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: )

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 -

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 -

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.

May 16, 2018

Politicians: Start acting like you really want a Red Line

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake set the tone for lack of effort to get the light rail Red Line built, and other politicians have fallen in line ever since. She promised that her staff would develop a viable alternative plan, and then she did absolutely nothing except continue to bash Governor Hogan for cancelling the $3 billion project.

Since then, much political rhetoric has been expended for the Red Line, but no action to back it up - right up to the current gubernatorial campaign to try to prevent Hogan's re-election in November.
The Red Line should go through this area in the median of the "Highway to Nowhere" near Fremont Avenue,
 as it was originally planned until it was relocated into a more lengthy downtown tunnel. 
Heritage Crossing is in the background and could be expanded here. (Metro West is to the right of the photo.)

All of this started well before Hogan was first elected or almost anyone had even ever heard of him. The majority of the Red Line (west of Fells Point) was originally slated for completion by 2014. But despite talk of urgency, Governor O'Malley kept delaying a full funding plan while the project kept getting more expensive.

In the city is was business as usual. On the east side of town, the big new glitzy waterfront development projects kept the proposed Red Line stations as far away as possible. On the west side, the city refused to consider closing the "Highway to Nowhere" to create transit oriented development sites.

Working class residents on Fremont Avenue in West Baltimore (not upper income east siders) sued the state for its late decision to expand the downtown tunnel to an alignment directly under the fronts of their houses at its shallowest point, instead of the previous "locally preferred alternative" which kept it in the highway median (see photo above) all the way to MLK Boulevard.

Kevin Kamenetz' Red Line legacy

The first official discord from politicians occurred when both Baltimore City and County balked at contributing to the Red Line's ever-increasing cost. The late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz took the heat for this, but the Baltimore mayor reaped the lion's share of the benefit, in an agreement with O'Malley that the 10% local contributions would go mostly for items that weren't even included in the Red Line's costs anyway. That left the State to pay close to the full tab, including cost overruns, outside of a hoped-for $900 million federal contribution for which the state never completed its application, and thus was never committed by the Obama or Trump Administrations.

Contrast this with the DC-suburban Purple Line, which is now signed, sealed and under construction. The entire Purple Line funding package was spelled out, then approved by Trump's Department of Transportation, including a long-term state commitment to pay upwards of $5 Billion to a "public-private partnership", and with Prince George's and Montgomery Counties paying their full shares with real cash in accordance with Federal Transit Administration regulations from the Obama Administration.

Kevin Kamenetz was the first major politician to foresee that the Red Line was going to be difficult if not impossible to build all at once, so he wanted Baltimore County's portion to the west to be built in an "early phase" as a condition of its funding contribution (Sun Editorial, July 15, 2014.) This was well before Larry Hogan made the cancellation of the Red Line an issue in his surprise upset win for governor. The Sun pilloried Kamenetz for this, but Kamenetz won the funding share battle with then-Governor O'Malley.

On the other hand, planners asserted that the $3 billion Red Line plan could not be built in phases, because the downtown tunnel dominated the costs and had to be built all at once. This is one of the reasons Hogan's Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn called the tunnel a "fatal flaw".

Christopher Muldor's recent call to action in The Sun

Fast forward four years and Kamentz is running for governor. Then on the same day Kamenetz had his sudden fatal heart attack, May 10, an op-ed in The Sun written by freelance writer Christopher Muldor declared that now was the time for politicians to focus on the areas that can really benefit from the Red Line in predominantly low-income West Baltimore, and not on the overly expensive tunnel under the mostly higher income downtown and east waterfront areas. Muldor stated:"There is overwhelming evidence that car-owning residents of affluent areas in Baltimore generally shun mass transit." That also could be said for the powerful developers who are trying to lure affluent people to these areas as well.

Inner city portion of RightRail Plan, with Red Line terminating at Lexington Market Hub.
Orange, Purple and Gray Lines would be streetcars. Green Line would be Metro extension to east.

Muldor then cited the Right Rail Coalition's plan for the Red Line as a potential solution, of which I was an author. He also cited a "long time transit planner" as being critical of the "disjointed" character of the previously planned Red Line within the transit system. This sounds like Muldor is referring to someone who wants to remain anonymous for professional reasons, and while such people certainly exist, but I'll offer my concurrence on the record (Me, Gerald Neily, transportation planner for the City Planning Department for 19 years.)

Muldor concludes his article by challenging Baltimore Mayor Pugh to take action, reminding everyone that she "supports mass transit and has emphasized her ability to work with Maryland's Republican Governor."

The Red Line in the governor's race

So this is where politics really comes in. It's the art of opposing someone one day and then working with them the next, even if they're from the opposing party. Through all this, the Red Line has remained an issue.

One of the remaining major Democratic candidates for governor is Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, whose county was involved in the funding negotiations to build the somewhat less expensive and less complex Purple Line. But he should know that Baltimore City is too poor to make the same kind of financial concessions to get the Red Line built that more affluent PG and especially Montgomery County were able to put together on the Purple Line.

Another candidate is Ben Jealous, who was national CEO of the NAACP not long before it filed a civil rights complaint on the Red Line cancellation. While the complaint cited discrimination against low income African-Americans, it specifically called for alternative projects to be pursued, rather than trying to revive the cancelled project.

The NAACP thus apparently realizes that it was the very expensive portion of the Red Line that ran through the more affluent mostly white areas that was the culprit of the cancellation. Therefore, coming up with a more equitable project would make more economic sense as well. It would thus follow that building the Red Line is not the very best way to allocate upwards of $3 Billion to help poor and disadvantaged people. While the NAACP case was ultimately dismissed, its arguments may still be applicable in the court of public opinion that is the upcoming election.

