Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Freeway Revolts: A Brief History of an Important Baltimore Grassroots Movement

by guest blogger Greg Freidman

There once was a plan to build a major east-west expressway through the middle of Baltimore City. The idea for such an expressway had been around since at least 1917, but things really got going when Robert Moses came up with a plan in the 40's. With the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s  and the overwhelming support of the business and political establishment the highway became a near certainty. Had the expressway been built as planned , thousands of people would have been displaced, Leakin Park would have an expressway running through it, and neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Highlandtown, Canton, and Federal Hill would have been permanently disfigured.

But as part of a nationwide movement that came to be known as the freeway revolts regular people got together and fought back. In Baltimore the main organization driving the effort against the expressway was known as MAD or the Movement Against Destruction. The organization, essentially a coalition of neighborhood groups and individuals, was most active in the late 60s and early 70s. and transcended barriers of geography, race, and class. It was also for the most part (but not completely) successful. Among those active in the freeway revolts was a certain social worker turned City Councilwoman by the name of Barbara Mikulski.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Art Cohen one of the movers and shakers behind MAD to hear about how this amazing grassroots movement got started and achieved its goals. For more information about MAD you can visit its online archive which is hosted by the University of Baltimore Langsdale Libary right here.

For a detailed explanation of the route the East-West Expressway was to traverse you can check out Scott Kozel's Roads to the Future website. And while I strongly disagree with some of its conclusions another excellent article on the Expressway can be found here (note that this is a PDF).

On  how the idea of the East-West Expressway came about:
... Robert Moses came to town in the early 1940s. There had actually been talk about having an expressway in Baltimore since 1917. But it didn’t really get steam going until Moses came and he suggested an east west highway straight through the middle of town. Of course it would have been totally unacceptable on the east side of town because it would have gone straight through Hopkins Hospital!... It sort of lay dormant for a number of years and then in the 50's it came in again because under President Eisenhower, the interstate system came into being...

On the founding and naming of MAD:
I came to Baltimore as a legal aid lawyer in September 1967. I came from Washington DC. I was assigned to East Baltimore where I lived as well as worked....So I was assigned to legal Aid East and that's where I worked for [the next 16 months up through early 1969].In August of 1968 I was approached by two people. One was Stu Wexler who had worked with CORE locally and had been involved in a lot of local things and Jimmy Rouse (who's the son of James Rouse). They said there was a new coalition being formed to oppose the plans for the East-West Expressway and because I had come here as lawyer, they said they need a lawyer who would be willing to serve as their attorney. It was volunteer. Everything in the group was volunteer. And I was interested in the issue and I said sure. The fact that they'd asked meant something too. I had respect for both of them...

The group as I remember it did not have a name for the first couple of months...This one person came from West Baltimore he happened to be a psychiatrist living and working there. He came for two meetings that's all, but what he did was he gave us a great gift. He said “I've got a name for you. You need a name. Here's what I'm suggesting, the Movement Against Destruction (M.A.D).”... It was a great name it described how people felt about the expressway coming through their neighborhoods.

On the uniqueness of MAD and what contributed to its success:

The unique thing about M.A.D. It was the first time in Baltimore that there was a coalition made up of neighborhood groups from across the city of diverse income groupings, of diverse race (African -American and White)... But just the fact that you could reach across between the white and black communities was just sensational. It was very effective and people worked together very well. And you could be a member of this group as a neighborhood association or as a mini coalition of neighborhood associations. There was one called S.C.A.R. (also see here) (the Southeast Council Against the Road). And there were some other ones across the city that were organized sub-regionally. You could also be a member as an individual if you wanted to.

The thing that made MAD unique was that it met every single week. [The archdiocese] gave us the use of the Catholic Center downtown at the southwest corner of Mulberry and Cathedral. And that was a great place. We'd meet there at 7 o'clock on every Monday. We also were blessed by having people in our group who had special skills. We had one person, Barbra King, who did research  andworked with the League of Women Voters... Whenever we had an issue that needed some digging she could do it for us and would. We had another person who was from the Church of the Brethren who was assigned to Baltimore as a sort of missionary placement. His name was Lin Butler and he had an incredible skill. He was our secretary for most of the time that I was there, he would be at every meeting. And within a day of the meeting a piece of paper would go to everybody that was on our list. On one side of the piece of paper were the minutes for the previous day's meeting and on the other side  would be the agenda for the next meeting. And it provided a high level of continuity from meeting to meeting. That really helped us....

Our way of operating at MAD was  by consensus. We didn't really need to vote. And the people there were seen representatives of their neighborhood groups. So if they were doing their jobs they did not arrogate to themselves any special power. They would take issues back to their group,  clear them with whomever they needed to clear it, and then come back to us. So there was an accountability that was very helpful.

On the damage that had been done from the condemnation lines:

By the time I got into this in August 1968 the condemnation lines had already been laid down. And in some ways a lot of the damage from the expressway planning had been done... These were people who lived their whole lives in Canton, Highlandtown, Fells Point, West Baltimore, South Baltimore too. This was very, very disturbing for a lot of people and there were stories of elderly people who  died of broken hearts from the idea of having to move from the neighborhoods that they had lived in all their lives and to which they were deeply committed. What I'm saying is there was some damage that was already done that could not be reversed even by MAD. What MAD was able to do with the help of others was prevent the building of the expressway.

