October 9, 2017

Mechanic Theater demo pit starts Hyperloop pendulum

What do we do with the giant pit in the center of downtown Baltimore left by the demolition of the Morris Mechanic Theater? Now that the pit has been there for a while, it must be acknowledged that the theater was not knocked down for any impending new development, but simply because the property owner had been given legal authorization to do it - and wanted to get it done before historic preservationists mustered the power to stop it.
Pit in the middle of downtown where the Mechanic Theater used to be, looking west from Charles Street.
The Charles Center Metro Station is behind the retaining wall to the right, under Baltimore Street.
The sawtooth roof building in the upper left is the Baltimore Arena, also slated for demolition someday.

The Mechanic Theater site is too centrally located and too potentially valuable to be used for just anything. It needs to be saved until a commensurately valuable use comes along. The ultimate "highest and best use" would be the city's High Speed Rail Station that should someday join Baltimore with New York and Washington at 300 miles per hour.

While the Mechanic Theater was given a quick death, unlike the protagonist in Baltimore denizen Edgar Allen Poe's classic story about slow death by torture, "The Pit and the Pendulum", it's the city that gets the endless torture: A bottomless pit to nowhere right in the center of town.

The Mechanic Theater was the scene of many dramas over the years. With its pit, the drama continues to haunt us posthumously, like a zombie who refuses to die. The story of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" has also been repeated many times in Baltimore, as slumlords, speculators and even some respected well-meaning landowners sit on their properties and let them die slowly, awaiting some kind of eventual "game changing" bail-out from the city.

It even feeds on itself. The Mechanic Theater's tortuous downfall began when the city rescued the similarly crumbling Hippodrome Theater three blocks west which diverted all the drama. It's just like the pendulum in Poe's story, with a sharp blade that swings and cuts both ways.

Mechanic Theater pit looking west along the ramp into underground parking garage,
 above and beyond which is the Baltimore Arena.
 Just to the right is the Mercantile Bank tower, one of many buildings recently converted to apartments. 

The future looks torturously enticing. There's currently a building boom among downtown office buildings to convert them to residential use, led by the one-of-a-kind art deco masterpiece a block east at Ten Light Street. But if the Mechanic site was going to help lead this movement, it would have happened by now. There's currently such a glut of abandoned office space and prime building sites, like the Mercantile Bank building next door, that the Mechanic site must sit and wait its turn. It is not among the low-hanging fruit.

But we can't just wait for the downtown residential market to catch up with the glut of empty office space. And does the city really want its office market to disperse to surrounding areas like Harbor East, Harbor Point, Port Covington and State Center anyway? The pit needs a use now.

"The future's so bright, we gotta wear shades" 

Fast forward from Edgar Allen Poe's 19th century gothic horror classic to the immortal lyrics of 1980s one-hit-wonder Timbuk3 quoted above.

To top off all this terminal optimism for the 21st century, the Mechanic Theater is the best apparent site for the future station of the Hyperloop system, Magnetic Levitation system, or whatever other new transportation mode is going to whisk people between New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. at 300 miles per hour or more to make Baltimore an equal partner in the burgeoning east coast economy.

The central station of the city's "heavy rail" Metro subway is right there. The pit left by the Mechanic Theater has been excavated meticulously to avoid cutting into its adjacent tunnel. There's also a web of underground parking woven throughout the Charles Center area. A road descending from Charles Street had to be maintained to reach this parking, which was built in the early 1960s before downtown parking garages had settled into standard design templates.

But the big white elephant in this room is the Baltimore Arena a block to the west, which dwarfs the Mechanic site. Everyone knows the arena must be replaced sooner or later and represents a huge roadblock to redevelopment progress. The area site is also what sits between the Metro subway station and the central light rail line on Howard Street.

The proven way to integrate the transit systems in most rail transit cities is to provide a unified central hub where the various lines come together. This concept has never caught on in Baltimore, and is the primary single reason the city's rail transit doesn't work properly.

The subway and light rail lines come within one block of each other at two locations along Howard Street - Lexington Market and State Center - but the City has been almost antagonistic about bringing them together. At Lexington Market, the linkage is hidden behind buildings. At State Center, the city has steadfastly opposed even the simple idea of painting a crosswalk on Howard Street to the sidewalk that runs between the stations.

When the defunct Red Line light rail project was being designed, the proponents kept repeating the mantra that it would integrate all the rail lines, when it very clearly would not. Their rationalization was in a proposed isolated two block long pedestrian tunnel between the Red Line and the Metro that had not even been included in the Red Line's extensive tunnel design work.

For a true central transit hub, there must be a true activity center where people are drawn together, not just a web of tunnels where people can burrow from one to another.

A Hyperloop or MagLev Station perfectly fills the bill. Baltimore is increasingly being defined as a city along the Northeast U.S. corridor, not the center of a traditional local metropolitan area. Being able to get to Washington in ten minutes or New York in forty minutes would complete this redefinition.

The current 300 mph concept requires the line to be in a deep tunnel. The city must go down deep to meet the trains. There needs to be a new downward extension of downtown to do this - a big pit.

The demolition of the Mechanic Theater has created a relatively small pit. The demolition of the nearby Baltimore Arena would make it into a far larger pit - big enough for a Hyperloop or MagLev Station that connects to everything. There may not even be any other place in Baltimore where this can logically be done.

The big question is: How do we orchestrate progress so that it culminates in the realization of such a vision?

Mechanic Theater site needs a temporary use

The Mechanic Theater site is too valuable to just sit, but not valuable enough under current market conditions to develop. It needs a temporary use until its value increases. Its value would skyrocket with a Hyperloop station, opening up all sorts of opportunities for new high rise development on top of it.

Proposed Hyperloop or MagLev Station - bounded by Howard St. (light rail station) to the west,
 Baltimore/Charles St. (Metro Station) to the north and east, and Lombard St. to the south.
The Mechanic Theater at the northeast corner had not been demolished yet in this Google Earth image.

A temporary new park is always the first thought. But there are already many acres of parkland woven into adjacent Charles Center. It's true that the demolition of the Mechanic Theater has opened up this space and made it potentially more useful, so the existing park layouts should be adjusted to make them work better. Perhaps the Hopkins Plaza park could even be enlarged slightly into the Mechanic site, while still leaving room for future development.

Downtown Partnership even proposed that a major new park be located on the adjacent Baltimore Arena site. This seems rather extravagant but it might make more sense than the Mechanic site.

Parkland is also risky as a temporary use. If it's too successful, it will difficult to pull it away from its users when development is finally ready. That almost happened in the 1980s at the building site at the nearby northwest corner of Calvert and Baltimore Streets. It became a great temporary park and really opened up the adjacent Metro Station escalator portal, before it was finally torn up to build a ho-hum office building. Maybe it should have stayed as a park.

But the bottom line is that permanent parks like the ones that are already in Charles Center should simply be designed as well as possible to maximize their use in concert with surrounding development.

A more appropriate temporary use would be a transit hub for buses serving the adjacent Metro Station. The current pit would not even need to be fully filled in to create such a transit hub. The transit hub could take advantage of this jagged topography to provide a direct connection into the subway station mezzanine and to create a buffer between the buses and the surrounding streets. The existing ramp going down to the parking garage under Charles Center could also be adapted to accommodate the buses. Imaginative designers can always view topography as an opportunity for creative and unique designs.

