If Investing: Move Baltimore's Downtown Prison
Baltimore’s downtown prison complex is a physical barrier between the City Center and impoverished neighborhoods desperate for investment. Could moving the prison help heal the city?
Sprawling over 27 acres, the forbidding penal facility consumes a vast amount of acreage on potentially lucrative real estate. Surface parking, blight, bail bonds, and strip are the jail’s pitiful neighbors. It does not have to be this way forever.
Many cities have sensibly relocated their prisons away from their economic centers. Baltimore has yet to do so, but may have that opportunity. Taking steps to move the penal complex from downtown was a pie in the sky idea until the state began publicly planning to sink over a half a billion dollars into demolishing and rebuilding the jail in place. Alternative locations exist nearby.
City Marketing 101 says don’t put your prison complex as the welcome mat to your downtown or your top research hospital. By doing so, Baltimore sends the thousands coming to visit, to work, or to invest a grim reminder that Baltimore houses lots of dangerous people.
There are many questions. What could the land yield over time if the prison facility was not there to repel more promising development? What new synergies could exist between downtown and the number 1 hospital in the nation?(2013) How much new development could take place? What is the potential for new tax revenues? How many jobs could be created in addition to retaining existing prison jobs in a different location? Could a different future jump start Jones Town and the long stalled Old Town Mall redevelopment? Could the Mt. Vernon neighborhood expand east? Could a badly needed park to serve downtown residents be created? Could a portion of new tax receipts from future development support jobs for youth?
We should be cautious about building costly new prisons. America must find a way to reduce its world leading incarceration rates, while preventing violent crime. Locally, Baltimore’s recent prison issues are certainly as much about management as with the aging physical facility. Improved training and wages for prison guards and personnel would be astronomically cheaper than constructing new facilities. However, at some point, new facilities are going to be built. As these dollars are allocated, good money should not be spent on a misplaced location.
The current jail location may be convenient for visitors and employees. Furthermore, criminal courts are nearby. By this narrow prism, the jail is well located. By considering the land’s far greater potential, relocating prison facilities to Jessup and or abandoned industrial zones are better options.
Relocating large prison facilities from downtown is not only unprecedented, it is common. Atlantic seaboard neighbors; New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston have all done so. New York City’s main prison is an island in the East River. In the Midwest, Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard is now leading a plan to relocate its jail out of downtown. Noted urbanist Aaron Wrenn explains the benefit of moving the Indianapolis jail in his article “My Plan to win the war for Indianapolis Government Buildings.” The argument for Baltimore is similar.
Maryland is projected to add a million people by 2040. Baltimore needs to position itself to capture a portion of this growth. Adding dozens of acres available for development adjacent to the city’s most prominent employers, as well as I-83 and the subway, is a promising opportunity.
Top City and State decision makers don’t need to follow the narrow agenda of bureaucrats at the State Department of Corrections. There are innovative ways to reduce incarceration, provide opportunity, and remove barriers to Baltimore’s economic potential. Rebuilding a prison campus in place should not be a rubber stamp. If other cities understand this, Baltimore should too!
Jeff La Noue is the chief writer for the urbanist blog Comeback City. Jeff has an undergraduate degree in Economics from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and a Masters in Community Planning from the University of Maryland-College Park. Jeff’s urban insights come from research, reviewing best practices, and on-the-ground observation. Jeff lives in Baltimore’s Jones Falls Valley. La Noue ...