August 25, 2016

Camden Yards / Convention Center / MLK Tram-Campus

The recently announced study by the Maryland Stadium Authority to determine how to improve the Baltimore Convention Center is a great idea. The Convention Center is practically right across the street from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Stadium Authority's home turf and its very first project in the early 1990s which began its streak of success.

The natural outcome of this would be to expand the Convention Center into Camden Yards. That would also provide a big push for the city's nascent Camden Yards entertainment district, which extends southward to the Horseshoe Casino. The fact that the Maryland Stadium Authority already manages most of this property for the state makes this a perfect marriage.

Camden Yards could be redeveloped into an attractive "Convention Campus" - including new convention space, outdoor exhibition space, entertainment-oriented venues and supporting development replacing surface parking lots. It would culminate in a new Baltimore Arena - on a far less difficult site than one created by knocking down most of the existing Convention Center or working around the existing arena site to the north.

Camden Yards main lingering issue, which can readily be overcome and turned into a plus, is that it's relatively isolated from the rest of the city by the confluence of Interstate 395, Russell Street, MLK Boulevard and Conway Street. That hasn't stopped Yankees and Red Sox fans from invading the Inner Harbor when they come to town, of course, but it needs to be further encouraged. Seeing conventioneers gallivanting along the Inner Harbor promenade, dressed perhaps in Otakon outfits, is one of the joys of the Convention Center. More of the city needs to share in this.

The old billion-dollar Hackerman all-in-one mega-Convention arena hotel retail plan would not have helped. Just as the huge Javits Convention Center in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan didn't help much until the recent High Line and Hudson Yards developments came along. Big-box conventioneering is a dieing trend, just like big box retailing.

Trey Winstead's "Baltimore Gondola" aerial tram may be the missing link

Trey Winstead has been promoting his aerial tramway concept for the city's waterfront for over a decade, but it still appears to be a solution looking for a problem.

But "How to expand the Convention Center?" may now be just the problem to be solved.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards revolutionized baseball stadiums in the 1990s, but copycat ballparks in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and other places have now made it somewhat routine, if still very attractive in its own right. Winstead's proposed "Baltimore Gondola" looks just like the kind of innovation that can propel the Convention Center and Camden Yards into the 2020s, and extend their impact through far more of the city.

Winstead's plan has received virtually no criticism on its technical merits. It's basically an urban ski lift, but with flexibility to adapt to high-capacity urban situations. It just needs to find its place.

Ski lifts are for mountains - steep and rugged terrain. Baltimore's mountains are the metaphorical kind. We just need to find the kind of metaphorical mountain that the Baltimore Gondola can climb successfully where other transportation can't or won't. The closest comparable urban tram to Baltimore is the Roosevelt Island Tram across the East River from Manhattan, which has operated successfully since the 1970s.

Like a ski lift on a mountain, an urban tram needs to be integral to its environment, not superimposed on a place that's already working without it. If you've got a ski slope, you build a ski lift. Ski lifts don't serve just any mountain - only mountains with ski slopes. They're built together.

Similarly, the Baltimore Gondola aerial tramway would be designed and built together with a Convention Center expansion across the Conway Street, Howard Street, Interstate 95 intersection into Camden Yards. Like a ski slope or the East River, this intersection is a formidable barrier but can be navigated easily by an aerial tram.

Possible "Baltimore Gondola" route to the west, with seven stations: The Inner Harbor to Camden Yards segment
 along Conway Street is the same as the Winstead plan. Then it proceeds southward, then northwest along MLK Boulevard

The "Baltimore Gondola" aerial tram should go west, not east

Winstead's aerial tram plan already calls for a segment above Conway Street from Camden Yards to the Inner Harbor, but where his plan sees this as the west end, it ought to be the east end of a plan that heads west.

In any plan, this segment is crucial. This is not only the gateway to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, it is also both a light rail and a MARC commuter rail station. And it is near an enclosed overhead walkway to the Convention Center above Howard Street. What's needed is a design that truly integrates all this.

Beyond this segment, the tram should proceed through Camden Yards to the southwest. The next station should be located south of the MLK Boulevard, which would serve as the anchor for the new Camden Yards Convention Campus. The large adjacent parking lot between MLK Boulevard and Hamburg Street just north of M&T Bank (Ravens) Football Stadium would make an excellent site for a new arena (Carmelo Anthony Arena?) designed for convention-oriented uses.

This station site is also centrally located to serve the rest of the new "Entertainment District" southward to the Horseshoe Casino.

Beyond that, the tram could then be extended northwestward across busy Russell Street and above Martin Luther King Boulevard to the heart of West Baltimore, further extending the reach of downtown and the Inner Harbor for attractive new development opportunities.

The tram could be a perfect fit, but only if everything is planned to work together, in concert with new development.

Station locations

Here's where the stations could be located:

Inner Harbor - Between the Visitors Center and the Light Street Harborplace Pavilion, which is an ideal place. Tourists to the Visitors Center are perfect candidates for side-trips into the "real Baltimore", which is where the Gondola would go. Of course, some new West Baltimore development would be necessary to ensure that this reality is not too real.

Camden Yards - An ideal location where Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the light rail station, MARC commuter rail station and the convention center come together. There is significant additional development potential as well, including more intense and street-oriented use of the famous Oriole Park Warehouse, and "air rights" development over I-395 and Howard Street to provide even better linkages.

Camden Yards South - The parking lot between M&T Bank (Ravens) Stadium on Hamburg Street and I-395 would make a great site for the new replacement arena and the north anchor of the city's new "entertainment district". This could extend southward along a new Baltimore "Bourbon Street" to the casino. So far, this nascent entertainment district has been bottom-feeding, as exemplified by the recent announcement of a new Hammerjacks III music venue to be located in the obscure catacombs underneath Russell Street just south of Ostend Street and the football stadium. This is actually a very healthy sign, not to expend the best development sites on things that don't need them. (The exact opposite kind of development happened with the city's idiotic decision to put the new Greyhound Bus Station out on a waterfront peninsula near the casino, disconnected from all other transit.)

Pigtown and Pratt Street - The stations along MLK Boulevard would position this community as West Baltimore's mirror image of Federal Hill (yin to its yang). This stations should be accessible from the west side of MLK Boulevard, not isolated in the median. Further, the median and the highway as a whole should be narrowed as much as possible, to increase the land for the station sites, surrounding parkland, new development, and buffer space for the existing neighborhood.

Huge Martin Luther King Boulevard through the University of Maryland campus
 is a much more suitably scaled place for an aerial tramway than 19th century Fleet Street to the east. 

University of Maryland Campus and BioPark - This station should be designed and located to make MLK Boulevard a focal point of the campus instead of a barrier. Again, the roadway and median should be narrowed as much as possible, which should be do-able without appreciably increasing congestion  or reducing capacity.

Heritage Crossing - Let me be the first to suggest that the huge proposed redevelopment by Caves Valley Partners of the abandoned Metro West Social Security complex should be named "Heritage Crossing" - in homage to the gorgeous neo-Olmsted mixed-income neighborhood adjacently located just across the "Highway to Nowhere". This would be a call to finally get rid of the highway, expand the city's horizons and reunite all the adjacent neighborhoods. A sensible west-side light rail Red Line would also have a connection at this point (instead of the defunct tunnel under Fremont Avenue). Moreover, this would make particular sense if a busway was implemented in the west Red Line corridor on a temporary or even a permanent basis.

In sum, this kind of west side plan would enable the Baltimore Gondola to become integral to new development, the same way that ski lifts are integral to ski slopes.

Improving on the current east-side "Baltimore Gondola" plan

Under Armour's Port Covington plan is the ultimate example of the current trend of increased developer power and responsibility over the city's planning process. Under Armour has literally written a billion dollar ticket for new infrastructure, including $660 Million in city Tax Increment Financing (TIF).