Then when the Hyperloop Station is finally built, which would justify even better access to transit, the permanent multi-level site layout could be refined to intersperse retail and other active development around the hub, as well as high rise buildings on top. At that time, the very best possible linkages would be provided to the light rail line on Howard Street to the west and the Charles Center Metro Station to the east.

Final resolution

Bottom line: The eventual use of the Mechanic Theater site for the city's high speed MagLev or Hyperloop Station should be considered now. This would create the ultimate impetus for as much high value development as the site can possibly contain.

It would also provide the impetus to finally build a new arena, if that hasn't been resolved by then. The new arena was previously going to be coupled with other far fetched things like landing a new NBA or NHL team or the Olympics, or building a billion dollar convention center replacement, so high speed rail isn't so far outside the realm of possibility, relative to the proverbial snowball in hell.

The mere forty miles between Baltimore and Washington is undoubtedly America's best testing ground to build a high speed rail prototype before spreading it to the rest of the country. High speed rail should start in Baltimore just as conventional rail did 200 years ago.

Then the pit would finally be filled and the pendulum would finally be stopped.

September 14, 2017

For Amazon: The best of Westport and Port Covington

The Amazon is wide, as both its namesake waterway and cyber-marketplace. So both sides of Kevin Plank's real estate empire need to be put in play to attract Amazon to Baltimore. Both Port Covington and Westport can accommodate major developments, so there's no sense in attempting to confine Amazon to one or the other. Let Amazon have maximum flexibility to create their own ideal plan using both sites. Biggest is best.
Former developer Patrick Turner's Westport waterfront plan on the Middle Branch,
 with downtown to the upper right and the I-95/395 interchange in between.
 Port Covington is on the opposite shore of the Middle Branch, beyond to the lower right.

Turner's Westport plan as it would have been seen from Port Covington.
Unlike Under Armour, for which Plank has planned a large self-contained "company town" environment for Port Covington, Amazon's ambitions have virtually no boundaries, so none should be imposed. What other potential site in North America can devote both sides of an entire waterway to the cause?

Westport also has some obvious advantages over its sister site, Port Covington. It's more connected to the rest of the city and it already has light rail service with great access to BWI Marshall Airport and downtown with its Amtrak and MARC Stations. Westport is the best port for Amazon's east coast headquarters, especially if it also spreads north, south and eastward into Port Covington as well.

But there's no reason to commit to one over the other. Amazon's domain can and should extend all the way southward from downtown through the entire Middle Branch shoreline encompassing both Westport on the west shore and Port Covington on the east shore, both owned by Kevin Plank. And even with all this, the mouth of the Middle Branch northeast of the Hanover Street Bridge can still be devoted as planned to Kevin Plank's Under Armour campus.

But that's not all... as the infomercials say. The Amazon empire can still spread southward from the Hanover Street Bridge to the waterfronts of Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Masonville. Amazon particularly prides itself on its spin-off benefits to other economic generators such as small businesses and their attendant employment. These working class communities, and indeed the entire city of Baltimore, would experience the benefits of Amazon's presence.

It's likely that the new development in Port Covington and Westport would include less housing than had previously been planned. The extent of inclusion of lower income housing had reached an impasse anyway. That's a major opportunity for these surrounding communities.

Evolving development climate

Baltimore, Under Armour and its Sagamore development company do need to stay flexible and adapt with needs. Last year, the city approved a plan and a $660 Million Tax Increment Financing package for Port Covington as if the plan was some kind of immutable cosmic force that would simply take over. But this year, that plan is already languishing. 

Development doesn't work that way. Development is incremental and iterative. Political, business and media leaders are now conveying the impression that Amazon can simply just come in and buy into the existing Port Covington plan. That's just deceptive hype.

Amazon has its own continually evolving needs. Amazon will want its own plan. The current Port Covington plan is mere prelude. Its certainly no coincidence that Plank's latest deal to bring in Goldman Sachs for a $233 million investment infusion was announced just after Amazon's.

The need for massive liquid capital is crucial. Just ask Patrick Turner, who assembled and prepared the adjacent Westport waterfront properties a decade ago, developed his own plan, and then proceeded to go bankrupt waiting for it to be built. 

Turner envisioned a "new downtown" in Westport, conveyed in architects' renderings which were perhaps too realistic looking for their own good. The "new downtown" paradigm is useful in conveying the magnitude of the development, but the whole existence of a "Downtown Baltimore" appears to be fading as the existing downtown is being transformed into more of a specialized neighborhood than a regional center.

At the same time, the entire Baltimore metropolitan area is repositioning itself as an integral portion of the northeast U.S. corridor from Washington to New York and Boston. It is the location of this kind of mega-region which is undoubtedly attracting Amazon in the first place. Instead of downtown being a regional center, it is simply one of many activity and development nodes.
Turner's Westport plan as seen from the Cherry Hill waterfront, with downtown in the background to the right.
This model also helps explain the phenomenon of "Two Baltimores" and how the city finds itself able to effectively attract dynamic corporations like Under Armour and Amazon at the same time that much of the city is in social and economic turmoil and neglect. These companies are being attracted to a place in the larger region, not just the city.

It is also this dynamic that is simply not available in many more prosperous, but free-standing cities like Seattle (Amazon's home base), Denver, Chicago and Atlanta. It's not a contradiction - it's simply a fact of life that the city needs to use to its advantage to help all of Baltimore.

An alternative geopolitical rationale is that Amazon wants to go to Toronto, which offers the entire country of Canada as its region, albeit politically far more than geographically. That would also explain Amazon's national publicity blitz to vet this process to prepare the country before moving north and trying to minimize the negative "economic nationalism" fallout. We shall see.

Evolving development plans

In the meantime, existing site plans for Port Covington and Westport cannot just be grabbed off the shelf for presentation to Amazon. The two sites and their surroundings must be considered and planned together.

For example, concepts for a roadway connection between the two areas across the upper Middle Branch should be drawn up. Two obvious options are extensions of Monroe or Bush Street eastward from Westport to Port Covington, or perhaps a combination of the two. Monroe has the advantage of a bridge over the north end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, while Bush is the first intersection as the parkway turns into Russell Street, which means more access but more congestion. The Middle Branch is very shallow in this area so a low bridge should be no problem. The old freight railroad trestle bridge can also be rehabilitated for maximum use for people, bikes and/or light rail. The multi-level I-95/395 interchange hovering overhead can be lit and painted as a kind of sculptural backdrop.
Possible Connector in orange through Westport and across Middle Branch
from Monroe Street (left) to McComas Street (right) in Port Covington.

The city also needs to do a far better job of planning for the gateway casino area along the Middle Branch just to the north. It needs to confront the previous planning that led to giving the isolated Greyhound Bus Terminal and the 3500 parking space casino garage such critical waterfront sites apparently only because they were on the paths of least resistance.

Planning must be expanded to include Camden Yards and the Sharp-Leadenhall area which is currently experiencing a building boom. The environmental and regulatory issues surrounding the BRESCO waste incinerator need to be resolved. If it can only remain as an unacceptable polluter, it must be closed down.

Of course, all of this needs to be done anyway whether Amazon comes or not. "Divide and conquer" development tactics won't work in the long run. There will be other companies to lure to both Port Covington and Westport, and all the resources of both sites and their surroundings must be made available.
Turner's Westport plan and its relationship to the existing rowhouse neighborhood to the west.
But up until now, what's most glaring about Port Covington is how its inherent geographic isolation has been so cynically used. When development first took place in the 1980s, The Baltimore Sun was simply given an extra huge plot of land, a sort of modern version of "40 acres and a mule". Then any semblance of rational planning was then thrown out when Wal-Mart came along, and its buildings were turned toward its sea of asphalt parking and away from the water.