 On a very interesting map:

One of our members, Jack Bond, who just died two years ago, worked for a local car rental agency and he came to every meeting. I think he lived in Roland Park. He came up with a wonderful suggestion once... Why don't we design an expressway ourselves that only took six houses? The mayor's (Thomas D'Alessandro III, the president of the City Council (William Donald Schaefer) and, Joe Axelrod  the highway engineer, who lived in Annapolis (the other three homes taken by the map were those of Greater Baltimore Committee head,William Boucher, Bernard Werner a consultant to the State Roads Commision, and Dr. F. Pierce Linaweaver the city public works director). So basically to make a long story short, we developed a sketch of this expressway, and it got picked up by a Sun reporter (scroll down to the fourth article). She went around and interviewed everybody. Mayor Schaefer and all these other people. It got a lot of attention. It was using ridicule to make a point, that these people didn't have to get out of their houses. They were planning for everybody else.

On flying a banner on a plane at the City Fair:

One time I worked on a banner...that was 220 ft wide. It was about as wide as the expressway would have been with all 12 lanes. It said “Stop The Mayor's Road”. We carried it into the city fair. This was the pride and joy of the city officials... to have this downtown fair. And we walked on there with this thing. And it took them 20 minutes to see what was going on and they threw us out. The next year what we did was we rented an airplane. We each kicked in  $25 and we had it fly over the city fair. And there was nothing they could do about that.

On the V.O.L.P.E. V. Volpe Lawsuit:

Richard Volpe was the head of the US Department of Transportation. He was the defendant. The plaintiffs in that case were the Volunteers Opposed to the Leakin Park Expressway (V.O.LP.E.) They came up with that name on purpose. And in fact their lawyer I believe was pro bono from Piper and Marbury at the time. He's now the city solicitor, George Nilson.

On an inspirational meeting at Edmondson High School and MAD's turning point:

One of the big turning points for us I believe was in 1969.  A public hearing was scheduled for early in the summer. It was one of the first public hearings on on the 3A plan and we got them to postpone it. This was because they were not following their own federal regulations, which required that public hearings be preceded by public informational meetings.   We insisted that they follow their own rules.  As a result, they first held this informational meeting  at which they described what the issues were.  It was held in Edmondson High School in  June of 1969.

People from the community were invited to come and learn about what the highway engineers planned to do. And Rosemont was a very controversial area. [The highway] was coming down from Leakin Park. It would have come down from Rosemont to join up with Franklin Mulberry. Rosemont was a stable middle-class African-American neighborhood.  Joe Wyles (a prominent African-American activist) was from there and a number of other MAD people were too. They just felt it was going to destroy their community and there were some alternative routes for Rosemont, several different ones. And one of them involved going through a cemetery south of Edmondson Highway which had generally white people [buried in it].

Anyway Rosemont, was a middle class area. People had come to this  explanatory meeting and the engineers were in the front [with] the planners... And you had these two groups and they're sitting on opposite sides of the Edmondson High School auditorium. One is white, generally younger and the other's black of all ages but somewhat older. They were sitting on opposite ends of the auditorium and this young white guy who was  the spokesman for the white  group gets up and says “we do not want this highway to go through the cemetery and even though there are rules about disenterring people and reenterring them we don't want these graves disturbed. They mean a lot to us our kinfolk are there” and so and so. When he was through, this elderly African-American man from Rosemont, he says “I've moved 3 times in the last thirteen years because of changes in these condemnation lines. "Hey, sait a minute," he says, I'm alive now, you're talking about dead people. I'm alive right now and I'm threatened by this road. And our neighborhood is threatened by this road.” It was very eloquent. Anyway they each made their point and then all of a sudden the young white guy gets up. He didn't want to be played off against the African-American. He says “we're against the road because it's going to mess up our cemetery with our dead loved ones. You're against the road because you're living in this area. Let's get together and fight it together. and you saw this group of people move together in that auditorium. I imagine there were whites who had never sat in an auditorium with blacks before and that was emblematic of the kinds of things that happened, people pulling together.

Anyways 2 months later in August. they had the public hearing, and it was big.   It went on for three days. 600 people attended. Most people testified against the road plans. Everybody except for two groups: the Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Baltimore Committee. And they did not speak in favor of the road.  Instead, they just put in written testimony.  The hearing got well covered in the press.


From my interview with Art Cohen and my own research about MAD, several things stand out to me. The first is that MAD was an organization made up of regular people and not just elites. It was also a truly multiracial coalition where blacks from West Baltimore worked together with whites from south and east sides. A remarkable feat given the large scale white flight that was taking place at the time. Another characteristic of MAD is that it was not dominated by any one person. Of course it had leaders but it was clearly a group effort with no one person taking all the credit for the work that was done. The third and final observation I’d like to note, is that for all its successes MAD failed to stop construction of the “Highway to Nowhere”. (Those interested in learning more about the “Highway to Nowhere” and MAD’s fight to stop it should read Andrew Giguere’s Masters Thesis on the subject). As painful as it may be it is always important to learn from them so that they will not happen again.

I’m a big believer that one cannot plan for the future unless they understand the past. Through understanding both the successes and the challenges faced by MAD it is my hope that those who wish to speak truth to power on transportation or any other issue will be able to draw inspiration and guidance.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Shared Space: Turning a Highway into a Public Plaza is Possible

I'm an advocate of the "Shared Space" concept, which began in Europe and could have great promise in the U.S. if traffic engineers would give it a chance. If you don't know about Shared Space, or know about it but are unconvinced, check out this short video. It is a fantastic mini-documentary and the best application of the concept I've seen to date. If this won't convince you of the value of Shared Space nothing will.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 1

At-Grade Border Vacuums: Parking Lots and Vacant Lots
The previous post on border vacuums discussed what borders were, why some borders create vacuums, and how these vacuums have affected Baltimore. This post will discuss solutions for at-grade border vacuums like parking lots and vacant lots, and over the coming months we'll discuss solutions for other kinds of border vacuums and see if they could apply to Baltimore.

