Steps toward making Druid Hill Park a better city park

Part I- An urban park won’t succeed with suburban edges

The Friends of Druid Hill Park have successfully have helped bring music, a farmers market, art projects, and other events to the park and made it a more active destination. These actions have gone a long way toward improving Druid Hill, but fixing the park’s urban design flaws would make their job much easier.

The Druid Hill Park Master Plan from 1995 identifies the problem with the roadways on the perimeter.

“The Jones Falls Expressway and Druid Park Lake Drive claimed parts of Druid Hill, on the south and east edges, for enlarged, high-speed commuter corridors. The construction of these two arteries caused the loss of the Mount Royal entrance and the park frontage drive. The enlarged Druid Park Lake Drive separated the surrounding neighborhoods from the park, compromised the function of the park roadways and walkways on the south and west edges of the park, and altered the quiet ambiance of the lake edge. The most offensive symbol of these projects is found on Madison Avenue, where the grand entry arches stand in isolation from the park.”

The Jones Falls Expressway is not going to be changed anytime any time soon. However, Druid Hill Lake Drive and the arterials on the west and north, can be retrofitted if the city’s planners wanted to remake Druid Hill into a more neighborhood-friendly park.

Wide road

This road design is engineered for speed and creates a barrier between help Druid Hill Park and its neighbors.

These roads slice through Druid Hill Park and break the park's edges into incohesive fragments

These roads slice through Druid Hill Park and break the park’s edges into incohesive fragments

Park-adjacent real estate with reservoir views is in bad shape

Park-adjacent real estate with reservoir views is in bad shape

In considering change, city officials should ask themselves, is the road configuration around the park working for neighbors and neighborhoods next to the park? Could the road design be contributing to the economic malaise at edge of the park? If the answer is that the park edge is not working, here are changes that would help.

1) Eliminate the existing wide grassy median arterial road system that divides the park from its neighbors and leaves the park edge fragmented into pieces

2) Introduce an urban street grid on the parks border with regular, frequent, and pedestrian friendly intersections. (Central Park, Patterson Park)

3) If roads do bisect the park, their footprint should shrink to reduce dividing the parkscape into fragments.

4) Put roads on the park edge on a diet and reduce their width. (Patterson Park)

5) Convert traffic lanes on road edges to on-street parking. (Central Park (NYC), Patterson Park)

6) Within eyesight of the people who live on the park’s perimeter, add amenities like community gardens, running/biking trails, playgrounds, tennis courts, dog park, and activity nodes . (Patterson Park)

7) Add food carts or open air places to eat and drink near pedestrian crossings between park and neighborhoods. (Central Park)

8Move the zoo entrance close to the Mondawmin Metro Station and the neighborhood.

JL

crossposted on Sustainable Cities Collective

An urban park won’t succeed with suburban edges

Part II-Steps toward making Druid Hill Park a better city park

A large urban park may be an oasis where the city feels distant, but to succeed, a good large urban park also ties in well with neighborhoods at its borders. New York’s Central Park does this well, as does Patterson Park in Baltimore. Druid Hill Park, to its northwest, does not.

Druid Hill Park edge

The wide roads at the edges of Druid Hill Park break the park into fragments and are a barrier to the adjacent neighborhoods. Images from Google Street View.

The borders of Central Park are clearly defined. Pedestrians easily cross into it and there is food available on three corners.

The borders of Central Park are clearly defined. Pedestrians easily cross into it and there is food available on three corners.

Druid Hill Park was built around the same time as New York’s Central Park. Its beautiful 750 acres offer urban forest, fields, a zoo, a reservoir, and recreation.

However, at its edge, traffic engineers designed a tangle of speedy arterial roads with grassy medians not unlike route 175 that links Columbia, MD with Interstate 95. Unlike sprawling suburban Columbia, Druid Hill Park is surrounded by dense historic neighborhoods filled with row houses and apartments.

Overview of Druid Hill Park

Big roads with fast moving traffic separate Druid Hill Park from adjacent neighborhoods. Image from Google maps.

Many of the people who live nearby do not own cars. The obese hard-to-cross roads do a good job of both being unpleasant for nearby neighbors and creating a barrier to accessing the park. Furthermore, the road slices into the park and leaves the park edges oddly fragmented.

