May 22, 2017

'Stable' Pimlico neighborhood for a one-horse town

Sports are traditionally an important way to transcend the black-white racial divide, but at Pimlico racetrack, the city needs to take a big step beyond that. The Preakness race is great, but that's only once a year, beyond which "race" has other highly charged meanings. Pimlico needs a full-time solution - a neighborhood that lets us step out of ourselves.

Could the Pimlico racetrack neighborhood look like this? (Horse-drawn rides are always popular.)

The city that revolutionized baseball at Camden Yards now needs an even more radical change involving the way people see horse racing at Pimlico. Historic Pimlico racetrack is already Camden Yards, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field rolled up in one. Now it's a matter of recreating a feeling that transcends history, that elevates us inside and outside the racetrack.

The geography of change

Pimlico's surrounding geography can fully cooperate. Much has been made of the contrast between white affluent Mount Washington neighborhood to the north and black lower income Park Heights to the south. But physically, the racetrack itself creates an east-west split, not a north-south split. Both the east and west sides of the track include sections of both Mount Washington and Park Heights, but the east side also includes the Levindale neighborhood just to the south, which is one of the most stable attractive sections of Park Heights, along with the large Lifebridge Health complex of the Sinai and Levindale Hospitals.

Distinctive and attractive genuine stone houses on Laurel Avenue in the Levindale section of Park Heights,
two blocks south of the racetrack property.

The track is physically hemmed in by two east-west arteries, major Northern Parkway and minor Belvedere Avenue, but not by north-south streets. The east-west divide could be dealt with by a wide attractive tunnel under the track linking the infield, which could also address Northern Parkway. Belvedere is narrow enough to pose no problem. Back in the 1970s, Pimlico Road was closed through the racetrack site and replaced with Preakness Way farther east. There is nothing permanent about this, however, and there is flexibility to reconfigure the street system to integrate the track with its surroundings.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards taught much about this in the 1990s. The adjacent Ridgely's Delight and Otterbein neighborhoods see Camden Yards as a unique asset. Parking can be taken care of with residential permits, although for an annual event as huge as the Preakness, the neighborhoods participate fully as resident hosts, embracing rather than shunning their outside guests. Parking can be managed. It is absurd for economic development "experts" to use parking as a primary criterion for urban vs. suburban racetrack comparisons.

And building luxury suites? They're soooo 1980s. Yeah sure, if some rich guys want to shut out the crowd and encapsulate their entourages in private cocoons without participating in the action and interaction, that's fine. They even provide big screen TVs, as if recreating the feeling of a club basement "man cave" is the goal. But luxury suites have nothing to do with the overall experience at Pimlico, Laurel racetrack or anyplace else - not even at allegedly "state of the art" Churchill Downs or Jerry Jones' Dallas football palace. They're an irrelevant oxymoron that's just hanging on like "Reality TV".

The time is over when suburban places like Laurel are seen as the solution to urban problems. So when will we learn? Back when horses rather than cars were dominant in cities, pollution was just the mundane stuff on the street you accidentally stepped in. And a "stable neighborhood" referred to the horse houses behind where the wealthy lived.

But now in ironic postmodern times, it may be possible to create a lucrative niche real estate market where the romantic equestrian clippety-clop is a common sight and sound in front of your house. Such things have already happened in rural communities. So as often happens, cities are the final frontier. And where better to do it than as a backdrop to the Home of the Preakness, second jewel of thoroughbred racing's triple crown?

Image result for urban horse riding
Here's what a horse neighborhood could look like. Imagine this as a Pimlico backdrop.

South Mount Washington: Putting the horse before the cart (or car)

So here's the concept: Create a new kind of neighborhood just east of the racetrack that would be physically integrated with both Mount Washington to the north and Park Heights to the south, but with a totally unique environment.

