November 16, 2017

Reservoir / Druid Hill / Mondawmin: Turning the corner

The corridor from Reservoir Hill to Druid Hill Park to Mondawmin is at a critical stage right now. It has the city's best park, best shopping mall, best transit outside downtown and some of its most attractive housing, but the recently announced closure of the Target store has dealt a bitter blow.

As such, the area's most critical development zone is not where you'd expect: It's the two block "no man's land" at the elbow where these three areas should and could come together, but don't.

The old "gold coast" high rises of Reservoir Hill looking west along Druid Park Lake Drive should be extended
 to wrap slightly around the corner toward Mondawmin (three new buildings, upper right).
Druid Lake will be shrunk somewhat over the next five years to construct underground water tanks. 

This small point is exactly where the development growth spreading northward from downtown to  midtown to Bolton Hill to Reservoir Hill comes grinding to a halt. Then two blocks beyond, north of Fulton Avenue, activity picks up again toward Mondawmin. This small two block area could be called "Reserdawmin Hill". Or some better name.

Development of this small area would allow Reservoir Hill to wrap around and embrace Druid Hill Park in a way that's not now possible, and create some common ground with the greater Mondawmin community, turning the corner, integrating them and blurring their boundaries.

Reservoir Hill is the growing neighborhood between North Avenue (US 1, lower left) and Druid Lake.
 Greater Mondawmin (upper left) is the large neighborhood west of huge Druid Hill Park (upper right).
"Reserdawmin Hill" could be the tie that binds them.

Traffic is in the cause and the cure  

The northwestern of the two blocks is dominated by one of the city's most bizarre intersections -  between Druid Park Lake Drive, McCulloh Street, Druid Hill Avenue and Fulton Avenue (see Google Earth map below). It's an intersection that literally screams "stay away!" to any pedestrians who might happen to venture nearby. It's also confusing for motorists. But moreover, it's a huge waste of space that infects and deadens both the main corner of  Druid Hill Park to the north and the triangular piece of parkland to the west toward Auchentoroly Terrace, making it not feel like part of Druid Hill Park at all. Residents of the attractive victorian rowhouses along Auchentoroly make the best of this, but they must feel like they're living on the edge of the world instead of next to the best park in the city.

The other block, bounded by Druid Park Lake Drive, McCulloh Street, Cloverdale Road and Madison Avenue, is occupied by a small outpost of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks offices. That's a gross underutilization for a parcel at the primary gateway of Druid Hill Park. Rec and Parks no doubt uses it only because it's there.

A third slender block between these two is occupied by basketball courts, which seems to be an odd use and not very convenient to the nearby communities or the rest of the park. However, they are otherwise lacking in recreational facilities and it's not critical to new development.

Existing traffic lanes through "Reserdawmin Hill": Reservoir Hill is to the lower right. Mondawmin is to the left.
 Druid Hill Park is to the top. Rec and Parks office in the little house on the right block.
 Basketball courts on the lower block. Snarling intersection on the upper block.

The traffic flow at this sprawling intersection is grossly imbalanced. Southbound flow is actually very efficient, comprised of three traffic lanes. The right lane flows thru into Druid Hill Avenue, the left lane turns left into eastbound Druid Park Lake Drive, while the center lane has a choice of either direction (for drivers who aren't quite sure where they're going).

In contrast, northbound flow is a giant mess. It's seven lanes in all, with enough pavement for an eighth or even a ninth lane, both of which had to be hashed out because there's no room for those lanes to go. It's an orgy of asphalt. Five of the seven lanes merge into northbound McCulloh Street, which eventually changes names again to Auchentoroly or Swann or Swan. Madison Avenue becomes a different Swann in the park. An "Ugly Duckling" turning into a Swann? The street names are almost as confusing as the streets themselves.

Merging zones like this belong on Interstate highways, not city streets. The merges beg aggressive motorists to go faster and faster. But the merge point is at the exact location of the pedestrian crosswalk into the park, instilling a helpless feeling on anyone attempting to cross.

All this was in fact originally designed to resemble an Interstate highway, or at least to transition into one. Interstate 795, built in the 1980s from the Beltway outward toward Owings Mills, was originally (in the 1950s) supposed to proceed inward into the city along what later became the Wabash Avenue corridor, then proceed further to the Park Circle area, and then into this web of traffic lanes here along the edge of Druid Hill Park.

