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Plan to Build "Caps" Over Baltimore’s "Highway to Nowhere:" not worth the wait


A long time ago, the City killed most of its plan, hatched in the 1960s, to build the “3-A Expressway” across town. The part of 3-A that did go forward, the replacement of US 40 on Franklin and Mulberry Streets with a nine-block-long chasm, displaced thousands in west Baltimore.

Now, some 40 years later, the city is still promising to fulfill one promise made as part of the old 3-A plan. They say they will build a series of “caps,” developable land bridges across the highway to heal the split-apart community.

That goal is great, but this solution is not:  it doesn’t make economic sense, and these band-aids suspended over a river of traffic won’t foster a sense of community. Plus, the City’s latest plan is that the work on the project wouldn’t be completed until after 2043 …. a good 73 years after the original promise.

Ancient Planning Documents Unearthed

The early proposal for the “cap” concept can be found in a large report published in 1970 (“Corridor Development, Baltimore Interstate Highway System 3-A / Segment 10”) . The idea was to build a series of partial caps that would be economically viable while still allowing for new development. A full cap over the entire nine-block ditch was considered economically infeasible even then, in part because of the expensive ventilation system it would require for the highway below. But 39 years later, there is still not even a single cap.

Fast Forward to 2009

City officials, however, are still trying to build one of these things, as documented on page 29 of their April 2009 report, “The Next Federal Transportation Bill,” which proposes an $11.2 million federal funding request for the first part of the “cap.” This report backs up a City Planning study from the previous November, entitled “West Baltimore MARC Station Master Plan“.

The proposed time frame for building the cap over the expressway contained in this report is rather vague and mathematically dubious – but what is clear is that this is a long term proposition, not something that will happen soon.

The reference to the cap is in Chapter 4, on page 77, in the section entitled “Phase II – Next 15 Years (2023-2043)”. (So, is it 15 years or 20 years?)

The previous section is entitled, “Phase I – Next 10 Years (2013-2028)”. (Is it 10 years or 15 years?)

The city does hold out some hope the plan can be done sooner than 2043, stating “the first section of the “Highway to Somewhere” could be development-ready for private investment in either Phase I or Phase II,” but it is not mentioned in the Phase I section description.

Highway to Somewhere?

“Highway to Somewhere” is apparently the City’s moniker for the cap, and therein lies one source of confusion. The City doesn’t plan to change the highway fragment that was built inside the ditch in the 1970s at all. It still would not serve the land around it, but would remain a bypass between downtown and US 40 to the west.

The economic problems that have prevented the “cap” from being built in the past four decades are still as strong as ever. Ventilation of the highway below is a mere part of it.

The overarching problem is that the land is still not worth enough to make it economically feasible to build an expensive elevated structure to support additional developable land.

Transit, as Planned Here, Won’t Help

Another pipe dream is that building a rail transit line inside the ditch would raise property values enough so that such development could be built. This was also a part of the 1960s plan, which reserved space in the highway median strip for a future transit line originally to be built in the 1980s.

But this strategy has never worked anywhere it has been tried in Baltimore, from Howard Street to Owings Mills and everywhere in between. The crucial need is to fully integrate the transit stations as seamlessly as possible into a much larger area.

Even if the proposed partial one or two block cap was built to support this Red Line station by 2043, it would not be integrated into the community, because any attempt at new development would rub up against the seven blocks of the ditch on either side which would be exposed to the expressway and not capped off.

Even worse, the part of the expressway that is elevated beyond the ditch toward Martin Luther King Boulevard and downtown to the east cannot ever be capped off, and would remain forever as an urban dead zone preventing the economic and human energy of downtown from extending into the Franklin-Mulberry corridor.

Planning 101: Green Space Over “The Ditch” Won’t Work

The City artist’s conception of their plan for one block (shown above) demonstrates that they have no clue as to the impact of such boundary effects. The City’s recent report touts the proposed cap as a way to create new green space for the community, stating “one block of capped freeway alone would create 6 – 8 acres of green space.” (Never mind that the city’s math is as bad as in the previous report; the blocks in the corridor are approximately 330 feet square, which is only about 2.5 acres.)

West Baltimore 345

Virtually every credible urbanist since Jane Jacobs has pointed out that safe useful community parks must have surveillance on all sides, meaning that green space should not be a primary use over the ditch. The ditch corridor already has many acres of green space in the properties leftover from building the highway, as shown here, and these are as forlorn as anything else within the swath.

The surrounding neighborhoods also have the leftover remnants of many “inner block parks” which back up to the backyards and back alleys and thus are also havens for unsupervised illicit activity. The drawing which accompanies the latest city plan shows the development of still more of this type of failed park.

Community on the Edge: a Solution

In sum, even if the proposed cap over the highway was finally built after 50 or 70 years or whenever, it would mark the continuation of the same planning strategies which have failed since the 1960s – keeping the highway and the surrounding communities on the edge of a dead zone, with inevitable and constant friction created by the juxtaposition.

What is needed is a total change in the area’s urban geography. Since the expressway system was never built, there is no need to hold the small piece in the ditch to Interstate highway standards. It can be redesigned to accommodate all the traffic it now or ever could  physically carry, but it could occupy only a small part of the ditch. This would allow the ditch itself to be reconfigured to become truly an integral part of the community.

Perhaps even more importantly, the elevated portion of the highway over MLK Boulevard between the ditch and downtown needs to be dismantled. This is far more crucial to releasing the corridor to new development energy than the often discussed idea of knocking down the JFX on the east side of downtown.

Crucial Juncture Now

The “window of opportunity” to reinvent these areas, however, is now closing rapidly with the completion of planning for the transit Red Line, which once built, will make it extremely difficult to make fundamental changes to the urban geography. This is cruelly ironic because a properly designed Red Line would be a great vehicle to actually drive the necessary revitalization of the corridor.

Good, effective, do-able plans for these areas can be created, as demonstrated by the independent BaltiMorphosis.com (of which I am a contributor).

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