RE-OPENING THE GREAT NORTHWEST
Heritage Crossing, immediately northwest of Downtown, has been strongly criticized because it is not sufficiently urban for an inner city location, is too sparsely populated, and removed a much needed portion of the City's low income housing supply. The winding streets of detached and semi-detached houses set amid generous green spaces that replaced the high rise low income projects does look very out of place next to the tightly packed rowhouses around it.
Contributing to its image as an out of place enclave of suburbia in the middle of the city is the fact that its eastern and southern borders are a virtually impenetrable wall created by MLK Boulevard and the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway. In the photo above, the historic Perkins Spring gazebo is set against a backdrop that includes not only suburban-looking housing but also a large grassy mound of dirt that insulates the community from the expressway.
Urban expressways aren't supposed to be set among spacious earth berms. Even in high income Otterbein, there are houses worth well over half a million wedged barely more than an alley's width from the big interstate highway. So as pretty as Heritage Crossing is, dealing with this earth berm is the key to making it work as a truly strong urban neighborhood and not just a superficially pretty suburban anomaly.
The key to rebuilding Baltimore is to add value to its neighborhoods. It's as simple as that. The amount of city abandonment and disinvestment has corresponded precisely to the loss of value. This cuts across all income groups. Disinvestment by the rich allowed the middle class and subsequently the poor to live in houses and neighborhoods that they could otherwise not afford, and temporarily added to Baltimore's low income housing supply, but eventually even the poor abandoned even the most grandiose housing.
It does not matter if this effect was actually activated by landlords rather than tenants. Landlords are service providers for tenants, who are customers (or clients) of the landlords. The nasty habit of defining class warfare between landlords and tenants ("the man" vs. the little people) only obscures this fact. The City government happens to be the biggest landlord and yet it behaves just like any other landlord. When housing loses value, it disinvests. That is what happened at the high rise Perkins Homes (correction: Murphy Homes - see Comments) projects that once occupied Heritage Crossing, as well as in many other Baltimore neighborhoods.
The land occupied by the Perkins projects became pretty much worthless, despite the great need for housing for low income people, and everyone else for that matter, and its seemingly great location. There was no economic justification for maintaining the projects that nobody wanted to live in, even the poor.
The economics of low income housing had become very skewed. It had traditionally been built in very high densities, but that merely translated to a very high subsidy per acre. This went directly counter to the basic laws of economics which call for the highest densities where land values are highest. Here, the densities were highest where the land values were lowest. The chronic deterioration caused by disinvestment also meant that the shelf life of low income housing was extremely short. Baltimore has many fine houses that are still economically viable after 100 to 200 years, and yet low income housing typically wore out in 30 to 50 years. Demolition made more economic sense than maintaining it.
So as much of an anomaly as Heritage Crossing seems to be today, it has actually made good economic sense. The low density has translated to low subsidies.
This is not just a class thing, conjuring up the middle class vision of lawn mowing and backyard barbecues and white picket fences. Land throughout Baltimore is developed to densities dictated by land values. In Canton, the urban "pioneers" of the '70s and '80s in Canton Square and the Anchorage built at densities that seem quite low in today's much higher priced market. Compare the simple housing along the Key Highway coast that was built a few years ago on Covington Street next to Federal Hill with the way dwelling units are now being packed into the Harborview and Ritz Carlton developments. The Harborview developer had even gotten permission from the City to build a huge wall of highrises, but at the time, the area was not ready for such density and so only one got built. Now the area is finally ready for more density.
If Heritage Crossing had been developed to "urban" densities, it would have been far too costly relative to the value of the land, regardless of whether it was built for the rich, poor or middle class. The only way it could be developed rationally was to do it as it was done, at a low density. Of course, it would have been easy to increase the subsidies and ban the purchase of these nice houses by anyone with an income of more than "X" dollars, but the net additional contribution to the city's low income housing stock if this had been done would have been negligible.
By building a middle class neighborhood at Heritage Crossing, the City also created a starting point for the redevelopment of all of northwest Baltimore. The City created value. Housing at Heritage Crossing is now worth much more than when it was built just a few years ago, even adjusted for inflation. The shelf life of these homes should also be much more than the 30 to 50 years of the low income projects that preceded them. Even if the houses do end up needing drastic renovation because of the modern ticky-tacky construction methods, the economics of doing this will make sense. The houses will be self-perpetuating.
This could be called the Levittown effect. Urban snobs of the 1950s criticized suburbia in places like Levittown for all sorts of socio-political reasons, but Levittown is still there and going strong where the low income projects of the same era have been mostly blown up.
Most importantly, the foundation laid by Heritage Crossing gives hope to the adjacent old historic neighborhoods of Lafayette Square and Upton. Here is a photo of houses on Lanvale Street near Lafayette Square, just a couple blocks from Heritage Crossing. These houses were once occupied by the wealthy, then by the middle class, then by the poor, then by illegal squatters and now by no one. Despite Baltimore's alleged low income housing "crisis", even the poor have found better opportunities elsewhere than here. OK, granted, perhaps the poor would have preferred to stay here if government had not made it illegal for them to occupy housing that does not meet certain standards. In that case, what we have if a question of individual freedom versus societal regulation. As a society, we have banned the poor from dong what they might have otherwise prefer to do - live in these deteriorated houses.
