October 30, 2018

Baltimore's MagLev Station MUST be Downtown

The engineering report for the high speed Baltimore-Washington Magnetic Levitation train station alternatives will be released soon, with three basic options - two of which are merely waterfront development sites. Downtown is the only option which makes any sense, the only location where it can serve the entire Baltimore region as a whole and lead to broad-based growth.
Three candidate MagLev station locations: Only downtown would have integrated access to the entire city and region.

Baltimore was built around downtown. All the region's transportation infrastructure has always emanated from downtown, including the street, highway and transit systems. MagLev is supposed to revolutionize Baltimore's place and role in the U.S. Northeast Corridor with 15 minute travel to Washington at up to 300 mph and eventually to New York. The entire region must benefit from this, not just isolated places.

Port Covington and Westport, the two alternatives outside downtown, are isolated places - former industrial and railroad properties shielded by the waterfront. The primary reason they have been considered attractive for billions of dollars of investment by their developers, supported by the city taxpayers, is that they are separated from downtown.

Traffic access to both Westport and Port Covington are zero-sum games that rely almost completely on highways that are already at or near capacity. Westport's highway connections include at-grade railroad crossings. Port Covington's connections require relocating and expanding the I-95 ramps in a way that would simply reduce the capacity for through traffic.

In contrast, downtown is served by a comprehensive and open-ended transportation network - spokes on a wheel which extend outward in all directions. Development has always followed these spokes. MagLev would simply be a continuation of the historical development patterns that have always been the framework for the city's growth.

Every neighborhood in the city and suburbs is defined to a large extent by its geographical relationship to downtown. Growth areas of earlier eras such as Mount Vernon, Upton, Charles Village and even Govans are defined as being midtown and uptown. As downtown's roles have evolved over the years, these relationships have evolved with it. Major downtown redevelopments like Charles Center, the Inner Harbor, Harbor East and Harbor Point have in turn created challenges for these communities to grow as well.

But what would happen if suddenly, Westport or Port Covington became the primary focus? There is very little historic linkage between these areas and most of Baltimore. Some linkage can be created via the central light rail line, with perhaps a spur, but this is hardly the kind of comprehensive connectivity that would be needed. The geographic boundaries of Westport and Port Covington are both limited and finite.

Downtown is also the only place that has the kind of rich complex web of land uses, interests and ownership that can truly respond to the challenges of MagLev and ensure that its benefits are as broad based as possible. All interests would get to decide how they want to respond to take advantage of MagLev.

Westport/Port Covington development monopoly

A huge problem with Westport and Port Covington is that both are essentially owned and controlled by the same single individual - Keven Plank, founder and majority owner of Under Armour. That is far too much control to give a single person.

The first phase of Port Covington development is supposed to proceed in late 2019 or 2020 - a relatively low density mixed-use complex adjacent to the newly completed whiskey distillery on the waterfront. This would be followed by much more ambitious and higher density development later, anchored by a large Under Armour corporate campus, as defined by a carefully crafted long range plan which was developed to get approval for $660 Million in city Tax Increment Financing.

But recent events make this questionable. Under Armour's growth has recently plummeted. Plank was highly aggressive in attempting to woo Amazon in its current highly publicized HQ2 campaign. When that failed, Plank's development team reportedly put its hat in the ring for a new arena to replace the old Baltimore Arena downtown.

This kind of Port Covington one-track mentality definitely hurt the city's effort to attract Amazon. The city has many other great development sites.

And this would essentially have necessitated the carefully crafted Port Covington master plan to start over at square one. A MagLev Station would require the same. An athletic wear campus, whiskey distillery and medium density development would not be the best uses in proximity to a MagLev Station.

Westport's future potential would be even more constrained. Plank's development team has indefinitely suspended all the ambitious Westport development plans which were prepared by the defaulted previous owner Patrick Turner, and they are content to simply the large waterfront property sit vacant until they deal with Port Covington. But unlike Port Covington, there is a small adjacent moderate income neighborhood which has essentially been held hostage by this, victims of all this fuzzy future speculation.

The Westport community has been very open minded about preparing for future development challenges, working for years with Patrick Turner to create the best possible plans for all. But a Westport MagLev station would be beyond any small community's ability to plan for change. If Westport was chosen for the MagLev Station, the community would be turned inside-out overnight.

From the standpoint of MagLev's development impacts, Westport and Port Covington really can't be considered separately. Westport would be Port Covington's secondary real estate market, and vice versa, owned by the same Plank consortium. They are essentially the same alternative. And downtown is the only other choice.

MagLev for the masses

The need for MagLev to serve everybody cannot be overemphasized, and is a primary reason why the station must be downtown rather than on any isolated development site. It cannot be merely a plaything for the rich. Yes, some relatively well-to-do will use it to commute to Washington, but its role needs to go far beyond that, especially as it is eventually extended toward New York and elsewhere.

In determining how various income groups would be affected by MagLev, distinctions need to be made between development and transportation impacts. The limited finite geographical size of Westport and Port Covington means that high income people would be able to dominate the speculation. In contrast, downtown areas immediately around the station would be most attractive for the high rollers, but as distance increases in all directions, lower income folks spanning the entire region would be able to take advantage as well.

That brings us to income effects of the MagLev system itself. The huge multi-billion cost of MagLev is irrelevant to how it would stratify income groups. Capital cost is committed up-front and is a "sunk cost". This is now all rail transit works. When the cost of the proposed Red Line tripled, no one thought that would have an effect on whether rich people would ride it.

Once MagLev is up and running, the challenge will simply be to attract as many people to use it as necessary to fill all the seats. Naturally, if service is of a sufficiently high quality, rich folks will be attracted and the operators will try to set the fares to get as much money from them as possible. This is what Amtrak does with its Acela trains, which are barely faster than the regular trains (mostly by skipping stops) but have double or triple the fares.

This is also the same as the distinction between first class and coach air travel. The long-term trend has been for airlines to cater increasingly to the lowest class, with cheaper fares and treating the masses like they're crammed into cattle cars. Since the popularization of air travel in the 1950s, there has been only one major attempt at a service exclusively geared to the upper class - the supersonic Concorde, which was a total failure.

MagLev will be nothing like the Concorde, because it will be a truly high capacity mode of transportation. Its propulsion will be on the guideway, not on the vehicles, so operating cost per vehicle will be low, leading to a push to maximize the number of trains. So for the rich and not so rich alike, the high frequency of service will be at least as important as the speed.

Everyone will want to take maximum advantage of being able to arrive at the station whenever they please and board a train as quickly as possible, rather than being slaves to a schedule. Sure, there will no doubt be a high fare first-class service that provides priority boarding and nicer seats, and maybe free booze if there's time for it, but that's about the only extent of the class distinctions.

Amtrak will have to adapt as well, emphasizing shorter distance trips between stations that don't have MagLev. The distinctions between Amtrak and commuter railroads will then blur or even disappear. This is already apparent in Amtrak's long range capital improvement plan, which only attempts to raise travel speeds by small increments. Commuter rail ridership is already concentrated more on higher income groups, while less frequent riders cover the entire income spectrum. So the cheapest MagLev fare between Baltimore and Washington may eventually be not much more than a typical Amtrak fare. MARC may go to a single base fare no matter how many miles you ride, just like MTA buses.

