Baltimore’s future tied to the fate of the Metro West complex

OPINION: Downsizing the "Highway to Nowhere" is the first step to resuscitate the dead zone surrounding the soon-to-be-vacated SSA facility.

metro west from highway nowhere

Metro West as seen from the great roadblock to economic development of West Baltimore.

Photo by: Gerald Neily

Forget, if you would for a minute, Harbor Point. Or remember that it’s just a peninsula.

Far more important to the city’s long-term future is a plot of land lying about 2½ miles to the northwest – Metro West, home of the Social Security Administration’s teleservice center.

Sited on the precipice between downtown and West Baltimore, the fate of these 11 acres is far more central to the city’s attempts to reverse its decades-old decline in population and neighborhood stability than anything on the attention-grabbing waterfront.

This week the federal General Services Administration began soliciting ideas for what to do with 1.1 million square foot facility, which the SSA will be vacating next year for a new building in northwest Baltimore – adding to downtown’s distressing inventory of empty office space.

A Radical Rework

The Social Security complex first opened in 1980, soon after the completion of what has become known as the “Highway to Nowhere,” which runs around and through the massive complex.

What the city and the GSA need to recognize is that the highway’s negative forces over Metro West and the surrounding area are as strong as ever. The highway needs to be radically reworked to enable the west and northwest sides to spring back to the life that was interrupted by the road.

As it now stands, the 1.4-mile-long highway stub prevents any economic energy from being transmitted beyond downtown. No amount of piecemeal city spending has changed that dynamic.

Wasted "open space" between the highway corridors running under the SSA complex. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Wasted “open space” between the highway corridors running under the SSA complex. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The adjacent Heritage Crossing neighborhood, built in the 1990s, has failed to stimulate the emptied-out Fremont corridor or Harlem Park further to the west.

And the multi-billion-dollar Red Line light-rail project, whose proposed downtown tunnel was recently extended to bypass Metro West, won’t change it, either.

It is therefore fitting that Metro West’s closure will occur at about the same time that the Highway to Nowhere is also being closed for rehabilitation.

But the 1.4-mile highway segment is only being closed temporarily and intermittently, to facilitate the reconstruction of its westernmost three blocks between Pulaski Street and the Fulton underpass to accommodate an expanded MARC commuter rail parking lot and perhaps eventually the Red Line.

But when this newly refurbished piece of the Highway to Nowhere is completed, it will all again be reopened to traffic.

Downsizing a Roadblock

It’s patently obvious that the Highway to Nowhere should be recognized as the mistake it was, and torn down to spur redevelopment rather than rebuilt. But how?

One idea that came out of the Red Line Station Area Advisory Committee process was to tear down the two overpasses that send the highway over Martin Luther King Boulevard near Metro West.

Unfortunately, the same traffic would still be there, causing the same disruption and divisiveness on Franklin and Mulberry streets. The isolation of Heritage Crossing and adjacent communities would remain.

The contrast between Heritage Crossing (left) and the wrecked rowhouses next door on Brune Street illustrates the absence of economic stimulus on the Westside. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

The contrast between Heritage Crossing (left) and the wrecked rowhouses next door on Edmondson Avenue illustrates the absence of economic stimulus on the Westside. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

A better solution would be to tear down one overpass and consolidate as much of the traffic as possible in both directions on the other overpass. This would essentially downsize the highway from a 300-foot, block-width swath to only about 40 feet, and would still enable the heavy traffic to be removed from Franklin and Mulberry streets. The overpasses are actually expansive enough to let an additional local street go underneath.

This would open up everything. The entire corridor between Franklin and Mulberry streets could then be transformed into a unified, livable layout. The University of Maryland campus, south of Saratoga Street, would also be opened up to Metro West as the new economic anchor, which could then be extended northwest to Heritage Crossing.

Redirecting the Red Line

As currently planned, the proposed Red Line tunnel is a major blown opportunity. Instead of the huge (and most likely unaffordable) tunnel, the Red Line should follow its previous alignment to MLK Boulevard, then have a short branch eastward along Saratoga Street (directly adjacent to Metro West) and connect via short two-block tunnel into the Lexington Market Metro station.

The MTA keeps saying they can’t extend the Red Line to the Metro – as has been proposed since the 1960s – but a direct connection for passengers at the Lexington Market station is far preferable than the planned two-block-long underground pedestrian passageway to Charles Center.

A surface Red Line extension to the Inner Harbor and the southeast waterfront could still be built – and would be far more convenient to local riders.

Saratoga Street currently divides rather than connects Metro West with the University of Maryland campus. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Saratoga Street currently divides rather than connects Metro West with the University of Maryland campus. (Photo by Gerald Neily)

Humanizing the Monolith

Metro West’s redevelopment potential is severely compromised by its fortress-like configuration.

Downsizing the highway cutting through the complex could start the process by which the site is rewoven into the urban fabric of the University of Maryland, Heritage Crossing and neighborhoods beyond.

Over time, a monolithic, daytime-only office space could be transformed into a diverse “college town” that would spur housing demands by students, staff and potentially faculty (if only Lafayette and the other great West Baltimore squares could be revived).

As an integral part of re-purposing Metro West, let’s breathe life back into an area that has been deprived of economic oxygen for so long by the mistakes of the past.
Gerald Neily was transportation planner for the Baltimore City Department of Planning from 1977 to 1996, and has been a consultant before and since.

