July 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrenched traffic patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

The right design for Light and Key Highway

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

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

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

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

A major new Light Street greenway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 21, 2017

Hyperloop needs same level of local transit innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's really The Boring Corporation

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

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

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

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

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

Proposed Hyperloop Station platform deep down in the earth

Baltimore must meet the Hyperloop challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innovation begets innovation.

July 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

"Green Network" priority must be economic development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking Priorities

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

1- Where it can attract numerous people

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

3- Where there are major economic development opportunities

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

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

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

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

City "green" planning for the Middle Branch Gateway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Recommended "Green Network" Priority Areas

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

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

Camden Yards-to-Masonville "Green Network" Corridor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's all about priorities.

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

"Green Network" Part 2: Revival of "Bike Boulevards"

While most the attention on the city Office of Sustainability's "Green Network" Vision Plan map is focused on green "nodes" and corridors (discussed as Part One of this article), much of the city's map is also comprised of specific streets. This makes sense, because streets are the main way almost all of us see the city.

The streets in the plan resemble a bike route map. That also makes sense, because bicyclists should ideally travel on a network of green streets. That brings up the idea of "bike boulevards", which was a trendy idea in Baltimore about a decade ago but has since gotten lost in the shuffle amid the recent bike route controversies.
One street in the "Green Network" plan is a practically perfect candidate for a "bike boulevard" that would avoid all that: MOUNT STREET in West Baltimore.

GUILFORD AVENUE - the city's prototype "bike boulevard" - here seen south of 25th Street.
A sign indicates that a "mini-roundabout" is ahead, but the roundabout is almost invisible
 and needs to be colored-in like the downtown bus lanes.


 Green streets: "Bike Boulevards" vs. "Complete Streets"

Green Network streets are actually pretty much the same concept as "Bike Boulevards", as far as local neighborhood streets go. The city's prototype "Bike Boulevard" was Guilford Avenue between 20th and 33rd Street. Basically, the idea was to take all the available traffic engineering and design tools that can optimize a street for neighborhood and bicycle use, and install those that work best for that particular street and neighborhood. This includes speed humps, all-way Stop Signs, mini-roundabouts, traffic diverters, bulb outs and chokers.

The major difference between "bike boulevards" and "complete streets" is that the latter attempts to accommodate all of the various different vehicular demands, not just for residents and bikes, but also for thru traffic and transit and perhaps trucks and commercial users as well. Thus, "complete streets" may be better able to better serve heavy traffic flows and buses and support diverse urban land use mixes than "bike boulevards". However, there is no point in overemphasizing conflicts. Plans can very often be optimized to work well for both residents and bicyclists. Each specific situation should be examined on its own.

While the Guilford Avenue "bike boulevard" was instituted with the usual city fanfare about a decade ago, the most recent bike planning efforts have instead focused on the "complete street" concepts. Roland Avenue and Maryland Avenue/Cathedral Street have both had to be planned to accommodate relatively heavy traffic and some transit buses in addition to bikes. Much of the bus traffic has been removed from Maryland Avenue, but not all.

While Maryland and Cathedral are part of a tight inner city grid and traffic can therefore readily divert between various parallel streets, this flexibility is limited by the fact that Maryland Avenue is fed by a Jones Falls Expressway ramp. Moreover, the closest parallel southbound street, St. Paul, has had its own concurrent lobbying group trying to reduce and "calm" traffic. The St. Paul interests wanted it converted from one-way to two-way flow. So the Maryland Avenue bike plan would tend to push traffic over to St.Paul Street, while the St. Paul two-way scheme would have tended to push traffic the other way.

Maryland Avenue and the bikers won that skirmish and had their plan implemented while the St. Paul folks didn't. But the city probably hasn't heard the last from the St. Paul folks, since they've been complaining about heavy traffic for many decades.

That controversy has actually simmered relatively quietly compared with the most recent bike project on Potomac Street in Canton, which ended up as a court battle between cyclists and community, then an injunction to prevent the City from dismantling it, and then a tentative compromise agreement.

POTOMAC STREET bikeway (as of yesterday) still dominated by "flexi-posts"
to define the bike lanes and push the parking out into the center of the street.
Doesn't Guilford Avenue (top photo) look much nicer?

The initial plan implemented on Potomac Street resembled the Maryland Avenue plan, with exclusive bike lanes delineated by "flexi-posts" next to a parking lane that was pushed out into the street. It's ironic that such a similar design was chosen when Potomac Street, unlike Maryland Avenue, has no bus traffic and very little auto traffic. Maryland Avenue needed to follow a process for "complete streets" whereas Potomac Street did not.