The Port Covington plan is far too big to not be a precedent for the next wave of development, despite all the controversies.

It thus strongly points to Tax Increment Financing as a strong candidate to be the funding source for an aerial tram. In turn, it would demand that developers would have an extremely strong say in building the tram.

Current version of the official Winstead "Baltimore Gondola" plan 

That makes this year's iteration of Winstead's Baltimore Gondola aerial tram plan (shown above) extremely puzzling.

There's no problem with the Segment between Stations #1 and #2 on the west side of the Inner Harbor, which is identical to the easternmost segment of this west side plan. The Segment from Stations #2 to #3 would also work for either plan, as an intelligent (although perhaps not aesthetic) alternative to the big pedestrian drawbridge in the Inner Harbor 2.0 plan prepared by the city's powers-that-be. But obviously those powers don't want trams there.

The first big problem - probably fatal - is that there is no station in  the segment between Station #3 (Pier 6) and #4 (Broadway/Fells Point). That means no station directly serving Harbor East and Harbor Point, by far downtown's biggest recent development area. It can easily be imagined that the developers have already quietly conveyed their opposition to the entire tram plan, and at the very least would forbid any station near their areas. That's exactly what Harbor East developer John Paterakis told the city and state about their Red Line light rail plan, which followed the exact same route and hence became one of the nails in the Red Line's coffin.

Moreover, Harbor East and Harbor Point have already gotten all their infrastructure funded. Harbor Point's uses a generous allotment of TIF bonds, so they're certainly not going to be ready for even more TIF financing, if it's even possible.

Is historic Fleet Street in Fells Point a place where people could envision looking up at an aerial tramway?

Then there's the thorny problem of making an aerial tramway fit into the 19th century streetscape of Fleet Street in Fells Point (see photo above).

Finally, there's no potential for any more new infrastructure-fueled whole-cloth development along the Fells Point and Canton waterfront, near Stations #4, #5 or #6. From now on, everything there will be infill development, not amenable to a TIF tax district.

None of the other major new development sites in southeast would be decently served by any tram plan. These include Perkins Homes (which I recently discussed here), Canton Crossing, Brewers Hill and the Highlandtown Loft District. So it's back to the drawing board, folks...

A west side tram plan is more likely politically and financially feasible

In contrast, TIF financing should be eminently feasible for a west side plan for any land that ends up on the tax roll for development, most notably the massive former Metro West Social Security site recently purchased by Caves Valley Partners.

Much of the Camden Yards land owned by the State of Maryland Stadium Authority could be returned to the tax rolls for redevelopment. A new arena would be a demonstrable money-maker (unlike the city-owned TIF financed Hilton Hotel nearby). New parking garages for the development and events would be a lucrative cash cow as well. The area's premiere political player is Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who should be ripe for a deal now that he has seemingly won the war to stop the state's State Center plan. A new Camden Yards development plan would be an entirely different kind of deal.

The University of Maryland at Baltimore, of course, is also state-owned, but is surrounded by much developable land as part of the associated BioPark.

The city's west side really really needs more new development. The drift between the city's east and west sides has become increasingly glaring - focusing attention to the "Two Baltimores" disparity. The Caves Valley Metro West site is not only the gateway to Heritage Crossing, but also to gritty Harlem Park and Sandtown, which is where Freddy Grey died in police custody before last year's uprising and riots. The riots extended southward to the Rite Aid drug store just across MLK Boulevard from this site.

Unfortunately, Caves Valley's first move has been to market part of this huge property for a "pad site" - real estate parlance for a free-standing fast food joint or a Royal Farms-style gas/convenience store. This would be a disastrous precedent.

We must think big to STOP THE PAD - and set the stage to create the best possible socially-conscious development.

August 15, 2016

Proposed Pratt to Pigtown Parkway: Sooo-eee chic

Pigtown's development strategy is all about positioning. The community touches several of West Baltimore's healthiest neighborhoods, including Barre Circle, Camden Crossing and Ridgely's Delight, but so far all the pieces haven't quite come together.

Pigtown has made a great effort to be noticed. They've put their cool Pigtown logo banners all the way up on Pratt Street, well north of what is traditionally thought of as Pigtown, thus demonstrating the real estate adage that successful neighborhood brands expand to cover territory that was once outside.

Great logos are a rare and precious thing. The iconic pig is a great asset. It's hard to believe planners once wanted to change the neighborhood's name to the anonymous "Washington Village".

Pratt Street is also iconic - the east-west spine of the Inner Harbor. So this positioning is an effort to get Pigtown closer to Baltimore's front door and its big bucks economy.

Pigtown's plan also calls for gateways to its Washington Boulevard business district to lure people in from the outside. But Washington Boulevard's gateways lack a softer side, dominated by heavy traffic fed from its intersection with the giant Martin Luther King Boulevard, which is also a major barrier to downtown and the Inner Harbor.

So the key to making Pigtown's strategy work is to reposition this gateway in the most inviting possible way to the Baltimore mainstream.

Looking westward into the Washington Boulevard business district from what would be a Pigtown gateway.
Banners with the Pigtown logo are directly above the "2-Chic Boutique",
owned by Presumptive Mayor Catherine Pugh and Comptroller Joan Pratt. 

Pigtown Park

The solution is to locate Pigtown's gateway as close as possible to downtown and the Inner Harbor, and to make it as alluring as possible. This cannot be well done at the existing giant intersection of MLK and Washington Boulevard, with its brutally heavy traffic whizzing by.

Instead, the gateway should be in a new Pigtown Park, where Washington Boulevard can emerge out of an attractive meandering greenway directly from Pratt Street to the north.

Creating a prominent gateway from Pratt Street would enable the city and the world to see Pigtown as Baltimore's first major full-service neighborhood westward from the Inner Harbor, framed by greenery that draws people into its residential and commercial areas. This would both contrast and complement Otterbein and Ridgely's Delight nearby, which are merely small enclosed residential enclaves.

Proposed Pigtown Park served by Pigtown Parkway (shown in porcine pinkish mauve) from Pratt Street in the lower-right corner
to the Washington Boulevard business district in the upper-left.
The proposed relocated southbound lanes of Martin Luther King Boulevard are shown in yellow.
The adjacent neighborhoods are Barre Circle above (west of) MLK Boulevard and Ridgely's Delight below (to the east).

Most of this parkland can be created by narrowing MLK Boulevard, shrinking its median strip and pushing the remaining roadway up against the existing east curb. This is how it should have been designed in the first place.

When Martin Luther King Boulevard was originally plowed through the corridor in the early 1980s, it was made much wider than necessary simply because the land was there and the designers had a propensity for grandiosity. This also left a huge swath of small jagged parcels which were mostly converted into miscellaneous open spaces. But that land can be re-made into a long greenway that provides useful active open space which can relate to the adjacent communities. It's even already part of the city's various plans, for what it's worth.

But so far, this concept has gotten very little traction from the powers-that-be, who appear to be more interested in demolishing more and more houses, propping up highly subsidized mega-projects like La Cite and the Biotech Park, and solidifying rather than breaking down corridor barriers, notably the historic B&O Railroad "First Mile" and the Franklin-Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere".

The big bend in proposed Pigtown Parkway through Pigtown Park - from the Washington Boulevard Pigtown business district
in the upper left, toward the Pigtown Gateway at Pratt Street/MLK Boulevard in the upper right.

Pigtown Parkway

Having Washington Boulevard wind through parkland toward Pratt Street would change the way people see Pigtown. Here's how it could be done:

1. Narrow MLK Boulevard by eliminating most of its median strip and unneeded non-thru lanes, and pushing the whole road up against its existing east curb. Three northbound and two southbound lanes should be enough for this segment. The third southbound lane should be expendable south of Pratt because there would no longer be any turns into Washington Boulevard, and no longer a capacity loss due to traffic on the two legs of Washington Blvd. moving in separate green signal phases.