While much is made of black vs. white, here horses would be #1 and humans would be #2, regardless of breed. Everything would be optimized for horses, so all the issues of animal rights activists would be addressed. The mundane ramshackle horse stables that currently flank the racetrack periphery would be replaced with stables of suitable grandeur. Horse-people would then live above them, just as they did in the 19th century.

Street surfaces would be horse friendly. Traffic speeds would be governed by the horses, just as they are by the culture in Amish country.

This could be a "gated community" for the purposes of keeping the horses inside, rather than with any of the usual exclusionary connotations. Well designed entrance gates would also actually become an attraction of their own, since they would be the focal point at which the neighborhood reaches out to its surroundings. Additional suitable security measures to protect valuable thoroughbreds would also be implemented. (In horse culture, it's not yet politically incorrect to say "well-bred".)

Looking south toward the dense wooded periphery of the racetrack site just east of Preakness Way (seen to the right).
This woodland would be ideal for a "bridle path" to ride horses eastward to Cylburn Park.

Pimlico Road should be reopened in some form to provide the greatest integration with the racetrack and the surrounding communities. A strong neighborhood interface with the Lifebridge Health complex should also be created, including common use of its attractive densely wooded green spaces, which should be expanded by replacing some of its parking lots with structured parking. A bucolic "bridle path" through this area, eastward to Cylburn Park, would also be a great addition.

Proposed South Mount Washington "horse neighborhood". Existing rows of stables
are to the left, adjacent to the racetrack. Proposed "bridle path" is shown in orange,
from  Preakness Way east to Cylburn Park, just north of the Levindale Health Center.
The Mount Washington neighborhood is to the upper right. Park Heights neighborhood is to the bottom. 

The name of this new equestrian neighborhood should be decided by the real estate experts, but "South Mount Washington" might be appropriate because it already lends cachet and value (cache?cash, eh?) as the identity of one of the city's most rustically attractive neighborhoods. (No offense, Park Heights, you benefit as well.)

The area's new 21st century amenities, geared to larger crowds of jobs and visitors with more general purposes, would be focused on the area west of the racetrack, north of the intersection of Park Heights and Belvedere Avenues.

Living in South Mount Washington would not be for everyone. It would be for horse people. But urban living in general is already increasingly a niche market as suburbs dominate demographics. Economic development also calls for far different measures in different places, like Pimlico and its suburban rival in Laurel. Just as Pimlico's Preakness is unique as the middle jewel of the triple crown, there would be only one South Mount Washington neighborhood.

Image result for urban horse riding
Horses from the Pimlico horse neighborhood could serve as ambassadors to the surrounding neighborhoods.
This may also create a viable and acceptable way to resurrect the "A-Rab" produce carts.

It would spread some of that Preakness feeling over the other 364 days a year, although people probably wouldn't wear those crazy Preakness fashions every day. By celebrating horses, both at Pimlico and its surroundings, we would all get beyond ourselves to celebrate, strengthen and revitalize life as a whole.


  1. I went to Saratoga Springs for the first time 6 years ago. I had a great time, but all I could think about was why wasn't Pimilico like that. Half the people are picnicking outside of the grandstands, placing bets and watching the races without even going up to the track. The horses were paraded through the area on the way to the paddock. Everything was about the atmosphere, more so than the racing alone.

    When you look at Pimilico's footprint there is so much surface parking that isn't really needed year round. Structured parking for the hospital and Pimilico would satisfy demand for all but one weekend a year. Then all those surface lots could be turned into grass fields or lightly wooded meadows, and they would still be available for parking for Preakness weekend. Like you expand on, there could be this unique bucolic setting within the city that could be really great.

    1. Thanks, you've summed it up simply for anyone who thinks my ideas are too far off the wall - just make it nice, with an emphasis on the horses. The setting already has a lot going for it. It's just gotten crapped up.

      The only caveat is that also applies to Laurel, which has more in common with Saratoga in upstate New York than it does with Pimlico, which is unique!

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