The good news in the new draft 2045 regional transportation plan produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council is that the city is focusing on coordinating its major transportation projects into development areas, namely Port Covington and the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. The bad news is that the plan is virtually all highway projects, with no new rail transit whatsoever. The always obsolete "Highway to Nowhere" will be retained, albeit in slightly truncated form. Is this the death knell for "transit oriented development"?
This is how the Red Line had been proposed to look at the Harlem Park Station. It would have done nothing to improve the environment of the surrounding "Highway to Nowhere". The new 2045 plan gets rid of all new rail transit plans, but keeps most of the highway, including this portion.
Governor Hogan is still getting lambasted by the city for killing the Red Line project four years ago which would allegedly had revitalized the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. The city then quickly said it would propose new alternatives, but never did.
The Governor's reason for cancelling the Red Line project was very specific: the downtown tunnel was half the cost yet it didn't connect to the existing subway tunnel. At that time, he also made clear that he was not against all rail transit by approving the Purple Line for Montgomery and Prince Georges County.
After the Red Line's demise, the city even proposed another unrelated rail project - a spur from the existing central light rail line to Port Covington. But that project has also been left out of the new plan.
Here are the chapters of the 2045 plan that deals with projects and funding. Costs are a major issue, of course. Federal rules require that long range regional plans be fiscally constrained and must not be mere "wish lists". But there is a provision for the inclusion of "illustrative projects" which could be amended into the plan "should future funds become available". For example, the plan includes a proposed third span for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, for which no specific concept or cost has yet to be developed.
Such off-budget projects are now a significant trend. These include projects funded predominately by public-private partnerships to be paid back by user revenue, loans, tax increment financing or other creative tools. The Purple and Red Lines were both to be financed by a mixture of these new and traditional methods. But no rail transit projects have now been included in that category as well.
This exclusion makes it appear that the Baltimore City, MTA and Baltimore Metropolitan Council regional planners have simply given up. Governor Hogan implicitly gave a simple directive for the Red Line: Propose a project that actually works, but without a new downtown tunnel two blocks away from the existing subway tunnel that would have cost well upward of a billion dollars.
Since then, Baltimore has had three mayors who have produced no plans.
The explanation might be that Baltimore is simply too dense to accommodate efficient surface rail transit (as opposed to major expensive tunnels), but not dense enough to support the kind of "transit oriented development" that rail transit has thrived upon in other cities. Transit oriented development in Baltimore has been a monumental failure along both the largely underground heavy rail Metro and along the all-surface central light rail line, and even in the two areas served by both, Lexington Market and State Center.
Some changes to the "Highway to Nowhere" and MLK Boulevard An interesting aspect of the new 2045 regional plan is that an area which should have received major attention to "transit oriented development" in the Red Line plan is now, for the first time, proposed for major spending, but without the Red Line.
This so-called "Highway to Nowhere" corridor of West Baltimore, along with the adjacent Martin Luther King Boulevard, are vestiges of the city's failed interstate highway plans of the 1970s. This new inclusion of major investment, but without rail transit, would be similar to what has happened in other sections of the Red Line corridor. The Harbor East, Harbor Point, Canton Crossing and Bayview areas on the east side have been booming with major development in spite of no Red Line. The city is now betting the same for the "Highway to Nowhere" on the west side.
Throughout the fifteen year Red Line planning process, the city insisted that this "Highway to Nowhere" must be retained, so the potential for "transit oriented development" was limited to certain areas where limited adjustments to the highway were proposed. This seemed to be a major blown opportunity, since preparation for the Red Line entailed temporarily closing the entire highway anyway, which was accomplished with virtually no adverse effects. On the other hand, the Red Line plan itself had to be changed to eliminate the station closest to the highway's MLK intersections to accommodate a longer tunnel.
Those limited adjustments to the highway produced during the Red Line planning have now made it into the proposed 2045 plan. Specifically, this is a $118 million project to remove its two bridges over Martin Luther King Boulevard, replace them with surface roadways and reconnect Fremont Avenue with a large new intersection with the highway. Another $9 million will also be budgeted for "Re-Visioning" the 1.5 mile entirety of MLK Boulevard from Washington Boulevard (Pigtown) to Howard Street (State Center) as a separate project.
But the bulk of the "Highway to Nowhere" within the big notorious West Baltimore ditch between Schroeder and Payson Streets will remain as it has been since the 1970s.
This is a similar but larger version of what was done nearly a decade ago at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere", where one block of the highway between Payson and Pulaski Streets was replaced with surface roadways and at-grade intersections. Pedestrians and local traffic will be able to walk or drive along Fremont Avenue the same way they can now traverse Payson Street - on, off or across the highway.
On Payson Street, this has not reduced the adverse impact of the "Highway to Nowhere" in any significant way. The highway remains a huge impediment to the communities. It is still much easier for local people to use the existing desolate but efficient bridges over the highway at Schroeder, Carey and other streets to get about.
At MLK Boulevard, replacing the existing highway overpasses with bigger surface intersections will also not make things any better for the communities. Yes, the heavy traffic volumes have proven that they can be accommodated, but the amount of backed-up traffic increases greatly without the overpasses, making it a very harsh environment for people, including bicyclists - to which the "complete streets" program is purportedly addressed.
What's more, the walls and buffers which were built along the highway right-of-way to seal off the adjacent Heritage Crossing community will need to be retained more than ever in order to fend off the traffic impacts. This will continue to keep Heritage Crossing as an isolated island, and prevent it from performing its originally intended function to be a catalyst for the revitalization of adjacent Upton, Lafayette Square, Harlem Park and the rest of northwest Baltimore.
MLK Boulevard under the "Highway to Nowhere". These two overpasses are proposed to be demolished, bringing all the highway traffic down to the surface intersections with it. The existing design is actually airy and attractive, but results in major dead spots and is isolated from the Heritage Crossing neighborhood (gazebo seen in background).
Design is actually only a small part of the problem, and even serves well to mitigate the larger problem of too much traffic at the end of an interstate highway. The overpasses are light and airy (see photo above), in contrast with those on most highways. The larger problem is the highway itself. As long as some portion of the "Highway to Nowhere" is retained as a vestige of an interstate highway, motorists will behave as if it is an interstate highway, and people and the adjacent communities must react accordingly.
There can be no satisfactory "transit oriented development" in such an environment, with or without the rail transit. That is one reason why the communities have suffered and why the Red Line plan failed. The only potential beneficiary of such a plan could be the Metro West project to redevelop the vacant Social Security Administration complex. Since that complex has always been an isolated fortress, it may be be able to function while remaining as a fortress - with whatever pretty new trappings that $118 million can buy as a selling point.
The only satisfactory solution is to get rid of the entire "Highway to Nowhere", or at least narrow it down to a single roadway. Tearing down just one of the two bridges would eliminate the huge dead space which is now the highway median. A remaining bridge could even be converted to a bike bridge or a transit bridge or a bridge for quiet slow local traffic to avoid the congestion at the MLK intersections below.
The fact that the city wants to do pretty much the same things without rail transit that they were planning to do with rail transit, along the Red Line corridor, indicates why they are now willing to dispense with new rail transit altogether. This also shows how rail transit has always been oversold.
None of this means that rail transit can't be worth building, as many other cities have done. It simply means the city needs a good workable plan.
Huge highway changes for Port Covington While Port Covington's proposed light rail spur has been excluded from the proposed 2045 plan, it does includes major highway spending. This is shown in a separate section of the report for funding by the MDTA (Maryland Transportation Authority - that "D" in the acronym makes little sense). That means that toll revenue from the Fort McHenry Tunnel and other toll roads would be used to finance the projects. Ironically and in contrast to the rest of the plan, no price tag is given for these projects, even though a single exact year is specified for all of them - 2029.
Here is the description given on Chapter 7, Page 36 of the draft report:
Improve I-95 ramps along approximately 7 miles of I-95 and sections of Hanover Street, McComas Street, and Key Highway. Improvements include: 1. I-95 Northbound Off-Ramps- (a) Exit 52, new ramp from Russell Street off-ramp; (b) Exit 53 interchange, new spur from I-395 southbound ramp; (c) Exit 54, remove ramp from I-95 northbound to Hanover Street southbound; and (d) Exit 55, reconstruct ramp from I-95 northbound to McComas Street 2. I-95 Northbound On-Ramps – new ramp from McComas Street to I-95 Northbound 3. I-95 Southbound Off-Ramps – new ramp from I-95 southbound to McComas Street westbound 4. I-95 Southbound On-Ramps – realign ramp from McComas Street Westbound to I-95 southbound 5. Hanover Street – reconstruction from CSX Bridge to McComas Street westbound to I-95 southbound 6. McComas Street and Key Highway – (a) realign McComas Street; and (b) widen Key Highway between McHenry Row and McComas Street 7. Pedestrian and Bicycle Connections – (a) new sidewalks along Hanover Street and realigned McComas Street; (b) shared use path along Key Highway; and (c) shared use path linking South Baltimore to Port Covington peninsula. All this would clearly cost a tremendous amount of money, at least on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, and would be over and above the $660 Million Tax Increment Financing which the city has already allocated to pay for other infrastructure projects in Port Covington. Other federal funding was also requested in concert, and as an equal priority, with the proposed expansion of the Howard Street CSX freight rail tunnel, but that was previously rejected.
Having the tolls of Fort McHenry Tunnel users pay for improvements for a private development such as Port Covington will certainly be controversial, especially since there would be no enhancement of traffic flow for traffic using the tunnel itself, and would most likely make it worse.
And since the light rail project has been excluded, there will be little access or mobility benefit to the rest of the city.
A new kind of transportation planning Whatever the outcome of all this, it does signal a new era in regional transportation planning - where traditional large scale simulation modeling of traffic flow on a comprehensive network is replaced by a focus on specific key development areas - in this case the MLK/"Highway to Nowhere" corridor of West Baltimore and the Port Covington area of South Baltimore.
This is actually a welcome new direction. Transportation should be used to shape our environment and to invest in needed economic development. The old method relying mostly on traffic volume number crunching mainly resulted in self-fulfilling traffic growth and rampant uncontrolled suburban sprawl.