"People Corridors" in the Green Network" Vision Plan

The term used for the full range of all these streets in the "Green Network" vision plan is "People Corridors", and the whole range of street conditions is represented, from narrow to wide, very low to very high traffic volume, and from major transit streets to no transit at all. Calling them "People Corridors" doesn't convey very much, good or bad. Perhaps that was the intent. Everybody should want to live and travel in a "people corridor", unless they're not people.

The wide variety of these streets makes it very difficult to set priorities. Therefore, prioritization is likely to be set by competing local interests between one street and another, just as the Maryland Avenue advocates competed with the St. Paul advocates and won. Everyone should want their street to be a "people corridor", with whatever benefits that creates.

The big advantage of "bike boulevards" as priority streets is that the concept aligns the interests of bicycle advocates with residents instead of pitting them against each other, so controversies are avoided.

Top Priority: Mount Street would make a GREAT bike boulevard

Of all the "people corridors" prioritized in the "Green Network" plan, the one that can ake the biggest difference is Mount Street in West Baltimore. Mount Street has the exact requisites to make a great "bike boulevard" for the benefit of all. It is predominately residential, it has a very low traffic volume and has no buses. But best of all, it offers a sorely needed direct connection into Carroll Park, a magnificent major park that it is almost scandalously underutilized by West Baltimore.

Mount Street can follow the Guilford Avenue model as a "bike boulevard" rather than a "complete street". It comes on the heels of the community's rejection of bike lanes Monroe Street, a parallel major high volume arterial street just two blocks away to the west.

Mount Street also suffers from another problem that faced Guilford Avenue when the "bike boulevard" was first implemented - a high perception of crime. It was felt at the time that the auto traffic volume was actually too low on Guilford Avenue, which eliminated a sense of surveillance protection from passing motorists.

But a better solution has been emerging on Guilford Avenue than intentionally increasing traffic conflicts to provide surveillance. Guilford Avenue has simply gotten nicer inn the past decade. The attention the street has gotten from the "bike boulevard" has probably been a factor in this, but there has also been a larger effort involving the surrounding neighborhoods - Old Goucher, Station North, Barclay and Charles Village - to make everything better. (There is a disturbing tendency in this city to sometimes take clearly good things like less traffic conflicts and renovating housing, and somehow twist them so they sound like disadvantages instead of advantages. Complaining about an invasion of spandex clad bike nuts could also be put in this category.)

The key to giving Mount Street the larger kind of attention it needs to be a great "bike boulevard" is to make it a gateway to Carroll Park. Mount Street happens to be located so that it is oriented directly to the north on the park's Mount Clare Mansion, the meticulously restored oldest free-standing house in Baltimore. However, there is a fenced-off unused railyard "no man's land" between Mount Street and the park that serves only as a dumping ground for trash and a breeding ground for crime.

...but at the end of Mount Street now, a wall of debris cuts the park off from the neighborhood. (Photo by Gerald Neily)
MOUNT STREET "BEFORE" - The fence between the end of the street and Carroll Park provides no security and merely prevents healthy use of the park from the neighborhood while serving as a trash magnet.

MOUNT STREET "AFTER" - Proposed Mount Street extension into Carroll Park,
 as conceived by Marc Szarkowski in 2014, with the historic Mount Clare Mansion as the street's focal point
 and streetcar and/or light rail vehicles running on the B&O Railroad Museum "First Mile" tracks.

So the first step in making Mount Street a "bike boulevard" and a "People Corridor" in the "Green Network" vision is to create a connection from the community into the park. And as with Guilford Avenue, this step should be coordinated with a larger comprehensive effort to upgrade all the surrounding areas as well. This north periphery of Carroll Park also should be a priority among the "Green Network" corridor areas as well (see Part One). It has tremendous potential.

So the Mount Street "People Corridor" should be promoted to to be among the four priority green corridors cited in Part One. That makes for a total of five priorities. Is that too many? If so, Mount Street, the "Highway to Nowhere"corridor which intersects Mount Street, and the "First Mile" B&O Railroad corridor which coincides with the north edge of Carroll Park, can all be combined into a single mega-priority for West Baltimore. Everything is connected to everything else.

June 28, 2017

Rash Field plan is now a McKeldin Park-style tweak

Inner Harbor planning is becoming more like an exorcism and less like a plan.

It starts out with sweeping grandiose "game changing" ideas and ends up as just a campaign to bury various problems and annoyances under a bunch of landscaping and hardscaping. So now planning for Rash Field is lurching to the next phase, just as the grand opening took place for the new McKeldin Park.

Brand new McKeldin Park with the massive fountain demolished and gone - desolate on a beautiful
low-humidity summer day. The Questar Tower is under construction in the background (to the south).

The weather was glorious this past weekend and the Inner Harbor was well populated with tourists and visitors, but the brand new hyped-up McKeldin Park attracted only a few curiosity-seekers. Why would anyone hang out in a glorified median strip surrounded by traffic snarls when they could instead join the happy throngs promenading around the waterfront?

