In my Sunday Sun column, I again advocated that Baltimore find money, perhaps in the coming bundle of Biden infrastructure spending, to tear down the elevated Jones Falls Expressway (Interstate 83) south of Penn Station and create a grand city boulevard instead. The 1915 postcard to the right shows what the area of Penn Station looked like long before the highway was constructed. I’m not talking about going back to that. The highway stays; it just drops out somewhere in this area and becomes a wide, tree-lined street.
I have not been alone through the years in suggesting this. The late great civic leader Walter Sondheim had one complaint about the city’s interstate highways — that I-83 remains elevated east of downtown. “Now it ought to be cut down and turned into a boulevard because it divides the city,” he told the Sun’s former transportation writer, Michael Dresser.
It has been done elsewhere. When he was mayor of Milwaukee (1988-2004), John Norquist famously led the effort to demolish the city’s Park East Freeway, an elevated commuter conduit strikingly similar to Baltimore’s Jones Falls Expressway. They replaced the Park Freeway with a landscaped boulevard to make downtown Milwaukee more human-friendly. Norquist explained how such projects could be funded: “A lot of freeways are headed beyond their design life, so they have to be rebuilt. … It’s cheaper to just tear it down and replace it with a surface street, so you win the cost argument.”
Marc Szarkowski developed a whole plan for a Jones Falls boulevard and exposed canals. Follow this link to his essay and drawings for Envision Baltimore in 2011.
I first wrote about this in 2012 for The Sun, reporting what I heard at a forum sponsored by the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, where visionaries saw opportunity to create a boulevard that serves commuters while creating a friendlier environment for city life.
“Commonwealth Avenue [in Boston] might be the paradigm for how we might think of the Jones Falls Expressway,” Matt Bell, an urban planner, said with a straight face. He asked his audience to imagine a wide space, completely transformed, connecting the Fallsway to President Street, all of it redeveloped to create un grand boulevard, with plenty of trees and park space and bikes lanes. People would actually live in houses that fronted long stretches of this boulevard, and he mentioned the Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon, also with a straight face.
Baltimore needs straight-faced visionaries.
The Jones Falls Expressway is an an elevated expressway that delivers commuters to and from the city with as little contact as possible with the city. The visionaries think a boulevard could both move traffic and inspire a whole new stretch of residential and retail development.
I know it’s hard to imagine all of this, but Bell’s company, commissioned by a major property owner along the Fallsway, studied the area south of Monument Street and the city’s Central Booking and Intake Center. There is a large swath of land there. Take down the JFX, and it could all become connected again to the grid of streets in thriving sections of Baltimore — to the west and Mount Vernon, to the east and Johns Hopkins and to the south, Pleasant View, Harbor Point, Little Italy and the harbor.
An astute person seated in the audience that day in 2012 mentioned the possibility of “opening up the Jones Falls,” — and by that he meant the stream that flows underground through the city, covered by concrete — to the Inner Harbor. Today, the stream disappears from sight just a block or two from the waterfront. Why not crack open the concrete and create a long canal up through the city, past Market Place and Power Plant Live? That opens up all kinds of possibilities, even gondolas and singing gondoliers. And I offer that with a straight face.