So MagLev needs mass appeal, as much as any mass transit does. That can't be provided at Port Covington or Westport. It can only be accommodated downtown, where the entire regional transportation system converges.

Mechanic Theater station site looking west from Redwood Street across Charles Street.
The curved roof of the Charles Center Metro Station entrance at Baltimore Street is seen to the right. 

Best downtown station for MagLev and Hyperloop: Mechanic Theater site

The obvious location for a MagLev Station is the former Mechanic Theater site at Charles and Baltimore Street at the exact traditional center of downtown, right at the Charles Center Metro Station. Whenever the old Baltimore Arena is finally demolished, sooner or later, the station can then be linked to the central light rail line. Other good candidate sites may also be available, but they must be near the center of downtown.

The criteria for a station on Elon Musk's proposed "Hyperloop" system are pretty much the same, and the same station should be designed for both. It is now apparent, however, that Musk's business plan is to emphasize incrementalism in his proposed system, rather than attempting to build an expensive, high speed, high capacity line all at once. It is also increasingly likely that the initial segment won't serve Baltimore at all, and may be in southern California. So, there will be a "learning curve" before major decisions need to be made. This should complement MagLev quite well.

Musk's system will initially use slower "skates" that operate up to 150 mph, about half as fast as MagLev or Hyperloop, covering stations which are closer together and off the main "trunk" line. This would create more of a tree with branches than a single high speed corridor. Thus Musk's system could feed MagLev, the same way conventional transit does.

Baltimore must prepare for the future of transportation no matter what eventually happens. The only way to do that is to plan for a high speed rail station in the heart of downtown.

October 17, 2018

Squeegee scene solution: City at the crossroads

Downtown intersections are now a microcosm of life in the city, with everybody getting into the act - not just drivers, bikers, buses and pedestrians, but "Squeegee Kids", poor "homeless" solicitors and monitors from the presiding "ruling class". The basic rules are observed, ignored, debated, stretched to the limit or violated by all, but remain inevitable nonetheless. It all seems complex but it's really simple.
Lombard Street looking west from South Street through downtown. "Do Not Black Intersection" sign is overhead.
 All signals say green, but traffic is blocked enough so that pedestrians are jaywalking.

The life cycle is the traffic signal cycle

The basic pulse of the city is regulated by traffic signal timing. Green and red lights cue every actor in the street drama to move in and out of the action. Downtown street life in Baltimore is divided into discrete 110 second cycles in peak periods which each contain a green, yellow and red light for each direction.

The 110 second cycles provide some green time for traffic in each direction to move, but also quite a bit of time to stop. There's red light time when you're supposed to stop, plus additional time when you must stop because traffic is blocked.

Everybody uses this extra time for whatever they can. Through traffic must sit, or perhaps proceed into the intersection and block it. Bikes and scooter riders can swing onto the sidewalks and become pedestrians. Pedestrians can jaywalk. Some drivers may check their cell phones. And "Squeegee Kids" and panhandlers can go to work.

The city touted the benefits of its upcoming downtown traffic signal timing improvements which were supposed to go into effect before enforcement of the new "block the box" traffic violation rules, but has now apparently given up on that. So this week, $125 fines for motorists who find themselves stuck inside an intersection began, without the aid of new better signal timing. City officials merely whimpered when their timing tweaks failed this summer, so then they said they'd put it all back the way it was. That's no progress.

The problem is that in a tight urban street grid, traffic signal tweaks are a zero-sum game at best, much like most other programs that attempt to slice up the urban pie. Giving more green time to one street means less green time for the other street, and all streets carry users of all modes. It can't be done on an individual intersection basis either, since traffic flow must be measured by the capacity of the system as a whole.

But what really happened is that the city officials remained quiet until city drivers started to speak up in protest. That hadn't happened in a while. Bike riders, transit riders and pedestrians have all raised their voices - but not the "cagers", as the bike lobby calls people who sit in cars surrounded by a ton of protective "shiny metal boxes" (as The Police sang - not the Baltimore Police, but Sting and his band on the "Synchronicity" album).

At worst, many "cagers" reacted against the bike riders. That was not a smart move. Everyone is in this together. And on the Pratt/Lombard one-way couplet where traffic demand is heaviest and tempers are shortest, bikes are only allowed to use the bus lanes and are not given lanes of their own. Big buses win on the intimidation factor, while many bikers have become adept at weaving in and out of the bus and car lanes and sidewalks, as have riders of  the new motor scooters, while the "cagers" can only seethe with envy.

"Squeegee Kids" graduate from a short to a mid-term issue

The big benefactor of recent events will be the "Squeegee Kids" who wash windshields while drivers are stopped waiting at intersections. According to the law, these kids are illegal solicitors who violate traffic laws, as are the increasingly present panhandlers. But also starting this week, the Downtown Partnership plans to place security guards at intersections to "monitor" the actions of these solicitors at a cost of approximately $3000 per week (according to the Oct 12 Sun).

This should be of great benefit to those who conduct their solicitations in an orderly and friendly way, legitimizing their activity which until now has taken place outside of the law. The threat of arbitrary, capricious and apparently random law enforcement, including vigilante "road rage" by offended drivers, should now be curtailed. One may argue that the $150,000 per year might be better spent on more constructive employment or other activities, but paying this money to the security guards is essentially just that.

Since the city also spends a lot of money on traffic enforcement personnel, one may also contend that all these costs are getting too high. One could also add the fact that downtown businesses pay extra taxes above the city's already sky high property taxes to support this as well. Running Baltimore is expensive. 

Now we can also add more traffic enforcement to these costs. The new "block the box" campaign will keep motorists waiting at the intersections even longer, giving the panhandlers and "Squeegee Kids" even more time for their solicitations. For motorists, staying out of the intersections isn't easy. It is difficult to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you in bumper-to-bumper traffic, especially when it's a bus, truck or SUV. You may also see a traffic gap fill up quickly by someone switching lanes or turning right on red, which although mostly illegal downtown, is less enforceable than blocking the box.

Each additional expense and cost added to the operating budgets further solidifies the status quo and makes all this a middle term rather than short term issue. It's no longer just reactive. The panhandlers and "Squeegee Kids" are becoming further entrenched in the city's culture and have their own subcultural identity. This then adds to the city's "Two Baltimores" image - black vs. white, rich vs. poor, visible vs. hidden, and the semi-segregated "White L" geographic zone.

It's all on display. For whatever reasons, the "Squeegee Kids" are far younger and overwhelmingly black, while the panhandlers are much older and surprisingly much whiter for a city that is two-thirds black. There seem to be differences among the panhandlers between appearing positive versus looking pathetic, although "God Bless You" is a favorite catch phase among both. (Religion emerges in any morality play.) On the other hand, the "Squeegee Kids" may be expected to convey more of air of entrepreneurial professionalism and legality under the watchful eye of the security monitors.