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  • ejd1984

    Has anyone seen this GREAT proposal for the “Road to Nowhere” canyon?

    • A F James MacArthur

      Have you seen the elevated skyhomes and flying cars in the Jetsons?

    • Gerald Neily

      Thank you, EJD! Indeed, Peter Tocco’s Baltimorphosis plan has been featured in The Brew several times. I see it as the spatial theme to unify the Franklin-Mulberry corridor with Metro West as the anchor. The MTA’s kludged-up version of the Red Line certainly can’t do it. I did a slideshow incorporating Peter’s graphical vision, comparing it to New York’s City’s High Line, which I called “The Low Line”:

      • ejd1984

        Has there been a response of any kind from City Hall on this proposal? Maybe a few community presentations and signatures may help for some additional traction.


        • Gerald Neily

          No City Hall response, Ed. As for how to promote it, I’ll defer to those who actually know how to get things done in this town. As anyone who reads The Brew regularly realizes, that’s one of Baltimore’s major cottage industries.

  • baltimorebrew

    Tweet from @BaltoSpectator:
    Why couldn’t Exelon move into and occupy Metro West?

  • Andrew

    Matthew is right on.There definitely needs to be a better east-west corridor through the city. Madison st is so overloaded with 18 wheelers. Just finish 70! It’s not like any of the land needed isn’t available.

    • Gerald Neily

      Andrew and Matthew, finishing I-70 through the west side and Leakin Park wouldn’t alleviate congestion on Madison Street, which goes through the east side and Mount Vernon. It would cause just the opposite: A traffic capacity mismatch that would dump even more traffic onto the east side. The MTA’s version of the Red Line would also cause capacity mismatches, with Boston Street narrowed to one lane, pushing traffic farther north including into the Madison/Monument corridor, and Edmondson Avenue (US 40 West) narrowed from 3 to 2 lanes, grossly mismatching the surplus capacity of the “Highway to Nowhere” and Franklin/Mulberry and thus causing a major bottleneck. We need to make the best use of what we already have, which is the sane intelligent cost-effective thing to do.

      • Andrew

        What would it take to relieve Madison st and Mulberry st of so many 18 wheelers plowing through?

        • Gerald Neily

          The truck traffic on the Madison/Monument one-way couplet is exactly as the city intends. They’ve banned thru trucks on all the thru streets between there and the harbor – Orleans, Fayette, Baltimore, Eastern, Fleet and Boston. Recently they’ve installed signs encouraging traffic to divert away from the congestion near the waterfront to Madison/Monument and the other farther north streets. The MTA Red Line plan would make it worse, since it’s traffic study says it will cause traffic will divert off Boston Street onto inland streets, and that will cause a domino effect. As for Mulberry, that must be due to the current construction closure of the Highway to Nowhere. That’s another reason downsizing is better than closing it.

          • Matthew Riesner

            These 18 wheehers are still on city streets, shaking apart people’s homes (there are many homes located on truck routes). I don’t really understand why Baltimore was able to stop the interstate highways that literally go though every other major city in the country (generally unable to be stopped). I believe that stopping these highways from being built has minimized Baltimore’s importance in the region. Cities are 4 things; hubs for transportation, industry, commerce, and communication. Everything beyond that is a by-product (residents, neighborhoods, ect). Without those 4 elements, there would be no/very few residents. The city’s importance and regional influence is more important for the good of the majority of the residents than the few who’s neighborhoods were effected. Things need to be built to maintain the importance of the city in the region…and this is a major reason Baltimore has failed in the past 50 years. You need to have commerce, you need to have principal industries, you need a way to distribute goods from a central location (generally this now happens where 2 highways converge), you need easy access into/away away from the city (hubs of rail, planes, highways, etc) and you need to be at the cutting edge with communication (where is our fiber network?). Therefore, we should finish I-70, I-170, and even consider a true cross town interstate highway that would connect with I-83 and continue on a corridor that would be in the general direction of Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore.

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    The highway to nowhere is indefensible.
    But it’s silly to think that its removal will trigger some paradise on Earth on the west side.

    The list of collapsed Baltimore neighborhoods that do NOT have a meaningless mile of concrete in them is far lengthier than the list of neighborhoods that do.
    We don’t need to remove a highway, we need to build a time machine, go back to 1936 or so, and not make the race-driven choices the city made to put itself in this current predicament.

    • Gerald Neily

      Oh Barnadine, you contend that a solid, reasonable redevelopment concept plan for Franklin-Mulberry is “silly” because other neighborhoods don’t happen to have a meaningless highway, but that a time machine is not silly?

      • Barnadine_the_Pirate

        Shall we make a list of redevelopment plans that crashed and burned in virtually every part of the city not called Federal Hill?

        • Gerald Neily

          Pirate, say something constructive or clever or intelligent or get in that time machine and go back to 1936 so we won’t have to hear your carping and whining anymore. This is a big city. We need to deal with all of it.

          • Barnadine_the_Pirate

            Sorry you find reality so painful.

          • River Mud

            Given that the City continues to fail to even attempt to deal with “any part of it,” and given that the next governor, or several governors, are unlikely to have the types of ties to the City that Gov O’M (and his generous state budget line items to the City) has had, I think it’s important to understand why (or why not) this corridor is *the one* that should be a focal point of limited funds in coming years. It’s a unique blight in a landscape of blights – I’ll give you that.

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