In the new McKeldin Park behind the west shore, there's nothing to explore and no place to go. There used to be a huge interactive fountain that some people loved and some hated, but everyone was transfixed by. Now there's just some benches and landscaped dirt bunkers.

Here's the blog article that shows what McKeldin Park used to look like with its massive fountain, and what it could look like with pedestrian connections that work.

Then this past sunny Monday, they brought in a new attraction to enliven the deader than ever open space. They parked a huge tractor-trailer inside McKeldin Park to promote some new movie that opens in theaters this week. The truck was basically a mobile billboard with visitors invited to interrupt their harbor walk by coming into the rear of the trailer to see some kind of promotional blurb for the movie. This is what the Inner Harbor has come to.

On to Rash Field

Now as an encore, the city's usual planning consultants have taken their act to Rash Field on the Inner Harbor's south shore. Rash Field does have some basic advantages over McKeldin Park, but they're  attributable to geography, not planning intelligence. Rash Field is big, it's right on the water, and it sits in the formidable shadow of magnificent Federal Hill. But so far it has never amounted to much despite many attempts. At least their new plan doesn't include tractor trailers, but it does include smaller trucks (explained below).

Because it's location is so good, Rash Field has found a home with beach volleyball players. Some powers-that-be hated this, just as some hated McKeldin Fountain, but gradually the planners ran out of other workable ideas so the volleyball enthusiasts will survive for now. After all, it's just a sand pit.

The latest plan is presented at www.rashfield.org with lots of pretty pictures and buzzwords but practically no context as to how it would fit with the rest of the Inner Harbor or its surroundings.

This year old rendering has been revised slightly since, and shows more context than anything in the latest presentation.
But the context - Federal Hill to the top - is basically irrelevant.

Renderings of the new revised Rash Field plan basically follow the same old formula - show lots of aimless people to suggest that there's something new to attract them. Then show lots of meandering paths with lots of landscaping and trees. This is now called planning.

From special spatial to prosaic programmatic

As with McKeldin Fountain, this devolution happened essentially as the dollars dwindled and the plan went from being spatial in nature to being programmatic in nature. What "programmatic" means is just a laundry list of the stuff that is customarily found in parks - you know, sports, trees, etc. It's brought up to date in the 21st century with "extreme fitness" (entertainment for the rest of the fat slobs), a skate park (emulating what's already in the Hampden and Carroll Park neighborhoods) and the latest trend, food trucks.

Food trucks! As if all the permanent restaurants and food stands around the Inner Harbor are lacking in some way. As if driving a truck onto the scene is something unique for the "world-class" Inner Harbor! Unique, that is, unless the food truck driver decides to start his motor and move on to the next street.

What concept could possibly be less relevant to a permanent plan than food trucks? Well, maybe the answer is the adjacent Science Center's parking lot, which is canopied by solar panels which may have been "cutting edge" a few years ago, but now look like they belong to a 1950s drive-in burger joint. Now if they could just hire kids on roller skates to come out to the parking lot and take your food truck order, maybe they'd be onto something. At least for a week or two.

What's really pathetic is that the plans didn't start out anything like this. Instead, the basic, now ignored question was: How can the Inner Harbor plans fit in with the surrounding area?

The view from the top of Federal Hill toward the Inner Harbor's west promenade is interrupted by assorted multi-level doo-daddery. What's needed instead is a straight pedestrian connection from the west promenade to the foot of the hill. Rash Field is to the right. Science Center is to the left, in front of which is their solar paneled parking lot. The Questar Tower is under construction in the center background.

At McKeldin Fountain, the big spatial concept was to realign northbound Light Street traffic away from the Inner Harbor by widening the southbound roadway for two-way flow, so that the park could be physically merged with the rest of the Inner Harbor instead of being isolated in a median strip. The city promised a traffic study of this concept about a decade ago, but has kept the results (if any) under wraps since then. That would have certainly changed the space in a fundamental way, though not for the better. Somebody among the powers-that-be probably now realizes that.

The Inner Harbor does not need to become an even bigger land mass than it already is. McKeldin Park needs to have its own identity, and now without the fountain, any semblance of a unique identity has been lost to greenery and shrubs.

At Rash Field, the big concept was to build a huge pedestrian drawbridge over the Inner Harbor to Pier Six near Harbor East, fundamentally changing the spatial nature of the entire Inner Harbor from being a Chesapeake Bay inlet to being like an enclosed lake. It would also have completed the recentralization of the entire city to focus on Harbor East (and secondarily Federal Hill) instead of the traditional downtown. Downtown would essentially no longer be downtown. Talk about radical!

But somehow, the planners have now gone from that seismic spatial shift to a skate park and food trucks. That may seem odd until you realize that it's totally consistent with bringing in tractor trailer movie promotion trucks.

