Friday, August 23, 2019

Connecting the dots: Working from strength in West Baltimore

The West Baltimore MARC station area is not included in the four Impact Investment Areas of Upton/ Druid Heights, Park Heights, East Baltimore and Southwest as noted  in the City's brochure "A new era of neighborhood investment". Impact Investment Areas work from anchors of strength. This article shows how the MARC station, the Ice House next to it, the Highway to Nowhere and Metro West can be knitted together as anchors.
One of many visions for the Highway to Nowhere
(Peter Tocco, Plainview Graphics)

The West Baltimore MARC station sits on the edge of several surrounding communities (Rosemont, Midtown/ Edmondson, Penrose) but it should be a focal point because it is a popular commuter rail station and Baltimore's transit gateway to DC. Because of that it has been the locus of redevelopment ideas for decades. The Red Line Planning would have turned the station into a rail hub, the planning effort yielded e a City approved masterplan. A more ADA compliant rebuilding of the commuter station itself is on the books of MTA and delayed  because Amtrak investigated various B&P tunnel replacement alternatives which would affect how the tracks would run through this station area.

Not all is just on paper. Real investment came  with federal TIGER grants which transformed the end of the highway with its abandoned ramps and retaining walls into an MTA parking lot extension.  Then, with the new Link bus system, the MTA built a bus transit center next to the commuter rail train station. $3.75 million in federal funds through the Ladder STEP program allowed upgrades to several streets surrounding the transit hub including landscaping, ADA compliant sidewalks and crosswalks, lighting, and bike/walking pathways. Rehabilitation is taking place in nearby Harlem Park along the freeway.
ULI TAP diagram of Metro West on the east side and the MARC station on
the west side of the "Highway to Nowhere"  (ULI)

Most recently, the BBJ reported that  the owner of the Ice House (see video) Ilya Alter had teamed up with Bill Struever of Cross Street Partners to redevelop it as a brew-pub. A construction dumpster is already positioned on the site.

Finally, this week Dan Rodricks presented an idea in the SUN ("Here is a big idea") which Caves Valley, the developer who owns the complex of the former Social Security West, had revealed to him: A linear park constructed in the ditch now occupied by the highway to nowhere. Baltimore's "Low Line". (New York has the world famous "High Line" park). Arsh Mirmiran, partner at Caves Valley explained for the purpose of this article:
As we have looked from the upper floors of the Metro West building out to the west, it has become evident to our team (CVP and B&B Realty) that the Highway to Nowhere (a) has very little utility as a highway, (b) serves as an example of bad urban planning and is a major impediment to potential redevelopment efforts and community revitalization efforts in West Baltimore, and (c) provides a legitimate opportunity to create a transit link to the relatively nearby West Baltimore MARC Station, as well as recreation opportunities for existing and
future residents and office tenants in the area. As such, we have studied it and recommended to others that it be studied further and in detail. (Arsh Mirmiran)
A more fanciful vision for the Highway to Nowhere
(Peter Tocco, Plainview Graphics)
The linear park idea came out of a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) conducted by the Baltimore chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in May of this year.
The solution to the problems of the study area is to end the culture of division, and create a culture of connection. This requires us to re-engage with the public spaces that our communities now retract from, and to find new ways to activate them in the public interest. (TAP report)
The park is one of many ideas proffered for the useless freeway over the years, for example by Gerald Neily on his blog InnerSpace. The freeway and all proposed uses for it end right at the West Baltimore MARC station in the west and at the Metro West complex on the east. All other parts of Baltimore's freeway plans had been defeated. Right before the highway fragment ends it engages with Martin Luther King Boulevard with a typical freeway set of overpasses and on and off ramps, creating an inhospitable environment for Metro Center West and making MLK at US 40 even more of a barrier than it is elsewhere. The removal of the overpass and ramps has been suggested by Caves Valley before and was endorsed by the TAP. It would be part of the greenway plan along with intensified uses at the corners of a future normal intersection. Rodricks in his column gave the park idea some of his own twists:
The Highway to Nowhere as seen from Security West (Photo: Rodricks/SUN)
The Westside Greenway, a proposal to turn the whole corridor into a green, people-friendly park connecting West Baltimore and its neighborhoods with downtown. Think of New York City’s Highline, or Citygarden in St. Louis. Imagine a 1.2-mile corridor of green, with bike lanes and promenades, space for pickup basketball and soccer games, fields for youth sports, dog runs and sculpture gardens. Imagine some of the massive concrete walls set aside for mural artists and rock-climbers. Imagine a series of stairs and elevators connecting Mulberry and Franklin Street, and all the cross streets, with the new park below. (Dan Rodricks)
As for the Ice House: Ilya Alter has waited for many years that the area would turn and his purchase of the burnt out former Ice House complex would turn into an opportunity. After Alter participated in years of community based deliberations about the area, those hopes were dashed with the cancellation of the Red Line in 2015. Various attempts of finding a development team which would want to get something done at the historic site even without additional transit failed until Bill Struever and Alter finally found each other this year.
A renewal of the American Ice Building off the infamous "highway to nowhere" is in the works by Ilya Alter, a Washington, D.C. developer, and Bill Struever, whose transformations of several abandoned industrial sites in Baltimore have led to community turnarounds. "It is a diamond in the rough," said Alter, whose Dacha Beer Gardens in Washington, D.C., have become popular gathering spots in Shaw and the Navy Yard. (BBJ)
It isn't hard to connect the beer garden idea for the Ice House and Cave's Valley's linear park towards a big plan. Through the eyes of the surrounding communities, though, it could look like another big thing to be dropped onto the dis-invested communities of Baltimore's western inner city neighborhoods which are currently especially hard hit by violence.

