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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.

Surprising Places

http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/12/carless-in-america/

L.A.

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.