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Druid Hill Park: huge, beautiful and sadly isolated from the neighborhood

But re-routing traffic could reconnect the park with the people

Above: There’s a river of traffic between these gracious Auchentoroly Terrace homes and one of Baltimore’s premier green spaces, Druid Hill Park.

Druid Hill Park’s recent 150th anniversary celebration reminded us of what a great, big, wonderful place it is, with fountains, gazebos, tennis courts, swimming pool and a disc golf course, not to mention a zoo. But while it is clearly Baltimore’s premiere park, it strangely adds little value to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Walled off by a stream of rushing traffic, Druid Hill Park is unable to cast its friendly glow on nearby residential streets, the way Patterson Park does in East Baltimore or Central Park in New York City. If only park and neighborhood could feed each others’ identity we could have our own version of New York’s Upper East Side, our own “Sex and the City” scene, perhaps with our own Jada Pinkett replacing aging “gal” Carrie Bradshaw.

Druid Hill Park is a perfect example of how Baltimore’s housing and economic problems are so often traceable to the failure of our institutions to add value to our communities.

How can the relationship between the park and neighborhoods be re-arranged to maximize all the positive energy? Here are two ways to consider: reinvent Swann Drive and reinvent the Zoo.

A road cage, not road rage

Right now, major highways wrap around the park on three sides: the Jones Falls Expressway to the east, Druid Park Lake Drive to the south and Swann Drive to the west. These three prevent the adjacent Hampden, Reservoir Hill and Mondawmin neighborhoods from taking full advantage of the park.

The northern part of Druid Hill Park has always been “the outback,” a heavily wooded no-man’s land that once marked the transition between urban and rural Baltimore and later just dropped out of sight. One does not even think of Hampden as being next to Druid Hill Park.

Then there is the Zoo, right in the middle of the park, but surrounded by fences so that one can enter only through the main gate, submerged from street level, after paying the steep $14 admission (or making other arrangements). This ensures that visitors will treat it as a destination of its own rather than a natural extension of the park’s other recreational attractions. If you’re playing on the adjacent Disc Golf course, you’d better not throw an errant Frisbee over the zoo fence or it’ll be gone forever.

The past glory, and great potential, of Druid Hill Park is best reflected in Auchentoroly Terrace, the street overlooking the park, which was once among the city’s most prestigious addresses. Residents have tried valiantly to keep these huge magnificent houses up, but the expense of maintaining such gorgeous high-end architecture has often not been deemed worth it. The lack of investment has spread inland from there throughout northwest Baltimore.

The positive energy should flow as freely as possible in every direction. Positive people of all incomes like to associate with the best to capture their own distinct niche.

Auchentoroly/Gwynns Falls intersection with recently burnt-out house on the corner. The traffic could be shifted to the other side of the wide median which then could be converted to a linear park and continued all the way through the intersection to replace the vast pavement expanse.

The stage was set for trouble when Swann Drive was carved out of the west edge of the park to create the first major highway into northwest Baltimore in the pre-Jones Falls Expressway era.

Auchentoroly Terrace, once a gracious residential street lined with 19th-century homes, was turned into a busy southbound-only route into the city. The lovely houses are still there but the whizzing commuters dominate. Driving outbound to the north of the city, commuters have turned Swann Drive into their own speedway, plowing through the park. There’s a metaphorical goldmine here. One road. Two names. Good street. Bad street. We’d need schizoid Sybil to play our Carrie Bradshaw role.

And hence the key to its reinvention. Properly engineered, there is enough room on Swann Drive alone (the street closer to the park) to accommodate all the heavy through-traffic in both directions. Auchentoroly Terrace could then be given back to the people who live there, to create an address befitting the magnificent houses at the front door of a magnificent park and proudly announcing the presence of the entire Mondawmin communituy.

This would be a similar arrangement to what the city did in the 1980s on Mount Royal Avenue in Bolton Hill. The heavy through traffic was shifted away from the gorgeous houses on the west side of the street, and a green buffer and “people place” was designed between the quiet residential street and the heavy traffic street. This has been quite successful.

Southbound Mount Royal Avenue in Bolton Hill. This was a major southbound traffic-way and a median strip, but in the 1980s, the heavy traffic was shifted westward, out of the picture.

Operationally, this will be more difficult to do on Auchentoroly than Mount Royal because of conflicts at three busy intersections, at Fulton Avenue, Gwynns Falls Parkway and Liberty Heights Avenue. But it can be done. The result would be a proper spatial relationship between the community and Druid Hill Park, with a green linear park buffering the community from the heavy traffic which would have its own two-direction parkway.

How to divorce Auchentoroly from Swann

One method of sorting the traffic conflicts is by building roundabouts, which are uniquely capable of handling heavy traffic from more than four directions. The city has already proposed to reinstall the old roundabout at what is still called Park Circle, at the intersection of Reisterstown, Park Heights and Druid Park Drive at the northwest corner of the park. Park Circle was eliminated back in the bad old 1950s, before traffic engineers had figured out how to make roundabouts work.

Another positive aspect of roundabouts is that they draw negative attention away from streets that feed them. This is heightened if something memorable like a great statue is placed inside the circle. It is particularly fortunate if the street itself is obnoxious, as heavy traffic streets usually are. The roundabout then gets blamed for the traffic, and like most great icons, its stature should be sufficient to graciously absorb the blame. Nobody blames the Champs Elysees for the traffic messes created by all those crazy French drivers who use it. Instead, they contentedly point to the Arc de Triomphe. C’est la vie. Roundabouts also accommodate U-turns well, which would help on Swann Drive because it has no median breaks except at the major intersections. Every life needs a U-turn now and then.