2. Eliminate some of the parking lot for the small shopping center which flanks Washington Boulevard. If need be, it can be replaced by new parking behind the stores in the recovered right-of-way of the narrowed MLK Boulevard. The smaller of the two retail buildings at the corner of MLK and Washington Blvd. (currently including a 7-11) should also be rebuilt so that it overlooks the park appropriately for such a visible location. The larger shopping center building (Dollar General Store) is also ugly, but it's set back far enough from these streets so that it doesn't matter too much.

3. Make parkland out of all this recovered land, northward to Pratt Street. Some existing parkland behind the brick wall in the Barre Circle neighborhood should be incorporated as well.

Looking northward toward Pratt Street from proposed Pigtown Park at what would be its North Gateway.
The park would incorporate practically all of  the adjacent southbound MLK Boulevard to the right
 (which would be narrowed to a single lane and realigned to become Pigtown Parkway) and some of the existing park behind the brick walls to the left.

4. Rebuild Washington Boulevard as a narrow parkway that winds through the park from the Pigtown business district northward to Pratt Street, instead of going straight into MLK Boulevard.

5. In the south/west-bound direction, the new Pigtown Parkway should originate as a single lane out of the intersection of Pratt Street and MLK Boulevard. This would essentially become the gateway to Pigtown, providing the maximum presence for the neighborhood and business district from downtown and the Inner Harbor to the east, as well as most of West Baltimore and the University of Maryland campus to the north.

6. In the north/east-bound direction, the roadway should diverge from that alignment to intersect MLK Boulevard somewhere south of Pratt Street. Such a new intersection would segregate its turning traffic from turns at the existing MLK intersections at Pratt and Washington Blvd., making traffic more manageable, reducing congestion and providing an additional safer location for pedestrians to cross.

7. Bikes, pedestrians and joggers should be accommodated on separate off-street paths as part of the city's larger system.

8. The Pratt Street/MLK Boulevard intersection should have be some kind of artful monument, sculpture or kiosk to announce this Pigtown gateway. With a pig perhaps? Tasteful, not too campy, maybe even chic - although a bit of controversy never hurts.

Proposed Pigtown Park plan view - Pratt Street Gateway in the upper left, Pigtown Parkway in stylish porcine pink,
relocated southbound MLK Boulevard in yellow, and the Pigtown Washington Boulevard business district in the lower right.

Six Mile Greenway Loop

All this would be part of a proposed six mile greenway loop to revitalize West Baltimore - northward along the MLK Boulevard right-of-way through the University of Maryland campus to the Caves Valley redevelopment of the empty Social Security complex, then westward to redevelop the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor, then southward to the Gwynns Falls Greenway, and then back east along the historic B&O Railroad "First Mile" corridor along the desolate "no man's land" north edge of Carroll Park.

So while this is part of a Pigtown plan, it would serve as an even greater template for the revitalization of West Baltimore as a whole. Neighborhoods like Pigtown are unique, but also need to be interconnected with the city.

Right now, the city is looking at what to do with its vast inventory of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, and the natural tendency for them is to consider new open space or parkland as a catch-all use. But parks need to be located where people are and where they want to be, not where people used to be.

Parks need to serve a greater purpose, to bring communities together, provide recreation, and to guide and stimulate revitalization. Parks which truly serve the people feed on themselves, because people want to be near other people. A new Pigtown Park along Martin Luther King Boulevard from Pratt Street to Washington Boulevard would serve such a purpose.

August 9, 2016

Port Covington made simple: Ten key points

To sum it up:

1. Yes, it's a good project. - Simply put, it's urban, which is what the site demands. Previous attempts by CSX (truck terminal), The Sun (newspaper printing press) and WalMart (big box retail WalMart and Sam's Club) were all plans that belonged in the suburbs. This plan is oriented to continuous public waterfront access, and it's fine-grained street grid is the best way to organize the sites to provide the necessary flexibility for a wide mix of uses over a long term.

Pretty but pretty useless bird's eye rendering of Port Covington plan

2. Yes, Tax Increment Financing is the right way to pay for it. - Future tax revenue from the development is the best security from which to borrow. Tax base growth is what the city needs more than anything.

3. Yes, it's isolated from the rest of the city. - It's on a waterfront peninsula which insulates it from the city's problems. That's Port Covington's advantage. Don't fight it or complain about what it is.

4. Yes, it does divert development from elsewhere in the city. - That's an economic fact. Kevin Plank also bought nearby Westport, which already had a similar grandiose mixed-use urban waterfront development plan with similar Tax Increment Financing. Since then, he has sat on it with no development plans so that he could focus on Port Covington. The city needs to deal with that. Plank's plan is very attractive, but the entire city needs growth and jobs, not just Port Covington. The city has already said they can't afford to underwrite all the TIF bonds, so what happens when the next Port Covington comes along? Like Westport? The city can't let this project suck the air out of our long-term growth. This is just another step, albeit a fairly big one. The infrastructure plan must be affordable, not a roll of the dice. That idiotic "game changer" term needs to be put to rest.

5. It won't solve the city's low income housing problem. - Port Covington is a bad place for low income housing, period. It's way too expensive and the city's housing problems are way too pervasive. The city's dysfunctional real estate market which caused the abandonment of tens of thousands of houses is the root of both the problems and the solutions.

6. Each infrastructure project in the plan needs to be considered individually on its own specific merits. - Planning and building forty years worth of infrastructure as one all-inclusive package is a terrible way to proceed. Conditions will constantly change, as they already have, with the denial of federal funds for the expensive complex new expressway ramps. Making the new street grid dependent on these new ramps is a blueprint for a house of cards. Traffic capacity is fixed anyway. The site's internal grid can only hold so much traffic, travel demand between Washington and New York won't be decreasing, and Interstate 95 won't be getting any wider.

7. Infrastructure construction must be linked directly to development. - Simply build the streets, buildings and related facilities for a specific location at the same time as each other, so they can be coordinated with each other. In the previous Port Covington plan, a huge parking lot was built for future retail beyond the Sam's Club which never happened, along with a ridiculous curved entryway to line it up with the Sun printing plant. In Harbor East, new streets, promenades and utilities were built and then soon ripped out because they could not accommodate the Marriott Hotel, Legg Mason Tower and other new buildings. In Harbor Point, the spending plan has already changed drastically due to cost overruns that have turned the TIF bond revenue into a massive slush fund. And the potential for such abuses would be far higher with the current Port Covington plan.

8. Keep the bells and whistles separate. - The Harbor Point developer argued about how crucial it was to spend a huge amount of money on the new waterfront parks and promenades to support the project. But now under the reality of construction, all that is being cut back because the buildings must take priority. Surprise - some of Harbor Point's gold plated bells and whistles weren't such a high priority after all. Moreover, parks and associated amenities are a matter of taste and need to be tailored to the preferences of real users. In the Inner Harbor, tastemakers have now decided that the expensive McKeldin Fountain wasn't such a good thing after all, and they want to rip it out at still more great expense. Amenities should be have their own debates and proceed at their own pace.

9. Strongly emphasize transit-oriented development. - The only way to accommodate the proposed development density is by orienting it as strongly as possible to regional transit. The stations on the proposed central light rail spur must be the locations for as much of the total development as possible. This should also be done as soon as possible to cultivate a "transit culture". But what usually happens in the early phases of these developments is that a lot of cheap surface parking is created which prevents this. That's already happened in Port Covington. The proposed separate streetcar loop is also a danger sign. To a significant extent, it would replace walking trips rather than car trips. A far better tool for organizing the trips would be to locate the light rail stations in as close proximity to as much of the development as possible. The current plan shows the light rail spur pushed up against the north edge of the site near the Interstate 95 catacombs. That's bad. The light rail line should be central to serving the entire site and all the development.

