December 14, 2015

Uplands update: Blending in but standing out

West Baltimore's massive new quarter-billion dollar Uplands neighborhood just south of Edmondson Village has been in development for well over a decade now, so an initial verdict and midcourse critique for correction can now be rendered.

Uplands is still the best hope for the outer US 40 corridor. The Red Line's transit promises couldn't drive growth. If anything, new growth must drive the Red Line.

The Uplands community looks great for what it is. The design is very attractive. It's too bad they mowed down all the great old trees, despite giving lip service to saving them, but that's what big-time developers do, right? They bulldoze trees...

And it's too bad the housing bubble came along just when the city actually started thinking it had some semblance of a healthy real estate market. Now the city is pretty much back to its "old normal" economy - featuring wishful hype for its own sake.

This kind of large-scale development has never lived up to its hype in Baltimore. Cold Spring New Town is probably the worst example, with the worst hype-to-success ratio over the past fifty years. Uplands has at least done much better than that. But it can do better.

The verdict: Uplands has been underwhelming, both in helping grow the city and in stabilizing its surrounding communities.

Design is only a means to an end. The best example of that is Heritage Crossing, which has truly superior design but has done virtually nothing to help the surrounding communities of Upton, Lafayette Square and the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. At least Uplands avoids making the same mistakes again.

Old Frederick Road looking east toward Athol Uplands on the left (north) and old Uplands on the right (south).

How to blend in

Uplands has avoided Heritage Crossing's most obvious mistake - it blends in well with the remaining neighborhood just to the south of Old Frederick Road (see photo above). By comparison, Heritage Crossing is like an island.

But Uplands seems to be the other extreme. It blends in too well. When the original Uplands was developed around the 1940s/50s, along with Yale Heights to the south of Frederick Avenue, it represented growth of the old turn-of-the-19th-century "streetcar suburb" of Irvington. In the long run, it didn't help much there either. The city does not need new Uplands to be a mere repeat of old Uplands and Yale Heights, with trendier 21st century postmodern architecture.

Old Irvington is potentially extremely attractive, but it needs a lot of help that it's not getting. In a way, it's physically an older version of the most attractive neighborhoods north of Uplands in the Edmondson Avenue corridor - Rognel Heights, Hunting Ridge and Ten Hills. They need help too.

The Edmondson Village shopping center, once home of two anchor department stores, is not aging well, and is bringing these adjacent neighborhoods down. The newer Giant Food supermarket has helped as much as could be expected, but not enough.

Uplands' slogan is "urban convenience, suburban charm". We can all judge the convenience and charm for ourselves. But why not the other way around? Given our hype resistance, it implies that being in the city isn't charming. New Uplands needs something better.

Beautiful Nottingham Road in Ten Hills, just west of Uplands Parkway. Looking closely,
 a small glimpse of the new Uplands development can be seen among the trees between the first two houses.

The "Wow Factor"

Blending in is important, but to be a catalyst for growth which captures potential buyers' imagination, new development in Baltimore needs a strong "Wow Factor". To some extent, these are contradictory. If it blends in, it doesn't stand out. In order for Uplands to do both, it requires an orientation that can raise both the old and the new to a higher level.

Uplands can indeed do both. The key is to orient the next phase of the new Uplands to Uplands Parkway, the adjacent beautiful wooded two-lane parkway to the west, and thus also orient it to Ten Hills just beyond (see above photo) which is one of the most gorgeous neighborhoods in all of Baltimore.

Ten Hills is like the land that time forgot. That may be good when when one sees how time has ravaged much of the city, but all neighborhoods, like people, are forced to go through life cycles and must do so in a healthy sustainable way. The bigger they come, the harder they can fall.

Ten Hills isn't even oriented to adjacent, beautiful Uplands Parkway, much less to Uplands, so there are currently two degrees of separation.

Narrow, bucolic Uplands Parkway seen from the wooded St. Bartholomew's Churchyard,
 with the new Uplands  neighborhood in the background and its vacant huge future-phase lot in between.

Here's how to achieve the "Wow Factor" for the entire greater community: Orient the next phase of the Uplands development to Uplands Parkway. That will symbolically unify everything into one grand vision: New Uplands, old Uplands, Ten Hills and the entire Edmondson Avenue/US 40 corridor. Symbolic unification is even better than real unification, because it can mean anything that anyone wants it to mean. All things to all people. Everyone can blend in but stand out.

There is another dimension to the Uplands site's "Wow Factor": The incredible victorian mansion (photo below) vacated by New Psalmist Church when they moved out several years ago. The preservation and renovation of this treasure is a centerpiece of the Uplands master plan. However, being a centerpiece is far different from being a catalyst.

Uplands mansion left next to the rubble from New Psalmist Church which vacated the site.

Since the mansion has already been secured to prevent further deterioration, it does not need to be a priority for Uplands' next phase of development, even though it is well-suited for institutional uses, offices, elderly housing or condos. At this time, it only needs to be displayed as a visible reminder of the potential beauty of the entire Uplands community, old and new.

In fact, orienting the Uplands development's next phase to Uplands Parkway, and toward Ten Hills, will strengthen the context of the old mansion as part of the larger community. Right now, the old mansion looks out of place. It will look much less out of place when it is seen as part of a larger context which includes Uplands Parkway and Ten Hills, the houses of which were originally inspired by the mansion.

Compare the architecture in the photo of the Uplands mansion with that of the Ten Hills houses on Nottingham Road. They blend in but stand out.

Uplands mansion at the top of the hill as seen from Uplands Parkway 

What to do: Maximize the mansion

The one element to create the greatest "Wow Factor" for Uplands is an entrance view corridor from Uplands Parkway, looking upward at the mansion in the distance (as shown in the photo above). This would create a strong memorable theme to unify everything.

Since there is a small cliff near the top of the view corridor, the entrance road would probably not be able to reach the mansion at the summit. That could add to the drama, allowing the view to unfold from various other angles within the development site.

Site design is an art, as Baltimore has known from as long ago as when the Olmsteads built their famous communities in Roland Park, Northwood and Guilford. What the Olmsteads did not succeed in doing was integrating their communities with their surroundings. The most famous and notorious aspect of this was the shameful and unconstitutional way they kept blacks and Jews out using deed restrictions.

