April 25, 2017

New MARC stations: North/Mt Royal, Upton, Sandtown

The chosen plan for the new Amtrak tunnel in West Baltimore would provide enough trackage for all anticipated future train service. The old existing tunnel would thus be free to be used for anything. This means the old tunnel can be rehabbed in a way that is optimized for critical local needs - not Amtrak's - and new stations can be provided to support neighborhood development opportunities.
Seldom seen view of the southwest corner of Mount Royal and North Avenues, looking west.
The ancient brick enclosure for the tracks entering the Amtrak tunnel (in the foreground)
could be opened up to create a new local MARC station and lead into a "campus green"
that connects to the MICA buildings in the background. North Avenue is barely visible to the upper right.

The recent Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) "Record of Decision" calls for a new $4.5 Billion replacement tunnel that includes four tracks rather than the current two tracks. But the alignment for the new four-track tunnel would still make it possible to retain connections to the old existing two-track tunnel. As stated in the FRA Record of Decision: "The existing B&P Tunnel, a contributing element of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad historic district, will be abandoned in a manner that will allow for future transportation use." This specific point is also spelled out as one of the top five "Project Benefits" as listed on the Amtrak website.

So while future Amtrak trains and most (if not all) MARC commuter rail trains will be whizzing through the new modern tunnel, the existing historic tunnel can be uniquely reconfigured to position West Baltimore growth and development as a vital part of the burgeoning Baltimore-Washington corridor.

OLD AMTRAK TUNNEL - Going west out of Penn Station (right) toward Washington, DC, the tunnel begins
just prior to North Avenue and ends at Gilmor Street in Sandtown. Three new MARC stations can be accommodated
at the beginning, middle and end of the tunnel at North Avenue/Mount Royal, Upton and Sandtown.

Three new West Baltimore MARC Stations

Unlike the proposed new Amtrak tunnel which would be bored deep in the ground, the existing tunnel is located directly below the surface. New stations along the old route can therefore be intimately integrated with surface activities and development in the local communities, unhampered by demands for high speed and high capacity. This line could use shorter self-powered trains that consist essentially of a cross between commuter rail and light rail vehicles, even allowing riders to walk across the track at selected locations, which is forbidden in the Amtrak corridor.

The stations could then be configured as a kind of "transit mall" to bring the passengers as close to the communities as possible. The three proposed new stations also happen to be located at open-air interruptions in the tunnel, which would further reduce the separation between the station and community environments. The line could probably also be reduced to a single track in confined locations if necessary where pedestrians and platforms need the space.

The old tunnel has been designated as its own historic district and consists of fascinating nineteenth century stone and brick work that heretofore has mostly been seen only in dark, dank, dirty fleeting views seen by train riders with their faces pressed against the windows. A challenge to designers will be to present the historic aspects of this tunnel in the best possible perspectives and light.

Here are three key places for proposed new MARC stations between Penn Station and West Baltimore Station at US 40 (which would also be totally rebuilt and slightly relocated under the FRA's chosen plan):

NORTH AVENUE / MOUNT ROYAL STATION - connecting to North Avenue light rail station at the upper right,
and Maryland Institute College of Art buildings to the left and center.

1. North Avenue Station at Mount Royal

This new station could be built around a submerged "campus green" between the two North Avenue buildings of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) which are located on either side of the Mount Royal Avenue intersection between the Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill neighborhoods. This "campus green" would create intimate access to the station and generate activity by college students even when there are no trains. The new station space would also circumvent the major traffic conflicts at the busy intersection above. The current opening in the rail tunnel to the sky, located southwest of the intersection, could be enlarged to ensure it is a bright attractive place.

This station space should also be extended to the east in the existing tunnel under North Avenue and the Jones Falls Expressway to the adjacent light rail station. This would provide an important new transfer point so that all light rail trains could connect to MARC, not just the very limited number that traverse the stub branch from Howard Street to Penn Station. This new station would thus provide a valuable amenity not only for Maryland Institute and the neighborhoods, but for the whole region.

UPTON STATION - looking east into the tunnel under Pennsylvania Avenue,
with buildings on both sides of the street seen above the tunnel portal. The "Avenue Market" is just off to the left
and a pedestrian connection to the Metro subway station mezzanine could be provided below it.

2. Upton Station at Pennsylvania Avenue

The anchor for this station would be a connection to the Upton Metro Station, located under and next to the "Avenue Market" on Pennsylvania Avenue between Laurens and Pitcher Street. The new MARC station would be located in the existing open-air interruption in the rail tunnel between Pennsylvania Avenue and Fremont Avenue (see photo above).