10. Enough with the hype! - Those slick bird's eye renderings of the development serve no use except hype value. The renderings prevent any specific element of the plan from being seen clearly, completely and without distortion. OK, we get it. We'll build it together. That means wisely investing OUR tax money. The current Port Covington debate insults our intelligence.

So figure out exactly what's Phase One. Then issue its TIF bonds and nothing more. It's that simple.

August 1, 2016

The "Perkins Line": Best bet for southeast rail transit

A streetcar line through downtown to the Perkins Homes site would be nothing like the failed Red Line plan, and would be just what the Red Line should have been but wasn't - visible, compatible, affordable, buildable and connected.

The equation for the proposed replacement of the Perkins Home low income "projects" with a modern mixed income community is complex - as attested by the recent withdrawal of the city's selected developer, CRC Partners. Indications are that in order to make the financial numbers work, the density of the development will have to be ratcheted upward so that a sufficient number of "market rate" dwelling units can support the mandated lower income units.

High density means there's an urgent need for high quality transit. And since the site is six to eight blocks from the waterfront, and thus away from the high and ultra-high income Harbor East and Harbor Point areas, there will be a large service area of people who will actually want and use transit.

The "Perkins Line" would be a short streetcar extension of the surface Red Line alternative
 from the Inner Harbor eastward on lightly travelled Trinity and Bank Streets
to the large Perkins Homes redevelopment site, just west of  Broadway in Upper Fells Point.

A streetcar line would fit in well. Streetcars create a distinctive and highly visible "signature identity" for a neighborhood trying to be recognized. Look at what streetcars did for the New Orleans Garden District or the hills of San Francisco. Even the disastrously managed new H Street line in Washington, DC has been a huge success at drawing interest and new development.

Traffic congestion is already a problem and has been projected to get even worse as Harbor Point is built out, with or without the Red Line. Despite that, the developers forced the Harbor East station to be moved further away from Harbor Point and the other new growth areas, prior to the Red Line dieing altogether. The Red Line was also poor at serving short trips because its inner city stations were inconveniently isolated deep in the ground.

So a transit plan must balance on the fine line of accommodating high density while avoiding the congestion that high density creates.

The Perkins Homes site

The Perkins Homes development may be the last best chance for a buildable and workable rail transit line to serve southeast Baltimore. The site has the two crucial requirements: It is large enough so that it can actually be oriented to transit. And it is located away from the area's heavily congested streets.

The best location for a streetcar line would be Bank Street, on the southern edge of the site. Bank Street carries little traffic and is congestion free, so a streetcar line which is oriented to serve predominately shorter and more localized trips would fit in well. The new development is also a "clean sheet" to design the street and streetcar line so they truly fit in. The rail line would not need to be shoehorned into a fixed predetermined width. Other street amenities like pedestrian plazas, setbacks and on-street parking would be part of this design process. That's how transit-oriented development becomes development-oriented transit.

Bank Street looking east from Central Avenue toward the Perkins Homes in the mid-background.

The line should probably be designed in anticipation of a permanent terminus station near Broadway, but alternately, the line could possibly be extended north and/or south on Broadway at some point in the future. Streetcar lines offer this flexibility because they are tailored to shorter trips. Several proposals for streetcar lines on Broadway have been made over the years, but the obvious problem has always been how to connect it. The "Perkins Line" provides a way.

There's probably no chance the streetcar line would ever be extended further east along Bank Street through the stable rowhouse neighborhoods of Upper Fells Point and Fells Prospect. However, a strong physical integration to the Broadway "Spanish Town" business district would be essential.

Further westward, another station would likely be located in the vicinity of Bank and Caroline Street, near the southwest corner of the Perkins site which extends one more block to Eden Street.

Through Little Italy

The intersection of Bank Street and Central Avenue, one block west of Eden, is now poised to become an important iconic gateway to Little Italy, and a crossroads to the front door of Harbor Point to the south and the "sleeping giant" Old Town neighborhood to the north. Central Avenue is also destined to become southeast Baltimore's major north-south main street, even more than Broadway.

When developer John Paterakis forced the planned Red Line station to be moved away from Central Avenue, it was a heavy blow to the transit line's ability to guide new development. A streetcar station two blocks north at Central and Bank would be an essential substitute without the negative impacts.

Central Avenue looking southward from Bank Street toward the gateway to Harbor Point at the Exelon Tower.
 A streetcar station at this location would be essential to encourage spillover development
 from Harbor Point toward Old Town to the north.

At this intersection, the streetcar line would then call attention to the obsolescence of the three-level parking garage in its southwest corner, between Central and Exeter Street. Sprawling free-standing parking garages such as this create major dead spots, both inside the garage and on the surrounding sidewalks. Now that Central Avenue is no longer on the "edge of nowhere", this parking garage needs to be replaced with a larger structure wrapped by new development which generates activity on a consistent basis.

Two good examples of this new type of parking garage are located nearby: (1) On Caroline Street between Harbor Point and Fells Point, and (2) Between Wolfe, Fayette and Washington Streets near Hopkins Hospital. They are both disguised by attractive wrap-around development while providing ample parking for both internal and external users.

Since Bank Street ends at Exeter Street, the streetcar line could then cut right through the parking garage site to Trinity Street, or even through the new building itself.

Streetcar route in red looking east from Trinity Street through the parking garage between Exeter and Central,
 then to Bank Street toward the Perkins site in yellow. Across Bank Street from the garage is the fabulous Canal Street Malt House condos, where Orioles legend Jim Palmer lives. Maybe we can get him to take the streetcar to Camden Yards.

The two short blocks of Trinity Street between Exeter and Albemarle Street (about 425 feet) are too narrow for two streetcar tracks, so a fairly small number of parking spaces would would have to be eliminated from one side of the street and replaced somewhere else such as the parking garage. Only a few buildings front onto Trinity Street, so the impact would be relatively small.

Finally, the streetcar line would proceed through the parking lot bounded by Albemarle, Eastern and President Street, for which future development plans should be adapted. This site is certainly too valuable and visible to just be used indefinitely as a surface parking lot. A streetcar plan would speed up the development process, especially integrated with a station which serves mostly Little Italy, but also Harbor East and President Street.

The Little Italy community was blindsided when the planned Harbor East Red Line station was moved at the last minute without their input, from Central Avenue to Exeter Street, which would have necessitated digging 70 foot deep escalator and elevator shafts. The Little Italy streetcar line would be far more benign, far more locally oriented and far more capable of being integrated into the community.

What would become Little Italy's equivalent to the San Francisco cable car Rice-a-Roni?

Through the Inner Harbor, Downtown and beyond

Proceeding through the Inner Harbor, the streetcar line would follow alignments which were studied in the Red Line's Alternatives Analysis, but were later unwisely rejected in favor of the fatally flawed tunnel plan.

From Eastern Avenue, it would proceed westward onto Piers 5 and 6, then northward to the Pratt/Lombard corridor. Since it would be built to accommodate only single vehicle streetcars, it would be easier to fit in than light rail trains, and would become a highly visible attraction to lure passengers.

At some point, it would connect into a future west Red Line with which it would share tracks and stations, possibly via a comprehensive bus/rail transit hub at the Lexington Market Metro station. In that way, the west Red Line itself would become the "trunk line" for an entire streetcar system, thus maximizing connectivity. The key to all of this is that the heavy rail Metro is and will remain Baltimore's best, fastest, and highest capacity transit line by far, and should be the trunk for the entire rail and bus system.

The concept of integrating light rail and streetcars into a hybrid rail transit system is discussed in this blog article.

