February 3, 2016

Metro West speculation on the "Highway to Nowhere"

It's gratifying that the federal government was able to attract bids from reputable developers to buy its vacant former Social Security Administration Metro West complex at the west downtown end of the "Highway to Nowhere".

But it's obvious that the bids, which topped out at $7.1 million, are based purely on speculative value. With 1.1 million square feet of office space, that comes out to less than $6.50 per square foot. (Note: That's equivalent to $13,000 to buy a 2000 square foot  house - you could spend that much just for new floors.) And with about 12 acres over roughly 6 square blocks, there's enough land for much more development than that.

The top offer from Caves Valley Partners is based instead on their anticipation of how much concession of development incentives, tax breaks and infrastructure they might be able to cajole out of the public sector to make any redevelopment happen.

Seldom scene - The view from the westbound "Highway to Nowhere"  looking back eastward
 at the huge Metro West complex, which the eastbound highway splits in two.
This view is dominated by part of the site's vast open space which is landlocked in the middle of the highway. 

Also part of this speculation is how the city's real estate climate will be affected by all the developer deals the city has been making elsewhere, with Kevin Plank in Port Covington and Westport, plus Harbor East, Harbor Point, Canton Crossing, Old Town, State Center, La Cite in Poppleton, and the list goes on...

The city has been giving top dollar subsidies to the very best waterfront development sites, so that makes all the less desirable sites all that much more less attractive and valuable. At Harbor Point, the city even gave big subsides to Exelon Corporation to locate there, when they already had to locate in the city by law. And this was after the city's politically powerful Downtown Partnership had already opposed the deal.

It's about as opaque and lumpy an economic "playing field" as one could imagine, with political acumen counting for much more than development acumen.

So it's not real value. Baltimore's real estate market is too dysfunctional for that. The recently concluded "auction" is actually the second attempt for the property, the first one ending with no winning bid.

This auction should also conclude with no winner. Instead, the city or state government should move in and acquire the land in accordance with federal procedures, so that the public sector can decide what investment is in the public's best interests, since the tax breaks and infrastructure will no doubt be financed with public money anyway.

At that point, a true developer solicitation can take place, based on real value, not speculative value.

But the public sector must decide what that real value can be. The nearby impoverished West Baltimore neighborhoods urgently need real help and a real connection to the economic energy of downtown. The issues are too large to leave it to a developer to set the agenda.

Inaction so far


The adjacent University of Maryland has rejected the site, instead proceeding with their ambitious building program elsewhere within their campus and neighborhoods.

The city and state have spent the past fifteen years analyzing the area with regard to the now-rejected $3 Billion Red Line light rail project. Their final plan failed to serve this site or the rest of the university campus. For various defunct reasons, the alignment and stations were located elsewhere.

Also, as part of that long process, the city steadfastly maintained that the "Highway to Nowhere" should stay. This highway splits the site, going right through a hole in the buildings. The city maintained this stance despite the fact that the state closed the highway for months to do prep work for the Red Line by demolishing a huge retaining wall at the west end of the highway, with minimal adverse impact on traffic patterns.

Metro West in the background from the vast landlocked wasteland inside the "Highway to Nowhere",
as seen from near where Fremont Avenue once was. 

The $3 Billion Red Line is now dead, so that a smaller and more viable Red Line plan can now be developed in its place, with more focus on supporting true transit-oriented development. As part of this plan, one or more stations can now be placed adjacent to or even inside the Metro West property.

The state's huge State Center government office redevelopment program, also over a decade old, is also in limbo. It may be seen that Metro West is a better location for some of this office space than State Center.

Planning questions to be answered


The Metro West site has terrific development potential, but it is far too hazy at this point. The property should be secured by the public sector, then the important planning decisions should be made:

Get rid of the "Highway to Nowhere"?

Build a viable downsized Red Line?

Develop a linear park in the Martin Luther King Boulevard corridor?

Create a traffic conflict-free development and greenway plan inside the highway to Nowhere ditch?

Rehabilitate Upton, Lafayette Square and Harlem Park?

Expand the Heritage Crossing neighborhood?

Create an actually viable State Center plan?

Create an actually viable Lexington Market/Howard Street area plan?

More ideas?

January 20, 2016

Unify city and Port Covington: Put a fork in Hanover St.

Sagamore Development Company's giant 13 million square foot plan calls for changing almost everything in Port Covington. But some things are more changeable than others. And since change is expensive, the plan should be selective in what is changed - to invest its precious Tax Increment Financing and other infrastructure dollars wisely.

Hanover Street is the key to integrating Port Covington and old South Baltimore. Simply making Hanover Street work should enable the whole street plan to work.

Hanover Street looking south from old South Baltimore toward the I-95 overpass.
The houses have been nicely rehabbed with a brand new median strip to soften the traffic impact.
This is the primary gateway to Port Covington from the urban grid, but should not bear the brunt of thru traffic.

The Sagamore plan is to be commended for going to great lengths to try to enhance the linkage between South Baltimore and Port Covington. It does this by proposing to eliminate the I-95 exit ramp to Hanover, by extending Light Street southward over the railroad tracks and under I-95, and even by lowering Hanover Street itself to make it part of the new development.

But all of these things would be very difficult and expensive to do, and would probably have major extraneous effects which have not yet been revealed or discussed.

While there is no doubt that a 13 million square foot development is a very large omelet that will require breaking some big eggs, some eggs may be too tough to crack. Hanover Street is the egg that can be cracked with a fork. A fork in the road, that is.

Gigantic Port Covington will need all the access it can get from Interstate 95, and the nation's biggest highway may be the one piece of infrastructure that can't be tampered with to suit Sagamore. And in any event, the current ramp system actually works well, providing all the necessary connections in three directions - both north and south, to and from I-95, and also to and from downtown on I-395.

In fact, it's not the ramp system's connections to and from the Interstate highways that are the problem. It's the opposite ends of these ramp connections into Port Covington that are problematic. Which is actually fortunate, because Sagamore and the city have a lot more control over what happens in Port Covington than on I-95.

Moreover, the goals are not mutually exclusive: If the best possible access is provided at the least cost and disruption, Port Covington can be made a relatively seamless part of the city as a whole.

Hanover Street has already been bent around Otterbein


The small but elegant Otterbein neighborhood is at the opposite north end of the South Baltimore peninsula from Port Covington, and achieved comparable objectives when Hanover Street's traffic pattern was realigned there in the late 1970s.

The Otterbein neighborhood had been condemned and slated for destruction to build Interstate 395 into downtown. But a revised plan saved it, which led to it becoming perhaps the premiere rowhouse neighborhood in all of Baltimore. It also created a site for the convention center.

As part of its renewal, Hanover Street was closed through Otterbein, and it's traffic bent around it in a slalom to Charles and Light Street to serve downtown and the Inner Harbor. Then when I-395 and Conway Street were completed, much of the through traffic shifted away from Hanover to the expressways. That traffic reduction enabled the city to remove Hanover Street's peak period parking restrictions. It took a while for housing renewal on Hanover Street to catch up with the surrounding more local streets, but eventually its houses were rehabbed as well.

So now Hanover Street is poised to be the primary urban grid linkage between South Baltimore and Port Covington. The only problems are that Hanover Street in Port Covington is oriented far more to the I-95 ramps and to the bridge to the south toward suburban Ritchie Highway than it is to the huge future development. This results in a hostile anti-urban environment on Hanover Street, accentuated by its huge and complex intersections with McComas Street and Cromwell Boulevard, along with the ramp and "jughandle" traffic merging and diverging into the flow.

All roads lead to Port Covington


Hanover Street's problems are local, so the solution should be local.

Cromwell Boulevard, built as the spine road for the first wave of Port Covington development in the 1980s (which ended up only being the Sun printing plant), is actually much better suited to handle the through traffic than Hanover Street.

In fact, Cromwell is not very well suited to be an urban street of the type Sagamore is trying to cultivate in its plan. Instead, it serves as more of an edge, adjacent to the Locke Insulator plant and the Gould Street power station, and as an access road for the development in between which will be oriented to the waterfront.

The Sagamore plan gets rid of the eastern portion of Cromwell toward McComas Street and I-95, but this seems wasteful and unnecessary. 

Instead, Cromwell Boulevard should essentially replace Hanover Street as the through traffic spine between the Hanover Street Bridge and northward to I-95, Key Highway, the port and downtown.

A better street plan: Get rid of Hanover Street between McComas and Cromwell.
Connect Cromwell (orange) directly from the Hanover Street Bridge (at bottom) to I-95 ramps (at right).
Create a street grid connecting northward to Hanover Street and its I-95 on-ramp (top yellow) and its I-95 off-ramp (blue).

