Restoring city Midtown to grandeur


IN RECENT DECADES, the people of Baltimore have done amazing things in building and rebuilding large parts of their city. Baltimoreans have created big new wonders like the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards. They have restored old wonders like Fells Point and Otterbein.

Now they're at it again.

This time the action is in Midtown, the center-city district that includes Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon, Charles North and Madison Park. The four Midtown neighborhoods are proud, lovely places, each with a long history of resisting urban decay and salvaging urban delight.

For the last two years, the people of Midtown have been joining together to plan for their future. I have had the privilege of participating in that effort, and it has been wonderful. Hundreds of people -- residents, business people, representatives of Midtown's great cultural institutions -- have studied and traveled and read and asked and answered questions. We have sought and received advice from experts in many fields. And the people of Midtown have come up with a plan that is a model of common sense and clarity.

The goal of the Midtown Community Plan is nothing less than to make Midtown the equal of America's greatest urban districts, places like Dupont Circle and Georgetown in Washington, or Beacon Hill and the Back Bay in Boston. A district like that would help Baltimore immensely, and Midtown has everything it takes to play in that league: great architecture, mounds of culture and entertainment and a uniquely vibrant mix of uses.

But Midtown is not realizing its potential. Although Midtown is comparable in history and potential to America's greatest city neighborhoods, it is not comparable in success. There are too many vacant lots, too many dingy buildings, too few shops and stores and too many blocks that feel lonely and scary, particularly at night.

What to do? According to the plan, we should focus first on two things: restoring deteriorated historic buildings and reforming traffic, transit and parking.

To address deteriorated buildings, the people of Midtown are forming a new non-profit group that will finance and otherwise encourage the renovation of Midtown's unique architectural gems. Midtown's planners foresee a five-year, $40 million effort to restore 125 to 150 buildings, enough to turn the tide and establish Midtown as a dynamic real estate market like Canton or Federal Hill. And the people of Midtown are putting their money where their mouths are, with generous pledges from residents to launch the effort.

To understand the plan's recommendations on traffic, you have to realize that 80 percent of Midtown's land is residential. Add together all of the businesses and institutions -- from the Walters Art Gallery and the Peabody Institute to the Maryland Institute and Penn Station -- and they control only 20 percent of the land. So Midtown will rise and fall with its ability, or inability, to attract good residents.

And good residents hate traffic. People will not volunteer to live on a street that has more than about 7,000 cars per day. But Calvert Street, with more than 1,000 houses and apartments in Midtown, has 13,000 cars per day. St. Paul Street, with more than 1,500 houses and apartments, has 22,000. It's no wonder buildings in these key streets look shabby.

If good residents hate traffic, they love parking. But the huge traffic volumes on Midtown's main streets force the city to forbid parking during rush hours. Roughly 500 spaces are illegal for much or all of every business day, a unique and galling inconvenience to everyone who tries to uses Baltimore's most dynamic neighborhoods.

Midtown's planners, aided by a major pro bono effort from the engineering firm of DMJM, have figured out how the people of Baltimore can get around their city quickly and conveniently without trashing Midtown. The plan makes serious recommendations for improving traffic flow on non-residential streets and offers extensive bypasses that will save the neighborhood without increasing travel time.

Changing traffic sounds difficult. So does raising $40 million. But we Baltimoreans have raised money and made drastic traffic changes before in the cause of saving neighborhoods. The best example is Otterbein.

Now we Baltimoreans are at it again. Keep your eyes on Midtown.

Charles B. Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore Inc., and author of the Midtown Community Plan, is an urban planning consultant.

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