But building roundabouts at each of the three major intersections (four if you count the city’s Park Circle plan) would be a bit much, even for ardent roundabout aficionados.

The best location for a roundabout is probably the south end of Swann Drive, where it intersects Fulton Avenue and turns into Druid Park Lake Drive, Druid Hill Avenue and McCulloh Street. This is currently a truly hideous intersection of nearly 500 feet in length. Such a roundabout would nicely define the southwest corner of Druid Hill Park and increase the green space, thus providing symmetry with the proposed restoration of the Park Circle at the park’s northwest corner. And like that one, it even looks like it could have been a roundabout in a former life. The accompanying illustration probably shows it bigger than it should be, just to emphasize the point.

Proposed Roundabout at Swann, Fulton, McCulloh, Druid Hill Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive to replace a huge convoluted intersection.

Midway between the Fulton intersection and Liberty Heights Avenue, Swann has another major intersection with Gwynns Falls Parkway. Here the city has recently completed a sort of faux roundabout extending into the park, as if to celebrate the intersection of these two major parkways in a symbolic but non-functional way. This could be the first step to the creation of a real roundabout.

But that may be one too many roundabouts. A cleaner and greener solution (pardon the Sheila Dixon-ism) would be to simply disconnect Auchentoroly from Swann at this point. Auchentoroly (as a newly converted two-way residential street) would connect to Gwynns Falls Parkway, while Swann would connect to the street inside the park. This would be ideal for pedestrians both entering Druid Hill Park and along Auchentoroly’s new buffer parkland, which would become conflict-free.

Everything should come together at Liberty Heights

Finally, there’s the major intersection with Liberty Heights Avenue. This location is particularly important because it is the primary connection point between Mondawmin and the zoo, and in that regard, it fails miserably because the zoo is virtually invisible down in a hidden gully. The City recently even tried a little band-aid solution to this problem by shifting the east curb a bit, and building a new sidewalk, a stairway down into the zoo and a small low ornamental stone wall.

But the physical problems here call for a far bigger solution. North of this point, Swann Drive is grotesquely over-wide, retaining an effective width of eight lanes (striped for seven) despite the fact that a huge amount of its traffic diverts into Liberty Heights and Greenspring Avenue. Swann’s merge into Reisterstown Road to the north can’t absorb all those eight lanes anyway.

There is plenty of room for a roundabout at Swann, Auchentoroly, Liberty Heights and Greenspring. However, a much better solution would be to shift Swann Drive into a new small overpass over Liberty Heights that would take full advantage of what is now a liability – the gully just to the north that leads down into the zoo. Swann Drive could then be drastically narrowed because an overpass could accommodate all the traffic in fewer lanes.

Looking upward from the zoo property to the intersection of Swann and Liberty Heights. This gully makes the zoo invisible from street level, but an underpass could tie everything together. The Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue is seen in the background.

The land now occupied by the huge unnecessary eight lane Swann Drive north of Liberty Heights could then be regraded into a grand entrance plaza between the zoo and the community, and a linkage between the main park and the underutilized huge triangular park parcel that sits between it and Mondawmin Mall.

Proposed Swann Drive overpass shown in red. Proposed one mile linear park along Auchentoroly Terrace shown in shaded green.

A great pedestrian promenade could be constructed from the zoo, through the new underpass and the park to the mall and the community, integrating them all into a seamless whole. The promenade would be as attractive to zoo patrons and joggers as to Carrie Bradshaw wannabes, coming from the mall in their new six-inch Jimmy Choos.

Proposed promenade from the zoo to Mondawmin Mall shown in dark blue. Adjacent Liberty Heights Avenue underpass, extension to the zoo and ramps to Swann Drive shown in light blue.

Free the zoo

The current isolation between the zoo, the park and the community reinforces the notion that the zoo is merely a destination of its own, rather than a community attraction or central anchor to the park’s recreational opportunities. In addition to its physical siting problems down in the hidden gully across the highway, the zoo’s $14 admission also positions it precariously. It must somehow compete with the free National Zoo in Washington. In fact, the Maryland Zoo at Baltimore more closely competes for our entertainment dollars with the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor, and even the region’s theme parks such as Six Flags and King’s Dominion. That is tough competition.

Much as the National Aquarium’s allure comes from its perfect fit as a focal point to spending a day in the Inner Harbor, the key to the zoo is to reorient it both physically and economically into Druid Hill Park. Physically, a broad, attractive promenade which is unencumbered by traffic conflicts between the zoo and the Mondawmin Mall and Metro Station would become the front door to all of Druid Hill Park. The zoo would become the prominent anchor instead of being buried in the middle of the park.

To reinforce this major physical reorientation, the zoo may also want to reconsider its business model. The Baltimore Museum of Art and Walters Museum decided to go to free admission to reach out to the community and thus became one of Baltimore’s regular recreational options, as well as becoming more attractive for sponsorships. The Maryland Zoo may want to do the same. Maymont Park in Richmond, Virginia may be an instructive example. It is a “park within a park” in the same way that the Maryland Zoo resides within Druid Hill Park. But it is admission free and barrier free. It has a zoo, but its emphasis is less on expensive exhibits and more on recreation.

Druid Hill Park, the Maryland Zoo and the surrounding community all need to be part of the same experience, and should be reinvented together. Each needs the other to succeed.

Left to right: Park with conservatory in background, Swann Drive (currently northbound), median strip which could become a linear park, Auchentoroly Terrace (now southbound) and neighborhood. Photo by Gerald Neily

Left to right: Park with conservatory in background, Swann Drive (currently northbound), median strip which could become a linear park, Auchentoroly Terrace (now southbound) and neighborhood.

** All photos in this piece were shot by Gerald Neily for Baltimore Brew.

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