Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mount Clare Junction Redevelopment: The Key to Revamping Pigtown?

Washington Boulevard has long since been the Main Street of Pigtown. In fact, the City has designated it as such. As Neighborhoods near and including Downtown have seen Billions in gentrification efforts, Pigtown has been largely left out. Don't get me wrong there have been great new developments in Pigtown not only on Washington Boulevard put away from the Neighborhood's Main Street as well. Residents and City Officials alike want to see Pigtown as an extension of Federal Hill and Ridgley's Delight as a vibrant community that serves as a destination not only for its Residents but those far and near Pigtown. I agree that Pigtown should be revamped as such as but I wonder; Is Washington Boulevard the answer?
The 1970s proved to be a disastrous decade for the urban core of Baltimore. Residents were either moving out completely or into the outskirts of the City. With Industry leaving the Harbor and surrounding areas desolate something had to be done. In the 1960s a section of Downtown was slated for redevelopment to be known as Charles Center. This had become a glimmer of hope for the deserted Downtown as Office Buildings were completed. This re centralized Baltimore's Central Business District. Next came the Harbor which became a Retail tourist destination as Harborplace opened and Residents began moving Downtown as $1 Row House initiatives were implemented. Eventually this gentrification spread to Federal Hill, Locust Point, Fells Point, Little Italy, Canton, Mount Vernon, Patterson Park and will eventually reach Highlandtown and Greektown. It became evident that Pigtown would also enjoy this revival.
When the Harbor began its gentrification Pigtown was both the typical Baltimore Neighborhood and an atypical Neighborhood at the same time. Perhaps the biggest thing that set Pigtown apart was that it was and still is very integrated in a City where Neighborhoods tended to be segregated. Like most of Baltimore, Pigtown was working class and losing population at an alrming rate due to the decline of the manufacturing sector of the economy which was a major Employer for the Neighborhood. In fact, that is how Pigtown got its name back in the 1800s. Given the Mount Clare Junction's railroad stop and its proximity to slaughter houses Pigs would run the route in between the train and the slaughter houses giving the Neighborhood its name; Pigtown.
In an effort to attract more Residents to Pigtown, some busybodies tried to tidy up the Neighborhood's image by changing its name to the painfully generic Washington Village. Although Pigtown did gain population in the 1980s, that was a flook and long term the change in name was about as misguided as trying to copyright the term "hon." Pigtown Residents both old, new, and perspective were more than satisfied with the name of their Community. Also in the 1980s the Mount Clare Junction Shopping Center was developed complete with a Safeway, and suburban style lay out. Although the Shopping Center failed to thrive, the Safeway did hold on until 2010. Only a few tenants remain.
 It seemed that to Urban Planners and Community Activists alike that the key to Pigtown's revitalization lied not in Mount Clare Junction but in Washington Boulevard, the Community's Main Street. As a result incentives were offered to Businesses and Residents alike to rehab vacant structures and turn them into attractive Retail and or Residential uses. There have been some great success stories along Washington Boulevard and throughout Pigtown where once vacant row homes have been handsomely restored. The problem is as these homes are reoccupied other homes are still being vacated and bordered up which gives Pigtown a net loss of population both during the 1900s and the 2000s. Before the housing collapse, builders were interested in Pigtown. The biggest evidence of this is in the once vacant site that used to be industrial that was redeveloped as Town Homes known as Camden Crossing (pictured below). Camden Crossing was built just as the economy tanked, that meant that it took a lot longer to build and sell the final homes of the development.
Today Pigtown is in transition. Residents are moving in but it doesn't supersede those moving out. Residents both old and new want more businesses to come to Washington Boulevard such as Pubs, Bars, Restaurants, and other "destination Retail" that will make Pigtown more than just a Residential Neighborhood but a place with a vibrant Commercial area without vacancies and Residences that are attractive and fully occupied. Current Residents of Pigtown, UMB, and Ridgley's Delight take very expensive to areas that have the businesses they're looking for in Fedral Hill, Fells Point or the Inner Harbor. Residents were told that Pigtown was an up & comer which it still is but lets get the ball rolling.    
