May 16, 2017

New bi-level Pimlico: Racetrack-infield-neighborhoods

Here's a plan to fix Pimlico Racetrack by turning part of it inside-out, thus transforming the teetering  home of the Preakness into something that has never been seen before - while preserving everything that makes the track a historic legend.

The racetrack's biggest complaint is that it's located in a bad neighborhood. This is wrong, but it's a major perceptual problem that could nevertheless lead to its demise.

Lush lovely Ken Oak Road looking west toward Pimlico Road in Mount Washington, only a block north of the racetrack.
The large attractive houses are set back so far from the street trees that you have to look hard to see them.

The solution is to rebuild the existing track as proposed by the Maryland Stadium Authority, but with one key difference: Simply lower the a wide prominent portion at the north end so that it goes under the track and integrates the infield with the rest of the site to the east and west. The vast infield area, which is now connected only through a narrow dank tunnel, would then become a central focus of the entire racetrack site.

The new orientation and grading would mean the infield would no longer feel like an afterthought. Instead, it would be a highlight - just as it already is for the hundred thousand patrons who attend its party once a year on Preakness Day. The infield and its lower corridor connections would then be integral parts of the expansion of Pimlico into a full-time, multi-use activity center for the community, the city and the region - with horse racing as its theme and motif - as recommended in this previous blog post.

Here's the most audacious idea: Relocate Northern Parkway so that it runs through this below-grade corridor underneath the racetrack. Everyone driving on Northern Parkway every day would get the Pimlico experience. And the traffic flow would instill life and movement to the track even on days when there are no events.

Now here's the best part: With Northern Parkway relocated below-grade, it would no longer be a major barrier between the racetrack and the Mount Washington neighborhood to the north. While the most often cited criticism of Pimlico is about its surrounding neighborhoods, this really refers to the lower income Park Heights neighborhood to the south. What is seldom mentioned is that Mount Washington to the north is actually one of Baltimore's highest income neighborhoods.

This distorted narrative actually suits a narrow agenda of some who desire the racetrack to remain a barrier between the two disparate neighborhoods. But it's very harmful to the larger interests of the city and region as a whole. The common view in both neighborhoods that Pimlico must succeed in order for the surrounding areas to succeed. The only real alternative is to close down the racetrack and turn it into an empty development site and a blank slate. That's a can of worms and pitfalls that no one has ever been able to address. What would replace the racetrack?

Bi-level Pimlico Plan: The blue line is the realignment of Northern Parkway between Key Ave (left, west) and
Preakness Way (right, east). The yellow land areas would be excavated in a tapered manner to create a wide corridor
to and through the racetrack infield (center). Mt. Washington is the neighborhood to the north (top).

Conceptual possibilities

Since the Maryland Stadium Authority is currently studying rebuilding the racetrack virtually from the ground-up, going below the ground would not add significantly to the disruption or even the cost. There are many conceptual possibilities, but here's one way a bi-level Pimlico could be designed.

The re-grading would roughly encompass the area between existing Northern Parkway and the north circle of the racetrack oval inside and outside the infield. The track itself would remain just where it is now.

Northern Parkway would be lowered and shifted southward between about Key Avenue to the west and Preakness Way to the east.

The re-grading would be tapered gradually in most places, to create an airy, open, accessible environment. Existing Northern Parkway would remain in place as a local street for the Mount Washington neighborhood, but with far less traffic. The digging would be deeper to the west because the land is flat. Northern Parkway is on a hill to the east.

The "tunnel" under the racetrack which would connect both sides to and through the infield would be as wide as necessary so that it can be designed to not feel like a tunnel at all. The northern edge of this tunnel would contain the relocated Northern Parkway, which would be narrowed from six lanes and a median strip down to four lanes (44 feet) or perhaps only two lanes if enough traffic still uses the existing upper Northern Parkway, including all traffic that wants to access the neighborhoods and the racetrack site.

Designers would no doubt rise to the challenge to make the grade changes as interesting as possible. The taper in the infield could contain a stage for performance events during the Preakness and the rest of the year. The taper next to the main grandstand west of the infield could be integrated into a new below-ground concourse to serve race patrons.

With the diversion of the heavy Northern Parkway through traffic into the tunnel and away from the neighborhood, the interface between the racetrack and Mount Washington neighborhood would have an entirely new feel. Without the heavy thru traffic, existing Northern Parkway could be made to feel similar to the slow elegant parkways inside the neighborhood, like Ken Oak Road (pictured above) and Cross Country Boulevard. On the south side of the street, the racetrack or its multiple new uses could be oriented to feel like they are directly associated with upper-crust Mount Washington, reinforcing the image of horse racing as "the sport of kings".

Since the established boundary of Mount Washington is in fact Northern Parkway, the neighborhood would essentially be expanded by a block to the south of the existing roadway, and the new development on this land would be Mount Washington development.

This design would also enable the Park Heights neighborhood to the south to be integrated as well, with a gradual transition northward to Mount Washington instead of the current abrupt border feeling. Like in Mount Washington, the racetrack plan would essentially expand the Park Heights neighborhood toward the racetrack, especially near the central intersection of Park Heights and Belvedere Avenues. Unlike in Mount Washington, however, pretty much all previous racetrack plans called for this change. However, until now, there was never a strong enough justification to actually do it.

Most importantly, the racetrack needs to be reinvented as a year-round attraction. All the raw material to accomplish this is there, most notably the rich historic legacy and the eager host neighborhoods where life already happens every day.

The current Pimlico planning process is the city's last best chance to do it right.

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