The concept of a Lexington Market Transit Hub is discussed in this blog article.

The "Perkins Line" streetcars would be a relatively small component of this system, but such an incremental project makes it far more feasible and a far more integral and distinctive part of its surroundings.

It would thus become intertwined with the evolving character of its communities - the Latino / Spanish district in Upper Fells Point, Little Italy and the turista Inner Harbor - as part of the overall distinctive culture of Baltimore as a whole.

Transit-oriented development in Baltimore has a terrible track record of failure, but the Perkins site provides all the necessary elements to finally make it work.

July 18, 2016

Port Covington needs a spine: Mc Cromwell Street

Attempting to relocate the existing Interstate 95 ramps to make Port Covington work is a crazy idea. The recent rejection of the federal grant request reinforces this. The planners need to go back to the drawing board.

The problems are virtually all at the Port Covington ends of the ramps, not at the I-95 ends of the ramps. When I-95 was built, the ramps were designed in a very competent manner, with proper sizes and spacing to handle as much future traffic as the expressway could absorb.

Interstate 95 is the main street of the entire east coast. Messing with it merely to suit a local development would open a major can of worms. (And you thought Chris Christie's New Jersey ramp-gate was bad.)

In light of this, one of my previous blog articles focused on how Hanover Street should be modified and partially eliminated through Port Covington to make its existing ramps work best.

At the same time, a concurrent premise was that Cromwell Street was largely adequate as-is and could simply be tweaked to work as necessary to improve its development and pedestrian environment, as well as its connections to the Hanover Street bridge to the south and its I-95 ramps at McComas Street to the northeast.

But building an entirely new Cromwell Street does have its advantages. It could result in a "cleaner" design and it would get the traffic farther away from the waterfront. The Port Covington plan calls for building virtually an entirely new street system on the site anyway, and even the remaining cost would be far less than the developer's plan, since it would allow much of McComas to be eliminated as well.

The key is to replace Cromwell Street, not eliminate it. The official Sagamore Development Company plan does just the opposite - it replaces Hanover through the site to handle through traffic and eliminates Cromwell's through traffic and ramp connections. Cromwell's baby is thrown out with the bathwater.

A Spine: How Cromwell Street could be relocated to connect seamlessly with the Hanover Street bridge
 to the south (bottom) and the existing McComas Street I-95 ramps to the northeast (top right).

Cromwell Street - not Hanover - is the key

Making whatever is the replacement for Cromwell Street work is the key.

The massive Port Covington project will generate a massive amount of traffic regardless of the street system, simply by virtue of its size. At the same time, through traffic must still be accommodated although some of it will divert simply because it will try to avoid the inevitable conflicts.

Hanover is a much worse street for heavy traffic than Cromwell because of its linkage to South Baltimore's residential areas and its expressway-style ramp merge/diverge conditions, which are very hostile to pedestrians.

The official Sagamore plan, despite spending a huge amount of money to relocate the ramps and lower the road down to grade, still keeps the existing southbound I-95 on-ramp, so it's not really much of an improvement. Hanover Street would also chop the development site in half in a much more severe way than Cromwell would.

The Sagamore Plan: Hanover Street north of the bridge is rebuilt as a wide, lowered boulevard which bisects the site.
Its I-95 on-ramp  is retained, but the other ramps are shoved off beyond the upper left corner of this "bird's eye" graphic,
where they are invisible but would be highly disruptive as traffic filters through the site grid.

The official plan also brings all the new ramps in and out at the extreme northwest (upper left) corner of the site, so all that ramp traffic needs to filter its way from there through the street system to the rest of the site. So that will increase the traffic on Hanover Street, as well as on the west waterfront boulevard (the west side mirror image of  Cromwell) and other streets.

Sagamore's plan presents an illusion of a quiet low-traffic local street grid, but it would really be quite the opposite. And it would get worse when clients for individual sites start planning their massive parking garages, which are inevitable since they have chosen not to locate in the city's downtown core with its maximum transit connections. (So far, there's been no evidence that Sagamore is serious about transit-oriented development, but that's a blog article for another time.)

The best way to accommodate the traffic is simply to focus as much of it as possible on Cromwell Street itself, moving the street as desired so that it works best with the development.

McComas + Cromwell = McCromwell = A spine for Port Covington

McComas Street already connects to ramps to and from I-95. So McComas should be integrated with Cromwell. That would make it "McCromwell Street". Or "McComwell", if you prefer to drop the "r" in deference to the "r"-less McComas.

The existing intersection of Cromwell and McComas at the northeast corner of the site has enough real estate around it to realign the streets in any way necessary to create continuity, so that the ramps will serve Port Covington as much as possible.

At the other end of Cromwell to the south, the kink in Hanover Street at the existing intersection just north of the bridge creates the opportunity to straighten out the road, while aligning the Hanover bridge seamlessly into Cromwell. It would look totally natural, as if it was always aligned this way.

So the relocated Cromwell Street would do a much better job of fulfilling the same purposes that Sagamore has attempted to serve by rebuilding Hanover Street and moving the ramps. It would also better serve the rest of the plan, being in proximity to its largest buildings. Tall and large buildings work best for large streets, making up in density and visibility what they lack in intimacy.

Other beneficial variations are certainly possible. The important point is that a great plan can be achieved without spending a huge fortune on roadway infrastructure, and particularly without tearing down the Interstate 95 ramps.

July 5, 2016

A New Park from Questar Tower to McKeldin Fountain

The 44-story Questar Tower now under construction in the Inner Harbor is an attempt to breathe life into traffic-oppressed Light Street. But so far it looks like a losing battle. The same can be said for the Harborplace renovation slated to start soon across street. Light Street traffic is so nasty that the city had to fence-off its most important crosswalk at Conway Street - a very bad way to introduce arriving tourists to the Inner Harbor.

Now the city and its business allies appear to be willing to try anything - even demolishing the McKeldin Fountain - in what looks more like an exorcism than a renewal plan.

Here's a better solution: Make McKeldin Fountain the centerpiece of a major new park that splits Light Street in half instead of acting as a mere glorified median strip. This park would extend for at least three blocks, virtually free of traffic conflicts, from Pratt Street southward around the fountain, beyond Conway Street to the Questar Tower.

A major new proposed park along Light Street in the Inner Harbor -
from the Questar Tower south of Conway Street (shown at left as a Google Earth mock-up) 
northward to the fountain and Pratt Street (at right).

The case of the Questar Tower

With the massive new Questar Tower, the Inner Harbor will no longer be able to afford the current dysfunctional dangerous intersection next door at Light and Conway Streets.

But the new park plan would reconfigure the streets so that the traffic signals at Conway and Light can be designed to enable all traffic in all directions to stop and start at the same time. When any traffic is stopped, all traffic would be stopped. Pedestrians could then be free to walk unencumbered in all directions - a far cry from the current chaotic condition.

One would think that building the city's tallest-ever residential tower would be such a big story that it would call attention to this. But the Port Covington and Harbor Point plans have dominated recent development news, because they will be major self-contained "cities with in a city", with an image of being sealed-off from traditional urban ills like traffic and human riff-raff. They're selling the new communities, not just the individual buildings.

The Questar Tower doesn't have that luxury.

Harbor Point and Port Covington have made a virtue out of their isolation. This is good for them but not so good for the city, where new development needs to be a tool to revitalize nearby areas - in the case of Questar Tower, the old downtown.

Even within the Inner Harbor, most recent attention has gone to renewing Rash Field, which is significant but removed from the center of things. The long-range Inner Harbor 2.0 plan is to build a huge expensive pedestrian bridge from Rash Field to Pier 6 and Harbor East, diverting the focal point of the Inner Harbor away from downtown permanently.