The next step will be for planners to argue that their previous grandiose plans for the McKeldin Park and Rash Field areas are still on the table and that what they've done recently is merely Phase One. The problem with that is that nothing in their phase ones helps at all in preparing for their ultimate future. Just think back to what planners of the initial Inner Harbor were doing in the 1970s and 1980s. Did they think of any of their work as being phase one for what's happening now? Of course not.

In any event, go ahead and enjoy the volleyball.

What's needed: Real spatial plans

First and foremost, the new Rash Field plan simply needs to connect to the area's surrounding landmarks. Why is that so difficult? The planners seem to treat the surroundings as some kind of distraction. They go out of their way to avoid them. Federal Hill is just this "thing" that hovers in the background. The adjacent highly praised Visionary Arts Museum at the foot of the hill is obliterated completely.

The planners know how to do it, as shown in the previous discarded plan - the plan that was sidetracked by the domination of that giant pedestrian bridge.

The first rule is that "edges" are crucial to site planning. It's how people see things - the curb appeal - and it's how they get in and out and how activity is generated. The latest Rash Field site plans completely ignore the edges.   

Previous grandiose Rash Field plan with drawbridge to Harbor East. The highest priority should be the diagonal promenade from the west shore (bottom) directly to the foot of Federal Hill (right center) but has been removed from the latest plans.

Here are the two essential elements to create the edges that the planners need to get back to:

1. Establish the diagonal spine between the west shore promenade and Federal Hill - The wide straight west shore promenade is the pedestrian "main street" for the entire Inner Harbor. When pedestrians get to its south end near the Science Center, they must think, "Where do I go now?" For the past 40 years, the south shore promenade has not been a strong enough choice, and nothing in the latest Rash Field plans changes that.

The obvious solution is to extend the short diagonal that already exists at the south corner of the west promenade toward Federal Hill. The hill itself can and should be a huge beacon to beckon pedestrians. It doesn't even matter whether or not they get there, but they must be encouraged as much as possible. Federal Hill is a great unique place that exudes real Baltimore far more than any skate park or other sports facility. It must be exploited.

This diagonal promenade is shown in the previous plans (see above), but was removed because it was a short-term annoyance for the planners. Put it back and make it as strong as possible!

2. Put a truly special and attractive landmark at the east end of the south promenade - Right now, there's the Rusty Scupper Restaurant (suggested new slogan: it's better than a food truck) and a squat ugly parking garage. The parking garage, which is slated for demolition, should be replaced by an extension of Covington Street to the waterfront promenade from the Visionary Art Museum at Key Highway in order to create an active "edge". Something really special must then be installed at this waterfront promontory - something that at least attempts the grandeur of the pedestrian bridge - to serve as a beacon for those pedestrians.

Instead, planners think this spine is so unimportant that it is where they just chop off their graphics. Sorry, we're not falling for that old trick! Edges are the most important part of the plan! Certainly the planners can do better - perhaps adapting the reconfigured memorial to the deceased "Pride of Baltimore" crew for this very special waterfront location.

Recommended Rash Field Pedestrian Connections - Shown in Yellow -
Keep it simple, with a direct diagonal from the popular West Promenade to Federal Hill
and a direct link from the Rusty Scupper Restaurant to the Visionary Art Museum.
Rash Field is already a very special geographic location, so those two elements should be enough to attract the throngs to whatever activities take place there, be it volleyball, skateboarding or even... food trucks!

In the Inner Harbor Visitors Center a while back, I overheard a mother asking what was there to do for free with kids. The helpful dedicated volunteer's answer hit the bullseye: Visit the playground at the top of Federal Hill.

As playgrounds go, its nothing out of the ordinary, unlike the new artsy/educational kids' park on Pier 6. But it allows kids to get wrapped up in their own world while the adults revel in the extraordinary park that's part of a real neighborhood at the apex of the city. In contrast, the Pier 6 park is just something to pass through amid the parking lots and buildings. But in Federal Hill Park, you feel like you've really arrived.

The Visitors Center volunteer understood how the Inner Harbor relates to the Real Baltimore better than the planners do. Just as McKeldin Park must be a gateway between the Inner Harbor and Downtown, Rash Field must be a gateway between the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill.

June 12, 2017

Skeptical of BaltimoreLink? Sarcastically shocking!

It's just so darn easy to be skeptical about the comprehensive BaltimoreLink makeover of the MTA bus system that will be put in place less than a week from now. It's so easy that the prevailing feeling has been to simply and quietly sit back and brace ourselves for the harmonic convergence of slow-motion bus and train wrecks.

It's almost a zen feeling. Even the MTA is in on it. It's no "comfort" that they just ejected their Administrator, Paul Comfort, who was the alleged orchestrator of the whole thing, as if to say that BaltimoreLink now has a mind of its own. Fly away little birdie!