New York's High Line Park
I invite readers to share solutions I may have overlooked so the discussion is as comprehensive as possible. (Also, I've omitted some conventional solutions – like Big Dig tunnels for highways – because they're usually expensive and unfeasible.)

Of course, no solution is a silver bullet. The fine print is context. For example, architect Witold Rybczynski, noting how many cities want to emulate New York's High Line Park (formerly an abandoned railroad viaduct that had devolved into a border vacuum), argued that the city's vibrant, dense, mixed-use Meatpacking and Chelsea districts made the High Line successful, and that the opposite strategy of “build it and they will come” – plop a High Line in an isolated area and hope that the vibrant urban fabric follows – would likely garner disappointment.

Finally, my intention is not to take a “fix it all now” position. These ideas are presented under the auspices of long-term incremental improvement – that of incorporating more thoughtful design when infrastructure and facilities are inevitably repaired, replaced, expanded, added, or removed. Perhaps this way border vacuums can be gradually dissolved rather than maintained by periodic reconstruction of the status quo.

Infilling parking lots and vacant lots
Parking lots and vacant lots are arguably some of the most corrosive border vacuums: they break the continuity of street walls by exposing party walls (“missing teeth”) and creating an atmosphere of dereliction. The effect is particularly destructive in rowhouse neighborhoods where the fabric relies on the appearance of continuity for stability.

Fortunately parking lots and vacant lots are also some of the easiest border vacuums to dissolve (if the demand for infill is there, of course) and their infilling has generally been greeted with enthusiasm in Baltimore. But what exactly constitutes good infill?

1111 Light Street in Federal Hill
Urban infill works best when it takes the form it has traditionally taken: Multistory, multiuse, and built out to the sidewalk. The infill should offer a porous facade to the sidewalk – it should interact with passersby via storefronts, stoops, porches, bays, balconies, discrete windows, and other features that reflect a human presence. Blank walls and vague “open spaces” or setbacks should be avoided.

By doing all this, good infill will form an engaging “street wall” that defines the street as a public room (see above). To avoid breaking this street wall, parking lots and garages should be stashed in back and accessed by alleys. Furthermore, good infill should be composed of small blocks punctuated by continuous street networks. These streets can be made quite intimate, further enriching the pedestrian experience.

Finally, good infill will feature a small increment of development: rather than being built by one developer in a short time, multiple blocks of good infill are composed by many people who have contributed different buildings over a long time. This results in an organic form that can accommodate Jane Jacobs' aged buildings: “A district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition [to] incubate diversity. If a city has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. Mingling of new and old buildings, with consequent mingling in living costs and tastes, is essential to get diversity and stability in residential populations [and] enterprises (Chapter 10, The Death and Life of Great American Cities).”

Infill examples
The Merchant Point Townhomes in Fell's Point
Generally the smaller the increment of development has been in Baltimore (as with rowhouses or midrise buildings), the better the infill quality has been. Unfortunately, generally the larger the increment of development has gotten, the more likely it was to be marred by street-facing blank walls, parking garages, and service infrastructure.

The Merchant Point Townhomes at Aliceanna and Ann Streets in Fell's Point are an example of good lowrise (rowhouse) infill. Built atop the site of the historic St. Stanislaus Kostka complex, the rowhouses offer attractive steps, overhangs, discrete windows, and other friendly, human-scale details to the sidewalk, just like traditional rowhouses. The garages were placed in the back (accessed by an alley) to avoid sacrificing the Aliceanna Street facades to blank garage doors.

However, I think these rowhouses could have done a better job “turning the corner” at Ann Street. Right now the corner rowhouse offers just one first-floor window to Ann. If the garage in that corner rowhouse had been sacrificed for a wraparound storefront, these rowhouses would have done a better job connecting to the buildings along Ann, improving pedestrian delight and block continuity in the process. In fact, the 19th century rowhouse on the northwest corner of the same intersection is a perfect example of just such a strategy.

I've noticed that this lost opportunity for “turning the corner” is surprisingly common among recent infill rowhouses. The porosity of the primary (front) facade is usually quite good, but that of any secondary (side) facades could be better. If too many infill projects treat their secondary facades as an afterthought, there is the risk of turning the streets along those facades into “B” streets that are less desirable for pedestrian exploration, potentially fraying the connections between different streets (and neighborhoods!) in the process. This is rather unfortunate because Baltimore has many old rowhouses that do a wonderful job “turning the corner,” and they could be useful examples for future infill rowhouses.

The Twelve09 Condominiums at Preston and Charles Streets in Midtown-Belvedere are an example of good midrise infill. Built atop a former parking lot, this mixed-use building avoids the blank wall effect along Charles Street by using a retail liner (built out to the sidewalk) to conceal the structured parking in the center of the block. The building's facade also employs numerous details, like bays and balconies, to maintain pedestrian interest.

The Twelve09 Condominiums in Midtown-Belvedere
But again, while the building's Charles Street facade is quite good, its Preston Street facade could be better. The retail liner along Charles “turns the corner” onto Preston, but then it abruptly gives way to a first-floor facade with nothing but ventilation grilles, services doors, and an entrance to the parking garage. This infrastructure could have been placed along the rear alley (Lovegrove Street) instead, which would have allowed additional storefronts to line Preston Street.