This diversion process has already been going on for awhile in both the city and public psyche. Most iconic city harbor views such as on TV news and weather reports are now shot outward away from downtown instead of inward at the downtown skyline as they were for most of the 20th century.

Construction to start on 414 Light Street tower
Questar Tower architect's rendering, looking west from the Inner Harbor.
The Oriole Park Warehouse at Camden Yards can be seen in the background at the end of Conway Street.  

The Questar Tower can't sell an idyllic new urban community like Harbor Point or Port Covington. It's one of the last pieces of an old puzzle, on a site that has stood vacant since the old McCormick Spice headquarters was demolished back in the 1980s. At that time, new development seemed imminent, but various plans came and went until Questar picked up the property at a foreclosure auction several years ago. And most people didn't seem to believe their project would really get going until shovels went into the ground just a few weeks ago.

Now the city must make sure it does just become an isolated ivory tower, but will be part of making the entire area more attractive - most notably the old downtown. Harborplace can no longer attract people by itself. The entire west shore of the Inner Harbor must be strong enough to serve as a counter-balancing anchor for the ever-expanding waterfront developments to the east and south.
Looking north at the park from the Questar Tower (left) toward the fountain with Pratt Street at the top.
Plan view of the park. The Harborplace Light Street Pavilion is at the bottom center.

Create the new park by splitting Light Street in two

The key to all this is to tame Light Street and make it into a "people place", an extension of the Inner Harbor which forms a real linkage to the surrounding areas from downtown to Otterbein to Camden Yards. This is impossible with Light Street's existing ten-lane configuration, especially at the intersection with Conway Street at the Questar Tower.

The city had a plan to narrow it down to a "mere" eight-lanes, which they've claimed has been pending a traffic study for many years. That was given as one of the rationalizations for knocking down the McKeldin Fountain, since the alignment would consolidate all these lanes along the street's west side where the fountain is located. But eight fully contiguous traffic lanes would become even more of a barrier between the Inner Harbor and the west side of downtown and the Questar site.

A genuine solution would be to split Light Street into two completely separate streets, with a real park in between instead of a glorified median strip. (Such a plan was first outlined in a Baltimore Brew article I wrote two years ago.)

The west street would serve only the heavy through traffic between Conway and downtown, while the east street would serve the more localized traffic around the Inner Harbor to South Baltimore. Both streets would probably need four lanes, two in each direction, leaving the remaining two lanes to be added to the existing median to create parkland. 

Most of the park, near the Questar Tower and McKeldin Fountain anchors, would be far wider than that.

The single lane that currently turns right along the south curb of Conway to southbound Light Street should also be retained for local circulation. Since it is the only lane that would cross the park, it should be given special pavement treatment and traffic control.

How to surround the fountain

The new park would essentially serve as the Questar Tower's front yard and its linkage to both the Inner Harbor and to the downtown spine along Pratt Street to the north. McKeldin Fountain would be its centerpiece.

Criticism of the fountain by proponents of demolition has focused on how massive and imposing it is. But for a much larger and more sprawling park, this mass would be a key advantage. From the south end of the park near the Questar Tower, the fountain would just look like a distant landmark. Moreover, by opening up the fountain with full 360-degree access, it would no longer be seen as a barrier.

Talented architects can certainly rise to the challenge of figuring out how to design the park to take maximum advantage of this new space and pedestrian access. Additional street crosswalks in the two blocks between Pratt and Conway Street across from Harborplace and the Hyatt Hotel can also be easily provided.

The upcoming long-awaited renovation of Harborplace provides additional opportunities. A significant aspect of the plan is to give its pavilions more "street presence" and de-emphasize the imposing truck loading facilities. The inward oriented marketplace as conceived in the 1970s by The Rouse Company will give way to a more outward orientation. This can work hand-in-hand with the new park plan.

McKeldin Fountain from its landlocked seldom seen backside. 
This would be its view from the south end of the park near the Questar Tower.

Let McKeldin Fountain flow - for water, traffic and people

A death watch seems to be on for the McKeldin Fountain, like Baltimore's muggy summer calm before the storm when water is suspended in mid-air.

The fountain was totally dry this past Fourth of July weekend when the Inner Harbor was supposed to looks its best. The crowds were heavy enough to gather by the fountain anyway, but it just stood there like an inanimate prop.

Water had been flowing through the fountain just a few weeks before when fewer people were paying attention. For at least several years, the Downtown Partnership has been lobbying and raising money for its demolition, saying that the fountain had just about seen its last days due to bad pumps. But it has been working much of the time since then.

Worn out pumps are a very poor excuse to demolish the fountain. And using the fountain as a scapegoat for traffic or design problems is even worse. Its design style has been dubbed "brutalism", which means it was never meant to be subtle or inoffensive. It simply needs the proper setting where water, traffic and people can flow together.

June 20, 2016

Cleveland Cavs avert nightmare flashback to Baltimore

With ten seconds left in last night's final NBA championship game, King LeBron James was fouled. He sprawled on the floor, writhing in pain for what seemed like an eternity - along with eternity for the entire city of Cleveland and its half century reputation as a "loser city", without any championships in any sport.

Why do we subject ourselves to such pain? Why do we wrap our collective municipal psyche so much into our sports teams? Cleveland's reputation for losing has brutally spilled over into all walks of life.

With his Cavs clinging to a thin three point lead, it looked like LeBron had an "out of body experience". And this could have led phantasmagorically all the way... to Baltimore.

LeBron James' "out of body experience" laying on the floor in last night's game
It was looking doubtful that he would get back on his feet to sink his free throws which would seal the Cavaliers' victory. If another player had been chosen to take the free throws, LeBron would have been forced out of the game. To be thrust so suddenly into such a pressure packed situation, LeBron's supporting cast may have missed them, giving the ball back to Golden State, where golden Stephen Curry would have been expected to fulfill the script (see John Elway below) by sinking a three pointer to tie the game. With such dejection and without LeBron in overtime, all odds would have pointed to a Golden State Warriors victory and a continuation of Cleveland sports futility.

The four worst days in Cleveland sports history

LeBron came back to Cleveland specifically to rescue his city from this futility and to bring his hometown a championship. This had to be going through LeBron's subconscious as he laid sprawled on the floor, along with the entire fifty year futility of the city in sports, and indirectly in everything else associated with the city of Cleveland.

When hometown born-and-raised hero LeBron had abandoned Cleveland for Miami, it was the second worst day in the city' sports history.

The worst day was when the perennial football loser Cleveland Browns snuck off to Baltimore to become the Ravens.

In turn, Baltimore felt terrible because they had previously lost their beloved Colts to Indianapolis under very similar circumstances. Baltimore's conscience felt assuaged by assurances from the National Football League that Cleveland would get an expansion team to replace the Browns, and that they could call them the Browns with the same colors and logos, unlike the Colts who continue to haunt Baltimoreans as they play in Indianapolis with their old blue and white Baltimore uniforms with the horseshoe logo. Baltimore has never treated Cleveland with the derision that the other division rival in Pittsburgh has piled up.

The third worst day in Cleveland sports history was "The Fumble" by Browns' Running Back Earnest Byner in the waning moments of the 1988 AFC Championship Game when victory had been all but assured.

The fourth worst day in Cleveland sports history was "The Drive" of 98 yards by Denver Broncos Quarterback John Elway for the winning touchdown to defeat the Browns in the 1987 AFC Championship game.

Both Byner and Elway fit into the Baltimore conspiracy. John Elway dissed the Baltimore Colts when he was America's most highly touted college football recruit, forcing the Colts to let the Denver Broncos have him in an illustrious career that included Super Bowl victories as both a Hall of Fame Quarterback and just this year as the team's General Manager.

Meanwhile, Earnest Byner went with the rest of the Browns to Baltimore, where after quietly playing out the conclusion of his fine career, he was selected as the first player for the "Ravens Ring of Honor" despite all his notable achievements having been made in Cleveland.