Here's the key: The intersection of Cromwell and Hanover should be modified so that Cromwell connects directly to the Hanover Street bridge to the south. In turn, the intersection of Cromwell and McComas Street should be modified to facilitate access to I-95. This was the original concept back in the 1980s, but it was deemed too expensive to modify McComas Street underneath I-95 to make the ramp connections work.

But the much larger Sagamore development plan raises the ante, and proposes far more expensive changes than any of this.

Making the intersection of Cromwell / McComas / I-95 work this way would divert through traffic away from the intersection of Hanover / McComas / I-95, and allow that critical area to be oriented almost entirely to local and I-95 traffic only, and thus to integrating Hanover Street between Port Covington and old South Baltimore.

The Sagamore plan attempts to soften that intersection by getting rid of the I-95 off-ramp and lowering Hanover Street, which would have far more widespread impacts and be far more expensive. Instead, Hanover Street could be modified as follows:

1 - Orient the I-95 ramps directly into new Port Covington streets. Since the ramps link to Hanover on diagonals, these streets could be oriented to similar angles: The I-95 off-ramp merges with Hanover at angle which points to the southeast, so it could be oriented to a new street at a similar southeast angle proceeding in a straight shot into Port Covington. 

2 - Similarly, the on-ramp onto I-95 from Hanover is oriented from the southwest, so a new street could be similarly oriented from this point to the southwest.

3 - The angles between these two streets could be used to define an entire street grid for the new development.

4 - McComas Street to the east of Hanover would become an unnecessary complication to this street grid and could be eliminated, or localized to better serve the proposed athletic facilities in the catacombs under I-95. Eliminating McComas would be particularly beneficial at Cromwell because it would eliminate the weave from the I-95 off-ramp onto Cromwell, which is currently not allowed.

5 - Similarly, existing Hanover Street to the south toward Cromwell Boulevard and the bridge over Middle Branch would also be an unnecessary complication and could be eliminated. The Sagamore plan to "lower" the street is tantamount to eliminating it anyway, so this plan would be a simpler, cleaner and more direct way to accomplish the same thing.

Enlargement of Hanover/I-95/McComas area: Hanover Street south of McComas and the I-95 on-ramp would
 be eliminated, and replaced by a fork into the Port Covington street grid to the southeast and southwest (in yellow).
The I-95 off-ramp (in blue) would have similar connections to the grid to the south.
In sum the entire new street grid of Port Covington would be oriented to Hanover Street to the north, and to its I-95 ramps, but with a minimum of through traffic to add undesired congestion and complexity to the traffic pattern. This would complete the transformation of Hanover Street in South Baltimore which was started by Otterbein in the 1980s, away from being a through traffic street and toward being a locally oriented urban street.

As Yogi Berra said: When you reach a fork in the road, take it!


The concept is simple. Hanover Street is an integral part of South Baltimore. At the south end of its urban grid near I-95, there should be a fork in the road to direct you toward the heart of either the east or west sides of Port Covington. 

But all of this is conceptual and schematic, and should be tailored to specific conditions and needs. The Port Covington plan would generate a huge number of trips which would need to be accommodated. The plan's development densities should be tailored to the capacity of the system to serve each specific site.

The optimum alignment of the light rail branch should also be given special attention, particularly maintaining the current Hanover Street rail underpass to keep the transit line away from traffic conflicts. There is also room for roadway and pedestrian underpasses if these would also be beneficial and reducing conflicts.

Issues relating to rehabilitating or replacing the Hanover Street Bridge over Middle Branch may also become important, but these may also present additional opportunities, both in the long term and in the interim when traffic must be diverted elsewhere anyway.

Now that Wal-Mart has been shut down, short term considerations should not be a major constraint on what can be done.

Port Covington's potential is virtually unlimited, but the traffic capacity and infrastructure budgets are not. Let's make it count.

January 14, 2016

Port Covington could be even bigger than it's hype

2016 has just started and Port Covington is already this year's "once-in-a-generation opportunity" for the city. But rather than the Red Line, Harbor Point, Harbor East, Westport, Inner Harbor 2.0, and all the various "last waterfront development" sites, this time maybe it really is.

And the basic reason is that Port Covington really consists of numerous important pieces of a very large ongoing puzzle, rather than a single ultimate "be-all and end-all" of urban development.

From the window of a light rail train - the empty Westport waterfront in the foreground,
Port Covington in the left background, linking by the Hanover Street bridge to Cherry Hill to the right

Most obviously: Kevin Plank's Under Armour is the kind of young growth company that every city bends over backwards to try to attract. The competition among cities is intense. Compare that to Exelon, which was already committed by law to locate in Baltimore even as they were showered with unnecessary tax breaks to ensure they'd go to Harbor Point anyway.

Just as importantly: Port Covington is gigantic, much bigger than Harbor Point, even including all its peripherals. The plan is for 13 million square feet of development, and the density isn't even that high.

More importantly: Port Covington is far larger than Under Armour could ever be, and would consist of far more development than just Under Armour.

Most important of all: Sagamore, Under Armour's development arm, has bought up the Westport waterfront site across the Middle Branch, making it larger still. Westport is the poster child for the "real Baltimore", a struggling neighborhood which has had to deal with the grandiose unfulfilled development promises of its adjacent empty waterfront.

Indeed, while Port Covington is part of south Baltimore, it is much more a part of the west than the east side of the city. That's not just Westport, but also Cherry Hill, Pigtown and all of West Baltimore.

The Port Covington project thus has a physical linkage from the glamorous waterfront to the areas of Baltimore that need help the most, and upon which the goal of saving the city must really be predicated - making the "Two Baltimores" into one Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Harbor Point's Michael Beatty had the audacity to demand that the city issue its entire Tax Increment Financing package to build all its lavish infrastructure and parks on a breakneck schedule, and the city complied. Of course, as the Exelon Tower nears completion in Harbor Point, the city still hasn't even begun construction of the promised Central Avenue bridge to get there from Harbor East. Ha ha.

But Port Covington is so gigantic that even Kevin Plank won't be able to get similar deference. The city should thus be able to increase its leverage to maximize the ratio of private to public investment. Even if the city doesn't play it's cards quite right (does everything ever go right?), that should be a big plus for the city.

Let's just hope for some semblance of competence and perspective....

Transit and transportation factors


In last week's presentation of the Under Armour Port Covington plan to the city, their transportation planner R. J. Eldridge said “If you’re a transportation geek, you’ll find it here.”

I guess they're talking to me with that quote, since I'm a "transportation geek". Especially since their plan includes a spur off the existing central light rail line from Westport to Port Covington, a concept which I was the first to raise here.

But a whole lot more people will need to "find it here" than just us transit and transportation geeks. This plan is so huge that it needs to be built around transit by necessity. There is no way automobiles can supply anywhere near the total of the access requirements, since the plan calls for an astounding 13 million square feet of development. That's enough that it could complete the gutting of downtown Baltimore that has already been started by Harbor East and Harbor Point on the east side.

covington park view sagamore development
Sagamore Development Company's proposed Port Covington plan
On the highway side, the plan includes a total reconfiguration of the northbound off-ramps from Interstate 95 to both Hanover and McComas Streets, which would be a sufficiently complex endeavor to make the light rail spur look like child's play. The murky graphics presented so far are not able to convey what this entails, but the motivation appears NOT to be to provide greater access from the ramps.

The plan's main motivation for moving the ramps appears to be to create a stronger classic urban style street grid extending southward from existing South Baltimore. They also would like to lower Hanover Street down to meet this new grid, which would be another daunting project.

The desired outcome appears to be more of a transit-orientation for the development, but not necessarily better access, either from a better or higher quality transit or street system. We shall see.

Reasons to believe


Here are some reasons for hope:

1 - Hopefully, Sagamore's embrace of transit is real and not just hype. In contrast, after an entire decade of Red Line planning which twisted the plan into a dead-end $3 billion boondoggle, Harbor East developer John Paterakis decided to pull out the rug, forcing the line to be further contorted to push the Harbor East station further from his future development as well as Harbor Point. Paterakis and his Harbor Point colleague Michael Beatty simply and rationally didn't believe in the Red Line. We should and must do better in Port Covington.

2 - The Central Light Rail Line has already existed since the early 1990s, and is easily poised for a simple branch to serve Port Covington. Yes, people rightly criticize the existing central line's flaws, but compared to the Red Line as was proposed, it's actually a very good rail line. It has close to twice the capacity per train, it has potentially very good connectivity to the Metro, to the bus system and a large part of future city growth, and the south half of the line from downtown to the airport and Westport/Port Covington is actually relatively fast and conflict-free.

