If Investing: Move Baltimore’s Downtown Prison

Land just south of the Baltimore jail facility-What is the highest and best use of the jail and nearby land?

Land just south of the Baltimore jail facility-What is the highest and best use of the jail and nearby land?

Baltimore’s downtown prison complex is a physical barrier between the City Center and impoverished neighborhoods desperate for investment. Could moving the prison help heal the city?

Sprawling over 27 acres, the forbidding penal facility consumes a vast amount of acreage on potentially lucrative real estate. Surface parking, blight, bail bonds, and strip are the complex’s pitiful neighbors. It does not have to be this way forever.

Many cities have sensibly relocated their prisons away from their economic centers. Baltimore has yet to do so, but may have that opportunity.  Taking steps to move the penal complex from downtown was a pie in the sky idea until the state began publicly planning to sink over a half a billion dollars into demolishing and rebuilding the facility in place. Alternative locations exist nearby.

The penal campus is in the red box.  The shaded area is the impact area of the prison.  Mt. Vernon is directly west.  Johns Hopkins Medical campus is to the east. Downtown and the Inner Harbor are to the south

The penal campus is in the red box. The shaded area is the impact area of the prison. Mt. Vernon is directly west. Johns Hopkins Medical campus is to the east. Downtown and the Inner Harbor are to the south

City Marketing 101 says don’t put your prison complex as the welcome mat to your downtown or your top research hospital. By doing so, Baltimore sends the thousands coming to visit, to work, or to invest a grim reminder that Baltimore houses lots of dangerous people.

There are many questions. What could the land yield over time if the prison facility was not there to repel more promising development?  What new synergies could exist between downtown and the number 1 hospital in the nation?(2013)  How much new development could take place?  What is the potential for new tax revenues?  How many jobs could be created in addition to retaining existing prison jobs in a different location? Could a different future jump start Jones Town and the long stalled Old Town Mall redevelopment? Could the Mt. Vernon neighborhood expand east? Could a badly needed park to serve downtown residents be created? Could a portion of new tax receipts from future development support jobs for youth?

We should be cautious about building costly new prisons.   America must find a way to reduce its world leading incarceration rates, while preventing violent crime.  Locally, Baltimore’s recent prison issues are certainly as much about management as with the aging physical facility. Improved training and wages for prison guards and personnel would be astronomically cheaper than constructing new facilities. However, at some point, new facilities are going to be built. As these dollars are allocated, good money should not be spent on a misplaced location.

The current prison location may be convenient for visitors and employees. Furthermore, criminal courts are nearby.   By this narrow prism, the prison is well located. By considering the land’s far greater potential, relocating prison facilities to Jessup and or abandoned industrial zones are better options.

Many other cities have moved their prison out of their downtowns.  Baltimore has this chance.

Many other cities have moved their prison out of their downtowns. Baltimore has this chance.

Relocating large prison facilities from downtown is not only unprecedented, it is common.  Atlantic seaboard neighbors; New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston have all done so.  New York City’s main prison is an island in the East River.  In the Midwest, Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard is now leading a plan to relocate its jail out of downtown.  Noted urbanist Aaron Wrenn explains the benefit of moving the Indianapolis jail in his article “My Plan to win the war for Indianapolis Government Buildings.” The argument for Baltimore is similar.  

Maryland is projected to add a million people by 2040. Baltimore needs to position itself to capture a portion of this growth.  Adding dozens of acres available for development adjacent to the city’s most prominent employers, as well as I-83 and the subway, is a promising opportunity.

Top City and State decision makers don’t need to follow the narrow agenda of bureaucrats at the State Department of Corrections. There are innovative ways to reduce incarceration, provide opportunity, and remove barriers to Baltimore’s economic potential.  Rebuilding a prison campus in place should not be a rubber stamp.  If other cities understand this, Baltimore should too!


crossposted at Greater Greater Washington and Sustainable Cities Collective


About comebackcity.us
Administrator and writer for Comeback City

13 Responses to If Investing: Move Baltimore’s Downtown Prison

  1. Malindi says:

    The prison and surrounding uses highly disincentivize positive growth and investment to the north east of downtown Baltimore. As a city resident and a taxpayer, I would like to see the land be more productive.

    Other ideas for the area include: Next Generation Park

    and Baltimore Jail New Town. Click on links to see images

  2. RJ says:

    Dear Durham NC, please hop in a time machine and read this article. Our new jail is the one of the biggest buildings in the city, snuggled between the courthouse and the country’s most lucrative performing arts center.