Is that a slap in Cleveland's face? Certainly, Baltimoreans don't like the way Indianapolis has dealt with the Colts legacy, particularly toward "Mr. Baltimore Colt" Johnny Unitas.

But the uncontested "Mr. Cleveland Brown" is Jim Brown, whose towering legacy is totally intact in Cleveland.

Ozzie Newsome also fits well as both a penultimate great past player for the Cleveland Browns, and great current General Manager for the Baltimore Ravens. But just as a reminder, he has guided the Ravens to two Super Bowl championships with a team that would have been the Browns.

Pro basketball franchises pack up and move all too often. Baltimore lost the Bullets to Washington. Geez, even Oklahoma City was recently able to steal a franchise.

If LeBron wasn't thinking about this kind of stuff as he laid sprawled on the floor with 10 seconds left in the championship game, even in his inner subconscious, it had to be in the dark recesses of many of the long-suffering Cleveland sports fans who witnessed it.

What remains totally uncontested by everyone is that LeBron James is now the anointed "chosen one" of Cleveland's sports legacy, which sits squarely on his very wide shoulders.

LeBron James slowly returns to the game

So last night, LeBron James slowly got up off the floor.  He dusted out his mental cobwebs to shoot his free throws. He staggered in an apparent daze toward the free throw line.

The first of his two free throws missed badly. Thousands of Cleveland sports fans then had another instantaneous but eternal flash to the last fifty years of sports futility.

LeBron stared again at the basket. He shot again. The ball rattled around the rim, then slowly down and in !!!!!!! The Cavs had an insurmountable four point lead !!!!

And thus their savior LeBron James averted the nightmare scenario of failure and the dreaded downward spiral toward another re-enactment of their sports legacy, including the threat of another exile to a place like Baltimore.

The overwhelming weight was lifted. Cleveland was the champion of the National Basketball Association.

June 13, 2016

Build Westport NOW with a Port Covington land swap

Here's the simplified follow-up to the article I wrote last week for the Baltimore Brew, after which I realized I should tighten my points to defend against the diversions cast about by the critics.

The primary point: The vacant Westport waterfront needs to be developed as soon as possible. Patrick Turner was poised to do this when his project went bankrupt. It was then sold to Kevin Plank, who is now poised to develop the even more massive multi-billion dollar Port Covington site just across the Middle Branch.
Westport waterfront property as seen from the existing light rail station,
with Port Covington in the background across the Middle Branch

While is in both Kevin Plank's and the city's interest that Plank's development company focus most intensely on Port Covington and not have his attention be diverted by Westport, the latter remains very important to the city and the local community.

The city and Plank have crafted a very wide-ranging public-private partnership for Port Covington, including $660 Million in Tax Increment Financing and other support totalling over a billion dollars for this long-term effort. They're in bed together. That's not an aspersion. Just fact.

On the other hand, the Westport development shouldn't have to wait. It's an existing community with real live human residents. But many of its rowhouses have been bought up by speculators who have allowed them to deteriorate while waiting for the new waterfront development money. Other commercial sites along Annapolis Road have also languished for lack of a sufficient market with sufficient disposable income to support them.

Meanwhile, the city has another major new development initiative in the "Gateway" corridor between the Camden Yards stadiums and the Horseshoe Casino. The city has become highly dependent on the casino as a revenue and jobs generator, as well as on the surrounding area as an "entertainment district" to provide a place for mega-bars and other compatible uses away from other neighborhoods.

The success of all these initiatives requires that the new developments be well connected into the city, to reinforce their "urban" identities, but not so close that the negative impacts spill over. That's the main reason people are attracted to the city in the first place. The Horseshoe Casino must promote its urban qualities. It cannot compete directly on this basis with the suburban Maryland Live! Casino in Arundel Mills or the upcoming National Harbor Casino in Prince George's County on their own terms.

Westport needs to project a positive urban image on the casino. Right now, too much of the casino's image is defined by being located along the Russell Street gas/convenience store strip, or in some kind of inner city no man's land, or just a bad image of Baltimore in general.

Proposed casino hotel built as a veneer for its waterfront garage facing a new Middle Branch Parkway,
would create an impressive new "urban face" for the casino - as envisioned by Peter Tocco.

Again, the Gateway development can't wait. The casino competition is already well underway. The city needs Westport to be a southern anchor of this Gateway Corridor.

The proposed agreement between the city and Kevin Plank's Sagamore development company is highly complex. But resolving the status of the Westport property would be a relatively minor inclusion, compared to all the extensive financial and property transactions it will contain.

City acquisition may be the solution

There is uncertainty as to whether the private sector is ready to come in and develop Westport. So the clearest and most direct resolution would be to have the city to acquire the Westport property as part of the extensive Port Covington land swaps.

Once the city acquires the Westport waterfront property, it can do with it whatever is in the best interest of the Westport community, which has remained constructively engaged in the ongoing planning process, as well as in the interests of the city as a whole.

The city can then also construct streets and conduct remediation directly instead of as part of subsequent agreements with developers. The city can also subdivide the properties to encourage more broad based involvement by smaller developers.
Proposed Middle Branch Parkway spine road between Westport (upper left, south) and Camden Yards (lower right, north),
with a new North Westport light rail station in the shadow of Interstate 95. Part of Port Covington is shown at the lower left.
In my view, one of the most important elements of the development of this Gateway corridor is to create a spine road extending from the Camden yards area to Westport to unify, enhance and urbanize the development and waterfront open spaces. Another key is creation of a new light rail station in north Westport near I-95 to provide a convenient transfer point between the Port Covington spur and the line traveling southward to BWI Marshall Airport.

Acquisition of the Westport waterfront would facilitate these projects. It is common when building such major projects for larger land parcels to be acquired, with the leftover land disbursed after that.

In the grand scheme of the massive multi-billion dollar Port Covington development project, resolving the status of the Westport waterfront property would be a relatively small part. Issues about interest from other developers and about how much the land is really worth may seem unclear and daunting, but having the city acquire the land would make them more straightforward.

It should be a relatively simple matter to agree that transferring Westport ownership to the city as a part of the big Port Covington land deal is the best and most direct way to proceed.

May 5, 2016

For next mayor: 7 new plans for 7 Red Line areas

Outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would offer the governor an alternative plan for the Red Line light rail project. Then she changed her mind and said that was the governor's job.

Wrong! The purported purpose of the defunct Red Line was to transform the city. It's up to the city to determine how to transform the city.

Until now, rail transit has done a very bad job of transforming the city. The central light rail line is flanked by boarded up buildings on Howard Street, even decades after completion. When riots broke out last year, one of the first things officials did was close the Metro, as if they didn't know its role. Both the city and transit administration (run by the state) were complicit in this. Meanwhile, portions of the city that are actually growing have not waited for rail transit.

It should be clear: Area plans must come first. That's the city's job, not the state's. This is especially important because the timing of everything is so uncertain. Not all plans are equally alive or dead. The Red Line's fatally flawed downtown tunnel is so dead that rigor-mortis is setting in, while the "Highway to Nowhere" segment is merely in a coma.

SEVEN AREAS, west to east (left to right):
1-Edmondson Village to Rosemont, 2-"Highway to Nowhere", 3-MLK Boulevard, 4-Metro West/Lexington Market
5-Pratt St./Inner Harbor, 6-Southeast Waterfront, 7-Hopkins Health Corridor to Bayview

Red Line planning can be divided into seven city areas, each with a different status and context for how change can take place. A primary reason the Red Line died was because it was an all-at-once project. Area plans were expected to serve the Red Line project, when it should be vice-versa.

To proceed forward, here's a review of where the seven planning areas stand, west to east. (Anyone looking for my proposals can find them everywhere else in this blog.)