3 - Under Armour clearly wants a non-auto dependent plan. Since it is clearly oriented to a classic urban street grid and is tied into the rest of South Baltimore under Interstate 95, it's not a suburban-style fortress. It is a contradiction that isolated peninsulas like this and Harbor Point are considered the most desirable development sites, but that's just another challenge we have to deal with.

Balanced investment strategies


The overall key to the project is phasing the public infrastructure in a way that maximizes benefit to the city as a whole. This can be done because unlike Harbor East/Harbor Point, Port Covington can actually be part of a wide-ranging development strategy which encompasses large parts of the city which desperately need it. Here are the steps:

1 - It starts with Westport, a part of old Baltimore right across the Middle Branch from Port Covington which has hit hard times since speculators swooped in to buy old houses, then sit and wait for the long overdue big development. Westport is already served by the light rail line and since Under Armour has also bought up its big waterfront property, they could quickly pick up where bankrupt developer Patrick Turner left off.

2 - It then proceeds northward on the light rail line to the downtrodden Howard Street corridor, which would be the key downtown linkage to the Under Armour empire. This west side area has been hit hard by the eastward drift of downtown toward the waterfront of Harbor East, Harbor Point, Fells Point and Canton. Port Covington helps return Howard/Lexington to its rightful historic place at the center of the city.

A new Port Covington Red Line - which shares the existing Central Light Rail (Blue Line) tracks between
 a Downtown Lexington Market Metro (Green Line) Hub and Westport, where it branches off to Port Covington 
3 - This in turn is highly complimentary to building a far less expensive and more cost-effective west-only Red Line. Such a Red Line could either terminate at a comprehensive transit hub including the Lexington Market Metro Station and the existing light rail line, or actually be physically linked to the Howard Street light rail line. If the latter, the Port Covington branch could actually become the east portion of the Red Line, replacing what had been proposed. The west side Red Line would be built as previous planned, then proceed into downtown and Howard/Lexington, south on the existing line to Camden Yards and Westport, then east to Port Covington.

The alternative concept of physically terminating the west Red Line inside the Lexington Market Metro Station should still be considered, and may be the better option. In this case, the Port Covington light rail branch would mostly likely proceed north on Howard Street to Penn Station. (Of course, the areas intended to be served by the defunct east Red Line also still need attention. The east waterfront needs more effective bus service and perhaps streetcars, and the Metro should be extended eastward from Hopkins Hospital, toward Hopkins Bayview.)

4 - A west Red Line has its own important development opportunities. It would directly serve the million-plus square foot Metro West complex abandoned by the federal government, which needs to step up and ensure its redevelopment. A west-only Red Line would also serve the University of Maryland downtown campus, which was supposed to get two Red Line stations which both had to be scuttled due to the cost and engineering difficulties of the tunnel. And new emphasis should now be given to getting rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" and replacing it with genuine transit oriented development and integration with the rest of West Baltimore

Compared to Harbor East/Harbor Point


Port Covington is far more crucial to the city's future than Harbor East and Harbor Point.

Harbor East and Harbor Point plans created controversies that pitted them against "The Other Baltimore". The powers-that-be tried to defend the huge tax break deals for these projects by saying that they only involved money which the city would never see unless they were developed.

That didn't wash. If the city gives the greatest tax breaks to the most desirable developments, it creates severe disadvantages for every other lesser potential project down the pecking order.

Then the only advantage is spin-off development. With prime development properties located out on isolated peninsulas, the spin-offs of Harbor East and Harbor Point are relatively slim or even negative, because it takes away from downtown. The downtown powers-that-be even argued that Exelon should have been relocated in downtown or kept at their current location, the Inner Harbor Candler Building, until they realized it was a losing battle.

So in sum, the first key to Port Covington is to really use the tax breaks in a well-controlled and phased manner to induce maximum private investment.

And secondly, maximize spin-off development opportunities.

If this is done, Port Covington could be even bigger than its hype.

December 14, 2015

Uplands update: Blending in but standing out

West Baltimore's massive new quarter-billion dollar Uplands neighborhood just south of Edmondson Village has been in development for well over a decade now, so an initial verdict and midcourse critique for correction can now be rendered.

Uplands is still the best hope for the outer US 40 corridor. The Red Line's transit promises couldn't drive growth. If anything, new growth must drive the Red Line.

The Uplands community looks great for what it is. The design is very attractive. It's too bad they mowed down all the great old trees, despite giving lip service to saving them, but that's what big-time developers do, right? They bulldoze trees...

And it's too bad the housing bubble came along just when the city actually started thinking it had some semblance of a healthy real estate market. Now the city is pretty much back to its "old normal" economy - featuring wishful hype for its own sake.

This kind of large-scale development has never lived up to its hype in Baltimore. Cold Spring New Town is probably the worst example, with the worst hype-to-success ratio over the past fifty years. Uplands has at least done much better than that. But it can do better.

The verdict: Uplands has been underwhelming, both in helping grow the city and in stabilizing its surrounding communities.

Design is only a means to an end. The best example of that is Heritage Crossing, which has truly superior design but has done virtually nothing to help the surrounding communities of Upton, Lafayette Square and the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. At least Uplands avoids making the same mistakes again.

Old Frederick Road looking east toward Athol -.new Uplands on the left (north) and old Uplands on the right (south).

How to blend in


Uplands has avoided Heritage Crossing's most obvious mistake - it blends in well with the remaining neighborhood just to the south of Old Frederick Road (see photo above). By comparison, Heritage Crossing is like an island.

But Uplands seems to be the other extreme. It blends in too well. When the original Uplands was developed around the 1940s/50s, along with Yale Heights to the south of Frederick Avenue, it represented growth of the old turn-of-the-19th-century "streetcar suburb" of Irvington. In the long run, it didn't help much there either. The city does not need new Uplands to be a mere repeat of old Uplands and Yale Heights, with trendier 21st century postmodern architecture.

Old Irvington is potentially extremely attractive, but it needs a lot of help that it's not getting. In a way, it's physically an older version of the most attractive neighborhoods north of Uplands in the Edmondson Avenue corridor - Rognel Heights, Hunting Ridge and Ten Hills. They need help too.

The Edmondson Village shopping center, once home of two anchor department stores, is not aging well, and is bringing these adjacent neighborhoods down. The newer Giant Food supermarket has helped as much as could be expected, but not enough.

Uplands' slogan is "urban convenience, suburban charm". We can all judge the convenience and charm for ourselves. But why not the other way around? Given our hype resistance, it implies that being in the city isn't charming. New Uplands needs something better.

Beautiful Nottingham Road in Ten Hills, just west of Uplands Parkway. Looking closely, a small glimpse of the new Uplands development can be seen among the trees between the first two houses.

The "Wow Factor"


Blending in is important, but to be a catalyst for growth which captures potential buyers' imagination, new development in Baltimore needs a strong "Wow Factor". To some extent, these are contradictory. If it blends in, it doesn't stand out. In order for Uplands to do both, it requires an orientation that can raise both the old and the new to a higher level.

Uplands can indeed do both. The key is to orient the next phase of the new Uplands to Uplands Parkway, the adjacent beautiful wooded two-lane parkway to the west, and thus also orient it to Ten Hills just beyond (see above photo) which is one of the most gorgeous neighborhoods in all of Baltimore.

Ten Hills is like the land that time forgot. That may be good when when sees how time has ravaged much of the city, but all neighborhoods, like people, are forced to go through life cycles and must do so in a healthy sustainable way. The bigger they come, the harder they can fall.

Ten Hills isn't even oriented to adjacent, beautiful Uplands Parkway, much less to Uplands, so there are currently two degrees of separation.

Narrow, bucolic Uplands Parkway seen from the wooded St. Bartholomew's Churchyard, with the new Uplands  neighborhood in the background and its vacant huge future-phase lot in between.

Here's how to achieve the "Wow Factor" for the entire greater community: Orient the next phase of the Uplands development to Uplands Parkway. That will symbolically unify everything into one grand vision: New Uplands, old Uplands, Ten Hills and the entire Edmondson Avenue/US 40 corridor. Symbolic unification is even better than real unification, because it can mean anything that anyone wants it to mean. All things to all people. Everyone can blend in but stand out.

There is another dimension to the Uplands site's "Wow Factor": The incredible victorian mansion (photo below) vacated by New Psalmist Church when they moved out several years ago. The preservation and renovation of this treasure is a centerpiece of the Uplands master plan. However, being a centerpiece is far different from being a catalyst.