It would probably be best to completely rebuild the market to integrate it with the new station and facilitate the below-ground connection to the Metro station mezzanine, with a much larger site footprint that encompasses both blocks to the north and south sides of the tracks. The combined Metro and MARC station would then be a major focal point of the Upton community, instead of being hidden away as it is now.

SANDTOWN STATION - in an open air cut just west of the tunnel portal
from Gilmor Street (east, right) to Monroe Street (US 1 - west, left)

3. Sandtown Station between Gilmor and Monroe Streets

This station would be located just beyond the west end of the tunnel between Gilmor and Monroe Streets. Since it would be open to the sky, it would be the most visible, accessible, largest and easiest place of all to develop a new station.

This fringe area of the "Freddie Gray" neighborhood around the heavily used Fulton/Monroe Street couplet is rough even by Sandtown norms, so it's not a neighborhood that's likely to be too attractive to affluent Washington-Baltimore commuters for a while. But since this is a long range plan, every step helps and every job is important. There is also a huge amount of underutilized industrial land just west of Monroe Street toward Rosemont and Walbrook that can be redeveloped to a higher intensity.

Other alternatives and variations

It should also be mentioned that another alternative exists that would provide a West Baltimore Metro-MARC connection without using the existing tunnel at all. A MARC spur could be built onto the old West Maryland Railroad line (now owned by CSX) north from the current West Baltimore MARC station to either the Cold Spring Lane, Rogers Avenue or Reisterstown Plaza Metro Stations. An intermediate stop could also be provided where the tracks cross over North Avenue near Coppin State University. This line would require passenger service to be share the tracks with freight service.

All the concepts set forth here are an evolution of the previous plans for a localized type of MARC service that were part of the 2002 regional rail transit system plan. At that time, this was designated as a "high priority", but the idea self-destructed almost as soon as the plan was published, most plausibly due to inevitable serious conflicts with existing longer-distance Amtrak and MARC service on the same tracks.

That plan would have been far more limited than this one. The 2002 plan had only a new station at Sandtown-Winchester, but not at Upton or Mount Royal. It therefore would have connected to the existing rail transit system only at the very limited light rail stop at Penn Station. It was also planned to operate only in the Baltimore metropolitan area, as far south as BWI-Marshall Airport and Odenton.

However, a Washington connection would be very important, either running the service all the way to Washington Union Station or at least as far as the New Carrollton Station of the Washington Metro. Amtrak would have the final word on this. Union Station is currently very congested and train traffic will continue to increase..

There may also be some locations elsewhere between Baltimore and Washington where a similar kind of smaller and more localized kind of station is appropriate, which could then be linked to the local West Baltimore service. It may also enable some existing MARC service to be redirected away from smaller stations, which could improve travel times for some trains.

This is the point in the project planning process where these kinds of local amenities and mitigations can begin to be discussed, and where the negotiating power of the local communities can be used to their advantage.

The recent decision by the Federal Railroad Administration, in concert with Amtrak and the state, to abandon the old West Baltimore rail tunnel, now breathes new life into all these concepts. They are also fed by the urgent need to stimulate new growth and optimism for the future of West Baltimore.

April 18, 2017

Stump Dump solution is a bridge to Roland Park

The city's crappy Stump Dump sits in one of the city's most valuable and significant sites. But like many blighting influences, the stump dump doesn't need to disappear right away. It just needs to be exposed. Like alcoholism, the first step to redemption is simply to admit there's a problem.

The basic problem is that the Stump Dump has been sufficiently isolated from the urban fabric that it doesn't offend any particular persons or groups to the point of action. It's an affront on the need for transit-oriented development near light rail stations, but not nearly as much as State Center. It's a blot on adjacent beautiful Cylburn Park, so the park simply turns its back to it. It's adjacent to the banks of the Jones Falls, a lovely river that's mostly ignored anyway. It's right next to an Interstate highway interchange with potentially great access. And it is just far enough removed from the city's elite Roland Park neighborhood that no ruckus has been raised there to get rid of it, despite being home of many of the city's most well-connected movers and shakers.

The solution is to build a bridge. Sounds metaphorical, right? Yes, but it's also real.

West Roland Park - shaded in purple - created by a new bridge over Interstate 83 in yellow.
The Poly-Western High School campus is to the east (right). The Stump Dump is to the upper west
between the new bridge and Cylburn Park. The existing light rail station is the blue bar at the bottom,
and its proposed relocation is the blue bar at the top next to the new bridge.

