Two ways to think about Charles Street

Baltimore's most beautiful street can stay a one-way exit from the city or be restored to a slower, two-way vista.

Urban Design

July 16, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

After years of decline, Baltimore's Charles Street corridor is making a comeback. Redevelopment projects representing more than $100 million worth of investment are under way along a three-mile stretch of Charles Street, from downtown to University Parkway.

The One Charles Center office building, the Walters Art Gallery's 1974 wing and the Queen Anne-Belvedere apartments are being restored or renovated. Penn Station has been spruced up. A Greyhound station will rise nearby. The Johns Hopkins University will soon open a student arts center at one end of the corridor and a new Downtown Center at the other.

But amid this unprecedented flurry of activity, one much-discussed project still has not gotten off the drawing board, even though it has the potential to reinforce all the other changes. It's the long-touted idea of restoring Charles Street itself to two-way traffic -- the pattern it had for most of its history.

Over the past two decades, half a dozen professional consultants or studies have recommended that the city make all or part of Charles Street, from 29th Street south to Pratt, open to two-way traffic, as it was before 1954.

That single move would have enormous implications for the way people use Charles Street, one of Baltimore's best-known and most important thoroughfares. It would connect the improvements up and down the corridor. It would slow traffic. It would give people a new way to experience the city.

But even though the concept of changing the traffic pattern has support from many different factions, four mayoral administrations have been reluctant to take any action. It's not because it's a bad idea. More likely, it's so big, and affects so many segments of the city, that no one wants to tackle it. It's the best planning idea no one dares to pursue.

The inertia starts at the top. Baltimore's new mayor, Martin O'Malley, was elected on a promise to fight crime, not direct traffic. He hasn't assigned anyone in his administration to explore this sort of change, and no one outside his administration has succeeded in making it a high civic priority. The result is that when all the redevelopment projects are complete, traffic on Charles Street could still be moving in the same one-way direction it has for nearly five decades.

There has been one new development this summer that gives city officials a chance to reintroduce two-way traffic with a minimum of effort.

The recently launched $23 million reconstruction of the Charles Street bridge that crosses Jones Falls Expressway has already disrupted traffic and sent many drivers to alternate routes, decreasing the number of cars on Charles Street. The bridge will be closed for another 16 to 24 months, and temporary traffic patterns will be in place throughout that period.

This inconvenience for commuters is a golden opportunity for city planners. While traffic volumes are lower, they could convert Charles Street back to two-way traffic, from 29th Street to Lanvale and from Mount Royal Avenue to Pratt.

If the consultants are right, it would be the single biggest improvement on Charles Street in the last 50 years and a boon to the city's revitalization efforts. Now is the time to see what a difference it would make.

Historically two-way

For most of its history, Charles Street was a two-way thoroughfare. Old photos show that traffic moved north and south even before cars were invented. Over the years, the street was able to accommodate cars, buses, streetcars and parking lanes, even on the narrowest of blocks. In the process, it became one of Baltimore's grandest boulevards.

That pattern was changed to one-way northbound in 1954 by Henry Barnes, the powerful city traffic czar who re-routed many of Baltimore's primary streets in an effort to make traffic flow more smoothly and swiftly. His action came just as many people were moving from the city to the suburbs north of downtown. It also coincided with the height of the modernist era of civic design, when planners sought to streamline everything from buildings to plazas to streets.

Barnes' action benefited commuters seeking a quick way out of town after work. But over the years, it transformed Charles Street from a genteel thoroughfare to a one-way racecourse, with cars moving in greater numbers and at higher speeds than the street was ever meant to handle. In many ways, it never recovered.

The one-way pattern was a disaster for Charles Street businesses that counted on easy access and visibility. Speeding along at rush hour, drivers had little motivation to stop at different stores and restaurants along the way. Worse yet, many no longer drove on Charles Street at any other time.

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