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Mobtown Beat

Road Warriors

Citizens Struggle to Reconfigure a Chunk of North Charles

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/4/2001

What's a little more than 100 feet wide, about 3,500 feet long, and is being fought over by bicyclists and businesses, institutions and individuals, the city government and sundry civic associations? Answer: North Charles Street, particularly the stretch of this venerable roadway between University Parkway and 29th Street in Charles Village. Changes are in the works for this slab of blacktop, changes with the potential to make the street safer for pedestrians and bicyclists while adding much-needed parking.

"Folks are looking for a safer street, first off," says Daniel Klocke, executive director of the Charles Village Benefits District. "Secondly, they want Charles to have a greener, more regal feel. They want it to have the respect Charles has in other parts of the city."

The impetus for redesigning this portion of Charles, says Frank Murphy, an engineering supervisor with the city Department of Public Works, is an unusual traffic pattern that has long elicited complaints from Johns Hopkins University and other neighborhood interests. At issue are the stretch's two southbound lanes--one orphaned from the rest of the roadway by a large median, the other adjacent to the three northbound lanes. Locals have taken to calling the latter the "death lane." Pedestrians crossing Charles from the Hopkins side, having traversed the median, often assume the next lane is northbound like its immediate neighbors, and consequently look only one way before proceeding. This dangerous mistake has led to a number of accidents and at least one fatality, a jogger struck by a motorist in 1999.

At the very least, Murphy says, the new Charles will have a "conventional traffic pattern, with southbound traffic on one side of the median and northbound on the other." But bringing that plan to the table has opened up several other cans of worms among those with a stake in the street's future. The road to an improved road has been marked with long, boisterous meetings (most recently on March 19) wherein Charles Village residents, businesses, and institutions and city officials lock horns over design specifics. The amount of green space, the location of bike lanes, and the shape of certain intersections are among the topics that have generated significant wrangling.

To take just one example, some in the community complain that the errant "death lane" represents wasted space. Traffic signals control access, opening the lane to autos only during the morning rush hour (though scofflaw motorists can be seen using it at other times). It's always closed to parking, leaving it virtually unused 22 hours a day.

"A lot of folks with a variety of interests are attempting to come together and develop [a street] that suits the city's needs while improving things for everybody in the area," Murphy says. "It can be difficult."

Lee Truelove, co-chairperson of the Charles Village Civic Association's Transportation Task Force, says the meetings, though often marked by "personality differences" and "head-butting," have been beneficial. The city's initial plans for Charles, she says, called for three lanes of traffic each way. The community bristled at the leafy boulevard becoming "a six-lane highway," Truelove says.

"[The city] now says we're to have three lanes northbound and two lanes southbound [separated by a median], giving us more trees and green space and bike lanes," she says. "It was a major concession. But there are some community people who still feel they can argue with the city. Nobody at that table is going to get everything they want, and my concern is that if they don't stop we're going to lose what we've gained and wind up back where we started."

As the interested parties continue to hash out the details, the project is moving forward, slowly. Even with more community meetings in the offing, an engineering firm has been hired to complete blueprints for the new street by summer. A project price tag of $11 million to $12 million was tossed around at the March 19 meeting, though Murphy says he believes that's inflated. (His closest estimate at this point is "several million.") Assuming those who keep the city's tattered purse strings OK the project, construction is unlikely to begin until summer 2002 at the earliest.

For all that remains uncertain about the project, one thing is clear: City folks are taking a greater interest in the streets where they live--what their form and function should be in the new millennium (Mobtown Beat, Feb. 28).

"The more we get into roadway projects, the more we find lots and lots of groups who like to have a say in design." Murphy says.

This strikes Truelove as a good thing--so long as folks are reasonable and think outside their single block.

"It's not just Charles Street, it's the whole issue of cars and transportation," she says. "People really want to make cities more livable."

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