Baltimore Looks Into Scrapping Mile-long Stretch Of Jfx To Help Revive East Side

Sun Exclusive

May 17, 2009|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Seeking ways to revitalize Baltimore's east side, the city is exploring the idea of tearing down a mile-long stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway that divides downtown from the Johns Hopkins medical campus.

Baltimore's Department of Transportation has hired an engineering team headed by Rummel, Klepper & Kahl LLP to examine the pros and cons of razing the elevated expressway roughly between Chase and Fayette streets and replacing it with a landscaped "urban boulevard" that would provide access to an area larger than Charles Center or the Harbor East renewal district.

The estimated cost is $1 billion or more, and no funding is in place. The $60,000 study represents the first time Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration has allocated money specifically to assess the concept of replacing the expressway with a boulevard designed to stimulate development. The civil engineers began work earlier this year and are expected to present their findings by late summer.

Dixon said she is intrigued by the idea of deconstructing the expressway, a project that is likely at least five years away, and looks forward to receiving the engineers' recommendations.

"Ideally, it would be good to take it down and connect the two sides," she said of the elevated expressway. "The issue is cost. ... I'd like to see the study completed and get input from the consultants. Conceptually, I think it's a great concept. ... I'm open to it."

"There's no question that it would be a good thing, from an urban-design point of view," said M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which oversees downtown development. "It would enhance the value of ... properties [all along the route]. What I don't know is, what are the constraints, from when it was built, in terms of federal money? If we take it down, do we have to reimburse the federal government?"

By replacing the elevated expressway with a boulevard, planners say, the city would free up a large east-side development district that could be used to steer companies and residents that might otherwise move to the suburbs, while taking development pressure off the central business district.

At the same time, the project could result in slower travel times for commuters using the expressway to get in and out of downtown because an at-grade boulevard, unlike the elevated expressway, would have stoplights at busy intersections. It also likely would add to traffic congestion east of downtown while the project was under construction.

As part of their work, the engineers are looking at ways to pay for the project and the impact it will have on motorists and traffic flow. The city has asked for a projected construction timetable and information about the impact on activities such as the weekly Farmers' Market now held beneath the expressway.

David Wallace, a partner of RK&K, said he sees his team's role as providing sufficient information "to help the policymakers make a more informed decision.

"The question is, what it's going to cost to take it down and will the boulevard be as attractive as we think it might be?" Wallace said.

Highway construction and repair work are typically funded largely through federal appropriations, as when older portions of the Jones Falls Expressway have been repaired. One issue with replacing the expressway's southern leg is that it isn't so old or unstable that it would be deemed functionally obsolete and in need of a federally funded replacement, Wallace said. "It's a tough policy decision: Do we take down something that still has useful life?"

The southern portion of the Jones Falls Expressway opened in the 1970s as an extension of Interstate 83, which was designed starting in the 1950s to link downtown with the Baltimore Beltway and points north.

Following the Jones Falls stream valley, the highway carries 50,000 to 60,000 cars in and out of Baltimore every day before becoming a boulevard south of Fayette Street.

Even before it opened, the expressway's southern leg drew criticism for creating a barrier between downtown and the less densely developed land to the east.

The elevated highway "is very disturbing from the viewpoint of architectural design and the impact it will have as a visual and physical barrier through the center of the city," a local architects' group said in 1962.

If Baltimore moves ahead with the project, it would join San Francisco and Milwaukee as a city that has replaced an elevated highway near its core with a boulevard designed to promote redevelopment of adjoining areas. San Francisco replaced the Embarcadero after it was all but destroyed by an earthquake, and Milwaukee removed the Park East Freeway. In both cities, the disappearance of the expressways has helped stimulate redevelopment of the surrounding area.

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