Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Is North Avenue rising or sinking?

North Avenue is a bellwether for Baltimore. The east-west corridor is 5 miles long, goes from "black butterfly" wing (west Baltimore) to "black butterfly" wing (East Baltimore) and traverses the "White L" at Charles Street. North Avenue has been a central locale of the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the 2015 uprising was centered at Penn and North. Once the City's northern border, it is today a central, but troubled artery.
North Avenue Market in the Station North area of
North Ave (Photo: Philipsen)

Given this history, and all the good intentions that came after the unrest in 1968 and then again nearly fifty years later, there has been astoundingly little effort made towards reversing fortunes by heavily investing in this particular corridor. Most would say that overall North Avenue today looks worse than it did in 1968.

Yes, there have been improvements, some pretty big: New affordable housing in the far west section (the Gateway projects by Woda Development with 130 units), the redevelopment of the former Walbrook Lumber site under construction now, new buildings at Coppin University, a MICA dorm east of Eutaw Place and the demolished "murder mall" public housing to be replaced by the Madison Park North redevelopment (Up to 500 units, currently still in a conceptual stage).  On the east side there are bits and pieces of the Barclay area redevelopment which reach North Avenue, there is the streetscape project from Asquith to Harford Road, big plans by the Blacks in Wax Museum. In the center of the corridor there is the much heralded Station North Arts and Entertainment District with the rehabbed Parkway Theater, the Motor House, the Centre Theatre and MICA's Lazarus Center.

But on the scale of a 5 mile urban artery, these investments remain fragmented and fail to add up to a convincing new prospect for North Avenue, an artery on which the world had set millions of eyes as the nexus to Freddie Gray and everything that had gone wrong in Baltimore. In this light the committed investments can hardly be described as the big lift that would be needed in this symbolic corridor to turn the sad narrative and the reality around. Especially missing: a large coalition of stakeholders coming together across all the boundaries and absolutely necessary to enact lasting change in the corridor.

Refurbished Center Theatre on North Avenue
(Photo: Philipsen)
How little resolve towards a big and comprehensive effort there is, came to light with a project that has the right name: "North Avenue Rising", a project described before here . Initiated by MTA in collaboration with City DOT as an application for a TIGER grant, the idea was to look at this corridor from end to end. But based on TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery)

the project remained simply a transportation project, limited to a total investment of $28 million, not enough to do much more than striping a bus lane, adding a few bus shelters, a few benches and trees and a couple of altered curb radii at intersections such as Penn and North. The City has only $1 million in the project and most of that is road maintenance. Absent from the project is anything outside the public right of way, anything that has to do with land use, vacant storefronts, empty buildings or with economic development which a TIGER project is supposed to generate. Experience with Baltimore's Howard Street, redesigned numerous times, has amply illustrated that transit and streetscaping alone cannot spur revitalization of a street that has fallen on hard times.

North and Penn in 1922

Even the central area of North Avenue, the blocks east and west of Charles Street known as Station North, is not immune to setbacks, even though it boasts the most comprehensive and strategic approach towards renovation of buildings and new uses. The transformation was aided by MICA's Lazarus Center which became another important anchor on North Avenue. While the non-profit center of the Motor House, the Parkway movie theater, the Impact Hub and MICA's Social Design school have doubtless infused new life into the area, many other spaces remain vacant or struggle for survival.

