In the last couple of posts we looked at solutions for at-grade border vacuums, so now let's move on to sunken border vacuums, like highway and railroad ditches! Over the coming months we'll examine solutions for other kinds of border vacuums and see if they could apply to Baltimore.
|The vicinity of Penn Station in 1917.|
During the Industrial Revolution many cities discovered that the railroad was a mixed blessing: although they brought overall prosperity, railroad tracks tended to form downtrodden “Chinese Walls” wherever they passed through cities. If land was scarce and “air rights” valuable, it was possible to tunnel or deck over railroad tracks. But for the most part, and unlike many of their European counterparts, many American cities never really bothered to confront the border vacuums that railroad tracks caused – the phrase “the other side of the tracks” is arguably a lasting relic of our failure to address the vacuum effect of the railroad track. Unfortunately a century later this scenario would only repeat itself when highways were rammed through urban neighborhoods.
|Who would want to walk here unless they had no choice?|
Existing ditches can be covered with concrete caps (aka decks, lids, platforms, covers, etc.), and, depending on their structure/reinforcement, the reclaimed space atop the caps can be used for buildings and/or parks.
However, extensive caps require ventilation systems, just like tunnels. And although highway and railroad caps are quite useful in places where development demand is strong and land value is high, they are still impractical in places with weak development demand. For example, it may be feasible to cap Philadelphia's Vine Street Expressway to aid the spread of revitalization northward from Center City, but it's unlikely that the Highway to Nowhere will be capped any time in the foreseeable future. After a half-century of economic depression in West Baltimore, it's now even less feasible to cap the highway as originally proposed.
Although it probably isn't economically feasible to build caps over the JFX segment from Preston to Chase Streets either, it might be possible to build them over the JFX/NEC segment from Maryland to Guilford Avenues. I think a cap might initially be viable only in the section immediately south of Penn Station (i.e. between Charles and St. Paul Streets), given the recent construction of the adjacent UB Law Center and the continued interest in infilling the parking lot to the north of the station. In time, perhaps additional adjacent caps (such as the section between St. Paul and Calvert Streets – which already has the Railway Express Building precedent – followed by the sections from Calvert to Guilford and Charles to Maryland) would become viable, further improving Station North's connection to Midtown.
BUILDING BRIDGE LINERS
If full caps aren't feasible, it may instead be possible to build bridge liners – lines of mixed-used buildings on both sides of a bridge. Bridge liners have been around for centuries, but they're a relatively rare feature in modern infrastructure projects, so I think they deserve a closer look.
|The Cap at Union Station in Columbus, OH.|
Columbus' Short North neighborhood has much in common with Station North: Both lie just to the north of their respective city's downtown (if, for the sake of argument, we lump Midtown and Mt. Vernon in with downtown, since they're seamlessly contiguous). Both neighborhoods are separated from downtown by highway/railroad corridors (but, unlike Baltimore, Columbus lost rail service in its corridor, hence their naming the Cap after a lost icon, Union Station). Both neighborhoods contain similar urban fabric – midrise apartment and commercial buildings, rowhouses, and industrial buildings. Finally, and most unfortunately, both neighborhoods sank into dereliction and street crime after WWII.
|The same overpass before the Cap was built.|
|A street-level view of the Cap.|
I think Short North-style liners could be effective (and perhaps even profitable) on the bridges that cross the JFX/NEC to connect Station North and Johnston Square to Midtown. Since the five north-south bridges (Maryland, Charles, St. Paul, Calvert, Guilford) and the three east-west bridges (Preston, Biddle, Chase) will eventually require repair or replacement, perhaps it might make sense to add liners to them when that time comes. Of course, the strategy would need to be coordinated with continued infill and adaptive reuse so there'd be a large-enough population to support the activities in the liners.
|Bridge liners could reconnect Station North and Johnston Square to Midtown.|
I think liners would extend Midtown's vibrancy across these eight bridges and finally allow meaningful, significant revitalization to spill over into Station North and Johnston Square. The adaptive reuse and infill potential of the many vacant buildings and lots in these two neighborhoods would improve dramatically as land values correspondingly increased.
DISMANTLING UNNECESSARY SUNKEN CORRIDORS
Of course, the cap and liner solutions assume that the sunken corridors in question need to remain intact. But what if they don't? The Highway to Nowhere is a case in point: it was never connected to the interstate highway system, so there's no need to maintain its current dimensions. Building caps or liners would be a waste of money: why dedicate considerable resources to covering something that can just be dismantled?
|The Baltimorphosis vision for the Highway to Nowhere.|
WHAT ABOUT LEVEL OR EMBANKMENTED CORRIDORS?
Sometimes there are railroad corridors that run either at the same level as the surrounding urban street grid or above it on solid earth embankments (i.e. not on viaducts). Is there any way to fix their border vacuums?
|A Tokyo railroad corridor doubles as a bike/pedestrian/shopping lane.|
So, for example, the section of the NEC between Broadway and Orangeville could be turned into a civic asset if an extension of the metro to Bayview and/or the upgrading of MARC service to metro-like frequencies became realities. By lining both sides of the NEC with streets that could double as bike routes and promenades, enclosing these streets with mixed-use infill, and introducing as many cross-streets as possible under the NEC (to allow for small blocks and frequent crossing), it could be turned into one of Kevin Lynch's “seams.” Not only would the corridor offer frequent, convenient metro and/or MARC service (and thus serve as a TOD attractor), it'd double as a leisurely cycling and walking route.
Next time we'll look at solutions for elevated borders (like highway and railroad viaducts), so stay tuned!
- Marc Szarkowski