But doing it with no proposed investment in new rail transit looks like a dead end. Only rail transit, not buses, have proven to be able to shape our urban environment enough to make a real difference. And buses are mostly a short term investment anyway. When buses get old or overcrowded, we simply buy more new ones.
Too much proposed new spending is also falling through the cracks in the plan. Governor Hogan's huge proposed multi-billion dollar "express lane" plan (which started with the O'Malley/Ehrlich I-95 widening from Baltimore to White Marsh) is largely ignored, as are the profound changes that could come about due to billions of proposed "off budget" upgrades to Amtrak and for a new Magnetic Levitation system. The prevalent attitude appears to be that we will build what we can, not what we should.
So this draft 2045 regional transportation plan has serious deficiencies. But looking at the bright side, these are not abstract metaphysical problems. The issues are focused on two very real and very important places: The "Highway to Nowhere" corridor and Port Covington. On the other hand, the cynically-inclined would notice that these two areas are each dominated by powerful well-connected developers - Sagamore/Under Armour at Port Covington and Caves Valley Partners at Metro West at MLK Blvd. in the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. Politics is never far away.
In any event, the solutions can readily be both tangible and real. There are two steps.
1 - The plan needs to analyze the needs of the desolate divided "Highway to Nowhere" corridor in its entirety, coupled with the "ReVisioning" of the entire adjacent MLK Boulevard corridor which is already specified.
2 - The plan needs to analyze the needs of the entire Middle Branch corridor in its entirety. The City is already doing that as an urban design exercise, but it needs to be expanded to a full transportation and economic development study in determine the best investments. The Port Covington plan, a very small portion of the whole, should not simply be treated as a given, especially since development conditions for Under Armour and other prospective tenants are in a constant state of flux.
The results of these studies should show that the Baltimore region does indeed need to invest in additional rail transit over the next 25 years. This would probably not be the kind of pseudo-DC Metrorail type comprehensive system that was proposed in the 2002 plan and led to the failed Red Line project. Instead, it should be the type of development-oriented transit that can make a real difference for the region.
Selected links to a few of many related blog articles:
Baltimoreans know the drill: Whenever some big new hyped-up "game changer" development proposal comes along, like Port Covington, Horseshoe Casino, M&T Bank Stadium and even the dead Walmart, everything in the past gets swept away - both good plans and bad. So the latest of countless Middle Branch plans now being prepared is like a shot in the dark. Let's enjoy the pretty surrealistic renderings by "world class" architectural firms and then focus on the many (mostly) ignored possible developments that could really make this area take off. Here are six of them.
West8 came up with the craziest idea of all - a huge new superhighway on a bridge connecting Port Covington directly to Brooklyn. Cherry Hill would lose its long distance waterfront view and have it replaced with a view of a highway. Also note that Harbor Hospital gets to keep the entire waterfront for itself.
The proposed new plan is currently at the stage where the three urban design firms are being subject to a competition to determine whose ideas are most favored by the city and the public. The three competing entries are illogically presented in the form of YouTube videos so you get only look at one graphic at a time and must pause the video to give it more than a cursory glance. This may be due to the fact that the city government's computer network has recently been hacked and is out of service, so YouTube is a more reliable medium.
In any event, a competition is a very wrongheaded way of doing it. It is far more important to know which ideas are feasible, economically and environmentally, and most importantly, which ideas can best leverage private investment. This is what the city really needs.
So the real competition is not between design firms. It is between the various portions of the Middle Branch that could attract and leverage greatly needed investment:
1. Westport Westport was the hottest major development site in town a decade ago, and is still the only one with great light rail access to both downtown and BWI Airport. It is currently out of favor mostly because it is now owned by the Port Covington consortium which wants no competition. It was probably the city's best shot at luring Amazon, but the official "shovel ready" site was touted as the Sunpaper's printing press property in Port Covington. Some other critics think Westport's fall from favor is due to the shallowness of the adjacent Middle Branch, and it is to the credit of the current urban design teams that they are showing how this might be used as an amenity, not a liability.
Westport waterfront becomes Westport wetlands in the West8 plan, which enables the construction of a boardwalk out into the Middle Branch to a helical lookout (lower left). One narrow channel is dredged to provide access for a water taxi.
Westport is the single most critical geographic link between the north and south portions of the Middle Branch corridor, but the city can't go around spending money without using it to maximize leverage for private investment. It would be extremely foolish for the city to put one penny into making the Westport site more valuable until it gets a real commitment for major private investment... period.
2. Port Covington
The part of Port Covington covered by the city's $660 Million TIF tax incentive package is mostly inland rather than directly on the Middle Branch shoreline. The shoreline itself is occupied predominately by a new whiskey distillery, the West Covington nature preserve which the developer has recently converted into a mega-bar after chopping down numerous trees, and by the future Under Armour corporate campus, the offices of which are temporarily housed in the defunct Sam's Club Big Box store on-site.
So while Port Covington is still the "big kahuna" of proposed Middle Branch developments now in active planning, the city has lost much of its leverage to further guide it. Nevertheless, the extent to which Port Covington development takes place will determine how much spins-off to the rest of the Middle Branch. That is now a big uncertainty so at this point, we can only hope.
There is also one major parcel in Port Covington not owned by the Under Armour/Sagamore consortium, the now vacant Locke Insulator site just east of the Hanover Street bridge. This could turn out to be a key property depending on what happens to the bridge, which needs expensive repairs or replacement.
Peter Tocco's photoshopped waterfront hotel veneer for the casino's giant ugly deadening parking garage is still the best solution anyone has shown for this portion of the Middle Branch.
3. Horseshoe Casino Gateway
The Horseshoe Casino made a mockery of previous Middle Branch plans when it plopped a 3500 car parking garage directly on the waterfront, while orienting the casino itself toward the strip of gas stations, convenience stores and self-storage warehouses on Russell Street. Then the city added insult to injury by building a new Greyhound Bus station on much of the remaining waterfront green space - a location that has absolutely no relationship to the rest of the city's transit network.
Since then, Horseshoe's economic impact has been spiraling downward with the opening of the state's leading casino at National Harbor and a new casino hotel at Arundel Mills. The next seemingly desperate act was to convince Top Golf, a chain of slick suburban driving ranges, to open its first urban outlet on the Middle Branch, where the animal rescue shelter currently resides. It remains to be seen how well the Top Golf concept adapts to an urban waterfront setting.
Resuscitating Horseshoe Casino appears to be a task where the city and state governments urgently need to take an active role, because they already have so much of a stake in it as a source of revenue. But the Middle Branch plan is mute to this.
This is the state's only urban casino so it is more sensitive to its surroundings than the others. It needs to overcome bad images people may have of its location and the city as a whole. All the planning so far of the Middle Branch has only made this worse - a place for a stinky incongruous bus station and a huge parking garage that backs onto a highway interchange above a swamp. The pretty pictures in the new plans try to soften this sorry situation but really don't deal with it at all.
The best solution so far is Peter Tocco's image of a waterfront casino hotel (see above) that serves as a narrow veneer to the parking garage and activates the remaining parkland. It's difficult to find good solutions to this hole that the city and the casino have dug for themselves. There may be other ideas, but no one has presented them.
4. Cherry Hill
The Cherry Hill community is where the potential of the Middle Branch has already been most realized and where planning concepts can most easily be tested. If folks want to just spread out a blanket or jog along the shore, they can do that now on the large grassy area north of Waterview Avenue. But not that many do. The key is connecting the waterfront to development, and the only use that does that is Harbor Hospital - not exactly quintessential waterfront activity.
My crude Google Earth graphics of waterfront development interspersed with the Harbor Hospital in Cherry Hill has a lot more reality potential than most of the superior renderings of the Middle Branch Plan design teams.
The simplest and probably best solution is simply to encourage Harbor Hospital's ownership to sponsor a development plan for the parking lots and underutilized areas around the hospital that is sensitive to the shoreline. This would encourage more recreational and other people-activity such as just passively hanging out. The hospital has made development proposals in the past, but obviously never got enough encouragement to follow through.
Another view of possible waterfront development adjacent to Harbor Hospital in Cherry Hill. The Hanover Street bridge leading to Port Covington is shown on the right.
Cherry Hill is also the community which would benefit the most from a new light rail spur, such as an extension of the one in the Port Covington plan. This proposed spur was hyped up when the Port Covington plan was being sold to the public, but has been almost totally left out of the conversation and drawings since then. A longer spur extension to Cherry Hill along with transit oriented development would refocus the interest. The existing light rail station on the opposite side of Cherry Hill is well used, but is not very close or convenient to most the community.
5. Brooklyn and Masonville
It was gratifying to actually see the latest Middle Branch plans extended as far south as Brooklyn, but the urban design firms did not do much with it. The southern terminus of the waterfront is shown in the plans as the Masonville Cove nature preserve, which has already been meticulously restored as part of the Maryland Port Administration's development. However, this is blocked from the rest of the Middle Branch and the Brooklyn community by a concrete plant, and none of the plans show this as changing in the future. The concrete plant clearly needs to be redeveloped for an active waterfront use.
Potential Brooklyn waterfront development on the current site of a concrete plant, as seen from the Masonville Cove nature preserve.
Such a project could be very attractive to a developer seeking a site that is isolated from the usual urban hubub, but still linked in. The linkage to the rest of Brooklyn would be via the site just to the west which is now occupied by possibly the world's most wastefully sprawling urban intersection between Hanover and Potee Streets and Frankfurst Avenue. Efficiently tightening this intersection would free up much waterfront land and for the creation of linkages to Brooklyn, Masonville and northward to Cherry Hill, where traffic on the Hanover Street bridge over the Patapsco River could be greatly curtailed or even eliminated.
6. MagLev Train Station
Cherry Hill appears to be the current leading contender for a Baltimore Station on the proposed mega-billion dollar 300 mph Magnetic Levitation Line between Washington DC and eventually to New York. This is more of an accident of geography than a planning decision, but Baltimore must be prepared to respond with its own intelligent plans nonetheless.
