The Jones Falls Expressway. Photo by Christopher Busta-Peck.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon set aside money to study tearing down the southern end of the Jones Falls Expressway. She sees tearing down the freeway as offering potential to stimulate development and property values to the east and northeast of downtown Baltimore. Currently, the elevated highway separates downtown from the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus and other neighborhoods.

As we’ve discussed many times, highways in center cities simultaneously damage the city while benefiting and inducing the creation of car-dependent outlying areas. The city loses valuable taxable real estate, and sees increased car traffic. With the highway, the city loses its locational advantage over more remote locations. City residents perceive they can have the same commute while living farther away due to the existence of the highway. Most appallingly, the highway acts as a pedestrian barrier on the city street grid. Places that were once two blocks away and a convenient walk become either inaccessible or on the other side of a shady, noisy, uninviting structure. A fundamental attraction of urban life, convenience, is sacrificed at the expense of convenience for motorists from remote locations.

Even before it opened, the expressway’s southern leg drew criticism for creating a barrier between downtown and the less densely developed land to the east.

The elevated highway “is very disturbing from the viewpoint of architectural design and the impact it will have as a visual and physical barrier through the center of the city,” a local architects’ group said in 1962.

Baltimore is fortunate to be in the unique position in Maryland of being in control of all of its roads. That includes all roads that are U.S. highways, state highways, and interstates except for I-95, I-395, and I-895. The District of Columbia exercises similar control over its roads since it’s not a part of any state. The parallels between Baltimore and DC don’t end there:

In Baltimore, planners say, once the elevated portion of the expressway is removed, Guilford Avenue could be upgraded to handle much of the southbound traffic from the expressway and the Fallsway could be upgraded to accommodate northbound traffic feeding into the expressway, with a green space in between. That strategy was outlined in a privately funded study completed several years ago.

Vacant land just east of the Fallsway, which once served as a rail yard and is now occupied by parking lots and low-rise structures, could be redeveloped to contain a mix of uses, in much the same way that the Harbor East rail yards and lumber yards were redeveloped, planners say. …

“Why would the city spend X number of dollars to perpetuate a condition that continues a separation between downtown and Hopkins, when it can pursue an alternate strategy that creates a connection between downtown and Hopkins and be cheaper to maintain in the long run? That’s been our premise all along.”

The Jones Falls Expressway resembles DC’s Southeast Freeway. Before the ballpark was built, the road overshadowed the nearby area to the south. It was largely forgotten about by the region, despite its excellent central location and its Metro station. One of the major arguments in favor of building the new ballpark was to encourage economic development on that side of the highway. Whenever a barrier is built through an existing human settlement, it usually creates a right side of the tracks and a wrong side. Just like the Johns Hopkins Medical Center and all those surface parking lots in Baltimore, the Navy Yard side of the Southeast Freeway became the “wrong side.”

Currently, development around the ballpark and the Navy Yard has stalled. This is mostly due to the global financial crisis. However, even before the crisis struck, the development around the ballpark was largely mega-projects rather than a variety of different-sized projects. Even with a major attraction like Nats Park and a Metro station, a project on the “wrong side” is still inherently risky. Removing the elevated highway would remove the barrier, and any “right/wrong side.” Much of the excess demand for housing in Capitol Hill would spill over into the area surrounding the Navy Yard and Nats Park. Currently, it is constrained by the existence of the physical and psychological boundary of the elevated highway.

While removing the Southeast Freeway won’t immediately spur new development south of Virginia Avenue SE due to the ongoing financial crisis, it would set up a long-term template for a more vibrant, attractive, and economically sustainable city. Our neighbors to the north aren’t lucky like we are to have a system like Metro. However, they are struggling with many similar scars from the 20th century. The southern end of the Jones Falls Expressway and the Southeast Freeway are very similar. The District of Columbia would be wise to take a similar course to Baltimore.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.