Uplands mansion left next to the rubble from New Psalmist Church which vacated the site.

Since the mansion has already been secured to prevent further deterioration, it does not need to be a priority for Uplands' next phase of development, even though it is well-suited for institutional uses, offices, elderly housing or condos. At this time, it only needs to be displayed as a visible reminder of the potential beauty of the entire Uplands community, old and new.

In fact, orienting the Uplands development's next phase to Uplands Parkway, and toward Ten Hills, will strengthen the context of the old mansion as part of the larger community. Right now, the old mansion looks out of place. It will look much less out of place when it is seen as part of a larger context which includes Uplands Parkway and Ten Hills, the houses of which were originally inspired by the mansion.

Compare the architecture in the photo of the Uplands mansion with that of the Ten Hills houses on Nottingham Road. They blend in but stand out.

Uplands mansion at the top of the hill as seen from Uplands Parkway 

What to do: Maximize the mansion


The one element to create the greatest "Wow Factor" for Uplands is an entrance view corridor from Uplands Parkway, looking upward at the mansion in the distance (as shown in the photo above). This would create a strong memorable theme to unify everything.

Since there is a small cliff near the top of the view corridor, the entrance road would probably not be able to reach the mansion at the summit. That could add to the drama, allowing the view to unfold from various other angles within the development site.

Site design is an art, as Baltimore has known from as long ago as when the Olmstead's built their famous communities in Roland Park, Northwood and Guilford. What the Olmstead's did not succeed in doing was integrating their communities with their surroundings. The most famous and notorious aspect of this was the shameful and unconstitutional way they kept blacks and Jews out using deed restrictions.

But the urban design reinforced this. Roland Park was not integrated with Hampden, which has only been rectified recently. Falls Road and the Jones Falls Expressway are still barriers. Guilford is very ungracefully walled off from Greenmount Avenue and York Road. Even the new neo-Olmsteadian Heritage Crossing is a fortress cut off from its surroundings.

The Uplands project presents a golden opportunity, with all the raw materials to do it right, to create a "Wow Factor" to elevate the entire West Baltimore corridor. Phase One has been a decent start, but more of the same in the next phase will not be good enough.

Uplands needs a strong gateway from Uplands Parkway, with a view corridor oriented to its stunning victorian mansion. And the developers can even do what they do best: Chop down the trees that block the view.

November 16, 2015

Rail "Value Menu": 25 projects for "Maximize 2040"

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council calls its latest long-term regional transportation plan, "Maximize 2040". That sounds like the old McDonald's ad: "Super Size Me !!"

But federal regulations require that the plan use real-world budgetable costs, so it must have a modicum of self-restraint.

So instead the proposed 25 year plan includes no new regional rail transit whatsoever. "Maximize 2040" has been minimized. That's pathetic.

The now-deceased MTA Red Line was like a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, forced to be available only in a combo meal bundled with the super-sized fries and giant empty-calories soft drink: $3 Billion for the Red Line, take it or leave it, with no options. No wonder it was ultimately indigestible.

So now at the other extreme, the proposed "Maximize 2040" plan deletes all new regional rail projects for the next 25 years - just MARC commuter rail improvements so Baltimore can engage vicariously with Washington DC's far more successful rail transit system.

For the last decade, the MTA has been saying that it was the Red Line or nothing, so now with "Maximize 2040" they've given us nothing. We've gone from Red Line gluttony to regional rail starvation. Binge and purge.

"Value Menu" to the rescue...

But over on the fast-food side wall is the Value Menu. Here are 25 rail projects priced "as low as" (to use typical ad parlance) around $100 Million each, if we go easy on the bigger ticket items. We could probably get away with calling this the "Dollar Menu and More", as McDonald's now does to finesse the fact that one dollar really doesn't buy much anymore. At least its still cheap compared to those overpriced Quarter Pounders and that malnutritious Red Line meal the MTA originally tried to cram down our throats.

As MDOT Secretary Pete Rahn said, the Red Line's fatal flaw was its downtown tunnel. The tunnel was not only staggeringly expensive, but it required the entire Red Line to be built at once to justify that expense, and yet it prevented any semblance of a growable system from ever being built to augment it. So it was both too much and not enough.

In contrast, this "Value Menu" consists of three basic affordable rail transit projects which form the foundation upon which an expandable system can be built, one step at a time - a starter Red Line for the west side and a minimal but effective Metro extension for the east side, at perhaps half a billion dollars apiece, and an East MARC station at the optimal location for somewhat less than $100 million. This is just enough to connect these rail lines to comprehensive transit hubs with east and west side MARC stations, which is just what Baltimore needs to call its rail transit a true system.

Then there are 22 additional projects which can affordably build upon this foundation. All of this is described in greater detail in articles throughout this blog. Listing over two dozen projects is a way to take "Maximize 2040" literally at its word.
A possible system scenario, with the west Red Line and east Metro projects listed below, integrated with some streetcar lines
So here we present...

THE BMC "MAXIMIZE 2040" PLAN - RAIL TRANSIT "VALUE MENU"


A LA CARTE ENTREES:


The following three projects are the foundation of a full rail system for Baltimore, basically following the model of the 2002 plan before the Red Line crowded the other projects out. A starter west-only segment of the Red Line can be built quickly because it leaves out the downtown tunnel and much of the engineering has already been done. The east Metro extension is the shortest, least expensive extension that allows a proper terminus hub that allows the entire Metro to function properly, replacing the defunct north extension to Morgan State. And the East MARC station is already included in the "Maximize 2040" plan, but should be moved to a location where it can serve all of east Baltimore.

1 - Red Line: Lexington Market Metro Station to West MARC Station
This does what the Red Line absolutely needs to do - connect to the far superior backbone Metro and the West Baltimore MARC Station/Transit Hub, located near the proposed rail yard, with transit oriented development opportunities throughout, and no more. Most of the engineering has already been done.

2 - Metro Extension: Hopkins Hospital to East MARC Station
The current Hopkins Hospital Station is a terrible place for a Metro terminus, and the proposed north extension under Broadway is dead. The best and easiest way to extend the line is to bring it to the surface in the Amtrak corridor, to a great terminal station location at nearby Edison Highway. This segment of slightly over a mile is the most important rail project in the entire transit system, but since the west Red Line has already been planned and designed, it should probably come first.

3 - East MARC Commuter Rail Station at Edison Highway/Monument Street
This station is included in the draft regional plan, but there's no reason anymore to put it in a landlocked site the middle of the Norfolk-Southern Bayview freight yard, especially since the plan has also eliminated the additional proposed MARC station at Broadway to serve Hopkins Hospital (which Amtrak as landlord would have never allowed anyway). The far superior place to put the station is on a far larger and non-isolated site half way in between, where it can be part of a comprehensive Metro/and bus hub. It would even make a great Amtrak station.


RED LINE WEST EXTENSIONS:


These are the west extensions of the Red Line which have already been designed, but would now make economic and functional sense to build as separate projects, if necessary, because the core segment from Lexington Market to the West MARC Station makes sense.

4 - Red Line: West MARC to Hilton Hub
A very short Red Line extension beyond the MARC station can bring it to one of the best development sites in all of West Baltimore, the obsolete Hilton/Edmondson interchange. A development there could be a Red Line terminal, parking, a community gateway to Leakin and Gwynns Falls Parks and additional multi-use space.

5 - Red Line: Hilton Hub to Edmondson Village
Edmondson Village is also an excellent place for converting the shopping center and the stalled Uplands community project into transit oriented development.

6 - Red Line: Edmondson Village to Woodlawn/CMS
This would provide the final segment of the west Red Line. Because of the Cooks Lane tunnel, it would be more expensive, but since it has no underground stations, it would not be prohibitive.


STREETCAR STARTER LINES:


Both sides of the streetcar debate are right. The anti-streetcar faction is correct that buses can do virtually everything streetcars can do at a lower cost. The pro-streetcar faction is right to say that they can stimulate development in a way that buses don't. Like BMWs and Kias, streetcars and buses can both get you from point A to B. But design matters.

The issue can be resolved by planning streetcar lines as branches of the light rail lines, rather than stand-alone lines, linking them to the transportation advantages of light rail, while capturing the conspicuous urban design advantages all rail has over buses.

Montgomery Park streetcar line looking east from new North Carroll Park development toward B&O Railroad Museum

7 - Streetcar Line: MLK Blvd. to Montgomery Park
Streetcars would branch off from the Red Line at Martin Luther King Boulevard and proceed southwest along the historic "First Mile" B&O Railroad corridor to Carroll and Montgomery Park.