But the urban design reinforced this. Roland Park was not integrated with Hampden, which has only been rectified recently. Falls Road and the Jones Falls Expressway are still barriers. Guilford is very ungracefully walled off from Greenmount Avenue and York Road. Even the new neo-Olmsteadian Heritage Crossing is a fortress cut off from its surroundings.

The Uplands project presents a golden opportunity, with all the raw materials to do it right, to create a "Wow Factor" to elevate the entire West Baltimore corridor. Phase One has been a decent start, but more of the same in the next phase will not be good enough.

Uplands needs a strong gateway from Uplands Parkway, with a view corridor oriented to its stunning victorian mansion. And the developers can even do what they do best: Chop down the trees that block the view.

November 16, 2015

Rail "Value Menu": 25 projects for "Maximize 2040"

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council calls its latest long-term regional transportation plan, "Maximize 2040". That sounds like the old McDonald's ad: "Super Size Me !!"

But federal regulations require that the plan use real-world budgetable costs, so it must have a modicum of self-restraint.

So instead the proposed 25 year plan includes no new regional rail transit whatsoever. "Maximize 2040" has been minimized. That's pathetic.
New rail transit graphic - September 2017 - showing heavy rail Metro extensions (green) eastward from Hopkins Hospital to Sparrow's Point and White Marsh, and light rail branches (red) westward Woodlawn/CMS and southward to Port Covington/Brooklyn. I thought I'd try my hand with Lucidchart software, which isn't really the best thing to use.

The now-deceased MTA Red Line was like a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese, forced to be available only in a combo meal bundled with the super-sized fries and giant empty-calories soft drink: $3 Billion for the Red Line, take it or leave it, with no options. No wonder it was ultimately indigestible.

So now at the other extreme, the proposed "Maximize 2040" plan deletes all new regional rail projects for the next 25 years - just MARC commuter rail improvements so Baltimore can engage vicariously with Washington DC's far more successful rail transit system.

For the last decade, the MTA has been saying that it was the Red Line or nothing, so now with "Maximize 2040" they've given us nothing. We've gone from Red Line gluttony to regional rail starvation. Binge and purge.

"Value Menu" to the rescue...

But over on the fast-food side wall is the Value Menu. Here are 25 rail projects priced "as low as" (to use typical ad parlance) around $100 Million each, if we go easy on the bigger ticket items. We could probably get away with calling this the "Dollar Menu and More", as McDonald's now does to finesse the fact that one dollar really doesn't buy much anymore. At least its still cheap compared to those overpriced Quarter Pounders and that malnutritious Red Line meal the MTA originally tried to cram down our throats.

As MDOT Secretary Pete Rahn said, the Red Line's fatal flaw was its downtown tunnel. The tunnel was not only staggeringly expensive, but it required the entire Red Line to be built at once to justify that expense, and yet it prevented any semblance of a growable system from ever being built to augment it. So it was both too much and not enough.

In contrast, this "Value Menu" consists of three basic affordable rail transit projects which form the foundation upon which an expandable system can be built, one step at a time - a starter Red Line for the west side and a minimal but effective Metro extension for the east side, at perhaps half a billion dollars apiece, and an East MARC station at the optimal location for somewhat less than $100 million. This is just enough to connect these rail lines to comprehensive transit hubs with east and west side MARC stations, which is just what Baltimore needs to call its rail transit a true system.

Then there are 22 additional projects which can affordably build upon this foundation. All of this is described in greater detail in articles throughout this blog. Listing over two dozen projects is a way to take "Maximize 2040" literally at its word.
A possible system scenario, with the west Red Line and east Metro projects listed below,
 integrated with some streetcar lines (2015 graphic by Marty Taylor and Art Cohen)

So here we present...




The following three projects are the foundation of a full rail system for Baltimore, basically following the model of the 2002 plan before the Red Line crowded the other projects out. A starter west-only segment of the Red Line can be built quickly because it leaves out the downtown tunnel and much of the engineering has already been done. The east Metro extension is the shortest, least expensive extension that allows a proper terminus hub that allows the entire Metro to function properly, replacing the defunct north extension to Morgan State. And the East MARC station is already included in the "Maximize 2040" plan, but should be moved to a location where it can serve all of east Baltimore.

1 - Red Line: Lexington Market Metro Station to West MARC Station
This does what the Red Line absolutely needs to do - connect to the far superior backbone Metro and the West Baltimore MARC Station/Transit Hub, located near the proposed rail yard, with transit oriented development opportunities throughout, and no more. Most of the engineering has already been done.

2 - Metro Extension: Hopkins Hospital to East MARC Station
The current Hopkins Hospital Station is a terrible place for a Metro terminus, and the proposed north extension under Broadway is dead. The best and easiest way to extend the line is to bring it to the surface in the Amtrak corridor, to a great terminal station location at nearby Edison Highway. This segment of slightly over a mile is the most important rail project in the entire transit system, but since the west Red Line has already been planned and designed, it should probably come first.

3 - East MARC Commuter Rail Station at Edison Highway/Monument Street
This station is included in the draft regional plan, but there's no reason anymore to put it in a landlocked site the middle of the Norfolk-Southern Bayview freight yard, especially since the plan has also eliminated the additional proposed MARC station at Broadway to serve Hopkins Hospital (which Amtrak as landlord would have never allowed anyway). The far superior place to put the station is on a far larger and non-isolated site half way in between, where it can be part of a comprehensive Metro/and bus hub. It would even make a great Amtrak station.


These are the west extensions of the Red Line which have already been designed, but would now make economic and functional sense to build as separate projects, if necessary, because the core segment from Lexington Market to the West MARC Station makes sense.

4 - Red Line: West MARC to Hilton Hub
A very short Red Line extension beyond the MARC station can bring it to one of the best development sites in all of West Baltimore, the obsolete Hilton/Edmondson interchange. A development there could be a Red Line terminal, parking, a community gateway to Leakin and Gwynns Falls Parks and additional multi-use space.

5 - Red Line: Hilton Hub to Edmondson Village
Edmondson Village is also an excellent place for converting the shopping center and the stalled Uplands community project into transit oriented development.

6 - Red Line: Edmondson Village to Woodlawn/CMS
This would provide the final segment of the west Red Line. Because of the Cooks Lane tunnel, it would be more expensive, but since it has no underground stations, it would not be prohibitive.


