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Here’s a big idea: Turn Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere into a mile-long public park

Viewed from the 13th floor of the Metro West office building, the so-called Highway to Nowhere runs 1.2 miles through West Baltimore
Viewed from the 13th floor of the Metro West office building, the so-called Highway to Nowhere runs 1.2 miles through West Baltimore (Dan Rodricks / Baltimore Sun)

Eight years ago, transportation officials closed the infamous “Highway To Nowhere” to accommodate construction of new parking lots for the MARC station on the western end of the West Baltimore highway. And you know what? No one screamed. People kept moving. Drivers found a way around the big concrete canyon in the Franklin-Mulberry corridor. Life went on.

That winter, after a blizzard hit the city, the Highway To Nowhere remained closed, and Gerald Neily, a former city planner writing for Baltimore Brew, described the road as “a vast, barren expanse of virgin snow without even a single set of tire tracks to mark the territory.” Neily’s photograph of the HTN’s six sunken lanes, untouched by snow plows days after the storm, supported his point: Baltimore does not need the HTN.

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Once upon a time, someone thought we did. The HTN was supposed to connect other highways and downtown Baltimore with Interstate 70 in Baltimore County by cutting through Leakin Park on the western edge of the city. Fortunately, community opposition, grounded in an emerging environmental movement, killed the plan. Unfortunately, blocks upon blocks of rowhouses had already been demolished — and thousands of West Baltimore’s black residents uprooted — for the 1.2-mile stretch of highway.

And it’s still there, a monument to bad planning, though that really understates what happened. The Highway To Nowhere is a product of road-bullish governments, local and federal, that made big plans without regard for their immediate human impact. The HTN resulted from officials and bureaucrats being obtuse to the communities most directly affected by their engineering ambitions, and backers of the highway miscalculated the level of environmental consciousness that killed the road and saved Leakin Park.

That’s some of the history. Little has happened in that area of town since construction of the highway abruptly stopped decades ago. The Red Line was supposed to run along the corridor, but, of course, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan killed that light rail project in 2015. So there it sits — unsightly, unwanted and unnecessary.

Which gets me to an idea whose time has come: The Westside Greenway, a proposal to turn the whole corridor into a green, people-friendly park connecting West Baltimore and its neighborhoods with downtown. Think of New York City’s Highline, or Citygarden in St. Louis. Imagine a 1.2-mile corridor of green, with bike lanes and promenades, space for pickup basketball and soccer games, fields for youth sports, dog runs and sculpture gardens. Imagine some of the massive concrete walls set aside for mural artists and rock-climbers. Imagine a series of stairs and elevators connecting Mulberry and Franklin Street, and all the cross streets, with the new park below.

These ideas come from Caves Valley Partners, owner since 2016 of the massive Metro West office buildings on Greene Street at the east end of the HTN. Starting in the early 1980s, the Social Security Administration had offices in Metro West, but the place has been vacant since 2014. Caves Valley bought the 12-acre complex from the federal government for $7.1 million, or about $7 per square foot, and the company fully intends to redevelop Metro West into modern office space.

I met there Tuesday with Arsh Miriman, a Caves Valley partner, and the building engineer, Mark Baldwin. Metro West consists of two five-story buildings and an office tower, all of them connected, all of them cavernous. The main building has a huge lobby. There are 11 elevators and four escalators that once carried a couple thousand federal employees to their desks on sprawling floors.

The place is dark, spooky and stuffy right now. Local police departments have used some of the space for active-shooter training. If someone wanted to build a huge Hollywood sound stage, for a Baltimore film-making revival, there’s plenty of space for one in Metro West.

But here’s the thing: If you look west through one of the many windows in the place, you can’t miss the Highway To Nowhere. So it’s only natural for Miriman and his partners to consider the obvious what-if: What if that long, ugly and unnecessary stretch of highway could become something big, green and useful, a way to finally connect all the pieces from the west side (Harlem Park, Franklin Square, Poppleton, Upton) to west-central Baltimore (Lexington Market, the University of Maryland complex, Charles Center) and downtown?

Obviously, a Westside Greenway would make the Metro West project more attractive to prospective tenants. But it would also be a major asset to the neglected neighborhoods on the west side. It would add a major slice of green to Baltimore’s Green Network plans, and it could fit into the city’s transit picture.

“As part of this re-do,” Miriman says, “you would dedicate two lanes — one each way — for a high-speed busway to take people from the MARC station [on the west end of the HTN] over to Light Rail and the Metro. That way, at least we take our existing transit and make connections.”

Miriman and his partners have started to pitch this idea to several elected officials, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Van Hollen has proposed as part of the five-year, $287 billion-dollar infrastructure package moving slowly through Congress a provision to fund, in addition to new or improved roads and bridges, the removal of “unnecessary infrastructure.” He cited “Baltimore’s Highway To Nowhere” as an example. I can’t think of one better.

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