8 - Streetcar Line: MLK Blvd. to Inner Harbor Pier 6
Also from MLK Boulevard, a streetcar line could replicate the Red Line's downtown surface alternative, from its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, southeastward to the Inner Harbor and Pier 6, adjacent to Harbor East.

9 - Streetcar Loop: Camden Yards > Charles Street > Penn Station
Streetcars could also be integrated with the downtown portion of the existing central light rail line, in a loop northbound on Charles Street to Penn Station, then southbound on Howard Street along the existing track (with a potential additional stop at Antique Row), then completing the loop between Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, and perhaps to Port Covington (see below).

10 - Streetcar Line: Westport to Port Covington ("Plank Line")
This would start at a new North Westport Station along the existing light rail line, just south of the casino, then proceed over the Middle Branch to Wal-Mart and Under Armour. It could also connect to the Charles Street streetcar loop described directly above for access to South Baltimore and the Inner Harbor, but should probably be built to full multi-vehicle light rail standards rather than just for streetcars.

METRO EAST EXTENSIONS:


Unlike the Red Line, the Metro has sufficient capacity and speed to actually make it worth significantly expanding, both to the northeast and southeast (and perhaps eventually northwest to Westminster).

11 - Metro Extension: East MARC to Bayview
This is the core extension, east to Bayview along the Amtrak tracks and Interstate 895 right-of-way, where it could be used to bridge the development gap between the Hopkins Bayview Biotech Park and the Greektown community.

12 - Metro Extension: Bayview to Baltimore Travel Plaza
This would run southward along Interstate 895 for a short distance to a transit hub and park-and-ride lot at the Baltimore Travel Plaza, which was originally so-named because it included these facilities and a Greyhound Bus terminal. It is still by far the best location for them in Southeast Baltimore.

13 - Metro Extension: Travel Plaza to Dundalk
This segment would travel southeast along a railroad right of way through the Holabird industrial area, including the new Amazon facility, to the Baltimore County Community College near Merritt Boulevard.

14 - Metro Extension: Dundalk to Sparrows Point
From Merritt Boulevard, its just a short distance to the massive new development site at Sparrows Point.

15 - Metro Extension: East MARC to Middle River
This would run eastward along the Amtrak tracks from north of Bayview, with intermediate stations at Eastpoint, Rosedale, Rossville and Essex.

16 - Metro Extension: Middle River to White Marsh
This would run northward along White Marsh Boulevard from the Martin Airport MARC Station to the White Marsh town center.

A FULL STREETCAR SYSTEM:


Once the "starter" streetcar system is started, as described above, it could take on a mind of its own. Keep in mind that streetcars are not just a way to get from Point A to B, but a way of presenting the city. Here are some examples of streetcar lines that could make sense in helping to accomplish this. Use your imagination with all this, in conjunction with larger development plans and goals.

17 - Streetcar Line: Pier 6 to Harbor Point
Do the developer and the city really know what they're doing as far as providing access to this mega-project isolated on a peninsula? They rejected a Red Line station that would best serve Harbor Point at Central Avenue. Would a streetcar line that went straight into Harbor Point and terminated at Thames Street on the west end of Fells Point fulfill the access requirements?

18 - Streetcar Line: Pier 6 to Hopkins Broadway to North Avenue
If extending the Metro northward under Broadway is far too expensive for what it would accomplish, perhaps a streetcar line would make more sense. The first phase could be to connect it to the "Great Blacks in Wax" Museum at Broadway and North Avenue.

19 - Streetcar Line: North Avenue to Morgan State
This could be the second phase of the above, running through Clifton Park (along Rose Street) as a centerpiece in its revitalization.

20 - Streetcar Line: North Avenue to Coppin State/Mondawmin
Every few years, there was an effort to "brand" North Avenue as a tool in its revitalization. Can we really get warm cuddly thoughts about old decrepit North Avenue? If its possible, streetcars might be the way to do it. It could be cool to run a streetcar line right through the Coppin campus and create a streetcar "Main Street" in the Mondwamin Mall parking lot. How Philadelphia fares with streetcars on Girard Avenue (its North Avenue) is worth watching.

21 - Streetcar Line: Coppin State to West MARC
This line would complete the streetcar loop between the Red Line and North Avenue, via portions of Fulton Avenue and Pulaski Street.

22 - Streetcar Line: West MARC to Montgomery Park
Similarly to the above, this line would complete a loop from the Red Line to the southwest. Bon Secours Hospital would be a primary intermediate stop.

23 - Streetcar Line: Montgomery Park to Westport
Further extending this loop to the south along Monroe Street would tie it into the "Plank Line" to Port Covington (see #10 above).

24 - Streetcar Line: Penn Station to Charles Village
This is the proposed Charles Street project that got Jimmy Rouse's the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign going a few years ago. It probably makes more sense as icing on the cake than as a core system project.

25 - Streetcar Line: Mondawmin to Pimlico Racetrack
Park Heights Avenue is physically perhaps the best street in Baltimore for streetcars - nice and wide, not too much traffic, with attractive old rowhouses that desperately need tender loving care, along with a great old city landmark at the end that urgently needs to be brought into the mainstream. Pimlico Racetrack needs to be an all-year attraction - perhaps as the state fairgrounds and an exhibition center, with the Preakness and horse racing as a still-effective theme. Moreover, the Baltimore Zoo at the south end of this corridor has the same needs, to which streetcars may be just the way to fill the bill.

November 12, 2015

Gentriphobia and other housing bugaboos

Time for some straight talk on housing policy.

Gentrification is just the concentration of "yuppies" in a few small areas instead of spreading them throughout the city. As such, gentrification is as much of a ghetto-ization as any other kind of discrimination. In the end, it doesn't even matter whether the yuppies are ghetto-izing themselves or are somehow being manipulated into just a few areas like Federal Hill, Hampden and Canton. It's up to them.

Most obviously, gentrification has been an overwhelmingly white phenomenon. If gentrification was somehow bad, then black neighborhoods where people have somehow felt threatened by gentrification would be better off for it. Is Upton better off because whites seldom stray west of Eutaw Place and Bolton Hill? Is Franklin Square better off because not many whites stray north of Baltimore Street from Union Square?

These neighborhoods need to be brought as much into the mainstream as possible. Upton in particular has an extremely important history that needs to be disseminated to everyone - black, white or racially ambiguous. Yuppies, buppies, hipsters, bo-hos, bo-bos, or some other kind of people.

Let's invent some new typecasts, based on identity and pride in other neighborhoods - Uptonites, Franklin Squares, Mount Clarities, Irvingtonians, etc. They might already exist. They just need to be brought out.

Property Values

High property value is another major housing bugaboo. The catchphrase "affordable housing" has been tossed around so much that it has become meaningless. What's affordable to one person is unaffordable to another.

All housing has a threshold value which it must attain so that it is economically worth maintaining. Affordability is too often achieved by deferring maintenance, often indefinitely or even forever. Low property values are the cause of Baltimore's rampant vacancy and abandonment problem. If values are too low to make it worthwhile to maintain a house, it will ultimately be abandoned.

The city's high tax rate is part of this equation. High taxes drive down property values. When taxes are high, the price of houses must be reduced to attract buyers. High tax rates are even an incentive to make houses look shabby in order to thus lower the assessments.

Subsidies just make it worse, enabling housing values which are too low to support sustainable maintenance.

People talk out of both sides of their mouths about this. Both high values and low values are spoken of in negative terms, often to the extent that the allegedly "ideal" property value is too high to be "affordable" but simultaneously too low to be maintainable - an untenable situation.

To make matters even worse, subsidies often have stipulations which cripple homeowners. For example, subsidies might be forfeited if they sell or if their income increases. These are prescriptions for a permanent underclass living in ghetto-ized neighborhoods.

The most widespread subsidy is the "Homestead Tax Credit" which subsidizes people who cling to houses they would otherwise be better off selling. Old homeowners' property taxes are "capped" while new lifeblood homeowners would have to pay through the nose for the same property.

All housing needs to have a goal property value level at which it is maintainable. Policies should then be defined to achieve this value.

A mansion facing Lafayette Square - This is an old photo but the weather is too bad today to go out and take a new one.
I'll check it out and replace this photo if it's in even worse shape now.

And let's stop beating around the bush: Neighborhoods with particularly grandiose architecture like Lafayette Square, Auchentoroly and Walbrook need high property values in order to be maintained. Basically attractive but more architecturally modest neighborhoods like Belair-Edison and Poppleton can be maintained at somewhat lower values.

The racial problem

Much has been said about how housing is no longer the great investment it once was. Statistically this is true in the aggregate, but it's not inherent.