Both sides of the streetcar debate are right. The anti-streetcar faction is correct that buses can do virtually everything streetcars can do at a lower cost. The pro-streetcar faction is right to say that they can stimulate development in a way that buses don't. Like BMWs and Kias, streetcars and buses can both get you from point A to B. But design matters.

The issue can be resolved by planning streetcar lines as branches of the light rail lines, rather than stand-alone lines, linking them to the transportation advantages of light rail, while capturing the conspicuous urban design advantages all rail has over buses.

Montgomery Park streetcar line looking east from new North Carroll Park development toward B&O Railroad Museum
7 - Streetcar Line: MLK Blvd. to Montgomery Park
Streetcars would branch off from the Red Line at Martin Luther King Boulevard and proceed southwest along the historic "First Mile" B&O Railroad corridor to Carroll and Montgomery Park.

8 - Streetcar Line: MLK Blvd. to Inner Harbor Pier 6
Also from MLK Boulevard, a streetcar line could replicate the Red Line's downtown surface alternative, from its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, southeastward to the Inner Harbor and Pier 6, adjacent to Harbor East.

9 - Streetcar Loop: Camden Yards > Charles Street > Penn Station
Streetcars could also be integrated with the downtown portion of the existing central light rail line, in a loop northbound on Charles Street to Penn Station, then southbound on Howard Street along the existing track (with a potential additional stop at Antique Row), then completing the loop between Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, and perhaps to Port Covington (see below).

10 - Streetcar Line: Westport to Port Covington ("Plank Line")
This would start at a new North Westport Station along the existing light rail line, just south of the casino, then proceed over the Middle Branch to Wal-Mart and Under Armour. It could also connect to the Charles Street streetcar loop described directly above for access to South Baltimore and the Inner Harbor, but should probably be built to full multi-vehicle light rail standards rather than just for streetcars.


Unlike the Red Line, the Metro has sufficient capacity and speed to actually make it worth significantly expanding, both to the northeast and southeast (and perhaps eventually northwest to Westminster).

11 - Metro Extension: East MARC to Bayview
This is the core extension, east to Bayview along the Amtrak tracks and Interstate 895 right-of-way, where it could be used to bridge the development gap between the Hopkins Bayview Biotech Park and the Greektown community.

12 - Metro Extension: Bayview to Baltimore Travel Plaza
This would run southward along Interstate 895 for a short distance to a transit hub and park-and-ride lot at the Baltimore Travel Plaza, which was originally so-named because it included these facilities and a Greyhound Bus terminal. It is still by far the best location for them in Southeast Baltimore.

13 - Metro Extension: Travel Plaza to Dundalk
This segment would travel southeast along a railroad right of way through the Holabird industrial area, including the new Amazon facility, to the Baltimore County Community College near Merritt Boulevard.

14 - Metro Extension: Dundalk to Sparrows Point
From Merritt Boulevard, its just a short distance to the massive new development site at Sparrows Point.

15 - Metro Extension: East MARC to Middle River
This would run eastward along the Amtrak tracks from north of Bayview, with intermediate stations at Eastpoint, Rosedale, Rossville and Essex.

16 - Metro Extension: Middle River to White Marsh
This would run northward along White Marsh Boulevard from the Martin Airport MARC Station to the White Marsh town center.
Overlay of Sept 2017 diagram of heavy rail (green) and light rail (red) showing a streetcar system (in blue) to serve shorter trips. This scenario shows the streetcars sharing the light rail tracks into the Lexington Market Hub,
 then curling around to a Mount Clare Branch to Montgomery Park, an Inner Harbor/Perkins Line (I call the proposed Perkins development "Perkins Point" north of Fells Point), then northward on Broadway to North Avenue.


Once the "starter" streetcar system is started, as described above, it could take on a mind of its own. Keep in mind that streetcars are not just a way to get from Point A to B, but a way of presenting the city. Here are some examples of streetcar lines that could make sense in helping to accomplish this. Use your imagination with all this, in conjunction with larger development plans and goals.

17 - Streetcar Line: Pier 6 to Harbor Point
Do the developer and the city really know what they're doing as far as providing access to this mega-project isolated on a peninsula? They rejected a Red Line station that would best serve Harbor Point at Central Avenue. Would a streetcar line that went straight into Harbor Point and terminated at Thames Street on the west end of Fells Point fulfill the access requirements?

18 - Streetcar Line: Pier 6 to Hopkins Broadway to North Avenue
If extending the Metro northward under Broadway is far too expensive for what it would accomplish, perhaps a streetcar line would make more sense. The first phase could be to connect it to the "Great Blacks in Wax" Museum at Broadway and North Avenue.

19 - Streetcar Line: North Avenue to Morgan State
This could be the second phase of the above, running through Clifton Park (along Rose Street) as a centerpiece in its revitalization.

20 - Streetcar Line: North Avenue to Coppin State/Mondawmin
Every few years, there was an effort to "brand" North Avenue as a tool in its revitalization. Can we really get warm cuddly thoughts about old decrepit North Avenue? If its possible, streetcars might be the way to do it. It could be cool to run a streetcar line right through the Coppin campus and create a streetcar "Main Street" in the Mondwamin Mall parking lot. How Philadelphia fares with streetcars on Girard Avenue (its North Avenue) is worth watching.

21 - Streetcar Line: Coppin State to West MARC
This line would complete the streetcar loop between the Red Line and North Avenue, via portions of Fulton Avenue and Pulaski Street.

22 - Streetcar Line: West MARC to Montgomery Park
Similarly to the above, this line would complete a loop from the Red Line to the southwest. Bon Secours Hospital would be a primary intermediate stop.

23 - Streetcar Line: Montgomery Park to Westport
Further extending this loop to the south along Monroe Street would tie it into the "Plank Line" to Port Covington (see #10 above).

24 - Streetcar Line: Penn Station to Charles Village
This is the proposed Charles Street project that got Jimmy Rouse's the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign going a few years ago. It probably makes more sense as icing on the cake than as a core system project.

25 - Streetcar Line: Mondawmin to Pimlico Racetrack
Park Heights Avenue is physically perhaps the best street in Baltimore for streetcars - nice and wide, not too much traffic, with attractive old rowhouses that desperately need tender loving care, along with a great old city landmark at the end that urgently needs to be brought into the mainstream. Pimlico Racetrack needs to be an all-year attraction - perhaps as the state fairgrounds and an exhibition center, with the Preakness and horse racing as a still-effective theme. Moreover, the Baltimore Zoo at the south end of this corridor has the same needs, to which streetcars may be just the way to fill the bill.