Long range plans were a joke

The long abandoned long range plan for Pratt Street, celebrated by the urbanists at the time, was to convert it to two-way traffic. This would have made things far worse for everyone, despite including some widening which would have made the sidewalks narrower and prevented the current construction of new retail frontages on some blocks. Traffic patterns and flow were barely even a consideration.

There was also a plan to eliminate the connector from Light to Calvert Streets adjacent to Harborplace and replace it with a wider Light Street south of Pratt. This did lead to the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain, but no traffic changes. To the contrary, the mandatory left turn lane on Pratt from Light to Calvert was recently eliminated and converted to a thru lane, coupled with the widening of Pratt downstream from Calvert by eliminating the flag court and taxi stand. This has in fact resulted in some improvement in traffic flow at some expense to pedestrians, but not enough to quiet the irate motorists.

The best way to think about long range planning is to realize that what we have now is the result of all the city's previous long range plans. One previous generation's school of thought was that pedestrians should be shifted from streets to their own "skywalks". So much for that. More than ever, signalized intersections remain the tableau of urban life.

Making intersections work: Lead, follow or get out of the way

So it all simply comes down to how to make signalized intersections work. The basic principle won't change: East-west moves, then north-south, then east-west again. It's not a matter of who you are - a car driver, pedestrian, bike rider, solicitor, squeegee kid or presiding representative from the Downtown Partnership. Even driverless cars are still cars. Sure, they'll be smart enough to not block the box, but that just increases the opportunity for drivers of old cars to do it.

It's not who you are, it's where you're going. And it's all up to the traffic signal to dictate when you'll be going there: Go on green, stop on red, and transition on yellow.

The basic problem is that the transition time has gotten far too long, stretching out far beyond the three or four seconds of yellow time between green and red. Transition time now includes any time the intersection box is blocked and any time the light says green but it might as well say red because we can't move anyway.

Our windshields are too dirty only in a metaphorical sense.

The resolution of all these intersection conflicts is far more basic than any of this. It's simply a matter of reducing green time to what is actually usable. And then reducing red time to that which is actually necessary to move everybody who's going the other way. Relative allocations won't change much. 

Yes, people will still get stuck inside the intersections when signals say they shouldn't be there. A pedestrian won't make it all the way across the street. A solicitor will try to do his business in less time than he does now. For all that, like other conflicts in life, we should not rely on whether a traffic light says green or red. We don't really always rely on traffic signals right now anyway. People violate the rules simply because they can.

We should rely instead on basic social rules. Let a slow pedestrian cross the street. Let a panhandler get out of the way. What else are you going to do? Run him over? Let social rules evolve based on peer pressure. Squeegee Kids know not to clean windshields when traffic is actually moving. People will get the message.

The basic solution is to shorten the signal cycles

The solution to all this is simple. Simply reduce the city's traffic signal cycle lengths from the current peak standard of 110 seconds. Center City Philadelphia does it all - stop and go - in 60 second cycles. Baltimore can too. Shorter greens and reds would make everyone more purposeful.

September 13, 2018

Save Lexington Market: Salvage success from failure

Patricia Schultheis' excellent op-ed in today's Sun presents a crucial challenge: Saving Lexington Market. Everything from rats to general urban decay have been threatening this venerable historic institution for years. Now is the moment of truth when it must be fixed.
The 1980s Lexington Market addition was built in the bed of Lexington Street,
 and did not stem the decline of the surrounding area. (Flickr file: picssr.com )

The most obvious part of the general urban decay is the way the west side of Baltimore has become the "wrong side". While Harbor East, Harbor Point and other major development and renovation have flourished on the east side, the west side has been left in the dust. But fixing this disparity, as essential as it is, will take too long to save Lexington Market (see blog post). Long range plans are great, but retail is a fleeting and fickle economic sector.

The roles of Harborplace and State Center

The best solution is to to take advantage of the vacuum created by two of the city's other recent urban failures: Harborplace and State Center.

Harborplace started to great fanfare in the 1980s as a modern imitation of Lexington Market. Initially, it was a grand success as a "festival marketplace", but that era is long over. Its new painfully slow reboot (see blog post) has abandoned that concept entirely in favor of cookie-cutter national franchises in a suburban strip mall type of configuration. This will soon be reinforced by a new expanded flagship Whole Foods supermarket in Harbor East which is now under construction.

Harborplace helped suck the life out of Lexington Market, but now Lexington Market can return the favor, while displaying the real unique urban grassroots grit that Harborplace once strived for but never really attained.

Secondly, there is the failure at State Center, one stop north on the Metro and two stops on the light rail. The "anchor" of the massive State Center development, at least as far as publicity and public favor was concerned, was supposed to be a major supermarket. One report suggested the project could support a market as large as a hundred thousand square feet, which is Wegman-sized and far larger than any other supermarket in the city. But hype and false optimism have been longstanding pitfalls of this ill-fated development.

More recently, a new larger modern replacement for the nearby Eddie's Supermarket on Eager Street in Mount Vernon has been approved, and this appears to be more in tune with reality.

Again, Lexington Market can take advantage of that failure. Modern supermarkets like Wegman's are now incorporating aspects of old markets like Lexington Market, like stalls of fresh and ready-prepared food, again returning the favor. But Lexington Market can offer authenticity that the modern chains can never hope for.

Design challenges: New vs. nostalgic

Designing a "new" Lexington Market from the ground up creates risks of contradiction. A brand new market may simply imitate the urban past and suburban present, the same way the current designs have imitated Lexington Market. There is a fine line between recreating the past and merely imitating it.

That's why the design of the new Lexington Market is so crucial. Physically, there is already practically nothing truly historic about the existing market to build around. The new market's recreation of the past cannot rely on physical preservation.

The addition to the market built in the 1980s did not work in this regard, although it appeared to be a valiant attempt. The major mistake seems to be that the 1980s addition was kept almost totally walled-off from the 1950s main market, preventing the two areas from interacting and creating something new that combined the best of both.

So this time, the designers have decided that an entirely new market should be built, instead of trying to combine the old and new. The consensus has agreed that this is the right way to proceed, although there are risks. In her Sun article, Ms. Schultheis describes the current design proposal as "third rate". That seems harsh, but the design of the new market is so crucial that as many different design perspectives as possible should be considered.

3 - NORTH EUTAW (2).jpg
Proposed all-new Lexington Market. Major design concepts are that it is glassy and multi-level.

One basic design concept is that such an urban market should be a three dimensional multi-level space. That is the basic distinction that separates successful unique markets from cookie-cutter supermarkets. This is part of what made Lexington Market's 1980s addition a half-hearted effort, and what the new Lexington Market needs to achieve to succeed. Maximum advantage should be made of the fact that its two street frontages, on Eutaw and Paca Street, are on levels of about a story apart (see blog post). The subway mezzanine under Eutaw Street also creates room for yet another level.

Also on the plus side, the pendulum has definitely swung back in favor of urban markets. The latest to capture the attention of urbanists is now under construction in downtown Seattle. As much as possible should be learned from the experiences in other cities. But on the other hand, most of these have benefited from the overall revitalization of their surrounding areas much more than Lexington Market can.