Washington Boulevard is an attractive Main Street for Pigtown, but can it attract a crititcal mass that will spur revitalization? I don't think so and here's why. Although it does run a short distance east of MLK Boulevard into Ridgley's Delight, it does not go Downtown. This makes Washington Boulevard less accessible to those residing Downtown or attending UMB to go into Pigtown if more night life oriented Retail were to open in Pigtown. Mount Clare Junction on the other hand has Pratt St. frontage. Pratt St. obviously goes into Downtown and beyond and if executed properly can be a gateway into SoWeBo from Downtown. If Pratt St. were thought of as Pigtown's Main Street I believe that would attract more visitors.
In order to make Mount Clare Junction and ultimately Pratt St. the Retail core of Pigtown the struggling suburban Shopping Center would have to be redeveloped. It should be a higher density alternative to the adjacent Camden Crossing development which will attract the critical mass of Residents that will support the new restaurants, bars, and pubs Pigtown is looking to attract. Despite its failing as a 
suburban shopping center, Mount Clare Junction as a mixed use mixed income district of Mid to High rise Apartments and Condos, Office Buildings, and Restaurant Oriented Retail should thrive and it can spur reinvestment not only in Pigtown but Hollins Market, Union Square, and Mout Clare. In addition to attracting students from UMB it can also attract employees from the UMB Biotech Park a few blocks to the north. 
Pigtown has a very distinct personality, not the least of which is the annual running of the pigs at the annual Pigtown Festival. I think as new Businesses open in Pigtown that should be kept in mind such as Pubs that reference Pigs in some way like Hampden does with the bee hove hairdo and how Woodberry is stating to open Businesses that celebrate its history as a Mill Village. With Pratt St. being Pigtown's new Main Street there would have to be a way to get patrons safely across MLK Boulevard. Since City life depends on walking so much there would have to be a pedestrian bridge so that people crossing would not have to come in contact with the overload of traffic that MLK Boulevard endures on a daily basis. 
Although Washington Boulevard is a great Neighborhood Main Street for Pigtown it doesn't appear to attract a crowd into the Neighborhood the way Pratt St. has the potential to and given that Mount Clare Junction has Pratt St. frontage it can make Pigtown into an extension of Downtown that will revitalize not only SoWeBo but the westside of Downtown in the process.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Eastern Avenue: The All Around Better Alternative

Historically Eastern Avenue held the title of East Baltimore's Main Street. Given that North Avenue was the northern border for much of the City's history that wasn't as large of a stretch as it is today. The way I think of Eastern Avenue is as a diverse high density Main Street that acts as the northern border to gentrified Neighborhoods like Inner Harbor East, Fells Point, and Canton. In addition, it acts as a southern border to more traditional East Baltimore like Upper Fells Point, Little Italy, Patterson Park, and Highlandtown. Given that Eastern Avenue plays host to Retail, Residential, and Community Uses it seems natural that the eastern end of the Red Line be located on Eastern Avenue but guess what? It isn't.
Although I have spent a considerable amount of time bad mouthing the Red Line being at surface level along Edmondson Avenue and that the stops Downtown are lack luster at best, I haven't dedicated much time to the Red Line in East Baltimore. Option 4C, which is the preferred option for the City although I hear of more people who hate it rather than like it. 
Option 4C calls for the Red Line to go down President St. for a few blocks to Fleet St. where the proposed Harbor East stop is to be located. It will then travel down Fleet St. until it meets Boston St. where it will travel at surface level until roughly the location of the new Canton Crossing development. There they go again with surface level, people think that because it's the cheapest alternative that it's also the most effective. Sometimes you may have to spend more money in order to make more money. When something makes more money yet had cost more to pland and build wouldn't IT be more cost effective than something that was cheap but has low ridership due to its poor location?