It is necessary to remember that it was Robert Moses and various transportation planners who came up with the East West Freeway idea right after the war, and their plan had little to do with benefitting the communities. For better or worse, Baltimore has rarely been a place of fast action and so it took until the 1960s to get one portion of the East West freeway actually constructed all the other city pieces were defeated (except the JFX). I have written about the huge impact this brutal act of displacement had on the communities of the west side of downtown. To this day community leaders and residents recall all the broken promises that had been made to make the freeway somehow attractive to the affected communities. All they got  was the harsh reality of this dividing trench and the demolition of thousands of homes, a blow from which west Baltimore never recovered. Any vision for the future of the ditch and the station area must, therefore be community based. The ULI TAP panelists were very cognizant of this history. They say in their report:
Our TAP panel believes the success of this strategy depends upon a process which assures that all stakeholders are at the table and includes neighborhood residents in shared leadership. The legacy of planning the “Highway to Nowhere” and the nearly fifty-year scar it created illustrates the pitfalls of excluding residents from the planning process.
The key connections of the West Baltimore MARC station:
Downtown, 3 min., Gwynns Falls, 5 minutes, DC, 45 minutes
(graphic: ArchPlan)
On the other hand, the community has expressed their needs and demands many times since then. The residents who have stuck it out in neighborhoods with up to 30% vacant homes want to see investment, better homes, better transit and most of all, the kind of services every healthy community takes for granted, especially grocery stores, service retail and facilities that cater to the needs of

Any investor who considers to build anything needs to take a look at the documents compiled to date before making too many plans. Clearly neither a beer-garden nor Rodrick's climbing walls are likely be on community priority lists. But if seed investments change the image of the area and open up connections, trigger other investments for vital services and bring back more people to the area, then these are things that are sorely needed and would warrant starting another conversation.
East West Freeway Plan at MARC station: partially executed.
(1960 D.O.P. Plan)

The City's Impact Investment Areas are born from the concept of "building from strength", a strategy that tries to bundle and focus public money not only where its needed most but where anchors and other seeds are present to latch on to. From the Gwynns Falls to Martin Luther King and even beyond, west Baltimore is part of the giant wing of the now well-known black butterfly. Its eastern mirror image, the right wing, has seen large investments at Hopkins, Oliver, Greenmount West and EBDI. That wing may well take flight soon. On the Western side, things look much more grim. In the vast area the UM Bio Park, the housing investments of Bon Secours hospital and projects such as the current renovation of the former Hebrew Orphan Asylum are only small islands in a sea of disinvestment. In other words, concepts that build on other strengths are badly needed.
I-70 interchange at what is now MLK (not executed quite as grandiose)

The MARC station is a untapped point of strength, probably stronger than Pimlico in Park Heights. Allowing an easy 45 minute commute to DC' Union Station and a much shorter ride to the growing BWI employment area, the station creates a significant draw for folks who seek jobs outside of Baltimore but live in the metro area. With some additional MARC stations in East Baltimore, the commuter trains could also become a viable urban rail connection, tying West Baltimore with quick links to Penn Station, EBDI and Bayview. Currently commuters drive to the West Baltimore station and park there. This is a solution that does nothing for West Baltimore and which is also very ineffective in terms of bringing riders to the MARC trains. Especially in urban settings, it is up to five times more effective to intensify use around a station than waste the space on cars parked all day.
This graphic by Cross Street Partners shows the Ice House in the foreground
and the large space available behind it. (Graphic CSP)

The MARC station is only 1 mile away from downtown, 3 minutes by car, 5 minutes by bus on the Blue Line or the 150 Express, a bit longer on the #78 which doesn't use the expressway.

Imagine a taller apartment building built behind the Ice House and surrounded by renovated rowhouses on Pulaski Street and Edmondson Avenue. From an upper floor, one could see that downtown is in spitting distance. Looking the other way, the fictional future resident could see the Gwynns Falls valley, a very exciting natural urban greenway that few know about and visit.

The "Low Line" in the ditch could be an attractive greenway to bike or even walk downtown, and Caves Valley partner Arsh Mirmiran has not forgotten transit. He told Dan Rodricks that he sees a rapid bus line running in the green space with a quick connection to the Central Light Rail Line, Lexington Market and the Metro subway.

Once Amtrak has finalized its tracks and tunnels (the Environmental Impact Study is complete and a preferred alternative has been selected), another connecting greenway could be built along the tracks with a direct connection to the Gwynns Fall Greenway. An intense Ice House development built on a "plinth" that makes it level with Edmondson Avenue could also accommodate most of the parking needed for development and commuters under such a lid. That would free up the City owned, State leased parking lots up for additional development without displacing anyone. Much more development could happen west of Warwick Avenue where a former lumberyard and various extremely low level uses present a large contiguous development opportunity, once again without demolition of any residences.
From the official WB MARC masterplan. (Graphic: ArchPlan)

Some of these ideas are already included in the adopted West Baltimore MARC station masterplan that had come out of the West Baltimore Station Advisory Committee.  It makes only sense to work towards realization of those concepts even without the Red Line. So when developers float ideas in the media, they should think in this larger context.

All of a sudden,  new affordable and market rate housing, some retail and services and an uptick in filling the many vacant  buildings between the MARC station and downtown don't seem so far fetched anymore. If Caves Valley can find a large employer for the vacant Security West complex, many new jobs could be just minutes away, so would the rejuvenated Lexington Market.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on this blog:

How MARC commuter trains could become premier urban transit (Oct 2018)New bus hub taking shape in West Baltimore (May 2017)
Taking the "Highway to Nowhere" back, one step at a time (April 2016)
The reverse approach to transit: TOD first (Sept 2015)

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