August 26, 2011

Hopkins Hospital North

Scorched-earth renewal north of Hopkins Hospital shows the problem with mega-projects
To Hopkins Hospital and the developers, the drastic multi-billion dollar 2002 plan wasn't working well enough. In an area that was supposed to get 1500 to 2000 new housing units, market rate housing sales have been virtually nil. That's why they did a new plan.

But to the community, the "old plan" worked all too well. It has wiped out virtually everything in a swath of about 25 square blocks between Hopkins, Broadway, the Amtrak tracks and Patterson Park Avenue. 

On the surface, it sounds like the same old classic conflicts of gentrification - the new and affluent pricing out the old. But this is not old-style incremental gentrification where a few bohemian pioneers move in, followed by yuppies and then finally bigtime developers. Here the big money was there from the start, with an upfront investment of hundreds of millions that have been judiciously spread around as necessary to deal with whatever and whoever stood in its path.

The fundamental problem is that the original plan did not add enough inherent new value to drive the redevelopment. The new development, basically institutional looking buildings and giant parking garages, have not lit the spark. So they've come up with a revised plan, complete with pretty pictures of the new buildings flanking green space and populated by shiny happy racially-neutral people. A decade later, that which pushes the trendy focus group-fueled buttons is somewhat different - more green space, farmers markets, and the whole livable, sustainable thing which has now entered the mainstream lexicon.

Everything and nothing changes

It's still very easy to paint this as a class conflict of rich versus poor, black versus white, and old versus new residents. But those are the same old issues which have been around for many years. The more recent question is why development has not taken off, even though most of the promises and investment were made well before the economy tanked in the past few years, and the health business has been the most recession-proof anyway.

The simple answer is that not enough new inherent value has been created. The old buildings have been demolished but the underlying urban dysfunction is still there. Being next to world-class Hopkins Hospital is simply not enough.

There is a clear lesson in this for all of Baltimore. Even the city's most absolutely attractive areas, with the most inherent value, have demanded redevelopment subsidies. Even Harbor East, located at the perfect confluence of the Inner Harbor and "gold coast", demanded subsidies. The Power Plant has demanded subsidies to attract new tenants. Harborplace is now in trouble. The Greater Baltimore Committee now cites the entire Inner Harbor and Convention Center as needing drastic new interventions to keep moving forward. Baltimoreans have been led to believe that these were our long-term success stories which were supposed to catalyze success elsewhere, but now even the helpers need help. Meanwhile, the rescue calls for Howard and Charles Street never seem to end. The Howard Street "superblock" lacks superpowers.

The loudest warning cry should be heard at State Center. Two major rail transit lines costing well over a billion dollars were supposed to be the spark to ignite "transit oriented development", and indeed two developments spurred by the state and dominated by massive parking garages (not by transit) have been built in Symphony Center and The Fitzgerald. Now the State wants to pour more billions into subsidizing a complete redevelopment.

But obviously if such subsidies are still needed after nothing has happened over the decades on its own, and State Center becomes a ghost town after the bureaucrats go home at 5 PM, the inherent value to drive development just isn't there. If it hasn't even worked around the Inner Harbor, how can it possibly work at State Center, Howard Street or Hopkins Hospital? As the opponents keep saying, massive State Center subsidies will merely drive down whatever dwindling downtown demand there might still be.

From the perspective of the poor, the great hope was supposed to be "Inclusionary Zoning". This stipulates that lower income housing must be incorporated into any new higher income project. It has been obvious to almost everyone that this makes no inherent economic sense, when it's already so difficult to build anything anyway, so a large house of economic cards has been set up around the law to try to make it work. But it hasn't.

The key is to create new added value

So what Baltimore needs is to create more inherent value - a reason to rebuild - beyond all the money being thrown at these areas. There are various aspects to this - economic, physical and social. Economically, our tax system is totally out of whack and must be fixed. Our leaders are painfully aware of this, even when they claim otherwise. This is demonstrated by the way they concoct massive subsidies, which merely bypass the onerous tax structure that otherwise kills new investment. 

Socially, we must recognize that the only institutions that are working well at all are those that revolve around real communities. Yes, hopelessly dysfunctional communities such as many low income housing projects needed to be destroyed. And yes, there have been some success stories where the poor escaped from the ghetto and assimilated with yuppies in high income communities. But Baltimore's best hope is to strengthen existing communities where they still exist, because that is where people have already invested themselves.
This area north of Hopkins Hospital was once a real rowhouse neighborhood

Baltimore already has many wonderful physical assets which are not fully being taken advantage of - such as parks, institutions, geographic features and irreplaceable historic architecture. Not one of these can work alone. Even mighty Hopkins Hospital can't save its surrounding community. Historic buildings can provide the spice and the visual focus, but not all the substance. The overhypedovermatched against the surrounding tide of decay.

It's a matter of making every dollar count, making it all visible and making it work. Baltimore can't keep rebuilding what we've already built until we get it exactly right, as with the Convention Center and hotel demolition. We must use our assets as they are.

Similarly, our heavy rail subway works fairly well, but there was a huge overreaction to its limitations when light rail was built a decade later. Now with the proposed Red Line, the MTA is still overreacting and overhyping - combining the disadvantages of heavy rail (cost and overdesign) with the disadvantages of light rail (lack of connections and rider "catchment" area, and underdesign). Instead, we need to make the most of what we already have.

The city's billion dollar plan to knock down the lower Jones Falls Expressway east of Mount Vernon is another example. The JFX works fairly well as-is and the surrounding area (including the prison district) has adapted to it. Why does the city want to knock down the JFX but still insists on preserving the cancerous west side "Highway to Nowhere"?

In sum, mega-projects simply don't work. We're finally realizing that even Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, whose legacy of breathless hype we have long believed, have their limitations. And that the response to these limitations should not be yet another mega-project.

They haven't saved the rest of the city. Baltimore needs to be smarter than that.

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