.

At this intersection, the streetcar line would then call attention to the obsolescence of the three-level parking garage in its southwest corner, between Central and Exeter Street. Sprawling free-standing parking garages such as this create major dead spots, both inside the garage and on the surrounding sidewalks. Now that Central Avenue is no longer on the "edge of nowhere", this parking garage needs to be replaced with a larger structure wrapped by new development which generates activity on a consistent basis.

Two good examples of this new type of parking garage are located nearby: (1) On Caroline Street between Harbor Point and Fells Point, and (2) Between Wolfe, Fayette and Washington Streets near Hopkins Hospital. They are both disguised by attractive wrap-around development while providing ample parking for both internal and external users.

Since Bank Street ends at Exeter Street, the streetcar line could then cut right through the parking garage site to Trinity Street, or even through the new building itself.

Streetcar route in red looking east from Trinity Street through the parking garage between Exeter and Central,
 then to Bank Street toward the Perkins site in yellow. Across Bank Street from the garage is the fabulous Canal Street Malt House condos, where Orioles legend Jim Palmer lives. Maybe we can get him to take the streetcar to Camden Yards.

The two short blocks of Trinity Street between Exeter and Albemarle Street (about 425 feet) are too narrow for two streetcar tracks, so a fairly small number of parking spaces would would have to be eliminated from one side of the street and replaced somewhere else such as the parking garage. Only a few buildings front onto Trinity Street, so the impact would be relatively small.

Finally, the streetcar line would proceed through the parking lot bounded by Albemarle, Eastern and President Street, for which future development plans should be adapted. This site is certainly too valuable and visible to just be used indefinitely as a surface parking lot. A streetcar plan would speed up the development process, especially integrated with a station which serves mostly Little Italy, but also Harbor East and President Street.

The Little Italy community was blindsided when the planned Harbor East Red Line station was moved at the last minute without their input, from Central Avenue to Exeter Street, which would have necessitated digging 70 foot deep escalator and elevator shafts. The Little Italy streetcar line would be far more benign, far more locally oriented and far more capable of being integrated into the community.

What would become Little Italy's equivalent to the San Francisco cable car Rice-a-Roni?

Through the Inner Harbor, Downtown and beyond

Proceeding through the Inner Harbor, the streetcar line would follow alignments which were studied in the Red Line's Alternatives Analysis, but were later unwisely rejected in favor of the fatally flawed tunnel plan.

From Eastern Avenue, it would proceed westward onto Piers 5 and 6, then northward to the Pratt/Lombard corridor. Since it would be built to accommodate only single vehicle streetcars, it would be easier to fit in than light rail trains, and would become a highly visible attraction to lure passengers.

At some point, it would connect into a future west Red Line with which it would share tracks and stations, possibly via a comprehensive bus/rail transit hub at the Lexington Market Metro station. In that way, the west Red Line itself would become the "trunk line" for an entire streetcar system, thus maximizing connectivity. The key to all of this is that the heavy rail Metro is and will remain Baltimore's best, fastest, and highest capacity transit line by far, and should be the trunk for the entire rail and bus system.

The concept of integrating light rail and streetcars into a hybrid rail transit system is discussed in this blog article.

The concept of a Lexington Market Transit Hub is discussed in this blog article.

The "Perkins Line" streetcars would be a relatively small component of this system, but such an incremental project makes it far more feasible and a far more integral and distinctive part of its surroundings.

It would thus become intertwined with the evolving character of its communities - the Latino / Spanish district in Upper Fells Point, Little Italy and the turista Inner Harbor - as part of the overall distinctive culture of Baltimore as a whole.

Transit-oriented development in Baltimore has a terrible track record of failure, but the Perkins site provides all the necessary elements to finally make it work.


  1. Have you seen the "straddling bus"? It is a giant platform that travels above the street. I could see it running on North Avenue or Broadway

    1. Ha! That's clever! It looks like the kind of idea they'd think of in a country with over a billion people. You'd want it on a street with heavy traffic but no trucks to get stuck underneath, which I think disqualifies North Avenue, or maybe not. Hmmm... Thanks, I hadn't seen that.

  2. Not to mention, clearing out all the overhead wires would be a major effort. Plus, it is more of a fixed guideway rubber tired metro than a bus. Regular Bus only lanes on North could be done with not much effort.

  3. I just found your blog, and I'm really happy I did. It hits on a lot of questions I have about Baltimore after having grown up in the DC suburbs and recently becoming very interested in urban planning. Thanks for producing such a great repository of Baltimore and urban planning content that I can learn from.

    What's your assessment of the political feasbility of a project like this? And, more broadly, what do you see really happening with new transit in Baltimore going forward? Red line renewal the next a Democrat moves into the Governor's mansion?

    Also, with regard to your post on Port Covington and others that touch on TIFs -- why is it that such prime real estate requires extensive TIFs? Is it simply that the Baltimore real estate market isn't very strong?

    Also, one more point that has been on my mind is about the Green Line "subway". While connecting lower income residents to jobs is, of course, a good idea, it seems like a city's strongest transit link would be better served elsewhere. Namely, I've been fantasizing about an alternate world where a line with solid capacity and frequency had ran through Towson-JHU-Penn-Midtown-Downtown-Federal Hill and through to BWI -- with many stops in between, to be sure! It seems like this line would have garnered incredible ridership, at least compared to the Green Line. What is your critique of such an alignment? Or if you were starrting with scratch and could build a 10 or so mile line where would you have put it? I like fatasy transit.

    Many thanks if you have any time to address any of my questions. Awesome blog, again!

    1. In my opinion, the most important point about transit in Baltimore is that the heavy rail "Green Line" (from Owings Mills to Hopkins Hospital) is BY FAR the best and highest quality transit line we're likely to have for many many years. It's fast, high capacity and really goes to a lot of places. It's BIG PROBLEM is the monumental failure of transit-oriented development in Baltimore. State Center and Howard/Lexington have been disasters. Owings Mills was also a disaster. (Has it gotten better yet? I haven't tried to figure that out.) From a development standpoint, the big successes have been Hopkins and Mondawmin, but they're not transit oriented, which is pathetic.

      The solution is to make this heavy rail line the spine for future rail transit system growth. That means a smaller buildable Red Line that feeds the Green Line at Lexington Market. The "Perkins Line" would be part of that. Forget "starting from scratch". That would just be a rerun of all the Red Line mistakes.

      As for the north-south corridor, the existing light rail line STILL has great potential. It just needs to be fixed, both operationally and around the key stations - like Lexington, Westport, State Center, Cold Spring and a spur to Port Covington.

      You're 100% totally right about the city's real estate market not being strong. The city acts like Port Covington and State Center are worthless land. I guess in their minds, they are. It's funny that the DC H Street streetcar has been screwed up so bad but it's still been a huge development success by Baltimore standards.

      All this is not a Democrat or Republican thing. It's a competence thing.

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