Perimeter blocks in Hamburg, Germany

Finally, I think the Hilton superblock next to Camden Yards is an example of “meh” highrise infill. Although it was built atop former parking lots, some of the complex's street-level facades offer little to the pedestrian. True, the eastern block offers several restaurants, but the western block's southern facade offers only blank walls, grilles, and garage doors – right across from Camden Yards! I think these shortcomings could have been avoided if the Hilton had been built in a perimeter block format (see right): one or two portals leading to a central “backstage” area would have eliminated the need for dispersed service doors, garage doors, and other infrastructure on the perimeter, leaving it free for pedestrian-friendly programming.

What if a parking lot or vacant lot can't be infilled?
It would be ideal to infill as many parking lots as possible, but for various reasons some parking lots can't be infilled, at least not right away. How can we mitigate their border vacuums in the meantime?

The conventional strategy for shielding pedestrians from parking lots is to enclose them with low walls. But these boring walls do nothing to enliven the street. It may be preferable to enclose parking lots with liner buildings. Even narrow liner buildings can accommodate mixed uses or rowhouses. It's also possible to redesign parking lots as multipurpose plazas. That is, the lots could be enclosed, paved, planted, and furnished in a manner such that they could be used as public rooms in which cars would be permitted to park when there is little activity. (For example, perhaps someday the Waverly Farmer's Market parking lot could be improved this way.)

It's not always possible to infill some vacant lots either. If the infill demand isn't there yet, how can we mitigate their border vacuums in the meantime?

Some vacant lots can be turned into community gardens, patios, side-porches, and parklets, and the “missing tooth” appearance can be remedied by extending the street wall across them (see pages 28-32). Nevertheless, these strategies have their limits. Turning too many vacant lots into parklets risks diluting recreational activity – and maintenance efforts – over too large an area; it's better to concentrate that activity in a handful of parklets.

The next installment will discuss solutions for more at-grade borders (like arterial roads). Subsequent posts will discuss solutions for sunken borders (like highway and railroad trenches), elevated borders (like highway viaducts and railroad embankments), congregational borders (like arenas, sports facilities, and convention centers), superblock borders (like hotel, office, and parking complexes), Radiant City/Garden City borders (like tower-in-the-park housing projects, garden apartment housing projects, office parks, strip malls, and big-box facilities), campus borders (like hospital and university complexes), recreational borders (like parks and cemeteries), and various other borders (like prisons), so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Baltimore's Border Vacuums

Many of Jane Jacobs' ideas – particularly the need for cities to have mixed-use districts and “eyes on the street” – are well known by now. But the sheer density of ideas (no pun intended) in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is such that many of her poignant concepts are still overlooked. One such concept that I think deserves more attention, particularly in Baltimore, is the danger of creating what Jacobs called “border vacuums.”

The Highway to Nowhere is Baltimore's most notorious border vacuum.
What is a border? 

In Chapter 14 (“The Curse of Border Vacuums”) Jacobs defined a border as the perimeter of a large single-use territory or corridor (often a transportation corridor). Some common transportation borders are railroads, highways, and arterial roads. Some common territorial (institutional) borders are university and hospital campuses, office parks, housing projects, superblocks, strip malls, and sports and convention facilities.

How do borders create vacuums?
As Jacobs goes on to discuss, despite the usefulness of the transportation corridors and institutions in question, their peripheries pose some very real problems:

·         Transportation corridors like railroads, highways, and arterial roads tend to form “Chinese walls” because there are limited opportunities for crossing them to get from one district to another. Even if there are passages underneath elevated sections or bridges over sunken sections, the crossings are often so unpleasant (or perceived to be dangerous) that they discourage casual crossing. Many corridors thus tend to disrupt the continuity of the urban fabric, and the resulting fragmented/isolated neighborhoods can lose their economic and social connections with the rest of the city.

·         Large single-use institutional areas also tend to dampen our desire to cross them to get to another urban district: “Housing projects are examples of this. Project people cross [the border] back and forth [but] the adjoining people stay strictly over on their side of the border and treat the line as a dead end (261).”

·         Some borders eventually behave like gangrene, gradually deadening the streets and blocks around them: “The root trouble with borders is that they are apt to form dead ends for most users of city streets. Consequently, the streets that [go to] a border are bound to be deadened places. They fail to get a by-the-way circulation of people going beyond them in the direction of the border because few are going to that Beyond. A kind of running-down process is set in motion (259).”

·         A city may be able to overcome a few scattered borders (a parking lot, a vacant lot, a vacant building, a blank-walled building, or a 9-to-5 office tower here and there), but even these, if they aggregate into larger groups, can become formidable border vacuums: “Wherever a significant “dead place” appears on a downtown street, it causes a drop in the intensity of foot circulation there. Sometimes the drop is so serious economically that business declines to one side or the other of the dead place. The role of the dead place as a geographic obstacle has overcome its role as a contributor of users (263).”

The Inner Harbor narrowly avoided becoming another border vacuum.
However, some borders can become very desirable. The Inner Harbor had devolved into a border vacuum by the early 1970s, but by “activating the edge” with recreational attractions, the city turned the waterfront into a vibrant area. But it was actually the adjacent context of urban fabric that made this possible: Baltimore ultimately left the waterfront's adjoining commercial and residential districts intact rather than separating them with highways.

