MARC Train Edge Cities-They Don’t Exist, Yet

We splash cold water on our early morning faces before heading to Baltimore’s Penn Station in the dark where I  drop my wife to catch the 5:50AM MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter) train departing Baltimore Penn Station for Washington Union, where she will then transfer to the DC METRO and arrive at her work site by 7:30. Based on time and cost, this is a better choice than driving through AM and PM rush hours in two cities, which she has also experimented. I work in Baltimore, but have meetings in DC’s Maryland suburbs.  Right now, we are a couple straddling the Baltimore/ Washington region. We are not alone.

It is not surprising that corporate offices and sprawling suburbs are consuming the green fields between the beltways. By being in the middle, families and businesses can access the employment, cultural, airport and other benefits of both metros.   It is also not surprising that traffic is terrible and there is pressure to use tax payer dollars to widen or create roads. (ICC)

Corporate sprawl 2

Image: Corporate sprawl between Baltimore and Washington alienates transit riders

The status quo development (above image) between the cities is comprised of both corporate and residential sprawl a few miles from MARC stations, but useless to arriving train passengers. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) and its LEED rating system need to play a role.  USGBC should not be giving isolated land gobbling sprawl producers green credentials for energy efficiency when  these same buildings require inefficient commuting.

What is surprising is there is nary a sprout of an urban cosmopolitan edge city that is oriented around a MARC train station between Penn and Union Stations.  Arlington, Rockville, Bethesda, and Silver Spring are small cities that have grown up around Washington Metro Stations. Kaid Benfield has covered the Arlington success story and Chris Leinberger has described the growth of what he calls “walk up” development that is becoming so prevalent in the Washington Metro Area. By contrast, all seven MARC Penn Line stations between Penn and Union or “stations in the middle” (SIM), lie in a desert of surface parking lots (there is a garage at BWI). It is difficult to even get a cup of coffee at most of these outposts. What is also important to note, that MARC trains can deliver a passenger from these SIMs to the center of Washington (and Baltimore) roughly as fast and more comfortably as the Washington Metro (or car) from the aforementioned edge cities’s metro stations.

MARC Stations 2

Image: Lots of urban development opportunity at the underdeveloped MARC stations between Baltimore and Washington. Bowie State University and BWI stations shown.

While this author advocates for infill development inside the beltways, he acknowledges the demand for development in between.  It is time to start urban mixed-use development along the MARC Penn and Camden Lines. MDOT proclaims they are open for business partnerships and have a transit-oriented-development (TOD) underway at Odenton.  Private sector developers have made lots of money building urban product at Washington Metro Stations, particularly in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. There is potential for similar opportunity adjacent to MARC stations.

So why has scattered growth continued between the two cities while MARC stations remain the nucleus of constellations of barren commercial-less surface parking?  I speculate the issue is structured parking.  With cheap available green fields, why build the more expensive structured parking for more urban development patterns?  The reason for change is this.  There are an increasingly large number of consumers and employees who operate between Baltimore and Washington that prefer a hassle free train ride complemented by a short walk to an office, a restaurant, a hotel, or a residence on both ends, especially in a cosmopolitan urban environment. There is a premium for this in Bethesda and Arlington, and there will be at MARC stations.

BethArl

Image: Arlington (left) and Bethesda (right) are among several edge cities that have grown around their train station-each about 30 minutes from the center of Washington-the same as many MARC stations

Arlington TOD corridor

Image:  Arlington is being developed like pearls on a string with the densest development nearest the train stations. This is a model for MARC.  Source: Switchboard NRDC (left) and familypedia.wikia.com

To get on a roll at MARC stations, the public sector may have to help build and finance structured parking to open land adjacent to stations for development.  Stu Sirota, Principal of TND Planning Group, says there needs to be an overarching vision coupled with marketing. Stu  continues –  “A real regional planning effort  or charrette will show how all these station areas could become cool transit villages (or bigger) and what an incredible impact that could have on the Baltimore-Washington corridor.” Once there are a few hot spots along the line, the SIMs will be coveted real estate. It is time to get started.

Red Line: An Opportunity for West Baltimore

The western side of Baltimore has a golden opportunity.  An opportunity of a generation.  An opportunity that if missed, will likely not come again in a long time.  This opportunity is the Red Line.

The author grew up on the west side of Baltimore and wants it to flourish. The area is home to tight-knit neighborhoods, a great variety of historic architecture, and the city’s biggest park; Gwynns Falls Leakin Park.  That has not been enough. Unfortunately, West Baltimore (city) has few large employers and is not seeing enough private investment flow in its direction.  This has an impact on quality of life.  The west side has a dearth of sit down restaurants, no movie-plexes, no hotels, and few thriving retail districts.  Despite the city’s overall uptick in population, the west side continues to hemorrhage residents, which results in too much crumbling housing and falling employment opportunities.

If the west side remains isolated and it does not try something new, it is hard to envision change.  The opportunity is right in front of us.  In the short run, the Red Line will put thousands to work. When it opens, the west side neighborhoods will be connected within minutes to over 113,000 downtown jobs and thousands more in southeast Baltimore. The Red Line will make easy transfers to MARC trains at West Baltimore and Camden Station, opening up the Washington region in ways never before realized. The Red Line also will make it convenient to visit restaurants, shopping, and events. Most importantly, the Red Line greatly improves the prospects for attracting new employers, restaurants, retail, and potential residents that have been spurning the west side for other parts of the region. Rail transit does not guaranty new investment as those of us in Baltimore are all too aware. However, transit-oriented-development is happening in traffic clogged cities all over the world, especially right down the tracks in Washington.  Thirty-four MARC minutes from the West Baltimore Station, New Carrollton envisions 5500 new apartment units and 6.1 million square feet of office and retail around its station.  Development at transit stations will eventually catch on here in Baltimore too, hopefully sooner than later.

Transit Oriented Development opportunity at the W. Baltimore MARC Station

Transit Oriented Development opportunity at the W. Baltimore MARC Station

Development at this West Baltimore Station is a lot more likely with these train connection combinations: 45 minutes to Washington Union Station, 34 minutes to New Carrollton and the Purple Line, 10 minutes to downtown Baltimore, and 10 minutes to Baltimore Penn Station. Image Source: West Baltimore MARC Station Master Plan

Improved transit could make development in West Baltimore more likely

Improved transit could make development in West Baltimore more likely

For households and businesses that need easy connections to Baltimore and Washington, development at the West Baltimore MARC would be ideal. Image source: West Baltimore MARC Station Master Plan

The residents and business owners of: Dickeyville, Franklintown, Rosemont, Allendale, Ten Hills, Hunting Ridge, Poppleton, Franklin Square, Union Square, Edmondson Village, Harlem Park, and other nearby neighborhoods will be the biggest beneficiaries. As it is often said “location, location, location….”  The Red Line  will again give West Baltimore a location advantage and the chance for new development that otherwise would not occur.

Maryland’s General Assembly is debating funding and the Red Line.  There are only so many times that your districts can be part of a $2.5 billion shot in the arm and the chance to transform the economic outlook for dozens of neighborhoods. It is time to seize the opportunity.

JL

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