Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Unlocking the Potential of the Jones Falls Valley Corridor

Editor's Note:This week's blog post comes from New Hampshire architect and urban designer Marc Szarkowski. Marc is a recent graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and has been an astute observer of Baltimore's urban landscape. His keen insights provide an updated and compelling look at a concept that has been discussed and studied for years: removing the elevated portion of the JFX and unlocking the full potential of the Jones Falls Valley.

by Marc Szarkowski
Guest Blogger

The Jones Falls has always been a barrier – useful at times, a nuisance at others. The Falls was a fortuitous firebreak in the fire of 1904, but in 1915 it was partially buried under the Fallsway. In 1962 the Jones Falls Expressway (JFX) was routed along the Falls and built atop the Fallsway, further cementing the Falls' reputation as a barrier.

Today the desolate corridor physically and psychologically separates various neighborhoods with a repellent no-man’s-land of railroad tracks, overgrown slopes, drab bridges, noisy sunken highway lanes, gloomy elevated highway decks, and decrepit warehouses. The JFX provides a convenient route into/out of town and a portion of its elevated deck serves as a shelter for a thriving farmer's market, but is it worth maintaining a wall around downtown Baltimore just for that?


Baltimoreans have been talking about rebuilding the Jones Falls since the 1800s. The fact that this discussion persists today tells us that none of the rebuilds that have arrived over the years – the Fallsway, the JFX, the President Street extension – have been satisfactory. There have been calls to tear down the elevated part of the JFX and replace it with a boulevard, to extend the Jones Falls Trail to the Inner Harbor by following the JFX, and so on. There are also ideas to redo other transportation corridors that pass over or feed into the JFX - to redo the rat's maze of highways that cut Druid Hill Park off from Reservoir Hill or to rebuild Charles Street to accommodate a streetcar line, for example.

I think these ideas could be merged into a unified, multiform vision that could address many goals concurrently - dissolving the JFX barrier, connecting uptown, midtown, and downtown Baltimore, improving access to Druid Hill Park, providing an extended bike trail, and providing more residential space in Midtown. I think this would be more worthwhile than trying to bag another convention center, arena, or theme park.


For a while now I've been brainstorming a suggestion for rebuilding the JFX into a multiform corridor that could (1) uncover the Jones Falls and transform it into a sunken recreational canal lined with a promenade/bikeway (an improved and extended Jones Falls Trail) that connected Druid Hill Park to the Inner Harbor, (2) offer a transit line, and (3) offer a tree-lined boulevard with a retail/residential “street wall.” This new corridor could connect downtown/midtown Baltimore to its outer neighborhoods and encourage revitalization to spread outwards.

This proposal is just an offering of ideas. I know Baltimore has more pressing concerns to deal with – addressing the “Big Three” issues (property taxes, crime, and schools) and repairing decrepitating water lines, for example. Nevertheless, I don't think these issues obviate ideas for Baltimore's future.


The JFX could transition into a boulevard in Woodberry/Hampden and run along the canal all the way to the Inner Harbor. The illustration above suggests how the boulevard could be laid out so vehicular traffic wouldn't repel pedestrians and bicyclists. The boulevard would be separated from a bike lane and sidewalk by a parking lane and shade trees. The sunken promenade/bikeway would pass underneath the streets and connect to them via stairways and ramps. Retail alcoves could be built into the embankment to attract people - these alcoves could serve as stalls for the farmer's market:

The canal could also be used as a transit corridor for an urban transit network that would supplement the existing (and hopefully expanded someday) regional metro.* I suggested having short trams or articulated buses run on the network instead of using cumbersome light rail trains.

*Why bother when B'more already has a bus system, right? One virtue of the local transit network would be its placement in dedicated medians (see below) so cars wouldn't delay transit vehicles (and vice versa). The system could essentially be a Quickbus upgrade – think how much quicker they'd be if they had their own lanes! In addition to folding in the Quickbuses, the system could also replace/merge many of the existing conventional bus lines, the Charm City Circulator, the Light Rail, and the Charles Street Trolley streetcar.


