Charles Street, the cultural and commercial spine of Baltimore for two centuries, could return to two-way traffic under plans by Mayor Martin O'Malley to make the city's signature corridor a draw for tourists and residents once again.
The street has been one-way northbound from downtown to Charles Village since 1954, when city planners made it a priority to get people out of town in a hurry. The mayor says that might not be such a good idea anymore, and he has asked his transportation chief to study how to make all of Charles Street two-way.
"The vision is to make the cultural district and the midtown area much more of a destination, rather than a blurry sight along a major thoroughfare," O'Malley said last week. "We don't make as great a use of this asset as we could because historically we've been so intent on moving as much traffic as quickly as possible."
Traffic still must move: An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles use Charles Street daily to get out of downtown. If it became two-way, lots of those cars would have to go somewhere else - Calvert Street or the Jones Falls Expressway are most likely, and they're already packed at rush hour.
"It's good from one point of view - a pedestrian's," Hugo O. Liem Jr., a former city transportation commissioner, said of the mayor's plan. "But if you're a driver, it reduces the capacity of outbound evening traffic."
The mayor says figuring out how to solve such problems is for traffic engineers. He has asked the city's transportation director, Alfred Foxx, to report to him by fall. O'Malley stopped short of explicitly endorsing a two-way Charles Street before the study is complete but said he's certain traffic on the road must be slowed down to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
O'Malley wants to consider banning buses from Charles Street to create an atmosphere more conducive to outdoor dining and walking. Restaurant patrons complain that the buses are noisy and that clouds of black exhaust make outdoor meals a potential health hazard.
"Here you have this beautiful, historic Main Street of Baltimore and you've got these tractor-trailer buses going up and down," said Kemp Byrnes, a board member of the Historic Charles Street Association who lives and works in the 300 block of N. Charles. "We're really encouraging restaurants to open up into the street, but you can hardly hear yourself talk."
Worth another look
Restoring two-way traffic to Charles Street is not a new idea. Community activists and architects have been talking about it for at least two decades. But for years, city officials dismissed such talk as impractical. Now the mayor is saying the idea is worth a serious look.
O'Malley envisions Charles as a bustling Main Street, where cars move at sub-freeway speeds and people aren't afraid to cross the street to hop from a shop to a cafe. By calming traffic, the street could also become a prime residential destination, as it was in the 19th century, when status was defined by proximity to Charles Street.
"I think Charles Street should be a place you go to, not through," said Stanton Eckstut, a New York architect who was hired by Baltimore in the early 1980s to find ways to rejuvenate Charles Street. He suggested making it two-way then, and he still believes it would make the city more inviting to visitors.
"Now everything's set up with one-way streets, and it's very hard to find your way around," said Eckstut, who is working with the developers of the Allied Chemical site at Inner Harbor East. "We want people to feel good when they come downtown, like they're welcome."
The city's primary business and cultural institutions gravitated toward Charles Street when the Washington Monument was completed in 1824. Today the street connects the downtown business district with Mount Vernon Square, Penn Station and the Johns Hopkins University. The University of Baltimore and the Walters Art Museum call Charles Street home.
By the early 1950s, downtown Baltimore was snarled with traffic, and an outside expert was called in to fix the mess. That expert was Henry A. Barnes, who imposed the one-way street system that exists today. At the time, it was a needed balm for the city's traffic ills.
But with the Jones Falls Expressway and Martin Luther King Boulevard now in place to get people into and out of downtown quickly, and with fewer businesses downtown, many say the one-way street system is outdated. Some community leaders want all the major north-south streets - Calvert, St. Paul, Charles and Maryland - converted to two-way, but they say Charles alone is a good start.
"If you want a vibrant commercial corridor and vibrant historic neighborhoods, you can't use them as major freeways for the suburban exodus," said Charles L. Smith, acting executive director of the Midtown Benefits District. A slower Charles Street would help businesses and encourage people to stop rather than rush out of town, he said.
"Cars going 45 mph up Charles doesn't do the city a lot of good," said Smith, who was thrilled with the mayor's idea. "If Martin can get this moving, it will be the best thing that has happened to Charles Street since its development."
The concerns that have kept Charles one-way for 50 years have not vanished. City transportation planners note that the plan would be costly to implement, could reduce on-street parking in some narrow sections of the road, and might force the city to make other north-south arteries two-way to balance the traffic flow.
The three-year shutdown of the Charles Street Bridge, which recently reopened, conditioned commuters to use other northbound routes. But it also taxed businesses and residents on Calvert and Howard streets, where people didn't appreciate all the through traffic.
Charles is particularly tight in the 200 and 300 blocks, where often just one lane of traffic gets through because parked cars and delivery trucks are blocking the other lanes - creating a bottleneck as it is. A two-way Charles promises to be even slower, and the mayor admitted he doesn't know all the details of how to make it work.
"I'm sure we'll give the traffic engineers gas and make them roll their eyes, but that's OK," O'Malley said. "We have to find a better way to allow people to enjoy the atmosphere and the architecture of one of the best Main Streets of any major city in America."
He is asking the engineers to look at all the north-south arteries. The mayor's proposal would dovetail with plans already in place to make Charles two-way from 25th to 29th streets. That work is expected to begin in spring 2005 and be completed by fall 2006.
Then there are the buses. Three Maryland Transit Administration bus lines use Charles Street, sending almost 500 buses up the road on a typical weekday.
When asked about the mayor's idea of banning buses from Charles Street, MTA officials said they would send their comments directly to him. But they noted that just last month the MTA gave the city a $360,000 grant to pay for streetscape improvements on Charles north of Penn Station.
"Any discussions on ways to enhance the corridor must work for MTA customers," said agency spokeswoman Suzanne Bond.
Sun staff writer Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.