So the new Lexington Market must help to create revitalization trend, rather than just benefit from it. It must be the catalyst for change. Yeah, we've all heard that before, from the failed "superblock" development to the revitalized Hippodrome Theater. But Lexington Market hopefully has the power to really do it.

Lexington Market was once at the center of things. Now it must help create a new center, where east, west, north and south Baltimore come together.

Free light rail could jump-start the streetcar system

Here's an idea that could be a major help: Reinvent the light rail line between Penn Station and Camden Yards as a streetcar line. Buy a few new improved low-floor vehicles to help give it a new image and perhaps add a new stop at Antique Row in Mount Vernon. Make it free in this area, since its difficult for the MTA to check fare tickets in this downtown zone anyway. Also encourage free parking in the stadium lots at Camden Yards whenever there is no sports event. What have we got to lose? The spur to Penn Station now carries practically nobody anyway.

The really great thing about free light rail is that it requires the MTA to do absolutely nothing. Just don't enforce the fare ticket requirement in the free area, and then announce and promote that fact.

This may be just the thing to give the city's proposed streetcar system the jump-start it certainly needs. It would also blur the distinction between light rail and streetcars which would give light rail a major boost. The failed Red Line can then be born again as a combination of light rail and streetcars which serves a Lexington Market transit hub (see blog post).

Riding the old streetcars was an integral part of Lexington Market's glorious past traditions, which may be its biggest assets to save it.

Again, the theme is to salvage success from failure. Baltimore has had plenty of the latter. Now it's time to benefit from it.

September 7, 2018

Port Covington is Under Armour's Kaepernick

Social rebels like new Nike pitchman Colin Kaepernick come and go, but Port Covington will be around forever, with or without Nike rival Under Armour's corporate identity. Nike's new ad campaign has gotten massive buzz, but buzz is all it is. In contrast, Port Covington is a real place where Under Armour has made a billion dollar bet with somebody's money that it can vault itself to the top of the sportswear world and turn Baltimore around at the same time.
Colin Kaepernick sacrificed pro football for social reform. Then Nike hired him to sell shoes and sportswear.
So rival Under Armour should double down on Port Covington and Baltimore. 

Pundits speculate on how Nike's bet on Kaepernick will affect its dominant but dormant brand, the similarly languishing National Football League that he sued for conspiring against him, and oh, maybe promote human equality a little bit as well.

But Baltimore is an actual epicenter of all the social problems that Kaepernick purports to stand against. And Under Armour has put down roots in Baltimore, betting its entire corporate identity on this place. Baltimore has thousands of Colin Kaepernicks, just without Nike contracts.

The only problem is that Under Armour's massive bet was sooooo three years ago. Since then, Under Armour has merely hunkered down in Port Covington's abandoned Sam's Club big box store behind a massive security barrier, while the site's best piece of land was used to build founder Kevin Plank's whiskey distillery side-project. They also tried to sell Amazon on a less desirable property now occupied by the Baltimore Sun, but to no avail.

And the rest of Baltimore has merely gone on its separate way. Under Armour couldn't resolve the Freddie Gray riots or stop the police from "taking a knee". And Under Armour's corporate value took a major hit as well.

Similarly, Kaepernick's one-man "take a knee" campaign also languished until Publicity-Mill-in-Chief Donald Trump made him one of his issues, which of course, constitutes the publicity pinnacle. Only then did many fellow football players from all over the NFL start "taking a knee" during the National Anthem in emulation of Kaepernick. That is what has kept Kaepernick in the news. Nike isn't quite as big as Trump, but they'd sure like to be.

At this rate, one wonders whether even Impeachment might be good for the Trump brand, regardless of how well it works for the country. After all, Impeachment didn't hurt Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, Port Covington has become just another big real estate venture being quietly pitched to various developers, just like Trump did back in the old days before starring in NBC's "The Apprentice". It's the same "Art of the Deal". Oh, the irony.

The bottom line from all this is an old trite tried-and-true one: "There is no such thing as bad publicity". The truth of that trope has certainly been debated many times since PT Barnum allegedly first said it, but now that sportswear giant Nike is betting on it, Under Armour needs to listen.

The planned Port Covington development just below Interstate 95 would become a new downtown,
 with Under Armour's corporate campus on the southern tip at the water's edge.

"Just Do It"

So here is what Under Armour should do: Bet on Port Covington and Baltimore in a big way. Not with hundreds of millions of dollars of future Tax Increment Financing money, but with something even bigger: The magic of hype.

Treat Baltimore as Under Armour's social consciousness cauldron and treat Port Covington as one and the same. Social issues are cool and so are we! Port Covington is thus a cool place where we can all be close to the cutting edge. But not too close. And of course, we'll all be wearing Under Armour from head to toe...

Thus, Under Armour's plan for Port Covington now appears to be more useful as a publicity icon and less so as an actual plan.

And the real plan will be whatever actually gets built and how it actually benefits the city and its citizens as a whole.

August 27, 2018

How to fix transit: Create a culture

Elections are a major part of our common culture, even as they become more divisive among contrasting subcultures. Mass transit illustrates conflicts among subcultures as well.

Transit was a fairly big issue in the June Maryland primary election as the Democratic candidates attacked Republican Governor Hogan for killing the Red Line in favor of the BaltimoreLink bus reorganization plan. I had hoped Ben Jealous could offer a positive course of action from this after winning the Democratic primary (see blog story), but he has offered so many things to spend money on that transit has gotten lost in the shuffle.
Publicity image for Hogan's BaltimoreLink plan was a nonstarter with the City administration.
But the only thing it really portrayed was a nice calm "transit subculture" in the middle of West Baltimore Street.

Interfactional conflicts

But recently things have gotten worse for transit as suburban communities have lobbied for cuts in transit to try to fight crime. In White Marsh to the northeast, they want to cut late night bus service. In Ferndale and Linthicum to the south, they wanted to cut light rail service.

While transit advocates push for better transit, people in these communities believe that transit is actually doing too good of a job of transporting criminals and troublemakers. So they want worse transit. Of course, they'll never say it like that. They'll say they want the right transit to serve good productive people. And they're right about that - all suggestions aside of racism and "dog whistles" and that negative kind of talk. ("Dog whistle" is a terrible term - if only racists can hear the whistle, how and why do their critics hear it and keep carping on it?)

Here's how the problem should be stated in a useful constructive manner: Transit ridership is far too low (not too high). Transit should be good enough to attract far more people, not just the criminals who exist in any population sample. Poor transit is perceived as only serving "other people" - just a social welfare service for people with no choices. Good transit serves a cross section of all of us, or at least it could offer an attractive option for those it serves.

Unfortunately, fixing transit in the suburbs is a daunting challenge, because activity and development are just too dispersed. Rail transit was hoped to be the answer, but it hasn't been. Rail was intended to attract transit oriented development, tailored to people and activity that promotes transit. That has been a failure throughout the metropolitan area, in both the city and suburbs alike.

