In the 1960s, as everyone knows, the yet-to-be-named Inner Harbor was a dreary landscape of derelict warehouses, old piers and end-stage industrial sites like the Allied Chemical plant.
A border vacuum. That’s what urban visionary Jane Jacobs called such soul-sucking, community-defeating places.
Since then, Baltimore has focused on revitalizing its waterfront, inspiring copy-cat versions in cities around the globe and continual local efforts to replicate the magic – most recently atop the chromium-laced remnants of the Allied Chemical plant (which has been renamed Harbor Point).
But the revitalization strategy for inland areas of the city should really be no different than for the waterfront – fighting border vacuums. The wonderful-but-struggling north edge of Carroll Park is a prime example.
Like the harbor, Carroll Park is beautiful and full of fascinating historical lore. It’s got Baltimore’s grandest colonial home, the Mount Clare Mansion, for instance and the “First Mile” of the B&O railroad – the birthplace of American railroading – runs right along the northern edge of the park.
Unfortunately, this historic rail corridor completely cuts West Baltimore off from the park and the iconic mansion. Pigtown enjoys easy access to Carroll Park from the east and south, but communities like Mount Clare, Carrollton Ridge, Union Square and Steuart Hill are out of luck.
How cruelly ironic that a railroad corridor that helped unify an entire continent still walls off the communities in which it was born!
Further evidence of this painful irony can be seen in the blocks immediately to the north of Carroll Park – the closer they are to the park and mansion, the worse condition they’re in.
This is quite contrary to typical park-neighborhood synergy, in which the blocks closest to a park tend to be the strongest, as is the case with Patterson Park.
Fortunately, there are ways to solve this problem, and people in the community are actively exploring them.
We offer here our approach, a proposal we developed with support from The Warnock Foundation. The foundation recently established The Baltimore Social Innovation Journal to solicit, discuss and support ideas for improving Baltimore. Our proposal for redoing the northern edge of Carroll Park is one of 13 ideas profiled in the journal’s inaugural issue.
[See SLIDESHOW illustrating our idea at the end of the post.]
It’s clear that people want to access the park from the north despite official prohibitions on trespassing. There’s evidence in the form of what planners call “desire trails, or unofficial, tramped-down, ad hoc paths that usually represent the shortest distance between two places.
On our many visits to the area, we have noticed accompanying homemade directional signs (see below) and have frequently spotted pedestrians and bicyclists using them.
The solution to this particular border vacuum is the same as that deployed along the harbor: the northern edge of the park needs to be turned into a people place.
That is, the northern side of Carroll Park needs to have an active, permeable urban enclosure, which is what the eastern and southern sides already have.
To create the initial connection, Mount Clare’s dead-ended Fulton Avenue and Mount Street could be extended right into Carroll Park, as suggested in the illustration at the top of this story. This would allow the Mount Clare Mansion to assume its natural role as the neighborhood’s focal point, thus drawing people in.
A new parkfront avenue running along the historic B&O tracks could celebrate the “First Mile” of American railroading and supply Mount Clare with a well-defined park edge, parkside promenade and local main street.
This “First Mile Avenue” would be incrementally extended along the entire northern edge of the park: the iconic B&O roundhouse would serve as the eastern anchor while Montgomery Park, the city’s largest office building, would serve as the western anchor, as suggested in this diagram.
Excuse us, CSX, We’re Playing Through!
Carroll Park could even be connected to the “out of sight, out of mind” Carroll Park Golf Course via a strategically-bermed clubhouse portal passing under the CSX tracks – the Olmsted brothers proposed such a connection way back in 1907. The course could then be re-oriented and re-branded to make it a true urban golf course.
This would allow the Gwynns Falls Trail to run along the edge of the course, through the portal, and through the park, thus opening up to all of Baltimore the magnificent and bucolic Gwynns Falls Valley and its amazing attractions – like the soaring Carrollton Viaduct, the continent’s oldest railroad bridge still in use.
The First Mile corridor is owned by the B&O Railroad Museum, which would like to make it more attractive. John Ott, the museum’s first director, envisioned transforming the corridor into the “Williamsburg of Railroading.”
But challenged by several concerns – like strict federal safety regulations, security issues and recovering from the roundhouse roof collapse of a decade ago – the museum has understandably moved slowly towards this goal.
The museum infrequently runs tourist trains on the corridor, so it is subject to the same federal regulations that apply to “Class I” railroads like CSX. At-grade crossing is stringently regulated and discouraged – hence the “no trespassing” signs plastered all along the corridor.
It would therefore seem that Mount Clare’s need for frequent, at-grade, street-dependent access to Carroll Park is in direct conflict with federal regulations that severely restrict such access.
So to realize the dream of giving this rail corridor the Historic Williamsburg treatment means rethinking what kind of “railroad” the First Mile corridor should actually be.
The Streetcar Solution
Since “heavy rail” corridors are incompatible with casual at-grade crossing, why not accommodate this crossing by converting the First Mile corridor into “light rail” – that is, a streetcar line? Unlike a conventional rail line, a streetcar is perfectly compatible with the urban milieu – more in keeping with the much-needed spirit of a “people place.”
In his “Williamsburg” vision, John Ott proposed incorporating the Baltimore Streetcar Museum into the B&O Museum – and that could be accomplished by relocating the streetcar museum to one of the historic Washington Boulevard streetcar barns.
A “First Mile” tourist streetcar line would conveniently connect the two parts of the combined railroad/streetcar museum and maintain the historical profile of the corridor. In the future, th e line could seamlessly connect to a modern streetcar network linking to the Inner Harbor and other parts of the city.
There are many solutions for this border vacuum, but in its current state it’s a corrosive barrier that discourages all the great things city living should be about, thus reinforcing the unfortunate myth that city life begins and ends at the waterfront.
Marc Szarkowski creates plans, models, and illustrations of urban design, planning, and architecture proposals, and is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Architecture. Gerald Neily, who writes for Baltimore Brew, was transportation planner for the city Department of Planning from 1977 to 1996.
–SLIDESHOW BELOW – To view all 10 slides in Marc Szarkowski’s slideshow, grab the bar at right and pull down. (Thanks to Ben Kutil for help embedding it!)