Revival hope rides on MARC rail stop

West Baltimore station seen as key to new life in a section scarred by an aborted 1970s road project

April 23, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

By 6 a.m., the free parking lot at the West Baltimore MARC station is almost full.

The only sounds on the rickety wooden platform: cars whizzing by on U.S. 40, the blare of a police siren and the horn of the incoming train, a cue for the sweep of people that rushes inside.

This is no Penn Station. There are no coffee shops or places to buy a paper, just mounds of trash along the side and a few partial shelters that don't do much good in the rain and snow.

But city and state planners view the threadbare West Baltimore train station as the potential key to unleashing the redevelopment of an area long neglected and decimated by an unfortunate endeavor dubbed "the highway to nowhere."

Located in the 400 block of N. Smallwood St., the station is part of the MARC Penn line. The average daily boardings at the West Baltimore station have nearly doubled since 1997, reaching 653 last year - still just a quarter of those at Penn Station.

Though long overshadowed by commuter train stations at Camden Yards and Penn Station, the West Baltimore MARC station and area appears to be slowly attracting the likes of young, professional former Washington-area residents like 38-year-old Wallace Farmer.

Here he is now, having just walked the few blocks from his large, renovated Harlem Park home, ready for the hourlong commute to Washington.

Ten minutes after Farmer boards the train, Anthony Ogbuokiri slips onto the platform. The 34-year-old former Washington resident bought a house in Midtown Edmondson a year ago.

Next train it's Lianne Thompson-Totty, a 25-year-old newlywed who moved to a neighborhood south of the station after she got married last year. "I wish they would develop this train station, there's nothing here," says Thompson-Totty, as the sun begins to rise.

A few blocks away, Zelda Robinson, a 66-year-old community activist and longtime West Baltimore resident, recalls the last time planners came to them with visions of a transportation plan - and ended up dividing a community.

The "highway to nowhere," they call it now.

The wounds, she says, still sting.

"People have not forgotten what took place when this area was going to be used for that expressway," says Robinson, who lives in Midtown Edmondson and leads the West Baltimore Coalition consisting of representatives from 15 different area neighborhoods.

"A lot of people were displaced for that," she continues. "That road to nowhere sort of divided the communities and it hasn't been the same since."

Built in the 1970s, the city cut through a then-stable swath of predominantly black neighborhoods in West Baltimore to begin a six-lane highway that abruptly ends after less than two miles.

The highway was supposed to connect Interstate 70 to Interstate 95. Now called U.S. 40, the highway stopped short after a few years because of political opposition from wealthier communities.

But the dead-end project resulted in the demolition of hundreds of homes, and the displacement of nearly 3,000 people.

Joyce Smith, now 54, was one. The Franklin Square resident's family was displaced from the 400 block of Gilmor St. during construction of the highway. "I remember people were just so upset," she says. "We were just so dislocated. We didn't have a voice."

Her family was separated from her aunt and grandmother, who lived in the 1600 block of Mulberry St. "It separated our churches, it separated our services, it separated our families," shesays. "The whole sense of community was shattered. It had a devastating effect

"That's why I'm involved now," says Smith, who is executive director of Operation Reach Out Southwest, a coalition of neighborhoods south of the MARC station. "Being involved is the first step in the right direction."


It is a weekday evening, and city and state planners and residents gather in the Edmondson Community Center, the thump of bass from cars driving by filtering into the room.

Paul Morris with PB Placemaking, a consultant hired by the state, cheerfully presents the group with a series of slides titled, "West Baltimore Transit Centered Community Development."

"The emphasis is not only on transit, but on the community," Morris says to an audience that clearly cares more about the latter.

In fact, another official points out, the name of the project was even tweaked to include "community."

When a woman asks about making some of the vast spaces from the highway to nowhere into green space, Morris tells them they can turn their streets into their own version of the Champs-Elysees, the famous boulevard in Paris.

Further slides detail plans such as developing retail businesses, making walking to transit safer and more convenient, and increasing the variety of housing and employment available.

This time around, as officials take the beginning steps of planning, they are being especially cautious and inclusive.

Still, at a weeklong planning workshop in the fall, tensions ran high at the last meeting. Another series of workshops is planned next month.

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