  3. Baltplanner says:

    As a somewhat recent transplant to Baltimore (and an urban planner), I’m constantly surprised by the location of locally unwanted land-uses within the city. The adjacency of large public housing projects, methadone clinics, and this facility is shocking… and is something I’ve rarely seem in other cities. Concentrating poverty and social dysfunction within or adjacent to what should be your most valuable property is counterproductive for growing municipal tax receipts and improving public image.

    Sure these places need to exist, but the city is shooting itself in the foot by placing them where they are.

  4. Gull says:

    My primary concern is where would you really relocate the city jail to? I can’t think of an area that would not involve massive NIMBY fights with existing residents. It brings to mind trying to locate the CSX inter-modal facility to Morrell Park – seemed like a logical industrial area with existing industry and a freeway above, but people do actually live in little residential enclaves mixed in with all the non-residential uses, and do not want to be further subjected to unwanted land uses.

    I do think the location of the Jail is terrible, however it should more serve as a lesson to future cities in what not to do. I’d also think back to what the city looked like when the Jail was built – it may have been located there for a reason, in a neighborhood no one cared about at the time and figured it wouldn’t matter.

    I think a more obtainable and immediate change the city could make near the Jail is the old projects between Broadway and Central Avenues. To me the jail could almost be turned into an amenity by making a green buffer around it – there is a ton of room to organically grow between Downtown/Hopkins/Fells Pt that is just as if not more undesirable because of the old public housing stock in the area.

  5. JP says:

    I live in Mount Vernon and really love the neighborhood… but my apartment windows offer a charming view out onto the jail. I didn’t even realize what it was before I moved in (and surprise surprise, the landlord never told me.) It’s a bleak sight day in and day out, and the #1 reason why I won’t be renewing my lease here.

  6. burgersub says:

    there are multiple large pieces of land with few or no residents nearby within city limits that this could be done on, but with possible environmental concerns. in the past few decades, the residents of two entire neighborhoods (wagners point and fairfield in south baltimore) were bought out and relocated by the city because they were entirely surrounded by industry and disease rates were sky high. their homes were demolished and for the most part the land they were on remains fallow. i don’t know the details on the contamination of these sites but maybe enough time has passed and enough new technological innovations have occurred that something could be built there again?

    another idea would be hollander ridge, former site of the baltimore’s last remaining high rise public housing project. it is on the far east side of the city bounded mostly by freeways, with one side abutting a residential neighborhood that is over the county line. those people would surely protest, but this would be nothing like the old projects that used to be there with their attendant crime and blight, and merely an eyesore, and probably no worse of an eyesore, i would argue, than the suburban-looking office park that somebody is trying to build there (and has been somewhat unsuccessfully for several years, judging by aerial photography).

    it’s funny that you mention the csx transfer facility, i actually have what i think is a pretty good idea to solve that problem. does this site take submissions?

    • Gull says:

      Ironic you mention Fairfield in south Baltimore – that site was just announced as a port expansion project for Mazda which wants a location to off-load their cars and ‘finish’ them. The article in the Baltimore Business Journal mentioned something about an old housing community that was once there too!

      It would be expensive but i’d not mind seeing a taller, less expansive prison complex that was made to look more like an apartment building from the outside. All that really matters is that it’s of an appropriate size and it’s secure right? No one said it couldn’t be made to look nice from the outside. I suppose no one wants to live near the prison for fear that an inmate may escape? I think there is a lot the City/State could do that keeps the prison where it is, modernizes the place, and also improves the surrounding neigborhoods.

  7. burgersub says:

    also, don’t worry about the perkins homes, they are in the gerrymandered harborpoint enterprise tax credit zone so as soon as that development takes off they will improve dramatically. right?

  8. Robbyn says:

    Driving past the prison complex is an exercise in existential despair, a blight on the landscape and the spirit. If the prison can be moved, then by all means, move it. Currently, it is absolutely the worst possible use of the land, in practical and economic terms. As a city property owner and tax payer, I fully support efforts to explore alternatives.

  9. uche says:

    Leave it where it is as a reminder of the neglect of city leaders to the people who live in the city. The city leaders primary concern has always been for people outside of the city with money. Has no interest in fostering an environment for city livers to rise upward. No, leave it.

  10. Ben Groff says:

    Wow, prisons downtown induce much face palming. Jonestown, the prison area, and Old Town Mall badly need this change. This is an important area of our city.

    Perhaps this could be an early strategic decision leading the way for the eventual uncapping of the Jones Falls and demolition of the Jones Falls Expressway?

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