BALTIMORE LOOKS INTO SCRAPPING MILE-LONG STRETCH OF JFX TO HELP REVIVE EAST SIDE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Seeking ways to revitalize Baltimore's east side, the city is exploring the idea of tearing down a mile-long stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway that divides downtown from the Johns Hopkins medical campus.

Baltimore's Department of Transportation has hired an engineering team headed by Rummel, Klepper & Kahl LLP to examine the pros and cons of razing the elevated expressway roughly between Chase and Fayette streets and replacing it with a landscaped "urban boulevard" that would provide access to an area larger than Charles Center or the Harbor East renewal district.

The estimated cost is $1 billion or more, and no funding is in place. The $60,000 study represents the first time Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration has allocated money specifically to assess the concept of replacing the expressway with a boulevard designed to stimulate development. The civil engineers began work earlier this year and are expected to present their findings by late summer.

Dixon said she is intrigued by the idea of deconstructing the expressway, a project that is likely at least five years away, and looks forward to receiving the engineers' recommendations.

"Ideally, it would be good to take it down and connect the two sides," she said of the elevated expressway. "The issue is cost. ... I'd like to see the study completed and get input from the consultants. Conceptually, I think it's a great concept. ... I'm open to it."

"There's no question that it would be a good thing, from an urban-design point of view," said M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which oversees downtown development. "It would enhance the value of ... properties [all along the route]. What I don't know is, what are the constraints, from when it was built, in terms of federal money? If we take it down, do we have to reimburse the federal government?"

By replacing the elevated expressway with a boulevard, planners say, the city would free up a large east-side development district that could be used to steer companies and residents that might otherwise move to the suburbs, while taking development pressure off the central business district.

At the same time, the project could result in slower travel times for commuters using the expressway to get in and out of downtown because an at-grade boulevard, unlike the elevated expressway, would have stoplights at busy intersections. It also likely would add to traffic congestion east of downtown while the project was under construction.

As part of their work, the engineers are looking at ways to pay for the project and the impact it will have on motorists and traffic flow. The city has asked for a projected construction timetable and information about the impact on activities such as the weekly Farmers' Market now held beneath the expressway.

David Wallace, a partner of RK&K;, said he sees his team's role as providing sufficient information "to help the policymakers make a more informed decision.

"The question is, what it's going to cost to take it down and will the boulevard be as attractive as we think it might be?" Wallace said.

Highway construction and repair work are typically funded largely through federal appropriations, as when older portions of the Jones Falls Expressway have been repaired. One issue with replacing the expressway's southern leg is that it isn't so old or unstable that it would be deemed functionally obsolete and in need of a federally funded replacement, Wallace said. "It's a tough policy decision: Do we take down something that still has useful life?"

The southern portion of the Jones Falls Expressway opened in the 1970s as an extension of Interstate 83, which was designed starting in the 1950s to link downtown with the Baltimore Beltway and points north.

Following the Jones Falls stream valley, the highway carries 50,000 to 60,000 cars in and out of Baltimore every day before becoming a boulevard south of Fayette Street.

Even before it opened, the expressway's southern leg drew criticism for creating a barrier between downtown and the less densely developed land to the east.

The elevated highway "is very disturbing from the viewpoint of architectural design and the impact it will have as a visual and physical barrier through the center of the city," a local architects' group said in 1962.

If Baltimore moves ahead with the project, it would join San Francisco and Milwaukee as a city that has replaced an elevated highway near its core with a boulevard designed to promote redevelopment of adjoining areas. San Francisco replaced the Embarcadero after it was all but destroyed by an earthquake, and Milwaukee removed the Park East Freeway. In both cities, the disappearance of the expressways has helped stimulate redevelopment of the surrounding area.

In Baltimore, planners say, once the elevated portion of the expressway is removed, Guilford Avenue could be upgraded to handle much of the southbound traffic from the expressway and the Fallsway could be upgraded to accommodate northbound traffic feeding into the expressway, with a green space in between. That strategy was outlined in a privately funded study completed several years ago.