The two remaining lanes of the seven are directed to turn left into Fulton Avenue. This is OK, but the lanes take up a lot of space because they are segregated from the rest of the traffic, which also means motorists are screwed if they don't get in the proper lane two blocks in advance near Madison Avenue.

Proposed "Reserdawmin Hill" plan. Southbound traffic flow would stay as-is,
 but northbound flow would be greatly consolidated as shown.

The solution is to just design two normal intersections, one at Fulton and the other at the end Druid Park Lake Drive. The southbound traffic patterns won't change at all. For the northbound traffic, the high speed merge would be eliminated and all the traffic would be consolidated into three lanes on each approach, with an additional lane or two between the two intersections for left turns into Fulton. This layout would free-up a significant amount of land where the high speed merge lanes are currently located on Druid Park Lake Drive (see graphic above).

The exact number of lanes should be determined by further study of the larger area traffic patterns all the way north along Druid Hill Park, to greatly reduce the park's isolation from the Mondawmin community. Along the park, all the through traffic in both directions should be concentrated in the five lanes now used for northbound flow, thus enabling the elimination of through traffic on the street immediately adjacent to the houses on Auchentoroly Terrace (see article from Baltimore Brew)

This is very do-able, and would be a major relief to the neighborhood and a major enhancement to Druid Hill Park. Relief is needed even for the two blocks of Auchentoroly just north of Fulton where most through traffic is shifted away from the houses, because the remaining thru traffic goes too fast, as evidenced by the "speed humps" that had to be installed - a stopgap band-aid kind of solution.

Northernmost hi-rise is the key to the plan. It would actually feel like it is part of the Mondawmin community (upper right),
 Druid Hill Park (bottom) and Reservoir Hill (left) at the same time. Also of note is the distinctive architecture of the city
 utility building just across the street from the proposed high rise. It was originally a streetcar storage facility.
 The nine-lane highway north of this intersection should also be narrowed at some point.

The "Reserdawmin Hill" plan

The goal of the plan is to bring Mondawmin, Reservoir Hill and Druid Hill Park together for the benefit of all. In terms of cold economics, the goal is to strengthen the primary local market area for retail in Mondawmin Mall (like the Target property) and for the neighborhoods as a whole.

The freed-up space adjacent to the park by downsizing the intersection south of Fulton should be used for high density residential development. This is one of the best places in all of north Baltimore for high rise housing because it would not directly impact anyone, but it would also infuse new life into the park and eliminate the "no man's land" between Reservoir Hill and Mondawmin. The nearby neighborhoods are dominated by thousands of rowhouses, so modern attractive high rises would be a welcome new market choice. These new buildings would also complement and relate to the adjacent historic high rise buildings just to the south along Druid Lake in Reservoir Hill (see top graphic).

There are probably legal issues to be addressed in this plan, but the sheer amount of park land should not be an issue. Druid Hill Park is huge and much of the park land does not even function as park land. More and better park land would be created by downsizing the highways that wrap around the park. And most of all, even more new park land is about to be created by burying much of Druid Lake for the safety of its drinking water. 

The real issue is not the gross amount of park land. It's maximizing the quality and usefulness of that land for real people, especially the land at the park's edges which most serve the surrounding neighborhoods.

Good sites for attractive high density housing are hard to find. This is a great one because it is on the cusp of two very ambitious and promising neighborhoods, along with the city's premiere park. Baltimore needs to get away from its waterfront development tunnel vision. Housing which is a true catalyst for the whole city's growth and which can return much more in the future should be a high priority.

There's going to be a big construction mess in this corner of Druid Hill Park for the next five years to build the new underground water tanks. Let's make it worth it.

November 6, 2017

Raising zillions for Northeast Corridor transportation

Governor Hogan recently announced a $9 Billion proposal to widen three major Maryland expressways using future toll revenue from "express toll lanes". This merely hints at the vast potential of highway tolls to raise prodigious amounts of money to build transportation projects. In this case, it is promised to be entirely at the risk of the private sector from design to construction to operation.

While this concept is only applied here to suburban highway widening, it really has much greater potential for financing a far wider range of transportation modes and projects in a much larger multi-state area - the entire Northeast U.S. Corridor.
Interstate 95 construction about a decade ago to create four "express toll" lanes,
 just northeast of the Baltimore Beltway (I-695)

The scope of the Hogan plan should be greatly expanded to become a public-private authority, all the way from Washington to New York or beyond, encompassing all major transportation facilities including highways, freight and passenger railroads and even future high-speed high-tech maglev or hyperloop. Narrow thinking focused only on specific widening for "express toll lanes" to reduce congestion subverts the entire concept.

