University of Baltimore and Maryland Institute College of Art officials are focusing attention and money on the areas adjacent to Baltimore's Penn Station with a goal of wresting a more attractive and recognizable neighborhood from parking lots and random, underused spaces.
They have identified a spine along Mount Royal Avenue, from North Avenue to Calvert Street, as a unifying corridor the two educational institutions can enhance. They are thinking beyond trees and new curbs to apartments and shops, a joint student-community recreation center and, in their distant dreams, a soccer field above the Jones Falls Expressway.
In late August, students from the art school began filling dorm rooms in the new $32 million Gateway Center on Mount Royal at North. A new UB law school is being planned for Mount Royal and Charles. The mile-long stretch in between, they say, presents challenges and opportunity.
"This area, though a lot of people love it, is fairly strange," UB President Robert L. Bogomolny said in a discussion about the character of the area, which is also well known to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Lyric patrons.
He described a flat and unremarkable retail scene - despite the presence of nearly 10,000 students at the two schools - and land use unconducive to the thriving, dense urban district he'd like to see.
MICA President Fred Lazarus looks to a more pedestrian-friendly remake of Mount Royal Avenue, which he described as a "1960s boulevard created when cars were gods." His school has planted about 200 new street trees and 1,000 shrubs throughout the Bolton Hill-Midtown area.
Lazarus says the area suffers from "horrible clutter" - obtrusive traffic signage and auto turn lanes where median strips could be widened and planted. He would also like to see the North Avenue Bridge take on a pedestrian-friendly character for his students who walk the span.
Beginning next year, UB will initiate sidewalk and street upgrades designed to identify its campus. They plan to stake out Charles Street to Maryland Avenue, Oliver to Preston streets with signs and sidewalk features. The school is also wrapping up a two-year renovation of the old Loyola Federal-Sun Trust bank at Charles and Preston streets. The building will become classrooms and offices.
Look for a part of Mount Royal Avenue to be repaved in cut-granite blocks - a paving treatment employed facing Johns Hopkins Hospital on North Broadway.
"We are going to change the streets," Bogomolny said. "Charles will be different but complementary."
He has turned over his school's main surface parking lot, known as the Bolton Yard, to a private developer, the Bozzuto Group, to build the Fitzgerald, a 280-unit rental apartment building, which recently secured financing. Although students may rent apartments, the Fitzgerald will be operated as a market-rate building with an attached large, multilevel garage.
Bogomolny envisions the building's Oliver Street frontage lined with shops or small restaurants, and a new Oliver Street, now little more than a traffic connector, remade into a street lined with new buildings - and perhaps a recreation center built at what is now a post office truck maintenance shop. It would be open to students from both schools and to the community.
As a sign the student presence is making a difference, a new store, Artist & Craftsman Supply, opened a few weeks ago at Howard and North.
"Mount Royal has the opportunity to become a great street," said architect Adam A. Gross, whose firm has prepared plans for the area. "When you create a good street, retail will flourish."
He also speaks of constructing a soccer field over the Jones Falls Expressway.
"It's possible to do this," Gross said. "I see a new life along Mount Royal Avenue."
"Baltimore has been very slow to recognize the incredible value of its student population," Lazarus said, a reference to the 100,000 students here.