The proposed light rail Red Line was similarly doomed, offering no substantial transit oriented development plans. Instead, it called on vague promises of "unity". Great expense was planned for tunneling to enable the Red Line to link the more affluent southeast waterfront to the worst wasteland in West Baltimore around the "Highway to Nowhere". Transit ridership is poor in both areas. That was a shotgun marriage, not unity.

Getting more affluent people to ride transit is another daunting challenge. This recalls a ridiculous TV commercial the Maryland Transit Administration ran some years ago showing a bus full of guys wearing suits and ties riding up Broadway past Johns Hopkins Hospital. And the MTA didn't even run buses on Broadway back then! BaltimoreLink at least fixed that, with some long-needed connections to the Metro Station there.

Pretending that transit is for the affluent is just fooling ourselves. If income is a major selection criterion, transit riders will inevitably be poor. When asked why they use transit, most riders simply say, "because I don't have a car" or maybe "because parking is too expensive".

Subculture as a tool

The solution is to make culture a major selection criterion for transit. Even Hopkins realizes that. Hopkins decided to run their own bus system serving areas where they feel that their particular culture is strong. Many other institutions have done the same thing, including the city government's own Charm City Circulator bus system serving the areas the city wants to promote (which also encompasses Johns Hopkins turf).

This has led to attacks that these shuttles avoid black and/or poor areas of the city, and these accusations are justified. The markets and service areas of these shuttles are defined very narrowly. Only Hopkins people are allowed to use the Hopkins shuttle, and the same sort of rules apply to other institutions as well.

While it is inevitable that transit riders will be a subculture, it should be defined as widely as possible - attempting to avoid parameters such as race and income. It should not be defined as "us" versus "them".

As much of the transit system as possible should be redefined on these terms. All of the shuttles run by institutions and governments should be combined so that they are open to anyone (see blog story). They will then become their own system, and redundancy among them and with the larger MTA system can be eliminated or at least reduced.

The MTA's BaltimoreLink bus restructuring is at least a small step toward this. The major routes have been redefined by colors. The intention for this was good, but the colors are not displayed enough to really work to identify the routes. Catchy names would be better at defining the cultural identity, such as the "Banner" route designated by the city for their circulator bus to Fort McHenry (home of the "Star Spangled Banner").

Details are often difficult. The MTA tried to move a major transfer point away from North and Greenmount Avenues after complaints that it was a "bad area", but then they got more complaints and had to move it back.

The whole "transformative" nature of BaltimoreLink was overhyped due to its timing soon after the death of the Red Line (see blog stories here and here), and its new bus lanes were largely limited to colored pavement and new signs at existing bus lanes. Letting transit pre-empt the traffic signals won't work downtown, because there are buses going in every direction.

Any truly significant bus reorganization must incorporate the Charm City Circulator system and the various shuttles run by institutions. It must embrace these and many other subcultures.

Transit oriented development also needs to be considered a new subculture as well. Rail transit simply cannot be successful without it. The Baltimore Sun, which was one of the most vocal proponents of the Red Line, has essentially now given up on rail transit. They're also huge proponents of the State Center redevelopment, even though they have minimized the economic benefit impact of transit (two rail lines, not just one!) to support the project.

The Sun hasn't admitted as much, but their recent conclusions are essentially based on no longer believing in transit oriented development as a driving force. That's why it must be treated as a subculture - a large niche, but not fully coinciding with the metropolitan area's overall culture. The era of the stereotypical "Mister 9 to 5" riding transit from the suburbs into downtown Baltimore is largely over.

Developments like State Center must be scaled to the projected size of this subculture. Developments which have already occurred in this area nearby next to the State Cultural Center and University of Baltimore (Mount Royal) light rail stations have already done this, albeit very poorly, with far too much dominance on parking garages.

The same is true for transit oriented development at Port Covington, Westport, Howard/Lexington, Perkins Point and the "Highway to Nowhere".

The Harlem Park Red Line Station as portrayed by Marc Szarkowski in the middle of what is now the "Highway to Nowhere".
 This is about the zillionth time I've used this image to portray an ideal transit culture.

Culture = Sum of subcultures

In sum, subcultures are the key to better transit for everyone. For rail transit, transit oriented development must be integral to the planning process and to the project's identity. The Port Covington light rail spur must be planned and designed in concert with the development instead of as an afterthought.

For any future Red Line, the city must confront the future of the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. The city acts like it loves that stupid useless highway, but a successful Red Line really can't coexist isolated in its median strip. The proposed Red Line was like a cheap streetcar at a high heavy rail price. Since it would inevitably be slow, it must be tailored to its subculture (see blog story).

The huge Perkins Point project on the east side offers a great opportunity to tailor rail transit to a mixed income clientele, which is more important than being fast (see blog story).

And overall, the inner city bus system should become a consolidation of all the shuttles run by the city and its institutions. This would bring hospital workers, students, tourists and other subcultures into the transit mainstream and provide better service for all.

July 23, 2018

East dominates West Baltimore: Fixing the disparity

There's a very revealing contrast these days between how planning is being done in East Baltimore versus West Baltimore. East is the booming side of town, while west gets the crumbs. The Southwest Partnership plan reveals how the west needs to step up its game in order to get into the action.

La Cite - West Baltimore's flagship development. Phase One in the foreground is almost completed,
 with proposed future phases shown looking north along Schroeder Street toward the "Highway to Nowhere".

East Baltimore's planning process has been much more comprehensive and much more attuned to eliminating the divisions between various areas. The biggest developments - Harbor East, Harbor Point and Hopkins Hospital - are already almost completed at the periphery and are driving the areas in between.

In contrast, Southwest Partnership's plan has ignored the huge Metro West project and the adjacent "Highway to Nowhere" which are by far the most crucial development issues which must be resolved. The big project nearing completion is the first phase of La Cite (shown above) which is on what is now the periphery of the redeveloped area. Its future expansions would be even farther out on the periphery.

But on the plus side, the planning process in West Baltimore seems to be much more open and grassroots. Of course, what we hear includes a lot of spin and perceptions.

Important things are happening in East Baltimore

The big recent news for East Baltimore is that the Perkins Point project has just been awarded a $30 million HUD grant to get things moving, one of only five cities nationwide.  That's from the "evil" Trump Administration which can do nothing right according to its many vocal critics. But c'mon, our president is a real estate developer, and his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is Doctor Ben Carson from Johns Hopkins Hospital, which neighbors the project.

The details of the project are still extremely sketchy, considering its official price tag of $889 million (call it a billion) including redevelopment of Somerset Homes and Old Town, and the many years it has already been gestating. Geez again, I've said almost as much on this little blog, without even trying, as the city has said on its official website -  http://www.baltimorehousing.org/perkinsproject

What it looks like is that they just grabbed some impressionistic renderings of any of the zillions of new boxy generic three or four-story postmodern residential buildings that are going up in almost any growing city.

After decades of failures, this project just has to succeed eventually. The planners know what they're doing. The disastrous mid-century model for low income urban housing "projects", inspired by both Le Corbusier and Le Soviet Union, typified here by Perkins Homes to the south and Somerset Homes (already demolished) to the north on the Central Avenue corridor, is finally coming to an end.

