The revitalization of Charles Street got a boost last week when construction began on a $9.1 million garage next to Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, but another strong idea for improving the corridor seems stuck in neutral.
The idea of reopening Charles Street to two-way traffic for the first time since the 1950s was one of the key tenets of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 20-year strategy for guiding downtown development.
Recommended two years ago in "Baltimore -- The Renaissance Continues," the two-way plan was presented as a way to slow down traffic, improve access to local shops and businesses and provide a new entrance to the central business district for drivers coming from the north.
The concept grew out of an 18-month planning effort in which more than 300 Baltimoreans worked with New York-based architect Stan Eckstut and others, proposing ways to make the city a better place to live, work and play.
An important part of their strategy was to take advantage of Baltimore's walkability and architectural variety and create an environment that is as hospitable to pedestrians as to vehicles. The group focused on Charles Street because of its historic role as Baltimore's cultural corridor.
Charles Street traffic now flows one-way northbound from Lee Street to 29th Street. The street was open to two-way traffic from before the turn of the century until the 1950s, when Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes changed street patterns to make them more efficient for motorists.
Now, two years after the idea of reviving two-way traffic was officially recommended in Mayor Schmoke's 20-year strategy, city officials have let it fall by the wayside.
The mayor said last week that the city has not pursued the idea because there was not unanimous support for it from merchants and property owners along the corridor.
He said there was far more support for a second idea -- to allow cars to park on both sides of the street even during rush hour, thereby improving access to shops and businesses throughout the day.
Two-way traffic "was an idea that had an equal number of proponents and opponents," the mayor said. "It ended up being quite a battle. But the idea of increasing parking is something that everybody could rally around."
Rachel Edds, acting director of the city's planning department, said merchants and business owners were primarily interested in making the street more accessible for shoppers, restaurant patrons and others who might visit for short periods.
"Their strong request was that we try to allow for parking all the time and not make it a greased exit out of town," she said.
In response, the city lifted parking restrictions on most of Charles Street.
Ms. Edds said her office also studied the idea of making Charles Street a two-way thoroughfare again but found some stretches were so narrow it would have required eliminating parking on certain blocks.
Given the merchants' wishes, the city opted to provide increased parking rather than the two-way traffic, she explained. "At a practical level, that seemed to better meet people's needs than the concept of making it a two-way street."
Mr. Eckstut said he was pleased that the city allowed more parking on Charles Street, but he would still encourage planners to explore two-way traffic as well. He said many American cities are re-evaluating their one-way street patterns and reinstituting two-way traffic. The latest to do so, he said, is Fresno, Calif.
"I think it's something that [Baltimore] should give serious consideration," Mr. Eckstut said. "Fresno decided to do it as a way of promoting convenience over speed. The people there wanted to return to more traditional urban values. Many cities are in the midst of re-evaluating what values are driving -- pardon the pun -- their downtown plans. We're trying to make downtowns more convenient. Our streets are becoming more pedestrian-oriented."
In Baltimore, the idea of two-way traffic on Charles Street is one hTC that the local architects and all of the consultants on the downtown study pushed very hard, Mr. Eckstut added. "There are reasons other than transportation reasons to consider. Two-way traffic helps maximize the urban experience by making it easier for people to get around. I would encourage the city not to dismiss it."