Vacant land just east of the Fallsway, which once served as a rail yard and is now occupied by parking lots and low-rise structures, could be redeveloped to contain a mix of uses, in much the same way that the Harbor East rail yards and lumber yards were redeveloped, planners say.

But any demolition of the expressway likely would be five or more years away, even if the city approved the project this year, because of the long lead time required for design work and securing funds.

While taking down the expressway clearly would benefit private property owners by giving their land more exposure and accessibility, proponents say, it also would help the city by opening a large area for mixed-use development that would bring jobs and residents to the city and help increase the tax base.

"Everyone understands what Inner Harbor East is," said Al Barry of A.B. Associates, a consultant to Edison Properties, a New Jersey-based company that owns nine acres of land east of the elevated expressway. In this case, "we're talking about 200 acres or more. Why shouldn't the city take that as an opportunity? Now is the time to reknit the city and correct the problems of the past."

Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of administration for the city's transportation department, said the estimated cost of razing the expressway and building a replacement is "in the area of $1 billion" and the city would have to determine how to fund such a project, if planners decide to move ahead.

Although the Obama administration has placed strong emphasis on rebuilding the nation's aging infrastructure, the federal government has no funds set aside specifically for tearing down elevated highways in urban areas, Kendrick said, and such a project wouldn't qualify for stimulus funds because it isn't ready to start right away. The city may look to Edison and other private property owners to help pay for the project, he said.

Barry said Edison would be willing to explore ways of sharing costs, such as the "tax increment financing" strategy that the city and a private property owner have worked out to pay for public improvements in Westport.

In the long run, a well-designed boulevard would be less expensive to maintain than an elevated expressway that impedes development, Barry said.

"Why would the city spend X number of dollars to perpetuate a condition that continues a separation between downtown and Hopkins, when it can pursue an alternate strategy that creates a connection between downtown and Hopkins and be cheaper to maintain in the long run? That's been our premise all along."

A bit of JFX history

The Jones Falls Expressway study follows several other planning initiatives that have recommended razing the southern end of the highway as a means of spurring development. The idea was originally suggested in a 1990 master plan for downtown presented to then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. In that report, planners said removing the elevated portion of the expressway would help open Baltimore's east side to development similar in scale to downtown's. In 2005 and 2006, a private landowner that controls 9 acres east of the expressway, Edison Properties of Newark, N.J., led a planning effort that showed how property east of the expressway could be transformed into a $1 billion mixed-use community containing 1,500 housing units and more than 1 million square feet of commercial space, if the expressway came down. Last year, a design team hired by the city to develop a master plan to guide rejuvenation of the Old Town Mall and the surrounding area also recommended replacing the expressway with a landscaped boulevard. A final report from that group, headed by Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, is expected this spring. Shortly before his death in 2007, longtime civic leader Walter Sondheim Jr. videotaped a 20-minute interview in which he advocated tearing down the southern leg as a way to make Baltimore's east side more attractive for development. "Its value as part of the urban landscape is enormous and can't be fulfilled as long as that portion of the expressway is there," Sondheim said. Over the years, proponents for demolition have argued that the southern leg of the expressway has impeded east-side growth because it enables people to bypass an area that might otherwise be considered attractive for redevelopment by virtue of its proximity to downtown and Hopkins' medical campus. Another group that supports the idea of demolishing the expressway is the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The expressway was the product of an era when transportation planners wanted, above all, to make it easy to get into and out of the city, but planners have other goals these days, said architect Klaus Philipsen, the committee's co-chairman. Removing the expressway's southern portion would fit in with the mayor's goal of making Baltimore a "cleaner and greener" city that is less dependent on auto traffic, he said, by putting more housing and other uses within easy walking distance of downtown, Hopkins and the water's edge. - Edward Gunts

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