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Street Networks As A Foundation For Livable Cities

Baltimore Brew had an excellent write up on the Metro West complex last week. Social Security Administration will soon vacate the complex, leaving an 11 acre site on the edge of downtown Baltimore open for redevelopment. The move offers an opportunity to reimagine an important link between west Baltimore and downtown. Currently, the Metro West site is a no mans land of suburban style office buildings framed by inhospitable roads (I’m looking at you, MLK Jr. Blvd and US 40). While the office buildings can easily be demolished or repurposed, the biggest site challenge is the street network.

US 40 and MLK Jr. Blvd both act as border vacuums making access to Metro West difficult for pedestrians, cyclists, and even drivers.  Construction of US 40 in the mid 20th century demolished dense urban blocks, leaving major barriers between West Baltimore neighborhoods. The highway access ramps between US 40 and Franklin/Mulberry Streets also make infill projects difficult, if not impossible. While it may not seem like it, the entire area is one big superblock.  Creative work arounds are possible, but to get the most human-scaled development potential out of this project,  we should get rid of the site constraint entirely by demolishing the 2 most eastern blocks of US40 while reconnecting the street grid throughout the area. Since the western 2 blocks of US40 have also been demolished and are currently being repurposed as MARC Station parking (with plans for future TOD), consider this plan a natural bookend and compliment to the West Baltimore MARC project.

Because US 40 also divided the street network, reconnecting the grid is an important first step in a Metro West site plan. Demolishing both highway access ramps up to Schroeder St., reconnecting the two halves of Fremont and creating new local streets at Poppleton, Brune, and one bisecting the Metro West site will result in 7 new greenfield development sites (shown in blue).  The grade difference between US 40 and adjacent blocks east of Fremont is minimal, so expensive highway caps won’t be needed as they would be west of Schroeder St. Franklin and Mulberry, presently high speed traffic arteries, can be reimagined as more pedestrian friendly streets to create solid pedestrian and cycling routes from both sides of the site. MLK Jr. Blvd, a high speed arterial, can undergo an incremental right-sizing with widened medians and bumpouts to make crossing the street less of a death-defying experience. The existing Metro West buildings (in red) would now be part of a more intact urban space with better site access. Reconnected neighborhoods and new development potential to the west would also leverage whatever public or private investment occurs at Metro West.

Site Plan for the east side of US40: Blue=new development sites. Red=demolition or rehabilitation of existing Metro West buildings. Orange Lines=New streets. Yellow lines=Traffic calming/complete street improvements.

While demolishing highway ramps and building a bunch of new streets would be expensive, the potential for urban, mixed use development projects on these newly created infill sites would pay dividends, especially for the West Baltimore communities which were divided during US40 construction.  Right now all that highway right of way is contributing nothing towards Baltimore’s revenue stream and constitutes a blighting influence on a huge area of the city. The existing street network around Metro West is the major impediment to livability for area neighborhoods. Fixing the network is the first and primary step in creating a world class Metro West redevelopment project.

Possible infill development scenario, with higher density office/retail fronting MLK Jr. Blvd, neighborhood retail and affordable/moderate income housing lining Franklin and Mulberry.

Possible infill development scenario, with higher density office/retail fronting MLK Jr. Blvd, neighborhood retail and affordable/moderate income housing lining Franklin and Mulberry.


See also: A new freeway depreciates itself and the city as fast as your new car