Many of the avenues feeding into the JFX - Druid Park Lake Drive, North Avenue, etc. - have devolved into highways. They've cut neighborhoods off from each other and exacerbated the devaluation of streetside rowhouses. I proposed rebuilding these avenues into a network of traditional boulevards that would accommodate several travel modes – cars, bikes, pedestrians, and transit (see above). I think this approach could make Baltimore's avenues more attractive to streetside residences, bicyclists, and pedestrians without compromising vehicle access or on-street parking.

One example of a rebuilt avenue is my suggestion for redoing the mess of “drives” that slither along the southern rim of Druid Hill Park. By rebuilding this entire mess into a single boulevard (with sidewalks separated from travel lanes by bike lanes, shade trees, and parking lanes – see above), I think Reservoir Hill could reconnect to the park and improve quickly:

Druid Hill Park could also contain several new porticoes – especially at Mondawmin, where I suggested extending the mall to a new transit + metro roundabout that would contain a grand entrance to the park. The fragmented parts of the park below the new boulevard could be infilled with graceful mixed-used buildings that would serve as a convenient retail node. The infill could even form a “street wall” that would evoke a grand urban-to-rural transition:


I hope this vision can spur a discussion on finding a multiform solution for the JFX. The city will have to spend a lot of money to shore up the expressway in the coming decades anyway – I think it could remove the barrier once and for all by building a multipurpose corridor that could provide more lasting benefits to the city of Baltimore.

See larger images of the materials and more commentary:


  1. Wow, this is *very* good. Marc clearly knows good urban design and architecture. The "Proposal for a Block of Rowhouses, Baltimore" is an absolutely outstanding design. 99.9% of architects today would have no idea how to create a block so beautiful and uplifting. His designs are absolutely worthy of Mount Vernon, and his Penn Station proposal is fantastic!

  2. As a downtown Baltimore resident (Old Goucher), bike-to-worker, avid runner (I wish Jones Falls Trail would extend), I am in love with this proposal. I would suggest incorporating the Herring Run Trail which currently extends on the eastern edge of Hampden through Charles Village. (Maybe you did and I missed it). As much as I love these ideas, I am saddened at the hard reality that the alteration of the JFX from highway to boulevard is at best, a pipe dream. Still this proposal puts detailed visions to practical blueprint. Thanks.

  3. I especially like the Real Boulevards discussion -- and the idea of incorporating the Herring Run Trail, which is the target of a current Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Urban Pathways initiative. Marc, you do such a great job of painting pictures of the ideas here -- both literally and with your narrative. Worthy of a sit-down with city leaders and residents!

  4. Marc, your concepts and drawings are great. I really hope there are places in Baltimore where they could be applied, and I'd love to help figure it out, but I have no idea where. As you say, the city has been grappling with this seemingly forever. And we need to do the most with the least - while we solve all our other urban ills (e.g. taxes, crime, schools, as you say.)

    But we need to clarify a few things:

    1 - What constitutes a "real boulevard"? Druid Park Lake Drive and President Street (south end of the JFX) are already similar to what you describe. And they're not good. Heavy traffic is a real impediment. But they're what we have to work with. On the west side of Druid Hill Park, shifting the traffic away from the community is a better idea in my opinion (a parkway instead of a boulevard - see my article:

    (We already have great "street walls" here, although their integrity keeps diminishing with blight.)

    2 - We already have a light rail line in this corridor. The MTA has failed with it, so we need to make it work, especially tying it in to the rest of the system, not start over. Instead, the city wants to destroy more of Howard Street even though it is already an almost ideal historical environment.