And here's a slide show I produced back in 2015 for the Right Rail Coalition to show various scenes where streetcar lines could fit in:

November 12, 2015

Gentriphobia and other housing bugaboos

Time for some straight talk on housing policy.

Gentrification is just the concentration of "yuppies" in a few small areas instead of spreading them throughout the city. As such, gentrification is as much of a ghetto-ization as any other kind of discrimination. In the end, it doesn't even matter whether the yuppies are ghetto-izing themselves or are somehow being manipulated into just a few areas like Federal Hill, Hampden and Canton. It's up to them.

Most obviously, gentrification has been an overwhelmingly white phenomenon. If gentrification was somehow bad, then black neighborhoods where people have somehow felt threatened by gentrification would be better off for it. Is Upton better off because whites seldom stray west of Eutaw Place and Bolton Hill? Is Franklin Square better off because not many whites stray north of Baltimore Street from Union Square?

These neighborhoods need to be brought as much into the mainstream as possible. Upton in particular has an extremely important history that needs to be disseminated to everyone - black, white or racially ambiguous. Yuppies, buppies, hipsters, bo-hos, bo-bos, or some other kind of people.

Let's invent some new typecasts, based on identity and pride in other neighborhoods - Uptonites, Franklin Squares, Mount Clarities, Irvingtonians, etc. They might already exist. They just need to be brought out.

Property Values

High property value is another major housing bugaboo. The catchphrase "affordable housing" has been tossed around so much that it has become meaningless. What's affordable to one person is unaffordable to another.

All housing has a threshold value which it must attain so that it is economically worth maintaining. Affordability is too often achieved by deferring maintenance, often indefinitely or even forever. Low property values are the cause of Baltimore's rampant vacancy and abandonment problem. If values are too low to make it worthwhile to maintain a house, it will ultimately be abandoned.

The city's high tax rate is part of this equation. High taxes drive down property values. When taxes are high, the price of houses must be reduced to attract buyers. High tax rates are even an incentive to make houses look shabby in order to thus lower the assessments.

Subsidies just make it worse, enabling housing values which are too low to support sustainable maintenance.

People talk out of both sides of their mouths about this. Both high values and low values are spoken of in negative terms, often to the extent that the allegedly "ideal" property value is too high to be "affordable" but simultaneously too low to be maintainable - an untenable situation.

To make matters even worse, subsidies often have stipulations which cripple homeowners. For example, subsidies might be forfeited if they sell or if their income increases. These are prescriptions for a permanent underclass living in ghetto-ized neighborhoods.

The most widespread subsidy is the "Homestead Tax Credit" which subsidizes people who cling to houses they would otherwise be better off selling. Old homeowners' property taxes are "capped" while new lifeblood homeowners would have to pay through the nose for the same property.

All housing needs to have a goal property value level at which it is maintainable. Policies should then be defined to achieve this value.

A mansion facing Lafayette Square - This is an old photo but the weather is too bad today to go out and take a new one.
I'll check it out and replace this photo if it's in even worse shape now.

And let's stop beating around the bush: Neighborhoods with particularly grandiose architecture like Lafayette Square, Auchentoroly and Walbrook need high property values in order to be maintained. Basically attractive but more architecturally modest neighborhoods like Belair-Edison and Poppleton can be maintained at somewhat lower values.

The racial problem

Much has been said about how housing is no longer the great investment it once was. Statistically this is true in the aggregate, but it's not inherent.

In particular, the lack of capital appreciation for housing in black neighborhoods has recently been publicized. The problem with some neighborhoods is that they've been treated like risky sociology experiments. Sandtown-Winchester comes to mind, where money poured in without a sound economic basis. Then it produced the Freddie Gray tragedy.

In the 1960s, blacks lost out on the housing boom because they were discriminated against by being given too few loans. By the 2000s, it was just the opposite: Many blacks lost out because they were indiscriminately given too many economically reckless loans that resulted in foreclosures. Of course, the same thing happened to some whites before the housing bubble burst, but not in as geographically concentrated a way.

When the low income "projects" were finally blown up in the 1990s, pundits claimed it was their high-rise design that was the big problem. Yes, it was a problem, but the bigger problem is simply forcing people into somebody else's idea of what they ought to be.

The lesson is clear: Respect the laws of economics and support people as people, not as occupants of social housing experiments.

"Inclusive Zoning"

Another counterproductive type of subsidy is to force developers to include low income housing in high income developments - so called "inclusive zoning".

Baltimore has blocks and blocks of abandoned neighborhoods which we need to repopulate. Why would we want to attract even more people to live in the city's small high income veneer?

The rationale is generally expressed as a desire to allow more "disadvantaged" people to enjoy the advantages of high income areas. But these advantages, though nice, are really rather insubstantial - things like waterfront views, nearby overpriced cafes and boutiques and being able to get away from that "Other Baltimore".

The problems of subsidizing lower income people in high income areas are the same as any other subsidy for high income areas - it diverts attention away from Baltimore's real problems. If the city's most valuable real estate like Harbor Point gets maximum subsidies, it simply increases the handicap imposed on all the other less desirable neighborhoods.

City leaders recognize the futility of "Inclusive Zoning", which is why they've rendered Baltimore's law as toothless as possible, using it only for its hype and grandstanding value. The argument that rich counties like Montgomery have had a modicum of success with this only reinforces the point.

The basic answer is to avoid all housing subsidies as much as possible. Subsidies to landlords are even worse than to developers. Instead, subsidize deserving people directly, particularly to encourage them to engage in productive activities.

Housing speculation

Another "BS" topic is speculation. Speculators are chastised when they "flip" a property to make a quick profit, but they're also chastised when they sit on a property for the long run without cashing out.

Time is of the essence. Quick flipping means quick progress and resolution. That's good if it gets houses into the hands of residents who will carefully nurture them! OK, some speculators do only superficial cosmetic improvements which hide bigger problems in order to make easy money. Buyers need to beware.

But any kind of improvement is good. All responsible property owners try to do small fixes to keep the plumbing working rather than expensive cataclysmic renovations. And even substantial renovations can go down the tubes if property values are not sufficient to warrant subsequent long term maintenance, as discussed above.

