January 25, 2019

Fixing Preston Gardens to create a true neighborhood

Downtown has recently been touted as experiencing a transformation from just an employment and tourist destination to being a true neighborhood. But such a transformation will require much more than just a collection of new and converted residential buildings.

The basic problem was defined in an excellent Sun op-ed article on January 4, written by Bill King, President of the City Center Residents Association. In a nutshell, downtown's new residents are tending to huddle inside their luxury apartments with their on-site amenities, thus conceding the streets to the heavy traffic, squeegee kids and whatever. What downtown needs to become a true neighborhood is its own outdoor communal living room that doesn't feel like a vestige of the office population that abandons it in the evening.
Preston Garden's winding stairways are art in themselves and
the buildings frame the space in a way that is reminiscent of New York's Central Park. 

The ideal place to create such a living room would be Preston Gardens - an airy and in some ways elegant five block linear park located along downtown's the new residential spine between Light Street in the Inner Harbor, northward to the signature art deco masterpiece at Ten Light Street, and onward to St.Paul Street toward the traditional historic Mount Vernon neighborhood. Preston Gardens is probably the closest that Baltimore gets to having its own version of New York's Central Park. But the problem is that Preston Gardens simply doesn't work.

South block of Preston Gardens between Lexington and Saratoga is in no way a garden or a park.
It's a pair of triangular islands defining huge intersections that only serves to cut Preston Gardens off from downtown.

Part of Preston Gardens has even had a recent makeover, although that didn't even attempt to address any of the inherent issues that prevent it from being a successful urban space. The renovation was on the two blocks of upper St. Paul between Saratoga and Mulberry, which are isolated from the rest of the corridor and not critical to making it work as a whole. So at best, the makeover turned out to be a blown opportunity.

Preston Garden's biggest ongoing urban design disaster is its southernmost block, south of Saratoga to Lexington Street, and closest to the center of downtown. This block consists of one vast confusing intersection at Lexington, some head-in parking, and two isolated triangular traffic islands. The two triangles are "green space" that's supposed to be parkland, but they are almost impossible to get to, and they're so barren that there's no reason to go there anyway.

Since this is block that's closest to most of downtown, it serves as an extremely uninviting gateway that destroys the accessibility and tone of the entire five block park which extends to the north.

This triangular island is the isolated and extremely uninviting gateway to Preston Gardens from the heart of downtown.
It needs to be enlarged so that its slopes can be resolved in creative ways to provide access pedestrian access
 across the streets and to the upper and lower sections beyond to the north.

The solution

Proposed realignment of the intersection of Upper and Lower
 St. Paul and Lexington Streets to create a larger, usable and
 more accessible park space at the south gateway to Preston
Gardens. Potential crosswalks are shown by the red lines.

To key to making this southernmost block of Preston Gardens work is to shift the eastern leg of Lexington Street northward to create a reasonably compact and conventional intersection that pedestrians can actually cross safely.

This would then allow the triangular island which extends northward to Saratoga Street to be widened so that it can become useful parkland.

The slope of this triangle will provide both a challenge and an opportunity for its design as parkland. It needs to provide paths for users to both the upper and lower sections of Preston Gardens, thus creating a unifying whole. This is the only place in the five block park where this can be done.

As park users traverse between this area and the north, they should be able to use the grade change to comfortably choose whether they want to be in the upper or lower area. This would also be facilitated if Saratoga Street can be closed within the park, making it a seamless experience. This depends on resolving traffic circulation issues.

Parking also needs to be addressed. It should not be allowed in places where it encroaches on the available parkland, but there are also places where it is currently banned but could be allowed to create a buffer between the park and the moving traffic.

Traffic Patterns

Traffic volumes in this area seem to be subjectively very high, but this is more a function of the conflicts between the various traffic streams than their actual numbers. The cross street, Lexington (in the lower middle of the graphic above), actually has a very low traffic volume, but since it intersects St. Paul right at the spot where its upper and lower roadways converge, the impact of the conflicts is much greater than the volumes would indicate.

A traffic study would be necessary to determine exactly how to accommodate traffic in a way that enables the Preston Gardens parkland to actually serve users and pedestrians, but the key requirement is to resolve the separation of the two legs of Lexington Street to the west and east sides of St. Paul Street from each other.

The west leg of Lexington needs to be to be taken out of the St. Paul intersection altogether, greatly simplifying and consolidating its operation. This should be do-able because Lexington to the west consists of only a single block to Charles Street, and doesn't exist in Charles Center beyond that. So there is no actual thru traffic. Options would be to make Lexington one-way westbound, or to require eastbound traffic to make a mandatory right turn onto southbound St. Paul.

The next issue is what to do with Saratoga Street (near the top of the graphic at right). Its traffic volume is also rather low. The largest cross street volume is probably the eastbound (left to right) zig-zag movement from Saratoga to Lexington, which would be accommodated far better in the proposed relocated and consolidated Lexington intersection. The other Saratoga Street movements can be addressed on a case by case basis. Most of Saratoga east of Charles was once one-way eastbound, with westbound movements added through later tweaks, so there is flexibility.

But the most important traffic issue is accommodating pedestrians. The steep topography in this area would be best resolved by closing this small portion of Saratoga altogether, and diverting this traffic elsewhere.

