Tuesday, October 23, 2012

30 Years Later Should MLK Boulevard Have Ever Been Built?

In 1982 Downtown Baltimore and West Baltimore were very different places. Downtown was still in shambles unless you were at the Harbor or Charles Center and not a block further from those places. The Westside of Downtown was feeling the effects of suburbanization while West Baltimore was entrenched in a decades long drug war centered in Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes. This was the urban climate in which Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (MLK) was built. It served and still does serve as a bypass to Downtown and was supposed to be a quick route to get to midtown. MLK ends at Chase St. right in between Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon at the State Center. If MLK Boulevard was supposed to act as a thoroughfare like it was supposed to it would have had an interchange with I-83, I'm thinking like a mid to late 20th century highway planner in order to reenact the climate of 1982 where it was still a "good idea" to destroy City Neighborhoods in order to build highways. MLK Boulevard has since become just another north south route through Downtown with the same amount of gridlock as the very streets it was supposed to bypass begging the question; Should MLK Boulevard  Have Ever Been Built?
West Baltimore and the western edge of Downtown was something to be bypassed in 1982 and in the planning and construction years leading up to it as well. Stately Neighborhoods such as Ridgley's Delight and Barre Circle had not yet gentrified and Pigtown was in worse shape than it is now. The Stadiums (M&T Bank and Camden Yards) were a good 10-20 years away from materializing and Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes were war zones. So long story short, the MLK Boulevard corridor was in shambles. The only real draws were State Center and the massive Social Security Building. These were nothing but Office Buildings without any Retail or Residences nearby and the workers in those buildings lived in the suburbs or on the outskirts of the City. Given the state of the Neighborhoods surrounding State Center and the Social Security Building workers didn't exactly want to stick around the City after hours.
So this begs the question; What is a bypass? Well as its name suggests it bypasses a certain area that's congested and provides a shorter unclogged route. So does MLK Boulevard bypass Downtown? Yes it does but it doesn't do it in a manner that's much faster than say Howard St., Calvert St., or Charles St. so in that aspect at least given today's landscape of the road and its surrounding areas, it fails as a bypass. Also I can't help but wonder if earlier in the planning stages if MLK was supposed to be more limited access. Sure, there are the bridges at the road to nowhere but those still have traffic lights on MLK. Could MLK Boulevard have originally been a freeway with grade separated interchanges? I haven't seen evidence of it but I given the sad state of West Baltimore and the Government's willingness to plow through distressed Neighborhoods in the name of Highway Construction, I wouldn't have been surprised if that had been discussed.
Another way to more effectively make MLK Boulevard more of a limited access freeway to merely cut off access to east west roads like they have done with Lexington St. Granted there's still a traffic light there due to heavy pedestrian activity but having other streets stop and start on either side of the Boulevard would have made for faster travel times and allowed it to have nothing to do with the Neighborhoods it's bypassing. With that being said, MLK Boulevard was quite successful in bypassing Downtown in its early years because the route it took was relatively deserted. 
Then around the late 1980s, Neighborhoods along MLK Bouleard began to experience one by one. First came Reidgley's Delight which went through a similar homesteading experience that Otterbein did just under a decade earlier. Now Ridgley's Delight is an ultra sought after address. 
Next came Oriole Park at Camden Yards Its April 1992 opening date set a new standard for Baseball Stadiums across the Country      and it increased traffic on MLK Boulevard and all of Downtown during home games so much so that Lee St. got its own exit from MLK Boulevard while it's still considered part of I-395. 
In 1996 the first of two pubic housing high rise developments were demolished; Lexington Terrace which directly abuts MLK Boulevard. This scary development was over run by drug dealers, violent crime, and deplorable living conditions. This and the adjacent Murphy Homes may have been to blame for the bad reputation of the Boulevard. In 2000 "The Townes at the Terraces" was completed on the site of Lexington Terrace. This new mixed income Community contains mostly Town Homes 1/3 of which are market rate home ownership while the rest are public housing. In addition there's an 88 unit Apartment Building for Seniors. Upon completion of the Terraces, crime has gone down and the quality of life has gone up.