One of the surest signs of a healthy city is when basically run-down buildings have been lovingly made to look nice and functional with paint, flower boxes and other small but largely superficial niceties. On the other hand, distressed cities often have perfectly restored or brand new buildings lavished with somebody's money in proximity to total wrecks.

Most problems can be traced to the overall causes of distorted economics and sociology. Hate the game of high tax rates, polarization, bad economic climate and bad regulations, but don't hate the "playas".

Housing policy

The city's housing policy must be grounded in reality. The city can't just pour unlimited dollars into neighborhoods without commensurate increases in inherent property values. That's called a "money pit".

The city's policy catchphrase, "Vacants to Value" is pretty good, but it gives too much emphasis on the city's engagement in the painful and painstaking process of rescuing particular problem plagued properties (oooops, too many p's). They even "celebrate" demolition, which is nothing to celebrate.

Here are the basics: Strive for sufficiently high and sustainable property values. Keep tax rates low. Subsidize people, not buildings, and especially not rents. If this encourages displacement, learn from it to cushion the impact.

Promote neighborhoods of value and choice throughout the city, not just near the waterfront. If the waterfront gets overpriced so only the rich can afford it, fine! Other neighborhoods will then look like bargains by comparison.

Housing drives commercial development. Having people with disposable income nearby is what creates a market and image for the promotion of retail and jobs and a perception that the schools are good (whether they are or not).

And cut out the gentriphobia...

November 3, 2015

Station East: Where's the Station?

"Picture yourself in a train in a station, with plasticine porters, with looking glass ties..."
-John Lennon, The Beatles, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

If you don't have a station, perhaps the best thing to do is pretend.

That's what's happening in the neighborhood a few blocks east of the Hopkins Hospital "campus" and north of Patterson Park, previously best known as the desolate post-apocalyptic scene Amtrak riders complained about from their windows. Now after years of cataclysmic abandonment, demolition and new development swirling around them, community leaders have decided it's now time to take control of their destiny.

So the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC) has decided to name the neighborhood closest to the Amtrak tracks, "Station East" even though there is no station.

"Station East" houses for sale on Milton Avenue looking north toward the Amtrak overpass -
along which an actual Metro station could be built, thus fulfilling the prophesy of "Station East".

Station East's station in life

Calling it "Station East" may be the first step in actually getting a station. It just so happens that Station East would be the best place to locate the next Metro station beyond Hopkins Hospital, if and when the Metro is ever extended, which it should be.

Currently, the future of transit beyond the Hopkins Hospital Metro station is extremely muddled. That station is a terrible location for a rail terminus, having been previously rejected for the kind of feeder bus hub which is essential to any major modern urban rail-based system. The Maryland Transit Administration studied extending the Metro northward as part of its 2002 regional plan, and found it to be utterly infeasible from a cost effectiveness standpoint, so they pulled the plug.

The 2002 plan also called for two new MARC "commuter rail" stations only about two miles away from each other in East Baltimore, one serving the defunct Metro extension on Broadway and one for the defunct Red Line north of Bayview. Both are also terrible locations from almost every perspective (impact on rail operations, access, siting, community benefit, etc.), so trying to build even one of them is futile, much less both.

But there's a far better, less expensive and more cost effective solution: The Metro should be extended eastward rather than northward, along the Amtrak tracks, in a shallow "cut and cover" tunnel that would emerge from its deeper bored tunnel at a station somewhere in Station East along Eager Street. There's your station in Station East.

Then once the Metro climbs to the surface somewhere near Station East, the next station eastward beyond be a comprehensive MARC/Metro/bus and (possibly) Amtrak hub on the large vacant parcel at Edison Highway and Monument Street. That's yet another station for Station East.

The Metro could then eventually be extended in a surface and elevated alignment to Bayview, Dundalk, Middle River and/or White Marsh - making Station East as much the center of things as is Station North.

Station East's neighborhood vision has come first. Then comes the station itself.

Modeled after "Station North"

Naming a neighborhood "Station" may become the 21st century equivalent of the "Hills" of the 20th century - Bolton, Reservoir, Federal, Butchers, Brewers. The first was "Station North", which became a popular name for the area north of Penn Station after decades of failure as "Penn North Charles".

Ironically, Station North's renewal ultimately has been less due to the Amtrak station and more to the community leadership with schools like the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and Johns Hopkins. But even the proposed shopping center a mile to the north (originally to have included a Wal-Mart and Lowe's) was dubbed "25th Street Station".

So the "station" theme caught on. In Station East, MICA has partnered with Hopkins again to create a community-oriented arts graduate education program in "Station East" in an old church just south of the new Henderson Hopkins school which itself is supposed to be a model for education innovation.

Neighborhood branding and identity

The first step in creating a new real estate marketing identity for "Station East" was probably the recognition that all that multi-billion dollar mass destruction and new building around Hopkins Hospital was a given, and they need to run with it rather than try to fight it. A basic Baltimore rule is that you can't fight Hopkins.

The neighborhoods east of Hopkins Hospital, north of Orleans Street and south of the Amtrak tracks (in yellow). "Station East" is now only the northwest (upper left) portion, but real estate agents and developers may decide to expand it.

Secondly, contrary to earlier expectations, the neighborhood renewal north of Patterson Park has indeed now jumped beyond the heavily trafficked Orleans Street (US 40), through McElderry Park and right to the door of Station East. That highly successful renewal was first led by Neighborhood Housing Services under Ed Rutkowski.

Real estate marketers and agents are ultimately who determines how neighborhoods are defined. It's a process of establishing landmarks, creating brand identities and then waiting for peripheral areas to latch onto successful ones within geographic boundaries.

As such, it appears that "Station East" (if the popularity of that name catches on) could ultimately become applied to more of the area south of the Amtrak tracks, east of Patterson Park Avenue, north of Orleans Street, and west of Edison Highway and Linwood Avenue.

Dissolution of the Orleans Street traffic barrier

While Ed Rutkowski's organization successfully focused on the three block strip anchored by Patterson Park to the south and bound-in by Orleans Street to the north, he realized that making Orleans a barrier was not good. Along with Bill Henry (before being elected to the City Council), they even looked at ways to soften the barrier effect of Orleans Street.