Had the highways been built – as was the case in so many other cities now trying to revive their isolated waterfront scraps – the waterfront border vacuum would likely have become worse because the city would not have been able to activate the edge with the fabrics of Federal Hill, Otterbein, Downtown, Fell's Point, and Canton.

I should point out – and Jacobs does this herself – that this is not an issue of “borders = bad and unnecessary.” That would be an extremely simplistic argument. After all, if institutional and transportation borders didn't fulfill a purpose, they wouldn't be there in the first place: “Many of them are most important to cities. A big city needs universities and large medical centers. A city needs railroads and expressways. The point is hardly to disdain such facilities or to minimize their value. Rather, the point is to recognize that they are mixed blessings. If we can counter their destructive effects, these facilities will themselves be better served (265).”

Likewise, when I discuss specific Baltimore transportation and institutional border vacuums below, my intention is not to criticize the institutions or transportation amenities themselves, but merely to acknowledge their (often unintentional) vacuum side effects and to explore strategies for fixing them.

How have border vacuums affected Baltimore?
I created the map on the right to highlight central Baltimore's most commonly perceived border vacuums. Several are worth discussing in detail:

It's hard to extend the fabric of promising neighborhoods if they're hemmed in by so many border vacuums. For example, it's currently impossible for revitalization to spread north from Jonestown and Pleasant View Gardens across the combination of parking lots, the Post Office complex, the Oldtown Mall (whose tiny Stirling Street hamlet can't expand either), the prison complex, and the surrounding housing projects.

Revitalization can't spread east from Midtown across the JFX barrier to Johnston Square either, and even with five bridge connections across the JFX and the Northeast Corridor, the revitalization in Station North has been agonizingly sluggish and uneven (Station North also has the additional barriers of North Avenue and Greenmount Cemetery).

Also note how MLK Boulevard and its associated institutional vacuums (State Center and the McCulloh Homes in particular) prevent a stronger connection between Bolton Hill/Upton and Seton Hill/Mt. Vernon/Midtown. The MLK border vacuum continues south across the Highway to Nowhere (itself an infamous border vacuum) to separate Poppleton from downtown. There's been disappointingly little revitalization in West Baltimore despite the generous outpouring of funds over the years, and there probably will be no meaningful revitalization until the MLK border vacuum and its connecting/associated border vacuums are dissolved.

North Avenue was once a vibrant “seam.”
One particularly interesting border vacuum is the section of North Avenue between the JFX and Eutaw Place. In 1950 this stretch of North Avenue was narrower, it had more intersections with cross streets (and thus smaller blocks more appealing to pedestrians), and it was enclosed with mixed-use buildings. Although it was an important avenue and landmark, the North Avenue of 1950 was not a barrier. It was what Jacobs, citing Kevin Lynch, called a “seam”: “An edge may be more than a barrier if some motion penetration is allowed through it – if it is structured to some depth with the regions on either side. It then becomes a seam rather than a barrier, a line of exchange along which two areas are sewn together (267).”

That last phrase - “a line of exchange” - perfectly described this section of North Avenue in 1950. Although the neighborhoods to the north and south of this seam had their own distinct identities, the commercial thread that wove them together (stores with apartments above, movie theaters, and the streetcar line) made interaction easy and pleasant.

The same section of North Avenue has since devolved into a border vacuum.
What's this section of North Avenue like today? It has devolved into a border vacuum so harsh that it wouldn't be all that hyperbolic to describe it as the boundary between two different countries. Almost everything in the above photo is gone: the avenue was widened, the unifying central transit seam was pushed to the sides, the mixed-use “street wall” urban fabric was obliterated, several intersections and cross streets were removed, the resulting superblocks were filled with parking lots and Radiant City complexes (such as Madison Park North, the “Murder Mall”), and the periphery of the avenue was enclosed with fences, berms, and shrubbery buffers. It is now a literal wall between Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill.

For some time now, people have wished that Reservoir Hill would match or even exceed Bolton Hill in splendor. It has grander rowhouses, after all, and it enjoys a proximity to splendid Druid Hill Park (interestingly enough, that connection was also frayed after WWII when Druid Park Lake Drive was built). Although there has been some faint revitalization in pockets of Reservoir Hill (and note: mostly along streets that still connect to Bolton Hill!), it too will probably not enjoy a comeback until the North Avenue border vacuum is dissolved.

Unfortunately, recent infill projects along the northern edge of Bolton Hill, rather than reconnecting to Reservoir Hill, have turned their backs on it instead. The MICA Gateway dormitory offers a blank wall to North Avenue, and the Spicer's Run development, while it did a good job reconnecting to Eutaw Place, made no effort to reconnect to North Avenue either. While the fear over connecting to a crime-ridden corridor is understandable (more on this below), I'd argue that the crime in the corridor won't be overcome unless there are reconnection attempts on both sides. Paradoxically, fences and buffers only exacerbate the problem. 

Many border vacuums around Baltimore's stabler neighborhoods have been reinforced over the very understandable fear of crime. Some of these border reinforcement strategies are descendants of Oscar Newman's Defensible Space theory, and unfortunately some of his ideas conflict with the effort to create continuous urban fabrics. While I strongly support Newman's argument that “ownerless” public spaces, such as the grounds of Radiant City projects, can induce crime and disorder due to their inability to support natural surveillance (in this respect Newman's argument is identical to Jacobs'), I think some of his solutions (urban cul-de-sacs and self-contained mini-neighborhoods) may not be appropriate long-term strategies. A city of gated neighborhoods eventually stops functioning as a city, and the gate strategy doesn't really address the underlying roots of crime.