In particular, the lack of capital appreciation for housing in black neighborhoods has recently been publicized. The problem with some neighborhoods is that they've been treated like risky sociology experiments. Sandtown-Winchester comes to mind, where money poured in without a sound economic basis. Then it produced the Freddie Gray tragedy.

In the 1960s, blacks lost out on the housing boom because they were discriminated against by being given too few loans. By the 2000s, it was just the opposite: Many blacks lost out because they were indiscriminately given too many economically reckless loans that resulted in foreclosures. Of course, the same thing happened to some whites before the housing bubble burst, but not in as geographically concentrated a way.

When the low income "projects" were finally blown up in the 1990s, pundits claimed it was their high-rise design that was the big problem. Yes, it was a problem, but the bigger problem is simply forcing people into somebody else's idea of what they ought to be.

The lesson is clear: Respect the laws of economics and support people as people, not as occupants of social housing experiments.

"Inclusive Zoning"

Another counterproductive type of subsidy is to force developers to include low income housing in high income developments - so called "inclusive zoning".

Baltimore has blocks and blocks of abandoned neighborhoods which we need to repopulate. Why would we want to attract even more people to live in the city's small high income veneer?

The rationale is generally expressed as a desire to allow more "disadvantaged" people to enjoy the advantages of high income areas. But these advantages, though nice, are really rather insubstantial - things like waterfront views, nearby overpriced cafes and boutiques and being able to get away from that "Other Baltimore".

The problems of subsidizing lower income people in high income areas are the same as any other subsidy for high income areas - it diverts attention away from Baltimore's real problems. If the city's most valuable real estate like Harbor Point gets maximum subsidies, it simply increases the handicap imposed on all the other less desirable neighborhoods.

City leaders recognize the futility of "Inclusive Zoning", which is why they've rendered Baltimore's law as toothless as possible, using it only for its hype and grandstanding value. The argument that rich counties like Montgomery have had a modicum of success with this only reinforces the point.

The basic answer is to avoid all housing subsidies as much as possible. Subsidies to landlords are even worse than to developers. Instead, subsidize deserving people directly, particularly to encourage them to engage in productive activities.

Housing speculation

Another "BS" topic is speculation. Speculators are chastised when they "flip" a property to make a quick profit, but they're also chastised when they sit on a property for the long run without cashing out.

Time is of the essence. Quick flipping means quick progress and resolution. That's good if it gets houses into the hands of residents who will carefully nurture them! OK, some speculators do only superficial cosmetic improvements which hide bigger problems in order to make easy money. Buyers need to beware.

But any kind of improvement is good. All responsible property owners try to do small fixes to keep the plumbing working rather than expensive cataclysmic renovations. And even substantial renovations can go down the tubes if property values are not sufficient to warrant subsequent long term maintenance, as discussed above.

One of the surest signs of a healthy city is when basically run-down buildings have been lovingly made to look nice and functional with paint, flower boxes and other small but largely superficial niceties. On the other hand, distressed cities often have perfectly restored or brand new buildings lavished with somebody's money in proximity to total wrecks.

Most problems can be traced to the overall causes of distorted economics and sociology. Hate the game of high tax rates, polarization, bad economic climate and bad regulations, but don't hate the "playas".

Housing policy

The city's housing policy must be grounded in reality. The city can't just pour unlimited dollars into neighborhoods without commensurate increases in inherent property values. That's called a "money pit".

The city's policy catchphrase, "Vacants to Value" is pretty good, but it gives too much emphasis on the city's engagement in the painful and painstaking process of rescuing particular problem plagued properties (oooops, too many p's). They even "celebrate" demolition, which is nothing to celebrate.

Here are the basics: Strive for sufficiently high and sustainable property values. Keep tax rates low. Subsidize people, not buildings, and especially not rents. If this encourages displacement, learn from it to cushion the impact.

Promote neighborhoods of value and choice throughout the city, not just near the waterfront. If the waterfront gets overpriced so only the rich can afford it, fine! Other neighborhoods will then look like bargains by comparison.

Housing drives commercial development. Having people with disposable income nearby is what creates a market and image for the promotion of retail and jobs and a perception that the schools are good (whether they are or not).

And cut out the gentriphobia...

November 3, 2015

Station East: Where's the Station?

"Picture yourself in a train in a station, with plasticine porters, with looking glass ties..."
-John Lennon, The Beatles, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

If you don't have a station, perhaps the best thing to do is pretend.

That's what's happening in the neighborhood a few blocks east of the Hopkins Hospital "campus" and north of Patterson Park, previously best known as the desolate post-apocalyptic scene Amtrak riders complained about from their windows. Now after years of cataclysmic abandonment, demolition and new development swirling around them, community leaders have decided it's now time to take control of their destiny.

So the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC) has decided to name the neighborhood closest to the Amtrak tracks, "Station East" even though there is no station.

"Station East" houses for sale on Milton Avenue looking north toward the Amtrak overpass -
along which an actual Metro station could be built, thus fulfilling the prophesy of "Station East".

Station East's station in life

Calling it "Station East" may be the first step in actually getting a station. It just so happens that Station East would be the best place to locate the next Metro station beyond Hopkins Hospital, if and when the Metro is ever extended, which it should be.

Currently, the future of transit beyond the Hopkins Hospital Metro station is extremely muddled. That station is a terrible location for a rail terminus, having been previously rejected for the kind of feeder bus hub which is essential to any major modern urban rail-based system. The Maryland Transit Administration studied extending the Metro northward as part of its 2002 regional plan, and found it to be utterly infeasible from a cost effectiveness standpoint, so they pulled the plug.

The 2002 plan also called for two new MARC "commuter rail" stations only about two miles away from each other in East Baltimore, one serving the defunct Metro extension on Broadway and one for the defunct Red Line north of Bayview. Both are also terrible locations from almost every perspective (impact on rail operations, access, siting, community benefit, etc.), so trying to build even one of them is futile, much less both.

But there's a far better, less expensive and more cost effective solution: The Metro should be extended eastward rather than northward, along the Amtrak tracks, in a shallow "cut and cover" tunnel that would emerge from its deeper bored tunnel at a station somewhere in Station East along Eager Street. There's your station in Station East.

Then once the Metro climbs to the surface somewhere near Station East, the next station eastward beyond be a comprehensive MARC/Metro/bus and (possibly) Amtrak hub on the large vacant parcel at Edison Highway and Monument Street. That's yet another station for Station East.

The Metro could then eventually be extended in a surface and elevated alignment to Bayview, Dundalk, Middle River and/or White Marsh - making Station East as much the center of things as is Station North.

Station East's neighborhood vision has come first. Then comes the station itself.

Modeled after "Station North"

Naming a neighborhood "Station" may become the 21st century equivalent of the "Hills" of the 20th century - Bolton, Reservoir, Federal, Butchers, Brewers. The first was "Station North", which became a popular name for the area north of Penn Station after decades of failure as "Penn North Charles".

Ironically, Station North's renewal ultimately has been less due to the Amtrak station and more to the community leadership with schools like the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and Johns Hopkins. But even the proposed shopping center a mile to the north (originally to have included a Wal-Mart and Lowe's) was dubbed "25th Street Station".

So the "station" theme caught on. In Station East, MICA has partnered with Hopkins again to create a community-oriented arts graduate education program in "Station East" in an old church just south of the new Henderson Hopkins school which itself is supposed to be a model for education innovation.

Neighborhood branding and identity

The first step in creating a new real estate marketing identity for "Station East" was probably the recognition that all that multi-billion dollar mass destruction and new building around Hopkins Hospital was a given, and they need to run with it rather than try to fight it. A basic Baltimore rule is that you can't fight Hopkins.

The neighborhoods east of Hopkins Hospital, north of Orleans Street and south of the Amtrak tracks (in yellow). "Station East" is now only the northwest (upper left) portion, but real estate agents and developers may decide to expand it.

Secondly, contrary to earlier expectations, the neighborhood renewal north of Patterson Park has indeed now jumped beyond the heavily trafficked Orleans Street (US 40), through McElderry Park and right to the door of Station East. That highly successful renewal was first led by Neighborhood Housing Services under Ed Rutkowski.

Real estate marketers and agents are ultimately who determines how neighborhoods are defined. It's a process of establishing landmarks, creating brand identities and then waiting for peripheral areas to latch onto successful ones within geographic boundaries.

As such, it appears that "Station East" (if the popularity of that name catches on) could ultimately become applied to more of the area south of the Amtrak tracks, east of Patterson Park Avenue, north of Orleans Street, and west of Edison Highway and Linwood Avenue.

