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Next stop: A more attractive ride

Colleges and UniversitiesAmtrakDowntown Partnership of BaltimoreCarl StokesEast Baltimore Development Inc.Stephanie Rawlings-BlakeMARC Train

A collapsed house. An abandoned warehouse furred with vines. Block after block of vacant homes, shattered windows framing blackness. Then, the tunnel and the train platform.

The mix of shuttered industrial spaces and faded neighborhoods that flank the tracks leading to Penn Station are some of Baltimore's bleakest landscapes.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants to change the view for the 2 million people who use Penn Station each year — and improve Baltimore's image. She plans to formally unveil today an elegant billboard-sized sign that is visible from the train platform. She's working with Amtrak officials to spruce up the station and the surrounding areas. And she plans to rehab or tear down vacant homes near the tracks to make way for green spaces.

"We're not expressing the best of Baltimore," she said. "When people come to Baltimore, they become ambassadors for the city. We want to tell them the good story of Baltimore."

Rawlings-Blake says that university officials and business leaders have complained for years that the views from the train and station itself do not provide a fitting introduction to the city.

Commuters heading in and out of the city on morning trains echoed those sentiments.

"There isn't a sense of arrival," Tim Fish, 46, associate headmaster of the McDonogh School, said of the approach to Penn Station. "You don't see evidence of the revitalization of the city — Hampden, Harbor East, Federal Hill. You don't see that culture coming through."

Fish, who was heading to New York with a colleague, said the city should do more to promote local artists in and around the station.

The Maryland Institute College of Art "is right by the station, but you don't get a sense of that," he said.

Mary Jones-Furlow, 62, said her home city of Philadelphia copes with similar image problems. The Temple University administrator was headed back home after attending a conference in Baltimore.

"That's not how I see Baltimore. I've been here for vacation and for business, and I know there's more to it," Jones-Furlow said. "But I do think it would have an impact on the typical business person."

But some questioned the efforts to improve the view from the train.

"I like seeing the real city," said Miles Clark, 23, who was heading to his job at a Washington antiques shop. "I don't like seeing things that are put there to be seen. There are things that need to be changed, not just superficially."

Rawlings-Blake said she formed an advisory committee two years ago to analyze issues related to rail commuting in Baltimore.

The committee is studying how to meet future transportation needs and how to improve the appearance of the station. It's working on a master plan, in conjunction with Amtrak, that should be finished in late 2015.

In the meantime, Rawlings-Blake has spearheaded efforts to improve the 1911 Beaux-Arts station, installing free Wi-Fi and bike racks.

A large sign with the word "Baltimore" in sleek black metal letters and an LED-screen that will highlight city events has been installed by the track and will be formally unveiled this afternoon.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, led efforts to create the sign, which was purchased by his group and Visit Baltimore.

Colorful tables and chairs have been placed in the plaza in front of the station — once a bland space where people smoked or waited for rides. The plaza now has concerts and flea markets, and even performances from a European parkour troupe. The mayor has allocated about $75,000 for Penn Station improvements.

"It's really created a new energy in front of the station," Rawlings-Blake said. "If you haven't been to Penn Station in a while, you will see a difference."

A "plaza ambassador," trained by Visit Baltimore, stands watch over the plaza from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, providing directions and suggestions to visitors.

Amtrak, in conjunction with the city and state, has spent $9.5 million on improvements to Penn Station in recent years, including a long-overdue renovation of the restrooms.

Talking, computerized passenger information signs were installed this year, and plans are underway to place new lights on MARC train platforms and security cameras throughout the station, according to a spokeswoman, Kimberly D. Woods.

While shops, cafes and galleries have opened up in the surrounding neighborhood in recent years, there are still many vacant spaces — including in the upper floors of the station.

Colin D. Tarbert, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, said that developer Michael Beatty is in talks with Amtrak to redevelop the upper floors as well as an adjacent parcel of land.

Rawlings-Blake said that city workers would begin razing vacant buildings near the tracks in East Baltimore this fall. The first to go will be a row of houses along the 2400 block of E. Eager St., on which muralist Stephen Powers painted the words "together forever" in large white and purple letters.

The city plans to install an environmentally friendly parking lot for nearby residents and a storm-water management facility in its place, according to a letter Rawlings-Blake sent station advisory committee members this week.

Tarbert said the homes opposite those slated to be demolished will be rehabbed as part of the mayor's "Vacants to Value" initiative, a program started in 2010 that targets abandoned houses.

"What we hope is there will be a whole new landscape in East Baltimore," said Tarbert, noting that Johns Hopkins' massive East Baltimore Development Inc. has already transformed some of the blocks near the tracks.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, whose district includes the station as well as portions of East Baltimore, acknowledged that the view from the train is "pretty horrible now."

Stokes said he hoped that the mayor's plans would improve life in East Baltimore while creating a better first impression for the city.

"Any strong attempt to improve the view by improving the quality of life of the residents would be great," he said.

Commuters were emphatic Tuesday about one change they would like to see come to the station — the removal of the towering silver statue titled "Male/Female."

"We call it 'The Silver Beast,'" said Katerina Chaconas, 26, a resident of the nearby CopyCat Building. "I love the station and the building in general, but I wish I could burn that statue down."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Colleges and UniversitiesAmtrakDowntown Partnership of BaltimoreCarl StokesEast Baltimore Development Inc.Stephanie Rawlings-BlakeMARC Train
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