Friday, January 5, 2024

"Light rail killed Howard Street" - an urban legend debunked

 To some people, the crossroads of Howard and Lexington streets have become a trash bin of mistakes. But others see the collection of ideas centered in the intersection as something else: A historic showcase of our commitment to keep trying until we get it right. Eventually, we will. (Gilbert Sandler, 1998 SUN)

Now that Light Rail is up and running again it is time it is time to bury an urban legend, especially in an election year. Urban legends are by definition falsehoods. Few have been more persistent than the one that light rail killed Howard Street.  The implication that Howard Street is dead is false as well.

Howard Street at Lexington Street with turned "candy cane" lights
and elevated large light arches. (Photo: Kittelson)

Let's set the record straight on both counts:  Even though proving that Howard Street isn't dead would also prove that light rail couldn't have killed it, let's go in chronological order. 

Way back in 1986 Howard Street had ben transformed into a transit mall, candy cane shaped light poles and big arches and all. And here is the kicker: Howard Street was transformed into a bus transit mall to save it, not to kill it! Light rail was not on anybody's mind at that time but the closure of two of four department stores and the decline of Baltimore's historic downtown shopping district was very much on people's mind. 

As early as the 1960s and 1970s several cities experimented with bus transit malls as a fix that would bring additional foot traffic to the shops . Vancouver, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and Denver may be the most known examples. Some of these transit malls were busts and had only a short life (Chicago, Baltimore), others persist to this day (Vancouver, Denver, Seattle).

Howard Street in its glory days, a mess of cars, trolleys and
throngs of pedestrians (SUN Archive)
The transit mall was an early attempt to wrestle streets from the dominance of the automobile and give pedestrians and surface transit more space. Most transit malls that survived are some type of hybrid in which cars may operate during certain hours or in a very limited way. 

In Baltimore Light rail came into the picture a few years after the Howard Street transit mall had opened to much fanfare and wide bricked sidewalks, plenty of custom lights and extra big bus shelters. 

Light Rail was less not seen as an another way to save Howard Street but as a tool to allow a downtown ballpark. But the downtown ballpark was just another big idea of then Mayor Schafer to boost downtown by bringing more people to  downtown. This was in line with Schaefer's "Baltimore Renaissance" which had begun with Charles Center and Inner Harbor and was continued with the Civic Center, the Convention Center and Oriole Park. 

Saving downtown shopping with fancy lights
did not work out (Photo: SUN)

Clearly, a downtown stadium couldn't be surrounded by the usual sea of parking on display at Memorial Stadium, that wouldn't help downtown and isolated the stadium. With a direct rail transit connection the suburban parking dystopia could be avoided. 

Transit planners looked at running LRT on Howard, Eutaw, Paca or even Charles Streets.  Howard Street was deemed to serve the stadium best and with being already a transit mall promised the least disruption from construction. 

To avoid digging up the entire street once again, designers simply tried to fit the trains in with the refurbished streetscape of the transit mall. The decorative custom "candy cane lights" were turned  by 180 degrees to allow the trains to pass, The two large arches spanning the entire street were lifted by 2 feet so the trains plus overhead wires would fit through.  The large custom made bus shelters got a new paint scheme and were re-used in place or sometimes moved to a slightly new location. The widened sidewalks between Saratoga and Mulberry Streets were left in place and the tracks curved accordingly.. 

And because neither merchants nor drivers had liked the bus-transit mall, the insertion of LRT was used as an opportunity to bring the cars back. With LRT Howard Street gained a continuous northbound car lane from Pratt Street to MLK and a southbound car lane from MLK to Centre Street. 

Some of the funky track and driving lane crossovers come from the attempt of reducing impacts to a minimum. Yes, to put the tracks down Howard Street had to be closed again for some time. But to set the record straight: Howard Street was on life support before the bus mall, before light rail and remained like that after light rail. Neither bus, nor rail nor cars and neither candy cane lights nor a downtown stadium would turn around Howard Street's decline. 

Also inaccurate: That designated transit lanes or tracks would provide expeditious transit travel. In reality trains are crawling along Howard Street because in spite of 30 years of promises the trains never got real signal priority at the intersections. So for the most part, they limp from block to block. 

2018 concept plan for Howard Street (MTA)

So no, light rail did not kill Howard Street, but it didn't save it either. The idea that more brick, more pedestrians and better lighting could save downtown shopping proved to be mistaken. Due to the high maintenance cost of all the custom lighting combined with the failure of revival the lights were eventually taken down again after only 20 years.

Decorative arches with lights, installed over Howard Street in the 1980s to restore long-lost twinkle, instead became a 20-year-running light bulb joke. Cut the laugh track – the city’s taking them down. “They won’t be missed!” Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. “Jay” Brodie cheerfully wrote in an e-mail yesterday. (Baltimore SUN 2005)

Even the big custom shelters originally designed for buses fell out of favor and were in part replaced with smaller glass shelters.

Custom bus shelter as reused for light rail
(Photo MTA)

As late as 2018 MTA floated a $75 million plan to redo the parts of Howard Street that had the extra wide sidewalks yet again in order to straighten out the tracks. Alas the federal money for the plan didn't come through and the idea has been put on hold for now.

The rescue came from investment in buildings instead of the street.  

Howard Street never died and today it is in better shape than it has been in many years. The improvements came from the land use on both sides of the road, not from tinkering with the public right of way. The Arena got an upgrade, another developer was selected the Superblock who is promising actual development; the entire block 400 block of Howard Street has seen revitalization and rehabilitation on both sides and plenty new apartments have been built along and near Howard Street. 

The lesson is that neither a street fully devoted to cars, nor one fully devoted to buses, nor one dividing up the space between transit and cars can save downtown retail in a shrinking city. Baltimore's shrinking retail base has moved to the Inner Harbor, Harbor East, Canton and neighborhood "main" streets such as the Avenue in Hampden or Light Street in Federal Hill and struggles even there. Just witness the failing Gallery atrium mall and HarborPlace pavilions which most certainly were not killed by light rail.

Let's stop pointing the finger at transit when it comes to urban ills. The story of Howard Street should teach us the lesson that a only a healthy and stable city can support retail. And for a city to be healthy and stable it needs functioning transit. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Gilbert Sandler: Howard Street history

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