Highway idea aims to go somewhere Schmoke wants homes back that road ended

March 16, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Robert G. Matthews | JoAnna Daemmrich and Robert G. Matthews,SUN STAFF

What Baltimore's Highway to Nowhere has torn asunder, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants to put together again.

Three decades ago, the city government cut through the heart of stable black neighborhoods in West Baltimore to build a $101 million expressway that ends abruptly after all of 1.36 miles.

Now, the Schmoke administration is advancing a radical idea of redress: Tear down part or all of the road and rebuild some of the hundreds of houses and businesses that were destroyed in the name of progress.

The suggestion has resurrected emotions -- tapping into the bitterness of the historic fight against an east-west expressway -- and started a new debate over whether it makes any sense to try to undo the past.

"I look at it all the time and say, 'What a waste' -- a waste of money and a waste of good solid homes," says Lena Boone, 77, who was born and raised in an alley house that is now a government office at the foot of the highway. "The community was scattered."

For her and some community leaders, removing the concrete swath called Interstate 170 that runs through the Franklin-Mulberry corridor would right a historic wrong.

They envision creating a community in place of the expressway that gobbled up the homes of more than 2,800 people and split three major neighborhoods: Harlem Park, Poppleton and Franklin Square.

Today, the area has grown impoverished. Once-dignified rowhouses stand vacant and crumbling; family stores have left.

Other old-timers question whether the neighborhood could ever be the same. They and some city leaders call it preposterous to spend more taxpayer dollars on the aborted road instead of renovating boarded-up houses or hiring more police.

"Why don't they fix up the homes they already got?" says Pearl Parran, a 90-year-old one-time seamstress, looking out her bedroom window at abandoned buildings on Mulberry Street.

Redeveloping the entire six-lane highway, built parallel to two city streets in 1973 and stopped short a few years later, would be breathtaking in its scope and cost.

It would immediately require creating another thoroughfare for the 40,000 commuters who use the road, better known as Route 40, each day to get from downtown to outlying western neighborhoods and suburbs.

The chances of such a project are unclear; some urbanologists predict it would be difficult, though not impossible, to get enough federal subsidies.

Federal highway officials estimate the cost of removing the highway at about $20 million. It would be especially expensive because the highway is 30 feet below surrounding streets, requiring that the trench be filled in and made sturdy enough to support buildings.

But the federal government has paid to demolish unpopular freeways it helped build in other cities, including the Embarcadero Freeway along half the San Francisco waterfront and a riverfront highway in Portland.

Both Schmoke and housing chief Daniel P. Henson III, who came up with the concept, want to rebuild the road in the name of justice.

"It was a great mistake, and we're trying to correct it," Schmoke says.

Their argument was embraced by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who made a name for herself early in her career by rallying opposition to the highway in Fells Point.

"That was what the original road fight was all about, saving the communities on the east and west sides," Mikulski said in a prepared statement. "It's great that the city now wants to puts its effort into building communities."

Not all city leaders are equally moved, however. Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, who represents West Baltimore, is one of the commuters who rely on the highway.

"It makes no sense," says Dixon. "The little piece of highway does help to avoid some of the lights you have to deal with. At this point, it's there."

The idea of removing the road grew out of discussions for the planned overhaul of the Murphy Homes high-rise project. Murphy Homes is directly across from Lexington Terrace, a twin public housing project that is under reconstruction. But the two communities are separated and isolated by the highway.

All the Schmoke administration has done so far is to ask Raymond L. Gindroz, a nationally known Pittsburgh architect, to sketch ways the road could be redone.

Gindroz, who is redesigning Murphy Homes, is a proponent of the design trend called "new urbanism," which brings narrower streets, rows of storefronts and small parks.

Of all the approaches, including as limited one as to simply redevelop the land between Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace, the most ambitious is to tear up all of I-170 and fill in the walled trench.

The streets of the divided neighborhoods would be reconnected, and the city would build modern housing, most likely targeted for middle-class workers from downtown and the University of Maryland medical center.

"It's got a tough market test," says David Rusk, an urban policy expert and author of "Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Regional Renewal."

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