This station site is wedged between the Cherry Hill Light Rail Station and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and was chosen by engineers because it could be built on an elevated alignment instead of an even more expensive tunnel. But north of this station, it would still need to enter a very large tunnel portal somewhere in the Middle Branch/Westport lowlands area, under the very severe constraints of maglev alignment geometry. The impact on the Middle Branch and Westport could be severe.
A Baltimore maglev station would be a major boost to the city economy, so serious provisions would be necessary for high density transit oriented development. The most likely site for this would be the existing commercial and industrial uses in this part of Cherry Hill, which is probably not the best from the city's point of view since until now no plan has ever proposed displacing the current uses and jobs.
The other station option studied by the maglev consultants was downtown, most likely Camden Yards, which is certainly better for the city but billions more expensive. Another alternative proposed here is Patapsco Hill adjacent to the Patapsco and Baltimore Highlands light rail stations, just south of Cherry Hill and west of Brooklyn. This would be the least expensive option, especially in the short and medium terms and if it eliminated the need for a very expensive station at BWI Airport.
A Patapsco Hill Maglev Station would be a major stimulus to the Middle Branch plan and all its surrounding communities, but without undue impacts and pressure on Westport and the northwestern portion of Cherry Hill.
The role of the current Middle Branch Plan
The design competition for the latest Middle Branch plan has provided some attractive future scenarios that illustrate what a wonderful resource it is, but there are practically no clues as to what the city should do next. The first lesson is the one taught by Dr. Hippocrates: "First Do No Harm". Because harm is exactly what the city has inflicted with its casino and bus station developments and by letting Westport get imprisoned by land speculation.
The future is largely in the hands of outsiders: The Under Armour/Sagamore development team in Port Covington, the Caesar/Horseshoe team running the casino, the MedStar team which owns Harbor Hospital, the Japanese/American consortium trying to build a Maglev line, the owners of the Locke Insulator property, the Vulcan Materials Concrete Company and probably some other firms flying under the radar.
The city does have some priorities in the area that cannot wait until outsiders decide what to do, but these are not intrinsic to the Middle Branch plan: The Horseshoe Casino must be fixed so that it is a viable revenue generating competitor with the Arundel Mills and National Harbor Casinos. The proposed light rail spur needs to be planned so that it provides maximum benefit to the city as a whole, not just for Port Covington's speculative plans. And planning and design for the new or improved Hanover Street Bridge must proceed for the maximum benefit to the entire area.
As for the Middle Branch plan, it must be used as leverage to get its best outcome from any and all of the potential investors, and not simply as an end in itself.
Hargreaves Jones interpretation of the ecological evolution of the Middle Branch. Global warming is said to be raising the sea level, but the Middle Branch is being submerged under wetlands.
It's a tale of two Woodberries. In historic Woodberry, irreplaceable houses from the 1840s are being demolished. Meanwhile, new high density housing is being built in another Woodberry that nobody knew existed, where the "highest and best use" until now was the city's Stump Dump. Historic Woodberry is a highly livable transit-oriented community, while the New Woodberry is devoid of urban charm - but that's where major new development should be and is happening.
"The Woodberry" - a large standard-issue boxy efficient postmodern apartment building of the type which is now popular and routine throughout the city.
Real estate developers and agents are the ultimate deciders of neighborhood names and boundaries, making successful neighborhoods grow and others recede. So it is significant that the major new 283 unit apartment building on Cold Spring Lane is being called "The Woodberry" even though it is well over a half-mile from anything else in Woodberry. And that's by trail. It's over a mile away via actual streets.
The city needs to build on this success and not dwell on any failure in historic Woodberry or anywhere else. But there's no sign that the city has learned this lesson.
This expansion of what it means to be in Woodberry is particularly significant because the city's most affluent and coveted neighborhood, Roland Park, is actually closer to this new complex than is old Woodberry. And so is Park Heights to the east on Cold Spring Lane, which is (shall we say) reputationally challenged.
Identity crisis - Cold Spring to Woodberry The lack of identity over the years for this stretch of Cold Spring Lane just west of the Jones Falls Expressway has not due to a lack of interest, though almost all the investment has been by the public and quasi-public sectors. Way back in the 1970s, there was a grandiose plan for an entirely "new town in town" called Cold Spring. Much of it was built, but the only part built near Cold Spring Lane was an expensive entrance road which required switchbacks to get northward to the main part of the development up a steep hill southwest of Cylburn Park.
"The Woodberry" is the first new residential growth since that time. When the architectural rendering shown above was drawn, the large vertical sign on the building was going to say "Cold Spring". But perhaps the developer reconsidered upon realization that Cold Spring Lane is often mentioned in crime reports from Park Heights and other neighborhoods. Hence the latest rendering on the developer's website has the sign changed to "The Woodberry".
The biggest investment in this area since the new town was the construction of the Central Light Rail line, which runs directly adjacent to the new apartment house, but with the Cold Spring station way down in a gully between the Jones Falls stream and its namesake expressway. It is not conveniently located to the new apartment house, but making it more so would have been difficult. Many proposed plans were drawn up over the years to make this a true "transit oriented" site, but they were apparently too difficult to pull off.
Construction of "The Woodberry" as seen across the Jones Falls and up the hill from the Cold Spring Light Rail Station. The project's large parking garage is now in view, but will be wrapped by the housing units.
Of course, there will be confusion when people try to explain that "The Woodberry" apartment complex is near the Cold Spring Lane light rail station, instead of near the Woodberry light rail station.
Considering the record of virtually total failure for "transit oriented development" everywhere else in Baltimore over the years, this failure is simply a recognition that unless everything is done almost perfectly, it won't work. There's very little room for error, so there's not much point in even trying.
So The Woodberry is essentially going to be a large, isolated, fortress-like building wrapped around a large parking garage to get people into their cars and quickly onto the Jones Falls Expressway to go wherever they want to go.
On its own terms, this project looks like a big winner: Great highway access, pretty good transit access, good security, and right next to the beautiful Jones Falls Trail. With those positives, The Woodberry's confusing name and lack of urban charm seem like mere quibbles. The politics even went smoothly by Baltimore's contentious standards. No project is perfect, so why did this one take so long to build?
Meanwhile, back in the REAL Woodberry...
A mile south in the real actual Woodberry neighborhood, genuine urban charm seems to have recently become a real liability. Two irreplaceable stone houses from the 1840s were surreptitiously demolished by their developer, even while negotiating with the community for their preservation.
Woodberry site where two historic stone houses were recently demolished. Also shown are three similar surviving houses, two in the background across the street and one recently renovated to the left. The light rail tracks are in the foreground.
The owner of that property must have concluded that the Woodberry "brand" was more of a state of mind than actually living in the kinds of historic buildings that had actually defined the neighborhood. This greatly upset the neighbors.
The developer wanted to build high density "hipster flats" on this site, where the density is achieved not just by increasing the size of the building, but by making each unit smaller and not providing much off-street parking. This also upset many people.
This illustrates a problem with "transit oriented development". It calls for a higher density of development than the existing historic buildings can often contain. Near the downtown light rail station at Howard and Lexington Streets, the city developed a plan called the "Superblock" which jeopardized many historic structures. After much controversy and delay, that plan was killed and most of the old buildings have stood vacant and rotting ever since.
The city must be extremely careful about "transit oriented development" in historic neighborhoods, or it will lead to sudden unwanted demolition such as has recently happened here. The developer will still be able to build high density "hipster flats", but they will be even more out of character with the historic neighborhood, which need development controls regardless of density.
"The Woodberry" is part of the solution for Woodberry "The Woodberry" apartment project on Cold Spring Lane is exactly the kind of site where high density development can work. But it took almost four decades after Cold Spring New Town and three decades after the light rail line was built for the city to do it.
Unfortunately, it looks like the city has still not learned its lesson, by allowing historic buildings to be demolished while neglecting prime sites that are ideal for high density development.
Directly across Cold Spring Lane from "The Woodberry" is a property which the city has been using as a "Stump Dump" ever since the new town project was planned. This is an even better site than that of "The Woodberry". It was precisely where the Cold Spring light rail station was originally supposed to be and could easily be relocated, and a bridge could provide safe direct access to the affluent Cross Keys and Roland Park communities and Poly-Western high school.
But the City government loves its stump dump, where it can dump the stumps of all the large mature trees it chops down throughout the city to accommodate various projects. The city's de-facto plan is to replace large mature trees throughout the city with little twigs that are inadequately supported and maintained. As a nearby example, the trees in a large portion of adjacent Cylburn Park were recently chopped down to build an electric substation.
This substation will make any future redevelopment of the Stump Dump less attractive, helping the city to keep its Stump Dump as long as possible. It will also increase pressure on communities like the real Woodberry to increase density by knocking down historic buildings and replacing them with "hipster flats".
The poster child for the downtown office space glut is Metro West, the million-plus square foot complex abandoned by the Social Security Administration. The state should redevelop the Metro West white elephant for state employees rather than continuing to mess with the paper tiger at State Center, with its decades-long stalemate between rebuilding or moving out.
Empty Metro West tower with lovely Heritage Crossing in the foreground. They'd be a perfect compliment for each other and would spur revitalization of surrounding neighborhoods if the big bad "Highway to Nowhere" wasn't in between.
Because of the office glut, the proposed rents for the State Center redevelopment became far in excess of the market value, which led to lawsuits from other downtown property owners and the decision by the state to pull out of the State Center deal. Now is the time for the state to finally take advantage of those lower rents at Metro West. There are plenty of things to do with the savings.
Redevelop State Center in small steps instead of the mega-plan The bottom line is that the State Center site has inherent geographic value, while Metro West just a few blocks down MLK Boulevard is condemned to remain essentially worthless unless there is a major intervention, and the state government is probably the only entity which can do it.
State Center has the advantages of two rail transit stations and being surrounded by stable neighborhoods in Bolton Hill to the north, Mount Vernon to the east, Seton Hill to the south and even McCulloh Homes to the west, which got a major vote of confidence when it was decided to retain its sorely needed low income housing rather than adding to the State Center footprint.
State Center became a white elephant because of state workers, who stampede to get out at 5 PM instead of creating a community. The time to try to fix that with infill development such as on the parking lots was decades ago before the offices were allowed to deteriorate. But attempting to create a coexistence of bureaucrats and urban hipsters has always been a far-fetched concept that no amount of subsidy could really accomplish.