Something has recently been going on at the Stump Dump. The stumpers appear to have been cleaning up their act a bit. From a distance, the place now looks more organized instead of in chaos. And they've apparently chopped down and mulched a few more trees along the abutting edge of Cylburn Park to create a nice defined edge, along with installing erosion and runoff control measures to demonstrate that they're following some kind of plan. There is starting to be some kind of "there" there.

The City Stump Dump - looking north toward a big pile of logs with Cylburn Park in the background.

The Stump Dump will continue at this location until the city is good and ready to move it out. But surrounding progress should not wait for that. There have been sporadic murmurs of future development plans - for the treasured green space of the Roland Park Country Club east of Falls Road and for the light rail station area south of Cold Spring Lane. A new police station was built on an isolated chunk of this land a few years ago, even when communities were clamoring instead to put it in a real neighborhood where the people are.

The most important priority is to create linkages so that plans can unfold when the time is right and the constituencies will be there to make sure everything fits together, which is what living in a city is all about.

A bridge to a higher power

Again like addressing alcoholism, the second step is to build a bridge to a higher power - an actual roadway bridge across the Jones Falls Expressway (I-83) between the Poly-Western High School campus, the Stump Dump and Cold Spring Lane. The "higher power" is that would then connect to the Roland Park community, east of Falls Road (Route 25). This will give them a sense of ownership and commitment to create a positive fate for the Stump Dump.

How much or how little traffic the new bridge carries is a secondary issue. Access and exposure are the keys.

The most basic issue is whether the new bridge should accommodate cars, or should be for pedestrians and bikes only. Designing a bridge for all people and vehicles would actually be easier because it would not limit future land use possibilities. The bridge approaches would be a trunk for any connections - a major or minor future gateway to Cylburn Park supported by any kind of compatible new development.

A pedestrian-only bridge would be less expensive, but would not be perceived as having nearly as strong linkages, so some of those linkages would need to be addressed immediately instead of later. It would also not be as safe for pedestrians and bikes without surveillance from occasional auto traffic. The least expensive and least secure pedestrian bridge option could go underneath the expressway, sharing the same underpass as the Jones Falls itself. So that's another option. An example of this kind of design is the underpass between the Mount Washington light rail station and the Whole Foods supermarket on the other side of the expressway. The paradox is that the most conflict-free environment for pedestrians and bikes is not the one with the best linkages.

The ideal goal would be for the new bridge to feed the Jones Falls Trail, and this could be done in a very attractive manner along the bank of the Jones Falls and under the Cold Spring Lane overpass (see photo below). But this is very hidden and isolated. Would this be where Poly-Western students go to smoke cigarettes - tobacco or the newly legalized "medicinal" kind or some kind of worse activity?

The Jones Falls - looking south between the Stump Dump and Cold Spring Lane (overpass in the background).
This hidden area would be a lovely place for a path between the Jones Falls Trail,
under Cold Spring Lane, to the new bridge to Poly-Western High School and Roland Park.

This is in stark contrast to the conflicts between pedestrians and traffic on Cold Spring Lane itself at its interchange with the expressway, which has exactly the opposite kind of safety problem - far too much traffic, not too little. Cold Spring Lane attracts very heavy traffic from all over the city which also dissipates any sense of local ownership or control. The current path along this interchange from the light rail station to Poly-Western is very dangerous for pedestrians trying to negotiate the ramps and intersections, most notably for the Poly-Western students, who are among the city's best and brightest.

The best location for a new bridge is as an extension of the roadway that already dissects the large high school campus and then extends east across Falls Road into Roland Park on Hillside Road, creating the best possible physical linkage.

The proposed bridge over the expressway (I-83) between Poly-Western High School (east, right)
and Cold Spring Lane (lower left). The Stump Dump is at the left top (north)
with a Vinegar Plant nestled between the Jones Falls and the expressway interchange.
The existing light rail station is at the bottom (in blue) and a proposed relocation is at the top.

Many possible subsequent steps

Of course, there should be a much larger plan for how to integrate the new bridge into the surrounding area. Here are some elements which could be incorporated into such a plan:

1. Move the Cold Spring light rail station northward adjacent to the new bridge

The existing station is in a terrible location down in a gully and as previously noted, is very dangerous for pedestrians (e.g. students) to and from Cold Spring Lane. A relocated station would also create far better, safer and more direct access for all the surrounding communities, most notably Roland Park, Cross Keys and Coldspring New Town. In fact, the station was originally intended to be located there, but cost overruns and budget cuts on the entire rail line killed it.