But as it turned out, Orleans has not been all that much of a problem. It never was a physical barrier, unlike many parts of the Hopkins' so-called "campus" as well as the Amtrak tracks to the north. Hopkins has used these barriers to help define and reinforce their empire. Hopkins even cut themselves off from the "good" neighborhoods directly to the south, Washington Hill and Fells Point, by replacing the Ann Street corridor with a massive parking garage and loading facility.

In Station East, the closest example of Hopkins' fortress building is the new Henderson Hopkins School, which was a product of maximum demolition and the closure of Eager Street to reinforce the barrier along the Amtrak tracks and Patterson Park Avenue.

The lesson on Orleans Street is that traffic is not an insurmountable barrier to neighborhood development. Orleans is about the same width and physical configuration as any of the other streets in the area which have had successful renewal. All housing choices involve compromises.While it is indeed nasty to have no on-street parking and whizzing traffic ten feet in front of your house, many people don't have cars and have more important housing priorities such as overall location for access to good jobs and schools. Houses on busy streets can now play the role of providing "worker housing" the same way that small alley houses originally did back in the 19th century.

The kinds of socially-engineered mixed-income housing which has been placed in innately high value locations like Broadway Overlook in Washington Hill and Albemarle Square in Jonestown would be better off put in critical lower value corridors like Orleans Street, where it would actually blend in better. Slowly this seems to be happening. Of course, low income folks need the flexibility of a variety of options just like everyone else.

Station East's future station identity

That still leaves the need for a strong neighborhood identity landmark. Patterson Park has served this need exquisitely well for the area south of Orleans, but the Station East area is just a bit too remote to pull that off. But even Patterson Park's identity had to be shaped by the neighborhood, rather than vice-versa. Patterson Park had a bad though undeserved reputation until into the 1980s when it became associated with quickly improving neighborhoods surrounding it, which in turn drove the renewal of the park.

So it isn't even essential that there be a station at Station East, except in our collective vision, as the real estate marketers apparently realize. Vision of the future is what drives it.

October 28, 2015

How to sort out the bus system: A "Circulator District"

The biggest "X Factor" in Governor Hogan's new proposed bus plan is the system's relationship to the circulator routes run by the city and others. And that's exactly how it should be.

The new MTA plan has a void in the city center. This calls for a completely different kind of planning and involvement by the various stakeholders, and recognition of the need for a whole new geographic entity - a "Circulator District".

Eliminating Redundancy

The MTA's new bus plan clearly recognizes that they should not continue flooding the congested downtown streets with slow inefficient long distance bus routes which are redundant to the city's "Charm City Circulator" system.

Operating short localized bus routes is a totally different proposition from the types of lengthy bus routes the MTA traditionally runs. The MTA has had decades of experience attempting to plan and operate short circulator routes, most of which have been failures.

While it's hard to say how much the MTA's failure with circulators differs from their overall track record of general failures at running any kind of bus service, what has happened fairly recently is that other institutions have taken up the mantle of operating circulators with greater success. This includes the city government's "Charm City Circulator" system along with various other institutions such as colleges and hospitals,

And in the blueprint for its new plan, the MTA has actually recognized the need to provide funding support for the Charm City Circulator, which the perpetually cash-strapped city has been struggling to pay for. While the MTA has long subsidized and contracted out services outside their traditional service area, such as for the DC suburbs, long distance commuter lines, small towns and rural areas, supporting service inside their core service area is new.

In fact, previous MTA attempts to run circulators have scrupulously avoided anything that would impact their own existing routes. The MTA's failed attempts to plan circulators in east and south Baltimore back in the 1990s even avoided running into downtown, just so the MTA would avoid competing with itself.

However, one of the apparent keys to the success of the Charm City Circulator is that it is very blatantly redundant with the MTA system - redundant but better. Being free helps too, of course, while the MTA system charges the same $1.70 "base fare" whether riding one mile or twenty.

The New MTA Inner City Plan

The new MTA plan calls for only seven "BaltimoreLink" bus routes to penetrate the heart of downtown, defined as the area bounded by Howard Street on the west, Franklin Street on the north, President Street on the east and Pratt Street on the south. (Five other major color keyed "Link" bus lines would not enter this central area at all.)

These are:

Blue - West: From US 40 (Edmondson Ave.) to East Baltimore Street
Red - North: From York Road/Charles/St. Paul
Green - Northeast: From Harford Road
Brown - Northeast: From Belair Road
Orange - East: From US 40 (Orleans Street)
Navy - Southeast: From Boston Street
Silver - South: From Key Highway/Hanover Street

Many corridor bus routes in the MTA system would no longer penetrate the center of downtown at all. These include from Washington Blvd, Wilkens Avenue, and Frederick Avenue to the southwest; Pennsylvania Avenue and Eutaw Street to the northwest; Howard Street and Greenmount Avenue to the north; and Eastern Avenue and Fayette Street to the east.

This group includes some notoriously bad bus lines, so if there's a better way, good riddance!

The new MTA plan recognizes that the center of downtown can get very slow, bogged down and congested. Still, it's a popular destination and since so many bus lines converge there, it has always been important for transfers.

There are three general ways to fill this void created by the diversion of traditional radial corridor bus lines away from the center city:

1 - Transfers to the Metro and Light Rail Lines - This is the ideal method. The Baltimore Metro, in particular is by far the fastest, highest capacity and most cost effective way to carry the most passengers. And the central light rail line has its place as well. It can provide very high capacity by using three car trains and not devoting too much service to its outer extremities.

2 - Express Commuter Bus Lines - These can get expensive for the amount of service provided, but they have a role as the MTA has shown. Their main distinguishing characteristics are a limited number of runs, infrequent or no off-peak service, and a lack of integration with the rest of the system, so we need not discuss them here.

3 - Circulator Bus Lines - Clearly, these must now have a greater role than ever. For shorter service on local inner city streets, slower and more circuitous routes are less of a problem than they are for longer distance bus lines.

A Proposed "Circulator Transit District" and Transit Hubs

The best way to fill the inner city void of the new MTA bus plan is to designate a "Circulator District" where short localized bus lines provide the bulk of all transit service.

Below is a map of a possible Circulator Transit District, based not on politics, but on physical and transit system geography. The key to its success is the location and operation of transit transfer hubs at its outer boundaries where the circulator bus lines would interface with the longer distance MTA bus lines and the regional rail system.