The scuttled State Center Plan - These office buildings look too nice for state employees, and definitely too expensive. But they'd be perfect for some rich companies if a market ever develops for them away from the waterfront. Light rail station on Howard Street is in the lower right.
It's the old story of mega-project "game changers": Spend enough money and expend enough hype and you can purport to solve Baltimore's problems. Even when that strategy has been forced to work in Harbor East or Harbor Point through isolation and subsidies, it really still doesn't.
The real key to resolution at State Center is simple: Incrementalism. Use minor development projects to start weaving the area into the surrounding communities. Bolton Hill is probably the easiest fix because Dolphin Street is needlessly a six lane highway fragment and can thus be tamed. There are plenty of surface parking lots that can be converted into viable activity centers. With the right infill, making parking more difficult can also be made into a plus.
Some of the best development parcels are not even part of the State Center footprint, but have simply evolved to be part of the border vacuum between State Center and the surrounding communities. The recreational uses have become fortresses in themselves, which is never a good idea. Recreation should be a unifier not a divider, even if its only among "privileged" members and not the urban masses.
Yes, the Bolton Hill Swim Club is a fine and exclusive institution. But it should be part of something, and not just sit in gated suburban style between the border of Bolton Hill and State Center. The Swim Club should be redeveloped as part of something larger, so that it has full-time residents who serve as permanent hosts for their friends who come visit for a swim. That's the way to weave it into the city, both socially and geographically, even if it never resembles a public swimming pool such as at Druid Hill Park.
Pearlstone Park is an even clearer example. Its a dead bad location for a public park, along the precipice leading down to the Maryland Institute / Mount Royal Station gully and across from a sprawling parking garage on Cathedral Street. Much of the time, there is absolutely no activity there.
The catalyst for a new incremental State Center plan may be to find a new location for Pearlstone Park, so it can be surrounded by "urban eyes" incorporated into new or existing development. Then the existing parkland can be developed in a way that truly compliments the adjacent Maryland Institute and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the dramatic overlook into the historic station in the gully.
Light rail station on Howard Street adjacent to the Symphony Center parking garage, with free parking which flies in the face of "Transit Oriented Development". To the left is vacuous open space.
An ideal solution may be to weave the new park into the Symphony Center apartments just across Preston Street and its light rail station on Howard Street. This would fix two problems at once, since Symphony Center now doesn't really relate to anything. Symphony Center should have been planned as an integral Phase One of the State Center redevelopment, but instead it's just one of the city's myriad pathetic failures of "transit oriented development". Somebody with some real urban design talent should be able to create a useful active park out of the vacuous open spaces which surround this building.
Other projects can also proceed on their own timetables, including the adaptive reuse of the Armory for a supermarket and/or other retail and enhancements to the University of Maryland medical system's former Maryland General Hospital, which needs a far better "public face" on MLK Boulevard across the street from the state offices.
With all the transformative opportunities on the edges of State Center, what happens with the state offices at its heart will be of lesser importance. If state bureaucrats continue to occupy their allegedly squalid offices indefinitely as pawns in a larger political game and stampede to the exits daily at 5 PM, so be it. This could actually work to the area's advantage, in that the state offices occupy its most inherently valuable real estate, so waiting to redevelop it could make it more economically viable for higher densities. After all, the whole reason the State Center plan hasn't worked is bad economics.
Moving state offices to Metro West In stark contrast to State Center, incrementalism will absolutely not work at Metro West. It was built as a fortress compound for government workers and it shows no signs that it could work for anything else. The barriers of that fortress need to come down, mainly by getting rid of the "Highway to Nowhere". The building itself is similarly a massive monolith that must be dealt with as such.
Caves Valley Partners, which bought the complex from the federal government at a cheap bargain auction, has tried to interest the state in the complex, so far without success. This is probably far too monumental an endeavor for any private enterprise that's much smaller than Amazon.
Caves Valley proposal for a big parking garage to lure a tenant to Metro West, with a huge Maryland flag draped over it to give special attention to state government. The "Highway to Nowhere" overpass above MLK Boulevard can be seen in the left background.
But the state should be up to the task. The building itself should be in far better condition than the existing state offices, since it was maintained by the Social Security Administration which is one of the few institutions on the planet that's even bigger than Amazon. Caves Valley also proposed adding a massive new parking garage, which is the traditional response of developers everywhere in marketing properties, but that's just a sideshow.
This is a situation where the customary hype for a transformative "game changer" actually applies. Getting rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" would actually unleash a development momentum that would reverberate far beyond into West and Northwest Baltimore, far larger than anything that could be unleashed by State Center.
This blog has provided numerous concepts for the redevelopment of the "Highway to Nowhere", but what is essential is that the transformation must be comprehensive and incorporated into the surrounding communities.
A maximum development scenario for Metro West - Half the "Highway to Nowhere" is retained which can easily handle all the traffic, and new infill buildings are added.
Upton Mansion near Heritage Crossing - There have been many renovation proposals, but it just keeps crumbling.
Many plans have been put forth for nearby buildings such as the abandoned Upton Mansion and portions of Upton and Lafayette Square, but without a major boost in surrounding property value, the benefits are starkly limited.
Government facilitated the demise of West Baltimore by building the "Highway to Nowhere", so government is the institution that should end it and mend it. And in the forty years since the completion of the highway, only government has built anything in the corridor while the rest of the land has stayed empty. So government is the only logical occupant for Metro West.
Ultimately, both Metro West and State Center will grow and flourish as little or as much as their economic value allows. At State Center, this process can begin by identifying limited viable projects right now. In contrast, Metro West is a place where only major change can launch the growth and development process that can spread throughout northwest Baltimore. A decision to move the state offices from State Center to Metro West is the major change that would get that process going.
Regional parks are getaways from urban and suburban life, but too often they either bring the crowding and congestion along with them or else the quiet and solitude is just too hard to get to. At peak times, Patapsco Valley State Park suffers from both problems. It's an important local getaway, but it needs an efficient gateway.
Proposed Patapsco Park gateway where a parking lot is now located at the unfinished end of I-195 (Metropolitan Blvd.) at Rolling Road. Patapsco Park now occupies only the bottom right corner, and would be expanded into the green shaded area which is currently part of I-195, with its southbound roadway shifted to the red line next to the northbound roadway. The park's Soapstone Trail (green line) would be extended through this gateway under I-195 and along UMBC Blvd. to the UMBC campus at the top of the graphic.
Patapsco Park's current major gateway is a long road off South Street off US Route 1 (Washington Boulevard) near the Relay community. It leads through a "toll booth" and eventually to a fairly large parking lot, near the river and major trails central to the Avalon Area. While this gateway is rather obscure and difficult to find for first timers, it is still "too popular" at peak times. The parking lot fills up quickly on nice weather weekends and then there's no escape valve where overflow traffic can go. What is needed is a more prominent gateway with easy access for as many people as possible, which can handle overflows as easily as possible.
Fortunately, the solution to this problem also addresses other challenges - expanding the reach of the park, extending it towards nearby communities and dealing with the vestiges of I-195, an interstate highway also known as Metropolitan Boulevard whose proposed extension threatened the park in a battle that lasted from the 1970s until fairly recently. It was only in 2011 during ongoing discussions of chronic congestion on Rolling Road (MD Route 166) northward through Catonsville that all parties finally agreed to rule out any future extension of I-195, since it would merely destroy more of the park and push the congestion to any new terminus point such as along Frederick Road between Catonsville and Ellicott City.
Converting an unfinished highway interchange into a gateway The ideal place for a regional gateway hub for Patapsco Park is the triangular parking lot which was built inside the unfinished interchange of Interstate 195 and Rolling Road, where communities and activists made clear that the highway should not be extended any farther. Even though this "park-and-ride" lot is located right on the edge of the park, it is totally surrounded by highways and ramps and thus has no relationship to the park. One of the park's longest trails, Soapstone Trail, is located nearby but is totally hidden and difficult to find.
The simple solution is to build a permanent ending for Interstate 195 at Rolling Road so that it no longer resembles an unfinished interchange, and no longer surrounds and engulfs the parking lot. The park and the Soapstone Trail can then be easily expanded adjacent to the parking lot and the trail head can be made as visible as necessary.
The way to do this is to get rid of the ramp which now serves as the beginning of southbound Interstate 195, and replace it with a southbound roadway adjacent to northbound roadway, thus consolidating all I-195 traffic in one place. The eliminated ramp can then be replaced with parkland for the extended Soapstone Trail, right next to the parking lot, which will still have convenient and prominent access from I-195 and Rolling Road on the other two sides.
Plan view (to scale) of the proposed gateway. The green shaded area is currently southbound I-195 and would be converted to parkland. Southbound I-195 would be consolidated with northbound I-195 on the red line. The green line is an extension of the park's Soapstone Trail (top) through the new parkland to the Cera Trail in the UMBC campus (bottom left).
Expanding the park's "grasp" to UMBC, Arbutus and eventually Baltimore The Soapstone trail can then be extended further eastward beyond the parking lot to proceed under Interstate 195 at its underpass along UMBC Boulevard. It can then connect to the Cera Trail within the UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County) campus and to the Arbutus community, thus extending the "grasp" of the park.
Getting the trail safely across UMBC Boulevard may require further attention. UMBC Blvd has recently had two "traffic calming" roundabouts installed, but that may not provide sufficient relief in the area closer to I-195. Since trail users would only need to cross one lane at a time, traffic "chokers" that neck the roadway down to a width of only about 12 feet may provide the necessary visibility and safety. The portion of Rolling Road with its trail crossing has slower traffic, so a similar solution should almost certainly work there.
The establishment of such a prominent gateway for Patapsco Park would open up other opportunities. Signage to the park from nearby Interstate 95, the main street of the entire Northeast U.S. Corridor, would be straightforward and highly effective. An Information Center in the parking lot could become a very worthwhile project.
Right now, visitors have difficulty confronting the huge sprawling size of Patapsco Valley Park, about twenty miles from the Avalon area near Relay northwestward to the the McKeldin Area near Sykesville. Creating a gateway that is commensurate with this vastness should help.
