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Small Streets Make A Big Difference

Two plazas, but a world apart. Hanover Street is in red.

Could you find Hanover Street on a map of downtown Baltimore? I didn’t think so. This small street is just as obscure on the ground as it is on maps, but it has a secret importance. Hanover Street is a direct link between two downtown public spaces; Hopkins Plaza and Center Plaza. With renovations completed on Center Plaza, and the pedestrian bridge about to come down on the north side of Hopkins Plaza, Hanover Street is an opportunity to finally link these places, encourage a critical mass of visitors and support new downtown retail and residential projects.

I often use Pittsburgh as a case study for good planning and urban design projects, and I’m about to do it again. It’s a smaller city than Baltimore, but it gets urbanism and seems to be open to new design ideas. It’s also cool as hell and I suggest you visit at least once in your life.  Market Square, which PPS recently redesigned, is a national model for urban plazas and would make Jan Gehl and William Whyte proud. A block away there’s another public space which doubles as an ice skating rink in the winter, with Market Street serving as the direct connection between the two. The synergistic effect of these two public spaces, and the intuitive connection between them has helped revitalize the retail and restaurant market in this section of downtown Pittsburgh and added a lot of foot traffic in an area which used to be dead after 5pm.

Pittsburgh's Market Square. Yes, it really is that cool.

While Market Street is a pedestrian-only corridor, Hanover Street is open to traffic and a drop off area for the Radisson hotel. This makes the connection between our parks a bit more complicated, but not impossible. A few things need to be addressed:

 

  • The Sharaton Hotel’s blank wall on the west side of the street is the 800 lbs gorilla in the room. This thing looks like it was built to withstand nuclear war (designed in the 60s, it probably was).  Because it’s actually part of an underground garage, it’s not likely to be rebuilt anytime soon. Luckily, there’s potential patio space on top of the structure. If the concrete parapet wall were to be replaced with something more transparent, and if a few cafe tables were added, this could at least give the sense of more activity on the street, even if it’s not ground-level. With the pedestrian bridge gone, there would also be a direct visual connection between the patio and Hopkins Plaza.  The blank wall at ground level could also be refinished and host a mural, fun house mirrors, or a sarcastic comment in large print about the O’s actually winning a few games this year.
  • Traffic. Unsignaled mid-block crosswalks on Fayette and Baltimore Street should be the first thing addressed. If pedestrians have to run between cars to get between the two plazas, all the programming in the world won’t create a critical mass of visitors. Signals are needed at both intersections.
  • The underground parking egress ramp on Fayette Street. Ok, there are actually two 800lbs gorillas in the room. It obstructs the line of sight to Center Plaza from Hanover Street, and creates another conflict point for pedestrians walking between the two plazas. Either close the ramp, or deck it over at the intersection and relocate it. Whose idea was it to put this thing here?
  • Center Plaza was redesigned a few years ago, but it still gives off a “hurry up and move along” vibe when there are no events going on. The problem is the seating; it’s around the perimeter, with a vacuum in the center of the space. The grass is green I guess, but with a few cafe tables, chairs, and some trees in the center, it would be a much more active place. Think of a miniature version of Farragut Square in DC.

What’s amazing is how these two plazas can exist so close together, yet seem so far apart. It’s not enough to just build open spaces and hope people show up. Attention to details like sight lines, pedestrian comfort, traffic issues, and seating arrangements are what differentiate deserted spaces from active ones.  The two major hotels on Hanover Street and the Metro station are also huge opportunities to get more use out of both plazas.

Baltimore could learn from the master plans of L’Enfant, Oglethorpe, and Haussmann. Well thought out paths, links, nodes, and corridors were the foundations that built unique and beautiful cities around the world. Making Hanover Street a better link would be a small step in this direction.


  • http://lucre.livejournal.com/ Lucre

    I remember thinking as I explored Pittsburgh “This is a bit like if Baltimore had grown up with a mommy and daddy who loved it.”

  • Jay9394

    that my friend is the best quote i’ve ever read and the most succinct, accurate comparison between the two cities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/phil.lacombe Philip Bouck-Lacombe

    Mark, I really appreciate the thought, and it’s great that you’re trying to bring in the ideas of William Whyte and Jan Gehl. They are legends. I just don’t share your optimism for these plazas and see little opportunity in them. 

    We can pour as much money into these two plazas as we want, but they will never be active, exciting places. A public space needs to be surrounded by activity-generators or it will never be a public *place*. I have never traveled to Pittsburgh (though I would like to), but from a quick peek on Google Maps it looks like there are at least a dozen businesses on Market Square. Most of them look to be restaurants or pubs, which are great for activating a space. Market Square appears to be an integrated piece of Downtown Pittsburgh, both in the street grid and in the human scale storefronts. Charles Center and its plazas were specifically designed to be apart from the traditional city. They are of an architecture of exclusion that was specifically designed *not* to foster an active street life. 

    I don’t have any great answers. It’s hard to look at a map of Downtown and find a place where you can point and say, if we worked hard to improve this square or plaza, it would really work. The best suggestion I’ve got is Post Office Square on the West Side. Half the size of the West Lexington Market building on the 500 block, create a square with half of the space and then use the rest to line the north edge of it with 3 or 4 story buildings. The storefronts should be sit directly on the square. Narrow Paca Street to a maximum of two lanes with a raised crosswalk to Lexington Market. Turn the 500 block of Lexington Street into a shared space. There’s a Market Area Plan Group working on this area right now. It could turn into something good. The major downside is that it’s on the wrong side of the market from Metro and then further from Light Rail. 

    While I don’t think it’s under consideration, tearing down that god-awful building on the 300 block of Lexington Street could also make way for a great public square. The best transit access in the city, already framed on three sides by great urbanism. The north edge would be tricky.

  • Mark B

    Really good points. Activity generators are key – I omitted discussion about them due to length/time constraints, but probably should have mentioned that the Mechanic Theatre will be redeveloped soon (probably residential w/retail ground floor), which will be a huge boost for Hopkins Plaza. I’ve also heard something about PNC vacating their HQs. If the owner could punch out a few store fronts on the plaza side, that could be another win.

    And the architecture on these blocks really is some of the most brutal, isolating and pedestrian unfriendly of any city I’ve been to, but that’s part of the fun and the challenge. If we could re-adapt these blocks to encourage street life, there’s no limit to what we could do in other parts of the city. The proximity of these two plazas, hotels, and the metro is too good to pass up, and reconnecting two underutilized existing spaces is probably more feasible (politically and financially) than building a brand new park.