    3 - Strengthening the street grid is also a great idea, but again, we're up against the powers-that-be which prefer massive projects. An easy but critical place to make it work would be Oliver Street between Penn Station/U of Balt/MICA/Bolton Hill, but they'd rather it stay as a dangerous dumpster area. Moreover, between Mount Vernon and Old Town (south of the prisons), extending and integrating the grids would actually be easier going under the JFX than running into a big fat boulevard.

    4 - We desperately need some "easy victories" to demonstrate transit oriented development. But the city is more interested in mega-projects than actually making what we already have work. TOD has recently underperformed at Mondawmin, Symphony Center, The Fitzgerald, etc. due to bad design, bad transit, overdominant parking and just plain bad intentions.

    5 - Let's not forget that the JFX buffers the prison district from Mount Vernon, and is a valuable traffic bypass, much to the relief of local residents. Making Mount Vernon as viable as possible must be the utmost priority.

    Stu Sirota and I usually disagree on concepts, but our disagreements tend to vanish whenever we get to the bottom line. That's probably the case here as well.

  5. Hi all, thanks for the comments!

    Gerry, I was thrilled to get a comment from you; I knew you'd have some great input on this! Before/during the drafting of this proposal I actually perused a lot of your posts on B'more InnerSpace religiously and am aware of your suggestions for the area around Druid Hill, the area around the elevated part of the JFX, etc. (I still remember walking these areas and feeling quite repulsed almost a decade ago, and I wondered if there ever was any discussion in B'more on improving the situation, which led me to discover your blog.)

    I was actually inspired to use the term "real boulevards" and to illustrate some suggestions for multiform boulevards from the discussion on InnerSpace where you pointed out that all of B'more's "boulevards" are boulevards in name only (MLK is probably the most infamous example here). But I am convinced that heavy car traffic does not necessarily result in a dead street if it is handled in the most artful fashion - plenty of European urban avenues are filled with fast-moving cars but still maintain a thriving street life because the divisions/transitions between the different forms/modes of traffic are handled so artfully.

    By the way, this proposal is by no means a "fixed" or "finished" solution - I'm sure there are many thousands of iterations and alterations that could work better or just as good with different design elements (I already have a couple in mind). For example, I'm glad you brought up the idea of having the street grid extended continuously under the elevated part of the JFX; I actually wondered if an alternate strategy for that section - a sort of Promenade Plantee-style elevated expressway filled in with shops and intimate gathering spaces underneath might be cool too, but I thought a continuous recreational corridor (the Falls turned canal) might attract more people.

    I wrote a follow-up blog post that discusses that idea (and a lot of other questions sure to come up) that I think Stu will be posting next week.

    PS - There is one design option for traffic-heavy arteries that is common in Europe but which never caught on in the US (I'm still wondering why) - the underground pedestrian mall situated beneath roundabouts and major intersections. These are not gloomy corridors but rather well-lit miniature commercial nodes that connect all the sidewalks around an intersection so the pedestrians/bicyclists don't have to cross at street level (even though that option remains). The passageways are lined with small shops, vendors' alcoves, public toilets, and ticket machines (if they also happen to connect to a transit line in an avenue's median). There's a great one in Wroclaw, Poland that connects sidewalks, contains shops, has stairs with bike ramps (these are added unconsciously to every public stair in Europe just as frequently as we unconsciously add parking spaces to every building here in the US), connects to a transit hub in the middle of the roundabout, and even connects to a shopping mall on one side.

    That's kind of what I was striving for at the proposed Mondawmin roundabout - extending the mall up to the roundabout, having the avenue-median transit line connect right on top of the existing metro stop, and having a grand entrance to Druid Hill Park as well.

  6. Arrghh, Blogger appears to have eaten my comment, but unfortunately I didn't Ctrl+C it... Let's see if I can remember what I said.

    Thanks for the kind comments everyone! Gerry, I was thrilled to see your comment; I knew you'd have some great insight on these ideas! Before/during the process of drafting this proposal, I religiously read through many of the posts on InnerSpace so I am aware of your suggestions for the Druid Park area, the area around the elevated part of the JFX, etc., etc.