New West Baltimore MARC Station bus hub at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere" looking east -
one of the underrated keys to BaltimoreLink 

Yeah, in addition to $135 million to make-over the bus system, Paul Comfort spent an unauthorized $65,000 to make-over his downtown office. But it's the coincident timing and hush-hush nature of his dismissal that is most conspicuous. They won't even call it a firing. Things just don't shake down like that here in anti-Trump Maryland.

And the MTA's transit union doesn't like BaltimoreLink either. As if the bus drivers can get any more surly than they already are. The drivers mostly want to pick their bus routes to avoid getting riders who are even more surly than they are.

The most organized advocacy organization, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, with bigtime business backing, did a massive number crunching exercise to show that the BaltimoreLink plan was misguided, but CMTA's solution was basically just (surprise!) to spend more money!

And yes, a few specific criticisms have emerged in the mainstream media that service is being cut or eliminated here or there. The Sun keeps citing (including today) the elimination of service to Green Spring Station, a small commercial hub in the affluent semi-rural Falls Road corridor north of the Beltway. The real problem with such locations is that employers want to be near the sylvan countryside but still want their low income workers from the inner city to somehow be able to get out there, ignoring the basic need for jobs to be located near the city workers.

BaltimoreLink: A beginning

All this quibbling aside, the best thing about BaltimoreLink is that there is FINALLY a serious effort to organize the bus system in a rational comprehensive way instead of just following the fate of its historic evolution.

There have been many previous attempts to do this. The most recent was the Baltimore Network Improvement Program (or BNIP) which was launched amid great fanfare a few years ago with a massive data collection effort, then slipped into a mysterious veil of secrecy and finally was simply killed right before the last gubernatorial election.

So BNIP was a monumental disastrous failure. So compared to that, BaltimoreLink is already a big success.

The basic nature of bus routes is that they are constantly tweaked instead of comprehensively crafted. Yes, all that tweaking can and often does result in a chaotic disorganized mess, but since such is the nature of bus routes, we might as well make the most of it. In other words: Do the best we can, and then fix the resultant problems. But at least start somewhere.

But BNIP didn't even get to that square one. The MTA can't fix anything if they don't even try.

Specifically, fixes tend to be limited and isolated, so to complement that, BaltimoreLink needs to start out comprehensive and encompass the big picture. And that it does.

There are two primary aspects of looking at the big picture of a transit system: It should be hierarchical. And it should be connected.

BaltimoreLink satisfies the need for hierarchy by being built upon its twelve principal high-frequency CityLink bus lines which the rest of the system feeds into. It's virtually impossible to conceive comprehensively of every bus route in the entire transit system, so the twelve CityLink lines provide an overarching structure. Just like how its impossible to think about every word in the dictionary, so our twenty-six letter alphabet gives us a structure to organize all of them.

In turn, a strong route hierarchy will increase the dependency on transfers between routes, so it becomes even more important that the system be connected.

West Baltimore Transit Hub looking west toward Amtrak/MARC tracks - MTA rendering 

Transit hubs that work

Transfers have been the next greatest topic of criticism of BaltimoreLink. Transfers take riders out of their comfort zone and plop them at bus stops in the middle of their trips. So they really need to work. The system needs strong transit hubs. BaltimoreLink provides a needed step in this direction, but again, it's only a beginning.

The key to making transit hubs work is to make sure that the services you transfer from and transfer to are better than the service would be without the transfer. The most time-honored way to do that is a bus-rail transfer rather than a bus-bus transfer. That works well at the Mondawmin Metro Station and fairly well at the Patapsco Avenue light rail station, but not at most other transfer places in the Baltimore region.

The Metro is fast and reliable. The south portion of the light rail line that serves Patapsco Avenue is also fairly fast. Both lines have high capacity. The transfer allows the bus lines that feed them to be shorter and thus more reliable and better optimized for their communities than they would be otherwise.

The longer a bus route is, the less reliable and more confusing it will be. The less frequent the service is, the more crucial it is that the route must be reliable.

BaltimoreLink does strive to increase the dependence on bus-rail transfers, most notably at the Hopkins Hospital Metro station. However, it remains to be seen how successfully these transfers can be achieved. At Hopkins, the bus lines will be dispersed onto Broadway, Fayette, Monument and Madison Streets in a fairly messy and potentially confusing arrangement with no off-street facilities. However, things were so badly dispersed before that it is bound to be an improvement. But this is simply not a good location for a major terminal Metro rail station.

A bolder effort is taking place with the new bus-to-bus transfer hub at the West Baltimore MARC station at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere". While some riders will transfer to the MARC commuter rail line toward Washington, DC, which may achieve an increasingly local orientation in the future with more stations and transit oriented development, its near-term success will depend almost completely on bus-to-bus transfers.