In 1998 following the footsteps of Camden Yards M&T Bank Stadium opened across MLK Boulevard from Camden Yards on land originally cleared for the first stadium. This, like Camden Yards set the new standard for building of future stadiums. It most certainly increased traffic on MLK Boulevard especially during game days. 
In 1999 Murphy Homes was demolished, located just across the road to nowhere from Lexington Terrace Murphy Homes had also fallen victim to the crime, blight, and drugs that so much of Baltimore had and continues to from the latter half of the 20th century until this day. In 2003 Heritage Crossing was completed. As Murphy Home's successor there's no comparison. Unlike the Terraces the majority of the new Town Homes are market rate home ownership and a minority are public housing units. Heritage Crossing also boasts more green space and a much more suburban appearance. Like the Terraces the successor is worlds better than its predecessor. 
Very quietly University of Maryland at Baltimore (UMB) has been expanding its campus from to engulf everything from MLK Boulevard to the west, Greene St to the east, Fayette St. to the north and Pratt St to the south. Recent additions include 
The Institute of Virology Opened in 1996 
A new Library that opened in 1998
A Museum of Nursing that opened in 1999
New School of Law Building opened in 2002
New School of Dentistry opened in 2006
Institute of Genome Science opened in 2007
New Southern Quad opened in 2009
New Ambulatory Medical Center slated for 2012
All of these expansions in both program and space has made for larger enrollment at UMB and still more traffic on MLK Boulevard. As new buildings open it gives the University the opportunity to renovate, expand, and modernize older existing buildings. In addition to the School itself generating more traffic the adjacent Neighborhoods have become magnets for Students of UMB. MLK Boulevard has become filled with Students who live in Ridgley's Delight, Pigtown, Hollins Market, and Barre Circle and walk to School. 
Speaking of UMB and crossing MLK Boulevard, UMB has been constructing a new Biotech Park since roughly 2005. It's going along West Baltimore St. in Poppleton on the grounds of dilapidated row homes. The new heavily guarded park is slated to bring new jobs to the area and will boost redevelopment efforts throughout Poppleton. 
There are future plans along MLK Boulevard; State Center. The very suburban park is slated to be redeveloped and bridge the gap between Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill, Upton, Seton Hill, and Heritage Crossing. This project has had numerous pit falls and controversies. First off, there are those who think the State shouldn't be investing that kind of money during a recession, the State's developers Streuver Brothers, Eccles, and Rouse going bankrupt, the design having to be modified because McCulloh Homes are no included, and a host of other hurdles that have halted construction that should have been underway many times over.
There were also plans at one point to extend MLK Boulevard to meet I-83. This would be disastrous to all of the Neighborhoods nearby as it would destroy their fabric and some very beautiful row homes might be destroyed in the process. It's also interesting that this wasn't done 30 years ago. MLK Boulevard just stops at Chase St. where had it continued would have cut through Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill. These Neighborhoods 30 years ago were in decent shape while the rest of the Neighborhoods surrounding the Boulevard were not. That gives me insight into the state of mind that the planners were in that they only wanted to disrupt poor distressed Neighborhoods while leaving wealthy Neighborhoods alone. That was just a little side note I found quite interesting.
Now that I have given a history of MLK Boulevard from 1982-2012 and beyond it comes time to answer the burning the question; Should MLK Boulevard Ever Been Built? My answer; Yes, it started out as a bypass from Downtown heading Uptown with very few traffic jams. Now that the area has gone through and will continue to go through a massive transformation it has stopped being a bypass because it takes almost as long to get Uptown than if you drove straight through Downtown. So if it failed as a bypass why should it have been built? Well I will answer that with a question; How could all of these new Stadiums, gentrified Neighborhoods, and expanded University without this new road to support the additional traffic?


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