The basic "express toll lane" dilemma

The Maryland proposal is a way to address the specific growing highway congestion in the growing Washington, DC suburbs, while using the congestion to create the revenue source - so-called "congestion pricing". Tolls would be charged on designated "express toll lanes" and would rise as demand and congestion rises, being higher in peak than non-peak periods. Rising tolls would be a demand management tool to prevent the overuse of the toll lanes, much as hotels and airlines commonly charge higher rates for peak periods. Adjacent lanes would remain free. All motorists would benefit because the toll lanes would siphon traffic off of the free lanes, and those with flexible schedules would benefit even more from travelling at off-peak times.

But the basic problem of this concept is the same as its advantage - it feeds on congestion. Without congestion, it won't work. And the more congestion there is, the better it works. Congestion itself also reduces traffic capacity. So saying its goal is to reduce congestion is highly deceptive.

This is further confused by the fact that it's a highway building and widening scheme, and it touts expanding highways as a way to reduce congestion. So the very act of expanding highways works against the concept of "congestion pricing".

Moreover, widening specific highway segments creates capacity mismatches. The benefit ends where the highway widening ends. Bottlenecks merely move to these locations, thus nullifying the benefits.

These problems have been well illustrated in the billion dollar project to reconstruct seven miles of Interstate 95 several years ago from near the east Baltimore City line to White Marsh (MD 43) in order to provide four new "express toll lanes". Expansion of the highway from 8 to 12 lanes has indeed reduced congestion for everyone. As a result, there has been scant incentive to use the toll lanes, and they have only attracted an average volume of about 25,000 vehicles per day. This is an extremely low volume for a billion dollar project, more akin to what is carried by an urban arterial street. This entire segment of I-95 carries over 180,000 vehicles per day.

What's more, the "express lanes" must merge back into the old highway at each end. At the southwest end in Baltimore, this means going through the two tunnels under the harbor, neither of which is likely to be widened or expanded in anyone's lifetime despite constant traffic growth. (Right now, the city is attempting get funding to build new ramps into Port Covington which would allocate more of the I-95 capacity to new local traffic at the expense of through traffic.)

At the other end northeast of White Marsh, the problem is even more imminent. The two northeastbound express lanes themselves neck down to a single lane prior to merging back into old I-95. The entire northeastbound capacity goes from six lanes on the new express section, to four and then three lanes to the north. This creates a major bottleneck where congestion will continue to get worse, largely nullifying the whole benefit of the billion dollar project. Even many drivers who would enjoy the benefits of the express toll lanes avoid them because of the risk of getting trapped behind a slow poke when merging back at the end. They'd rather have the flexibility and freedom to weave around in the four free lanes.

The only "solution" to these problems is to sacrifice the free lanes, and make them work even worse, so that the toll lanes can attract an optimum level of traffic to maximize revenue.

In the Washington suburbs, the variable electronic toll InterCounty Connector (MD 200) was built as an "outer beltway" to solve the congestion problem on the old inner beltway (I-495), but of course it didn't. Now the inner beltway is one of the highways in the state's $9 billion package of three highways to be expanded for express toll lanes. It's the same old futile story of trying to widen our way out of traffic congestion.

The real solution begins by thinking bigger about EZ Pass

The real solution has been on the horizon for a few years but has yet to see a breakthrough to a wide application: ALL major urban and interurban highways should be subject to congestion toll pricing, not just a few selected express lanes.

Collecting tolls through the EZ Pass and other electronic systems is now commonplace. It needs to move toward becoming universal. That is the only way that effective management of traffic demand can happen amid the highway system's many capacity constraints and bottlenecks. Highways should cost more to use in peak than off-peak periods, in order to regulate demand and eliminate congestion.

Uncongested highways could be free at off-peaks, including bridges and tunnels that now have a uniform toll 24 hours a day. Current gas taxes could even be rolled over into this system to further increase the incentive to use uncongested roads. The currently common political stalemate over raising gas taxes relates to the mistrust that this money is not truly a "user fee". This will allow motorists to have greater control over how much they pay for what they get. It could also make the currently contentious concept of a "carbon tax" more politically palatable.

