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Commentaryby Gerald Neily11:36 amAug 9, 20130

Baltimore’s future tied to the fate of the Metro West complex

OPINION: Downsizing the “Highway to Nowhere” is the first step to resuscitate the dead zone surrounding the soon-to-be-vacated SSA facility.

Above: Metro West as seen from the great roadblock to economic development of West Baltimore.

Forget, if you would for a minute, Harbor Point. Or remember that it’s just a peninsula.

Far more important to the city’s long-term future is a plot of land lying about 2½ miles to the northwest – Metro West, home of the Social Security Administration’s teleservice center.

Sited on the precipice between downtown and West Baltimore, the fate of these 11 acres is far more central to the city’s attempts to reverse its decades-old decline in population and neighborhood stability than anything on the attention-grabbing waterfront.

This week the federal General Services Administration began soliciting ideas for what to do with 1.1 million square foot facility, which the SSA will be vacating next year for a new building in northwest Baltimore – adding to downtown’s distressing inventory of empty office space.

A Radical Rework

The Social Security complex first opened in 1980, soon after the completion of what has become known as the “Highway to Nowhere,” which runs around and through the massive complex.

What the city and the GSA need to recognize is that the highway’s negative forces over Metro West and the surrounding area are as strong as ever. The highway needs to be radically reworked to enable the west and northwest sides to spring back to the life that was interrupted by the road.

As it now stands, the 1.4-mile-long highway stub prevents any economic energy from being transmitted beyond downtown. No amount of piecemeal city spending has changed that dynamic.


Wasted “open space” between the highway corridors running under the SSA complex. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The adjacent Heritage Crossing neighborhood, built in the 1990s, has failed to stimulate the emptied-out Fremont corridor or Harlem Park further to the west.

And the multi-billion-dollar Red Line light-rail project, whose proposed downtown tunnel was recently extended to bypass Metro West, won’t change it, either.

It is therefore fitting that Metro West’s closure will occur at about the same time that the Highway to Nowhere is also being closed for rehabilitation.

But the 1.4-mile highway segment is only being closed temporarily and intermittently, to facilitate the reconstruction of its westernmost three blocks between Pulaski Street and the Fulton underpass to accommodate an expanded MARC commuter rail parking lot and perhaps eventually the Red Line.

But when this newly refurbished piece of the Highway to Nowhere is completed, it will all again be reopened to traffic.

Downsizing a Roadblock

It’s patently obvious that the Highway to Nowhere should be recognized as the mistake it was, and torn down to spur redevelopment rather than rebuilt. But how?

One idea that came out of the Red Line Station Area Advisory Committee process was to tear down the two overpasses that send the highway over Martin Luther King Boulevard near Metro West.

Unfortunately, the same traffic would still be there, causing the same disruption and divisiveness on Franklin and Mulberry streets. The isolation of Heritage Crossing and adjacent communities would remain.

The contrast between Heritage Crossing (left) and the wrecked rowhouses next door on Brune Street illustrates the absence of economic stimulus on the Westside. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The contrast between Heritage Crossing (left) and the wrecked rowhouses next door on Edmondson Avenue illustrates the absence of economic stimulus on the Westside. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

A better solution would be to tear down one overpass and consolidate as much of the traffic as possible in both directions on the other overpass. This would essentially downsize the highway from a 300-foot, block-width swath to only about 40 feet, and would still enable the heavy traffic to be removed from Franklin and Mulberry streets. The overpasses are actually expansive enough to let an additional local street go underneath.

This would open up everything. The entire corridor between Franklin and Mulberry streets could then be transformed into a unified, livable layout. The University of Maryland campus, south of Saratoga Street, would also be opened up to Metro West as the new economic anchor, which could then be extended northwest to Heritage Crossing.

Redirecting the Red Line

As currently planned, the proposed Red Line tunnel is a major blown opportunity. Instead of the huge (and most likely unaffordable) tunnel, the Red Line should follow its previous alignment to MLK Boulevard, then have a short branch eastward along Saratoga Street (directly adjacent to Metro West) and connect via short two-block tunnel into the Lexington Market Metro station.

The MTA keeps saying they can’t extend the Red Line to the Metro – as has been proposed since the 1960s – but a direct connection for passengers at the Lexington Market station is far preferable than the planned two-block-long underground pedestrian passageway to Charles Center.

A surface Red Line extension to the Inner Harbor and the southeast waterfront could still be built – and would be far more convenient to local riders.

Saratoga Street currently divides rather than connects Metro West with the University of Maryland campus. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Saratoga Street currently divides rather than connects Metro West with the University of Maryland campus. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Humanizing the Monolith

Metro West’s redevelopment potential is severely compromised by its fortress-like configuration.

Downsizing the highway cutting through the complex could start the process by which the site is rewoven into the urban fabric of the University of Maryland, Heritage Crossing and neighborhoods beyond.

Over time, a monolithic, daytime-only office space could be transformed into a diverse “college town” that would spur housing demands by students, staff and potentially faculty (if only Lafayette and the other great West Baltimore squares could be revived).

As an integral part of re-purposing Metro West, let’s breathe life back into an area that has been deprived of economic oxygen for so long by the mistakes of the past.
Gerald Neily was transportation planner for the Baltimore City Department of Planning from 1977 to 1996, and has been a consultant before and since.

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