Proposed "Circulator District" and Transit Hubs to interface with the larger MTA system,
including the Metro (Green) and Light Rail (Blue).

The transit hubs need to be well located to facilitate transfers that encourage the greatest use of the most efficient transit services. Too many transit hubs would spread the transfers out too much, so that there wouldn't be enough of them at a given point. For example, Penn-North should not be encouraged as a transit hub because it would take away from the interface at nearby Mondawmin. Also, Penn Station does not make a good bus hub because it is along a corridor rather than at a transition point.

In fact, the Mondawmin Metro Station (shown below) is the prototype for what an efficient transit hub can be, linking bus lines from a wide arc, not only with the Metro which provides by far the fastest and best service, but with each of the other bus lines. Transfer options increase exponentially as the number of bus lines increase.

The Mondawmin hub is a nearly ideal off-street setting for all this, unlike many transit hubs envisioned either on-street or cramped into very small sites.

Mondawmin Metro Transit Hub: The best in the system by far.
The transit hubs envisioned for the periphery of this Circulator District are:

1 - Mondawmin Metro Station - The ideal setting (existing). An example of the kind of Circulator service that would be provided here is described in this post - splitting up the MTA #1 bus line into smaller localized routes including linking Mondawmin to Sandtown, Harlem Park and West Baltimore.

2 - West MARC Station - Sitting at the outer end of the "Highway to Nowhere" where efficient service to downtown can be provided, along with rail service to Washington, DC of course.

3 - Patapsco Light Rail Station - A very quick ride to downtown (existing).

4 - Baltimore Travel Plaza - Former Greyhound Bus Station, with very quick service to downtown via the I-95 Fort McHenry Tunnel (should have designated express lanes!)

5 - Hopkins Hospital Metro Station - This is the only hub which is not located on the periphery of the Circulator District. However, it is important to have a hub at the end of the Metro - all major modern urban transit lines need one! This would provide an east-side mirror image of the bus services provided at Mondawmin for the west-side. However, this is not an idea location, which is why an east/northeast Metro extension beyond Hopkins Hospital needs to be a high priority.

6 - Northwood Shopping Center - Now incorporated into the Morgan State University campus, this is a nearly ideal location for a transit hub. Travel time for thru service to to downtown can be improved significantly by using Loch Raven Boulevard instead of the existing routes via Waverly and Charles Village.

7 - Woodberry Light Rail Station - This station is located along the outer edge of higher density urban development, and so makes a good transit hub. (The Cold Spring Lane light rail station is also a possibility.)

In addition, a central transit hub should be provided at the Lexington Market Metro Station, as described in a previous post.

Organizing the System

It is not clear that the MTA plan provides the right amount of each kind of transit service, but it is a first step in that direction. The Circulator District and Transit Hubs would provide a strong impetus for resolving this.

Clearly, the Metro should carry the most passengers possible. It was designed to easily carry over 100,000 riders per day, but now carries barely half of that. The central light rail line should be second in the hierarchy.

Beyond that, how much service should be on traditional MTA bus routes and how much on circulators is an open question. But designating a "Circulator District" is a way of rationalizing the process to figuring it out. High density inner city areas work better with circulators, relative to spread out lower density outer city areas.

Then there is the question of who should operate the various services. Smaller and more localized services are more likely to be identiable with specific institutions such as colleges, hospitals or the Downtown Partnership. They have "skin in the game" and so may have a greater incentive to do a better or at least more personalized and tailored job of operating the service. They may also be able to run it less expensively, with lower wage rates, perhaps through contractors (although there is often contradictory talk about providing "living wages".)

It shouldn't necessarily be the city who runs the circulators, just as there is no magic formula for determining who should pay for it. The "Circulator District" should probably not be a formal tax authority "benefits" district.

Similarly, all services should be open to everyone. There should not be services targeted exclusively to tourists, college students, poor folks or any other specific group. That kind of marketing is what leads to inefficient redundancy.

The MTA has taken the first step, recognizing that they are not automatically the best at running these more localized routes. The next step is the creation of a "Circulator District".

October 23, 2015

Hogan's "Transformative Transitway"

Believe it or not, Governor Hogan's new bus plan actually has quite a bit in common with O'Malley's old dead Red Line light rail plan.

Setting aside the question of whether either of these transit plans actually makes sense, one must admit that as eye candy, Hogan's plan is pretty good. And since his predecessor Governor O'Malley sold his $3 billion Red Line plan almost exclusively on its hype value, one can't blame Hogan for also turning up the hype-meter a bit. But at a price tag of only $135 Million, it's much cheaper hype.

Hogan even copped one of the Red Line's key buzzwords - "transformative". So in looking for common ground between the two very disparate rival transit camps, finding a common element of "transformation" may be the way to do it.

Transitway Rendering
Governor Hogan's new plan released yesterday for a "transitway" with spiffy new buses

And to back up his hype, Hogan's MTA came up with a truly eye-catching "money shot" of what his plan's"transitway" would look like. It's an extremely attractive view of West Baltimore Street looking east toward Howard Street, closed to all traffic except the MTA's new spiffy looking buses with a spiffy "Link" logo, and with a pedestrian median populated by respectable relaxed denizens. I had to study this quite a while before I could even figure out that this was indeed the west side of downtown Baltimore.

Ah, but it's hype, of course. This scene would more likely end up looking like Howard Street right around the corner. Howard Street's bus mall and subsequent light rail mall look extremely ratty and even more forlorn 40 years after first being closed to auto traffic. Transformative indeed.

Moreover, Howard Street still moves very slow. Traffic signal priority for transit, another part of the Hogan plan, has so far proven to be a false promise, perhaps because the conflicting cross streets have as much transit and as much need for right-of-way as the transit priority street.

Another quibble: The median pedestrian refuge shown in Governor Hogan's "transformative" drawing is of no use to folks waiting for buses. The buses have their doors on the right, whereas the median could only access the left side. But it does look nice. And of course, one could replace all the buses with fancy models with left side doors, or replace the buses with light rail.

Around the corner from Hogan's vision for a transformative transitway on Baltimore Street
 is this moribund scene of light rail on Howard Street


The heavy rebuttal from the Red Line partisans is that Hogan's plan isn't transformative enough. Buses don't create transformations. Only rail transit creates transformations.

There's enough evidence around the country to indicate there's some validity to that. But then there's Howard Street, where rail transit has been a monumental flop at achieving a transformation.