Old Town is where the project history goes back the farthest, starting with the 1968 riots, followed by a dead-end shopping mall project. This was followed by years of crazy plans proposed by very important city people like Walter Sondheim, who wanted to knock down the Jones Falls Expressway to link Old Town (and the prison district) directly to downtown and Mount Vernon. There were big ideas to reconvert the big storm drains under the Fallsway and Central Avenue into actual rivers, with the heavy traffic zipping along on either side of them.

But the inevitability of the whole Perkins-Somerset-Oldtown plan is assured by the way the deck was stacked for the Harbor Point project at the south end of the Central Avenue corridor. That project was given a massive jolt by massive subsidies to the Exelon office building for its flagship, despite the fact that Exelon was legally obligated to locate in Baltimore anyway.

Can you imagine what kind of massive jumpstart could have been provided to West Baltimore if the Exelon building had been built somewhere on the west side of downtown? Alas, it's like another recent story - the hapless Orioles were practically forced to trade Manny Machado, by far their best player, to a rich pennant contender (LA Dodgers) for some future "maybes".

The planning concepts for the Perkins Point project are the kind that are gradually seeming simply like basic common sense as they are being brought out, but were certainly not that way beforehand.

Take the name: Perkins Point. You heard it here first. The Beatty Development Group (same developer as Harbor Point) has named his project subsidiary Perkins Point Partners. There's Fells Point and Harbor Point, so there has to be Perkins Point. The die is cast.

Then there's the concept of linking Old Town to the Hopkins Hospital campus and the Central Avenue corridor. After decades of conventional wisdom that said that what Old Town needed was a better linkage westward to downtown, what has actually happened is that downtown moved eastward instead.

Beatty plan for Old Town, showing the extension of McElderry Street toward the Hopkins Hospital Dome Building
 at the top of the graphic. Orleans Street goes from the lower left to upper right.
The Beatty/Perkins Point team still hasn't trumpeted this concept, but you can see it if you look closely at their meager graphics that have slipped out. In their sketch above, the densest development complex of the entire project (shown in blue) is at the fulcrum between Old Town and the Central Avenue corridor, with a street view corridor at McElderry Street through to the Hopkins Hospital campus which is not shown just beyond the background. I showed this idea first on this blog. As crummy as my graphics are, the Beatty version for the billion dollar project isn't a whole lot better.

Baltimore Innerspace graphic proposing an Old Town plan that does the same thing as the subsequent Beatty plan
 - creating a spine to Hopkins Hospital along McElderry Street, but extending west it to the Jones Falls Expressway,
 Sun Calvert complex and Mount Vernon in the foreground. Orleans Street is on the right (south).

Ironically, the Beatty plan now opens up to Johns Hopkins, but turns its back on Downtown, which has previously been considered the necessary anchor. Their plan ought to have strong connections to both, but downtown is now considered so minor and secondary that it's not considered worth dealing with. The planned redevelopment of the Sun Calvert Street complex ought to help change that.

Then there's transit. The conventional wisdom was that the Red Line light rail project was crucial to the city's future development, especially southeast. Then just when the Red Line seemed to be at its peak project momentum, Harbor East developer John Paterakis (who had worked closely with Beatty) forced the planned station serving his area to be moved out of the key Central Avenue corridor to a hidden spot near Little Italy. So obviously, it wasn't crucial at all. All the development already had all the momentum it needed.

But the greatest irony was that once Governor Hogan killed the Red Line, practically no one did anything to try to revive it. Sure, they all bellyached, but that's all.

So leave it to me, of all people... The far more expensive east leg of the Red Line is dead but the far better and more cost effective west leg can and should still be built. An east streetcar spur from a west side Red Line should be built through the Inner Harbor to Bank Street and Broadway, at the south end of this project where Perkins Point will abut Harbor East and Fells Point.

What's really happening is that all the essential stuff is being hammered out quietly behind closed doors, and the public stuff will be revealed only as needed according to some deliberate strategy. The big anchors are Harbor Point to the south and Hopkins Hospital to the northeast, and they're totally wired in to what's happening, of course. That's almost always how development really gets done.

Southwest Partnership Plan ignores what's most important

Now look at the west side of town, where the Southwest Partnership has conducted a commendably open planning process and has released lengthy reports chocked full of lovely graphics illustrating a glorious future for their heretofore neglected and under-performing area -  http://southwestpartnershipbaltimore.org/about-us/the-plan

The quality of the Southwest Partnership reports' graphics put the Beatty graphics to shame. But all this raises suspicions. Some of it just elicits an "oh, c'mon" kind of reaction. One graphic of West Baltimore Street, the old traditional commercial spine, shows that someone has decided to get rid of all the on-street parking and replace it with bike lanes. Presumably, the bus stops would be gone too. Did anyone actually think about this? Who drew this up and why?

Southwest Partnership's "illustrative" plan for West Baltimore Street,
 eliminating all parking and replacing it with bike lanes. 

This graphic includes an odd disclaimer: "Renderings are illustrative, meant to capture Baltimore Street’s potential." Yeah, it's illustrative of how to make West Baltimore Street into a ghost town. But this is so silly and incidental that it can probably be safely ignored.

More importantly, it seems that the bigger and more crucial the issue, the more gingerly they tiptoe around or avoid it. This does play into a political strategy. The issues people care most about are the ones near where they live, even if they're not crucial. This then allows the biggest issues to be addressed behind the scenes.

The biggest issue in West Baltimore right now is what to do with the giant hulking million-plus square foot Metro West complex formerly occupied by the Social Security Administration. Time is ticking away as it deteriorates. This will affect all of West Baltimore, with potential for thousands of jobs at stake, but it is on the geographic periphery of the Southwest Partnership area so it is totally ignored in their plan.

But you can be sure it is being analyzed and negotiated in detail behind the scenes, between the city and the high-powered developer, Caves Valley Partners.

One of its main questions is what to do with the "Highway to Nowhere", which bisects the site and runs right through the main building. This aborted Interstate highway is the single thing which is most often cited as having caused the downfall of West Baltimore.

The Red Line was then planned for fifteen years until 2015 without seriously considering what to do with this highway which surrounded the proposed transit line. The city even totally closed the highway for months so that the state could do some Red Line "site prep" at its west end between Payson and Pulaski Streets. But now, having an actual developer involved makes it real in a way that the Red Line never was.

Again, the Southwest Partnership plans are mum about all of this. It's on the periphery of their area so they feel it can conveniently be ignored. This is a mistake. The law of "border vacuums" demonstrates how things on the periphery can have the most dramatic effect on the surrounding areas.

In contrast, the East Baltimore plans have confronted the border vacuums. For many years, the clamor was to get rid of the Jones Falls Expressway because of its effect as a border vacuum on Old Town. And now, the peripheral Hopkins Hospital and Harbor Point sites, which were border vacuums for many years, are seen as the crucial anchors for the new development between them.

Southwest Partnership overview plan. "Highway to Nowhere" is in the upper left,
 culminating at the Metro West development at the "MLK BLVD" label.

