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.

August 22, 2011

Camden Yards

Oriole Park at Camden Yards: 20 Year anniversary

The ballpark was revolutionary and the thousand foot long warehouse created a unique urban signature, but the rest of Camden Yards has still not fulfilled its potential as an urban space.

This month's Press Box magazine presents a nice twenty year retrospective of the "good old days" when Oriole Park at Camden Yards first opened. Yes, the design of Baltimore's ballpark really was as revolutionary as everyone has said. But just like the Orioles themselves, it's much nicer to remember Oriole Park's past then to contemplate its present of shrinking attendance and interest.

Camden Yards is no longer a sports leader

Let's face it: Since its 1992 opening, Baltimore has been left in the dust by many other major league cities, not just on the field but in terms of development surrounding the field. To name several, the new waterfront stadium settings in Pittsburgh and San Francisco embrace their cities' images even more than does our B&O Warehouse. And Baltimore's only major new nearby development has been the plain-Jane Hilton Hotel built by the city itself, which blocks much of the inside view, particularly of our wonderful historic Bromo Seltzer Tower. Among the others, Coors Field in Denver's LoDo neighborhood has sparked much more downtown and Platte riverfront revitalization than has Camden Yards.

Worse yet, Baltimore has since turned its back on building this kind of fine grained urban development, of the style that has demonstrated to be in complete harmony with urban ballparks as long ago as Boston's Fenway and Chicago's Wrigley built nearly a century ago. Twenty years ago, Baltimore proved it again when the high density Ridgely's Delight neighborhood continued to prosper directly across Russell Street from Oriole Park.

Baltimore started losing its way with new development when the Ravens' M&T Bank stadium was plopped down on the Camden Yards south parking lot a few years later, in the same kind of contextual vacuum that characterized 1960s-style "ashtray" stadiums built around the country such as Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. But yes, football is different from baseball, so perhaps this is excusable. Baltimore's football stadium works well enough even though no legends have grown up around it.
Proposed new Baltimore arena and hotel at Conway (foreground) and Charles streets, with expanded convetion center behind it (with grass roof.)
The proposed billion dollar convention center/arena/hotel/retail mega-complex
 is the present-day  equivalent of the multi-purpose "ashtray" stadium monstrosities
 built before Oriole Park at Camden Yards revolutionized stadium design.

Look at what they're pushing now

More distressing is what has been happening lately, with the Greater Baltimore Committee pushing their massive billion dollar combination arena, convention center, hotel, retail complex between Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor. This proposed mega-complex is so hopelessly way out of scale with everything around it, just like the proverbial million pound gorilla which promises to eat up everything in sight. This is a suburban fortress mentality. It's easy to compare such a facility to those 1960s-style combination baseball-football "ash tray" stadiums that were the bane of sports until Oriole Park came along.

It's also easy to detect the city's increasing desperation, in its efforts to build a slots casino just south of Camden Yards, no matter what kind of monstrosity might ultimately be proposed. Recently, city leaders have been banking more and more of the city's economic future on the slots project.

When you want a casino in the worst way, that's probably what you're going to get - the worst way. It looks increasingly like the city will not be able to say "no" to any design demand or shortcut proposed by a prospective slots developer. It cold easily end up as just another alien mega-barn plopped down south of the football stadium, built to maximize immediate payoffs and minimize costs, rather than being an element that will intelligently fit into a plan for urbanizing the entire area around Camden Yards.

Just look at the way the city has allowed the Grand Prix preparation to run roughshod over the Inner Harbor's streets and trees in preparing for the Labor Day weekend race, and that is a hint at how future plans promise to be dealt with.

Another recent proposal is for a branch of "Seacrets", a six acre mega-bar from Ocean City that has been talking to Westport developer Patrick Turner. Seacrets could become either a wonderful and compatible urban attraction, or just another loud, tacky community disruption. It's a strong signal of danger that a recent front page Sun article on Seacrets cited Westport, where it would be very difficult to assimilate into Turner's plan which has already won neighborhood approval, but did not mention the Gateway South casino area. Seacrets could certainly fit in better near the casino, if not for all the unspoken promises the city should be expected to make to the casino developer.

As the hype of economic justification of mega-projects because more and more convoluted and strident, without firm numbers of course, the future looks increasingly at risk.

A concept plan to urbanize Camden Yards prepared in 2010
 for an article in with new development on parking lots
 and air rights oriented around a new urban street. 

Promoting true urbanization

This type of development desperation is needless. A casino, an arena, a convention center expansion, new hotels and other new urban development and amenities can easily be accommodated as part of a plan that integrates them into downtown and the city, and allows the entire private sector, large and small businesses alike, to maximize opportunities on an equal footing.

Camden Yards' expansive parking lots and highway and railroad "air rights" have tremendous potential for new development that could enable Baltimore to retake the leadership away from Pittsburgh, Denver, San Francisco and other cities as the best possible stadium environment. Furthermore, Gateway South and Westport, the areas south of Camden Yards along the Middle Branch waterfront, also have tremendous potential if the city doesn't blow it.

One of the impressions of the PressBox article is that stadium architect HOK breezed into Baltimore back in the 1980s and immediately presented its vision for what became Oriole Park at Camden Yards, dazzling everyone with its brilliance. But in reality, HOK had been architects for many of those "ashtray" stadiums built around the country, and they originally tried to sell the same thing to Baltimore.

But making Camden Yards a unique and valuable part of Baltimore was a local effort, not HOK's. This kind of local initiative is still needed now more than ever to ensure that Camden Yards, downtown, the Inner Harbor, Gateway South, Westport, and indeed the entire city is planned in a way that allows it to freely grow and prosper instead of merely catering to those who make demands on our will and resources.

August 20, 2011

North Avenue

Coppin campus planners weren't dumb. They put a pedestrian bridge over North Avenue even though urban designers hate those things. They didn't want to deal with the typical squalid, boarded-up failures of North Avenue

The key to fixing North Avenue:
De-emphasize it

Lou Fields, head of the African American Tourism Council of Maryland, wants to spearhead a revitalization movement for North Avenue, Baltimore's widest, straightest, most continuous and most troubled east-west artery, as chronicled in yesterday's Sun.

But he's way off-base in suggesting Pratt Street as role model.

August 2, 2011

Grand Prix

Despite Grand Prix glorification,
Baltimoreans are NOT adrenaline junkies
This is what the Inner Harbor will look like in a few weeks, as all the frantic preparation of the past year finally comes to culmination - Planners talk about "livability" and "sustainability", then give us 180 mph race cars. And that's just the latest in what they want.

This city's sad plight seems to boil down to one thing. Our civic leaders seem to think we're all a bunch of adrenaline junkies. Most of the crazy schemes they've concocted to "save the city" are based on their assumption that the citizenry needs ever increasing jolts of stimulation to keep us going.