Look what happens when there are no border vacuums...
Contrast the neighborhoods we discussed above with the neighborhoods of south/southeast Baltimore: the lack of border vacuums has allowed revitalization to flow freely from Otterbein to Federal Hill and further south to Riverside and South Baltimore. Over the years revitalization has also swept freely from Fell's Point to Upper Fell's Point to Butcher's Hill, and it is now creeping into Washington Hill (perhaps revitalization would have crept in even earlier if it hadn't been forced to sidestep the Perkins Homes border vacuum) and Patterson Place. Revitalization has also flowed east to Canton and Brewer's Hill, and it's now pushing into Highlandtown, with stirrings of revitalization beginning to appear in Linwood. It eventually will spread to McElderry Park and Ellwood Park if the (comparatively minor) Pulaski Highway border vacuum is dissolved.

Revitalization has been able to spread freely across these neighborhoods – tying them together in the process – because there are no border vacuums on the scale of those that divide and surround the neighborhoods discussed earlier. If there had been the equivalent of a North Avenue or a MLK Boulevard dividing, say, Canton from Highlandtown, would revitalization have been able to spread as easily, or would it have halted in Canton? Encouraging continuity of the urban fabric is critically important if Baltimore wants to have a unified and vibrant center city district. Because this strategy has not always been acknowledged, the city has often (and unsurprisingly) resorted to the strategy of airlifting money into isolated areas, with very little to show for it.

In the next installment on border vacuums we'll look at strategies for dissolving them (from the cheap and simple to the complex and pricey), and we'll see if/how these strategies could apply to specific Baltimore border vacuums.

- Marc Szarkowski

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Transportation Funding in Maryland: Do or Die Time

            It's do or die time for the Purple and Red light rail lines. If the legislature is able to raise revenue for transportation during this legislative session, both lines will probably get the federal funding they need and will go forward. Should the legislature fail to raise revenue the federal funding that has currently been allocated will run out and the feds will not fund any more work on the rail lines.
             According to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund was established in 1971 and is funded through a number of sources. These include corporate income taxes, vehicle titling taxes, transit fares, MVA fees, and of course the gas tax (which interestingly enough only makes up about 20% of trust fund revenue). According to MDOT, pooling all transportation revenue into a single fund gives the state a great deal of flexibility as to what it spends its transportation dollars on. The Maryland Transportation Trust Fund is viewed as a national model for how to fund transportation.
            In a sense, this flexibility is a good thing as there is an argument to be made that policymakers should be able to spend the money as they wish. But there is also a downside. Many transit agencies have their own dedicated source of money that they can draw from. But both the MTA and WMATA must go to the legislature each year for funding. Such a situation most likely creates uncertainty for both organizations and may make long term budget planning difficult. Furthermore, with such flexibility there is nothing to stop policymakers from completely gutting transit funding and spending the money on wasteful highway projects.
            This isn't just a theoretical situation. During the Ehrlich administration there was a plan to redesign the bus system. This was known as the Greater Baltimore Bus Initiative. While the need for a bus system redesign was (and still is) long overdue, the Initiative was more about cutting the MTA's funding than it was about creating a system that works for everyone. Eventually the Legislature had to step in and prevent further changes to the MTA's route structure.
            Having the Trust Fund serve as the end all be all for transportation financing may also make it difficult to raise revenue. Since the Trust Fund relies on revenue throughout the state it must fund projects throughout the state. This means that transportation projects have their futures intertwined with each other. Some of these projects have more support and are of greater use than others.
            There are three components that increased revenue from the Transportation Trust Fund will be spent on. The first component is the Purple Line. The Purple Line is a light rail line through the DC suburbs that is projected to carry about 69,000 people a day by 2030. The only organized opposition to this project comes from a country club in Chevy Chase worried about the effect it will have on their precious golf course. Elected officials in Montgomery and Prince George's County's are so determined to get the line built they have even considered instituting a regional gas tax should the legislature fail to shore up the Trust Fund.
            The second component consists of the Baltimore Red Line. Since the beginning of Red Line planning, ridership projections have fluctuated around a bit but the line is currently projected to have about 50,000 passengers a day by 2030. There has been considerable opposition to the Red Line. While much of this opposition has come from those more concerned about car lanes than anything else, many of those opposed to the Red Line are true transit advocates. The reasons pro-transit advocates oppose the Red Line are complex and are better discussed at another time. Unlike in the DC suburbs, Baltimore's political leaders do not have the same enthusiasm for the Red Line. The project is little more than a footnote when it come's to the city's agenda for this year's state General Assembly and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz does not even name the Red Line as a top transportation priority.
            The third component is made up of highway expansions. This component is just plain stupid. Due to the phenomenon of induced traffic, more highway lanes only lead to more traffic. For some reason policymakers have yet to understand this proven concept.
            All of the above projects will rise and fall together even though they have varying levels of merit and support. While the state should pay for a significant portion of all transit projects, having it be the only source of funding may be a mistake. If policymakers are serious about getting major transit projects it may be time to consider regional sources of funding. These may include things like regional payroll, income, sales, or property taxes.
            More regional funding could potentially mean more local control over the system. The MTA is currently a state agency with local officials having no say in how the system is run. Most other systems are independent authorities with their own board of directors (which are often in part appointed by local officials). Such an arrangement harms the ability of the MTA to do its mission. For example, the MTA must follow state procurement procedures. This means that when the MTA is making major investments they must first be approved by the MTA's own procurement office, then MDOT headquarters, then the state Department of Budget and Management, and finally the Board of Public Works. This is part of the reason why it has taken the MTA six or seven years (and counting) to put in a real-time arrival system.
            Changing the funding and governance structure transit in Baltimore will not be an easy task. It will require strong efforts from both grassroots activists and more establishment organizations like big business and large nonprofit organizations. However, I do believe the benefits of such an arrangement could be worthwhile.
- Gregory Friedman
NOTE: Shortly after I finished writing the draft for this blog post. Maryland Senate President Thomas V. “Mike Miller” proposed a funding plan similar to what I discuss below. These are potentially exciting times for transit in the Baltimore region.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Building a Better Cross Street Market