Cafe BAMF, right around the corner from North Avenue on Charles Street, announced its closing earlier this month. Red Emma's, a clear magnet for art and culture, has closed its doors in anticipation of its move from North Avenue to the Cultural Center across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Especially the departure of Red Emma's is a blow.  Red Emma's expressed the aspirations of the Arts and Entertainment District in many ways, the departure of this iconic fixture cannot be simply written off as normal change. As a cooperatively owned left leaning bookshop Red Emma's had tried for years to balance the needs of addicts and homeless gathering at its doors every day with its programs of lectures, book-readings and music. No single institution or business, no matter how well meaning, can solve these large protracted problems alone or at its doorsteps.
Better bus transit on North Avenue: Near Metro at Penn and North
(Photo: Philipsen)
“We have absolutely loved being on North Avenue these past five years—we couldn’t imagine a better neighborhood to grow and develop our worker cooperative. While we’ve managed to achieve some of our goals as a project since moving, we’ve struggled to recapture the cozy community feel of our original location, and, at the same time, have outgrown the capabilities of the cafe space we designed back in 2013.” (Kate Khatib, Red Emma's co-founder in Baltimore Magazine)
It isn't clear whether the departure of the bookstore is only driven by a need for more space or whether the stress from the needy in front of its doors or economic constraints contributed.  Mike Shecter of Guppy Development, who owns the cavernous old North Avenue Market, and who has been a vital force in the revitalization of Station North, acknowledges that being open and inviting can be difficult on a corridor with so many social ills on display. "The area is not dying" he says. Quite to the contrary, he is hopeful that the old market will receive some new tenants this year which people "will be really excited about" which he doesn't want to disclose yet so to "not jinx it". Red Emma's at the prominent corner was so far the biggest tenant and Shecter says he has many prospects that would run the place as a restaurant. "I hope to have it up and running in a few months". Other existing tenants include the also iconic and gritty Wind-Up Space gallery and event-space run by Station North pioneer Russel De Ocampo, a print shop, a gallery and what used to be Liam Flynn's Irish bar. More extensive use of the former market with its large floor plate combined with some exterior upgrades would be an enormous boost for the area.

Charlie Duff of Jubilee Baltimore, who brought the Centre Theatre back to life as the Impact Hub with, among other things, a Hopkins film studio in the building, is "not worried" regarding the future of North Avenue. He and Ellen Janes from the Central Baltimore Partnership hinted that good news for North Avenue would be right around the corner.

Emma's bookstore presentation (Photo: Philipsen)
Even where progress has been made,  backsliding is an everyday danger which must be stemmed off through vigilance and ongoing initiatives; In the Station North segment of North Avenue the Central Baltimore Partnership along with risk takers such as Shecter, Duff and BARCO guarantee vigilance and strategy, the Arts and Entertainment District provides the programming. East and West North Avenue are not so lucky. Developers such as Woda and institutions such as Coppin University are still largely isolated islands without an area-wide coordinated effort.

Stakeholders and public officials are currently trying to unite forces for a coordinated effort and strategic investment in the two wings of the corridor for much bigger action than individuals and individual community organizations have been able to pull off to date.Councilman Leon Pinkett, in whose district some western portions of North Avenue fall, has emerged as a leader and has held had a number of stakeholder gatherings, initially geared towards a more comprehensive MTA project.

Constrained by TIGER deadlines and funding conditions, MTA's "North Avenue Rising" project will moved towards realization with its limited scope. Some work could begin as early as the end of this year. Pinkett's group now must try to get private, institutional, non-profit partners and the Mayor to realize that North Avenue Rising needs much more than better bus service and some cosmetic changes.
Arch Social Club at Penn and North (Photo: Philipsen)

While it is easy to forget North Avenue when sipping a drink on Sandlot at HarborPoint, shopping at Harris Teeter on McHenry Row, gazing at the luxury apartment tower at 404 Light Street or the Anthem House from the comfort of the waterfront promenade, North Avenue cannot be forgotten for long. Residents in flourishing communities may not see North Avenue as a bellwether for the entire city, but there are good reasons to believe that Baltimore won't thrive unless, what was once a wonderful avenue, gets back on its feet.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for requested quote deletion

Related articles on this blog:

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

North Avenue, Charles Street and Baltimore's equity question

Monday, August 1, 2016

North Avenue Rising From Hilton to Milton

North Avenue, from Hilton to Milton (MTA Graphic)

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