May 11, 2006

BOSTON STREET:
THE WATERFRONT OVER THE DAM

While high-rise waterfront development in Harborview on Key Highway was pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition, Boston Street in Canton could have readily been developed to a much higher density without a wall of high rises. This view in front of the Canton Safeway illustrates that Boston Street is far from being an intimate transit and pedestrian-oriented urban street, but the Safeway, Starbucks and other attractions are popular with the locals and considered strong assets for the surrounding community. West of Canton Crossing (anchored by the oblisk shaped high rise in the background) , Boston Street is very close to its full build-out.

The waterfront was once a new Baltimore space. Urban pioneers came to Fells Point and Federal Hill, stopped an expressway, built a promenade, prevented a Miami Beach wall of sterile modern high rises, saved the neighborhoods for their fine old rowhouses, and created a wonderful place.

We take the intimate relationship between these neighborhoods and the waterfront for granted now, but at the time it was a radical departure from the old Baltimore. Even though Baltimore was built around the waterfront and was its very raison d'etre, the new waterfront was considered quite a bold departure, and was far from a sure success at the time.

The old Baltimore that declined from favor as the suburbs sprawled outward was tightly packed with houses and people. One of the first steps for waterfront revitalization was the destruction of many of these houses and the dispersal of its residents. This occurred not only because of well-documented residential, commercial and industrial abandonment, but also due to the clearance of large swaths for the planned expressway system that never came.

Ironically, much if not most of Baltimore's waterfront development resembles suburbia more than it does the tightly packed development that epitomized the old Baltimore. The population densities are much lower than historic Baltimore levels, both because of the "empty nest" phenomenon and the consolidation of separate apartments into single family dwellings, but also simply because there is now more open space. Boston Street on the east side is lined by waterfront parks, soccer fields, a Korean War memorial, various landscaped buffers and a Safeway supermarket that is larger and has more parking than anyone could have ever envisoned in the 1940s or 1950s.

Much of the lower density has also been the result of political pressure. There is a park at the confluence of Boston and O'Donnell Streets in Canton that is almost never used for anything but a quick pass-through because much more attractive parks are nearby in Canton Square, O'Donnell Square and along the water. The only apparent reason for that park is that adjacent residents don't want it developed. There is an even more useless and desolate walled-in park at the intersection of Key and Light Streets that preserves the incredible views of the Montgomery Street houses behind it.

The water itself also contributes to the feeling of a much lower density than urban Baltimore is accustomed to. The Inner Harbor water is essentially a massive open space, which not only creates expansive vistas, but also contributes greatly to the "breathing room" of that which surrounds it. If one adds the liquid acreage of the inner harbor to that of the surrounding waterfront, the total density is less than that of many suburbs.

Many politically-minded waterfront denizens tried to reduce the planned density even more. They tried to convince the City government to set aside the huge peninsula that was once Allied Chemical as a waterfront park, and almost succeeded until the plan for Harbor Point was established. Residents also succeeded in getting a lower density plan for Harbor East, but the City reneged and a forest of high rises has risen in its wake, despite the fact that much of the brand new street and utility system then had to be ripped up and rebuilt to support the higher density development.

On the other side of the harbor on Key Highway, the community had the last laugh. The City approved the Harborview plan for a wall of high rise condos, but the first building didn't sell very well and much of the remaining acreage has been developed with townhouses instead. It has only been recently that the economic viability of high rise condos has finally been established. The harbor views from most of the many rooftop decks of the surrounding rowhouses have thus been preserved. These rooftop views are yet another unquantifiable product of the lower than traditional urban densities, and create a much lower density milieu for the waterfront neighborhoods than the traditional front stoop gathering places of old Baltimore.

In sum, the waterfront is now the showpiece of Baltimore - a highly visible focal point. But it is not typical urban living - not today, not yesterday and not tomorrow.

For planning purposes, the Baltimore waterfront is water over the dam. Almost all the land is spoken for. The formula has been cast. Even in some underdeveloped neighborhoods like Westport, there are practically no basic issues yet to be resolved. The citizens of the waterfont neighborhoods, as well as their aspirations, are not typical of any that came before or will come again.

More importantly, the development density of the waterfront neighborhoods is not really high enough to support the services that urban neighborhoods should have. Of course, the typical service levels in most of Baltimore are pathetically low, but the fact that Canton has a huge waterfront Safeway and Port Covington has a huge waterfront Wal-Mart, while most neighborhoods do not, is just an anomoly reflecting Baltimore's traditionally bad demographics and marketing.

Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill will continue to have their trendy, upscale boutiques reflecting the neighborhoods' tone and cache, but their future prospects for serious middle class mass retailing are slim, which might come as a relief to many local yuppies.

Efficient and optimal mass transit is another service that is relatively unsuited to the waterfront. Currently, the waterfront has even worse mass transit than most of Baltimore, which is not surprising given how far behind the times the MTA always is. But the thing that counters conventional wisdom is how well the waterfront residents have managed to thrive without good mass transit. The upper income residents are wed to their cars, as are most high-enders everywhere. It would be nice to have good mass transit along the waterfront, but it is far more crucial to create a good mass transit system for the rest of the City, where lower incomes, higher development densities and the needs for economic stimulus demand it.

The future of Baltimore will not be determined at the waterfront. And if it somehow is, that does not bode well. If new development somehow stops a mile from the harbor, the City's future will be bleak. The planning decisions that are made beyond the waterfront are the ones that will determine Baltimore's real future.

2 comments:

  1. I'm not sure how the Baltimore waterfront could really have been built much more densely than it has without building a wall of high rises. Most of Canton and Federal Hill remained in tact, therefore there were few opportunities to create higher density given the modern American proclivity for having few children and few servants in one rowhouse. Where there has been available space for development in Inner Harbor East and Fells Point, higher density development has ensued.

    Nate

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  2. So much interesting stuff to absorb. I wish Gerry would hook up with a visionary Baltimore City Mayor or MD Governor (I wish there was one of these on the horizon!) and then some of these visions would have a chance.

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