The Southwest Partnership plan overview graphic (above) puts this in perspective. The "Highway to Nowhere" is depicted by barely visible drab gray streaks along the upper left border of the plan. This is the very essence of a border vacuum. At the top of this, the same kind of shadowy representation is used for the Metro West complex (right where the word "MLK BLVD" is displayed). The plan thus ignores Metro West.

But the plan essentially acknowledges the highway's border vacuum by putting a new very high density housing complex right along the highway (Mulberry Street). Such intense high value developments are a good way to deal with border vacuums. The only problem is that this is normally done along waterfronts or other high value borders, not along a horrible highway which has been depressing property values since even before it was built.

The plan doesn't even recognize the Red Line plan, even though their process started before that project was precipitously killed. The local Red Line Station had been planned and engineered between Carey and Calhoun Streets, just off the left side of the graphic, and nowhere near the high intensity development. There was a total lack of coordination between Southwest Partnership, the city and the Red Line planning team.

Now after well over a decade of planning, the first phase prototype of this high density housing is nearing completion with the new La Cite residential building at Schroeder Street between Fayette and Saratoga (see top graphic). This is being built in what seems like a peripheral low value area now, but is supposed to be a central high value area eventually. Some of us are skeptical.

Problems with "Border Vacuums" - racial and otherwise

In East Baltimore, the Perkins Point project eliminates border vacuums, while the Southwest Partnership plan would just ultimately make it worse.

The primary means that the southwest plan offers to enhance property values is through mass housing demolition to create new development sites and parks. This is painful and expensive, and even inhumane. Blocks slated for demolition usually have some crumbling houses, but also houses that are being steadfastly and bravely maintained by residents who have invested their lives in their neighborhoods. This plan has far too much of that. Hundreds of houses would be knocked down, including many with good residents that are in good condition, but just happen to be in the path of the plan. This kind of plan is what has given "gentrification" a bad name.

Instead of mass demolition and displacement, the more proven way to enhance property values and get development going is to build the major projects on the periphery first, with strong linkages to spur the rest of the development after that. Property values can then often rise sufficiently to spur rehabilitation of existing houses rather than demolition. This is what has happened in much of Baltimore, but much more on the east than on the west side of the city, and is virtually absent in the Southwest Partnership plan.

To do that in West Baltimore, dealing with the "Highway to Nowhere" and Metro West must be of the utmost priority, to create momentum to stimulate the rest of the revitalization in between. Here's how I outlined a blueprint several years ago.

This is even more crucial in the neighborhoods north of the "Highway to Nowhere", most notably Harlem Park, Lafayette Square and Sandtown, which don't have downtown and the University of Maryland Biopark as anchors.

One could even cynically argue that the Southwest Plan serves to retain the "Highway to Nowhere" as a racial barrier - black to the north and white to the south. The plan does work hard to eliminate such a racial barrier four blocks south at Baltimore Street, which was getting increasingly solid before the Biopark development. But will the racial barrier simply move northward?

Unfortunately, this is another instance where East Baltimore is serving as a model for West Baltimore. In East Baltimore, Fayette Street has been a traditional racial dividing line, but the Hopkins EBDI Plan is now essentially moving this racial border northward about seven blocks to the Amtrak tracks. Railroad tracks and major highways are much more solid barriers than are mere streets.

Another major border vacuum is the north edge of Carroll Park at the historic B&O Railroad "First Mile" right of way. This has gotten more attention in the southwest plan than has the "Highway to Nowhere", but  it still dances around the issues.

The earlier draft of the plan was worse, promoting a physical barrier around this rail right of way, with only a very unwieldy pedestrian bridge connecting the north neighborhoods to the park, or some new lights inside the Carey Street underpass that doesn't connect to the park anyway. These tenuous connections ignore the very concept that the plan promotes to build parks in the first place, to provide the most convenient possible proximity to residents.

Virtually all great urban parks from New York's Central Park to Boston Common have strong continuous access to their neighbors so that the park can serve as their extended living room. In Baltimore, Patterson Park is the prime example.

The southwest planners gave various rationales for their barriers, such as security or railroad regulations or to accommodate the freight train switching for an intermodal truck terminal that had previously been planned for Morrell Park. None of these rationalizations were or are in any way defensible or insurmountable.

The more vague language in the current version is a sign of hope. In addition, support has been building for a hike/bike trail in this right of way to connect to the Gwynns Falls trail. This could be part of a truly transformative six mile greenway loop that could go all the way to the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor and the lush green edge of MLK Boulevard adjacent to downtown and the University of Maryland campus.

On the other hand, the plan still shows far more mass demolition of housing in the Mount Clare neighborhood just north of the park than is necessary or justifiable.

In sum, the rules of planning should be relatively simple: Minimize demolition, save the subsidies for where they're really needed, increase property values, deal with border vacuums, and above all - think comprehensively.

East Baltimore has been much more successful at following these rules than West Baltimore. And unfortunately, secret sneaky behind-the-scenes negotiations have probably helped too.

June 26, 2018

Violetville: Best future MARC station suburb?

Signs for the future show great potential to build a MARC commuter rail station just inside the city line near the very attractive Violetville neighborhood. Violetville could become the very best railroad suburb in the whole Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Violetville has always been one of Baltimore's quiet strong working-class neighborhoods, which the city economy used to have in abundance but now has only a few. But whether Violetville can continue to resist the negative trends that continue to plague the city is an open question.

The key to making a Violetville Station a special place is to provide no parking - just part of a great neighborhood. Think of Harry Potter's Hogsmeade or Twilight Zone's Willoughby.

Site of a potential Violetville MARC station, looking south from Wilkens Avenue.
 A landlocked industrial site is to the left and Southwestern Boulevard is to the right.

The station would be located along Southwest Boulevard, Baltimore's original "Highway to Nowhere" which was supposed to get cars from US 1 through the city until the 1950s when the Harbor Tunnel Thruway was built.

Fixing Southwestern Boulevard

Very recently, the state finally completed a connection to the Beltway from Southwestern Boulevard, reducing it to a single lane in the process, thus finally recognizing that it's not a thruway anymore. Until a few years ago, Southwestern Boulevard looked like a poorly designed freeway, with 50 mph speed limits on some portions despite having uncontrolled crosswalks and pedestrian routes to the Halethorpe MARC rail station and other local destinations.

Crosswalks should not coexist with a 50 mph speed limit. If a motorist was actually to conform to the law, he'd have to slam on the brakes from 50 mph whenever a person was present in a crosswalk. No one did, of course. So Southwest Boulevard was a death trap.

The new improvements finally correct another major design flaw which had required Beltway-bound traffic to filter through Arbutus via local Leeds Avenue. This had also stood since this portion of the Beltway was built in the 1950s.

This long overdue change contrasts with the short city portion of Southwest Boulevard next to Violetville, which still looks like a grossly overdesigned freeway. Since such a design seldom exists in a vacuum, large semi-trailer trucks have spontaneously decided to use it as a parking lot and "rest area". Fortunately, the Oaklee neighborhood just to the west has managed to get this banned from their side of Southwest Boulevard (opposite Violetville and the railroad tracks), and truckers are no longer allowed to leave dis-attached trailers which created a longer term problem. Still, the constant presence of a long line of parked trucks prevents anything attractive from going into the strip of land between Southwest Boulevard and the Amtrak tracks.