In any event, these houses on Lanvale Street are just too worthless for anyone to invest in. But Heritage Crossing gives these houses some hope. Not enough hope, perhaps, but at least some. As in Canton and on Key Highway, densities will start out lower and then build up from there.
Lafayette Square itself is another piece of hope. Some of the houses and churches that face the square have managed to be maintained by their owners in spite of all the surrounding deterioration, just as housing on Union Square to the south stayed decent even at the nadir of the surrounding area. This is another example of starting with low density and building up from there. The Lafayette Square park is a whole block with only open space and no housing. If Lafayette Square was packed with rowhouses as the surrounding blocks are, it would not be a foundation for renewal. The houses above have survived in large part because they face open space and not more houses.
The magnificent architecture of the entire area should be another starting point, but so far it has not. Another urban irony is that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Houses in Canton and South Baltimore are mostly modest little things that can be rehabilitated on a reasonable budget for a single family. Not so in places like Lafayette Square. All the houses on Lanvale Street are huge, and some are absolute monsters, like the ones shown here. Eventually, this could lend itself to the excessive wretched affluence of the 21st century. We can only hope.
Perhaps some eccentric multi-millionaire will come along and decide to pour money into these places. Meanwhile, it would be a very good idea for the very loud lobby of historic preservationists to turn their attention to areas like this, rather than squabbling with bigtime developers such as the Catholic Church (Mercy Hospital houses) and University of Baltimore (Odorite Building) and private folks (Mechanic Theater) who want to prevent historic interests from putting shackles on their rights to redevelop places that actually have redevelopment value.
Historic preservationists should instead concentrate their effort on places like Lafayette Square where there is little or no disagreement on the urban form of the places to be preserved. Everyone would love to see these fine old houses renovated rather than demolished, along with this fine old neighborhood, whereas intelligent people have honest disagreements over the most appropriate urban form around Mercy Hospital, the University of Baltimore and the Mechanic Theater.
In any case, much more must be done to add value to the Lafayette Square neighborhood to foster its renovation. It is perhaps most similar to Reservoir Hill, another neighborhood of magnificent architecture which is still undergoing its long and painful process from bombed-out ruins to respectability. It is difficult to tell what steps are most crucial, so one can only repeat the mantra - add value. Do whatever can be done to add value to the neighborhood so that people will want to invest in it, and so that the investment that is made (individually and collectively by the City) does not lose its value after it is made.
If you look around the city, it is easy to see the places where particular investments have not paid off. Just look at the antique reproduction light fixtures and brick sidewalks that were installed on the worst blocks of West Baltimore Street in the 1980s - which were not something that the local slum dwellers and loiterers were able to relate to. I can imagine that some of the billions we've spent for the Sunnis and Shiites in the ruins of Baghdad are similar investments to the antique light fixtures of West Baltimore Street. I can even imagine Baghdad community meetings where the American planners tried to explain to the locals that such urban design features would be the catalysts to transform their communities and make everyone happy...
Which brings us back to the ongoing discussion of the Franklin-Mulberry Expressway, otherwise known as the "ditch". The old houses of Lafayette Square are shown to the left in the photo above on top of the huge retaining wall that separates it from the ditch.
Just to the right of Lafayette Square in this photo are the new houses of Heritage Crossing, which has a special relationship with the "ditch", because at this point, the retaining wall is small or non-existent or merely the earth berm shown in the very first photo, which is so small relative to the corridor that it does not even show up in the panoramic photo above.
Heritage Crossing is thus the key to making the Franklin-Mulberry corridor work. This is a huge swath of land - enough to create a real "critical mass" of new investment. As this photo begins to suggest but does not show sufficiently, very little of this land is actually occupied by the highway, and the portion that is occupied can be very easily consolidated to the south (right edge of the photo) to leave room for new development.
This is also where the Red Line rail transit should go. The Maryland Transit Administration has shown essentially two alternatives - putting the transit line in the huge green swath in the center of the highway where it will not serve the communities or adjacent new development, or putting it up above the ditch where it will merely separate the ditch from the community and where the transit vehicles will get bogged down in traffic conflicts at the intersections at the end of every block.
Both MTA alternatives are bad. Instead, the entire ditch should be redeveloped around the Red Line and integrated into Heritage Crossing and Lafayette Square.
Returning to the earth berm which is barely visible in the background of the very first photo of Heritage Crossing, the earthen buffer between the highway and idyllic suburban Heritage Crossing should be replaced with higher value, higher density urban development which becomes economically viable by the adjacent Red Line.
This will be the catalyst for a redevelopment chain reaction. The Red Line will be an easy one-mile transit ride away from Downtown and the West Baltimore MARC Commuter Rail line, for jobs in Washington DC and other areas such as the military bases at Fort Meade and Aberdeen. In turn, the new higher density development along the transit line, on both the top and bottom of the ditch, will create a market for the redevelopment of the magnificent houses of Lafayette Square.
It all comes down to adding value, and there is a huge amount of value to be added along the Franklin-Mulberry corridor. Heritage Crossing was a very logical first step.