Tuesday, March 27, 2018

North Avenue, Charles Street and Baltimore's equity question

Councilman Leon Pinkett asked "How do we get people of this city to look at North Ave the same way they look at Charles Street?" A brief look at a Baltimore City map quickly reveals how similar Charles Street and North Avenue are, but everybody knows, they are also vastly different. Both streets are straight,  go on for miles and bisect almost the entire city, the one north south, the other east west. What only a few people know, both streets also extend into the county, Charles Street all the way to the Beltway, North Avenue, interrupted by Leakin Park, picks up for three blocks west of Forest Park Avenue.
North Avenue Section from Mount to Mt Royal Avenue (MTA)

The two streets can easily serve as the two major coordinates of Baltimore City, but they also signify the two Baltimores, Charles Street, thriving pretty much from end to end, and North Avenue being disinvested, also from end to end. Where they intersect, Charles Street is most troubled (vacancies and empty lots) and North Avenue sees the most development over its entire 5.5 mile length (not counting the County segment). Charles Street institutions include Johns Hopkins University, North Avenue's include Coppin University and MICA.
Where the money goes (MTA)

Pinkett put his finger on the wound of Baltimore inequity when he pointed out that Charles Street received $25 million for the street-scaping of 5 blocks (from 29th Street to University Parkway) and North Avenue is receiving $27 million for street-scaping 5 miles (from Hilton to Milton). "It is like painting the whole house with one gallon of paint", Pinkett said to the about 30 business owners, community representatives, agency representatives and other stakeholders assembled in the Leonard E. Hicks Community Center  on North Avenue this week, caddy corner from the Coppin School of Nursing and near the Walbrook Lumber development under construction.

The group has come together invited by the councilman and the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce whose board chair Debra Keller-Greene opened the meeting. The occasion is the State and City project dubbed "North Avenue Rising", a $27.3 million project spearheaded by MTA and Baltimore City DOT, after both had been awarded a federal TIGER transportation grant which the MTA had put together and which applied for money to improve bus transportation and multi-modal access in the entire corridor. The application describes the project this way:
Sponsored by the MTA and the City of Baltimore, the North Avenue Rising project is a unique suite of proposed transportation investments intended to
improve corridor and regional mobility and leverage these transportation improvements with other State, City, and private development initiatives to revitalize the surrounding area. As shown in Figure 1, North Avenue Rising includes dedicated bus lanes, enhanced bus stops, accessibility improvements
to the Penn-North Metro Subway station, improved crosswalks, bike boulevards and lanes, and needed intersection improvements and roadway repaving throughout the corridor.
From Hilton to Milton (MTA)
 The project includes federal, State and local funds and is currently about 35% designed under the federal process tied to the $10 million federal money. The grant also establishes the scope per the application and requires a timeline for the project where design has to be finalized for a bid package by November of this year.

A number of Open Houses held earlier this year were organized by the MTA and showed the design on roll-out maps and boards which can also be found online here.  Once it became widely understood that the project under the promising title would deliver mostly improved pavement, a red designated bus lane, some better bus shelters and a few sidewalk improvements, a number of organizations and people became worried that this wasn't enough, among them  Councilman Pinkett, the Greater Baltimore Committee, Bikemore, the developer of Madison North, the Central Baltimore Partnership and the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of
North Avenue during a time when it was a vibrant corridor with movie
theaters, a streetcar and retail
Commerce.  This group of unlikely "bedfellows" plus a good number of grassroots community activists have met three times to date to discuss how the project can become larger. "This isn't about bashing the MTA", Pinkett remarked, "we are glad they took the initiative and got us the money they did", he said, but he also emphasizes thatthis wasn't enough and if the project wouldn't include economic development, it doesn't make the corridor truly rise. So far Pinkett's group has agreed on that  basic notion and suggested that there must be additional phases and that those phases need to reach beyond the "right of way" (the street) and include the businesses and houses along the sides of the street and the connections of the corridor to the adjacent communities. Pinkett feels that "the community needs to take control of the corridor" and enlarge "how the city manages  its most important asset, its right of way". (City DOT Director Pourciau likes to say that she "manages the largest chunk of real estate in the City", the streets, which by some estimates make up about 30% of the total city land area.
Image: MTA

The City carries out some compendium projects on North Avenue such as the East North Avenue streetscape project which was recently completed, a North Ave and Penn Ave intersection improvement, previously designed and now incorporated into the project, and streetscaping between Howard Street and Greenmount Avenue.

Pinkett receives technical support from Bikemore's Liz Cornish and Jed Weeks who showed in two meetings slide presentations of how transit can make a street better, accommodate more modes than just cars, and leverage private investment, including examples from other cities such as Eugene, OR, Denver, CO, New York City and Cleveland.

The $27 million base project includes some improvements for bicycles such as bikeshare stations and "low stress" routes parallel to North Avenue. The bicycle elements of the project caused a number of critical comments at the MTA Open Houses and at least one critical statement in Monday's stakeholder meeting. ("Those bike-lanes just cause congestion on the street. I pay thousands of dollars in fees and taxes for my car, what do they pay?"). For most segments of North Avenue the project, as currently designed, shows no separate bike-lanes and assumes that bicycles would share the red bus lane like on Pratt and Lombard Streets or ride on parallel streets.  Nowhere is a bike-lane expected to eliminate a car travel lane.
Where goes what in the corridor (Image: MTA)

The notion that there should be additional phases and that the projects needs to be more than a transportation project which includes the City Departments of Planning, Housing and Economic Development (BDC) and requires additional funds still needs to be embraced by the Mayor. Pinkett is confident that his fellow council-members are on board, especially now, after councilman Dorsey's Complete Street legislation has been introduced, a bill that would mandate consideration of many transportation modes in street design with a special emphasis on equity.

There is probably no better corridor than North Avenue to demonstrate how an important street can leverage equity and economic development.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The writer has a advisory consulting role with MTA on this and other projects 

see also on this blog:
North Avenue Rising from Hilton to Milton (August 2016)

MTA Rendering  as presented in open houses this year (see also website)

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