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Changing the West Side story

How to revitalize isolated neighborhoods by breaking down the barriers of oversized roads and fragmented open spaces.

Above: Martin Luther King Blvd. is part of the “bunker mentality” that separates West Baltimore from the rest of the city.

A few months ago, a film crew from MSNBC breezed into town and told us that Martin Luther King Blvd. is still a racial dividing line. If that’s the case, it’s not for lack of doing things.

Over the last half century, the west side has undergone an almost constant flurry of expensive physical redevelopment. But little of this activity was ever scaled to the human level.

Blockbuster projects such as the four square-block Metro West complex of the Social Security Administration created a massive wall that inhibited the flow of people and commerce between downtown and the west side communities of Hollins Hill, Poppleton, Upton and Harlem Park.

While communities south, east and north of the central city have become part of the new vaunted “expanded downtown,” West Baltimore has languished.

What is urgently needed is to scale down the roads and orient them to life-inducing development and to the communities.

The decision by the Social Security Administration to vacate Metro West by 2014 presents a golden opportunity to get rid of the prevailing fortress mentality and allow the urban energy to finally start flowing west.

An earth berm and brick wall separate Heritage Crossing from MLK Blvd. and Metro West complex in the background. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

An earth berm and brick wall separate Heritage Crossing from MLK Blvd., the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway (elevated on right) and Metro West complex (upper left). (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Unfortunately, City Hall is still thinking in terms of gigantism. SSA is at the West Side’s most clogged-up location, where the six-lane MLK Blvd. intersects with the even-bigger Franklin-Mulberry Expressway. Even though the expressway is now fully closed on a temporary basis with no ill-effects, the city wants to keep the status quo.

What’s more, the Downtown Partnership’s Open Space Plan continues to view MLK Blvd. as “an interconnected network of open spaces,” a role in which MLK has always failed miserably because of its overwhelming traffic conflicts. The partnership’s only specific recommendation for the thoroughfare is mundane – to perform landscape work to “limb up” the trees and add “seasonal color” accent plantings.

The real solution is: (1) downsize the expressway, (2) make MLK Blvd. more urban and less of a “wannabe expressway” flanked by fragmented open spaces, (3) introduce a system of new small-scaled local streets, including a new Franklin Street and an extension of Pine Street northward from the University of Maryland campus, and (4) re-orient the area to the SSA property and the area’s local middle-class anchor, Heritage Crossing.

Potential new development would connect Heritage Crossing (right) with the University of Maryland (left) and downtown. (Gerald Neily)

New development along MLK Blvd. where it intersects with the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway would reconnect West Baltimore with the rest of downtown, especially if Pine St. were extended north and west as seen in this image. (Gerald Neily)

Upheavals that Didn’t Work

Change has been enormous on both sides of MLK Blvd., which until the early 1980s was still just series of small streets.

On the downtown side, we’ve seen the disintegration of the Howard Street retail district and the arrival of subway and light rail that were supposed to revive Howard Street but didn’t. On the west side, there was the rise and fall of high-rise, low-income housing projects and their replacement by smaller-scaled socially engineered mixed income communities.

On both sides of the boulevard, there has been the growth of the University of Maryland and its Biotech Park. And of course, the biggest upheaval was the destruction of the Franklin-Mulberry corridor for the “highway to nowhere” and its adjacent wasteland.

The next cataclysmic event is expected to be the abandonment of SSA’s Metro West complex straddling the east end of the highway. The complex was opened in 1980, the only place along the entire 1.4-mile highway corridor where anything was actually built to replace its wake of destruction. Even that will be gone in 2014 in favor of a new SSA complex near the Reisterstown Plaza Metro station.

The exodus of Social Security should be the city’s wake-up call. The bunker mentality that dictated the way the complex was built has become a human barrier, which is the antithesis of what urbanity is all about.

Getting Rid of Barriers

The development just across MLK Blvd. and Franklin Street is a good starting point. Heritage Crossing is a gorgeous low-density neighborhood that was built in the 1990s upon the demolition of previous high-rise projects.