Patapsco Park should keep growing in the future, expanding by another six miles or so eastward through the Halethorpe Area to Southwest Park and finally to Reedbird and Middle Branch Parks in Baltimore City, which is where the river's mouth flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
Transforming an essentially useless Interstate highway stub into a park gateway, where citizens banded together to prevent the highway from destroying the park, is also exactly what is needed where Interstate 70 ends at Leakin Park in West Baltimore and Baltimore County. A Patapsco Valley Park gateway would thus be an ideal model for a similar Leakin Park Gateway. Thanks to Jim Himel for his contributions to this article.
An international consortium wants to build a 300 mph Magnetic Levitation train line northward from Washington, DC to Baltimore - for reasons that have practically nothing to do with Baltimore. That's how they came up with the rather strange idea of putting Baltimore's station in Cherry Hill of all places. If that doesn't succeed, they'll shrug it off as just a first phase prototype misstep and they'll remain focused on the ultimate prize of getting Maglev to New York and then to the rest of the country, while only Baltimore pays for their failure. So it's up to Baltimore to make it work.
Patapsco River and Southwest Park as seen from Interstate 895 (lower right), with a possible Maglev oriented Patapsco Hill skyline shown in the background.
The obvious reason why the Maglev planners are focused on Cherry Hill is that it is the least expensive option. The station can be built above ground, with light rail access along with barely adequate ramps to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. This project would certainly be a major shake-up to the community, as opportunistic new Maglev related high-end development would attempt to coexist with the current lower income residents, which would no doubt result in a serious culture clash.
The official plan also calls for an additional underground station at Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport, to demonstrate the connectivity of Maglev to the international air network. This would show that Maglev is "world class".
No one really knows how the relationship between Maglev and air travel will ultimately shake out, but at least the world community would be able to identify with it. Many of them will want to use Maglev from BWI when they visit the nation's capital, and this will provide a great exposure to America's version of this state-of-the-art technology.
But ironically, many people see Maglev from the opposite perspective - as a way to significantly reduce air travel in order to reduce air congestion and global greenhouse gasses. So using Maglev to serve air travelers who would then be lured away from air travel would be a contradictory short term solution at best.
Success would not be measured by how well Maglev serves BWI, but simply by how well it leads to the next step. No ridership projections have yet been published and they would be highly questionable anyway, since there is no real precedent.
Ultimately, any major new transportation mode becomes its own cultural force, which reshapes the world in its own way. Starting in the 1950s, the new commercial airline industry created the "jet set" of frequent flyers for whom the entire world was their domain. Similarly, automobile travel was creating suburbia.
So what Maglev eventually does has yet to be determined. MagLev could create a new generation of affluent world citizens who live and work in a place like Baltimore, do business in Washington and regularly go to New York for high energy urban mingling and fun. This would be a welcome relief from a Baltimore that some critics say is forever mired in the rust belt.
Baltimore must look after Baltimore So it's a golden opportunity for Baltimore to be the nation's first MagLev destination, but in the big picture, what ultimately happens to Baltimore will be of little concern to Maglev planners. Trip patterns will simply conform to demands. In the future, trains will be able to whiz through Baltimore without stopping on their way from Washington to New York if that's what the demand dictates, resulting in time and cost savings which will become the bottom line.
So Maglev planners want to build a BWI Airport Station and a prototypical "real world" station in Baltimore, and they want to build them at the lowest possible cost. So that's what they've designed with the proposed Cherry Hill Station, on an odd vacant parcel under a power line right-of-way. Back in 2007, I proposed this site for a new Greyhound Bus station. The powers-that-be didn't think it was good enough for Greyhound then, but now it may be good enough for Maglev.
They've also offered a workable but much higher cost alternative with a station at Camden Yards instead of Cherry Hill. This serves Baltimore's desire for a much stronger local Maglev presence, but it does not appear to meet any of the primary needs of the Maglev planners for the system as a whole. So the Maglev investors will likely treat it as a frill which they will build only if it is paid for by others. So far, the State of Maryland has seen no reason to pledge money to the Maglev project.
Meanwhile, local reactions to the Maglev project have started polarizing as an either/or choice between "jet set" Maglev and priorities for more localized transit needs. But local versus regional transit is a false choice, since Maglev underwriters don't really care about local needs. So local planners must propose alternatives which make them care.
Here are the primary guidelines for resolving this conflict:
1. The desired Maglev access to BWI Airport should be provided, but it does not need to be great access. Air travel has many access constraints from security procedures to air congestion. The time savings from high speed Maglev access can and will be very readily eaten up by waits in the security lines or circling the airport. Maglev must not pretend to be some kind of solution to air travel's problems.
2. The initial Baltimore Maglev station should be planned to maximize its positive local impact at the lowest cost. Just being feasible is not enough.
3. Even though the city's ultimate goal should be to establish the best possible downtown Maglev station, since this is the chief criterion for long-term success, this probably needs to be a battle for a later time. There simply is no way that an adequate downtown station (such as has been proposed at Camden Yards, or at the Mechanic Theater or Post Office sites) can be built for a comparable cost to the lowest cost alternative. Consequently, the cheaper Cherry Hill station site would be seen as "close enough" to downtown by the project investors, even though it really isn't close enough by any reasonable local standard.
So a less expensive and more effective alternative to Cherry Hill is needed.
Possible future Patapsco Hill development, just to the south (right) of Patapsco Avenue, with its light rail station in the lower right and Cherry Hill neighborhood to the east (left).
Best and lowest cost Maglev station site: Patapsco Hill
Patapsco Hill is a huge, hidden and largely forgotten site which is now occupied by an ugly, marginal truck storage yard on Patapsco Avenue at the south city line, adjacent to Southwest Park in Baltimore County. It also has two light rail stations which provide direct service to BWI Airport and downtown and is adjacent to Interstate 895.
This site also happens to be shown in the masthead photo at the top of this blog. The greenery in the foreground at the bottom of the photo is Southwest Park. The shiny mass behind the park is the truck yard, underneath the downtown Baltimore skyline in the background. The Baltimore Highlands neighborhood can be easily seen to the left.
The configuration of the park is such that the MagLev Station could easily be built underground using the most efficient top-down or cut-and-cover technique recommended by the engineers, and when completed, the park could be restored and greatly enhanced on top of it. The light rail line could even be buried and integrated along with the MagLev line at little additional cost, providing the best and most seamless possible connections. The truck yard along Patapsco Avenue would then be a major opportunity for Maglev oriented development, minimizing negative impacts on the existing Baltimore Highlands and Cherry Hill communities.
The two light rail stations would be located at either end of the Maglev station. At the south end, the Baltimore Highlands Station would provide the main connection to BWI Airport, while the Patapsco Avenue Station at the north end would connect to the new development and the existing feeder bus terminal. The current light rail travel time to the airport terminal is 15 minutes, and this could be reduced by several more minutes by eliminating several station stops which many folks in the community want to get rid of anyway. Trains to Cromwell/Glen Burnie could still stop at these stations if desired.
Patapsco Hill Maglev Station could be built here underneath Southwest Park, along with the Baltimore Highlands light rail station relocated from its current site shown in the foreground.
A Patapsco Hill Maglev Station would be uniquely convenient to the airport, as well as to both downtown Washington and Baltimore. It would thus stimulate related development in a way that no other site could.
It would also stimulate spin-off development at the long-stalled Westport waterfront located two light rail stops to the north,. Beyond that, it could create an impetus for an entire Maglev oriented development corridor along the existing light rail line, as well as potential new light rail loop to Port Covington and to the Cherry Hill and Brooklyn waterfronts. Baltimore would then be in a position to grow as an integral part of the new Maglev culture as it expands from Washington to New York and beyond.
This light rail loop concept was first described here as a longer version of the Port Covington spur which has been proposed by Under Armour's development company. A Maglev station at Patapsco Hill would justify completing the loop so that its riders would have a direct ride between Port Covington, the Maglev station and BWI Airport.
Maglev-Light Rail Development Corridor, encompassing Patapsco Hill, Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Westport and Port Covington. Existing light rail is shown in blue, and proposed loop in yellow.
Patapsco Hill would be the lowest cost Maglev alternative, since it would completely eliminate the BWI Airport station and would be over a mile shorter than the Cherry Hill route. It would also facilitate a far more direct alignment as the Maglev line is eventually extended northward toward New York.
In contrast, an elevated Cherry Hill Maglev Station would create a major alignment problem as it descends back underground to the north, requiring a huge portal which would occupy a large piece of land, most likely along the Westport waterfront. This issue has not been addressed in the most recent Maglev report and could be a fatal flaw of the Cherry Hill station. Even if it isn't fatal, it would seriously reduce the potential development sites available without displacement from the existing communities.
In contrast, a Patapsco Avenue Maglev Station and light rail spur would open up a huge amount of prime waterfront development property in Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, with the additional attribute of remaining in close proximity to large lower income working class populations, which is something that cannot be said for most of Baltimore's current growth areas which have perpetuated the "Two Baltimores" segregation.
And incidentally: That link is to a post in the context of presenting alternate sites for Amazon's East Coast headquarters. Now that Northern Virginia has won that competition and New York has blown it, a Baltimore site within a 15 minute Maglev ride of Washington would become Amazon's next best choice. With the New York debacle, Amazon (and Mayor Pugh) should now have a new appreciation for the local support which Amazon received from Baltimore communities (most notably Old Goucher).
The Patapsco Hill Station site is also far enough from downtown that it would not preclude an additional station near the heart of Downtown Baltimore when the Maglev line is eventually extended northward. The Shot Tower / Post Office site as recommended here would be an ideal complement, since it is at the opposite end of downtown.
Getting Maglev moving
The most important priority must simply be to get the Maglev project moving. The international investors see the entire United States as a fertile "blank slate" for their technology, unencumbered by competition from conventional high speed rail which already has a stronghold in Europe and East Asia. The existing Amtrak Northeast Corridor line would be complimentary, not competitive, since its inherent speeds will remain far slower. Amtrak's main advantage will always be that it has far more stations and will thus accommodate much shorter trips than Maglev.
