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Cross-town expressway had saving graces for inner city

NEARLY 30 years ago, then-Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III told federal highway officials to swing Interstate 95 away from downtown.

In the 1970s, residents of Fells Point and Canton successfully blocked what would have been an extension of the Jones Falls Expressway from bisecting their neighborhoods. On the west side, citizen protest brought Interstate 70 to an abrupt halt at the city line, not far from Leakin Park.

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These actions have been hailed as among Baltimore's finest civic feats. Leakin Park was saved as were such historic neighborhoods as Fells Point and Federal Hill; the latter was in the path of a proposed Interstate 95 bridge that would have spanned the harbor. Other neighborhoods were spared, too, including Rosemont, then a destination of the city's black middle class. Also, taking I-95 away from the heart of downtown opened up more land for the Inner Harbor, which has become the city's crown jewel.

But, retrospectively, it's clear that city fathers made some mistakes in deciding on highway locations.

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Pushing I-95 farther south was fine, but, economically, the city has suffered from not having an east-west expressway that would have cut through Leakin Park and connected with I-95 in the Highlandtown-Canton area, creating an inner-city beltway.

The lack of such a highway killed industrial growth in West Baltimore, helping to create high unemployment. Businesses that might consider locating in West and Southwest Baltimore's empowerment zones are probably deterred by the areas' distance from I-95.

Parts of East Baltimore have fared better economically than West Baltimore at least in part because of easier access to I-95, especially along Holabird Avenue.

As early as 1961, Philip Darling, city planning department director, noted that the city faced a threat from the beltway, Interstate 695, which was already attracting commercial development to Baltimore County, including offices and industrial parks, because of the easy access by vehicular traffic.

Darling argued that downtown and industrial Baltimore needed similar accessibility, which could be provided by a cross-town expressway.

To be sure, an east-west expressway would not have saved all of Baltimore's industry or the major downtown stores. But easy access from the suburbs might have helped a strong chain such as Hecht's maintain a downtown store.

Today, an east-west expressway would be an asset in the city's plans to revitalize the Howard Street corridor as a cultural center, giving theater-goers a quick, direct route from the suburbs.

West Baltimore would have benefited from the economic development that comes with highways. Businessman George L. Jude, chairman of the city's Planning Commission in 1973 and a strong supporter of having Interstate 70 cut through West Baltimore, recognized the significant economic impact it would have on the black community.

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But what about Leakin Park? Surely stopping the highway from cutting through the beautiful park was a success story. Yes, the road would have cut the park in half. But federal designs called for the park's woodland on the south side to be left intact. Their design would have used a tunnel to minimize the expressway's impact. The federal government also offered more than $4 million to provide more park recreational facilities. The highway planners' goal was to increase the use of Leakin Park, which sadly remains underused today.

To be fair to the highway foes, they saw mass transit as a viable alternative to more roadways. The state listened and developed the subway and light rail systems. But to stay competitive, cities must be part of the interstate highway system, with good access to the heart of downtown. This was Darling's message, and it is still relevant today.

Michael P. McCarthy, Ph.D., is a historian who teaches a course on the modern city at the University of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/08/98


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