Sunday, January 10, 2016

Why that 4-lane bridge to Harbor Point is a costly mistake

In 2016 Baltimore City will add a brand-new "Bridge to Nowhere" to its already infamous "Highway to Nowhere" . The new bridge will extend all four lanes of Central Avenue onto a 26 acre peninsula with no other place to go.  That peninsula formerly housed the Allied Signal chromium plant and is now known as HarborPoint, the home of the almost complete new Exelon headquarter and a new section of town slated for a total of 3 million square feet of development.
The HarborPoint Peninsula with the narrow City Dock waterbody
on its northside. 

On the face of it 3 million square feet of development are not "nowhere". That much development surely creates a lot of traffic and it sounds very plausible that the sole access that currently exists on Caroline Street cannot support all that new development. After all there are more than 3000 new parking spaces planned for all the new offices, shops and residences, those cars have to get safely in and out, not to mention emergency vehicles.

So why should a new street bridge be a mistake? The City certainly didn't think it would be a mistake and included eight million dollars of total bridge cost into its big $115 million TIF fund package for HarborPoint. The City has defended its access strategy in a long-drawn battle with the Living Classroom Foundation whose marina gets virtually destroyed by it. After that issue has been settled, the bridge is expected to be constructed soon.
The narrow City Dock body of water that will be choked off with a massive
four lane bridge extending Central Avenue

To declare the four lane vehicular bridge a mistake one has to take a broader view at urban transportation and  Baltimore's transportation strategies in particular as well as the specific circulation issues in the Southeast area around Harbor East, Fells Point and Canton. The entire area suffers from significant congestion in large part from its decades of being an unmitigated success. New offices, residences, restaurants and entertainment destinations line the entire stretch along the water from Harbor Place all the way to Canton Crossing with the special little kink that the main waterfront arterials on the west (Pratt and Lombard Streets) is offset from the triplet of main arterials on the east (Eastern, Fleet and Aliceanna). That offset leads to several directional turns of the east-west traffic flow which chokes President Street  over many hours of the day. Central Avenue as a relief valve will not do much to change that congestion, signs trying to direct traffic that way have been in place for years, long before Central Avenue became constricted by the construction that will give it a new shape.

In other words, the bridge is an attempt to add capacity on the last capillary of a system of choked arteries. It amounts to surgery on the blood flow of the pinky finger in a case of congestive heart failure.

Many cities have long realized that they can't build their way out of congestion by adding roadway capacity. The bridge at Central Avenue should be no exception. It may allow the car driving users of HarborPoint to get in and out of their garage and off the peninsula in a jiffy, but immediately thereafter they will be stuck in gridlock.
Early phase of the Exelon Tower construction at HarborPoint

Portland, Oregon has led the way in innovation for decades. Last year the city opened the first new urban bridge in America designed and built only for transit, pedestrians and bicyclists. Portland's long-standing policy of pedestrian first, transit second and car third is the way urban transportation investment has to be directed in other cities as well.

By the time HarborPoint will be built out, at least three major disruptive transportation shifts will have played out. All three are currently only visible as a tip while the iceberg is still concealed from a clear view.
  • The shift from ownership and single person occupancy to car sharing as it is known from ZipCar and Car-to-Go to Uber has just begun and is certain to continue and grow. 
  • It will overlap with the also certain onset of self driving or autonomous vehicles (AV). These two trends together will drastically change urban mobility and assignment of urban public space. The single occupant vehicle driven under 5% of its life and being parked all day and all night will almost certainly become a relic on the trash-heap of history, mostly for economic reasons, namely the high cost per household to maintain and park it, the even higher cost for developers to construct those parking spaces that in when constructed in parking garages cost on average more than the car itself,in part also for environmental reasons.
  • the third trend, the preference for an active lifestyle, high quality of life and urban social in view for some time. Being fueled by America's largest demographic cohorts, the baby boomers and the millennials, it is not expected to subside any time soon.

A model of the final build out of the 3 million square foot HarborPoint
The employees and residents at HarborPoint want to be there because of the water and the spectacular location on this half-island surrounded by water on three sides. Choking the sense of island off with this bridge which will essentially take away the sense of separation that the bobbing boats suggests, weakens the very underpinning of this locational advantage. The massive marinas there already have diminished the experience of the water on this peninsula. The waterfront expreience of the development along Lancaster Street overlooking the tenuous body of water of City Dock (the Eden) will also suffer.

Bill Struever and Michael Beatty have called the Allied Site one of the most spectacular brownfield redevelopment sites in America. The design review at UDARP has carefully calibrated the balance of private and public space.

The bridge as part of the public space is a clunky uninteresting design that will not only do nothing to enhance the pedestrian experience of walking along the waterfront promenade, by covering up the tenuous narrow body of water, it will become an actual liability without serving the intended transportation purpose.

What should have been designed here is a light arched pedestrian and bike drawbridge that is an attraction in itself.  The access problem should have been solved with the Red Line but, to the extent an access problem remains in spite of a new age of transportation, it be mitigated by far less on-site parking combined with a substantially beefed-up water taxi, good bus service and attractive "active" transportation.

I have made these points for years. I wished a new Mayor could still put the breaks on the bridge to nowhere before it is truly too late, but the construction contract will be awarded this month.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Updated for more accurate construction contract schedule. 

SUN article Bridge to Harbor Point means big changes for Living Classrooms
Excessive Parking causes more driving (CityLab)


  1. I couldn't disagree more. I'm a transit advocate, but even I recognize without that bridge, Caroline St. traffic will be untenably bad. I work on Lancaster, at the foot of where this bridge will be built, and Caroline/Lancaster can't handle the coming mess without ultra-wide Central's help. It's a no- brainer. But so was the red line through Harbor East.

  2. What will the pedestrian and bike capacity of the bridge be?

  3. two 5' bike lanes and a 12' promenade