Thursday, October 12, 2017

DOT misses another opportunity

DOT will spend $6.3 million on reconstructing one of the more prominent intersections in Baltimore. In the end it will all pretty much as before and another big opportunity of redefining public spaces at the Inner Harbor will be lost. Lengthy procedures and tepid results seem to be the daily diet  of Baltimore transportation. Tepid is how DOT started designing this intersection three years before Ayer Saint Gross would present their concepts for what they called "Harbor 2.0" and six years before the McKeldin Fountain would have been destroyed under the promise that Light Street would be reconfigured and tepid is how it ends in 2017.
Light Street looking south some years back when the rail track was
still exposed: Too much concrete (Photo: Gerald Neily)

The result is that the McKeldin Fountain has been lost without any progress on re-configuring Light Street and that the expenditure at Key Highway will dim hope of really dealing with Light Street in a comprehensive fashion. This is a sad outcome given how much space is wasted for an abundance of concrete pavement between Key Highway and Pratt Street in this vestige of a time when car mobility was an overriding urban planning consideration. It is especially depressing considering the are is right in Baltimore's signature Inner Harbor area for which the city has become known the world over.

When I-95 and I-83  freeway flyovers across the Inner Harbor were defeated and this perfect dream for car-centered mobility was busted, it appeared necessary to give traffic planners and suburban drivers a consolation prize in form of Pratt, Light and Key Highway designed as surface freeways. A prevois mayor's idea of bringing the Grand Prix to these streets wasn't totally illogical, no matter how ill conceived. In spite of all the lip service given to complete streets and multi-modal transportation, the three excessive roadways still have a perfect stranglehold on the Inner Harbor and continue to isolate it as a tourist ghetto separated from the surrounding come-back neighborhoods by raods that are hard to cross. It is useful to remember that when these roadways were first paved, Otterbein and Federal Hill were "dollar-house" communities and nobody lived in downtown or along Key Highway.
Light Street before the Inner Harbor was transformed (Kilduff)

Today the areas around the water have a significant influx of residents increases while the city on balance can barely hold its population steady. In that situation it seems like it would be DOT's task to bring these roadways into the 21st century and make them part of an urban fabric that connects with the flourishing neighborhoods all along them.

But nope. From the get-go DOT tinkered around the margins of just one intersection without any strategy for the bigger context. First the department had worked out a traffic rotary for Pratt and Light which the SUN reported to be ready for construction in July 2012. But even the circle, which really didn't solve the bigger problem anyway, was considered as too daring by traffic engineers and nixed. Instead of using ASG's Harbor 2.0 visioning as a wake-up call for bigger thinking, DOT kept the blinders on and hired STV engineers to come up with another design for just this limited intersection area. In a required and aptly named "de minimis finding" document which was presented in 2016, the myopic scope was described this way:
The scope of work consists of reconstruction of the intersection to improve traffic and pedestrian safety, along with reconstruction of Key Highway between Light Street and Battery Avenue. Sidewalks will be reconstructed to ADA compliance. The project also includes signal upgrades, landscaping, and extension of the existing Gwynns Falls Trail along Key Highway between William Street and Covington Street.

Work within the Recreation and Parks property consists of driveway and ADA ramp adjustments, improvements to the Gwynns Falls Trail, replacement of trees that are in poor health and planting of additional trees and grass areas.
The intersection plan presented as part of the "de minimis" finding (STV)
Harbor 2.0, meanwhile, in spite of its little traffic bomb further north at Pratt and Light, where ASG coolly proposed to close the swoop that connects northbound Light with northbound Calvert Street remained largely inconsequential. Per the usual piecemeal approach another traffic engineering firm was hired to study the northern Pratt and Light intersection. The results of that investigation have been kept under lock to this day and the spur to Calvert Street remains open without modification, no matter that the fountain had been destroyed in anticipation of the connection.
Harbor 2.0 addressed traffic mostly in the
northern section of Light Street near Pratt.
The width reduction proposed there should
have been carried south all the way to
Key Highway (ASG)

With the suggestion of linking HarborPlace to McKeldin Plaza the Harbor 2.0 Plan had put its fingers on the right spot and at least partially addressed the oversized Light Street and the isolating effect that Light, Pratt and Key Highway have on the Inner Harbor.  ASG many ideas for Pratt Street commissioned by DPOB  (such as a two-way Pratt Street) also never made it any closer to reality.

Among others, former traffic planner Gerald Neily on his blog Baltimore Inner Space and the AIA Urban Design Committee have promoted a significant "road diet" for Light Street, to no avail. Complete  elimination of all lanes east of the median or partial deletion of lanes on either side with a shifted center-line would have added considerable space either to the Westshore Park area which has been redesigned several times but remains unconvincing for its lack of size. Or it could have added more space in front of the buildings of the westside, potentially with a small service lane buffering them from the busy roadway.

If all the pavement currently in place for short-term and bus parking as well as the bike-lanes could be relocated into Light Street's excessive road bed, Westshore Park could become a much more  significant space and Light Street a much more pleasant urban Street. Light Street will very soon be the prominent address of Baltimore's tallest and most expensive residential building. A less inflated and more urban Light Street also would have made the intersection with Key Highway a much more manageable problem.

As it is now, Light Street will remain stuck in the 70s planning paradigm as an ugly expanse of roadway more reminiscent of a suburban arterial highway than an urban street. It is predictable that soon after the six million plus intersection will be complete, engineers will be fired up again to draw up concepts that appease the upset residents of 401 Light who will soon enough complain about the speedway in front of their very expensive door.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore Brew article

Proposed traffic Circle: Aborted (Rendering: Floura Teeter)

As part of AIA's Architecture Month I will give a lecture about the "Future of Baltimore" on October 18 at 6pm at the MICA Lazarus Center on 131 West North Ave. My book "Baltimore, Reinventing an American Legacy City" will be available for purchase. 
The event is free but you need to register here