Jacques Kelly: Penn Station still a neighborhood showpiece, and potential powerhouse

In my years of passing it daily, I’ve watched Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station grow and mature into a thriving commuter destination, where thousands come and go to jobs on a daily basis while other passengers — the ones with the heavy baggage — arrive and depart on longer journeys.

Over the past 20 years in particular, our Penn Station has served as a gateway to both Washington jobs and Baltimore’s housing market. At 6 p.m., as people come home, the old station rocks.

I’ve also watched the station undergo renovations and changes.

Some 35 years ago, its leftover World War II-era pinball machines finally got tossed. At that same time, a thorough refurbishment revealed its stained glass skylights — once covered in blackout paint — as well as its Rookwood tiles (chipped in places) and oak benches (overly varnished).

It’s time for this 1911 station to stage another transformation. Its upper floors, at one time filled with rail workers, are unused and need to be occupied. Their beautifully designed windows need paint and repair. The station’s track-level passenger platform shelters could stand some attention, too.

Renovations aside, Penn Station remains a much-used Baltimore treasure, a stately building that survives with a full palette of architectural embellishments that speak to an era of rail prosperity and power.

It has been a solid and reliable cornerstone spanning the Mount Vernon and Station North neighborhoods. Both communities have turned some amazing corners in the past decade with help from three academic neighbors — the University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Johns Hopkins University.

It’s instructive to step back and consider how some other neighborhood landmarks have flourished with change. The Charles Theatre remains a community anchor, and Jed Dietz of the Maryland Film Festival recently told me the Parkway Theatre saw some 32,000 people visit this historic North Avenue landmark in the first year after its renovation.

Not bad for a place that had stood empty since 1978.

The old Centre Theatre is fully leased, with 250 workers and students using it daily, and another 2,000 visitors attending weekly events.This past year a new apartment house rose on Lanvale Street facing the station, and there are dozens of homes that have been recently renovated in the Greenmount West and Barclay neighborhoods.

On Greenmount Avenue, the community workers’ spaces at Open Works are a success, as are the City Arts residential buildings.

There’s still plenty to be accomplished along North Avenue. There are vacant lots and a former bank, empty for decades, that need to be put to productive uses.

That’s why Penn Station is such an important asset. If majorly improved, it has the potential to lift the Charles Street corridor and encourage additional investment.

The station is a substantial architectural presence. Yet its grounds along Lanvale Street are often overgrown with vegetation. A parking lot at St. Paul Street seems an obvious place for expansion — and a place for new business opportunity.

At the end of last year Amtrak announced that it was working with Penn Station Partners, a group that would look at redevelopment around the century-old station. At the time, Mayor Catherine Pugh called the effort an “historic opportunity… to bring to life a bold future for Penn Station, generating jobs and sustained economic opportunities for our Baltimore communities and beyond.”

Visits to Washington and Philadelphia have shown me how renewed stations can affect nearby real estate. Both those cities have had urban boom towns rise near their stations.

There have been proposals to put a hotel in Penn Station’s upper floors. While this never materialized, the light-filled former railroad offices seem a place that could be rented. There is a nearby precedent: A former parcel station on St. Paul Street, where packages were once transferred to trains, was restored a decade ago and remains a neighborhood asset. Unlike the station, its windows are clean, washed and well painted.

Those of us who have known this venerable piece of old Baltimore await Penn Station’s next chapter. And we anticipate, too, the community and economic strength that an improved transportation hub could bring.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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