May 2, 2017

North Av/Reservoir Hill riot redux: Don't blow it again!

On North Avenue, less than a mile east of the center of the 2015 riots, the redevelopment that happened after the 1968 riots has just been knocked down so it can be redeveloped yet again.

The 1970s Madison Park North development was notoriously nicknamed "Murder Mall" for its chronic crime. It was arguably the most awful new design anywhere in Baltimore in the past 50 years - a bad shotgun wedding of urban and suburban style elements. While the rest of the Reservoir Hill neighborhood has since recovered well, if slowly, the only recourse remaining for Murder Mall was its recent demolition.

Beautiful Bolton Street in Reservoir Hill, looking south directly at the rear of the last remaining structure in Murder Mall. 

In fact, the stately century-old rowhouses on adjacent Bolton Street just north of the site in Reservoir Hill, once largely in shambles, now look just about as well preserved as its mirror image blocks to the south in "blue-blood" Bolton Hill, which have been almost continuously prosperous since the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, despite Reservoir Hill's recent success and the fact that the 2015 riots missed this area, it's all-too-easy to envision the same mistakes being made again in the new redevelopment. But the one clear tool to making the plan work may be to redesign this portion of North Avenue itself, which now acts as a formidable geographic barrier between the old-guard Bolton Hill and newly-emerging Reservoir Hill neighborhoods.

The Murder Mall demolition site, looking east. Reservoir Hill is to the left (Lennox Street)
and in the background (Park Avenue). The site's lone remaining structure is to the right.

Redevelopment as it looks so far

The fate of Murder Mall demonstrates the ruinous power of bad design. And it's not just high rise low income "projects" that become doomed. Innocuous low-rise "mixed use" (often seen as a panacea) development such as this can be doomed too, if the design is bad enough.

I won't enumerate the crime history or all the design sins of Murder Mall. It's pretty much gone now. This isn't a design blog anyway. It's a planning blog, so it's time to look toward the future, not the past, as Mayor Pugh would say.

And there are a lot of intelligent people with an interest in the Murder Mall redevelopment project, either as hired professionals, nearby residents, stakeholders or interested bystanders. So I'll let them do their thing and see what they kind of design come up with.

But for some reason, I'm nervous. So far, the posted website is just about a total blank. It doesn't even say whose website it is. It only asks you to tell them your email address, just like any two-bit internet hustler. This is a bad sign.

On the other hand, the website's only picture is of those beautiful rowhouses nearby - an effective attempt at tacit reassurance that they know what an asset the existing neighborhoods are to the project, and that they will hopefully try to compliment them in the new design.

But there's also a rendering of a redevelopment scenario posted in various other places, which looks like a high budget glass version of Murder Mall, defying anyone to break the glass and start another riot. This glass style reminiscent of "star-chitect" Mies van der Rohe was fashionable at the same time in the 1960s when the ghetto bunker-style Murder Mall was built. Can't we get out of that era? Oops, newer post-modern architecture is often not relevant either.

Madison Park North Redevelopment Will 'Create Something Transformative For West Baltimore'
The first rendering of the Murder Mall redevelopment stands out with 1960s modern international-style architecture,
but with a similar "superblock" layout and North Avenue essentially unchanged in the foreground.

Contradicting all that, the largest building in Murder Mall has not yet been demolished. With everything else gone, this building just sticks out and would block any reconnection of the single remaining block of Bolton Street in Reservoir Hill. Keeping this building is the main thing that prevents the site's reintegration with the communities and creates a "superblock" fortress environment that was one of the primary reasons Murder Mall was such a disaster in the first place.

But that remaining building is a usable shell for a new supermarket, which seems to be what the surrounding communities want most, even though it is the land use with the most suburban roots. A supermarket is what debates over the nearby State Center project have talked about most, even though its really big issues are the massive guaranteed state government rent payments and the need for transit-oriented development.

On the plus side, the rendering suggests that such a supermarket would be integrated creatively if it was to be included in the project, rather than just occupying the same old failed building. The rendering's architecture also suggests an emphasis on uses other than residential - meaning retail and jobs, the two things needed most. There's already plenty of residential in the surrounding areas.

On the minus side, the rendering also shows existing North Avenue retained in pretty much the same oppressively wide suburban way as it was rebuilt after the 1960s riots. Mixing urban and suburban style environments is a strategy fraught with pitfalls. That might be the largest lesson to be learned by the failure of Murder Mall.

That also describes the pitfalls of the redevelopment process. Recreating suburbia won't work, but suburban models are what are most successful... in suburbia. People just want a supermarket, rather than getting hung up in issues like architectural styles, urban versus suburban, and superblocks versus grids.

Bottom Line: Blending in

The simplest way to express the lesson which must be learned is this: The project needs to blend into the beautiful successful neighborhoods to the south and north - Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill. Because of the surrounding neighborhoods' success, failure here would be all the more spectacular - unlike Old Town where the post-riot design was pretty decent in its own way but the surroundings kept it from working anyway.

Bolton Hill probably won't or can't be changed. They've already solidified their outer edge along North Avenue to turn inward. There's virtually no access to anything in Bolton Hill along the entire North Avenue border, except the intersection at Park Avenue (there always seems to be a "token"). It would be great to change that, but there are no "soft" properties where it could readily be done.

