Work is wrapping up on a $55 million, yearslong upgrade of a major downtown roadway serving Baltimore’s developing waterfront neighborhoods. But the revitalization of Central Avenue’s streetscape has surprised some business operators and residents.
Many expected a four-lane road, with two northbound and two southbound lanes, plus turning lanes, to ease congestion into Harbor East and Harbor Point. Instead, two lanes will be eliminated, and a protected bicycle path will run between sidewalks and parking lanes.
The work on the second and final phase of the multiblock project is slated to be completed by the end of the year.
“We were all caught completely unaware of the ‘road diet’ proposal,” said Doug Schmidt, a principal with Workshop Development whose projects include the Bagby Building and Hyatt Place hotel on Fleet Street, Canton Crossing and Brown’s Wharf. “Property owners, businesses, neighborhood associations and major employers were not consulted, even though we have all relied upon the promised design for years.”
Opponents fear the rebuilt road won’t handle current traffic or heavier use as workers return to offices and as new apartments, offices, hotels and stores open in the corridor. They worry about safety, loss of parking, disruption to businesses that rely on loading areas and increased congestion on neighborhood streets.
But proponents of the new design disagree. They want the city to expand efforts to adhere to the growing “complete streets” movement to make roads safe and convenient not only for motorists, but also for pedestrians and cyclists.
“The original design ... was very, very outdated and quite unsafe for pedestrians and people biking,” said Jed Weeks, interim executive director of BikeMore. “It just didn’t make sense in 2022 to put something like that in.”
As Baltimore joins other cities in striving to create “work-live-play” clusters accessible on foot or by bike, bicycle proponents and neighborhood residents have butted heads over bike lane placement and road redesigns that can disrupt parking and traffic patterns. Mix in many competing interests as redevelopment transforms established and new neighborhoods east of the Inner Harbor, and conflicts seem inevitable.
For some Central Avenue businesses that have suffered through years of streetscape construction and delays in anticipation of better traffic flow and other benefits, the changes seem misguided.
“I’ve been through good times and bad,” said Jerry Kurman, president of century-old SH Landsman and Son, a scrap metal recycler on Central Avenue since 1977. “This is really a gut punch.”
Kurman said he will lose access to the Central Avenue loading dock where he unloads trucks twice a day and fears that could put him and his eight employees out of business. Backing trucks out or parking them on the street will be a “nightmare,” he said.
“Nobody wants to hear, ‘I can’t pick up your scrap today because I can’t back a truck past the bicycle lane,’” he said.
Work to improve Central Avenue goes back years, including, officials say, discussions about adding bike lanes. The first phase, Baltimore Street to Madison Street, was completed in 2015. The second, final phase from Harbor Point/Dock Street to Baltimore Street included a bridge to Harbor Point, an emerging 27-acre mixed-use development between Harbor East and Fells Point.
But last year, the city began exploring a change, reducing the five-lane street to three lanes with protected bicycle lanes.
Graham Young, the city’s Complete Streets manager, said such changes were discussed and sought in public forums as far back as 2015 during planning for the second phase. As plans evolved, “we received requests to reevaluate the design to implement a safer configuration for people walking and biking,” Young said in an email.
The transportation department developed the alternative pavement marking plan after the city passed its Complete Streets ordinance in 2018. Plans call for protected bicycle lanes on Central Avenue between Harbor Point and the east/west protected bicycle lane on Monument Street.
The redesign, which complies with federal and state design guidelines, is safer, Young said. It reduces street-crossing distances for pedestrians and offers protected bicycle lanes, all “while adequately serving vehicular traffic.”
A five-lane road can typically handle 35,000 vehicles daily and a three-lane street can move 20,000 cars per day, but travel time depends on the capacity of cross streets, city officials said. The city grid is effective because it offers multiple routes, Young said.
“We do not anticipate a three-lane street will significantly increase congestion compared to a five-lane road,” he said.
Schmidt and others contend the new design will fail to move traffic from the city’s newest growth areas to the Jones Falls Expressway without adding cars to local streets. Reducing traffic lanes on Central will push drivers into Fells Point, Little Italy and other neighborhoods, he said.
