Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Preston Gardens, early victim of traffic engineering

This is the first in a series of explorations of urban spaces which were  ruined by traffic engineering and need to be saved by better urban design.

Preston Gardens, conceived by City Beautiful architect Thomas Hastings as a link between the Washington Monument and Monument Square at the Baltimore court house, was an early victim of car-centric planning that broke out in Baltimore and across America as soon as automobiles started clogging city streets.

Preston Gardens per a pre-war rendering shows St Paul Place as an urban
boulevard (rendering form Preservation Maryland)
the historic aerial view shows how disruptive the
Orleans Street viaduct is
Barely finished as an element of a formal Baltimore City Plan conceived by Carrère & Hastings, at the time one of America's most notable architects and urban planners (New York Public Library) who replaced Olmstead's more romantic notion of landscape with more formal concepts their plans for Baltimore got already compromised. The City Plan 1917 commissioned  in 1907 by then Baltimore Mayor James H.Preston envisoned a beautified and more orderly Baltimore like other City Beautiful plans in cities such as Cleveland. (Preston's orderliness also included demolition of black educational institutions, law offices, residences and churches for the benefit of Preston Gardens, an approach A. Pietila called "negro removal" in his book "Not in my Neighborhood"). 

Baltimore always had a way of pragmatically muddling through instead of letting one big idea get the upper hand for too long and so Preston Gardens was soon to be brutally bisected by the Orleans Street Viaduct (then called the Bath Street Viaduct), Baltimore's first inner city freeway which was designed just a year after Hastings death in 1929 and completed in the late 1930ies.

Since then Preston Gardens has been nibbled at and neglected for decades. The biggest insult came with the one-way street craze that eliminated the urban boulevard of the upper level now called St Paul Place in favor of some  kind of half baked service-road with parking while the main traffic was routed below Preston Gardens on the south effectively cutting it off from use.
The Bath Street viaduct under construction in 1935

Preston Gardens went unnoticed and neglected until the Downtown Partnership took it under its wings. First placing holiday lights there during the Christmas season then in 2013 initiating a restoration of the lower garden designed by the Oasis Group. Last year innovative and colorful lighting was added to the underside of the Orleans Street Overpass.

The final and most visible step of DPoB improvements is planned for the upper level at St Paul Place with construction starting in May. Designed by Floura Teeter the $6.4 million construction will take out the northbound lanes and the parking there, stabilize the wall and replace a water main. Monumental Construction was the winning bidder. According to Kirby Fowler of DPoB, funders include DPoB, Mercy Hospital and some money from State and federal sources. The increase of the pedestrian area will create a pleasant park on the upper level which will be more accessible and potentially also more pleasant than the lower one, because the lower level is ruined by the high volume of cars zipping by and the fact that the gardens are hemmed in between the traffic and the retaining wall that deals with the significant grade difference between the levels.
Floura Teeter design for Saint Paul Place: No Northbound lanes

For urban design reasons, I would have probably tried to make the upper level the actual traffic route again with bi-directional traffic as envisioned in the original Hastings design. Coming from Mount Vernon into town via a boulevard instead of two sloping S curves would be a much grander entry, whether on foot, by bike, on a bus or in a car. That, in turn would have made the lower road a mere hospital access route allowing easier crossings, a wide sidewalk along the edge of the park and a pleasant lower park. As it is, Baltimore isn't ready for such drastic changes that would really undo the big car centric preferences that dictated Baltimore's urban planning for 75 years. include two-way traffic on St Paul Street.

The designed, funded and enlarged Preston Gardens which we will get soon, though, will be a lot better than what we have now.
The S-curve entry into downtown, too much asphalt and no view
(photo Gerald Neily)



Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for some details of the new gardens and for Pietila reference 22:36h

Gerald Neily wrote about Preston Gardens on his blog Baltimore Inner Space (2007)
Flora Teeter rendering of the future upper gardens

Preston Gardens under construction

Parking automobiles has been a bane to the city ever since they were invented
Looking north with Preston Gardens in the background