Of course, the Reservoir Hill neighborhood to the north also has its own internal agenda. It's a wonderfully diverse neighborhood that has accomplished much and needs to get along with each other to come up with some kind of united front for the project. The city needs to respect that.

That leaves North Avenue itself as the most likely instrument of change, because it's nobody's turf. Right now, it's nearly 100 feet wide adjacent to the site, even though much of it elsewhere is only 60 feet wide, and the two lanes in each direction which traffic ostensibly needs would only require 40 to 44 feet. That leaves a lot of leeway. On-street parking is also of little use here, unless the new development is designed for it.

Since the south (Bolton Hill) side of the street is likely already a "hard" impenetrable barrier, probably the best thing to do is to push all four lanes of through traffic to the south side. That would free up the north half (or more) of the roadway to be used to compliment the design of the redevelopment project. The most common and most urban way to do this is by designing a "service drive" to make the adjacent portion of North Avenue into a slow moving local street, rather than a main east-west artery.

Murder Mall before it was demolished, with suburban style housing
situated amid open nooks and crannies where crime happened.
This "superblock" is bounded by North Avenue to the south, Park Ave. to the east, Lennox Street to the north
and Linden Avenue to the west. Bolton Hill is south of North Avenue and Reservoir Hill is to the north

Another more all-encompassing possible element would be to construct one or more roundabouts at key locations along North Avenue, such as Park Avenue (shown), Linden Avenue (at the southwest corner of the site) and Eutaw Place (further west). Roundabouts have the unique ability to interrupt major thoroughfares in a way that focuses attention on the local "place" instead of on an entire corridor, which can reinforce the barrier aspect. Roundabouts could also effectively sort out the conflicts of traffic turning into and out of the service drive.

A proposed North Avenue streetcar line, as has been discussed lately, but that would do exactly the opposite, so it's hard to see how that would be a successful catalyst for change.

Possible roundabout at North and Park Avenues. Development site is in the upper left corner.
West of the roundabout, North Avenue would be split with both directions of through traffic south of the median
and a local service drive north of the median.

In sum, the Murder Mall superblock was a product of the demolition frenzy of the early 1970s that also included the widening of North Avenue to make it even more of a barrier between Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill than it was before, and even though urbanist Jane Jacobs explained a decade earlier the diametrically right way to do it and avoid border vacuums that breed crime.

The new development needs to unify communities, but this may be as difficult to do in the current age as it was in the riot-torn 1960s. Changing the design of North Avenue may be the one effective action in "neutral territory" that everyone can agree on to bring people together.


  1. How does this proposal fit with the North Avenue Rising plan? This is already in the works and funded, and it looks like the only change will be a designated bus lane. I agree the site needs to be physically connected to Bolton Hill, and Park Avenue seems the only entry point, so it would also make sense to recreate the grid within the Madison Park North site. Is there anything in the plan about reopening Bolton Street between Lennox and North Ave?

    1. I totally share your concerns, Tim. The short answer is there is no real plan yet for Madison Park North (aka Murder Mall), unless it's being kept a secret from folks like us. But Madison Park North will be a huge development, so it makes no sense for anything in "North Avenue Rising" (a proposed collection of bus stop improvements, bus and bike lanes, etc.) to be done in a vacuum that doesn't consider the needs of such a huge project. That would be putting the cart before the horse.

      If some kind of big proposal comes up for Madison Park North (say, a supermarket and/or new state government building to placate the cancellation of the State Center plan) that's when the real planning will begin.

  2. As a resident of Reservoir Hill, I appreciate the thoughtfulness put into this article. However, I resent the repetitive use of "Murder Mall." Does this slur have to be used in place of the location's real name? It's almost like calling a Baltimore (repeatedly) "Bodymore, Murdaland". As a resident of Baltimore, I certainly would not want someone calling my city that over and over again, especially by someone who once worked for the Dept. of Planning.
    Moving on. The location, once known as the "Madison Park North Apartments", has been bought by a local developer (David Bramble) and there are community conversations happening, organized by the "Neighborhood Coalition for MPN Redevelopment". If you care to know what is going or would like to be involved past being a blogger, email: or check out their shared Google Drive:

    1. Also, your use of the "Murder Mall" epithet was used 15 times compared to the location's name of "Madison Park North development". I am sure there is a way to go back & replace 14 out of 15 uses of the epithet with the complex's real name.

    2. I'm sorry. I should have shown a little love for a community that had to put up with that awful place all those years. I thought it would be enough that it has finally been destroyed and that "Murder Mall" is a name that has now been pushed back to the dark pages of history (unlike "Bodymore Murdaland" which gets more relevant every day) but I was obviously wrong.

      I guess my defense, at least from my view, is that "Madison Park North" is also an awful name, and even worse, it's not yet in the past. The site isn't even close to Madison Avenue, so if I lived on Madison, I'd really hate being associated with it through no fault of my own.

      Here's what I would suggest: Let's come up with a really great new name for that site that looks forward, not back (to borrow Mayor Pugh's campaign slogan) and conjures what's good about the area.

      Now that you have a developer, you know they must be thinking about this.

      Here are my first suggestions: NEW BOLTON or BOLTON PARK