Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Critiquing the West Baltimore MARC Transit-Centered Community Development Strategy

The West Baltimore MARC Transit-Centered Community Development Strategy (The Strategy) is a framework document providing guidance for the revitalization of the areas within a half-mile of the current West Baltimore MARC station over the next 35 years. The Strategy proposes the creation of a transportation oriented development centered around the West Baltimore Station, located at Franklin and Pulaski Street, that consists of east and west bound platforms and two parking lots. Designed with heavy public involvement, the Strategy aims to improve the areas by targeting three principals: housing, economic and transportation. The Strategy “is not intended to be the last word on how West Baltimore is redeveloped – rather it is intended to be the first” (City of Baltimore Department of Planning 11).

Typical of most urban areas, West Baltimore’s population declined after World War II due to a variety of reasons: white flight, suburbanization, job loss, etc. Historic race riots occurred throughout Baltimore in1968 stemming from the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Many communities have not rebounded from these events. The Strategy targets communities around the West Baltimore MARC station including: Bridgeview & Greenlawn, Midtown Edmondson, Station West (Penrose), Shipley Hill, Franklin Square, Boyd-Booth, Harlem Park, and Rosemont. Neighboring communities include Union Square and Carrollton Ridge. Based on the 2000 Census, the surrounding communities are roughly 99% African American, largely consist of families and the working class (City of Baltimore).

Local stakeholders include Coppin State University, Baltimore City, Acme Industrial, Bon Secours Hospital, the Maryland Transportation Administration and the residents within the surrounding communities. Public involvement gained momentum throughout the planning process. The first workshop held in 2006 consisted of a week long community planning charrette that led to the creation of the West Baltimore Coalition (WBC), a group of community stakeholders. The WBC recruited neighborhood residents and held monthly meetings to establish direction and specific interest. Also, the WBC distributed flyers to every residence within a half-mile of the MARC station notifying the public about involvement in the upcoming workshop. A second workshop was held in October 2007 and the community developed one goal, “use the MARC station and other transportation improvements to create an affordable neighborhood that is full of residents, shops, restaurants, civic amenities, parks, and other recreational opportunities” (City of Baltimore Department of Planning 18). In November 2007, residents gathered to agree on concepts that are “needed to make West Baltimore a better place to Live, Earn, Play and Learn,” and thus creating the outline for the Strategy (City of Baltimore Department of Planning 18).

The Strategy outlines methods to improve housing, economic development and transportation. Through all principles, each seeks to draw investments to the community. The community also desires greater connectivity to “jobs, schools, medical centers, retailers, and other areas of the city” (City of Baltimore Department of Planning 13). The Strategy plans to achieve all these goals through small-scale infill projects that are sensitive to the already existing community.

The key housing principles include stabilizing current housing stock and avoiding the displacement of current residents by making housing affordable. The Strategy aims to increase housing stock but also preserve the historic character of existing infrastructure. Diversifying the housing stock is also important to create a variety of places to live for different lifestyles. There is a large amount of abandoned housing and the Strategy has identified sensitive infill for these areas.

The community hopes to draw large-scale economic redevelopment into the surrounding area, foster businesses that would serve the local population and provide employment opportunities. Small business development is also encouraged. Redevelopment opportunities include the redesign of the Ice House, a large industrial building adjacent to the MARC station, which could be used as shelter for passengers with restaurants and retail potential. The Warwick industrial triangle, within walking distance to the station, also has similar mixed-use potential.

The transportation principle seeks to use the MARC station more fully and improve alternative transportation modes within the community. “Approximately 60 percent of area residents do not have access to private vehicles,” and rely heavily on the local transit network (City of Baltimore Department of Planning 35). The Strategy makes an emphasis on improving the bicycling and pedestrian environment with new transportation plans that focus on complete streets and traffic calming. Under the transportation principle, the community wishes to dismantle Route 40, known as the “highway to nowhere,” and revitalize the area into a “highway to somewhere,” a tree-lined boulevard with access to the proposed Red Line with high economic potential. The new Red Line, an east to west light rail, proposed a station in West Baltimore. The Red Line would connect West Baltimore to the already existing Baltimore Metro and Light Rail downtown. There is speculation regarding the Red Line, however, its implementation would help create a destination place in West Baltimore.

The Strategy does not explicitly review the financing for the proposed redevelopment, leaving one to ask, “Where will the money come from?” The Strategy may be more convincing if other constituencies were identified that are not currently in West Baltimore. Funding could be generated from paid parking spaces to pay for sidewalk upgrades etc. Identifying the financing options would strengthen the likelihood of implementing such a plan.

Also, the Strategy does not cover the issue of crime. Baltimore City has some of the highest crime rates in the Nation. Within the City, crime is disproportionately located in pockets of East and West Baltimore. Crime is a major impetus to reinvestment in West Baltimore and a difficult hurdle to surmount. The crime stems for deep seated and complex socio-economic problems resulting in high levels of drug and gang related violence. Reinvestment might help quell the violence, but more than likely, the community will have to improve first.

Overall the Strategy is opened minded and flexible to a “range of possible futures” (City of Baltimore Department of Planning 40). In the current economic times, investors may be scarce. However, working with the public and outlining the framework provides a vision for future and marks the starting point. In the meantime, the Strategy could take advantage of existing bus lines and public involvement to clean up the community. The dismantling of Route 40 is currently underway, which will greatly enable development along the corridor. The Strategy is well rounded, not simply improving things for motorists or commuters, but has the potential to make things better in the community and change people’s lives.

City of Baltimore. "City of Baltimore Planning / Research and Data." City of Baltimore, Maryland - Official Website. 2010. Web. 01 Oct. 2010.

City of Baltimore Department of Planning. "West Baltimore MARC Station Master Plan." City of Baltimore, Maryland - Official Website. Nov. 2008. Web. 01 Oct. 2010.

Photo Courtesy of John Perivolaris