As its first destination, Baltimore needs to play an integral role in getting Maglev going and determining what benefits Maglev can provide. The city's geographic place has always been it's greatest strength.
A Maglev station at Patapsco Hill is where this role can best be played at minimum cost and maximum benefit.
Downtown has recently been touted as experiencing a transformation from just an employment and tourist destination to being a true neighborhood. But such a transformation will require much more than just a collection of new and converted residential buildings.
The basic problem was defined in an excellent Sun op-ed article on January 4, written by Bill King, President of the City Center Residents Association. In a nutshell, downtown's new residents are tending to huddle inside their luxury apartments with their on-site amenities, thus conceding the streets to the heavy traffic, squeegee kids and whatever. What downtown needs to become a true neighborhood is its own outdoor communal living room that doesn't feel like a vestige of the office population that abandons it in the evening.
Preston Garden's winding stairways are art in themselves and the buildings frame the space in a way that is reminiscent of New York's Central Park.
The ideal place to create such a living room would be Preston Gardens - an airy and in some ways elegant five block linear park located along downtown's the new residential spine between Light Street in the Inner Harbor, northward to the signature art deco masterpiece at Ten Light Street, and onward to St.Paul Street toward the traditional historic Mount Vernon neighborhood. Preston Gardens is probably the closest that Baltimore gets to having its own version of New York's Central Park. But the problem is that Preston Gardens simply doesn't work.
South block of Preston Gardens between Lexington and Saratoga is in no way a garden or a park. It's a pair of triangular islands defining huge intersections that only serves to cut Preston Gardens off from downtown.
Part of Preston Gardens has even had a recent makeover, although that didn't even attempt to address any of the inherent issues that prevent it from being a successful urban space. The renovation was on the two blocks of upper St. Paul between Saratoga and Mulberry, which are isolated from the rest of the corridor and not critical to making it work as a whole. So at best, the makeover turned out to be a blown opportunity.
Preston Garden's biggest ongoing urban design disaster is its southernmost block, south of Saratoga to Lexington Street, and closest to the center of downtown. This block consists of one vast confusing intersection at Lexington, some head-in parking, and two isolated triangular traffic islands. The two triangles are "green space" that's supposed to be parkland, but they are almost impossible to get to, and they're so barren that there's no reason to go there anyway.
Since this is block that's closest to most of downtown, it serves as an extremely uninviting gateway that destroys the accessibility and tone of the entire five block park which extends to the north.
This triangular island is the isolated and extremely uninviting gateway to Preston Gardens from the heart of downtown. It needs to be enlarged so that its slopes can be resolved in creative ways to provide access pedestrian access across the streets and to the upper and lower sections beyond to the north.
Proposed realignment of the intersection of Upper and Lower St. Paul and Lexington Streets to create a larger, usable and more accessible park space at the south gateway to Preston Gardens. Potential crosswalks are shown by the red lines.
To key to making this southernmost block of Preston Gardens work is to shift the eastern leg of Lexington Street northward to create a reasonably compact and conventional intersection that pedestrians can actually cross safely.
This would then allow the triangular island which extends northward to Saratoga Street to be widened so that it can become useful parkland.
The slope of this triangle will provide both a challenge and an opportunity for its design as parkland. It needs to provide paths for users to both the upper and lower sections of Preston Gardens, thus creating a unifying whole. This is the only place in the five block park where this can be done.
As park users traverse between this area and the north, they should be able to use the grade change to comfortably choose whether they want to be in the upper or lower area. This would also be facilitated if Saratoga Street can be closed within the park, making it a seamless experience. This depends on resolving traffic circulation issues.
Parking also needs to be addressed. It should not be allowed in places where it encroaches on the available parkland, but there are also places where it is currently banned but could be allowed to create a buffer between the park and the moving traffic.
Traffic Patterns Traffic volumes in this area seem to be subjectively very high, but this is more a function of the conflicts between the various traffic streams than their actual numbers. The cross street, Lexington (in the lower middle of the graphic above), actually has a very low traffic volume, but since it intersects St. Paul right at the spot where its upper and lower roadways converge, the impact of the conflicts is much greater than the volumes would indicate.
A traffic study would be necessary to determine exactly how to accommodate traffic in a way that enables the Preston Gardens parkland to actually serve users and pedestrians, but the key requirement is to resolve the separation of the two legs of Lexington Street to the west and east sides of St. Paul Street from each other.
The west leg of Lexington needs to be to be taken out of the St. Paul intersection altogether, greatly simplifying and consolidating its operation. This should be do-able because Lexington to the west consists of only a single block to Charles Street, and doesn't exist in Charles Center beyond that. So there is no actual thru traffic. Options would be to make Lexington one-way westbound, or to require eastbound traffic to make a mandatory right turn onto southbound St. Paul.
The next issue is what to do with Saratoga Street (near the top of the graphic at right). Its traffic volume is also rather low. The largest cross street volume is probably the eastbound (left to right) zig-zag movement from Saratoga to Lexington, which would be accommodated far better in the proposed relocated and consolidated Lexington intersection. The other Saratoga Street movements can be addressed on a case by case basis. Most of Saratoga east of Charles was once one-way eastbound, with westbound movements added through later tweaks, so there is flexibility.
But the most important traffic issue is accommodating pedestrians. The steep topography in this area would be best resolved by closing this small portion of Saratoga altogether, and diverting this traffic elsewhere.
Creating an Inner Harbor to Mount Vernon Greenway The goal of urban design for Preston Gardens should be to make it an integral part of the corridor that extends all the way from the Inner Harbor, the city's anchor and premiere attraction, to Mount Vernon, the city's most classic traditional downtown neighborhood. This will enable downtown to take its new place as a full fledged residential neighborhood in its own right.
Preston Garden's pedestrian pathway just ends when it gets to the underpass under the Orleans Street Viaduct, an absurd arrangement that has been allowed to exist for over 80 years. There is plenty of room to extend the sidewalk inside the underpass because there is no need for four traffic lanes.
Besides the problems discussed above at the southern end of Preston Gardens, there is also a serious problem at the north end, caused by the imposition of the Orleans Street Viaduct built over eighty years ago. The viaduct was just plopped over Preston Gardens, cutting off its pedestrian paths. But it is a relatively simple matter to restore these connections and narrow the St. Paul underpass and improve its lighting to accommodate pedestrian spaces.
Extremely spacious brand new sidewalk on Light Street half-way between Preston Gardens and the Inner Harbor. The art deco Ten Light Street apartments are just across the street at the extreme right (with the red banner). Looking south is the very slender high rise Questar Tower in the Inner Harbor background.
Urban design is more of an art than an applied science, so it is beyond the scope of this technical approach. But clearly among the main strategies is to think comprehensively, rather than on a place-by-place basis. Traffic planners can help design the necessary physical linkages, and the urban designers can then provide design themes and create uniform motifs for things like sidewalk materials, benches and other street furniture and hotel drop-off areas.
In contrast, the city's recent impetuous demolition of the McKeldin Fountain demonstrates the "destroy first, plan later" approach. The huge fountain and its appurtenances were demolished because a few people didn't like it, even though its original purpose (if not its execution) were exactly what was needed - creating a large physical attraction to attract attention beyond the harbor itself. Most recently, the new urban space which replaced the McKeldin Fountain has been used as a snow dumping area, a fenced junk storage area, and an impromptu parking area for a lucky few privileged parkers.
In any event, the surviving McKeldin Park still provides an opportunity to create a successful urban park space suitable for the new downtown residents, as opposed to tourists, taking advantage of opportunities to fix the traffic patterns on Light Street and narrow its street widths.
Above is my concept for the Inner Harbor portion of the greenway, separating the high volume Light-to-Conway connection from the Light Street thru traffic, described in blog postshereand here. This greenway would be separate from the Inner Harbor in order to have its own personality, linked more to the nearby residential communities, including the new Questar Tower, Harbor Court, Otterbein and South Baltimore.
In his Sun article, Mr. King cites Harbor East as the model for creating a viable neighborhood in the central core of downtown. But each neighborhood needs to have its own distinct personality, and not be merely an imitation. People want to live in downtown Baltimore because it is unique and has historic character and architecture that Harbor East does not have. The city simply needs to take advantage of it.
Populous, the lead planner for the new Pimlico Racetrack, is the same firm that designed Oriole Park at Camden Yards in the late 1980s. That's the ballpark that revolutionized baseball, and now along with a planning team orchestrated by the Maryland Stadium Authority, they're set to do it again. The key is planning for real people in a real community and city, not just for horse players.
The proposed Pimlico plan, oriented to the local street grid and providing numerous development sites. Northern Parkway and Mount Washington are to the left (north), while Park Heights is to the top, beyond Belvedere Avenue and to the right beyond Winner Avenue.
The new Pimlico plan is a recognition of economic reality, not some romantic notion of what horse players want or just another huge politically driven subsidy giveaway. Such a subsidy giveaway is what happens now at the Laurel Racetrack, where a tiny portion of the public gets big league subsidized prize purses for its minor league sport. History and need demand that money and attention should be rightly directed to Pimlico.
The Preakness drives everything
The real big money action is with the Preakness Stakes, Baltimore's annual Super Bowl of horse racing that attracts world-wide attention. In contrast, the rank-and-file horse players see The Preakness as just a diversion. But to the public at large, and the people throughout the nation and the world who define Maryland's public image, the Preakness is everything. So The Preakness is what defines and drives the new Pimlico plan.
Yes, the Preakness is only once a year. Therefore, Pimlico should be redesigned for activities that cater to people who want to be at the home of the Preakness on the other 364 days, not just to people who want to attend horse races on some of those 364 days. That's the huge distinction.
The Stronach Group can continue to run Laurel Racetrack for its small niche of horse players if they wish, but the State of Maryland needs to put its dedicated subsidy money into Pimlico, driven by the annual world class Preakness event. Or Stronach can support Pimlico with this funding instead of Laurel. Either way, the state's subsidies will support the Maryland horse industry and the world class Preakness event that drives the city and state's image.