But, sadly, it has failed in its mission to be a catalyst for further revitalization of the depressed communities surrounding it. The reason: Heritage Crossing itself acquired a bunker mentality. Earth berms and a brick wall built to shield the community from MLK Blvd. and the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway also separate the community from Seton Hill and the University of Maryland campus.

Consolidating traffic on the current eastbound right-of-way of the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway would allow Heritage Crossing to expand. (Gerald Neily)

Consolidating traffic onto the eastbound right-of-way of the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway and eliminating the westbound turn lanes of MLK Blvd. at Franklin St. would allow Heritage Crossing to expand. (Gerald Neily)

So instead of shielding the idyllic Heritage Crossing from highways with bunkers, the highways themselves should be urbanized, with additional new development serving as the buffer.

Here’s a prescription to transform the area:

• Downsize the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway by consolidating all its traffic onto its south (now eastbound) roadway. This would free up the tremendous amount of land now occupied and trapped by the median strip and westbound roadway.

The ramps can easily be worked out in a way that eliminates significant congestion on Franklin, Mulberry and MLK Blvd., all of which owe much of their traffic woes to the ways that current connections favor turns onto and off the expressway at their expense.

Pine Street, shown here, should be extended to provide a pedestrian-scaled street connecting Heritage Crossing and Harlem Park to downtown. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Pine Street, shown here near the U. of Md. campus, could provide a pedestrian-scaled street between neighborhoods. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

For example, the current left turn bay from northbound MLK onto westbound Franklin and the expressway is woefully inadequate and disrupts traffic in every direction. It can be replaced with a right turn movement onto a two-way Franklin to access a new expressway connection. Potential congestion on the expressway itself, even in downsized form, is hardly even an issue.

• Extend Pine Street northward from Saratoga Street to integrate the University of Maryland campus with Heritage Crossing. This would necessitate a rather serpentine path to take advantage of the existing opening under the expressway bridge, and to avoid impacting traffic at the MLK/Franklin intersection. But there is virtue in necessity, since it would thereby maximize new development sites, provide a local pedestrian-scaled street to serve them, and echo the curvilinear streets inside Heritage Crossing.

• Expand Heritage Crossing southward into the land regained by downsizing the expressway. This is similar to what was originally proposed by Dan Henson, then the city’s Housing Commissioner, when Heritage Crossing was first being planned.

The expansion should have a gradually increasing density in order to put a more urban face on the community, shield the smaller houses in a more productive way than the current earth berm does, and provide an appropriate transition toward downtown.

The handsome gazebo at Heritage Crossing. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The gazebo at Heritage Crossing. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

This land is essentially flat and easily developable. The notorious ditch of the “highway to nowhere,” where new development will have to get creative, does not emerge until west of Fremont Avenue.

Placing the largest buildings closest to the biggest roads will tone down the dominating impact of the roads. There should also be a Red Line transit station planned for this location, creating a demand for higher density “transit oriented development.”

• Make the Heritage Crossing gazebo the focal point. Both the new Pine Street extension and relocated Franklin Street should be bent to focus on the distinctive and historic gazebo and its surrounding park. Instead of hiding behind the earth berms, the gazebo should shine as an urban icon.

Peter Tocco's Baltimorphosis.com website provides a rich portrait of what can be done by downsizing the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway. The proposed Red Line is at the right.

Peter Tocco's Baltimorphosis.com website provides a rich portrait of what can be done by downsizing the Franklin-Mulberry Corridor. The proposed Red Line is at the right.

Converting Metro West

The reinvention of the West Side requires a sensitive conversion of the Metro West complex into a valuable urban asset. There are many possibilities for the 15-story tower and two five-story wings that SSA will leave behind.

Among them: an apartment complex with a fine view of the city and harbor, a lively cultural and business center, an office-space alternative to the controversial State Center project and an extension of the University of Maryland campus.

With the current concern over empty downtown office space, we must not forget that Metro West could become the mother of all vacant office complexes.

To ward off that possibility, the city needs to start planning now. Its core objection should be to create surroundings that people want to come to, work at and live near. A re-purposed Social Security complex integrated with an expanded Heritage Crossing could light a spark that rejuvenates both sides of MLK Blvd.

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