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City Planning

How To Revive Little Italy

The image some people have of Little Italy

The image some people have of Little Italy

Reports of Little Italy’s death are premature, but with several major restaurants closing in the past few months, the neighborhood needs a shot in the arm.  Tucked between downtown and the glimmering Harbor East, Little Italy has an enormous location advantage along with an image problem.  Do you like wood paneling, 3 piece suits, Robert Goulet and 1970s style plaid carpets? Didn’t think so. This is the image some people have of traditional Italian restaurants. While the quality and diversity of eating establishments will need to improve, Little Italy itself should become more of a destination for Baltimore residents and tourists.  Here are a few ideas to add spark to the area.

  • Restaurants: Having just been to Vapiano in DC, a high-quality, casual cafeteria-style place in Little Italy would pull some foot traffic from Harbor East and appeal to a broader customer base than trend-chasing places like Milan. Larger dining spaces and multi-use venues would create a buzz in the neighborhood and an alternative to traditional Italian restaurants.
  • Visibility: I’ve met a few tourists in Harbor East who didn’t even know Baltimore had a Little Italy. An iconic, brightly lit sign on the Pratt/President Street parking garage would do wonders to make visitors aware of the neighborhood. Better pedestrian way finding from downtown and Harbor East would also help.
  • Street Life: Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. The Bocce court and summer outdoor movies are great, but most of the time the streets are empty. This wasn’t always the case – I’ve read accounts from long time residents that Little Italy’s streets used to be the front porch of the neighborhood.  Times have changed, but buskers, more outdoor dining spaces, and small public plazas would increase the sense of neighborhood safety and vitality.
  • Little Italy’s Front Door: This ties into visibility. People’s first impression of the neighborhood is often the President/Pratt St. parking garage or the parking lots near Fawn St. The parking garage itself is probably the worst gateway to any neighborhood in the city, but until it can be torn down and replaced with a neighborhood-appropriate mixed use project, we just have to deal with it. The Fawn Street parking lots offer an opportunity to create a true neighborhood gateway which brings in foot traffic from downtown and Harbor East.  Somewhere between the development density of Little Italy and Harbor East, potential mixed use projects on these lots could reflect Little Italy’s architectural character while providing modern floor plates for new neighborhood restaurants and services.

In the mean time, go check out the Bocci court and let the locals show you how it’s done.

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


On Being a City Planner In a Room Full of Engineers

A few words of encouragement if you’ve ever been the only non-traffic engineer in a room full of traffic engineers.

  1. It’s OK to question Level of Service and traffic volume projections. They’ve often been wrong before. They will be wrong again.
  2. It’s OK to advocate for narrower lanes.
  3. It’s OK to use the phrases “fast”, “anti-urban” and “does not meet livability goals” when describing one way couplets.
  4. Protected bike lanes are no longer radical ideas, even if they mean taking traffic lanes away from automobiles.
  5. Your intuition is correct. Sharrows on high volume streets are dangerous and should not be used just to placate cyclists.
  6. Full time on-street parking is not an impediment to traffic flow, even on urban arterials. It’s a retail-booster and a revenue generating traffic calming device.
  7. It’s OK to talk about big picture things when the conversation focuses on minutia.
  8. It’s OK to expect something exceptional and transformational from a project.
  9. It’s OK to suggest that the project engineers actually walk or bike on the street they are designing.
  10. It’s OK to question neighborhood design speeds in excess of 20mph, the 85% percentile rule, intersection geometrics and clear zones, even if you’re not an engineer.
  11. Aesthetics are just as important as function. Signal poles, bus stops, sidewalks, and the entire streetscape are as much a part of urban design as buildings and parks.

…learning how to make cities rich and fecund and great places to be so we’re comfortable and healthy and happy is the biggest problem we face. The only way we’ll not go crazy is to build beautiful, rich, life-enhancing cities….The majority of open spaces in cities are streets. That means the street system is too important to leave solely to transportation engineers. They’re way too important to leave to just moving traffic. So I’m interested in cities because they are the design problem for a habitable planet. – Laurie Olin

Keep on going.


Surprising Places


The New York Times has a great panel of architects, planners, and economists discussing car free living. What is most surprising are the comments left be people who live without a car in places like Phoenix, Scottsdale, Houston, and small cities throughout the country. The number of people who would like to live without a car is also amazing.

While Baltimore doesn’t have the best transit, it has good “bones”. This means small blocks, grid street networks, relatively high densities and lots of small, local streets where walking and biking feels safe. This counts for a lot. While federal and state funding for green infrastructure is increasing, I think it will take a fundamental change in how we build cities in order to make going car free less of a dramatic lifestyle change in the U.S. Developers and local politicians have to get used to mixed use projects and increased densities. Cities and counties will need more versitile zoning codes and better land conservation ordinances. The public also has to see the benefits of getting out of their cars – at least for short periods of time at first. This means educating people about options they may have never considered in the first place.

Thanks to Nate Evans for lending me a bike until I buy my own. I’d like to make it clear that this is not an ideological crusade, but a practical option. Life is ultimately an experiment; I grew up in a station wagon riding to suburban malls in New Jersey. Now, I’d like to try something else.