The Pimlico plan, showing the racetrack related infrastructure, including the multi-purpose clubhouse and streets that would extend thru the track infield when not closed for events. Also shown to the upper left is a concept for the Lifebridge campus extension into the site.
Pimlico's geography Currently, Pimlico has an image of being in the midst of a scary crime-ridden ghetto, but this is totally opposite from what the area's inherent geography provides, which is ripe for redefinition. The race track is currently just plopped down in a manner that isn't oriented to anything, so people create geographic associations in their own minds. The Park Heights neighborhood is nearby and regularly gets bad publicity when bad things happen, so Pimlico's image suffers in tandem.
Of course, that's a huge problem with Baltimore in general, and the only way to fix it is to actually make the geography work better. Just like Pimlico, Baltimore has areas with better images and with worse images. Pimlico happens to be adjacent to the affluent Mount Washington neighborhood, the prosperous Sinai/Lifebridge health campus and the unsung but beautiful Levindale neighborhood. Even the Cylburn Arboretum, Jones Falls Valley and the city's premiere Roland Park neighborhood are relatively close and can provide support. These provide the raw material to make the geography work.
In my previous Pimlico posts, I tried to devise ways to reorient the racetrack to take better advantage of its geography, but I missed the simplest and most direct way to do it. I assumed that the orientation of the track itself was fixed, in order to retain any remaining historic architectural elements which may need to be preserved.
But the Pimlico planning team and its plan participants wisely concluded that the most crucial part of its history was simply being where it is - the geography. It is the land itself that is special and unique to the century of history for which Pimlico is known.
All the planners had to do to take advantage of that was simply rotate the racetrack by 35 degrees, to reorient it to the surrounding urban street grid, so that a development plan could be devised to create suitable transitions to the communities. That way, all that is good and special with Pimlico and with the communities can flow together. The history of one becomes the history of all.
Pimlico site plan, showing proposed development and streets through the infield. "P" is retail center off Park Heights Avenue, "O" is residential off Belvedere Avenue, "Q" and "R" are related to Lifebridge Health Campus.
There are numerous design elements which can be used to promote this. Most fundamental is the extension of the urban street grid into the site in all directions so that they become truly integrated. This includes a ring road that is concentric to the race track itself, so that anyone on the site can become fully conscious of the track. The streets will even be extended across the track into the infield area, which will become the prime parkland and recreation area of the surrounding communities. All of this will be designed so that all elements can be closed as necessary for events, especially the Preakness of course.
The second crucial design element will be the design of the clubhouse itself, which will be the critical central "anchor" for various events and activities all year around, for anything that wants to take place in an environment where sacred horse racing history took place.
There will also be specific uses, like retail, offices, a hotel and the Lifebridge health complex which takes advantage of the fact that Baltimore is known for its world class health care industry. Much still needs to be analyzed regarding this, of course. Lifebridge would be responsible for its own land use planning, which is not addressed in the current plan. Care must be taken by Lifebridge to avoid the egregious mistakes that Johns Hopkins has made with its physical campus planning that resulted in a fortress mentality and alienation of the surrounding communities. The bottom line is the creation of sustainable jobs and economic development.
Many people have suggested that all this development could happen without the racetrack, but in that case, this would be just another big vacant lot in a city that is full of them. There would be no particular reason for people or businesses to locate here rather than somewhere else, like the suburbs. But being part of the Pimlico racetrack campus is priceless.
Comparison to Oriole Park at Camden Yards Back in the 1980s, Populous was known as HOK and had just come from planning the new Comiskey Park for the Chicago White Sox, when it was selected to plan Camden Yards. The Chicago stadium plan was the typical "giant ashtray" plopped into the site in a way that totally alienated it from the surrounding communities. Unfortunately, the initial concepts for Oriole Park at Camden Yards were the same concept. Even the distinctive historic thousand foot long B&O Warehouse, which ultimately became the signature design element of the stadium, was eliminated from the plans. This was simply considered the accepted thing to do at the time.
But everyone wanted something better. Spending a day at the ballpark should be far more than just about the baseball game. It should be a communal experience, with other people and with the city itself.
The rest is history. The stadium was designed around the warehouse and oriented to the street grid and the downtown neighborhoods. Instead of a generic round ashtray, the stadium fits into its space with distinctive angles and facades. It's not a historic stadium like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, but it's a historic place, which is even more crucial.
A whole new breed of ballparks has followed suit, but Camden Yards was the first and most distinctive. Promotion doesn't just focus on the Orioles (which is fortunate considering how bad they were this year), but on "Birdland", the stadium place itself. Fans come from all over the country and even the world to experience Camden Yards. Its sometimes a bit unnerving to see so many excessively exuberant Yankee and Red Sox fans, but they spend money in Baltimore and help the local economy.
More lessons have been learned in designing sports stadiums around the country since then, and Oriole Park has not done a great job of exploiting related development opportunities surrounding the ballpark. The Hilton Hotel is not admired much, and the Middle Branch Gateway Entertainment District has not been very successful yet, unless you call Royal Farms-style gas convenient stores a success.
But now at Pimlico, Baltimore has another prime opportunity to do it right and make history again. It's not just about horse racing or baseball, it's about urban life.
>>> Selected previous Pimlico and Camden Yards posts:
There is one potential station location for the proposed high speed MagLev system that would change the way people along the entire east coast see Baltimore - especially Baltimoreans themselves. It's a station that could be at the intersecting point of the existing east-west Metro subway and a much faster spur of the city's north-south light rail line. It's a station that could also add 15 acres of new prime developable land to what could be the fastest growing part of downtown.
Footprint for proposed MagLev Station shown in blue, now the central post office, at the south end of the Jones Falls Expressway (shown at right). Metro subway is in green under Baltimore Street.
A brief local history This potential MagLev station site is at the foot of the Jones Falls Expressway and the Shot Tower Metro Station. This location has great access and was originally supposed to be a key part of downtown and a gateway to the Inner Harbor, but that never happened.
In the 1980s, Mayor Schaefer decided the open portion of the Jones Falls should become "Fallswalk", patterned after the highly successful riverfront promenade in San Antonio, Texas. Some ambitious plans were carried out, including the Children's Museum in the grand old fish market, as well as "The Brokerage" shopping mall in the building which now contains the Rams Head Live music venue. But then in the 1990s, the police headquarters decided to use the closure of Baltimore Street to build the Metro to create its own permanent dead-end parking lot. When the Metro station finally opened, the MTA didn't even bother to return the bus service to the adjacent section of Baltimore Street, further isolating it. In 2001 after 9/11, the police decided to go a step further and make Baltimore Street into a secure "no man's land" where even pedestrians were prevented from approaching the Metro Station for several years.
The most conspicuous insult added to injury was that a very cool helium balloon tethered ride which had been erected above the Metro Station entrance had a mishap, where the balloon and its riders got stuck for many hours several hundred feet above downtown. That was pretty much the last straw. What was supposed to be a future high-rise "air rights" development site became just another ad hoc parking lot for whoever has the clout to park there.
While people often talk about the abject failure of transit-oriented development on Howard Street and other places, the Shot Tower Metro Station should also get an honorable mention. But just as on Howard Street, the seeds of failure were planted much earlier. People had unrealistic expectations when this portion of the Jones Falls Expressway was built in the 1980s as an at-grade boulevard (President Street) with the Jones Falls stream uncovered. (Unfortunately, that's a concept that refuses to die as some "visionaries" still want to tear down the expressway northward past the prisons.)
Simply put, the highway wasn't built to a pedestrian scale, and it probably never will be.
The real key is getting rid of the regional post office But the expressway didn't even start the anti-urban trend in this area. That role could go to the 12-acre central regional post office built in the early 1970s adjacent to what later became the expressway. A regional post office was a bad anti-urban land use choice - a massive fortress that generates a huge amount of truck traffic. Its architecture also reflects this, being just about as brutal as "Brutalism" can get. This regional post office should be moved out to the suburbs or the city's outskirts.
The site would then become the ideal location for the city's Magnetic Levitation system station, with all the grandiose urban architectural gestures that such a revolutionary transit mode would justify.
Train stations have historically been the places where cities have put their civic pride on display to the most conspicuous extent possible. And now New York City happens to be doing it again with the redevelopment of their central post office into the Moynihan Train Hall, as they finally atone for the sin of tearing down their glorious Penn Station back in the 1960s.
Future New York train station on site of former central post office, across the street from the current Penn Station.
This kind of ostentation will be even more crucial for the northeast corridor MagLev line, the vast majority of which will be underground and thus provoke no sensual stimuli other than pure speed, up to 300 mph.
Riding MagLev into Baltimore should be a major event. It should leave no doubt in riders' minds as to where they are. Baltimore's boosters must understand this on some level, based on the jumbo video screen they've installed on the train platform to hype-up the city at Penn Station.
The scale of the adjacent JFX, aka President Street, cannot be reduced to human scale, so the scale of the humans must be expanded to meet the challenge.
The scale of MagLev itself also fits this formula. It's passenger platforms will be over 1300 feet long, compared to the planned Red Line light rail's platforms of less than 200 feet. The tunnel excavation for each MagLev station, where the "top down" construction technique is deemed necessary rather than a conventional "boring machine", is planned to be over 3200 feet long.
Perhaps most importantly, the MagLev station would fill a gaping hole in the urban fabric of what is otherwise a very fast growing area of on the east edge of downtown. Development is now spreading northward from the "New Downtown" at Harbor East and westward from the Johns Hopkins Medical campus to Old Town. The post office would not only be replaced with a MagLev station, but also great high density accompanying urban development such as offices, residential and retail uses.
Map view of proposed MagLev Station adjacent to intersection of Metro (green) and proposed central light rail extension (orange) from Penn Station to the north to Harbor East to the south (bottom).
Rail transit connections Another Baltimore failure has been its inability to fulfill the 1960s vision of a central rail transit hub station, where high quality east-west and north-south lines would meet. The Charles Center Metro Station was supposed to be that station, but the existing Metro has become pigeonholed as more of a minor low-ridership northwest line. Meanwhile, it is now realized that a proposed central north-south spine line to Towson would end up costing many billions which simply can't be justified.