Dissolution of the Orleans Street traffic barrier

While Ed Rutkowski's organization successfully focused on the three block strip anchored by Patterson Park to the south and bound-in by Orleans Street to the north, he realized that making Orleans a barrier was not good. Along with Bill Henry (before being elected to the City Council), they even looked at ways to soften the barrier effect of Orleans Street.

But as it turned out, Orleans has not been all that much of a problem. It never was a physical barrier, unlike many parts of the Hopkins' so-called "campus" as well as the Amtrak tracks to the north. Hopkins has used these barriers to help define and reinforce their empire. Hopkins even cut themselves off from the "good" neighborhoods directly to the south, Washington Hill and Fells Point, by replacing the Ann Street corridor with a massive parking garage and loading facility.

In Station East, the closest example of Hopkins' fortress building is the new Henderson Hopkins School, which was a product of maximum demolition and the closure of Eager Street to reinforce the barrier along the Amtrak tracks and Patterson Park Avenue.

The lesson on Orleans Street is that traffic is not an insurmountable barrier to neighborhood development. Orleans is about the same width and physical configuration as any of the other streets in the area which have had successful renewal. All housing choices involve compromises.While it is indeed nasty to have no on-street parking and whizzing traffic ten feet in front of your house, many people don't have cars and have more important housing priorities such as overall location for access to good jobs and schools. Houses on busy streets can now play the role of providing "worker housing" the same way that small alley houses originally did back in the 19th century.

The kinds of socially-engineered mixed-income housing which has been placed in innately high value locations like Broadway Overlook in Washington Hill and Albemarle Square in Jonestown would be better off put in critical lower value corridors like Orleans Street, where it would actually blend in better. Slowly this seems to be happening. Of course, low income folks need the flexibility of a variety of options just like everyone else.

Station East's future station identity

That still leaves the need for a strong neighborhood identity landmark. Patterson Park has served this need exquisitely well for the area south of Orleans, but the Station East area is just a bit too remote to pull that off. But even Patterson Park's identity had to be shaped by the neighborhood, rather than vice-versa. Patterson Park had a bad though undeserved reputation until into the 1980s when it became associated with quickly improving neighborhoods surrounding it, which in turn drove the renewal of the park.

So it isn't even essential that there be a station at Station East, except in our collective vision, as the real estate marketers apparently realize. Vision of the future is what drives it.

October 28, 2015

How to sort out the bus system: A "Circulator District"

The biggest "X Factor" in Governor Hogan's new proposed bus plan is the system's relationship to the "circulator" routes run by the city and others. And that's exactly how it should be.

The new MTA plan has a void in the city center. This calls for a completely different kind of planning and involvement by the various stakeholders, and recognition of the need for a whole new geographic entity - a "Circulator District".

Eliminating Redundancy

The MTA's new bus plan clearly recognizes that they should not continue flooding the congested downtown streets with slow inefficient long distance bus routes which are redundant to the city's "Charm City Circulator" system.

Operating short localized bus routes is a totally different proposition from the types of lengthy bus routes the MTA traditionally runs. The MTA has had decades of experience attempting to plan and operate short circulator routes, most of which have been failures.

While it's hard to say how much the MTA's failure with circulators differs from their overall track record of general failures at running any kind of bus service, what has happened fairly recently is that other institutions have taken up the mantle of operating circulators with greater success. This includes the city government's "Charm City Circulator" system along with various other institutions such as colleges and hospitals,

And in the blueprint for its new plan, the MTA has actually recognized the need to provide funding support for the Charm City Circulator, which the perpetually cash-strapped city has been struggling to pay for. While the MTA has long subsidized and contracted out services outside their traditional service area, such as for the DC suburbs, long distance commuter lines, small towns and rural areas, supporting service inside their core service area is new.

In fact, previous MTA attempts to run circulators have scrupulously avoided anything that would impact their own existing routes. The MTA's failed attempts to plan circulators in east and south Baltimore back in the 1990s even avoided running into downtown, just so the MTA would avoid competing with itself.

However, one of the apparent keys to the success of the Charm City Circulator is that it is very blatantly redundant with the MTA system - redundant but better. Being free helps too, of course, while the MTA system charges the same $1.70 "base fare" whether riding one mile or twenty.

The New MTA Inner City Plan

The new MTA plan calls for only seven "BaltimoreLink" bus routes to penetrate the heart of downtown, defined as the area bounded by Howard Street on the west, Franklin Street on the north, President Street on the east and Pratt Street on the south. (Five other major color keyed "Link" bus lines would not enter this central area at all.)

These are:

Blue - West: From US 40 (Edmondson Ave.) to East Baltimore Street
Red - North: From York Road/Charles/St. Paul
Green - Northeast: From Harford Road
Brown - Northeast: From Belair Road
Orange - East: From US 40 (Orleans Street)
Navy - Southeast: From Boston Street
Silver - South: From Key Highway/Hanover Street

Many corridor bus routes in the MTA system would no longer penetrate the center of downtown at all. These include from Washington Blvd, Wilkens Avenue, and Frederick Avenue to the southwest; Pennsylvania Avenue and Eutaw Street to the northwest; Howard Street and Greenmount Avenue to the north; and Eastern Avenue and Fayette Street to the east.

This group includes some notoriously bad bus lines, so if there's a better way, good riddance!

The new MTA plan recognizes that the center of downtown can get very slow, bogged down and congested. Still, it's a popular destination and since so many bus lines converge there, it has always been important for transfers.

There are three general ways to fill this void created by the diversion of traditional radial corridor bus lines away from the center city:

1 - Transfers to the Metro and Light Rail Lines - This is the ideal method. The Baltimore Metro, in particular is by far the fastest, highest capacity and most cost effective way to carry the most passengers. And the central light rail line has its place as well. It can provide very high capacity by using three car trains and not devoting too much service to its outer extremities.

2 - Express Commuter Bus Lines - These can get expensive for the amount of service provided, but they have a role as the MTA has shown. Their main distinguishing characteristics are a limited number of runs, infrequent or no off-peak service, and a lack of integration with the rest of the system, so we need not discuss them here.

3 - Circulator Bus Lines - Clearly, these must now have a greater role than ever. For shorter service on local inner city streets, slower and more circuitous routes are less of a problem than they are for longer distance bus lines.

A Proposed "Circulator Transit District" and Transit Hubs

The best way to fill the inner city void of the new MTA bus plan is to designate a "Circulator District" where short localized bus lines provide the bulk of all transit service.

Below is a map of a possible Circulator Transit District, based not on politics, but on physical and transit system geography. The key to its success is the location and operation of transit transfer hubs at its outer boundaries where the circulator bus lines would interface with the longer distance MTA bus lines and the regional rail system.

Proposed "Circulator District" and Transit Hubs to interface with the larger MTA system,
including the Metro (Green) and Light Rail (Blue).

The transit hubs need to be well located to facilitate transfers that encourage the greatest use of the most efficient transit services. Too many transit hubs would spread the transfers out too much, so that there wouldn't be enough of them at a given point. For example, Penn-North should not be encouraged as a transit hub because it would take away from the interface at nearby Mondawmin. Also, Penn Station does not make a good bus hub because it is along a corridor rather than at a transition point.

In fact, the Mondawmin Metro Station (shown below) is the prototype for what an efficient transit hub can be, linking bus lines from a wide arc, not only with the Metro which provides by far the fastest and best service, but with each of the other bus lines. Transfer options increase exponentially as the number of bus lines increase.

The Mondawmin hub is a nearly ideal off-street setting for all this, unlike many transit hubs envisioned either on-street or cramped into very small sites.

Mondawmin Metro Transit Hub: The best in the system by far.
The transit hubs envisioned for the periphery of this Circulator District are:

1 - Mondawmin Metro Station - The ideal setting (existing). An example of the kind of Circulator service that would be provided here is described in this post - splitting up the MTA #1 bus line into smaller localized routes including linking Mondawmin to Sandtown, Harlem Park and West Baltimore.

2 - West MARC Station - Sitting at the outer end of the "Highway to Nowhere" where efficient service to downtown can be provided, along with rail service to Washington, DC of course.

3 - Patapsco Light Rail Station - A very quick ride to downtown (existing).

4 - Baltimore Travel Plaza - Former Greyhound Bus Station, with very quick service to downtown via the I-95 Fort McHenry Tunnel (should have designated express lanes!)

5 - Hopkins Hospital Metro Station - This is the only hub which is not located on the periphery of the Circulator District. However, it is important to have a hub at the end of the Metro - all major modern urban transit lines need one! This would provide an east-side mirror image of the bus services provided at Mondawmin for the west-side. However, this is not an idea location, which is why an east/northeast Metro extension beyond Hopkins Hospital needs to be a high priority.

