September 23, 2016

The next Port Covington could be Patapsco Hill

Now that the Port Covington deal seems to be done, the post-game analysis has begun. The word most often used to describe the massive Under Armour/Sagamore development is "unprecedented". It clearly breaks the previous rules.

Most Baltimoreans want to know how the deal will affect the city's overall fiscal health and economic climate, while some are more concerned with specific job and housing opportunities for low income residents.

But to Corporate America, the question will be: Where can we find another deal like that?

While Port Covington is unique, there is another very large site nearby with the same critical geographic attributes, being in Baltimore but not of Baltimore. It's an isolated site of roughly 50 acres that could be called "Patapsco Hill".

Patapsco Hill development as it could be seen looking west from the Patapsco Avenue bridge over the Patapsco River.
 The tallest tower at left is shown at a height of about 400 feet - just because Google Earth can do it.

Patapsco Hill

The Patapsco Hill site is roughly bounded by Patapsco Avenue to the north, the Patapsco River to the east, Southwest Park in Baltimore County to the south and the Central Light Rail Line to the west.

The city of Baltimore is often said to be "on" the Patapsco River, but really only a very small portion is - mainly Reedbird Park between Cherry Hill and Brooklyn. The Inner Harbor, Middle Branch, Northwest Branch and Outer Harbor are actually an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay.

Patapsco Hill is the only large developable land mass in the city that can accurately be described as being on the Patapsco River.

The site is currently being used as a truck and junk storage yard and was formerly a landfill, which accounts for its lofty ridge above the riverfront parkland to the south. In this age of "brownfields" remediation and "smart growth", and with the Patapsco Avenue light rail station located conveniently along its border, this site of about 50 acres is crying out for a better and more environmentally responsible use.

The river has most recently been known for the tragic and destructive flooding upstream in historic Ellicott City. Cleaning up Patapsco Hill for efficient high density development would be a great alternative to more flood-inducing suburban sprawl near the sources of the river watershed.

Patapsco Hill is as similar to Port Covington as is likely to be possible. It has a waterfront with boat access along the wide and wild portion of the Patapsco River, so it's kayak-ready. The 230 acre Southwest Park right at its doorstep can also provide many other recreation opportunities, yet is vast enough to swallow up a large population of users while retaining its rustic character.

With the adjacent light rail station already in place, there is easy access to downtown and even easier access to BWI-Marshall Airport. It's also close to the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (Interstate 895), although like Port Covington, a developer would probably ask for new and improved ramps. The adjacent portion of six-lane Patapsco Avenue is also extremely underutilized.

Patapsco Hill location - about two miles south of Port Covington.

All the same hype as Port Covington about attracting the "millennial" generation could apply to Patapsco Hill, although they'd perhaps be a bit more suburban-oriented millennials. But even Port Covington's design combines urban and suburban trappings. We want it all: urban, suburban and back-to-nature.

The Patapsco Hill site is also extremely isolated, as demonstrated by the fact that no one ever seems to talk about it. While it is near the city neighborhoods of Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, the Baltimore County neighborhood of Baltimore Highlands and Anne Arundel County's Brooklyn Park, it has no access from any of them, being cut off by two railroad lines (one freight, one light rail) and the Patapsco River.

Patapsco Hill looking eastward along Patapsco Avenue, with its light rail station in the foreground.
 The Cherry Hill community is seen to the left behind the CSX freight railroad tracks.
 Brooklyn and Brooklyn Park communities are in the top background beyond the Patapsco River and I-895.

Twice in a Lifetime Opportunity?

The fact that another site exists with such similar attributes to Port Covington also demonstrates that the city should not bargain from the presumption of scarcity. Baltimore is a very large city with lots of opportunities all around. The only scarcity is that each of us has only "one life to live" - to evoke a defunct soap opera. That's fitting, because the dealmaking in this city often resembles a soap opera with a new episode every day. There will be a new "search for tomorrow" and if the city is not prepared, all we can say is "now what?"

As such, the Port Covington deal has not prepared Baltimore for the next one. The project evidently exhausts the city's borrowing limit for Tax Increment Financing. There is no funding source for the new expressway ramps. The city still has a school aid shortfall. The next developer will still face the same angry crowds demanding more community benefit funds. And the real negotiation took place in secret, so we don't really know how it proceeded and what the city actually agreed to. One of the few things we can infer is that the vaunted "but for" rule has been thrown on the scrapheap of history.

The word "unprecedented" is fitting because with no guidelines, the next deal will be unprecedented too.