 Although Boston St. is very wide considering its location just east of Downtown, it isn't dense by any stretch of the imagination. Its housing stock is new and mirrors that of its suburbs. There is also a suburban style shopping center with a Safeway. The only dense area will be Canton Crossing although funding woes haven't yielded many finished products except for the 1st Mariner Tower. Also keep in mind that Boston St. now has more residences as its waterfront once hosted industrial uses that have been redeveloped. Also keep in mind that to the south of Boston St. it's water and nobody but the fishes lives there and fish don't ride mass transit.
Eastern Avenue on the other hand is much more Retail and Community oriented with much more of an urban feel. The road itself is much narrower with parallel parking. There are older "cookie cutter" row homes with ground floor Retail as well as taller row homes that have since been converted into Apartments. In short, when traveling on Eastern Avenue you will know that you're in the City. There are also plenty of City Bus Stops where Residents who don't have regular access to a car take advantage of. On Boston St. the amount of Bus Stops and Riders at said stops is much smaller than what is found on Eastern Avenue. In short, Eastern Avenue is very dense and Boston St. is very sparse.
I'm sure now you can see that Eastern Avenue being the preferred location for the Red Line east of Downtown so why isn't it? It's very true that tunneled Light Rail under a narrow street is more expensive and disruptive than surface level Light Rail on a wide street that comparatively doesn't get much traffic. Could this entire issue be boiled down to the MTA being cheap? I think so, Although the Red Line will cost more than other rail lines in DC simply because the other lines are older and the cost of the Red Line is adjusted to inflation. Given that the Red Line cost is adjusted to inflation, the MTA still doesn't want to spend more money to make the Red Line comparable to its DC brethren. 
So it's all about money? That's what has been keeping the Red Line from being all it can be? Yes that seems to be the problem. At the same time, the Mayor, the Governor, and the MTA are hell bent on building just to say that they have. Unfortunately end result of just "building something" will not improve the area in fact it will detrimental because the money spent would then be wated due to low ridership. Why will ridership be low? Given that Boston St. is a lower density higher income area than Eastern Avenue there are simply more options for them. Residents there have more access to personal vehicles. Along Eastern Avenue, Residents are less likely to own a car, not only that there are simply many more of them both north and south of the road itself. This all adds up to higher ridership.
The reasons above make Eastern Avenue a better choice but consider this one; Eastern Avenue is narrow so it can't support surface level transit therefore it would have to be underground. Underground or tunneled transit is uninterrupted by vehicular traffic which makes for shorter trip times. A big reason riders would choose Rail Transit over their cars would be that it takes less time to get to their destination. A surface level Rail Car is a big obstruction to traffic and it has to compete with any and all other traffic. How often have trip times been delayed on Howard St. due to the Rail Cars competing in rush hour traffic? It will be just the same on Boston St. Boston St. may be wide now but it isn't wide enough to accommodate two tracks of Light Rail in addition to two way traffic and dedicated turn lanes.
Speaking of dedicated turn lanes, with the Rail Cars at surface level on Boston St. there's a good chance that a lot of side streets would be forbidden to make left turns onto and off of Boston St. This is proposed to happen on Edmondson Avenue where the Rail Cars are slated to be surface level. Like Boston St. this needs to be tunneled as well. Given that Edmondson Avenue is not as well to do as Boston St., there has been significantly less coverage by the News Media on it. If tunneled under Eastern Avenue, these problems will of course be null and void.
It's very clear that for the Red Line in southeast Baltimore, Eastern Avenue is all around the better option. Although there is currently a Community Compact on the record for Option 4C, there has been some wiggle room in the form of Cooks Lane double tracking. Hopefully if the pressure is put on the MTA they will change their mind and pony up the funds to make the Red Line under Eastern Avenue a reality as well as Edmondson Avenue.