Some enlightened experts have even proposed including auto insurance in the deal, so people could pay as they drive instead of getting an uncorrelated lump sum monthly or annual bill. All this would give motorists the maximum incentive to take control of their driving expenses (a nonstop version of Progressive Flo's "name your own price" tool).

All this could be done in phases, of course. In Maryland, it would begin by making all bridge and tunnel tolls variable based on peak demand. This could start off as "revenue neutral". The bridges and tunnels could be free in the middle of the night and cost more in rush hours.

Tolls for the I-95/895 harbor tunnels in Baltimore and the I-95 Susquehanna River bridge to the northeast, where congestion is a major problem, could be "bundled" with the existing express toll lanes in between to encourage more than the current 25,000 cars per day to use them.

Then instead of Hogan's plan to build new lanes for express toll traffic at a cost of billions, existing lanes could be converted to variable express toll lanes where congestion is already a problem. This could start simply with the conversion of one of the two "tubes" in each direction of the I-95 Fort McHenry Tunnel to variable tolls.

Thinking bigger means thinking multi-modal

Of course, no congestion reduction plan can get far enough without getting a significant number of people out of their cars altogether. The solution strategy raised above therefore needs to incorporate multi-modalism - transit for people and freight rail for truck traffic.

Here the rule is simple: Spend money on transportation projects which will do the most good. New express toll lanes may fit a paradigm where tolls pay for the highway construction, but do they actually solve the problems? As discussed above, the answer is usually "no".

Thus we need to expand our horizons to where the revenue from highway tolls can be spent on high speed rail, freight rail and/or whatever is most beneficial. Expanding our horizons also means considering the entire highly urban and interrelated Northeast U.S. Corridor from Washington D.C. to New York or perhaps from Virginia to Boston or whatever works best. It also means involving the private sector, which should have the expertise and entrepreneurial discipline to make it work.

Defining boundaries and parameters in a logical, efficient, focused and non-arbitrary way is critical. Amtrak's dense Northeast Corridor service now competes for federal subsidies with sparse service in the great plains and mountain states, and very arguably comes out on the losing end. President Obama made a big deal of his "high speed rail" investment stimulus program, but spread the money out thinly to include any state that showed sufficient interest. President Trump has made highly publicized gestures to the private sector, but nothing yet that looks substantial.

There is a massive amount of money at stake in all this. Amtrak alone has plans for well over a hundred billion dollars worth of projects in the Northeast Corridor. Maglev and Hyperloop high speed rail projects are in a similar astronomical cost neighborhood, and really aren't redundant with Amtrak. Then there's countless major highway projects and various freight improvements and maintenance costs for all of it.

The biggest current rail project in the Northeast Corridor is a proposed new tunnel under the Hudson River from New Jersey to Manhattan, and its status has been tenuous. The project was originally led by the State of New Jersey and there was much contention and finger pointing when they decided it was too big for them. But it was revived by Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration with the various New York and New Jersey agencies in subordinate roles, and it hopefully now has enough momentum to actually happen.

Meanwhile, here in Maryland, Governor Hogan has gotten flack for his highly publicized interest in the private sector's maglev and hyperloop high speed rail proposals between Baltimore and Washington. And very recently, CSX Transportation pulled out of a deal with the State of Maryland and a hypothetical federal government partner to expand its railroad tunnel through downtown Baltimore to accommodate "double stack" freight trains, dealing a blow to the city, state and regional freight and port interests.

The common denominator is money.

NECTA: Northeast Corridor Transportation Authority

The transportation needs of the Northeast Corridor from Washington to New York and beyond are bigger than any and all current entities can handle, even the United States government. The current complex interactive web of institutions at the federal, state, regional, municipal, and private sector levels lack the formal relationships and financial leverage to make it work.

The ultimate solution is the creation of a Northeast Corridor Transportation Authority that incorporates all the major highways and railroads in the entire multi-state region. This would include Amtrak and the various commuter railroad lines that run on the same tracks - including MARC, SEPTA, NJT, etc. NECTA would have the power to establish and regulate tolls on all its highways and set fares on all the rail lines. It would also contract with the private sector on various projects.

NECTA would also be the right kind of institution to implement the kind of "express toll" highway plan that could really reduce congestion, expand true effective daily traffic capacity, and give people control over their transportation expenses - and finance mobility solutions that would really work.

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.