1- Edmondson Village Corridor


Along Edmondson Avenue (US 40) and westward into the suburbs, the Red Line plan has no fatal flaws. The basic design work has been completed. There are indeed flaws, many significant but none fatal, so all that's needed are tweaks. The alignment is also amenable to being built in phases to match the fiscal and political conditions.

Various plans for the area, most notably the new Uplands neighborhood, are not contingent or waiting on the Red Line. More housing challenges also await. The neighborhoods are generally attractive, but the housing facing Edmondson Avenue, cheek-by-jowl with its extremely heavy traffic, is deteriorating badly. Cramming in the Red Line would only make this worse. A solution must be found, because this housing is what most people see, and results in a bad community image from passers-by.

2- "Highway to Nowhere"

AREA 2 in red / AREA 3 in green / AREA 4 in mauve.

This desolate and devastated area is a blank canvas. The Red Line design in the highway median is close to completed, but the surrounding area is virtually free of constraints. Tweaks won't help much, like the city's recently announced Fulton Avenue bike loop along the top rim of the highway (The Sun, April 29, page 2). Something much bigger must be done - so big that it needs to dwarf the Red Line plan itself, which would only play a significant but supporting role.

The basic problem with the "Highway to Nowhere" is that it is what Jane Jacobs described as a "border vacuum" - a "no-man's land" that is not amenable to any new growth or development. A mediocre regional rail line like the Red Line would not make it any better or more attractive.

Throughout the long Red Line process, the city was adamant about keeping the "Highway to Nowhere" open, even as they repeatedly closed it for months at a time for various construction activities, without significant adverse impacts. The highway hypocrisy seems endless. Get rid of it!

3- MLK Boulevard Corridor

The Red Line's "Locally Preferred Alternative" - the favored plan resulting from the federal alternatives analysis - was originally supposed to locate the line along Martin Luther King Boulevard, southeast between the "Highway to Nowhere" and downtown. Then the Red Line's engineering phase determined that the portal to the downtown tunnel could not be built along this route, and the alignment was moved to extend the downtown tunnel under Fremont Avenue.

Now that the downtown tunnel is dead, it is a simple matter to move the Red Line alignment back to MLK Boulevard, where it was in the first place.

This would be an impetus to redesign MLK Boulevard in order to re-integrate areas which are now divided between downtown and West Baltimore, most notably the University of Maryland downtown campus and biotech park. MLK Boulevard was originally designed more like a mini-expressway that divides the communities rather than like a classic grand boulevard which unifies them. The University and its medical center lost both of their stations during the Red Line planning process, and this is an opportunity to replace them.

4- Metro West/Lexington Market Area

AREA 3 in green / AREA 4 in mauve / AREA 5 in brown.

The Lexington Market Metro Station was the planned termination point for the west rail line from the 1960s through the 1990s, until the 2002 regional rail plan which originated the Red Line.

The original plans were based on the common assertion that all successful modern urban rail transit systems have a central hub. At first, this was supposed to happen at the Charles Center Metro Station.

Now it increasingly appears that this hub must be at the Lexington Market Metro Station instead. Events since the 1980s have conspired for this. First, the central north-south light rail line was built on Howard Street, only a block away. Then the Red Line was conceived as a disconnected east-west through line instead of west-only. 

In the last two decades, downtown itself has drifted eastward along the waterfront, most notably to the "new downtown" at Harbor East. Then within just the past few months, the Port Covington light rail spur from the central line was announced (after I proposed it). So not only is downtown drifting, it is also dispersing.

The need for a tight efficient downtown rail hub is as important as ever to integrate the transit system, but locating that hub at the center of downtown is no longer very relevant, because there is no longer really a "center of downtown" anymore.

The west side of downtown urgently needs attention. The massive six-square block Metro West office complex formerly occupied by the Social Security Administration is now empty, the "superblock" project has been officially pronounced a failure, and yet another new attempt to arrest the long decline of the Howard/Lexington area has begun.

The Lexington Market Metro Station is only four blocks east of MLK Boulevard. Many alternatives are possible, on the surface or in a short tunnel, terminating or continuing, wherever and whenever.

5- Downtown and Inner Harbor Surface Streets

The Red Line Draft Environmental Impact Statement studied many alternative variations using downtown surface streets. As a group, the cost-effectiveness scores of these alternatives were far better than the "preferred" tunnel plan, which was seemingly chosen only for political reasons that somehow made sense to someone at the time.

The basic surface alignment concept was to use Pratt and Lombard Street between MLK Boulevard and Market Place, then proceed eastward on Piers 5 and 6 in the Inner Harbor to Harbor East. It would be a simple matter to dust off, revive and refine these plans.

What the Red Line plans never really recognized was that such a surface light rail plan could essentially become the core of a streetcar system, which could then be extended in any or all directions. Thus this plan would have value far beyond just serving the Red Line. At the time, the many streetcar advocates were torn between promoting this fact and promoting the underground Red Line plan, which would essentially preclude such a surface plan.

Surface rail transit has many obvious advantages. It is highly visible, it can be integrated into its urban environment and can have more convenient stations.

6- Harbor East to Canton Waterfront

In this area, the Maryland Transit Administration and the city recognized during the Red Line process that a surface rail line built to full light rail standards would have been an unacceptable intrusion on the communities. That led to the dead tunnel plan. But an actual resolution is far simpler: Design the line to streetcar standards (single vehicles in mixed traffic) instead of light rail standards.

Streetcar lines such as this, as well as in other areas such as Charles Street and the Mount Clare Corridor, would use the light rail Red Line as a central trunk, and proceed from there.

As such, it should be studied as part of a comprehensive streetcar system planning process that would pick up where the Red Line leaves off. Various streetcar corridors were compete with each other for priority (such as a North Avenue line recently touted by Republican mayoral nominee Alan Walden).

Careful attention in streetcar planning must be paid to the traffic and street environment of the lines. Streetcars emphasize shorter trips rather than longer regional trips, where there slow speeds are less of an issue. They are also as much of an urban design and community planning solution as they are a transportation solution.

The transportation role of streetcars is very similar to that of circulator buses, which can be easier to implement for the shorter term.

7- Hopkins Health Corridor to Bayview


In the recently completed 2040 regional transportation plan prepared by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the Red Line is gone, but a one-mile extension of the Metro underneath Broadway from Hopkins Hospital to North Avenue remains an active part of the plan.

A Metro extension beyond Hopkins Hospital should indeed be a top priority because the Metro is Baltimore's fastest, highest capacity and highest quality transit line, and urgently needs a viable terminal station which can serve as a feeder hub for the bus system.

But this Broadway Metro extension has three serious fatal flaws: (1) The state already engaged in a full federal environmental impact study process for this line and found it was not even close to being cost-effective, (2) It can't be extended beyond North Avenue, at least not in the even remotely foreseeable future beyond 2040, and (3) It wouldn't connect to the MARC commuter rail system, the plan having been quietly scuttled for a station at Broadway which is in an extremely constrained segment of the Amtrak corridor.

So it's back to the drawing board. A far more promising alignment for a Metro extension beyond Hopkins Hospital would be eastward along the Amtrak corridor, eventually toward Bayview, Dundalk, Middle River and White Marsh.

This area, between the main Hopkins Hospital campus, biotech park, and Hopkins Bayview - where redevelopment is already moving fast - could be dubbed the Hopkins Health Corridor.

In Sum...

That's it. Mix or match. These area plans are the building blocks for a new workable Red Line plan. It could include some or all of Area #1, along with plans for Area #3 or Area #4, with Area #2 serving to link them together. The rest can be weaved in over time.

It's not a matter of one plan versus another. The MTA's Red Line plans can be salvaged in smaller phases. Let's get to work.