Sketch of Via dei Giubbonari by Allan Jacobs
by Marc Szarkowski

There is a fascinating description of the Via dei Giubbonari, one of Rome's intimate market streets, in Allan Jacobs' Great Streets:

“Via dei Giubbonari has existed since ancient times. In the early morning the first sounds and activities are generated by the market at the Campo dei Fiori [at one end of the street]. Window shutters are opened and a few doors and window grates are opened at the bars. By midmorning the Via dei Giubbonari is crowded. Passing acquaintances see each other, stop, and talk for a few moments. Upper-floor shutters are likely to be open and a woman may appear, momentarily, to look down...

Later in the afternoon there is a second opening of stores and a much larger crowd. This is the late afternoon-early evening stroll. If you stand in one place long enough you may see the same people pass two or three times; shopping, to be sure, but also meeting friends, talking, and strolling. At the Campo dei Fiori people meet and talk in small groups. Some children are kicking a football. There are families. Much later, after the restaurants and bars on the street close, Via dei Giubbonari is still.” (20-34)

Baltimore is fortunate to have several public places that resonate with life on such a spiritually-gratifying level. Despite the pockets of street/market life throughout the city, too often it seems like many of the city's routine public activities occur behind closed doors, inside sealed special-event “facilities.”

Cross Street Market is, unfortunately, just such a sealed public place. The active interior milieu is wonderful, but even with the modest entrance renovations of recent years, the market building is still a drab, dreary, practically windowless shed that offers no tantalizing peeks into the interior festivities. I think Federal Hill deserves a better market, one that could engage the surrounding streetscape (which could be improved itself) and serve as a prominent focal point for the community.

What I find compelling about Jacobs' description of the Via dei Giubbonari is that each and every one of the streetscape traits he described could serve as inspiration for the design of almost any public building.

Site plan of proposed market in existing context
What if Cross Street Market could be rebuilt to accommodate a similarly-permeable ambiance that had the ability to enliven the surrounding streets? The market is perfectly poised for a thorough redo – it may be a dismal shed, but it has convenient Circulator access and it's right in the middle of an intimate commercial district. I also attempted to incorporate several other commonly-discussed ideas for improving the market:

Section of proposed market in improved Cross Street context
With some careful reconstruction of the existing streetscape, the proposed market could fit in a slightly-widened median without requiring any demolition of surrounding buildings. In fact, I strongly suggest filling in any “missing teeth” (gaps in the street wall) with new rowhouses/shopfronts, and adding additional floors atop any one-story buildings so Cross Street could feel comfortably enclosed. The street itself could even be rebuilt to offer intimate plazas in front of the market's entrances. The slight reduction of on-street parking could be compensated by increasing capacity at the nearby West Street parking garage.

Section through proposed market's gallery
I rebuilt the market's blank side walls into a series of bays punctuated by windows and delivery doors. Two prominent and invitingly-open “headhouses” or grand entrances are positioned at both ends of the market (facing Charles and Light Streets) while a third headhouse intends to lure in the pedestrians walking down from the West Street garage. A covered arcade runs along the perimeter of the market and allows strolling pedestrians to glimpse various interior activities in a series of vignettes.

Elevation, section, and floorplans of proposed market
An expanded market could accommodate additional market stalls to offer a wider range of merchandise and lure in a broader spectrum of people. Since I proposed dividing the market stalls with moveable partitions, portions of the second floor could also host various social activities - neighborhood meetings, temporary performances, festivals, clubs, and so on. The first floor could offer a mix of activities as well: market stalls, concession stalls (restaurants and bars), vending areas, and seating areas, among other activities.

View of proposed market's interior
A dim, low-ceilinged public place is always a disappointment, and the existing market is a case in point. The proposed replacement offers a broad central dining/sitting/strolling gallery topped with a vaulted glass roof supported by steel or cast iron trusses. The vaulted glass roof and the facade’s many windows allow natural light to flood the market’s interior.

What if Baltimore's arabber community had new, safe, clean places to stable horses and store delivery wagons? The proposed market offers several arabber stalls which, in addition to preserving and promoting the arabber culture in a prominent location, could encourage the market's merchants to improve their exposure/sales by wholesaling products to arabbers, who in turn could resell/deliver those products to surrounding neighborhoods.

Section through typical headhouse
The proposed market’s brick exterior seeks to complement the brick rowhouses of Federal Hill, but its oriental, bazaarlike architectural motifs and sea monsters allude to Baltimore's fascinating history as a beehive of commerce, shipping, trade, and exotic seafaring activity. And since money is the biggest obstacle facing any ambitious construction project, I attempted to incorporate several cost-saving strategies into the proposal: The market's repeating details and structural components, for example, could be mass-fabricated and quickly bolted together (like the appealing cast iron components in many 19th century buildings).

