City leaders hear proposal for redevelopment of JFX

March 15, 2006|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTER

Nearly a year after an idea was floated to tear down part of Baltimore's downtown expressway, developers returned yesterday with harder facts to justify what would be an ambitious undertaking.

With city officials and business leaders at the Johns Hopkins University's Downtown Center, Matthew Bell from the architecture firm Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut and Kuhn outlined an extensive redevelopment plan that would turn the Jones Falls Expressway into a six-lane boulevard from Guilford Avenue to its end at Fayette Street.

The highway would better connect the Mount Vernon neighborhood and the business district with what would be a built-up section of East Baltimore, Bell said. The boulevard would feature seven traffic lights.

Bell and city officials said that such a project could not begin for at least another 15 years.

Traffic would likely increase in that area, but not to the degree where it would become cumbersome, said Alfred Barry of AB Associates, the land planning service that also is studying the idea. Barry's company hired a private engineering firm to conduct a yearlong assessment.

"They feel strongly that there is enough capacity on some other streets that will allow this to be done with a minimum of disruption," Barry said.

The idea of demolishing part of an interstate that handles close to 60,000 cars a day might seem farfetched, but city officials are taking the proposal seriously.

Planning Director Otis Rolley III attended the one-hour session, along with Frank Murphy of the city's Department of Transportation.

Both officials said the idea has merit, although financing such a project would be the biggest obstacle. None of the presenters said how much such a project would cost.

"We just need more detail, especially in terms of the economic modeling," Rolley said. "Those are all considerations we would have to take in before we say yea or nay. From a lot of standpoints, it makes sense - in terms of an urban design standpoint and connections of neighborhoods and downtown. I like it visually, but I don't know if my pockets as a city taxpayer, as a state and federal taxpayer, match that appreciation for it from an architectural and urban design perspective.

"I would encourage them to get into much more detail on the traffic counts as well as the economics of it. You notice they never said how much it will cost."

The plans were similarly vague in describing how the new traffic patterns would work in place of a highway that serves as one of the main commuting routes in and out of the city.

Barry said after the presentation that Central, Guilford and Freemont avenues could possibly handle overflow traffic.

But residents of Mount Vernon would also see many more cars in their neighborhood.

"There are lots of challenges," Murphy said. "Anytime you remove a major transportation facility and try to replace it in some way, there all kinds of challenges because you need lanes, you need turning lanes, you need to accommodate pedestrians that right now don't conflict with I-83."

If part of the highway is removed, developers envision more park space around East Monument and Orleans streets. The idea would be to make it similar to Mount Vernon Square.

The architects said that the new boulevard would make it easier for people to drive to new housing going up in East Baltimore and to an expanding shopping area along Hillen Street.

"There are some suggestions about partnering with private industries, landowners in the area in order to make a whole redevelopment districts," said Bell, the architect. "Any successful redevelopment plan requires the buy-in of various regulating authorities of the city and private development."

Bell based part of his presentation on undertakings in Milwaukee and San Francisco.

Milwaukee demolished part of its Park East Freeway that ran through its downtown and replaced it with a boulevard. San Francisco didn't rebuild the Embarcadero highway after a major earthquake in 1989. Both areas have become vibrant spots featuring affordable housing and shops.

Developers said they want to start planning for the future now.

"We want to meet with the city and some of the institutions and neighborhoods, like Mount Vernon, and begin discussions with them, and get some idea as to how this could become implemented," Barry said. "Highways get built by the cities each year. They're going to have to pay for the reconstruction of this highway anyway because it's a bridge and it has to be rebuilt. Those funds might be better used taking it down and rebuilding a less expensive boulevard."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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