October 25, 2016

Trenchant unity for Highlandtown and Greektown

Back in the 1980s, City Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro didn't like the name Greektown, fearing folks would think the neighborhood was just for Greeks. Instead, he wanted it to be called East Highlandtown.

The legendary Councilman who was also referred to as "Mayor of Highlandtown" had a good point. Unity among neighborhoods should be an overriding goal. The quaint old notion of Baltimore being a city of separate autonomous neighborhoods has often been misused as an excuse to deflect issues of segregation and disparity and to reinforce "border vacuums", as Jane Jacobs called the intervening dead zones.

There is indeed such a border vacuum between Highlandtown and Greektown, in the walled trench that carries Eastern Avenue under a series of railroad tracks. It's a particularly depressing experience for pedestrians to be confined to a narrow sidewalk inside the trench between massive retaining walls and speeding traffic.

Eastern Avenue is a dense local street through the Highlandtown and Greektown business districts,
 but in between it suddenly opens up as an expressway inside a trench under a series of railroad overpasses,
 isolated from distinctive but crumbling old industrial buildings and dwarfing the lone pedestrians.

As the old industrial uses which occupied this dead zone have deteriorated and been abandoned, the border vacuum has become worse. The communities has long recognized this, and have steadfastly worked to create new development plans for a mixed-use "Loft District" that would turn this industrial area into a vibrant people place.

It has now become increasingly clear that the key to fulfilling this promise is to transform the Eastern Avenue trench which currently prevents the unification of Highlandtown and Greektown.

The Neighborhood Name Game

Mimi DiPietro lost his name game and Greektown still retains its distinct identity. For most people, the Greek in Greektown applies first and foremost to the restaurants. Marketing is really what neighborhood names are mainly all about.

Perhaps the ideal slogan would be "In unity there is strength", but for the purposes of marketing, it could just as easily be "It's all Greek to me." Since the DiPietro days, Highlandtown has actually been trying to catch up with Greektown and fill the major void left by the loss of its most famous restaurant, Haussner's.

Highlandtown has also been losing its border battle with Canton to the south. Now just about anything more than a block south of the Eastern Avenue business district in Highlandtown is referred to as Canton, if not Brewers Hill (a name that didn't even exist yet in the 1980s).

But what benefits Canton or Greektown or Highlandtown should benefit all of them. This also goes for the expanding Latino population as well. While the central Latino business district has become Broadway in Upper Fells Point, their population has shifted mostly toward north Highlandtown around Fayette Street. Baltimore is big enough for everyone.

The Highlandtown-Greektown Highway Trench

The Eastern Avenue trench was originally built for the "Red Rocket" streetcar line to the Sparrows Point steel mill. The Red Rocket was as close to modern light rail as Baltimore's old streetcar system ever got, with multi-car trains and high speed gate-controlled operation in its outer reaches.

This trench was later enlarged to accommodate automotive traffic. Then throughout the 1950s, the streetcar line was dismantled piece by piece, first in the inner city where the streets could not easily accommodate such heavy duty vehicles. By the end of the 1950s, there was nothing left.

Without the streetcar line, the entire trench was converted to what was essentially a four-lane expressway - a sort of mini-prototype of West Baltimore's later notorious "Highway to Nowhere". This never made any sense. since it connected at both ends to slow-moving local commercial streets which served the respective Highlandtown and Greektown business districts.

The Eastern Avenue trench looking west toward the Highlandtown business district on the distant horizon at the end. 

Eastern Avenue continued in that configuration to this day. This is particularly harmful on the Greektown end, since it is accompanied by peak period parking restrictions which greatly hamper the local businesses and restaurants, and make an uncomfortable sidewalk environment with no parking to buffer traffic.

Over the years, the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) has served as a consultant to community organizations for both Highlandtown and Greektown. (I was a volunteer traffic consultant in some of those efforts.) The studies found that traffic was actually heavier on the Highlandtown end of Eastern Avenue where it was confined to one lane in each direction than it was at the Greektown end where it had two lanes during peak periods.