6 - Northwood Shopping Center - Now incorporated into the Morgan State University campus, this is a nearly ideal location for a transit hub. Travel time for thru service to to downtown can be improved significantly by using Loch Raven Boulevard instead of the existing routes via Waverly and Charles Village.

7 - Woodberry Light Rail Station - This station is located along the outer edge of higher density urban development, and so makes a good transit hub. (The Cold Spring Lane light rail station is also a possibility.)

In addition, a central transit hub should be provided at the Lexington Market Metro Station, as described in a previous post.

Organizing the System

It is not clear that the MTA plan provides the right amount of each kind of transit service, but it is a first step in that direction. The Circulator District and Transit Hubs would provide a strong impetus for resolving this.

Clearly, the Metro should carry the most passengers possible. It was designed to easily carry over 100,000 riders per day, but now carries barely half of that. The central light rail line should be second in the hierarchy.

Beyond that, how much service should be on traditional MTA bus routes and how much on circulators is an open question. But designating a "Circulator District" is a way of rationalizing the process to figuring it out. High density inner city areas work better with circulators, relative to spread out lower density outer city areas.

Then there is the question of who should operate the various services. Smaller and more localized services are more likely to be identiable with specific institutions such as colleges, hospitals or the Downtown Partnership. They have "skin in the game" and so may have a greater incentive to do a better or at least more personalized and tailored job of operating the service. They may also be able to run it less expensively, with lower wage rates, perhaps through contractors (although there is often contradictory talk about providing "living wages".)

It shouldn't necessarily be the city who runs the circulators, just as there is no magic formula for determining who should pay for it. The "Circulator District" should probably not be a formal tax authority "benefits" district.

Similarly, all services should be open to everyone. There should not be services targeted exclusively to tourists, college students, poor folks or any other specific group. That kind of marketing is what leads to inefficient redundancy.

The MTA has taken the first step, recognizing that they are not automatically the best at running these more localized routes. The next step is the creation of a "Circulator District".

October 23, 2015

Hogan's "Transformative Transitway"

Believe it or not, Governor Hogan's new bus plan actually has quite a bit in common with O'Malley's old dead Red Line light rail plan.

Setting aside the question of whether either of these transit plans actually makes sense, one must admit that as eye candy, Hogan's plan is pretty good. And since his predecessor Governor O'Malley sold his $3 billion Red Line plan almost exclusively on its hype value, one can't blame Hogan for also turning up the hype-meter a bit. But at a price tag of only $135 Million, it's much cheaper hype.

Hogan even copped one of the Red Line's key buzzwords - "transformative". So in looking for common ground between the two very disparate rival transit camps, finding a common element of "transformation" may be the way to do it.

Transitway Rendering
Governor Hogan's new plan released yesterday for a "transitway" with spiffy new buses
Transitway?

And to back up his hype, Hogan's MTA came up with a truly eye-catching "money shot" of what his plan's"transitway" would look like. It's an extremely attractive view of West Baltimore Street looking east toward Howard Street, closed to all traffic except the MTA's new spiffy looking buses with a spiffy "Link" logo, and with a pedestrian median populated by respectable relaxed denizens. I had to study this quite a while before I could even figure out that this was indeed the west side of downtown Baltimore.

Ah, but it's hype, of course. This scene would more likely end up looking like Howard Street right around the corner. Howard Street's bus mall and subsequent light rail mall look extremely ratty and even more forlorn 40 years after first being closed to auto traffic. Transformative indeed.

Moreover, Howard Street still moves very slow. Traffic signal priority for transit, another part of the Hogan plan, has so far proven to be a false promise, perhaps because the conflicting cross streets have as much transit and as much need for right-of-way as the transit priority street.

Another quibble: The median pedestrian refuge shown in Governor Hogan's "transformative" drawing is of no use to folks waiting for buses. The buses have their doors on the right, whereas the median could only access the left side. But it does look nice. And of course, one could replace all the buses with fancy models with left side doors, or replace the buses with light rail.

Around the corner from Hogan's vision for a transformative transitway on Baltimore Street
 is this moribund scene of light rail on Howard Street

Transformative?

The heavy rebuttal from the Red Line partisans is that Hogan's plan isn't transformative enough. Buses don't create transformations. Only rail transit creates transformations.

There's enough evidence around the country to indicate there's some validity to that. But then there's Howard Street, where rail transit has been a monumental flop at achieving a transformation.

Like Howard Street, it is extremely unlikely that the "culture" of Baltimore Street can be successfully transformed simply by closing it off to traffic and replacing it with a pedestrian and/or transit mall.

But there's a better and more foolproof catalyst for creating transformation: A great development plan with great urban design. Let's face it: As much as Baltimore needs better transit (bus or rail), most urban redevelopment has happened here in spite of having lousy transit, in places like Canton, Harbor East and Harbor Point.

Hogan's first step to the Red Line

So where is the best place in Baltimore to put a transitway? Aha! It's the west Red Line corridor! In the middle of the grossly unnecessary "Highway to Nowhere". From there it can connect into downtown in the Saratoga Street corridor adjacent to the huge abandoned Metro West complex and the Lexington Market Metro Station.

But should it be rail or buses? The Red Line light rail would have gone only 18 mph, slower than express buses, so it really doesn't matter all that much, even with traffic signal priority which is common to both plans (and would work better out in a corridor than downtown).

The real solution is providing superior urban design to foster successful "transformation".

The MTA studied "Bus Rapid Transit" as part of its Red Line federally required "Alternatives Analysis" and their conclusion was that rail was better, but that was before the price of the rail plan ballooned into the stratosphere. Buses do have more flexibility, but both rail and buses have enough flexibility that intelligent planning and design are what is really more important.

OK, rail is more attractive than buses. Although it's not $3 billion better. But buses should be "good enough" if we can dazzle with urban design. Or on the other hand, rail can certainly be built far cheaper than $3 billion without the Red Line's staggeringly expensive downtown tunnel that would contribute nothing to the surface transformation.

MTA's $3 Billion Red Line Plan in the "Highway to Nowhere" (bottom)
and a far more "transformative" alternative (on top) which could be built for buses until the rail is ready.

Look at Marc Szarkowski's "transformation" of the MTA's dreary Harlem Park Red Line station in the bowels of the "Highway to Nowhere" (I keep returning to this - Marc taught me the term, "money shot"). Now just imagine it with buses instead of rail - at least, low or non-polluting buses.

And a bus transitway could easily be designed as the first step to building a light rail Red Line.

A New Beginning

The real appeal of the Red Line is not that it's rail. It's that it is a new beginning, which is what the US 40 West Red Line corridor really needs.

The key is that it would start over with a clean slate to create an urban design environment that really works.

First, focus on the redevelopment of the vast vacant Metro West complex at the downtown end of the "Highway to Nowhere", which currently has horrendously dysfunctional urban design. The transitway could slice through the site, providing a justification to demolish the goliath of a building between Mulberry and Saratoga Street, and extend the transit way to Saratoga Street and then to the Lexington Market Metro Station and Howard Street.

Transitway from the "Highway to Nowhere" (upper left), over MLK Blvd. on the existing bridge, then slashing thru the Metro West site to Saratoga Street (lower right)

By going directly through the Metro West site, it would allow the transitway to use one of the existing highway bridges to go over MLK Boulevard, and thus would strengthen the transitway as a gateway to all of northwest Baltimore. One of the MTA's cutting criticisms of turning the Red Line directly from MLK to Saratoga is that it would cause "wheel squeal". Hmmm... the only real squeal here was the MTA's desperate attempt to try to save their dead $3 billion Red Line plan.

At the west end of the highway, the Hogan plan calls for a transit hub at the West Baltimore MARC Station, another place with great urban design potential, with or without the Red Line. The previous Red Line plan instead put most of the bus transfers at the Rosemont Station precariously along Edmondson Avenue.

Then proceeding west, not much "transformative" has been done in any plan within the constrained right of way of Edmondson Avenue, but it widens out at the historic Edmondson Village Shopping Center. The new Uplands development provides a motif that can be extended into the transitway station and across the street into the shopping center.

Station environments are always critical. What happens between the stations is less so. If really great station environments can be created, it will matter less whether they serve buses or rail.

All of this can be done in an entirely incremental manner, one piece and parcel at a time, now with the existing bus route network, then with a newly revised network, or ultimately with light rail. Planning incrementally is almost always the key. Planning is a process, not an end result.

Perhaps the very first step is for the MTA to change it's new color-coded bus routes so that its west bus line is designated "Code Red".