This distant northward view of Patapsco Hill from the Patapsco River shows the vastness
of  the adjacent 230 acre Southwest Park, and the relationship to the downtown skyline,
 barely seen on the distant horizon. To the right is the split of the Harbor Tunnel Thruway
 into two legs, toward I-97 to Annapolis and I-95 to Washington, DC.

What the City needs even more than exciting new development opportunities is an economic climate which is conducive to such plans. Developers need to know what they will be facing, especially out-of-town developers who have no local political expertise but have access to a whole world of capital funding. Each new plan should demonstrate what is possible and thus pave the way for the next one.

The Patapsco Hill site is partially in Baltimore County and abuts Anne Arundel County, so it also calls for an even broader political consensus. The city should not act like we follow only our own rules without regard for the rest of the state or the increasingly global economic arena.

Or even worse, making up new rules as the game is played.

Patapsco Hill as seen looking northward from the Baltimore Highlands Light Rail Station through Southwest Park.

September 12, 2016

Big Port Covington needs an even bigger light rail line

For big Port Covington to achieve its over-the-top development ambitions, it's becoming increasingly clear that it will need more than just its own little light rail spur. What is needed is a whole new light rail line that links the rest of the city to the entire three miles of underdeveloped waterfront between Westport, Port Covington, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

Proposed 3-mile light rail spur, beginning at a new North Westport station along the existing Central Light Rail line,
 with two stations each for Port Covington, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

Both proponents and skeptics insist that the Port Covington project must elevate the entire city, even while admitting that it's isolated from the city and cannot solve the city's economic problems all by itself.

Attention has focused on human development - job training, education, et al - but physical development is what Port Covington is. It must physically fit in to the city even while it necessarily stands out, far more than even Harbor Point. For this, improved transit is the only answer.

Two early danger signals from the "all in" strategy

The city is now in an extremely odd position. It is fully in bed as a partner with the developer. Port Covington is now "too big to fail".

Splitting the project into manageable increments would be the ideal solution, but that doesn't suit the agendas of either side. Smaller developments would create smaller issues and problems. Instead, the ante has been raised to a dizzying level.

From the physical development standpoint (which has gotten scant attention), two major danger signs have already emerged from this "all in" strategy: (1) Federal rejection of funding for the new Interstate 95 ramps; and (2) Developer Kevin Plank's decision to leave his Westport waterfront land outside his multi-decade Port Covington program.

The new I-95 ramps were probably unworkable anyway, and they couldn't increase overall network capacity. Transit is the only way to do that.

Leaving Westport would out is also understandable from a business standpoint, since Port Covington is so huge already and they don't need the competition. But the Westport community has already suffered from many years of speculation and disinvestment due to previous failures. Some people say Westport must wait its turn, but that only feeds the fear that Port Covington will thrive while poor areas of the city rot.

Will Westport continue being the forlorn town across the river, like East St. Louis or Camden, New Jersey? Westport already has a nearby casino like East St. Louis, and Camden is being considered for one.

The proposed Port Covington light rail spur plan doesn't even include a Westport station. It would just whiz by.

Transit linking into the entire city

The proposed light rail spur must promote development goals for the entire city, not just Port Covington. Not only would the current plan bypass Westport, it also would not traverse Under Armour's corporate campus at the south end of Port Covington. Instead it would be pushed up against I-95 at the north edge of the site.

Instead, Port Covington's light rail stations should be major development nodes that are built around transit and walkable to the entire site.

The developer's solution is to serve the majority of the site with a "rail circulator" that requires a separate transfer from the light rail line. There has been no case made thus far for this concept and it is almost certainly unworkable and pointless - just one of the toys in the plan.

The plan also includes water taxis and buses, which are nice for some local trips, but not a serious infrastructure plan for a site that must accommodate many thousands of trips per day.

Port Covington needs to be walkable. The light rail stations should be hubs for walking to all the destinations throughout Port Covington, not dependant on transfers to another expensive circulator, especially a rail circulator which has no flexibility to change as needs and conditions change.

Large transit-oriented waterfront redevelopment areas in working-class Cherry Hill and Brooklyn,
 showing four proposed light rail stations

There are three more possible major waterfront development sites within a very short distance of Port Covington that can greatly benefit from the same kind of transit-oriented development - Westport, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, The light rail line should serve all of them.

A Westport to Cherry Hill to Brooklyn Light Rail Line

A better solution is thus to build a much larger light rail spur that connects all the potential waterfront redevelopment areas in a three-mile corridor from Westport to Port Covington to Cherry Hill to Brooklyn. This line can be implemented in clear and do-able steps:

1 - Build a "North Westport" station now - along the current Central Light Rail Line, near or just south of where the line goes underneath I-95. This will be a link to a first phase for the Westport waterfront redevelopment, a connection to the casino area (including the abominable new Greyhound Bus Station) and a future transfer station for light rail trips to and from BWI Marshall Airport.