The roads around the park have been engineered for speed to the detriment of nearby residents and families who might want to walk to the neighborhood park.

Compounding the problem, Druid Hill Park’s many amenities, including the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, picnic pavilions, pool, athletic fields and courts, gardens, and playgrounds are buried deep in the center of the park. It is a long walk from the edge of the neighborhoods to the park’s activity centers. To get to anything easily in the park, you have to drive.

Other large urban parks succeed where

Druid Hill’s contemporary, Central Park in New York, did not abandon the urban street grid, and it functions well as both a neighborhood park and a destination.

The same goes for Patterson Park, five miles to the southeast of Druid Hill Park. It has a road network on its edges that work much better. Patterson Park is bordered by heavily trafficked Baltimore Street and Eastern Avenue, but these roads remain true to the urban street grid with regular T-shaped intersections.

All streets are only four lanes, including on-street parking. Traffic travels much slower. Crosswalks are more frequent. Neighbors can see ball fields, playgrounds, people enjoying the park right from their bedroom windows.

Patterson Park is much more intimate with its neighborhoods on all four sides. This design difference helps make Patterson Park, far more interwoven into the daily lives of the residents in the blocks across the street.

edge of Patterson Park

In Patterson Park, the activities in the park are easily viewed from bedroom windows, traffic slow, and the roads are easily crossable. Photo by author.

Design is psychology

Happy City author Charles Montgomery writes, “Cities that care about livability have got to start paying attention to the psychological effect that traffic has on the experience of public space.” He explains that humans get anxious when speeds increase, because we know our bones cannot withstand a crash at more than 20 mph.

This makes places like the swift roads dividing Druid Hill Park with the neighborhoods of Reservoir Hill, Parkview, Liberty Square, and Park Circle unhappy places. It may also help explain why these neighborhoods’ park-front real estate is so weak.

In 2010, Gerald Neily, writing in the Baltimore Brew, made some of the arguments made in this post. Since that time, very little has changed.

Cities and neighborhoods always have to evolve to prosper. The southern, western, and northern edge of Druid Hill Park are not working. The evidence is as clear as the vacant buildings and lots on the park’s edge. New York’s Central Park and Baltimore’s Patterson Park can give direction on how to design the edge of a park in an urban setting. Druid Hill Park has unrealized potential to be a much better urban park. Retrofitting its suburban design will help. Here is a list to focus on.

JL

crossposted on Greater Greater Washington and Sustainable Cities Collective

One of Baltimore’s most beautiful neighborhoods is dying

No, not San Francisco. This block is in Reservoir Hill, a dying neighborhood in Baltimore

No, not San Francisco. This block is in Reservoir Hill, a dying neighborhood in Baltimore

Baltimore has an increasing collection of lively neighborhoods sprouting new residents, businesses, and construction.  Their vibrancy vividly contrasts with nearby neighborhoods besieged by abandonment and decades of depression-level disinvestment.  Many are aware of this pronounced dichotomy. However, there are neighborhoods between these extremes. One indicator of Baltimore’s progress should be the trajectory of these tweener neighborhoods. Improving neighborhoods offer valuable lessons for those regressing.

This article will briefly analyze three historic neighborhoods; Hampden (improving), Remington (improving), and Reservoir Hill (regressing). These neighborhoods are clustered close together about four miles from Baltimore’s glitzy harbor on different sides of the 750 acre Druid Hill Park and Interstate 83.

The Avenue in Hampden is the spine of this revitalizing mixed-use neighborhood

The Avenue in Hampden is the spine of this revitalizing mixed-use neighborhood

Hampden is an unlikely  success story.  It has created a destination restaurant and retail scene, driven largely by independent local entrepreneurs that punches way above its weight class. Its primary retail street, “The Avenue” is integrated into an affordable neighborhood with a mixture of bare bones row houses and single family homes. Hampden, with about 7000 residents, has well over a 100 small businesses.

The neighborhood’s charm and success comes from the energy of its kitschy residents mixed with a homespun entrepreneurial spirit. Forbes magazine honored Hampden as America’s 15th best hipster neighborhood. The criteria? Walkability, coffee shops per capita, the assortment of local food trucks, the number of locally owned bars and restaurants and the percentage of residents working in the arts.

