Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pennsylvania Avenue Rising

In an encouraging introduction "the other Baltimore baker", James Hamlin of the Avenue Bakery, proved  that a successful business on Pennsylvania Avenue is possible, 
Penn and North Mural on the side of the Arch Social Club (photo: ArchPlan)
He was followed by Brad Rogers, member of the Urban Land Institute and leader of a Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) for Pennsylvania Avenue with a remarkable presentation. The TAP had been held in October of last year  on Pennsylvania Avenue. Rogers presentation last night was an ambitious but plausible case for the revival of this once thriving African American Baltimore "main street".

The full report is available online. Rogers explained the report in his presentation but punctuated his slide show with poignant observations that kept the pretty large audience of residents and city representatives riveted. The event took place at the community space of the St. Peter Claver Church where Fremont Avenue intersects with Pennsylvania Avenue.
The legendary, dynamic, and shamefully overlooked history of Pennsylvania Avenue is the single greatest asset that the neighborhoods have at their disposal. It is a unifying principle around which divided communities can organize. It is a brand under which new businesses can grow. It is an identity that can draw customers and tourists from outside the Corridor – not to mention from around the country. (ULI Report)
James Hamlin and Brad Rogers (photo: ArchPlan)

"The demolition of the Royal Theater was a crime", said Rogers when explaining the cycles of history on Pennsylvania Avenue. "The Royal Theater is not there but it's ghost is the embodiment of everything that Pennsylvania Avenue was." 

The report uses Beale Street in Memphis as an example of how a corridor can recover even though it has gone through a very hard downturn in a history very similar to the one of Pennsylvania Avenue. The emphasis must be on organizing, focus and partnerships ULI notes about the Beale Street example. A Development Corporation brought the various groups under one roof to focus on revitalization. This reminded Druid Heights CDC Executive Director Roscoe Johnson of  the PA Avenue development council that he had convened many years back. "We have come full circle", he said. 

Memphis created the three-day Beale Street Music Festival that brought people to the corridor and attracts today about 100,000 people per night. Pennsylvania Avenue once had the Easter Fashion Parade as an annual attraction, it was revived for one year a while back but the Avenue clearly needs a bigger aim. Rogers suggested to move the African American Festival from the parking lot between Camden Yards and the Ravens Stadium to Pennsylvania Avenue. Memphis also built a basketball arena in the corridor and created the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum.
James Hamlin at yesterday's
presentation (photo: Philipsen)

The revival of PA Avenue is not solely hinged on one big idea, Rogers displayed a whole firework of ideas from pop-up events on the green space where the Royal Theater once stood to mobile farmers markets composed of the Arabber horse carts and their fresh food. ("Wednesday in front of the Avenue Market and on Sundays afternoons after church on the Triangle Park", Rogers suggested). 

He thinks of the space next to the Royal Theater marquis as Pennsylvania Avenue's "Y-Not Lot", an event space at Station North at the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue. Put the new Baltimore Jazz festival here, he proposed, not Druid Park. "There is no jazz without alcohol" Rogers observed and figured bars and restuaruants on Penn Ave would be a great thing to enliven the street. Rogers called the intersection at Penn and North "holy ground" and the true "gateway" in the Penn Ave corridor. But his slides showed that this gateway doesn't work yet, too much asphalt and too little in terms of intense use. He showed a library in Minneapolis that was stacked into a larger mixed use building. Combine the library with a health clinic, Rogers suggested and the representative of library sitting in the audience nodded in agreement.  

The ULI report and the unrest have already spurred some unusual collaboration between agencies. The City and MTA collaborated on a successful federal grant application that brings $10 million to North Avenue under a project titled North Avenue Rising, a project mostly focused on the reorganization of the street for more equitable mobility (bus and bike lanes, better pedestrian safety). 
the current #13 bus on North Ave will be the Gold Line under Link Bus
(Photo: ArchPlan)

Under the moderation of Ben Hobbs from BDC a slew of city representatives from Planning, Housing, Parks, Transportation and the MTA got up to describe how their projects and funding will help to implement the Pennsylvania Avenue plan and West Baltimore. 

Baltimore Markets leader Robert Thomas was full of ideas what he wanted to do at the somewhat ailing Avenue Market, including pop-up spaces for hobby cooks and homemade cooking. BDC already reinstated the Main Street program under the guidance of the Upton Planning Committee and Mary Blackwell. "I get things done" she promised. MTA will upgrade their bus operations and stops at Penn/North as early as next year for the start of the Baltimore Link Bus program. The Parks Department will spruce up the small "tired parks" on North Ave and Pennsylvania Avenue to "show that the City has skin in the game", DOT will spend $2 million on pedestrian improvements that will be coordinated with the North Avenue Rising project.
Pennsylvania Avenue: Focus on the two blocks at the
Avenue Market (ULI)
photo: ArchPlan

No doubt, there have been previous spurts and starts on Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue that have not succeeded. This time, the circumstances may just be right to really get something going here. Hopefully the new Mayor will make it a priority.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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