Students enrolled in the seminar "The Future of Baltimore City" should complete the following homework assignment before the next class.
Pick any weekday with good weather. At any time during the daylight hours, walk north on Charles Street from the Walters Art Gallery to the University of Baltimore campus at Mount Royal Avenue. It's less than a mile, so it shouldn't take you too long -- an hour or so, if you dawdle, which is what I want you to do.
Occasionally cross the street and continue your walk on the other side. Explore some of the side streets, too. Try a few blocks on St. Paul and Cathedral. Go at your own pace, browse at your leisure in the stores along the way and stop whenever you want for lunch or tea.
After you've finished, sit down and write an 800-word essay on this topic: What changes would have to occur to make you want to walk along Charles Street again? Don't carp about the distance. You'd happily walk a mile along Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown while you looked in the stores. What are the differences? What changes would encourage you and a friend to want to take an afternoon stroll through this area? Most of all, what would make you want to live there?
Did the roaring traffic ruin your walk? The one-way arrows make these streets stark urban canyons for commuter traffic and exhaust fumes. To eliminate the speeding commuter traffic, convert Charles Street into a two-way thoroughfare in this area, with two-hour meter parking all day on either side. Do the same thing on Maryland, Cathedral, St. Paul and Calvert streets and on all the east-west street as well. Establish 24-hour permit parking for residents.
Reroute the displaced commuter traffic around the area via Mount Royal Avenue, Guilford Avenue and Fallsway and Centre Street. Make those streets one-way south in the morning and then reverse direction in the evening. Eliminate the bottleneck where Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard pours into Howard Street and connect it to the Jones Falls Expressway below the Howard Street bridge.
Recommendations like this have been made before. Some of them recently re-emerged during the deliberations of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on the Strategy for the Progressive Development of Downtown. The idea is to give Mount Vernon a friendlier, more easy-going atmosphere -- to make it more "walkable." If you enjoyed walking there, you might like to live there. The goal is to make the entire Mount Vernon area more livable -- a more pleasant, satisfying and enjoyable place in which people can find and maintain homes.
That goal directly addresses Baltimore's gravest strategic problem -- the steady loss of middle- and upper-income residents, black and white. In the 1970s, the city lost 120,000 people. Another 50,000 left in the 1980s. The attrition cuts away at the single most important economic multiplier in central-city revitalization -- a resident population with buying power.
How many of the stores that you passed aroused your curiosity? Did you count the vacant lots? They make up 20 percent of the street frontage on Charles north of Monument. The quality of ground-level retail along Charles Street would improve if the area achieved a more residential character. People who lived there would spend money there. A transformation wouldn't cost the city much.
Take down the one-way signs. Rezone to restrict densities and encourage quality residential development on the side streets. Support the impressive development of the University of Baltimore's campus, which can anchor the area on the north. Take advantage of Pennsylvania Station to encourage the growing numbers of Washington commuters to live nearby.
In order to reverse the flight of middle- and upper-income earners (and spenders), the city needs mixed-use and residential communities to surround the soaring skyscrapers in the downtown financial district. The Mount Vernon area offers Baltimore its best present opportunity to leap ahead in that strategic direction. With its substantial stock of old and historic buildings, it could become the most beautiful and elegant part of the city.
The north-south and east-west commuter traffic routes now slice through Mount Vernon and cut up its promising potential. It's time to experiment with some new patterns to build a greater sense of coherence and community.
Tim Baker is an attorney.