So it as disturbing when Tom Geddes, CEO of Plank Industries, explained it this way last year before Amazon came along: "Westport will come next... Today there is no plan. It's too early for us to know or to have planned it."

By "next", did he mean Westport would have to wait out the planned 25 year build-out horizon for Port Covington? How can you plan one site, oblivious to the other? That would be absurd, especially since it's already behind schedule.

The best thing about the current lure of Amazon may end up being that it wakes the entire city up to the need to focus on a continuous effort to market and promote the best aspects of all of Baltimore.

September 8, 2017

Top ten sites for Amazon's East Coast Headquarters

Amazon just announced its intention to build a second corporate headquarters to mirror its giant west coast campus in Seattle. So now every economic development officer in the country is salivating. But Baltimore has the ideal Amazon campus site for every corporate taste. Here are the city's ten best (in no particular order).
A skyline for a Cherry Hill Amazon campus as seen across the Middle Branch from Under Armour's
Port Covington, with Harbor Hospital in the middle and the Hanover St. Bridge to the right.

Acreages are approximate, and include permanent open space, which in itself should be a vital tool in promoting adjacent urban development. All sites have been covered in previous blog posts, some of which are linked and noted. (No link to State Center - enough has already been said.)

Playing with Plank

Baltimore's wooing of Kevin Plank's Under Armour corporate campus to Port Covington was a mere dress rehearsal for Amazon. So is Amazon's Jeff Bezos willing to submit himself to a Kevin Plank marriage? How submissive is Plank willing to be in what would certainly be a marriage of unequal corporate titans? Is Port Covington big enough for the both of them? Answer: There's plenty of room for both campuses, but perhaps not as much room for both egos. Fortunately, there's a choice of two alternative marriage vows here:

1 - Port Covington: The grand Plank/Sagamore plan has been languishing lately, so Amazon could simply come in and take over possession of a lion's share of the already negotiated plans, subsides and TIF bond revenue, and then add its own imprimatur and even more massive subsidies. After all, major tweaks to the plans were inevitable over the years anyway. The recent closure of the vast Locke Insulator complex, the only Port Covington parcel that Plank does not control, is an opportunity to grow the pie to accommodate both of them, but Locke is in a far better bargaining position than Plank's previous suitors like the Baltimore Sun. (280 acres)

2 - WestportPlank and his Sagamore development company also own the major property on the other side of the Middle Branch, for which they currently have no apparent plans or motivation. Plank could sell it to Amazon and profit handsomely (perhaps more by association than by payment) while the companies coexist on opposite shores and stimulate their mutual growth. Westport already has light rail service to downtown, BWI Marshall Airport, Penn and Camden Stations and is attached to a real neighborhood which should welcome Amazon with open arms. (90 acres)

Competing with Plank

Since competition is the essence of capitalism, both companies should ideally have full leeway to flourish and forge their own identities to better serve the city's economy. Two additional major waterfront sites are available on the opposite shore of the Middle Branch from Port Covington which, like Westport, are also adjacent to working class neighborhoods. Amazon could lay claim to one site or both, creating a huge continuous waterfront campus. If Port Covington doesn't reap the benefits as well, Plank could surely sell out to someone who for whom it would.

3 - Cherry HillThis site surrounds Harbor Hospital and includes its sprawling parking lots and overdesigned Hanover Street which could be converted into a light rail corridor and development spine. It would then promote working class Cherry Hill as being Amazon's neighborhood. And Amazon would become Cherry Hill's company. (70 acres)

A skyline for a Brooklyn Masonville Amazon campus as seen from the Masonville Cove nature preserve.
The trestle in the upper left is the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (Interstate 895)

4 - Brooklyn MasonvilleJust across the mouth of the Patapsco River from Cherry Hill is the grossly underdeveloped waterfront of the Brooklyn neighborhood, which extends eastward along Frankfurst Street to the Masonville Cove nature preserve. All this is separated from most of the neighborhood by the Harbor Tunnel Thruway, but it's close enough to have a major impact. The already proposed Port Covington light rail spur could be extended to both the Amazon waterfront and the Brooklyn community via the Hanover/Potee corridor. (130 acres)

Suburban / Urban Splendor

Baltimore also has three major sites with a suburban atmosphere, but aside from all being located along commuter or light rail lines, they couldn't be more profoundly different from each other.

5 - Patapsco HillBelieve it or not, there is a huge, totally free-standing waterfront site with direct light rail access to the airport, as well as frontage upon a huge two hundred acre park. Patapsco Hill could be the site's name, bounded by the widest section of the Patapsco River on the east, Southwest Park in Baltimore County on the south, light rail on the west and Patapsco Avenue on the north. (80 acres)

6 - BayviewPerhaps Amazon would like to have its own Amtrak station in the middle of a free-standing campus, for easy access to New York and Washington. Norfolk Southern's intermodal freight railroad yard across Lombard Street from the Hopkins Bayview Research Park is obsolete and ripe for relocation to the working harbor. A new MARC/Amtrak rail station is already planned there. (70 acres)

7 - Roland Park Cylburn PimlicoStraddling the Jones Falls Valley and Cold Spring Lane is a potentially gorgeous sylvan sprawling hilly campus that could respectfully embrace and encompass the Poly-Western High School campus and Baltimore Country Club in elite Roland Park to the east, the Loyola Athletic complex to the south, Cylburn Park Arboretum to the north and extend all the way to the Lifebridge Sinai Hospital Health campus to the west. At that point, it would create the impetus to reinvent the adjacent iconic Pimlico Racetrack, enabling Amazon to join Sagamore as sponsors of thoroughbred horses. (400 acres)

Inner City Embrace

Baltimore is perhaps the best place in the country to dive into the waters of social consciousness. Here are three major sites that would enable Amazon to locate in the heart of the inner city and create its own corporate identity and culture while being the catalyst to raise the surrounding struggling communities.

Jeff Bezos' Office? The stately Mitchell Courthouse on Calvert Street could be converted
 into the Downtown Gateway to Amazon's Old Town corporate campus 

8 - Old TownThe gateway to Amazon's campus could extend all the way into the heart of downtown on Calvert Street, announced by the 1812 Battle Monument flanked by the city's twin historic courthouses which could then be transformed into Amazon's top executive offices. Proceeding northward, the campus would encompass the recently sold Baltimore Sun site at the south end of the Mount Vernon neighborhood. The campus would then shift eastward with a transformation of the Jones Falls Expressway, which could be realigned, lowered into a boulevard or given a revitalized underside. (It's now a Farmer's Market.) Farther east, the campus would become the west anchor of the new Old Town corridor, now under development by Michael Beatty, which would be oriented eastward to the iconic historic Dome building of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Old Town has been waiting for this transformation since an ill-fated shopping mall was built in the wake of the riots of 1968. (130 acres).