I can't possibly cram all the proposed market's features into one blog post, so I invite readers to browse a full-size PDF of the proposal here. You can also read a more detailed description of the market on the proposal's Flickr webpage.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Road to Complete Streets in Baltimore and Beyond

If you haven’t heard by now, a remarkable thing has just happened in Baltimore. If it stands, it will long be remembered as a turning point in local transportation history: Baltimore City transportation officials have selected a “Complete Streets” configuration for Boston Street in conjunction with the planned Red Line light rail line.
Birds eye view of Boston Street  (source:
What this means is that the current configuration of Boston Street - which became a fast moving 4-lane, suburban-style arterial roadway about twenty years ago - will eventually be transformed into a 2-lane urban waterfront street with exclusive space for the light rail, bike lanes, and enhanced pedestrian facilities and landscaping. The new configuration will calm traffic along Boston Street by discouraging speeding, while encouraging more walking, biking, outdoor lingering, café dining, and transit use along the corridor.

A  New Day

Selecting the Boston Street Completes Street option is a testament to the courage and leadership of the Baltimore Department of Transportation (BDOT), which, in recent years, has been willing to take some chances on progressive initiatives aimed at making the city more livable and less traffic-dominated.

The idea of “Complete Streets” is simple: streets should serve multiple modes of travel equitably, not just facilitate vehicle traffic at the expense of everything else. A Complete Streets movement has emerged nationally and is helping communities become safer, more attractive, and more economically viable over the long term. Locally, the Baltimore City Council, like a growing number of municipalities across the country, recently adopted a Complete Streets Resolution.

BDOT’s commitment to Complete Streets principals has been evident with recent initiatives that include creation of downtown bike/bus-only lanes, green bike lanes, installation of shared bike lane symbols or sharrows, a contra-flow bikes lane on Lanvale and Fawn Streets, a “bicycle boulevard” (the first on the East Coast!)currently under construction along Guilford Avenue, and plans for an expanded network of bicycle lanes and cycle tracks throughout the city. BDOT is even developing a Complete Streets Guide to help formalize these progressive policy and design practices.

Baltimore’s willingness to break free from the status quo by implementing innovative Complete Streets policies that promote transit, bicycling, and walkability should be nurtured and celebrated, as it can unlock Baltimore’s potential as a national leader in sustainable urban living.

Emerging Advocacy amid Stumbling Blocks

A key factor that has fostered BDOT’s ability to take a more progressive approach is the increasing support among the general public for complete streets and sustainable transportation infrastructure, particularly for things like bike lanes and attractive surface transit that become an integral and visible part of the public realm. New advocacy groups like RedLine Now, The Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, and a newly formed Baltimore cycling advocacy organization, are all prime examples of the growing interest in urban living that relies less on driving and creates more hospitable environments for walking, cycling, and transit.

A growing trend: Grassroots support for sustainable transportation options (source:

Despite its good efforts and intentions, BDOT can’t implement these innovative projects without broad public support. This was starkly illustrated last year when BDOT installed a bike lane on Monroe Street in West Baltimore by removing one of the travel lanes. Despite the street having a relatively low volume of car traffic, the bike lane was met with vocal community opposition and the lane was subsequently removed.

Then, just last month, BDOT developed plans for a Complete Streets makeover for Midtown Baltimore through the Cultural Arts District. The plan included reducing vehicle travel lanes on Mt. Royal Avenue from 4 to 2 so that bike lanes could be added. The intention was to calm traffic and improve safety, while promoting more cycling, walkability, and create a better environment along the two urban college campuses which Mt. Royal Avenue bisects: the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and University of Baltimore (UB). Careful technical analysis was done in advance to ensure that these changes could be accommodated by the roadway system.
Mt. Royal Ave. birds eye view  (source:
However, the plans initially ran into resistance from the two universities administrations who, despite the technical analysis, expressed concern about what effect the plan might have on traffic congestion. After a widely reported outcry from local cycling advocates, who lobbied the administrations to change their stance and allow the plan go forward, BDOT is now working with MICA and UB university officials to develop a solution which will be acceptable to all. Stay tuned.

A Reflection of National Politics

The lingering resistance to changing our transportation system in ways that create a more equitable balance for all users and travel modes is really a microcosm of what is happening on the national stage right now. Congress is working on the long overdue transportation reauthorization bill. Earlier this month, the GOP controlled House was able to push through elements of their version of the bill that completely eliminate funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects as well as dedicated funding for public transit.

At the same time, the bill is full of provisions that will expand highways and oil drilling - a sure recipe for maintaining status quo car dependence and an unsustainable energy and transportation future.

On the other side, the US DOT under visionary transportation secretary Ray LaHood (himself a Republican) along with the Obama Administration, have their own version of the bill with far reaching provisions for sustainable transportation at all levels – from high speed rail to bicycle infrastructure.

Fortunately, like the rising clamor for sustainable transportation options along Boston Street and in Midtown Baltimore, so has there been an outcry for common sense to prevail and revise the transportation bill on Capitol Hill to restore dedicated transit funding and bicycle/pedestrian projects.

By most accounts, $5/gallon gas is right around the corner. Perhaps that is what will finally compel skeptics who have not yet come to terms with economic realities to support transportation policy reform even if it means that car-first attitudes and policies will no longer dominate as they have for more than half a century.

Still, it’s hard to predict how it will play out in the short term. Despite the delays, progress is being made.Getting to Complete Streets in Baltimore, and ultimately a sustainable transportation policy framework for America is all but inevitable, if for no other reason out of necessity. The real question is, “How long will it take for us to get from here to there?”
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...