This hub will have a new high capacity off-street bus loop which is still in the final stages of construction. The loop will accommodate four of the twelve principal color-coded CityLink bus routes. The potential is there for this hub facility to be a major foundation for the enhanced accessibility of all of West Baltimore.

In particular, the Blue CityLink bus line will utilize the high speed "Highway to Nowhere", which will allow it get downtown in a matter of just several minutes. This is essentially the current #40 express Quick Bus line, but the new bus hub will make it accessible to a greater number of riders.   

But it will still be seen as merely a bus line, using transfers from other bus lines. There will be no getting around that if service is mediocre. There will be no aura of the perceived superiority of rail transit.

Comparison with the defunct Red Line

Interestingly, the defunct light rail Red Line was given its own bus system reorganization plan prior to the failed BNIP plan. The plan called for a light rail station at the West Baltimore MARC Station, but with very little bus transfer activity. Nothing in the subsequent BNIP study ever changed that.

Instead, the largest bus transfer point along the entire 14 mile Red Line was planned to be the next station to the west, at the Edmondson/Poplar Grove intersection in Rosemont. However, no off-street loop or other bus facilities were planned for this station location at all, making for a clearly inferior transfer experience.

The new West Baltimore MARC Station bus hub will have better transfers and will be a faster ride (at least to the west edge of downtown) than was previously planned for the Red Line. The proposed new Amtrak tunnel plan through West Baltimore will also include a completely new MARC Station which will accommodate a far better exclusive rail and/or bus right of way.

The one aspect of the Red Line which is clearly superior to buses, however, is the potential for transit oriented development, which is sorely needed in the Franklin-Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere" corridor.

It should also be noted that on the east side of the city, the bus system reorganization plan for the Red Line also included different bus hub locations as well. The two major transfer locations were to have been at the Highlandtown Station, where bus transfers would have occurred on-street near the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Haven Street, and at the Brewers Hill Station, where an off-street hub would have been provided on the north side. But since the station itself was to be located in the  Boston Street median strip, transferring patrons would have still had to cross this busy street.

In contrast, BaltimoreLink's major east side transfer points will be at the Hopkins Bayview Research Park, and at the previously discussed Hopkins Metro Station. These are superior bus transfer locations in most respects to what was planned for the Red Line. They also delineate what could become an extension of the Metro between these two major health campuses.

It all depends on how the rubber hits the road

When it comes to the MTA, skepticism is a justifiably healthy feeling. We're all just waiting to see what happens. The best that can be said about BaltimoreLink is that it is a stronger and clearer foundation for making further changes to the transit system than the series of historical evolutions which preceded it. This will be the start of a new evolutionary chain. When a problem happens, fix it.

June 2, 2017

Port Covington in ten years: Stubbornly suburban

Driving down Cromwell Street toward the new Sagamore Spirit whiskey distillery in Port Covington, it's obvious and not at all difficult to imagine what Baltimore's biggest-ever development plan will look like in ten years. Just take a mental picture of the distillery site with the periphery cropped out and replaced with what's in the mind's eye.

This view neutralizes any justification to change Cromwell Street in any significant way. The new two building waterfront distillery complex on one of Port Covington's most valuable real estate parcels has set the tone for what will follow. And what one sees in these attractive rustic buildings surrounded by patios and parking lots is basically... suburbia.

Suburbia at Port Covington has now become inevitable. That's why what Port Covington needs now is not its 20 or 40 year blue-sky plan used to acquire $660 Million in TIF bonds from the city, but a solid short-to-medium term ten year plan.

Sagamore Spirit Distillery from Cromwell Street - What you see is what you get, now and for many years

Yes, we are now faced with the real Port Covington - an outcome of real economic forces and not just aerial artist conceptions of what it's supposed to look like in forty years. The view of the distillery down Cromwell Street is what Port Covington looks like now and will continue to look like for quite a long time. It's nice, but that's all it is. Port Covington is a major, major development plan which could have a major impact on the city as a whole, but for the indefinite future, it's just suburbia within the city.

What Lucy Van Pelt really wants: Real Estate

It's all rooted in basic proven real estate economics, not those fanciful future architect's renderings. As when most large new development venture get started, land is the commodity in greatest supply and the best bargaining chip to get things going.

That's how Lucy summed up what she really wanted in the classic Peanuts Christmas Special. She wanted real estate. (Pulling the football away from woebegone Charlie Brown was just an attention grabber.)

That's why, when The Baltimore Sun became Port Covington's first occupant back in the late 1980s, they negotiated to get plenty of what the city and previous landowner CSX had to give in greatest abundance: Real estate. The Sun printing press was put on a site that was about five times larger than what they needed at the time, and infinitely larger than what they need today.

It was even unabashedly touted as suburban, with the catchphrase: "Hunt Valley by the Sea", evoking the office park and shopping mall in north suburbia beyond Towson and Timonium.

