Two-way Charles evokes concerns, enthusiasm

Traffic problems and more customers foreseen

December 27, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

When Henry A. Barnes came to Baltimore in 1953 as traffic director, he found a few surprises: "menacing" monuments cluttering up avenues, "prima donna" members of the traffic commission and, to his mind, too few one-way streets.

The combative Barnes fixed what he could. That included making North Charles Street a northbound thoroughfare - over the loud objections of some merchants on the city's grandest street.

Now, Mayor Martin O'Malley says he will return two-way traffic in the fall to an 11-block stretch of Charles north of Penn Station. Once again, opinions vary.

A series of interviews yesterday along the stretch to be made two-way - Lafayette Avenue to 29th Street - found excitement from pedestrians who loathe the freeway-like speeds and from merchants who foresee more business.

But it also found concern from some who fear that the change would worsen congestion, making rush hour a mess.

"That's typical of traffic issues," said Thomas J. Hannan Jr., senior associate at Whitman, Requardt and Associates engineering firm. People rarely agree on how roads might run better.

At O'Malley's behest, Hannan did a study of Charles Street that did not quite endorse two-way traffic on the 11 blocks. But mindful of the mayor's desire to make the road less of a highway out of town, it said the change would not cause major problems. (The study said Midtown and downtown need further study.)

"In my opinion, two-way traffic brings more business," said Najib Rafiqi, 35, manager of New York Fried Chicken at Charles and North Avenue, a long-struggling corner.

But across the four-lane street, with two lanes for traffic and two for parking, J'Von Evans of Boots Bail Bond has doubts about the plan, which will cost about $800,000, counting intersection changes.

"Charles Street is not big enough for two-way," the 31-year-old employee said. "There's already too much traffic going up. It will be backed up for blocks."

Hannan's study found that, unlike in Midtown, a single travel lane north of Lafayette should be able to handle all northbound traffic that uses that part of Charles. That would leave one lane for southbound traffic and one on either side for parking.

However, slow-moving buses would make parking restrictions sensible, he said, at least during peak hours. In addition, parking might have to be eliminated near corners so cars turning left don't cause traffic jams.

Hannan said his quick study did not allow for a detailed look at parallel one-way streets such as St. Paul and Calvert.

Merchant Jon Kim is not worried about parking woes or traffic jams. To him, two-way traffic on Charles will put more money in his pocket because people traveling in both directions will see his takeout business and perhaps stop.

"It's great," said Kim, 53, working the counter at his Jon-Clay's Sizzling Foods, 1910 N. Charles. "I like it, of course."

Further north, in the wider 2600 block, south of the Johns Hopkins University, resident Jonathan McCarty said he would be happy if traffic moved, as O'Malley put it, "a little bit" more slowly.

"People fly up here like nuts," McCarty, a 21-year-old construction worker, said leaning out his second-story window toward the six-lane roadway, four lanes of which are reserved for traffic.

In the basement of a rowhouse across the street, Russell Wattenberg says he thinks two-way traffic makes sense.

But Wattenberg, who runs the Book Thing, a free book-swapping enterprise, seems more interested in Barnes, who quit as traffic director in 1961 to take a job in New York. He has read and reread Barnes' 1965 autobiography, The Man with the Red and Green Eyes.

In the book, Barnes writes with evident glee about how he shook up the city, a place he found so odd that "even Rube Goldberg couldn't invent" it.

In the early 1950s, he saw downtown traffic patterns as another example of "Baltimore's reluctance to take part in the twentieth century."

His predecessor had made Charles Street one-way southbound for a time, but Barnes said this man botched a good idea - one-way travel - by running traffic in the wrong direction. He knew a south-to-north reversal of Charles, which he likened to Fifth Avenue in New York, would raise a howl.

"So when I announced my plan to reverse the arteries, all hell broke loose. ... `Impossible!' the merchants shouted. `Incredible! Preposterous!' "

Barnes recalled that one wealthy woman went to a public hearing "dripping in mink" and haughtily explained: "In Baltimore, the right people don't drive their carriages from the south. They drive them from the north."

Barnes didn't back down, and the change was made about 50 years ago.

"The new traffic pattern," he wrote a decade later, "turned out very well - both for me and the entire city - even though the opponents wouldn't admit it, and still don't, as far as I know."

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