9 - State CenterThis site, served by both of the city's rail transit lines, has been a development battleground for over a decade. Raising the ante with Amazon could break the impasse. The surrounding communities of Upton, Bolton Hill, Seton Hill and Mount Vernon have mainly wanted a supermarket, but what they'd get is the world's largest retailer, and no doubt a flagship outlet of their newly acquired Whole Foods brand. The University of Baltimore and Maryland Institute College of Art are also nearby. (60 acres)

Amazon's campus inside the "Highway to Nowhere" could resemble a "transit village",
here shown at the proposed Harlem Park Red Line Station (Marc Szarkowski)

10 - Highway to NowhereThe huge free-standing corridor of an aborted 1970s highway is anchored on its east-end downtown gateway by the empty million square foot former offices of the Social Security Administration, now owned by Caves Valley Partners, and on its west-end by a MARC railroad station to be completely rebuilt as part of Amtrak's new West Baltimore tunnel project. In the mile between, the Amazon campus would be completely free of traffic conflicts as the obsolete expressway is replaced by new development, pedestrian and bike paths and a reconceived light rail Red Line. The adjacent Harlem Park, Lafayette Square, Heritage Crossing, Poppleton and Franklin Square neighborhoods, catastrophically cut-off for the highway, could finally be reunited. And the University of Maryland Baltimore campus is also adjoining. (90 acres)

In sum, Amazon would have a profound impact wherever it goes: Jobs, jobs and more jobs. It would be especially profound for working class neighborhoods like Westport, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Old Town, Upton, Poppleton and Harlem Park. Some already suggested high-end site locations, such as in Harbor Point or Canton, are too small or are already being crowded out by recent development.

If Baltimore is prepared for this, as Mayor Pugh has already assured us that it is, then the entire city must embrace it. Having something truly bigger than each of us is the best way to make us "One Baltimore" again.

August 21, 2017

Urban fast-food-ology: Economics and acculturation

What has been the most economically successful enterprise in the Station North arts district over the years? Hint: It's the one that has been scrupulously left out of the pictures of the glorious newly renovated Parkway Theater nextdoor on North Avenue. It's in marked contrast to the recent closure of Club Charles, the singular iconic noir bar around the corner where John Waters reportedly hung out. No, the most successful is McDonald's.

Looking east along North Avenue (to the left) toward McDonald's,
 with the newly renovated and reopened Parkway Theater in the background.
Most people think of franchised fast food as a suburban phenomenon, but it works in an urban context as well. Uniform standardization is its theme, but there are revealing differences as well. Is fast food a blight on the city, like slums, potholes and unemployment? Is it a threat to urban culture and charm? Those are subjective questions, unlike the mass market approach that franchised fast food aims for.

But fast food's standardization is very useful to scientific analysis, enabling the isolation of variables so that they can be evaluated as objectively as possible.

Newly renovated and reopened Parkway Theater image by architects, Ziger/Snead. The North Avenue McDonald's
is hidden behind the tree to the right. Charles Street is shown to the left, looking south.

Franchised fast food Economics 101

I recently took a delightful walk through Patterson Park to my local Taco Bell between Fayette Street and Pulaski Highway in North Highlandtown to get a huge delicious Double Chalupa along with two beefy Locos Tacos and all-you-can-pour soft drinks, all for the low nationally advertised price of five dollars.

Except the mega-million dollar Yum Brands national advertising blitz didn't apply to Baltimore City. Our local loco Taco Bell franchisista raised its price to $5.99 for the same Cravings Deal. Then the lady behind the counter asked me if I wanted to contribute another dollar to some needy kids cause, which would have raised it to $6.99. I told her that Taco Bell should contribute that extra dollar they've already charged me to the kids instead. If I really wanted to self-righteously flaunt my microeconomics, I could have said they could charge a dollar for parking so that car-bound suburbanites could pay their rightful share.

Of course, Economics 101 reveals that the real reason they charged the extra dollar is simply because they can, since I bought it anyway. And that extra dollar goes to support the city's macro-economy, however the economy sees fit and optimizes itself.

And so it goes with franchised fast food. It's a great way to evaluate our city's cultural, economic and other influences and impacts because there's such product uniformity across city and state lines that the differences stand out. Baltimore is thus confirmed to be a high-cost jurisdiction because the price is a dollar more than the rest of the country (except maybe New York, Alaska, Hawaii and few other places) and even higher when social costs are factored in.

And that's despite Baltimore's plentiful low-skill labor force. Now there's a movement to raise the city's minimum wage by over fifty percent to $15 an hour. How much more will a Cravings Meal Deal cost in the city than the suburbs then?

Cutting-edge upscale fast food emporiums like the one in Harbor Point are already preparing for such expensive labor by having its mostly young tech-savvy clientele enter their orders on computer touch screens instead of to human employees. This sounds like it also would appeal to control freaks, except the entry process is manipulated in a similar manner to those internet "slide show" click-bait stories where you don't find out what Tom Cruise's Ex from "Dawson's Creek" is doing now until the very last slide.

Battle of the Bathrooms, urban style

There are other noticeable non-uniformities from fast food outlet to outlet as well. The most insidious is probably how difficult it is to get in the bathroom of many urban fast food establishments. That's not just a transgender issue. Sometimes you need to be "buzzed" by the lady behind the counter to gain entry. You need to interrupt whoever she's waiting on to announce your need for relief. She decides which gender button to press, which may keep you out regardless of your self-identity. Or even if she presses the right button, the rest room may already be occupied, in which case the inside lock overrides the outside buzzed lock. And you thought North Carolina was confusing.

My newly renovated Taco Bell has a standardized floor plan in common with those in the suburbs, where the rest rooms are in a separate hidden vestibule off the door. This doesn't work well for the buzzed bathroom entry process because nobody in the restaurant can see who's coming or going to the rest rooms. So in the absence of such a rest room security protocol, there's no visual monitoring.

In some other establishments, like the recently closed Panera on Pratt Street, you need to punch a secret security code to get in. Or there might just be a threatening handwritten sign on the front door, like "We apologize for the inconvenience but rest rooms are for customers only." Such remorse.

Of course, we're not supposed to judge people by appearances. The guy who wants to get in the bathroom might be homeless and would otherwise do his thing in the alley. This may also be his only chance to get groomed before meeting up with someone who might give him a job for the day. The homeless guy could also be there to solicit your dollar welfare contribution at your table, thus cutting out Taco Bell as the philanthropic middleman.

On the other hand, many non-paying fast food bathroom trespassers (in my experience) are actually slim high-class ladies who look like they don't pig out on Double Chalupas and such and thus have no other reason to visit fast food joints but to relieve themselves.

I'm proud to say that the local Burger King on Chester Street on the east edge of Fells Point has totally open bathrooms (despite menacing signs that give them one last line of defense). This is a tremendous resource for local denizens. Other than BK, going to the bathroom in Fells Point can be even more difficult than parking. Moreover, they always charge the nationally advertised prices. And as a special bonus for me, they play 1970s progressive rock on their muzak feed, and not just mainstream Pink Floyd and Kansas, but hardcore obscure King Crimson and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis as well. I've been going there for decades, and I've never heard them succumb to Mariah, Madonna or Beyonce even once.

World Famous Chicken: A ro-fo economic engine (along with gas)

On the gas-convenience store side of fast food, Baltimore is famous for being the world headquarters of Royal Farm (aka ro-fo) Stores, which in turn is famous for its "world famous chicken". So it's not just crabs we're famous for. That may explain why the number and size of Royal Farms Outlets has been exploding around town, the "flagship"of which is probably the outlet directly across the street from the giant Horseshoe Casino picture window on Russell Street. That's an unabashed display of pure corporate power in a redevelopment corridor that's called Baltimore's "Gateway", along with the half dozen or so other gas convenience stores nearby.