Then when the Sun complex didn't ignite a development frenzy, the city's next deal was to give Wal-Mart and Sam's Club another huge piece of raw acreage, ignoring that it's highest potential geographic value was in its adjacent waterfront. It was more Hunt Valley, less sea.

The Inner Harbor even got started this way back in the 1970s. Its first building, the Maryland Science Center, turned its back on the famous waterfront with a blank wall, just like Wal-Mart, and was only re-oriented later when it expanded. Then came psuedo-suburban Harborplace, which was very controversial at the time for being an intrusion on urban open space. This is back when the Howard Street downtown retail district was still hanging on and had grandiose plans of its own. Many people envisioned the Inner Harbor as being an oasis away from downtown, not part of it.

Despite its hyped-up success, the Inner Harbor has been trying to recover from this ever since. Right now, the whole swath from Harborplace and the McKeldin Fountain to Rash Field is being gutted and demolished to get it right this time, as if it was some forlorn part of town.

Even Harbor East, the city's most successful urban development since the Great Depression (yes, even including the vaunted Inner Harbor) got started this way. Through the 1970s, it was envisioned as just a future Interstate highway corridor. When that was replaced by a development plan in the 1980s, it called for an "urban village" of modest density. The adjacent land now known as Harbor Point was then designated to be open parkland.

Victor's Cafe: Harbor East's first building, now gone, as seen from the water.
Only one building got built in conformance with the original Harbor East plan, Victor's Cafe, on its most valuable corner waterfront site. It was a very modest little building with vending machines and electric meters plopped just outside the front door, more like one would expect around Back River Neck Road near Middle River. Victor's Cafe was knocked down in the early 2000s to make way for the Legg Mason and Four Seasons towers.

In sum, all these developments started out with the value of the raw land being far greater than the buildings that got put on it. Other examples can be found in the relatively low density waterfront rowhouses with grass yards and parking pads built along Fell Street in Fells Point and Boston Street in Canton in the 1980s, and in the Key Highway corridor near Federal Hill where the Harborview project was originally supposed to have six high rise buildings but so far has still only gotten one. Most of the higher density development came later after property values increased, or in the case of Harborview, never came at all.

How Kevin Plank has really set the tone in Port Covington

The key to understanding Port Covington is not to think of Kevin Plank as some kind of development savior who will perform miracles to rescue the area from 30 years of malaise and failure. Simply think of what he's doing as the next step in the historical pattern.

What he's done so far fits that pattern. He recently built a nice but modest whiskey distillery on arguably the best piece of waterfront land, his version of Victor's Cafe in Inner Harbor East. He also took the nearby Sam's Club "big box" and re-oriented it to the water, just as the Science Center did.

Eventually Plank plans to knock down the giant Sun printing press and build something there too. The northern part of that huge parcel next to Interstate 95 (the least desirable part that's farthest from the water) is where seven high rise towers are supposed to go, but don't hold your breath. He's got The Sun paying rent every month (or beholden in some other way), so he'll just let that keep happening as long as necessary until development pressure builds. And there's so much land around it that the pressure will be near zero for a long time. Land supply is far higher than at any of the precedents, so it will continue to dwarf demand.

Current Port Covington plan bird's eye view. Highest density has been pushed away
from the existing Cromwell Street corridor in the middle, and toward the seven high rises next to Interstate 95
in the background and in the Under Armour campus in the foreground.

And just what has Kevin Plank done to induce that development demand to increase? Other than supply the hype, not much. Just look again at that distillery from Cromwell Street. Then look at the Sam's Club reoriented for Under Armour, which from a distance, doesn't look much different than when it was a "big box" retail store. And a distant view is the only view most folks will get, as long as that ominous security fence is in the way. Again, this just follows the pattern.

Those seven proposed high rise buildings next to I-95 look an awful lot like the six high rise buildings that were supposed to get built at Harborview on Key Highway, except those were right along the water within easy walking distance of Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor, in an area of relative land scarcity and high value.

The TIF Dimension: "Dawning of the Age of Aquarius?"

The biggest need in all this is to avoid getting intoxicated by Port Covington's $660 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) slush fund, which is mortgaged against the city's future property tax revenue. This money must be spent wisely on projects that clearly lead to new development that are capable of paying it back.

The city's track record on this kind of funding is poor. The city built a Hilton Hotel in Camden Yards with TIF funds, and it has been a perennial money loser ever since. Harbor Point is being largely subsidized with TIF funds even though it's anchor project, the Exelon Tower, was legally obliged to locate in the City of Baltimore even without subsidies.

Harbor East also failed on this count, although its saving grace was that TIF funding was never used. But a large portion of its infrastructure in streets, promenades and utilities had to be ripped up and rebuilt soon after it was completed in order to accommodate revisions to the original "urban village" plan.