2 - Include light rail in the upcoming Hanover Street Bridge study. Incorporating light rail in the major Hanover Street Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge rebuilding plan would be much more efficient than considering light rail from scratch. Three alternatives for light rail could be: (1) part of a whole new replacement bridge, (2) a great way to reuse the current historic bridge for "people" uses like fishing, bikes and pedestrians, with the heavy traffic shifted to a new parallel bridge, or (3) operation of light rail in mixed traffic lanes incorporated into a renovation of the current bridge.

3 - Have light rail go through the entire Port Covington site, not just the north end - Light rail must be designed to be the source of the vast majority of the new access capacity for the entire development.

Grossly overdesigned one-way northbound Hanover Street in Cherry Hill could be downsized to a local light rail street.
To the right (east) only Harbor Hospital and vast seas of  surface parking stand between here and the waterfront.
To the left, various low-grade suburban-style parcels ripe for redevelopment sit between here and the Cherry Hill community.

4 - Redesign Hanover Street in Cherry Hill as major new light rail and local development spine - Through traffic would be shifted to a two-way Potee Street, instead of Potee's current role as the one-way southbound couplet for Hanover, for which both streets are grossly overdesigned. This concept was actually considered in the early '90s as part of the transition of South Baltimore General Hospital to Harbor Hospital, but it was too ambitious for its time. Both Under Armour and the development revolution around Hopkins Hospital have demonstrated that the time is now right for a major new development plan to link the waterfront, Harbor Hospital and Cherry Hill to the rest of the city.

Middle Branch trail adjacent to Harbor Hospital (unseen to the left) - Port Covington can be seen across the water
 at the north end of the Hanover Street bridge, with the downtown skyline behind it.

5 - Extend the light rail line southward to Brooklyn - along Hanover Street, to do the same thing. The Brooklyn waterfront is now mostly occupied by the city's largest and most grossly overdesigned intersection at the convergence of Hanover, Potee and Frankfurst. It can be reconfigured and tightened up to create an active new community-accessible waterfront and redevelopment, extending eastward along Frankfurst Avenue on a site now occupied by a concrete plant to the Masonville Cove nature preserve.

The graffiti and crenelation laden Castle Restaurant on Potee Street in Brooklyn
 would be adjacent to the end of the light rail line.

6 - Terminate the line on Potee Street in Brooklyn - just north of Ritchie Highway near the city border. This is a vacant site that had been proposed for a courthouse which ran into environmental problems. It can better be developed as a transit hub to intercept bus and automobile trips destined for Port Covington, downtown and the other activity areas. North of here, the light rail line would probably be best suited for an elevated structure to send it over Patapsco Avenue, the Harbor Tunnel Thruway and the CSX railroad tracks.

"One Baltimore" or Two?

There has been a lot of talk lately about whether the Port Covington project will help lead us to "One Baltimore" instead of two separate unequal cities that divide the rich and poor. Clearly, Port Covington's geography reinforces this division. A larger light rail project which encompasses both rich isolated Port Covington and the "Other Baltimore" of Westport, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn is the best means of unifying this divisiveness.

But equally important is attracting new development across the entire income spectrum of this "Other Baltimore". This plan would be in a good position to do so because it would serve areas that are not already being developed, but are in a strong position for development by virtue of their proximity to the waterfront.

But development of these other areas needs to happen in concert with Port Covington. It should not just be a slow march of invading yuppies or millennials, such as was started in Federal Hill in the 1970s, before spreading southward to overtake Locust Point and now Port Covington, before then proceeding at a glacial pace over many decades into Westport, etc.

A healthy city attracts geographically broad-based redevelopment. If it merely is seen as an economic tug-of-war between rich developers and a poor city, either the developers will win due to their ability to exploit the city's desperation, or they'll go elsewhere and everyone will lose.

Unfortunately, that's mostly how it continues to be seen. Bishop Douglas Miles of BUILD, one of the leading advocacy groups for the poor in the recent negotiations, proclaimed: "To any developers out there, when you come to the table now, come with your checkbook ready" (Sun, Sept 9).

That sounds like an odd threat toward the people we're trying to lure to invest Baltimore, particularly when it refers to a developer who is poised to be awarded $660 Million in city TIF bond money up front, with the benefits to the city to come later, if at all.

The entire city needs developers and development, and every tool must be seen according to its ability to get it.

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.