The local Seven-Eleven at Broadway and Lombard Street in Upper Fells Point is also famous as a hang-out for day laborers. There were complaints about the resultant loitering, so the city put up a threatening sign that said loitering laws would actually be enforced after a certain date. But they conveniently left off the year of that date, so the sign could remain applicable year after year, and thus always be a hollow threat. We've all been told that illegal immigration from lower to higher-wage areas with a strong social safety net is a human right, so the proposed $15 an hour minimum wage raise would become even more significant.

On the other hand, we've also been told that increasing the minimum wage will reduce employee turnover, which means fewer job openings, even if employers somehow decide to employ more people at higher wages than they do now at lower wages. Which means even more people hanging out in front of Seven-Eleven looking for a one-day job.

On the third hand, employers who desire to pay higher wages to reduce turnover or attract a higher class of employees are already free to do that. It's not illegal to pay your employees more - although who knows what laws will be cooked up in the future? A maximum wage to enable employers to afford that higher minimum wage?

Fast food's accultural impact

It's difficult to ascertain how important fast food is to the local culture, but there are clues. Franchised fast food joints in general, and especially McDonald's, are essentially culture-free zones where all races, colors and creeds are treated equally. Equally well or equally badly - that's another question. But the corporate standardization subsumes most if not all cultural or other individuality.

What really matters is that the only sure way to avoid culture clashes is to have no culture at all. And McDonald's fills the bill. Taco Bell too, although there may be a lingering suspicion that words like "chalupa" have some insider "dog-whistle" meaning so Latinos can pull one over on unsuspecting Baltimorons. The local Burger King's prog rock background music and Panera's classical music are only a slightly different approach, presenting cultures that are so alien to the local populace that they might as well be from another world.

The greater cultural hegemony of fast food in the suburbs than in the city may help explain why racial and social integration have now often become more successful in the suburbs. Melting cheese leads to a melting pot.

The North Avenue McDonald's feels the need to post its rules of conduct,
 in the perceived absence of suitable or commonly accepted cultural norms.

But amid the dark urban crevices of the Station North arts district, McDonald's is a "Clean Well Lighted Place" where a modern Hemingway could hang out, 24 hours a day, except for the signs that say you must scarf down your food in 15 minutes or you could get the ole heave-ho. This McDonald's also declines to have a free beverage refill counter, unlike most McD's, BK's, KFC's and TB's. They take the "fast" in fast-food seriously. "Stay thirsty, my friends", as the Dos Equis hombre would say. Like locked rest rooms and extra-cost Chalupas, none of this happens much in the suburbs.

Alas, now that the old long-abandoned historic Parkway Theater next door has undergone its full elegant renovation, McDonald's has been cropped out of practically every picture and architect's rendering. We'll know the Station North arts district has really gone off the deep end if McDonald's is cropped out of real life as well.

July 26, 2017

Get rid of wide Light Street from a past that never was

Baltimore prides itself for having never built highways that cut the city off from the waterfront. But in a way, we did. And that's one of the primary reasons the city keeps having to renew the Inner Harbor even though it's supposed to be the city's strength. Baltimore is like a vain old codger who keeps insisting on more facelifts when the rest of his body is bleeding from open wounds.

The current ten-lane Light Street on the west shore of the Inner Harbor was initially designed in the late 1960s to be the downtown gateway for Interstate 95 back when it was proposed to be a tall bridge from the front of Federal Hill to Fells Point. That disastrous plan for Interstate 95 was killed, but Light Street was built as planned anyway and never connected to anything. It's the Inner Harbor version of the Interstate 70 "Highway to Nowhere" which has plagued West Baltimore since the 1970s.

A half century later, the city still insists on keeping both of these overbuilt roadways for no good reason. It's time to finally cut Light Street down to size.
Urban designer Michael Costa's vision for narrowing Light Street northward from Key Highway
(in the foreground) to create a linear greenway park. The Science Center and Inner Harbor are to the right.

In many ways, the west shore's super-wide Light Street sets the tone for the entire Inner Harbor. Light Street sets the Inner Harbor apart so that it functions more like a separate tourist area and less like part of the city. Activity doesn't flow naturally from the rest of the city into the Inner Harbor. It requires a well-orchestrated visit.

Cities are built on interaction, tradition and ritual, whereas many if not most tourist areas must always keep reselling themselves based on what's trendy. This accounts for the perceived pressure to remake Rash Field into a "wow" attraction like Chicago's Millennium Park instead of just a place to hang out and play volleyball. Similarly, Harborplace failed as the local marketplace that James Rouse envisioned, and so instead has seen a procession of national merchants and tenants like "Ripley's Believe It or Not", and now a major gut-job to reinvent it once again. The city felt compelled to demolish McKeldin Fountain at great cost because it didn't appeal to someone's assessment of the  lowest common denominator. It wasn't enough that many people loved it.

Meanwhile, while the city keeps fiddling to find and refine the magic formula for the Inner Harbor, it has taking needed attention away from the rest of Baltimore. This harbor obsession needs to be wound down.

Entrenched traffic patterns

The design of Light Street isn't even a matter of choosing cars versus people. Both cars and people would be better off with a narrower Light Street, to reduce endless traffic weaving between lanes and the excessive clearance times to get through the giant intersections. Even the current adjacent bike lanes add to the Light Street pavement orgy.

The optimum width of Light Street should be established by reducing traffic conflicts to the minimum possible level, and then matching flow capacities throughout the adjacent street network. Key Highway has two through lanes in each direction, so the same two lanes are likely the ideal width where it flows into Light Street. Some additional traffic filters through South Baltimore and ultimately links to Light Street, but not enough to justify changing the usable street width. Port Covington and other new South Baltimore developments are continually adding to the overall traffic demand, but virtually all of it runs into other bottlenecks that regulate flow before it ever gets to Light Street, such as on Key Highway and Hanover Street at or near McComas Street.

The principal nearby traffic bottleneck is on Light Street to the north between Conway and Pratt Streets, which gets a huge traffic infusion to and from Conway and Interstate 395. The worst bottleneck is where northbound Light splits off into Calvert Street, and then the majority of the traffic must jockey and squeeze into the two right turn lanes into Pratt.

The city's proposed long-term solution would make this worse, and the city probably even knows that because they haven't ever released the traffic study they promised a decade ago. That plan is to eliminate the direct Light to Calvert connection and concentrating all traffic in both directions into a single intersection at Pratt Street on what is now the northbound-only segment of Light Street. This would require more widening of Light Street, and create an even more imposing traffic barrier between the Inner Harbor and downtown. My far simpler solution was presented here.

But none of this changes the far lower volume traffic condition on Light Street south of Conway Street. There simply is no justification for Light Street to be as wide south of Conway Street as it is north of Conway to Pratt. So it's time to narrow Light Street down and make it work for everyone!

Optimum redesign of Light St. intersection with Key Highway - to create one continuous curve,
with two lanes in each direction and a fifth lane in the Light St. (top) portion
for a northbound left turn lane into Lee St. (upper left) and a southbound right turn lane into Light St. (bottom).
There would also be a temporary transition area for southbound thru traffic at the Lee St. intersection (not shown).

The right design for Light and Key Highway

Light Street basically flows into Key Highway so conflicts are minimized by simply making into the same street that flows into each other. This minimizes pavement and maximizes green space to reduce pedestrian conflicts and enhance the environment.

