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Amplifying and Redefining North Ave. into a Complete Street

One possible design to make North Ave. more community friendly

I’ve been spending a lot of time on North Ave. lately.  Even without mentioning the Station North Arts District, there’s tons of history, great overlooked architecture and quirky things on the corridor which make this part of the city an overlooked gem. I believe I once said North Ave. is Baltimore’s most important street, and I still stand by that statement. The number of community assets either on or near the street is amazing.

But there are problems. Aside from the high vacancy rates, boarded up row homes and the like, the street acts like a highway and a divider when it should act as a connector and community asset. And with so many good things happening in the communities adjacent to North Ave., there is untapped potential to support the hard work community groups are doing by enlivening the street with better multi-modal access, public plazas, and neighborhood-friendly traffic speeds.

For fun I drafted a complete streets concept in Microstation which addresses several major issues on North Ave. between Greenmount and Howard Streets (and including the bridge to UB/MICA territory). While there is potential to apply these design components corridor wide, there seems to be the most neighborhood redevelopment momentum on this segment. What amazed me is how much right of way there is on North Ave. and how much of this space is underutilized. I was also pretty cost conscious in my design and tried to avoid moving sidewalk curb lines except where absolutely necessary.  Let me break it down (you can download a 2 page PDF of the concept here):

  • Firstly, the design is a partial road diet.  No city street needs 6 lanes of through traffic.  4 lanes and dedicated left turn bays are more than sufficient to accommodate traffic volumes which have been flat or declining over the past 10 years throughout the corridor.
  • Sharrows are truly the table scraps of bicycle infrastructure. Bike lanes are a bit better, but to get early adopters and novice cyclists on North Ave., a buffered bike lane increases the perception of safety for new riders.  Having a 3′ buffer between the bike lane and traffic lane may be the difference between “No way am I going out there” and “OK, I’ll try it just once”.
  • Parking. Full time on street parking is truly underrated as a traffic calming and economic development tool.
  • Wider, programmable medians. Even with buffered bike lanes and full time parking, I was able to expand a few medians with the potential to make them true public plazas. Farmers markets, art exhibits, hoola hoop tournaments, live stock shows, etc. The sky is the limit.
  • The viaduct. Have you ever tried walking or biking from Station North to MICA via North Ave.? It’s not pretty. Taking the bridge down to 4 lanes while adding buffered bike lanes will calm traffic and also make the bridge more pedestrian friendly.
  • The intersection of Howard St. and North Ave. Crazy highway-like turning radius lets traffic fly around this corner. I would think Joe Squared would want a more pedestrian friendly intersection with more patio space. I squared off this corner, expanded the sidewalk and reduced the north-south pedestrian crossing distance.

There are things I left out which are implied. More pedestrian lighting, rebuilt sidewalks, excellent way finding, community kiosks and historical markers which explain the history of the street. A place like North Ave. needs a bold statement to let people know things are happening. More complete, community-focused streets can be the catalyst which expands redevelopment momentum across the entire city.

North Ave is Baltimore’s Most Important Street

In a recent issue of the Economist, I read about a U.N effort called the REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). It’s an attempt to put a price on the world’s forests, and in the process, an effort to save them by putting a value on something that was once thought of as cheap and abundant. What once was plentiful is now scarce – not because it’s harder to grow trees, but because we realize the costs of deforestation. The negative externalities of deforestation cost between $2 and $4.5 trillion a year. The Amazon rain forest, filled with poor forest dwellers, contributes more than $500 million a year to Brazil’s economy based on the natural resources which exist and thrive because of the forest.  REDD is literally paying countries not to cut down their trees.

How we value buildings and neighborhoods is similar to the way Brazil valued its forests through years of deforestation.  Can I get a piece of wood out of this and make a quick buck?  North Ave. is an example. A developer would be hard pressed to buy this abandoned school house at North & Washington, turn it into a mixed use apartment/hotel whatever, and make a profit.  The value of the surrounding neighborhood is just too low. Income, crime rates, and structural conditions all affect property values, but for what it is, the intangibles of North Ave. make it far more valuable than property records would suggest. This particular building is irreplaceable and we’ve nearly lost the will and ability to build something similar to it today. I don’t think this fact is reflected in its market value.

Likewise, I don’t think the value of North Ave. as a whole is properly assessed by most people. East to West, North Ave. goes through about 15 neighborhoods across Baltimore. Within half a mile is Druid Hill Park, Clifton Park, Hanlon Park, Mondawmin Mall, Leakin Park, University of Baltimore, MICA, Coppin State, Penn Station, a Metro station, and a light rail station. It is a direct link between the major north-south gateways of Pennslyvania Ave, Harford Road, Belair Road, Greenmount Ave. and Charles St. Buildings vary from historic 2 and 3 story rowhomes, post WWII rowhomes with porches and front lawns, majestic victorian buildings, historic churches, crummy garden style apartments and gas stations. Some blocks look like this:

and this:

The impact of the 1968 riots left large parts of North Ave. for dead, though. The gangbangers, drug cartels and other local warlords now use the corridor as a speedway in and out of neighborhoods, and the street is often seen as a divider between good and bad (and bad and bad) neighborhoods. Using Kevin Lynch’s vocabulary in The Image of the City, North Ave is a pathway linking multiple important nodes that acts more like an edge. An edge, not only between north and south, but east and west. Standing at the corner of North and Charles, I doubt many of you would take the walk to North and Eutaw Place to Bolton Hill.

View North Ave. in a larger map

The section between Mt. Royal Ave. and Charles Street is becoming a burgeoning arts/college district, but this is far too little progress within the context of the larger problem.  Good neighborhoods, like Bolton Hill, are hurt by the street, and revitalization of struggling areas like Greenmount West will be delayed if North Ave isn’t improved. There are several master plans scattered through the corridor, the Charles North plan being the latest, however most of them don’t look at North Ave. holistically nor take into account the ways people travel east-west through the city. The plans also don’t consider the psychological barrier North Ave has become.

In Galeshewe, South Africa, a corridor master plan was done for multiple streets bisecting the city which would link activity nodes, or neighborhoods, by transit, walking and biking paths.  Instead of looking at individual neighborhoods as islands, linked paths can be the framework by which developers, politicians and the public think about the future of the city.  Given the massive number of neighborhoods, institutions and other opportunities surrounding North Ave, the plethora of historic buildings, and the wide 60′ curb to curb width of the street (and 100′ between buildings in some places), there is potential for bike lanes, BRT lanes, trolley tracks, goat paths, running paths, duck ponds, and whatever else you can throw in to change the perception of North Ave. from a divider to a connector. These new connections would link redeveloped nodes like at North and Charles or North and Penn. As the nodes improve, the areas between them would gradually fill in as well.

A safer, more vibrant, more multi-modal North Ave. will bring every neighborhood, college and park I mentioned a little bit closer to each other, and in the process, open up an expansive area of the city which many have written off of their mental maps. Can you put a price on that?