Remington is on the cusp. Corner stores and restaurants give the neighborhood flavor. A private sector developer, Seawall, has buoyed Remington by developing creative mixed-use projects. Seawall has recruited clusters of educational non-profits as well as renovated the Miller’s Court into apartments for Teach for America.  Most interesting, Seawall is partnering with the Single Carrot Theatre to renovate Mr. James Tire Shop into performance space, restaurants, and nonprofit office space. The Company is doubling down. It has plans to build a “massive” main street of independent stores with residences above.

Remington’s resurgence is poised to accelerate with the creation of the Homewood Community Partners Initiative launched in 2012 and funded by Johns Hopkins.  This fund has $10 million dedicated to the “physical, social, and economic well-being of its surrounding neighborhoods.”

Vacancy in Reservoir Hill

Vacancy-an all to common sight in Reservoir Hill

Reservoir Hill, historically the strongest of the three neighborhoods, is a sick patient.  Its population is dropping to near 6000. The neighborhood’s bounty of beautiful historic buildings and homes is shrinking. Grand rows of houses are pockmarked by emergency demolitions. It is plagued by vacancy and troubled by crime. Market values often are less than renovation costs, which makes investment a risky proposition. Demolition is as common as renovation. Unlike Hampden’s abundance, obviously helpful enterprising businesses don’t exist in Reservoir Hill.

Reservoir Hill is only sick, not dead. It attracts architecturally inspired home-buyers. Eutaw and Madison Streets are still relatively healthy.  There are many residents who care about it. However, these strong blocks are slowly losing inch by inch a long running tug-of-war with nearby blocks in desperate shape.

My analysis is simple.  Reservoir Hill cannot remain a residential island with no businesses, offices, retail, and restaurants. A housing only strategy is not going to work. For decades, its promotion, energy, and resources have been spent on (affordable) housing.  Reservoir Hill’s current housing programs; Vacants to Value and Healthy Neighborhoods will lead to home renovations, but not reverse the tide of the neighborhood. HUD and Baltimore HCD programs should also not be relied on to turn around neighborhoods. They are much better at housing and social services than they are urban and community development.  Their core competencies are not restoring market confidence in declining neighborhoods.

The Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC), with roots that date to the late 1970’s have also not been able to turn the neighborhood around.  Its approach is notable for its lack of interest and expertise in fostering neighborhood business enterprises. RHIC could be far more useful if it had the focus, talent and resources to recruit and nurture small businesses. A new organization, the Mount Royal CDC was launched in December 2013.

The data on population and vacancy show Reservoir Hill is unequivocally failing.  For the neighborhood to reverse course, Reservoir Hill must become more like Hampden and Remington. It must energetically seek small entrepreneurs, artists, businesses, and restaurateurs. Of Baltimore’s urban neighborhoods, those with desirable commerce have the brightest futures. Attracting a neighborhood-minded creative developer like Seawall would be an immense coup.  City, institutional, and philanthropic partners could help. Historic preservation advocates are natural allies. Without a profoundly new strategy, Reservoir Hill’s trajectory is unambiguous.

Reservoir Hill's trajectory is clear. The neighborhood can ascend, but new strategies are needed

Reservoir Hill’s trajectory is clear. The neighborhood can ascend, but new strategies are needed

By attracting entrepreneurial investment and a new mix of people, there might be blow back from a myopic few concerned about theoretical gentrification. In Baltimore, far more affordable housing is lost to disinvestment and uninhabitable buildings, than rent increases. More people leave, not because they are priced out, but because other neighborhoods offer more.

Vacant mansion in Reservoir Hill

Vacant mansion in Reservoir Hill

Reservoir Hill is important.  Its substantial architectural assets, diverse housing stock adjacent to a beautiful park, and access to major transportation arteries, give it an advantage over other declining neighborhoods.    A robust Reservoir Hill turnaround could stimulate the resurgence of other neighborhoods west of Druid Hill Park that are in worse shape.

Teetering neighborhoods in Baltimore and other rust belt cities should recognize a relatively simple reality. Urban neighborhoods with retail, restaurants, and businesses are doing better. Millennials and empty nesters are coming to urban neighborhoods, but they are not likely to pick yours if there is nothing to do.

JL

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