Here's the design solution that accomplishes this (shown above): Maximize the radius of curvature between Light Street to the north and Key Highway to the east so that the flow between them is as unobtrusive as possible. This will shift their intersection farther north, minimizing pavement and maximizing overall green space. Pedestrian crossing distances will be minimized. And a key advantage is that the distance on Light Street between Key Highway and Montgomery Street to the south will be maximized, greatly improving traffic flow and reducing vehicles blocking these signalized intersections.

Light Street can also be bent slightly south of Key Highway so that looking northward, it focuses directly upon the Maryland Science Center, giving it a prominent urban rather than suburban setting for the first time in its life. When the Science Center was built in the mid 1970s, it was mistakenly oriented so that Light Street was its front door, and it therefore turned its back on the waterfront. (This is a too-common malady in a city which is proud of its waterfront, repeated more recently in the Port Covington WalMart and Horseshoe Casino.) When the Science Center was finally expanded and reoriented to the water later, Light Street became its rear end, from which it has never quite recovered. This is the opportunity to make the Science Center's rear end work for the many people who see it from the south.

Light St. looking north from South Baltimore (bottom) would be oriented directly toward the rear of the Science Center
(formerly the front). The bikeway would be relocated to the large new greenway on the west and south sides.

A major new Light Street greenway

Perhaps most importantly, this solution creates a large continuous new greenway along the west side of Light Street, northward from Key Highway. This greenway would be an ideal transition zone between the hub-bub of the Inner Harbor, the peacefulness of the surrounding neighborhoods and the purposefulness of downtown.

This is where the bikeway should be - where it can be surrounded by greenery while maintaining enough space to separate it from most pedestrians. The current Light Street / Inner Harbor bikeway is essentially a glorified sidewalk, and often it gets tangled with pedestrians whose own space is  sometimes well defined but mostly isn't. The total amount of pavement devoted to bikes and pedestrians is highly inconsistent - sometimes not enough but sometimes too much, such as in front of the Science Center where it simply adds to the excessive pavement of Light Street.

The ultimate extent of this new Light Street greenway should be given its own study. It could easily be extended southeastward to Federal Hill and northward to McKeldin Park, which sorely needs more activity now that the city has demolished the fountain (see my blog article). With intelligent planning and design, this greenway could even be extended all the way northward through downtown to Preston Gardens and even to Mount Vernon Place, both of which are historic urban greenways in their own right. More locally, there's currently a green space right in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of Light and Key Highway that was poorly designed from the start and had to be shut off from the public to keep it from being vandalized. The adjacent new greenway would provide the opportunity to redo it, if whoever rescued and adopted it so desires.

The entire plan could be done in phases, which is important since money is seldom available all at once. Each phase of the greenway construction will provide lessons for further refining the plans. The first phase could simply include the single block of Light Street northward to Lee Street, and the single block of Key Highway eastward to William Street. Since the quantity of pavement would be minimized, the cost would probably be comparable to whatever short-sighted design the city is now contemplating. The initial landscaping cost can also be controlled, similarly to the way the city went cheap on the landscaping and hardscaping for the new McKeldin Park after demolishing the fountain. They've promised more grandiosity later, as they usually do.

The city's original plan for the intersection of Light and Key Highway was for a roundabout, which would have been very costly, and the worst of just about every possible aspect. At that time, I proposed a far more modest plan that would function far better, with the stipulation that it should be only temporary until a good permanent solution was devised that included narrowing Light Street.

The good news is that the city then dumped its dumb roundabout plan. But the bad news is that they then proposed a permanent design that is roughly similar to my temporary plan. Can they ever do it right?

It has been about 45 years since the last time Light Street was reconstructed in the Inner Harbor in the early 1970s. Let's not do it wrong now and be forced to wait another 45 more years to get it right. Let's narrow Light Street down to size right now.

July 21, 2017

Hyperloop needs same level of local transit innovation

The need for speed makes the state-of-the-art Hyperloop transit propulsion system promoted by financiers such as Elon Musk almost incidental. New York to Washington DC in 29 minutes? Heck, you've been able to do that in an airplane for the better part of a century. But the real challenges are just as old and time-worn. What's required is that old technologies like local urban transit must advance to match the challenges of new technologies like the Hyperloop.

This Hyperloop hype image prepared for Carnegie-Mellon (urban version of a Roger Dean "Yes" album cover)
only feeds the impression of Hyperloop as an unattainable fantasy.

That's why demonstrations always take place in the desert or some other irrelevant place. And it's why artists' conceptions of the completed systems tend to look like a 1930s "futurama" - sort of an urban equivalent of a desert. Vintage visionaries like Le Corbusier (and later Hannah-Barbera and the Jetsons) were grappling with the same problems of reconciling high speed technology with actual urban living that we're still facing today.

And it's why Musk documented his government "approval" yesterday in a 140-character Tweet instead of a zillion page Environmental Impact Statement - following the lead of President Trump's favorite form of communication. Now that's speed!

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is already on board as well. The tone was set when the city recently granted Under Armour's Port Covington $660 Million in future tax revenue, exactly the amount they asked for. The Mayor knows that it would be just as easy for the Hyperloop to bypass Baltimore as it whizzes from Washington to New York.

But Baltimore and other cities tried to transform cities for speed as far back as the 1950s. Countless urban blocks were demolished in those days to build high rise apartments surrounded by vacuous open space and high speed expressways. It didn't work.

It's really The Boring Corporation

The real frontier barrier that Elon Musk is breaking is with his company that's ironically called The Boring Corporation. That's because in order to satisfy the Hyperloop's need for speed, the only satisfactory geographic frontier is underground. Speed isn't the critical technology - it's tunneling! Subterrainia is the new desert. America was right in "A Horse With No Name" when they described the new ocean as: "the desert with its life underground and the perfect disguise above". (Now if we can only figure out their Ventura Highway's "alligator lizards in the air.")

The physics of speed is relatively easy. Friction is the only thing in the way. That's why a spacecraft orbiting the earth in 90 minutes is a piece of cake. The hard part is finding an environment to do it in. The answer is state-of-the-art boring, as in boring a tunnel. We need tunnel boring machines that can respond to virtually any geology encountered deep in the earth. We must ensure that the Boston "big-dig" and Seattle "big bertha" debacles were tunnel learning experiences equivalent of the Titanic, Hindenburg and Apollo 13.

The other challenge is geometry. Minimizing friction requires an almost straight travel trajectory. Human physiology requires it too. There's a human limit to the roller-coaster thrill ride effect. Underground is where this geometric challenge can be met - perhaps the only place. The Magnetic Levitation concept of the 1990s with vehicles darting in and out of tunnels like an obstacle course seems to be gone. With it has gone the idea that MagLev or a similar technology could satisfy shorter trips of just a few miles. High speed propulsion is not the problem. It's the geometry to support it. Cities don't easily accommodate long straight lines.

Of course, speed has the same needs regardless of how it's powered. There's no inherent reason that conventional "heavy rail" subways and other transit lines can't be powered by MagLev sometime in the future as well.

But the deeper the tunnel, the better. Way underground, even the curvature of the earth is beneficial. It's somewhat of a shock to ride the New York City subway system which was built just under the surface of the streets over a century ago with very crude dangerous manual digging and with far fewer pipes and conduits in the way, and then exit the system on the brand new Second Avenue subway with its long escalator rides from deep in the bowels of Manhattan. Urban living needs to adapt to the new digging technology.