So in the 1970s, a far cheaper light rail line up the Jones Falls Valley to Timonium and Hunt Valley was planned. This was originally to extend all the way down the valley to the east side of downtown. It was finally built in the 1990s, but to Howard Street on the west side instead.
Then a funny thing happened. As the light rail line was built to link the west side, downtown itself drifted eastward. And not only did jobs and retail abandon the west side in droves, but the light rail line itself proved immune to all attempts to run at a decent speed.
So with the explosive growth and expansion in Harbor East, along with a possible MagLev station, now is the time to revive the original plan to extend the central light rail line all the way down the Jones Falls Valley from Penn Station. The speed of the two mile segment from Penn Station to the MagLev Station would be quick, with very few traffic conflicts and probably only one intermediate station under the expressway at Centre Street to serve Mount Vernon, Old Town and the new development on the Sunpapers site. The cost would also be reasonable.
The demolition of the post office would also enable the MagLev and light rail stations to be integrated as seamlessly as possible, taking advantage of the direct underground connection to the Shot Tower Metro station which already partially exists.
South of this point toward Harbor East, however, the light rail line would run into some serious traffic conflicts on President Street, so careful and creative planning would be necessary. But it would be worth it. Even a slow light rail line for this last half mile to the Inner Harbor and Harbor East would add greatly to its value. Another possible concept would be to end the high capacity light rail service at the MagLev and Metro Station and simply run streetcars beyond that point, with both services overlapping to Penn Station.
MagLev Station footprint in blue, Central light rail extension in orange and Metro subway in green. View is looking south toward Harbor East at the top.
MagLev Station Alternatives When measured by the station location criteria in the latest MagLev study report released this month, the Shot Tower / Post Office site comes through with flying colors.
Prior to this report, station locations at Penn Station and Harbor East had already been rejected. There is an inherent geographic problem with Penn Station in that "geometry precludes a feasible route to the northeast", as stated in the report. In other words, Penn Station is simply located too far off the straight high speed path from Washington to Philadelphia and New York. That's a fatal flaw.
Both Penn Station and Harbor East also suffer from "complex construction challenges" as the report states it. This basically means that there isn't enough land available anywhere to excavate the station and provide access for the very long and deep tunnel boring process that would be necessary. This is particularly a problem at Penn Station because the route alignment would be on an angle tilted to the northeast, which is not amenable to the shapes of any parcels that would be available.
This is also a problem for all the station sites in the "Downtown Station Zone" defined by the report, including the Inner Harbor and apparently the Mechanic Theater site which I had proposed here. According to the study, it's somewhat less of a problem, but still an issue, in the Camden Yards/Convention Center site that has been retained in the screening process.
Finally, the Harbor East site suffers from "intermodal connectivity constraints" as stated in the report, which is another way of saying it has insufficient traffic and transit access.
The Shot Tower / Post Office site solves all these problems. A nice gigantic hole in the ground of 10 to 15 acres could be dug to fulfill all the construction needs. The route alignment angle would create a virtually ideal path toward Washington and on to New York. There could be direct access to an interstate highway and two direct high quality rail transit lines, located near the geographic center of the entire metropolitan area.
Closer view looking south down President Street extension of I-83, with post office in the lower left next to historic St. Vincent DePaul Church (white tower) and Shot Tower (brown brick tower). South of Baltimore Street (green) are subway entrances on both sides of President Street, which can also serve as MagLev Station entrances. The one to the right (west) has direct access to the Inner Harbor along Market Place.
The Maglev Alternatives report suggests that engineers have been far more dominant over the planners than they usually are in this type of process. After all, nobody in these parts has ever built a Magnetic Levitation line before, so questioning engineering judgment is risky. Our MTA did try to design such a MagLev system back in the 1990s, but the result looked too much like a 40 mile deluxe version of their 18 mph Baltimore Red Line plan rather than 300 mph high speed transit. Both projects met the same fate of failure.
So now it is time to expand our horizons and give MagLev its rightful place at the top of the transit hierarchy - which ranges from light rail to heavy rail Metro to MARC to Amtrak to hyperloop and on up to MagLev.
Baltimore needs to build a MagLev Station which is befitting of our city's special role between Washington, Philadelphia and New York? The Shot Tower / Post Office site offers the best location to make it happen.
With Amazon's newly announced Northern Virginia Headquarters 2.1, Crystal City will now start to displace the District of Columbia as the "New Downtown" for the entire Washington metropolitan area. That includes Baltimore. So Amtrak's Northeast Corridor must be extended from New York to beyond Washington, DC - into Virginia. And just as surely, the MARC Commuter Rail "Penn Line" must also be extended from Baltimore and DC into Virginia as well.
Currently, trains from Baltimore and New York must undergo a cumbersome and time consuming switch from electric to diesel locomotives at Washington's Union Station in order to proceed southward to Virginia. This will no longer be acceptable. It must go "all electric".
Extension of MARC "Penn Line" from DC Union Station to the Amazon Crystal City Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia and three nearby stations, made possible by electrification of the Amtrak line.
Baltimore and DC will both be suburbs of Northern Virginia The new Amazon headquarters in Northern Virginia (let's call it NOVAmazon) is actually destined to live up to that often abused term - "game changer". It will accelerate changes in the roles of both Washington and Baltimore in the urban hierarchy, and bring all of them closer together - hence the need for a transportation link that is best capable of connecting it all.
NOVAmazon is just the tipping point. The sprawling nature of the federal government and the 130 foot (thirteen floor) DC building height limit have long doomed the Washington metropolitan area to outgrow the District of Columbia as its central business district. So now the transportation system must now keep up with the inevitable.
Ironically, the District of Columbia will now become more like what Baltimore has also been becoming - just another node in the great Northeast Corridor megalopolis. As such, the distinctions between cities and suburbs have been getting a bit blurred. DC's wide avenues and expansive National Mall have long had a slightly suburban quality compared to Baltimore's intense gritty urban feeling. Throughout most of our country's history, Baltimore was much larger than Washington, which was always a relatively sylvan campus whose virtually only reason for being was as a setting for federal lawmakers and culture.
Now both Baltimore and Washington will be subordinated, relative to Northern Virginia. The big difference is that Baltimore is currently nearer to the bottom of the pecking order. Baltimore has already had time to get accustomed to the role of being a small fish in a big pond, and this is just another step.
Extending the northeast rail electrification southward will allow Baltimore to maximize its suburban spin-off from the Amazon move. Among other groups, this will include Amazon commuter employees, contractors and vendors as well as other people who just want to expand their horizons to what Baltimore has to offer, like BWI-Marshall Airport (which will be easier to get to than Dulles even with its new Metro extension.) Mostly, people will be trying to get away from the Washington area's sky-high cost of living, which is bound to get even higher. There has been lip service about this for a long time, but now is the time to get serious about takking advantage of Baltimore's lower cost of living, especially in West Baltimore, which is now the frontier. New MARC Stations at Sandtown, Upton, Mount Royal and Violetville could join the existing West Baltimore Station near the "Highway to Nowhere".
New rail relationships between Amtrak, MARC and VRE The electrification will enable many MARC trains from Baltimore's Penn Station to extend their runs beyond Union Station to the current commuter rail stations at L'Enfant Plaza, which is farther into the heart of Downtown DC and has connections to four Metro lines instead of just one. Then the trains can proceed into Virginia to Crystal City and Alexandria, and most likely a new commuter rail station at Potomac Yard in between, which will likely experience the most dramatic growth from the new Amazon presence.
Maryland's MARC Commuter Rail line may be poised to take more advantage of the new travel patterns than either Amtrak or Virginia Railway Express (VRE). All Amtrak trains in this corridor traverse the entire corridor to New York or beyond, so they will have less flexibility to increase service in response to ridership growth at a specific location, even one as meteoric as anticipated from NOVAmazon. Long distance Amtrak trains must also keep their station stops to a minimum. It's not likely Amtrak will add another stop between Union Station and Alexandria. In contrast, MARC could more easily make Baltimore to Alexandria its core corridor and better tailor service to specific local travel demand patterns.
MARC and the State of Maryland should actually be in a strong negotiating position on this. Amazon should make a big push for the extended electrification in order to link its Northern Virginia Headquarters 2.1 to its New York Headquarters 2.2. The funding would happen through Amtrak, while CSX owns the tracks and thus must also be satisfied. But MARC would reap much of the benefit.
The Washington Metro will likely to continue to be the transit mode which guides Virginia's high density urban growth, far more than VRE. Virginia has put a great deal of emphasis on development in the Silver Line Metro corridor from Rosslyn to Ballston to Tysons Corner to Dulles Airport, and there is no good connection from that corridor to Amazon at Crystal City. Building such a connection would be difficult and expensive and thus require great growth in that corridor to justify it.
VRE is more likely than MARC to continue its current role as a more traditional commuter rail service, with its two branches to Mananas and Fredericksburg deep in the Virginia sprawl country. So VRE will still clearly be somewhat on the fringe. As a telling example, their ticket operation currently isn't even integrated with Amtrak's. At DC Union Station, you can't buy VRE tickets from Amtrak vendors or machines. At the gate to VRE's station platform, there's a sign saying you must have a ticket to proceed through the door, but VRE's only ticket machines are beyond that gate door.
In general, rail service needs may even outgrow the arbitrary distinctions between Amtrak, MARC and VRE. A new regional transportation authority would integrate all three, along with SEPTA, NJT, etc. and even Maglev. No transportation should operate in a vacuum, and that includes the regional highways as well (see this blog post).
The new southern terminus of the electrified Northeast Corridor could be Lorton, Virginia, just south of Alexandria, where Amtrak has a large train yard where switching from electric to diesel locomotives could be done with less disruption and more efficiency. There's already a station there for Amtrak's Autotrain service to Florida, and this could be expanded to serve all other trains as well.
Many other capacity and flexibility improvements will also be warranted as development and ridership grows, but electrification is a start.
Back in the 1970s, Amtrak extended the electrification of its Northeast Corridor northward from New Haven to Boston to keep up with the times. So all this is nothing new, except for the extraordinary change and growth in the Washington-Baltimore region which is leading to it. NOVAmazon will be the key focus.