The City implemented some of NDC's recommendations, including installing turn-lanes at Haven Street in Highlandtown and constructing a channelization island at the trench entrance in Greektown, but they refused to remove the parking restrictions in the Greektown business district. The City has also retained lane designations at the two intersections of Eastern Avenue and Ponca Street which add congestion that nullifies most of the advantage for traffic from restricting parking in the first place.

As a result, the highway trench is still having a very bad influence on both Highlandtown and Greektown, as well as on the border vacuum in between.

Pre- and Post-Red Line Planning

The original 2002 Red Line plan called for two east light rail branches, one down Boston Street through Canton and the other along Eastern Avenue through Highlandtown to Bayview. That was always obvious overkill and various other options were subsequently proposed.

The Southeast Community Development Corporation came up with a promising concept for a rail transit corridor between Canton and Highlandtown as a way to organize new development in the deteriorating industrial area between Highlandtown and Greektown.

An early infeasible plan for the industrial area by the Southeast Community Development Corporation,
 showing a streetcar-style Red Line along a development street that would extend south to Brewers Hill and Canton.

As can be seen from this rendering commissioned by the Southeast CDC, the idea was a very locally-oriented streetcar-style Red Line in the middle of a development street, not like anything resembling a high-speed regional rail line.

Eventually however, the Red Line alignment was dictated by the need to maintain the freight railroad right-of-way which had previously been vacated by Norfolk Southern, but which they wanted to preserve for future use to serve the burgeoning port to the south. The Red Line thus had to be squeezed into the corridor rather than serving as a development spine. North of Eastern Avenue, this required a huge viaduct of up to 70 feet high to carry the Red Line over the freight tracks, the north fringe of Greektown and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway to bring it into Bayview.

The early plan for the industrial area would have created pedestrian plazas that extend across the railroad tracks,
 but would have kept the Eastern Avenue highway trench largely as-is. But future freight trains crowded this plan out.

The Red Line would have still occupied pretty much the same space on the existing Eastern Avenue overpass as the Southeast CDC rendering above had envisioned. But unlike the rendering, it would not have been flanked by a transit station and adjacent new development, but instead by freight tracks which would have necessarily been off-limits to pedestrians.

As shown in the rendering, this concept plan also did not really deal with the overdesigned Eastern Avenue highway trench either. The drawing instead shows pedestrian plazas leading up to the Red Line and the new development on either side of Eastern Avenue which attract people away from the trench. This concept would not have been feasible with the presence of active freight railroads.

With the Red Line now dead but with the freight railroad revival more alive than ever, a new revised development plan for this area is still needed. Opponents of this kind of community-oriented development have recently tried to prevent a zoning change to enable mixed use development, arguing that it is incompatible with the increasing freight rail traffic, but the zoning change is now on track to approval as part of the city's new comprehensive Trans Form zoning code.

The Trench is Key

So with the freight railroads being a permanent barrier, fixing the Eastern Avenue trench is now paramount. The trench stands as the only viable way to get from Highlandtown to Greektown and points in between.

The entire trench therefore needs to be converted from a high speed highway corridor to a "people place". There are actually three railroad lines which need to be avoided - one CSX line and two Norfolk Southern lines.

The area of the trench devoted to pedestrians can be greatly expanded by narrowing the roadway space from two to one lane in each direction, matching the single lanes in the Greektown and Highlandtown business districts to the east and west. Traffic would still be able to flow better inside than outside the trench by controlling access. Driveway intersections leading up to the development areas could be provided, along with a third lane for left turns as needed.

This view looking up at an industrial building surrounded by wild greenery
 from down in the trench is isolated but attractive. 

Creative designs can be introduced which would to bring new development down to the grade inside the trench, and to raise the grade of key portions of the trench to meet the development on the upper levels. Designers are often liberated by multi-level opportunities. For example, oppressive retaining walls abutting speeding traffic could be replaced by sidewalk cafes.

Eastern Avenue is already the organizing "spine" of both Highlandtown and Greektown. As such, the future of both of these neighborhoods depends on the health of Eastern Avenue. So it only stands to reason that their unification around the development of a new mixed use "Loft District" between them should also be predicated on a redesign of the Eastern Avenue trench.