Creating an Inner Harbor to Mount Vernon Greenway

The goal of urban design for Preston Gardens should be to make it an integral part of the corridor that extends all the way from the Inner Harbor, the city's anchor and premiere attraction, to Mount Vernon, the city's most classic traditional downtown neighborhood. This will enable downtown to take its new place as a full fledged residential neighborhood in its own right.

Preston Garden's pedestrian pathway just ends when it gets to the underpass under the Orleans Street Viaduct,
an absurd arrangement that has been allowed to exist for over 80 years. There is plenty of room
 to extend the sidewalk inside the underpass because there is no need for four traffic lanes.

Besides the problems discussed above at the southern end of Preston Gardens, there is also a serious problem at the north end, caused by the imposition of the Orleans Street Viaduct built over eighty years ago. The viaduct was just plopped over Preston Gardens, cutting off its pedestrian paths. But it is a relatively simple matter to restore these connections and narrow the St. Paul underpass and improve its lighting to accommodate pedestrian spaces.

Extremely spacious brand new sidewalk on Light Street half-way between Preston Gardens and the Inner Harbor.
The art deco Ten Light Street apartments are just across the street at the extreme right (with the red banner).
 Looking south is the very slender high rise Questar Tower in the Inner Harbor background. 

Urban design is more of an art than an applied science, so it is beyond the scope of this technical approach. But clearly among the main strategies is to think comprehensively, rather than on a place-by-place basis. Traffic planners can help design the necessary physical linkages, and the urban designers can then provide design themes and create uniform motifs for things like sidewalk materials, benches and other street furniture and hotel drop-off areas.

In contrast, the city's recent impetuous demolition of the McKeldin Fountain demonstrates the "destroy first, plan later" approach. The huge fountain and its appurtenances were demolished because a few people didn't like it, even though its original purpose (if not its execution) were exactly what was needed - creating a large physical attraction to attract attention beyond the harbor itself. Most recently, the new urban space which replaced the McKeldin Fountain has been used as a snow dumping area, a fenced junk storage area, and an impromptu parking area for a lucky few privileged parkers.

In any event, the surviving McKeldin Park still provides an opportunity to create a successful urban park space suitable for the new downtown residents, as opposed to tourists, taking advantage of opportunities to fix the traffic patterns on Light Street and narrow its street widths.

Above is my concept for the Inner Harbor portion of the greenway, separating the high volume Light-to-Conway connection from the Light Street thru traffic, described in blog posts here and here. This greenway would be separate from the Inner Harbor in order to have its own personality, linked more to the nearby residential communities, including the new Questar Tower, Harbor Court, Otterbein and South Baltimore.

In his Sun article, Mr. King cites Harbor East as the model for creating a viable neighborhood in the central core of downtown. But each neighborhood needs to have its own distinct personality, and not be merely an imitation. People want to live in downtown Baltimore because it is unique and has historic character and architecture that Harbor East does not have. The city simply needs to take advantage of it.

This is my 200th post on Baltimore InnerSpace - whew - 
Here's what I said about Preston Gardens way back in January 2007.
    (not all that much different)


  1. Congrats on 200 posts!

    I've heard that DOT vetoed a bunch of the changes to Preston Gardens that were included in the Open Space Plan, and that repairing the retaining wall was very expensive and sucked up a bunch of the funds. Their design and your 2007 post were not much different.

    1. Thanks on all counts! I did notice the changes to Upper St. Paul from the 2010 Mahan-Rykiel Downtown Open Space Plan, most notably that the median separating northbound movement had been eliminated from that plan in 2010 - https://www.godowntownbaltimore.com/docs/openspaceplan.pdf

      but was reinstated in the project as actually built, designed by Floura Teeter -

      It's also interesting that Floura Teeter quoted the project's price as $3.4 Million, but the actual cost turned out to be well over $6 Million. Merely retaining the median wouldn't seem to be that expensive. Also, the whole urban design looks to me to be cheap and haphazard, with a poor resolution of the slight grades between the street and the sidewalks, so it would have to be something else driving the cost as you've reported.

      I decided not to delve into any of this simply because of my assertion that this is not the critical part of Preston Gardens, which is still the wasteland to the south between Saratoga and Lexington. So 12 years later, we're still at Square One on that.

  2. Interesting. I never thought about the potential for a park corridor along Light/St Paul Street from around E Hughes St up to E Centre St. By my math, that covers 1.1 miles or 16 blocks, 10–11 blocks of which would have park space, depending on how the roads are rearranged around Preston Gardens Park. That would expand the amount of parkland by up to 7 blocks!

    I completely agree that the south block of Preston Gardens Park is wasted. It's a glorified median at best. And the layout isn't even benefiting drivers much, anyway. Last night, I turned left from E Pleasant St onto St Paul. It is not very intuitive at night that St Paul curves to the right as it splits between the park. I was not familiar with this particular route, so it did throw me off a bit. I will credit for Baltimore at least having signs on the traffic signal pole indicating a slight right. I've learned that Baltimore lacks very important signage at certain intersections. I plan to write to Baltimore at https://balt311.baltimorecity.gov/citizen/servicetypes in the spring about those issues, after reports regarding snow are done interfering.

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