Proposed Hyperloop Station platform deep down in the earth

Baltimore must meet the Hyperloop challenge

The Hyperloop system looks like it will be a quantum leap deeper than modern subways. The current New York to Washington proposal would only "come up for air" at two intermediate places - Philadelphia and Baltimore. Sorry, Newark and Wilmington, but you're victims of the cruel fate of geometry.

So the proposal would apparently need to use elevators instead of escalators at the stations. High speed, high capacity elevators will require another engineering breakthrough. That's the way technology feeds on itself. Innovation begets innovation.

Those four stations at the four cities will need to be very special and important places indeed, with very high accessibility. With only those four Hyperloop stops, the existing Amtrak Northeast Corridor rail line will need to be refashioned to emphasize shorter feeder trips into the Hyperloop Line. Amtrak and MARC Commuter rail will need to emphasize stations like New Carrollton, Odenton and even the inner city corridor from North Avenue to Upton to Sandtown which will be bypassed by the proposed new multi-billion dollar West Baltimore tunnel.

Baltimore also has a special challenge in that unlike the other cities, its Amtrak station is not really downtown and does not have very good local transit access. This can be improved, of course, but we've already failed once with its pathetic light rail spur connection. And Penn Station's surrounding neighborhood, with a recent momentum built on education and arts, has only limited further potential for new development specifically tailored for a role as the city's high speed portal to New York and Washington.

Hyperloop transit will require brand new thinking with a totally blank slate, not a piggyback on existing development momentum.

It may very well turn out that the best place to build Baltimore's Hyperloop Station is along the Amtrak tracks at the West Baltimore MARC Station, at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere". This area is truly a blank slate for new Hyperloop oriented development and local transit innovation. Downtown Baltimore is now being pulled eastward and this would push it back westward.

But the blank slate may need to be even bigger than that. The challenge of those new deep elevators may be best met with a new local subway line that dives deep enough into the earth to meet the hyperlink line on its own level.

Imagine that you've just gotten off the Hyperloop at the Baltimore Station. Do you then get in line for one of the elevators to come up to the city surface? Or do you walk over to the new subway line on the same underground platform, from which you can go anywhere else on the city and regional system? It would also need to be everything the dead Red Line wasn't, with high capacity, speed and connectivity. It would need to be so attractive that it would become an integral indispensable part of the whole multi-billion dollar Hyperlink project.

The new Boring Company tunnel technology that builds the Hyperloop line will be equally capable of building a new companion Baltimore subway line.

Innovation begets innovation.

July 10, 2017

"Green Network" Part 1: Four priority areas for growth

The biggest pitfall faced by the "Green Network" plan now being developed by the city's Office of Sustainability is taking an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach. Instead, when looking at the vast network of nodes and corridors on their "Vision Plan" map (as updated May 18th), the question must be answered: What are the top priorities?

The plan needs to zero-in on those critical areas where the integration of open space and development can propel the city's economic growth. Four prime candidates are offered below.

The landlocked median of the "Highway to Nowhere" has a huge amount of unused green space.
Despite being difficult, unsafe and illegal, this area is here used by pedestrians where Fremont Avenue is interrupted.
The vacant Metro West Tower is shown to the east in the background beyond MLK Boulevard.
(Note: Some trees were planted here recently after this photo was taken.)

Instead, the plan is full of presumptions about what to do with areas of mostly local community significance. For instance, what is it about the triangle bounded by Gay and Chester Streets and Sinclair Lane that makes it a designated "Community Node", whereas its complementary triangle (bounded by Federal and Milton Streets, with Gay Street as their shared hypotenuse) is not? There are surely some reasons, but if a local group or developer came along and said they were ready to create some major green space on the leftover triangle to support local needs, the city would not say "no" just because it violates the "Green Network" plan. And conversely, an even bigger question is what is it about the chosen triangle that signals the city should pour resources there instead of other areas of the city? It's all about priority.

"Green Network" priority must be economic development

There are some very smart (and very patient) people who have gone to the meetings held by the city to "vet" its plans to give them legitimacy. The keys to the entire "Green Network Plan" are contained in the final three points of the June 15, 2016 Green Network meeting results (page 9), which hit the nail directly in the center of the bullseye:
  • Green space does not equal amenity unless it is thoughtfully designed and/or programmed and maintained.  Replacing blight with green space = more blight.  Need people to activate space.
  • How does the Green Network Plan relate to transportation infrastructure/new bus plan/bike path?  Is there opportunity to green part of "Highway to Nowhere" as connector and community asset? What does the community think?
  • Planning process need to be in two areas of the city. Please do not hit and miss. Let's complete one area at a time to see an improvement.
These three points all relate to one overarching theme: The need for economic (and thus human)  development. A plan is not an end in itself. It must be a tool which is used to make the city a better place to live and work.

That means more human activity. Simply tearing down buildings and replacing them with open space means less activity. Open space needs to be located where it will generate the most activity, because that's where the people are. People don't like to use desolate open space and tend to avoid it except for perceived nefarious activities. Cities like Detroit and Youngstown have used large swaths of open space as replacements for urban development simply because they felt they had no choice. Baltimore has choices.

So open space must be coordinated with new development. Open space must be used as a tool to attract new development. Of course, this is not news to anyone who has ever been involved in Baltimore's planning. Green space planning has been a key element in mega-projects like Port Covington, Harbor Point, and the new development north of Hopkins Hospital (Eager Park). And it certainly has gotten plenty of lip service for the Middle Branch "Gateway" corridor anchored by Horseshoe Casino (even though the city ultimately decided that a giant parking garage and a Greyhound bus terminal were better waterfront uses than green open space amenities).

The "Green Network" plan needs to answer the question of which large areas will the be the focus. A very astute meeting participant said, it should be "in two areas of the city". I've proposed four candidate areas below.

It can't be done with watered-down planning that spreads the amenities in a thin veneer throughout the entire city.

On the other hand, people have countered that no area should be so "privileged", and that resources need to be directed to the rest of the city and not just favored fat-cat developments like Port Covington. But this can be better done through incremental and grassroots initiatives to aid communities in improving their own streets and neighborhoods rather than a top-down comprehensive planning process being used in the "Green Network". Such efforts need to be nurtured as enhancements to what the city already has.

Since the "Green Network" is a comprehensive large-scope effort, it must focus on areas and projects that are big enough to be of city-wide significance.

Picking Priorities

The city's "Vision Plan" map certainly shows numerous candidates for large scale new open space development. So what should be the selection criteria? It only needs to follow current city policies: The priority areas should be selected by:

1- Where it can attract numerous people

2- Where existing geography, resources and "anchor institutions" can be leveraged

3- Where there are major economic development opportunities

So which candidate areas fill the bill? Our smart meeting participants cited the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. Yes! This is a huge current wasteland that penetrates into the surrounding communities of Poppleton, Franklin Square, Heritage Crossing, Lafayette Square, Harlem Park and Sandtown. It is focused and anchored by over a million square feet of empty space in the Metro West complex, which was occupied until recently by the Social Security Administration. The topography of the current highway "ditch" also creates unique development, open space and greenway opportunities.