But Southwest Boulevard can indeed be easily downsized to serve as a human-scaled front door for a train station and new housing, and create a narrow civilized link between the Violetville and Oaklee neighborhoods on either side of the street. All the traffic in both directions can easily be consolidated on the west (currently southbound) roadway with room left over for drop-offs, eliminating the roadway closest to the station.

Southwestern Boulevard looking north in front of impromptu truck parking, behind which is a beautiful virgin forest.
 All the traffic in both directions could easily be consolidated on the left roadway, with room left over for drop-offs.
The proposed Violetville MARC station would be on the right beyond the forest. 

Violetville's fate

Violetville is sufficiently isolated from the truck and highway problems which has served the neighborhood well thus far. However, the neighborhood is far more vulnerable and dependent on the future success or failure of the city as a whole.

Violetville has that in common with its two other smaller closest neighborhoods, Oaklee and Kensington, which are also somewhat isolated, although not to the same extent since they are adjacent to Arbutus in Baltimore County, which has a whole different public sector support system - schools, taxes, services, etc.

In particular, Kensington has extremely attractive single family houses, nestled into a small wedge between Wilkens Avenue, Loudon Park Cemetery, a small part of Yale Heights and the huge, fortress-like Charlestown senior housing complex on the edge of Catonsville.

Can these three neighborhoods continue to seem like lands that time forgot? In a city that has lost a third of its population, where the economy keeps getting more stressed and people continue to get older and move (such as to nearby Charlestown senior complex), this is doubtful. Change is a constant.

Big dead tree hovering over houses on Rock Hill Avenue in Violetville.

Here's a living metaphor: There is currently a huge dead tree hovering over a row of houses on Rock Hill Avenue in Violetville. It was once a beautiful healthy tree that provided shade to the neighborhood, but now it threatens the houses. No one has chopped it down. If a strong wind blows it down, it could severely damage the houses and perhaps the people in them. After such a catastrophe, would the houses be worth enough to get rebuilt, or would they just languish as a cancer for the neighborhood as a whole, as has happened in much of the city?

Of course, I'm not a tree expert and I haven't measured the risk. But this kind of metaphor has played out in many other neighborhoods throughout the city - to bad results. Having insurance is not enough. If the neighborhood is not worth investing in, the wise economic decision for victimized residents would be to simply take your money, move out and live elsewhere, regardless of the insurance check, leaving behind yet another neighborhood that needs help.

All neighborhoods have ups and downs, and it's usually difficult to recognize the tipping point. The nearby Cardinal Gibbons High School closed several years ago and it's not easy to measure that impact. On the other hand, St. Agnes Hospital has continued to grow. Things are seldom static even if they might appear that way.

Creating a MARC identity

So let's look at the long range trend. Much of Baltimore, away from Hopkins and the harbor, still does not have a strong identity. Perhaps Violetville, Oaklee and Kensington are economically strong enough to withstand what continues to bring down much of the rest of the city. But maybe not.

At some point, the best course may be to build a MARC rail station along the Amtrak tracks and establish these neighborhoods as viable suburbs for commuters to Washington, DC. This has been tried at the city's other three commuter rail stations, at Penn Station, Camden Yards and West Baltimore, but this is very well where it might work best to take advantage of the fact that Washington continues to boom as a world capital while Baltimore struggles.

In fact, this could become the best transit-oriented community in the entire Baltimore-Washington corridor. Virtually all of the other MARC station communities have competing and conflicting interests that Violetville would not have. Camden Station is downtown, and the CSX Camden line as a whole can't offer good enough service. The Penn Station area did not take off until arts and education supplanted commuting as the primary focus. West Baltimore, Halethorpe and BWI-Marshall are oriented to drive-in riders. The stations closer to Washington don't have enough of an economic advantage over other suburbs.

The isolation of Violetville, Oaklee and Kensington would work to their advantage in creating an environment that can truly work well with suburban transit commuting. The existing residential areas would remain virtually as-is. There would be no big oppressive parking lots or garages and no pressure to build them. New higher density residential development would be located closest to the train station, and specifically tailored to transit commuting, meaning that only a negligible amount of auto traffic would be generated.

The Kensington neighborhood, one of the city's hidden gems.
A building of the huge Charlestown senior living complex can be seen above in the distance.

Planning a Violetville MARC Station

A Violetville MARC Station would be laid out in a roughly similar manner to the recently rebuilt Halethorpe Station just over two miles to the south, except without the large parking areas. These would be replaced with new housing oriented the station. Southwestern Boulevard would be narrowed to a single lane in each direction to create more space and a better environment for this development, as well as an easy pedestrian crossing between the neighborhoods. The main entrance to the station would also be from Southwestern Boulevard.

Proposed Violetville MARC Station area shown in orange, straddling Amtrak tracks. The main entrance
 would be off of a narrowed Southwestern Boulevard (US 1) to the west (left).
A neighborhood entrance would be located to the east of the tracks. Adjacent parks would be on each side
 of the tracks to the south - the existing Violetville Park to the east and a new wooded passive park to the west..

From Violetville, on the other side of the tracks, there should probably also be adjacent new residential development that replaces the industrial complex behind the houses on Haverhill Road. This would include a pedestrian connection over or under the tracks, so that the station is accessible from the rest of Violetville.

Violetville MARC Station site under the power poles,
as seen from landlocked commercial operation located behind houses on Haverhill Road.

The development should also have an orientation to the Violetville Park to create more of a "people presence" for the park and foster its use and maintenance. The park is now hidden from almost the entire neighborhood, which discourages safety and encourages neglect. At present, the softball fields and tennis courts are in very poor condition, and even on a recent beautiful summer Sunday, hardly anyone was there. It would be advantageous to make the maintenance of this park the legal and financial responsibility of the new development.

Violetville Park looking toward the adjacent railroad tracks under the electric poles.
The park's softball fields and tennis courts are not maintained.

Surprisingly, there is also a large (nearly five acres) virgin forest area between the railroad tracks and Southwestern Boulevard, interrupted only by the adjacent constant lineup of trucks. An intelligent design for the new development and the station could also incorporate this forest into the Violetville Park, to create an open space for peace and contemplation to augment the current space for more active uses. Of course, economic realities would dictate what could actually be done, but on the other hand, nothing should be done unless it's of high enough quality to be beneficial.

South of this park and an adjacent cemetery and entering Baltimore County, there are other industrial areas that may eventually be redeveloped as well. The vast majority of this is east of the tracks with good direct access to well-used Benson Avenue, and so any changes would be of a lower priority.

The Violetville MARC Station would serve trains on the outer two of the four tracks, which make all the stops between Penn Station and BWI-Marshall Airport, before continuing to New Carrollton and Washington, while the two inner tracks would serve higher speed Acela and Regional Amtrak trains that would not stop here.

In sum, a new MARC station would provide the kind of major future option which is not afforded to most Baltimore neighborhoods, and Violetville could become the nicest station in the whole Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Willoughby and Hogsmeade only exist in our imaginations, but Violetville is real.