Transit, “The Ice House” and West Baltimore

A long-shot project for a neighborhood in urgent need of revival.

ice house detail

Revitalization dreams often feature the burned-out ice house next to the MARC station on West Franklin-Mulberry streets.

Photo by: ArchPlan Inc.

The hulking red-brick former American Ice Company building, across from the West Baltimore MARC train station, has been locked in urban limbo since at least 2004, when a major fire severely damaged the century-old structure.

But the graffiti and rotting roof haven’t stopped community members and urban planners from dreaming about a shiny future for the Ice House – and the landscape of vacant and run-down buildings that surround it.

Stoked by the presence there of not just a commuter train station but a stop on the proposed east-west light-rail “Red Line,” they’ve been meeting for years in workshops, charrettes and committees to discuss how transit – and that old building – could spur development.

The latest of these was the annual meeting of the Citizens’ Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), where the Ice House building at 2100 West Franklin Street was discussed in the context of  a $55,000 grant coming from federal Sustainable Communities Initiative funding.

The 100-year-old former ice-making plant sits across Franklin Street from the MARC train parking lot.

The former ice-making plant in West Baltimore is beside a commuter parking lot. (Photo by ArchPlan Inc.)

Architect Klaus Philipsen spoke to the meeting and laid out the case for how transit and a re-purposed Ice House could revitalize the area.

"Ice House Station," from a planning sketch. (Source: Maryland Department of Transportation)

“Ice House Station” from a planning sketch. (Source: Maryland Department of Transportation)

There are those who are skeptical about the concept of transit-oriented development and about the likelihood the $2.5 billion Red Line project will (or should) be funded and built.

Philipsen is not one of them.

“That revitalization leveraged by transit is not a pipe dream and can come out quite spectacularly,” he writes in a recent post on his blog, Community Architect.

Further Reading and Viewing

Here’s a link to how planners these days are envisioning transit-linked development in the Ice House area and attempting to re-write a better future for the area after a disastrous past.

They, for instance, propose that the infamous “Highway to Nowhere” – the never-built interstate that is now a hugely-widened segment of Franklin and Mulberry streets – be given a new name, the “Highway to Somewhere.”

Below is a video made by CPHA intern Sarah Khan (and featuring Eli Pousson of Baltimore Heritage) that takes you in among the defunct machinery and cobwebs inside the Ice House and tells the building’s history.

There's still machinery inside the Ice House. (Photo credit: ArchPlan Inc.)

There’s still rusty machinery inside the Ice House. (Photo by ArchPlan Inc.)

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  • RickFromBmore

    I would love to see this area redeveloped and the Ice House preserved. But the problem with transit oriented development in Baltimore is two-fold. First, the transit system is poor and lacks cohesion, so living next to a transit stop does little to improve your general mobility (you will still need a car). And second, driving is just too inexpensive and easy around here. Traffic is manageable (face it – we have it way better than DC) and the garages are pretty cheap outside of Inner Harbor East. I used to commute from Anne Arundel County and take I-97 to the BW Parkway into Downtown. This was always faster than chugging along in the Light Rail. So, living next to transit stops just don’t have that much appeal in Baltimore. If it did, you would see residential development at Cromwell Station or Reisterstown Road or at one of many other Metro or Light Rail stops in the area.

    • Gerald Neily

      Very well said, Rick. Also note that by modifying the catchphrase to “Highway to
      Somewhere”, they’re attempting to change “Nowhere” to “Somewhere” while keeping the
      “Highway” which is the area’s most formidable barrier. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s TOD record
      keeps getting worse, with the recent Westport foreclosure culminating 20
      years of development inactivity after its light rail line opened. All this Ice House talk is merely hype to feed the moribund Red Line.

      There is hope for West Baltimore but it’s along way from the current house of cards: (1) Downsize the Highway to Nowhere to manageable and development-friendly proportions, (2) Rebuild outward from downtown instead of attempting to create an isolated development island at the MARC station – using the U of MD campus, soon-to-be vacated Social Security complex, Heritage Crossing and other strong assets which dwarf the Ice House in value and impact, (3) Create an environment you just can’t get anywhere else, instead of merely trying to compete with all the region’s other dashed TOD hopes. How about THE LOW LINE?

  • Sabina Pade

    I think RickFromBmore is right.  Until Baltimore becomes more densely populated and its transit system more cohesive, TOD will be little more than an appealing hypothesis.  

    As a candidate for gentrification, West Baltimore near the MARC station stands far to the rear of Old Goucher, Reservoir Hill, and Greenmount West, with their abundance of fine rowhouses and churches.  Indeed, if we are to pay TOD more than lip service, the area surrounding Penn Station must necessarily be the primary focus of our efforts.  The sensible intervention, in much of West Baltimore, by contrast, would be that of a bulldozer and a re-foresting team.

    • RealGMan

      This is all sensible, what you say. The city and private developers have to make far fewer moves to build a taxbase “spine” down Charles Street, through old downtown to the Inner Harbor and the waterfront communities, flexing out to Greenmount, Reservoir Hill, etc. There are real trouble spots, but you see light at the end of the tunnel and a base involvement from many of the communities affected here. The pathway through East and West is so much tougher. The social engineering and physical real estate aspects are just incredibly daunting, and the grassroot support is minuscule. On the other hand, the city’s political base is built in the African-American communities in East, West, Northeast and Northwest. Its the city’s conundrum.  