However, the City has apparently opposed any larger greenway type of development here. The City allowed the federal government to sell Metro West to a private developer, Caves Valley Partners,  without any coordination with such a plan. The City also insisted that the "Highway to Nowhere" be maintained throughout the failed decade-long Red Line light rail planning process, except for one block at the west end between Payson and Pulaski Streets. Ironically, the Red Line planning process also included land use scenarios that eliminated the highway overpasses over MLK Boulevard, which would have sacrificed the highway's ability to serve traffic, but without opening it up to surrounding areas. The "Highway to Nowhere" would still be there, but would become even more useless.

The city also planned a bike/jogging loop along the top rim of the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere", which would have related to nothing in the area (not even the Red Line, which also related to nothing in this area). Presumably, they finally realized how pointless this would be.

The only current hint of additional new development is a billboard sign by the developer which advertises a "pad site" on the Metro West property, which is real estate language for the type of free-standing development suitable for a Royal Farms or other gas-convenience-fast food style store.

City "green" planning for the Middle Branch Gateway

The large scale urban corridor where the city has done the most recent "Green Network" style planning is the Middle Branch and Horseshoe Casino "Gateway" area. But the city's experience is an excellent example of what not to do.

As previously mentioned, the Middle Branch waterfront near the casino has been used to build a huge 3500 car casino parking garage and a Greyhound bus terminal isolated on a peninsula - uses that are seemingly as incompatible with waterfront amenities as they could possibly be. Except that this was the continuation of an ongoing pattern of waterfront destruction. In the previous decade, the city enabled the development of a Walmart and Sam's Club that completely cut off the other side of the Middle Branch waterfront.

Free-standing "pad sites" have also been an extensive part of the new development in the corridor, with numerous gas-convenience style stores recently being built and rebuilt along Russell Street, along with two self-storage warehouses, in concert with the new casino.

The city also enabled the Sagamore Development to let its Westport waterfront lay barren for what could likely be several decades or more until their Port Covington mega-project gets built.

In sum, along with the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor, we can also rule out the City government making the Middle Branch gateway any kind of genuine green space development priority as well, unless they're pushed. The conspiracy theorists and cynics in our midst thus have plenty of evidence to argue that the "Green Network" Plan is merely a city smokescreen to divert attention away from the bad planning which has been recently happening.

Here's the City's idea of enhancing the waterfront: A 3500 car casino parking garage,
which dwarfs the Middle Branch Trail bridge behind it. And this is not some isolated mistake:
It's highly reminiscent of the Walmart and Sam's Club that created a dead waterfront at Port Covington.

But it's not too late. The city holds many cards, and could still use a combination of pressure and incentives to promote and coordinate "Green Network" development in these two areas. These corridors are also so huge that new development can begin to take place at multiple locations.

Four Recommended "Green Network" Priority Areas

Let's think big, even if we need to act somewhat smaller. Let's designate the largest possible swaths of the two corridors discussed above as priority candidates for "Green Network" development:

1 - The "Highway to Nowhere" and MLK Boulevard Corridor - This could encompass a huge footprint of West Baltimore, not only the large corridor from Metro West (Greene Street between Franklin and Saratoga Street) to the West Baltimore MARC Station, but also the MLK Boulevard corridor from Howard and Chase Streets at State Center to Washington Boulevard at Pigtown, including the University of Maryland campus and biopark. In addition, the city's bike plan includes an extension along the Amtrak tracks from the MARC Station to the existing Gwynns Falls Greenway at Baltimore Street, which has somehow been left off the "Green Network" map. The federal government is planning to spend billions upgrading the Amtrak line from there to Penn Station, so this is a prime candidate for local mitigation development.

Camden Yards-to-Masonville "Green Network" Corridor

2 - The Middle Branch Gateway Corridor from Camden Yards to Masonville - This includes all of the Camden Yards stadium complexes from Camden Street adjacent to the downtown Convention Center at Howard Street, all the way south to the Middle Branch waterfront in Westport, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn to Masonville. The Stadium Authority's current lease extension negotiations with the Orioles owner Peter Angelos would fit into this process to enhance Camden Yards, as well as the current community related planning spawned by the Horseshoe Casino and Port Covington developments. At the south end, the Masonville Cove nature preserve built by the Maryland Port Administration on the Middle Branch waterfront is currently cut off from the Brooklyn community by a concrete plant and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway. These areas need to be stitched together.

To these two areas, I recommend adding two more corridors:
Marc Szarkowski's proposal to the Warnock Foundation for integrating Carroll Park and Golf Course,
the B&O Railroad Museum, the historic "First Mile" rail line and the Mount Clare community.

3 - The "First Mile" Corridor from the B&O Railroad Museum to the Gwynns Falls Greenway - This area includes the north edge of Carroll Park and the adjacent 1.3 million square foot Montgomery Park office complex. Along with Fort McHenry, the B&O Railroad Museum should be the city's premiere historic attraction but the neglect of its surroundings has been a major detraction. Several decades ago, they had a major plan to create a "Williamsburg of Railroading" in this corridor, but its lofty ambitions were beyond the museum's capabilities. More recently, the city and state planned an intermodal rail-truck freight terminal that would have extended into the area. Now that both plans are dead, a new plan is urgently needed to blend the corridor into the surrounding communities and Carroll Park, which is a magnificent recreational and historical resource whose north perimeter remains a dead industrial wasteland.

Pimlico-to-Roland Park "Green Network" Corridor - Unifying the racetrack with some of Baltimore's
 better neighborhoods would eradicate the reputation that the track is in a "bad" area. 

4 - Pimlico Racetrack to Cylburn to Roland Park Corridor - The renewal and redevelopment of Pimlico Racetrack area is one of the city's top priorities. The area needlessly suffers from a poor image, but is actually close to some of the city's premiere parks, neighborhoods and economic anchors. The area's perception can be greatly enhanced by creating a westward linkage to Cylburn Park and then beyond across the Jones Falls Valley and Roland Park, one of Baltimore's elite neighborhoods.

Adjacent to Pimlico Racetrack at the west end of this corridor is the Lifebridge health complex anchored by Sinai Hospital. At the east end in Roland Park is the Baltimore Country Club. Both of these institutions have significant open spaces which they need to balance with development. This should be done in a way that is compatible with the needs of the corridor as a whole. 

Again, the city has not shown much interest in this area as part of the "Green Network". A prime property on the most visible and accessible edge of Cylburn Park near Cold Spring Lane has long been the city's "stump dump" for churning up dead trees. Next to the "stump dump", more green space has recently been turned into an electric substation. These areas were previously supposed to be incorporated into the city's Cold Spring Newtown, but that development plan has instead been downsized and made more isolated.

One notable issue is that Cylburn Park was re-branded as an "arboretum", which then became a de-facto justification for shutting it off from the surrounding areas with only its only access point being a driveway from Greenspring Avenue. But Cylburn Park could be the linchpin for unifying the area's many attractive but disparate neighborhoods to Pimlico - including Roland Park, Mount Washington, Levindale, Cold Spring Newtown, and Cross Keys. The proposed extension of the Jones Falls Trail north of Newtown can be part of this unification process.   

In sum, all four areas discussed above have lofty economic development objectives, which need to depend on using green space as a crucial amenity attraction. This is what could make the "Green Network" an indispensable tool in promoting Baltimore development and amenities.

It's all about priorities.

Here are a few select links to blog articles about these "Green Network" corridors:
(Part Two tomorrow: The role that the City's "Green Network" corridor planning should play in reviving and promoting "Bike Boulevards")