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A Blue-sky Baltimore Blueprint: for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

MLK Jr. Boulevard, looking from the Franklin-Mulberry overpass toward heritage Crossing.
MLK Jr. Boulevard, looking at the Franklin-Mulberry overpasses toward Heritage Crossing.

By Gerald Neily

A bleak, traffic-clogged bypass, carving up the city, MLK Jr. Boulevard wouldn’t be much different after the city’s favored version of the MTA’s $1.6 billion rail transit line got built. It’s no coincidence that the project is set to chug through the same battle ground as the expressway wars of the 1970s. The MTA considers the west side corridor the “easy” part of the project, because all the slashing and burning were already done 30 to 40 years ago.

((First in a series in which Neily dares to describe a better way.))

The Franklin-Mulberry corridor has been an urban wasteland ever since the days of the expressway war. Dubbed “the highway to nowhere,” the big, famously-unfinished highway project has an empty median strip which was always reserved for rail transit. MLK Boulevard was eventually completed, but it has never been more than a slow, pedestrian-unfriendly bypass highway.

This is precisely the area where the Red Line should be designed to reclaim the functional urban fabric, but instead, the MTA and their allies in local government and the business community have been focusing their budget and attention on expensive tunneling under downtown and Fells Point, where the old expressway plan finally met its Waterloo.

Thinking small
To reclaim the west side, as much attention needs to be paid to reinventing the highways and their disturbed environment as to the Red Line itself. But that’s too far outside the box for the bureaucrats to comprehend.

Officially, the only current plan for MLK Boulevard is contained in the 2007 long range plan published by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, to extend it northward through the Mount Royal “cultural” area to the Jones Falls Expressway by 2020. This would make the highway even more of a traffic noose around the west side, and still more of a caricature than a real bypass, with slow overly complex traffic signal patterns bogging down traffic at almost every intersection.

Don’t refight old battles, rise above them:

  • Both MLK Boulevard and the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway should be rebuilt to accommodate the same traffic in far less space, freeing up vast acres of real estate for new transit-oriented urban communities to be served by the Red Line. The FMX was built to wholly superfluous Interstate highway standards, since it never became an Interstate highway. It needs to be shrunk to about half its size, narrowed from six to four lanes with no shoulders, with the Red Line next to it and adjacent to new development, instead of landlocked inside the median.
  • MLK Boulevard also needs to be shrunk, to isolate through traffic into a middle section, flanked by service drives to reconnect it to its surroundings.
  • Most importantly, the gigantic bloated overpasses that comprise the interchange between the two roads need to be demolished and replaced by a new urban community. This interchange is the largest and most damaging actually-built vestige of the dead expressway plan. It is a huge barrier, positioned to forever prevent the communities of the northwest inner city, including Upton, Lafayette Square, Harlem Park and even the gorgeous brand-new Heritage Crossing, from ever feeling the urban energy emanating from downtown. That energy has revitalized neighborhoods in all other directions but can’t jump over the bleak, yawning space created by MLK.
  • The Red Line needs to have a prominent station where the hovering overpasses now lurk, which would be a focal point for a new urban community that would flow unobtrusively into downtown and the University of Maryland to the south, and Heritage Crossing to the north.

The MTA Red Line plan is poised to re-enact the old expressway wars, when it should really be focused on healing the old expressway scars.

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