Monday, April 9, 2018

The Jones Falls River, still an undervalued Baltimore asset

Ruin of historic freight station  on Falls Road
Yes, there are two refurbished Mills, a popular Italian beer restaurant, a bike shop and a microbrewery along the scenic corridor of Clipper Mill Road and Falls Road. The corridor is book-ended by blooming Union Avenue in Hampden on one side and the new Nelson Kohl Apartments on West Lanvale Street in the flourishing Station North on the other.

But there are plenty of eyesores as well, chiefly the dilapidated old train roundhouse and the ruin of a trackside freight station building surrounded by trolley carcasses.

The actual jewel of this corridor, the Jones Falls River, runs its course, hidden behind a screen of shrubbery, over rocks and falls only known to those who canoe on it.  The Jones Falls, shadowed in large parts by the viaduct of the I-83 expressway running over top of it since the early 1970s, and banished underground in its final stretch towards the Inner Harbor since 1912, looks in some spots like a wilderness in West Virginia. In short, it is an undervalued and shackled asset which has been waiting for decades to be re-discovered.
161 Jones Falls River Plan 

Luckily, there is now the newly founded group of  the Friends of the Jones Falls, which came together in March of this year, when over 75 people assembled in the Motor House to work on a vision for the river. The event was guided by the Neighborhood Design Center, the Central Baltimore Partnership, Bluewater Baltimore and others.

As Al Barry, a former deputy director of the planning department  well knows, the idea of giving the Jones Falls more prominence has been around for decades. Barry has been part of it for a long time. For example at a daylong workshop in 2001 aiming for a masterplan for the valley. Barry, today a planning consultant, advises the owners of the refurbished mills and the developers of the old Pepsi Plant in the valley is now helping the Friends of the Jones Falls to achieve a break-through.
Baltimore City is a water city. At one time, Baltimore thrived on the Jones Falls Valley corridor. Today, the corridor needs Baltimore to restore what has been broken. Although Baltimore’s past planning projects may not have always been kind to the Jones Falls Valley, as with most things in life, they were part of a learning process. (Megan Griffith, 2012, Treehuggingurbanism)
In fact, the idea of the Jones Falls as a linear park didn't need the New York High Line as a spark. It predates the High Line by half a century. In 1961 "The Planning Council" of the Greater Baltimore Committee published a Jones Falls Valley Plan for the Municipal Art Society and the Board of Recreation and Parks. In its introduction the document says:
“Few Baltimoreans have seen the treasures of nature which lie along the ten-mile Jones Falls Valley. The Valley has long been ‘hidden’ from the view of passers-by. Now, as the Jones Falls Expressway opens up the once-hidden vistas, we are confronted with a great opportunity. The concept of The Valley as a continuous urban Park—a peaceful retreat for city dwellers—has been proposed, hoped for, talked about, for sixty years. Dreams were dreamed, but translation of the vision into reality was always blocked by the lack of a detailed plan and a vivid image of what the Jones Falls Valley could become. Now here is a Plan. From it we can create a marvelous asset for all of Baltimore to enjoy.” (Jones Falls Valley Plan)
Baltimore City failed to act on the big idea, namely it didn't protect and procure the right of way of the old M&PA railroad.
The roundhouse with collapsed front roof today (Photo: Philipsen)

Today the big ideas for the Jones Falls involve the removal of the expressway at least below Penn Station and the daylighting of the stream. very expensive propositions. Again, Al barry with his clients was instrumental in developing those concept plans.

Smaller ideas, such as a Jones Falls Trail and the already noted re-developments have already been implemented. Events such as canoeing on the river or Sundays when one can bike and walk on the expressway to experience what is below outside a racing metal box, have been held for many years. What is missing though, is a transformative project that elevates the Jones Falls status in the City for residents and visitors alike.

There will be sure plenty of ideas coming forth under the guidance of the newly formed advocacy group. A very old one, first proposed by fellow architect George Kastritzky, (the K in the name of the then eminent Baltimore architecture firm of RTKL), would be the use of the historic 1910 Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad (known as the Ma & Pa) roundhouse as the streetcar museum. This idea had been further investigated by Ziger Snead Architects in 2004. Time to dust it off a final time!
Ziger, Snead Architects, 2004 roundhouse plan
(Friends of the Jones Falls)

This roundhouse is another symbol of city government failings. Even though, then Mayor McKeldin liked Kastritzky's idea, the Department of Public Works eventually won out and kept it as an equipment yard. The City has let the structure fall into disrepair since it purchased it in 1958 to store roadside maintenance equipment and salt in it. Four years ago salt had corroded the roof structure so much that the roof collapsed.

In a revival of Kastritzky's idea, the sad looking roundhouse would re-built and become the centerpiece of a rejuvenated streetcar museum. Instead of running from those metal barns further down the street, the museum operated by volunteer streetcar enthusiasts, would run from this refurbished historic structure built for rail vehicles. Its current area could become a park. Instead of running the trains on weekends along dilapidated ruins and turn around at the salt barn wreck, the trains would run the full length of the corridor, from West Lanvale Street behind Penn Station all the way to Union Avenue.  The project wouldn't be run by City DOT or MTA, it would remain a part of the streetcar museum but funded by the major stakeholders along the way, from Ernst Valery's Nelson Kohl which would get unprecedented trail access to David Tufaro's Mill projects to the breweries on the Hampden/Woodberry end of the corridor.
The Jones Falls in its scenic section (Photo: Philipsen)

This year Baltimore's Green Network Plan is coming out in its final form. It should be the year when the 1961 Jones Falls Plan gets implemented and the river finally finally comes out of its shadows.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Jones Falls River Valley Corridor
The History of the Jones Falls, Stanley Kemp, 2016
Baltimore Heritage, the History of the Ma&Pa Railroad and the Roundhouse

The current streetcar museum with 1968 metal barns

The Ma&Pa roundhouse when it was still used by the railroad
Photograph from The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, George W. Hilton. Courtesy Charles T. Mahan, Jr.

No comments:

Post a Comment