  • Archphips

    All those comments are all true on some level, yet, they sound too
    hopeless! Regarding transit connectivity: West Baltimore
    MARC connects you to the WORLD (via BWI) and to DC. Not bad for connections,
    is it? Regarding working from downtown out: West Baltimore is a mile from all
    the nodes Gerry mentions. The Red Line would make downtown even more reachable
    by transit. And sure: the Ice House is just one symbolic property. The real
    task is to revitalize the community. Certainly not the easiest one to do so. Because it is hard there, it is necessary to leverage transit for the transformation because it provides the locational advantage. Regarding the
    “Highway to Nowhere/Somewhere” moniker: Not planners came up with it
    but community members. The slight change signifies the ambition to make West
    Baltimore a” somewhere” again.



    • Gerald Neily

      Klaus, the issue isn’t optimism vs. hopelessness. It’s doing everything that needs
      to be done. This portion of the Red Line from the “Highway to Nowhere” out to
      Edmondson Avenue has merely become the cheapo segment which supplies the most transit-captive riders
      to prop up the ridership stats for the overpriced tunnel segments. Yes, the Ice House is symbolic. Symbolism is
      cheap. We need real solutions. The comparison by Sabina and GMan to Station North and vicinity is apt. People have been working on those area for many decades to achieve the right combination of factors and only now are reaping fruit. West Baltimore needs the same dilligence. And the existing light rail line has a far better connection straight into
      the BWI Airport terminal and thus the “world” than MARC ever could.

  • RickFromBmore

    I think there would be more optimism about transit oriented development if we saw a history of success around here. I just can’t see where TOD has worked in the Baltimore area. If it weren’t for the very, very slow progress on the town center around the Owings Mills Metro, there would not be any TOD to speak of throughout the MTA rail system. That being said, I do hope that West Baltimore MARC becomes a magnet for residential and commercial development. But Let’s see MTA and state officials leverage the existing infrastructure first. I’ll be less hopeless when I see a couple hundred residential units going up on one of those big, empty parking lots around Reisterstown Plaza Metro Station.

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    I am among those who feel that transit is everything — good, comprehensive rail-based transit that blankets the city is what is needed to bring the city to life.  The Red Line, by itself, is insufficient.  We need the equivalent of the DC Metro or the NYC subway system — so that every part of the city is equally accessible from everywhere else.

    If you live in Northeast Baltimore you have no advantages from city living, just higher taxes and crappier schools. You are still a slave to your car, you still have a 30 minute commute downtown, you can’t enjoy the cultural amenities of the city center without dealing with parking, you can’t have a third beer in Fells Point.

    Good, rail-based transit changes all of that.  Red Line is too little and (I fear) too late.

  • traderjim7

    All these comments and not a word about Baltimore’s high crime rate.  If built, this project will just become another taxpayer financed boondoggle like so many others before.  They couldn’t even keep a shopping mall at the Owings Mills metro, as affluent as Owings Mills is, because the criminals ran rampant.  The residents around several light rail stations have tried to have them closed over the past few years.  Why?  You guessed it!  And you think building a transportation center out of an old building is going to help Baltimore?  Think again.  Until the streets can be made safer, Baltimore will just be a pit that makes taxpayer dollars disappear. 

  • Archphips

    Traderjim7, does it occur to you that the crime rate is the effect and not the cause of disinvestment? More people living in West Baltimore or anywhere in Baltimore will alleviate the crime rate as one can study in DC which has successfully filled in neighborhoods, has grown to be equal in size to Baltimore and has about 100 less murders a year.  Not sure what you refer to in Owings Mills, there is still a mall and there is new development going up right at the Metro station as well. That transit brings crime is an urban legend. In reality, cities and regions thrive with transit and even Houston has now a rail line that is hugely successful. BmoreFree: Did you realize all the QB lines that MTA now runs as a quicker and more efficient bus service? On the Red Line route the QB 40  runs on about 10 minute headways in the peak. Baltimore’s transit is way better than most people think, especially those who never use it. Of course, it could be better. Repeating all the bad stuff without noticing improvements and progress is a tired way of talking your own city down. Many of these comments are less based on healthy realism than defeatism. In 20 years Baltimore will be a thriving city again, almost guaranteed.

    • John Franklin

       I am a big believer in a strong and comprehensive urban mass transit system. When I travel in other cities and countries it is easy to appreciate the real value such a system offers to everyday living. However, it is not fair to discount the effect that our local transit projects have had on local crime rates. I know business owners in the Lutherville-Timonium areas who moved away from the light rail line when it arrived because of sharp increases in shoplifting. Ownings Mills Mall was positioned as an upscale shopping destination. After some highly publicized crimes, high end shoppers voted with their feet. That business has moved to Columbia and Towson. Why do some Baltimore neighborhoods get investment and others don’t? Do you think race is the issue? I don’t. As a businessman I happily serve any and all demographics in order to make a living. But, I avoid high crime areas. The costs and risks are too great. Want investment? Reduce crime. BTW…comparing any city to DC is not fair. It is the nation’s capital and and has advantages no other city enjoys. (Including HUGE amounts of money devoted to the development of an expansive subway system.)

  • Jon Schladen

    Really nice job! I commute to DC via the MARC train and this building greets me each morning. I have often wondered about its history..MORE please

  • 13thClockStriker

    Everybody should be breaking there neck to do this project, the city, state, and federal Govt.

    • Gerald Neily

       The MTA’s neck is broken. Haven’t you noticed, 13thClock?

  • D “Dee ” Moses

    I’ve been smothering over ideas for that location. Just about the same concept with a few differences. One of which would not cost taxpayers anything. I have access to private money/investors that could be convinced this is a great area that will be a great asset to their bank accounts, lead in the propose revitalization, and restore hope to an oppressed area. However, due my small realty investment company doubt I will be given the opportunity. Despite my being pessimistic I will attempt to do so.

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