2. Expand the Poly-Western campus to include more citywide education-related facilities

While it is already one of the city's premiere "magnet" high schools and a "go-to" facility for other education-related functions for the city as a whole, there is great potential to do more, including more partnerships with the private and nonprofit sectors to bring education and training into the "real world". The modern buzzword is to create an "anchor institution" for the surrounding area. As is, Poly-Western's campus still resembles a self-enclosed suburban design like a 1960s shopping mall with its ring-road. There is tremendous potential to change that.

The hidden Jones Falls looking north from the proposed bridge toward Cross Keys (high-rise in the upper right).
Cylburn Park is in the upper left (west), just beyond the light rail line and the expressway. The school campus area
to the right (east) of the stream could make a great linkage between the new bridge and Cross Keys. 

3. Open up the Cross Keys neighborhood

Like Poly-Western, Cross Keys just to the north was developed in the 1960s as a self-enclosed community, even including "gates" to give it an exclusive auto-oriented aura. This kind of design is now totally obsolete and prevents Cross Keys from reaching out to the city as a whole which a mixed-use community needs to do, especially with its major retail component. Integrating the north side of Poly with the south edge of Cross Keys would create new facets for both, and also link Cross Keys to the new community bridge to the light rail line. The now neglected Jones Falls (see above photo) would be an ideal spine for this connection.

Falls Road looking north toward Cross Keys (upper left) with the Baltimore Country Club property
in the Roland Park neighborhood to the right. Developing this portion of the property would integrate Falls Road
with Roland Park and enable the rest of the site to remain as open green space.

4. Transform Falls Road into an integral part of Roland Park

There's no reason why Falls Road can't feel like part of the Roland Park community too, instead of just another auto artery. With the enhancements to Poly-Western, Cross Keys and the new West Roland Park bridge, Falls Road could function like its part of the center of Roland Park, not off on its west edge. These improvements would also create a more intimate scale to increase Falls Road's orientation to pedestrians. This could also lead to a solution to the long development controversy between the Baltimore Country Club and the community (see my blog from way back in 2008). The Country Club could be encouraged to develop a narrow strip of their property adjacent to Falls Road, with sufficient quality and density to make it feasible for them to leave the rest of their property as open green space, as the surrounding Roland Park community has long insisted.

5. Create a new east gateway to Cylburn Park

Huge Cylburn Park currently turns its back on Roland Park and everything else to the west. That's like Sherwood Gardens turning its back on Guilford (unthinkable !!!) The ultimate goal in getting rid of the Stump Dump would be to create a new entrance to Cylburn that would link it to all that's gracious and classy - and then the rest of us Baltimorons could tag along too !!!

6. Link all of this to the Jones Falls Trail and Cold Spring New Town

The original 1970s plan for Cold Spring New Town was intended to include the entire Stump Dump area, along a roadway alignment that was already partially graded along the Jones Falls Trail which was finally built just a few years ago. A new plan could be devised to do something similar between the Jones Falls Trail and the new bridge to Poly and Roland Park, although due to the steep topography, it would probably be best to make this linkage for pedestrians and bikes only.

7. Create transit-oriented development

Among the various area sites for transit-oriented development, the best is probably adjacent to the existing light rail station south of Cold Spring Lane, rather than the proposed station relocation. However, as has been the experience elsewhere in Baltimore (State Center, Westport, Howard Street), rail transit has been an insufficient inducement to promote new development. All the other new linkages and area plans discussed above would likely be a much stronger inducement.

The bottom line is that the new linkages would enable developers and real estate agents to call this area "West Roland Park" - a name that could be worth millions. As a small example, the Fleischmann's Vinegar plant hidden away in the stream gully, which features some great old architecture, could be rebranded as something like "Ye Olde Craft Boutique Vinegar Works".

It all begins with building a bridge

Each of these concepts would add value to the others, creating collective momentum to do all of them. After a while, even the Baltimore City government could not resist the elimination of the Stump Dump in favor of more attractive and compatible uses.

Ultimately, the greatest inducement would probably be the ability to create a new gateway to Cylburn Park where the Stump Dump is now, with the best payoff being the ability to call Cylburn Park a part of Roland Park. When arguing against the development of the Baltimore Country Club site, Roland Park residents have raised the point that there is currently no park at all in Roland Park. Claiming Cylburn Park as part of Roland Park may be the biggest prize of all.

And it all begins with building a bridge.