Artists are transforming a barren patch of sidewalk outside Baltimore's Penn Station into a "stoop" for college students to wait for shuttle buses, travelers to eat lunch outdoors and passersby to rest, as part of a project also designed to calm traffic near the busy Charles Street onramp to the Jones Falls Expressway.
The project builds on other efforts to make the transportation hub come alive with the addition of seating and free Wi-Fi near the enormous aluminum statue of intersecting human figures as a redevelopment strategy for the century-old station moves forward with plans for shops, offices, a hotel and homes.
Marian April Glebes, creative director for the $100,000 sidewalk project, said the first sculptures and an underfoot mural are expected to be added in the coming weeks along with an exhibition at the Artscape festival in late July to introduce the concept.
"This is a moment when we're able to use public art to implement the changes the area needs, to make it a place for people, that's pedestrian-friendly, rather than one that's oriented for cars moving through," said Glebes, who is working on the project with the Pugh administration, the Central Baltimore Partnership, the University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Johns Hopkins University.
The space, which is expected to alter nearby traffic lanes, will offer college students a designated spot to wait for shuttle buses to transport them to campus or home and help encourage them to explore different parts of the city, by drawing University of Baltimore students farther north and Hopkins students farther south.
Shuttles from the three nearby universities already stop at Penn Station, as do ones run by the Baltimore Collegetown Network, but the converted space will help cluster them. The project planners also hope the area will foster collaboration and community between the students, who make "hundreds of thousands" of trips a year, said Salem Reiner, an economic adviser for Hopkins.
Adding some physical features to the empty sidewalk, Reiner said, can create a hub of activity and spark conversations while students wait for their shuttles. It also connects the activity of Station North with the bustling Charles Street corridor farther south.
"It's a little like a town square," Reiner said. "You could have a MICA student working on a community arts project, a UB law student working on community law issues and a Hopkins student volunteering at a nonprofit, and they could come together."
A mix of features will be added to the sidewalk, including boulders and greenery in large planters with broad ledges that people can lean on or set their stuff on. Salvaged steel, marble and concrete will be converted into overhangs and seating, reminiscent of the city's iconic rowhouse stoops.
The initial work is contingent on a $71,500 grant from the Pugh administration through an initiative designed to tap Baltimore's anchor institutions to help revitalize parts of the city. An additional $23,000 is coming from a grant program for urban renewal from Hopkins and the state.
Marianne Navarro, a liaison between the city and Baltimore's colleges and universities, said the city's spending board, controlled by Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, is expected to approve the grant at a forthcoming meeting.
Decisions about how the traffic lanes will be adjusted and what new signs will be added are still being worked out, Navarro said. The city also wants to use the space to help coordinate the broader transportation in the area, including the nearby Charm City Circulator stop, cyclists and taxis.
"We want to make it more of a meeting space," Navarro said. "We want to make sure it's a stop that is user-friendly and works for all of the different traffic patterns. Our systems are interconnected, and we want to make coming and going, and the waiting experience, better for everyone."
The project coincides with the long-discussed redevelopment at Penn Station. A group of firms, mostly from Baltimore, was selected in December for the redevelopment, which could include up to 1.6 million square feet of retail, residential and office space. A hotel would be added to the upper floors of the station house with shops and other new amenities recruited for the main level. Amtrak is negotiating the master development deal with Penn Station Partners, which includes Beatty Development and Cross Street Partners. The goal is to draw young commuters priced out of the Washington rental market.
Along with all the other changes, Chris Hart, a spokesman for the University of Baltimore, said the sidewalk project would give commuter students a better experience.
"It will improve the flow of students commuting through the mid-town," Hart said. "It is clearly going to calm traffic in and around Penn Station, and give people a chance to see how great the city looks from this perspective."
Mike Molla, a vice president at MICA, said that after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, which was followed by unrest in Baltimore, the area outside Penn Station became a natural convening spot for students. Recently, for instance, groups of students met at the station for the women's march in January and a youth-driven, anti-gun-violence demonstration in March, sparked by the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Molla believes connecting their transportation networks will bring new energy and activity.
"To me, it becomes this great connecting public space," Molla said. "Having this transportation link allows students to explore all of Baltimore and break out of these institutional bubbles."