Imagine a Druid Hill Park bounded not by a multilane expressway, but by roundabouts, bike lanes shielded by green buffers and new pedestrian crossings.
All were included in various design concepts introduced Thursday night to city residents and users of the park who gathered virtually to weigh in on the future of the area.
Since early this year, a study has been underway to examine traffic and pedestrian patterns along much of the historic park’s southern and western borders. Since the 1940s and 1960s when expressways were built surrounding much of the park, residents in the historically Black and Jewish neighborhoods closest to Druid Hill Park have been effectively cut off from its use.
Today, residents on foot or on bikes face a mad dash across spans of five to nine lanes of traffic. Instead of more than a dozen historic entrances, pedestrian access to the park has been limited to about five points.
Leaders in the community and city transportation officials are hoping to change that. The study, led by the Department of Transportation, takes a “complete streets” approach — a national movement to redesign streets to prioritize safety and access for all users, whether they are drivers, pedestrians, cyclists or users of public transportation.
City officials presented three options to residents: a single lane of traffic flowing in either direction; a hybrid plan with two lanes of traffic flowing westbound and one eastbound; and a plan with two lanes of traffic in both directions.
Each plan created advantages and disadvantages. A single lane of traffic in either direction allowed designers to reclaim some city park space and minimized the distance pedestrians have to cross. Today, people on foot face crossings as long as 70 feet. A single-lane plan would reduce that to about 20 feet.
The hybrid plan reduced crossing distances to about 40 feet and included a localized roadway on which residents in the Auchentoroly Terrace neighborhood could drive and park, reducing the risk for crashes involving faster-moving traffic.
The plan involving two lanes in each direction would create the fewest traffic delays, designers said. The plan calls for more traditional intersections, but they would be updated to include adequate timing for pedestrians and cyclists.
All three plans call for a dedicated bicycle path on one side of the roadway and a shared-use path on the park side of the street.
The plans come after nearly a year of gathering information from city residents and studying the area around Druid Hill Park. About half of the residents who live around the park do not have access to a car, and about 30% use public transportation. About 23% of the residents within a quarter-mile of the park have a disability — a fact that designers said was a major consideration in the plans.
“There’s a lot of issues we’re trying to address from some of the historic sins of the past to getting into what are the more on-the-ground concerns, like ADA accessibility, traffic operation and access to the park,” said Wes Mitchell, a planner on the project.
Residents will have time to weigh in on the options. The competing plans won’t be finalized until the end of the year. An online form has been created to gather input. Early responses during Thursday’s virtual meeting varied widely. Some residents were upset that a plan with two lanes in each direction was drafted at all. Others felt that the rights of drivers to use the street were being downplayed.
Corey Jennings questioned the decision to include a proposal with two lanes in each direction. He favored designs that allowed park space to be reclaimed.
“Why it is that we’re still prioritizing cars to such a degree when we have seen the negative impact on these communities?” he asked.
“Cars are a necessity in our society,” argued Mary Hughes, a resident who favored two lanes in each direction. “Bikes are recreational at best.”
“Nobody is against bike lanes,” she added. “We’re against it where it does not make sense.”
Mitchell emphasized the gains in all of the plans. A two-way bicycle path does not currently exist in the area, he said. Neither does a shared-use path the entire length of the park, he said. Mid-block crossings would be added in all the plans that do not exist today.
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“Some of these alternatives address complete streets in different manners,” he said. “They all have complete streets elements embedded in them.”
Graham Coreil-Allen, a resident of Auchentoroly Terrace, said he was pleased to see the designs from the perspective of a pedestrian but also as a business owner who drives.
“I‘m happy to see the safer driving conditions that would result from all these plans,” he said. “We don’t want to lose our property, and we don’t want to lose our lives.”
Designers also presented some optional add-ons based on feedback from residents at earlier brainstorming sessions. Many residents expressed interest in a pedestrian bridge, although officials cautioned that such a bridge could introduce safety concerns.
Residents were also presented with plans to have Druid Park Lake Drive dip under Madison Street at a crossing adjacent to a historic gate to the park. Madison Street would be converted into a bike and pedestrian route only at the crossing.
While the concept plans are nearing completion, Department of Transportation officials have warned that implementation is years away. Baltimore must still find funding for a full planning study, engineering, and construction — a process that would take about six years.
The results of the study will also not be finished in time to apply for funding in next year’s capital budget, officials warned. The project would not be considered until next October 2022.