    When I first walked around these areas (almost a decade ago now as a kid) I was repulsed by the poor postwar design choices (even though I was too young to describe what specifically repulsed me and other pedestrians). I thought about these areas all through college and first ran across InnerSpace when I decided to see if anyone in B'more had any ideas for repairing these corridors.

    My decision to use the term "real boulevards" and to illustrate suggestions for multiform boulevards followed directly from the discussion on InnerSpace - you described very well why all of B'more's "boulevards" are boulevards in name only. (MLK is probably the most infamous example.) But I'm convinced traffic-heavy corridors can still attract people - Europe has many, many examples of big avenues filled with high-speed cars that still manage to attract bicyclists, pedestrians, and street-facing residences/retail because the divisions/transitions between all these travel modes are handled so artfully and gracefully. Obviously you can't just airlift a section of the Champs Elysee into B'more and expect to get the same results, but it does show us that heavy traffic does not necessarily result in 'street death.'

    ...(continued below)...

  7. ...(continued)...

    I'm glad you brought up the idea of extending the street grid under the elevated part of the JFX below the prisons - I actually wondered if an alternate strategy of a Promenade Plantee-style elevated expressway filled in with retail and intimate public spaces below might be cooler, but I figured a Falls-turned-canal might attract more people. I actually discuss this idea in more detail in a follow-up blog post that I think Stu will be posting next week. That post also tries to address a few other questions sure to come up, like MONEY. :)

    I definitely agree that a host of small-scale "easy victories" makes more sense (like finally addressing the Highway to Nowhere, as Baltimorphosis proposed), and this proposal attempts to be a tie-together for a lot of localized ideas. Unfotunately a small-scale "easy victory" doesn't seem to garner the same degree of attention as a "master plan."

    The prison district is interesting. The architecture of the old part - along Eager Street -
    manages to retain some pedestrians (they admittedly may be mostly bailees heading away from the jail as fast as possible). I even saw vendor's carts/tables on Eager a couple of times. I think the magnificent architecture of the old jail plays a role in retaining the last dregs of pedestrian life on that stretch of Eager and, if extended, that architecture could be a comforting enclosure for the entire prison district in which people wouldn't mind walking past it. (It works for Philly's old Eastern State Penintentiary.)

    ...(continued below)...

  8. ...(continued)...

    There's an interesting alternate strategy for dealing with the pedestrians vs. heavy traffic flow issue in Europe that never really caught on in the US (I'm still wondering why) - underground pedestrian malls underneath major intersections and roundabouts that connect all the sidewalks. These underground malls avoid being gloomy rat runs - they contain little shops, vendor's alcoves, public toilets, and ticket machines (if they connect to an avenue-median transit network above). There's a great one in Wroclaw, Poland* that has a roundabout transit hub, underground passageways with artwork, shops, a connection to a shopping mall on one side, and stairs with bike ramps (they unconsciously add bike ramps to every public stairway in Europe just as frequently as we unconsciously add parking spaces to every building in the US).


    That's kind of what I was striving for at Mondawmin - the median transit network would connect right on top of the existing metro stop, the mall would be extended to the roundabout, and there'd also be a grand portico to Druid Hill Park.

  9. This design is brilliant and beautiful. No complaints. When do we get started?

  10. Marc, this is a terrific proposal and study. I thank Stu for sharing it with us! I think you've done your research and you have presented a very thorough concept. You clearly know the site, as can be seen in your justifications and explanations. I truly hope that the JFX does come down, and of similar proposals, I appreciate your designs the most for their sensitivity to the waterway and for the attention to architectural details. Great work! I hope to see it in real life some day!

  11. This is a beautiful vision. I would love to see it come to fruition.

  12. The designs reminding the old days architecture very beautiful, interesting.

  13. This is great. If you haven't presented this plan to the city, you should.


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