A concept drawing of a pathway on East 33rd Street in Baltimore.

Baltimore City is revisiting a plan to add a new cycling and pedestrian trail along North Baltimore’s arterial East 33rd Street in hopes of better connecting neighborhoods, colleges and Lake Montebello, and building a key spur of a larger envisioned citywide trail network.

Planners, advocates and city officials say options include building a new trail down the 40-foot-wide median, adding a cycle track on 33rd Street itself in place of existing street parking or a “hybrid approach” of the two that could involve expanding curbside parking lanes or the median itself. The community engagement process is paramount as the city revives a 2017 conversation that dissolved amid outcry from some neighbors who vigorously opposed the idea, particularly with worries about the mature trees lining the boulevard.

“Our options are open at this point,” said Matthew Hendrickson, a lead bike planner on the project for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation. “There are a lot of different types of concerns that we have to include in order to take this project forward.”

The city’s broader goals are to create a safe, well-used trail that makes the best use of the historic, picturesque median designed by the Olmsted Brothers (named a local landmark, along with the Gwynns Falls Parkway median, in 2015) and improves traffic and pedestrian safety at intersections. The public debate over a 33rd Street trail is resuming amid ongoing city efforts to create more complete streets and ameliorate the ills of generations of car-centric planning for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike.

“The former thinking about getting cars the fastest way from A to B is no longer where we are going, which I think is a good thing,” said Councilwoman Odette Ramos, whose district includes 33rd Street and adjacent neighborhoods like Abell, Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and Waverly. “Some members of the public are not there, although most people that I talk to in my district are. We want to be able to do it right, where people feel like they have input.”

The push to make 33rd Street more accessible is one piece of a broader planning effort for a 35-mile trail network to serve as a greenway for Baltimore and link some 75 neighborhoods with parks and other green spaces. The Baltimore Greenway Trails Network, a $28 million vision designed by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, would connect various sections of Baltimore with new routes of multimodal paths. The 1.4-mile stretch of 33rd Street is part of the six-mile Northern Segment, which would also include routes connecting Druid Hill Park to Charles Street, and Leakin Park to Druid Hill Park along Gwynns Falls Parkway.

Five years after the public conversation fizzled, the city and the Greenway Trails Coalition are reviving it with three virtual community meetings this week (March 2 will focus on 33rd Street, specifically). There’s some urgency to decide on a design; the city has received a $360,000 Maryland Bikeways grant from the state to cover about a third of design costs for the northern segment — which can then leverage additional investment — and must spend the funds by the end of 2023.

Significant Economic Benefits

Ethan Abbott, Rails-to-Trails’ project manager of the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network, emphasized the “myriad of different ways” communities can benefit from a robust trail network. A 2020 economic analysis report, prepared by Ernst and Young, determined it could generate up to $48 million in gross economic output from construction alone, boost values of residential property within a quarter mile of the greenway by 4% to 7%, and lead to tens of millions more in retail spending at businesses nearby.

And then there are the social and environmental benefits: reduced car trips (and carbon emissions), increased biking and walking activity, and improved connectivity for city neighborhoods lacking in their own amenities and green space.

Public and elected officials, including Mayor Brandon Scott, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, have enthusiastically endorsed the greenway plan.

Not everyone is sold on this pitch, however. At the neighborhood level, the plan has inflamed tensions between some community members and cyclists in particular, part of a continuing series of battles over new cycling infrastructure — sometimes referred to as “bikelash” — in Baltimore.

Joe Stewart, who has lived in Waverly since 1979 and helped with the effort to secure historic landmark status for the median, chalked up the envisioned path as a “vanity trail” for cyclists: “It’s for people that ride bikes and want to put a notch on their belt that they’ve run around the city on a bike.”

Stewart said he was angry to learn of the proposal back in 2017, and he doesn’t understand why it’s resurfacing. Among his and others’ concerns are damage to the century-old trees, increased litter from an influx of trail users, interference with historic signage, particularly in Waverly, and reduced “passive green space” for neighbors.

“Green space does not have to be developed for active use,” he said. “It’s OK for a lot of people to just have green space you can look at, or that doesn’t get heavily used.”

And then there’s the matter of historic integrity; he’s among a camp who say installing a paved trail would permanently mar an iconic open space designed by the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm in their transformative 1904 parks plan for Baltimore City.

But the greenway’s supporters — as well as some history authorities — have argued building it would actually fully realize the Olmsted Brothers’ vision. In its aforementioned 2015 landmark report, Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation included a hand-drawn sketch from P.R. Jones, a landscape architect who worked for Olmsted Brothers at the turn of the century, with a design for a 12-foot-wide trail within a 40-foot median on 33rd.

Historical drawings of East 33rd Street show the Olmsted Brothers envisioned access to the median greenway.

“Today, roads are designed and used almost exclusively for vehicular traffic,” the historic commission report notes. “However, this was not the case when the Olmsted Plan was developed, and the Olmsteds designed these parkways to serve cars, bicycles, and pedestrians in a multi-modal scheme.”

The nonprofit Friends of Maryland’s Olmsted Parks & Landscapes, which advocates for creating accessible parks and sustainable landscapes in the Olmstedian tradition, in 2017 endorsed studying the potential for a bike path along 33rd, calling it “an opportunity to complete the recommendations made in the 1904 Plan to connect the various parks and communities throughout the City.”

Concerns about trees

Concerns about the trees — particularly their roots — figured heavily into public opposition in 2017, and Hendrick said planners “will certainly be mindful” of them as the conversation resumes. For each meeting this week, the city plans to bring in experts from the Department of Recreation and Parks’ Forestry Division and the nonprofit Baltimore Tree Trust.

Ramos said the trees’ health is “absolutely part of the conversation.” It’s even more important to her, however, that the conversation refocuses from being a battle between cyclists and neighbors to a collective effort to stem collisions and make 33rd Street safer for everyone.

She’s thinking of the City College and Mervo high school students who have to cross chaotic intersections and speeding traffic when they get out of school. A runner, Ramos said she herself opts for alternate routes for her own safety when she runs from Charles Village to Lake Montebello.

“Give me traffic calming,” she said. “I’m in favor of trying to do this in a way that we’re actually calming traffic, making sure that people aren’t speeding and that we’re making intersections safer for everyone.”

There’s room for the city to improve on its public feedback process from 2017. When officials shared the plan with community members, some neighbors felt like it was already considered a done deal. “They presented it like it was a fait accompli,” Stewart said.

Heading into this week’s public feedback sessions, Hendrickson and Abbott said the design remains “up for debate,” and they hope the process will feel more accessible and open than five years ago.

Abbott said the tension “really speaks to the need for, with any type of infrastructure like this, the most robust community engagement possible to make sure that all voices — or as many as possible — are actually aware of what’s going on.”

The current view of the East 33rd Street median, showing trees. Photo by Ethan McLeod.
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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...

6 replies on “A bike plan revived: Adding a path to the Olmsted-designed 33rd Street greenspace”

  1. This project is ironic in that parks to parks is taking out a well used neighborhood park. It’s not fair to the adjacent communities. Will it be dangerous for bicyclists to hop to the median in the middle of an intersection? Who is paying for this?

  2. Does one hop off their bike and walk it across the street at each intersection ? Can’t just ride straight through as there are lights, turning lanes for cars queuing and the like at cross streets , right ?

  3. This is not a well used park; it is just a median at the moment. I like the idea of bringing more use and appreciation to it.

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