But the current Red Line inaction by Baker, Jealous and other candidates benefits Governor Hogan, who thus doesn't have to worry about playing defense as incumbents generally do. This plays into the strength that political pundits have attributed to him - being able to skillfully appropriate issues from others and make them his own. It would indeed be ironic if the man who has been excoriated for killing the Red Line ultimately became the man who saved it.

And it may actually be a fairly simple act to pull off such a political feat. Hogan had a trial run with his BaltimoreLink bus system overhaul. That one just about fell in his lap, being the follow-up to Governor O'Malley's BNIP (Bus Network Improvement Program) plan which failed miserably and was then quietly cancelled. But buses, important as they are, don't have much power to ignite a lot of enthusiasm, and trying to fix the system is a thankless job. In contrast, the Red Line retains some glamour for being bright and new even when the rest of the bus and rail transit system is not.

Eight-point challenge to Mayor Pugh

Mayor Pugh could be in the catbird's seat through all this. Despite Baltimore's numerous woes, one thing she is perceived as doing well is working with people of all persuasions, both Democrats and Republicans. She can make the planning of a new revised Red Line her issue, and thus invite support from all sides.

And compared to the original dead $3 billion-plus Red Line, this revised Red Line could offer numerous "easy winners" (cue Scott Joplin's ragtime classic). Even as few as one relatively inexpensive Red Line-related project could be a major victory. All winning streaks start with a single game, and this one could keep going long enough with various rail branches and extensions to make the $3 billion original look like a tinkertoy (which sadly is really what it was).

A major key to this is true coordination between a revised Red Line and its surrounding transit oriented development, something about which Baltimore has been tragically remiss since the first eight miles of the Metro were completed in the early 1980s, with a trail of failures including Howard/Lexington, State Center and Westport.

So here is a list of eight smaller Red Line "easy winners" that Mayor Pugh could get behind, individually and collectively, and promote to all prospective governors. The list is development-oriented, because development is unquestionably the city's responsibility and (unlike transit) has consistently remained a top priority over the years.

1. Lexington Market Transit Hub - This would finally create a physical connection between the Metro Station under Eutaw Street and the light rail station on Howard Street, using the elegant but vacant Hutzler's Department Street building in between. It would also serve buses, and would accommodate a downtown terminus for the Red Line on or under Saratoga Street.

2. Metro West - This vacant office complex of over a million square feet was originally supposed to be served by the Red Line on MLK Boulevard, but the proposed downtown tunnel had to be relocated away from this area (also connecting the University of Maryland campus). A revised Red Line plan along Saratoga Street would provide an even better connection, and a powerful incentive to make the site's redevelopment oriented to transit, something that the developer's early sketches have not done.

3. Heritage Crossing expansion - Ever since Mayor Schmoke's Administration, the city's flagship mixed-income redevelopment area has been considered for expansion into what is now the impenetrable "Highway to Nowhere". This could be greatly stimulated by a revamped Red Line (see top photo.).

4. Harlem Park - This is where the "Highway to Nowhere" is in a wide ditch, and thus could be replaced by truly innovative and unique development opportunities in a traffic-conflict free environment.

West Baltimore MARC Station - Ice House in the upper left, bus hub built as part of BaltimoreLink
 to the right, and "Highway to Nowhere" in the background, beyond the parking.

5. West Baltimore MARC Station - The adjacent "Ice House" was one of the few sites for a specific transit oriented development attributable to the defunct Red Line plan. More recently, the plan for a new Amtrak tunnel under West Baltimore has included plans for a whole new and greatly improved MARC station on relocated tracks. The revised Red Line plan needs to be coordinated closely with the Amtrak plan, so it is stronger and probably better to emphasize new development replacing the "Highway to Nowhere"and parking lots, along with a parking garage replacing the lots.

6. Uplands - This stalled but attractive mixed-income development has thus far been totally disoriented from the proposed Edmondson Village Red Line station, even though it was supposed to be completed well before the Red Line. Reigniting real momentum for the Red Line, if not its actual construction, could reignite this project as well. Increased density is greatly needed near the station on Edmondson Avenue.

7. Perkins Point - The redevelopment of the Perkins Homes public housing site has recently re-emerged in concert with the Old Town project to the north, to create by far the greatest mixed income development opportunity in Baltimore history. Bank Street, at its southern border with Fells Point and near Harbor East, offers a "blank slate" where a streetcar line could be built and tied into the earlier surface Red Line plan through the Inner Harbor and West Downtown which was in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The entire revised Red Line should be made "streetcar compatible" to serve as the trunk for new streetcar lines that branch out in all directions.

Proposed Red Line streetcar spur with new development, just north of Carroll Park, with the
B&O Museum Mount Clare Roundhouse in the background, as envisioned by Marc Szarkowski.

8. Mount Clare / Montgomery Park - A west side complement to the Perkins Point streetcar line would proceed beyond the Inner Harbor into the Mount Clare "First Mile" corridor of the B&O Railroad, one of the city's major historic treasures, where it would define a true urban development edge along the desolate north side of Carroll Park. It would then continue to the city's largest office building, the 1.3 million square foot Montgomery Park.

Building anything from this list would demonstrate the city's case to finally build a Red Line to fulfill its larger ambitions. And any of these projects could be supported by building just a very small initial phase of a complete Red Line, which could be built relatively inexpensively and quickly.