“The idea of this beautiful Central Avenue project, which we have been waiting for 20 years, since Harbor East opened, has been to have a thoroughfare for the people who work there, to accommodate them so they don’t have to go through our community in order to bypass the traffic,” said Giovanna Blattermann, owner of Cafe Gia Ristorante in Little Italy. “Then six months ago, they change it as it’s being completed.”
Ginny Lawhorn, president of Fells Point Main Street and a neighborhood resident, said she’s concerned the changes weren’t announced after the neighborhood years ago saw designs meant to alleviate stress on historic, narrow side streets. Additional development was approved for Harbor Point and Harbor East with the previous streetscape plan, she said.
“Reducing the capacity of that artery, while allowing all of the development that has been greenlit in the meantime to continue, will bring thousands of people into the waterfront communities without the ‘travelscape’ that was promised,” Lawhorn said. “Everyone is not arriving via mass transit, ride-share or bikes.”
The outcry comes as millions of square feet of development is planned or underway, including two apartment conversions on Central totaling more than 600 units and a new 550,000-square-foot headquarters for T. Rowe Price Group in Harbor Point.
Brian Lewbart, a spokesman for the Baltimore-based global investment group, called changes to the streetscape “disappointing.”
T. Rowe is urging city officials to revert to the original plan for bike and driving lanes and hit pause, for now, on the rest. The original plan, still displayed on the city’s project website, shows parking next to the sidewalk, then an unprotected bike lane, then two travel lanes each way.
“We’re concerned that a dramatic reduction in traffic lanes will create ingress and egress challenges and negatively impact businesses in the area,” Lewbart said in an email. “While we welcome efforts to improve the corridor, we believe it makes more sense to reevaluate in the future once additional development is completed and there’s greater clarity on post-pandemic work and traffic patterns.”
City transportation officials say they offered ample opportunity for input, including holding a public meeting in November 2021, distributing flyers and scheduling additional meetings this year with business owners, a neighborhood association and other stakeholders.
Feedback was “generally supportive,” though the response from businesses was more mixed, Young said.
Monica Rodriguez, general manager of Tru Hotel, which opened on South Central Avenue in Little Italy in 2020, said she heard about road design change about six months ago, but thought it hadn’t been finalized and was never told about the bike lanes.
Rodriguez said she was heartened that a crosswalk at the hotel was included for access to a garage across Central. But the hotel’s drop-off zone will be across the bicycle lane, making it hard for guests to unload and load.
“There’s going to be unloading onto the bike lane,” she said. “They should just flip it back the way they had it.”
Wes Guckert, president and CEO of White Marsh-based engineering and planning firm The Traffic Group, said that eliminating auto lanes to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles is often the smart approach.
Though reduced lanes means reduced capacity, he said, “the question becomes, ‘Do you need the additional lanes?’ ... In most instances, the roadways are overdesigned from a capacity point of view.”
The Evening Sun
“The fact that traffic may move slower because of reducing lanes is simply a product of ensuring that we’ve got safer roads,” Guckert said. “We have an epidemic of pedestrian and bicycle deaths in our country. It is growing to be a bigger problem now than it’s been in the last 40 years.”
Too many places design roads for cars to move as fast as possible without regard for safety, at a time when “we are begging people to walk and bike to and from work, to and from other things, for health and in order to reduce pollution,” he said.
The city projects that the number of people walking, biking and scooting along Central will increase significantly.
Peter Bolster, who commutes by bike most days, said he splits the route from his North Baltimore home to Living Classrooms in Harbor Point about evenly between dedicated bike lanes and riding with traffic. In some areas, the experienced cyclist avoids bike lanes if they are littered with leaves or debris or blocked by cars.
Often, “drivers simply don’t know how to navigate bike lanes,” he said. “I’m a driver too, but a lot of drivers lack awareness that cyclists are out there. ... I do think normalizing cycling, normalizing pedestrian traffic is ultimately something we’re going to have to do to make downtown livable.”
Though he hasn’t ridden on Central because of years of construction, Bolster said he probably would once the revamped street is completed.
“If there are dedicated bike lanes, if that is the safe and expedient route, sure, we’re going to do it,” he said.