And the entire southeast waterfront of Harbor East, Harbor Point, Fells Point and Canton as we know it was never supposed to be developed at all. Until the 1980s, alleged visionary Mayor Schaefer didn't want any of it. He wanted it to be an Interstate Highway corridor. But plans do change.

A saving grace for Port Covington is that the Under Armour corporate headquarters campus which is planned to occupy the vast majority of the waterfront land south of Cromwell Street is not part of the TIF district, and so is protected from that particular financial "house of cards".

The Under Armour campus is also considered the major "catalyst" for the rest of the development, but this is a dubious assumption. Land glutted suburban-style development just doesn't work that way. Suburbia begets more suburbia. Under Armour will be governed far more by its own financial performance against its corporate competitors like Nike and Adidas.

Lessons to be learned: A short-term Port Covington plan

The entire Port Covington planning process has been an attempt to induce top-down proactive development by sheer force of will. It has been a fight against the forces of "organic development" that occurs at its own pace in response to the overall forces of economics.

But Port Covington can't be developed that way. The overall real estate market will have the final say and must be respected. Land parcels will be developed one at a time. All the resources at the disposal of both sides, buyers and seller, will be negotiable. And the resource in greatest abundance is land. The market will proceed at its own pace and the market will prevail.

What Port Covington needs is a short-term plan that recognizes and respects the realities. Here are the major points:

1 - Cromwell Street should be maintained as-is, a four to six lane boulevard, as the major spine of Port Covington. Such wide boulevards can be made into attractive people places in spite of heavy traffic which is inevitable as a sign of growth and vitality. It has already been tweaked with landscaping, bike lanes and on-street parking, and more can be done. It's adjacent suburban trappings are a bigger question than the street itself.

2 - For the foreseeable future, all new development in Port Covington east of Hanover Street will use Cromwell Street. Period. Make the most of it.

3 - The configuration of the east end of Cromwell Street, on the other hand, will likely need major improvement within this time frame, from where it intersects McComas Street proceeding eastward to Key Highway and accessing I-95. But new I-95 ramps are not in the offing and would be of dubious usefulness anyway.

4 - A serious rail transit plan must also be developed right now, so it can be integrated with a solid transit-oriented development plan which is crucial to the ultimate success of any major urban development. Right of way must be reserved. It cannot be an afterthought, as it has been with the abysmal failure rate of transit-oriented development in the rest of Baltimore.

5 - The rail transit plan cannot be relegated to the northernmost part of Port Covington along the McComas Street catacombs underneath Interstate 95, as is the current intention. Rail transit also cannot be made dependent upon those seven high rise buildings which are proposed to flank Interstate 95. That plan is simply not real enough.

6 - Another unavoidable point is that lower income people are the backbone of any urban transit system, not the prospective affluent market for those seven high rises (with or without a lucky few poor residents winning the "inclusionary zoning" lottery.) That's a strong reason for extending the proposed light rail spur southward to Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

7 - The proposed separate disjointed "closed circuit" streetcar line plan is also not real enough, and needs to be scrapped. Like the distillery, too much of Port Covington will be of insufficient density for it to have any reasonable chance of success (cue Procol Harum's "Whiskey Train"). The rail transit system must be as integrated and connected as possible, which has been a huge problem in the rest of the city.

8 - Renovating the abandoned railroad bridge across the Middle Branch to link Port Covington to Westport and West Baltimore should be a priority, whether for people, light rail vehicles or likely both.

9 - The existing central light rail line should be made Port Covington-ready. That means building a new North Westport Station on the existing light rail line to serve future new Westport waterfront development as well as the rail spur to Port Covington. It would also be a transfer station for Port Covington rail riders to connect to the south, most notably to the airport.

So where is the best place in Kevin Plank's Port Covington real estate empire to put transit-oriented development? The best place might not be in Port Covington at all. It's more likely in his fallow landholding on the Westport waterfront just across the Middle Branch, where the central light rail line already goes and where the local working-class neighborhood already supports it.

Earlier highly urbanized conception by Design Collective for Port Covington. It's not going to look like this, ever.

The continuing intensification of real estate pressures toward higher density development is currently focused away from Port Covington - to Locust Point and the rest of the South Baltimore peninsula including Federal Hill and Sharp-Leadenhall, as well as southeast waterfront areas from Harbor East and Harbor Point to Canton Crossing and Brewer's Hill. Port Covington must compete with all this.

The Westport waterfront should become an active part of the Port Covington real estate sales portfolio. With the right planning and marketing, it may become the most attractive site for early urban development before much of the Port Covington "suburbia" dwarfs and the seven I-95 high rise giants on the Baltimore Sun site.

Kevin Plank has built a waterfront whiskey distillery and renovated the abandoned Sam's Club, while the rest of Port Covington waits. Cromwell Street sets the tone.