Like Howard Street, it is extremely unlikely that the "culture" of Baltimore Street can be successfully transformed simply by closing it off to traffic and replacing it with a pedestrian and/or transit mall.

But there's a better and more foolproof catalyst for creating transformation: A great development plan with great urban design. Let's face it: As much as Baltimore needs better transit (bus or rail), most urban redevelopment has happened here in spite of having lousy transit, in places like Canton, Harbor East and Harbor Point.

Hogan's first step to the Red Line

So where is the best place in Baltimore to put a transitway? Aha! It's the west Red Line corridor! In the middle of the grossly unnecessary "Highway to Nowhere". From there it can connect into downtown in the Saratoga Street corridor adjacent to the huge abandoned Metro West complex and the Lexington Market Metro Station.

But should it be rail or buses? The Red Line light rail would have gone only 18 mph, slower than express buses, so it really doesn't matter all that much, even with traffic signal priority which is common to both plans (and would work better out in a corridor than downtown).

The real solution is providing superior urban design to foster successful "transformation".

The MTA studied "Bus Rapid Transit" as part of its Red Line federally required "Alternatives Analysis" and their conclusion was that rail was better, but that was before the price of the rail plan ballooned into the stratosphere. Buses do have more flexibility, but both rail and buses have enough flexibility that intelligent planning and design are what is really more important.

OK, rail is more attractive than buses. Although it's not $3 billion better. But buses should be "good enough" if we can dazzle with urban design. Or on the other hand, rail can certainly be built far cheaper than $3 billion without the Red Line's staggeringly expensive downtown tunnel that would contribute nothing to the surface transformation.

MTA's $3 Billion Red Line Plan in the "Highway to Nowhere" (bottom)
and a far more "transformative" alternative (on top) which could be built for buses until the rail is ready.

Look at Marc Szarkowski's "transformation" of the MTA's dreary Harlem Park Red Line station in the bowels of the "Highway to Nowhere" (I keep returning to this - Marc taught me the term, "money shot"). Now just imagine it with buses instead of rail - at least, low or non-polluting buses.

And a bus transitway could easily be designed as the first step to building a light rail Red Line.

A New Beginning

The real appeal of the Red Line is not that it's rail. It's that it is a new beginning, which is what the US 40 West Red Line corridor really needs.

The key is that it would start over with a clean slate to create an urban design environment that really works.

First, focus on the redevelopment of the vast vacant Metro West complex at the downtown end of the "Highway to Nowhere", which currently has horrendously dysfunctional urban design. The transitway could slice through the site, providing a justification to demolish the goliath of a building between Mulberry and Saratoga Street, and extend the transit way to Saratoga Street and then to the Lexington Market Metro Station and Howard Street.

Transitway from the "Highway to Nowhere" (upper left), over MLK Blvd. on the existing bridge, then slashing thru the Metro West site to Saratoga Street (lower right)

By going directly through the Metro West site, it would allow the transitway to use one of the existing highway bridges to go over MLK Boulevard, and thus would strengthen the transitway as a gateway to all of northwest Baltimore. One of the MTA's cutting criticisms of turning the Red Line directly from MLK to Saratoga is that it would cause "wheel squeal". Hmmm... the only real squeal here was the MTA's desperate attempt to try to save their dead $3 billion Red Line plan.

At the west end of the highway, the Hogan plan calls for a transit hub at the West Baltimore MARC Station, another place with great urban design potential, with or without the Red Line. The previous Red Line plan instead put most of the bus transfers at the Rosemont Station precariously along Edmondson Avenue.

Then proceeding west, not much "transformative" has been done in any plan within the constrained right of way of Edmondson Avenue, but it widens out at the historic Edmondson Village Shopping Center. The new Uplands development provides a motif that can be extended into the transitway station and across the street into the shopping center.

Station environments are always critical. What happens between the stations is less so. If really great station environments can be created, it will matter less whether they serve buses or rail.

All of this can be done in an entirely incremental manner, one piece and parcel at a time, now with the existing bus route network, then with a newly revised network, or ultimately with light rail. Planning incrementally is almost always the key. Planning is a process, not an end result.

Perhaps the very first step is for the MTA to change it's new color-coded bus routes so that its west bus line is designated "Code Red".

October 13, 2015

Paul Simon exhibit turns Jonestown into Graceland

The Jewish Museum of Maryland has "reason to believe, we all will be received, in Graceland." The reason is their new Paul Simon exhibit, which as expressed in one of his most famous songs, hopes to attract "poorboys and pilgrims with families... going to Graceland" - part of the museum's effort to create a new recognition of its community and heritage.

A big guitar on the roof of the Jewish Museum of Maryland signifies the Paul Simon exhibit.
One of hundreds of units of new "socially engineered" housing is to the left.
Attman's Deli with its Kibbutz Room is in the right foreground. Numerous vacant lots remain.

The museum is located in Jonestown, a neighborhood which has experienced tumultuous changes amid ongoing identity crises since the Lloyd Street Synagogue first opened in 1845.

The Jewish community dispersed long ago for promised lands elsewhere. In the 1950s, there was little enough remaining from various population flows that the area was almost totally rebuilt for low income high-rise public housing "projects".

The failure of these low income housing "projects" was then reflected in the social upheavals of the 1960s, intertwined with a musical revolution led in part by Paul Simon (and another Jewish-American Bob Dylan).

Paul Simon was looking to find himself in another of his most famous songs, "America", and Jonestown has also been looking.

The "projects" were blown up in 2001. They have now faded into history along with the open fields along the New Jersey Turnpike, hitchhiking and smoking cigarettes on a bus, as Simon sang as he "looked for America".
Last moments of the Jonestown low income high rise "projects" as implosion begins.
The Jonestown high rise low income "projects" were replaced by social engineering of a different sort - rowhouses whose mix of residents' incomes were carefully calibrated in a very calculated attempt at social unity.

Jonestown is now a neighborhood of static unearthly calm where the old Lloyd Street Synagogue stands out from the new rowhouses. It's right next to Baltimore's celebrated Inner Harbor, but in some sense, it's an eternity away.

Jonestown is also a marked contrast to "Little Italy", the neighborhood just to the south, which has tenaciously held on to its ethnic identity and historic housing over the decades, surviving a period when flaunting "ethnic purity" (as President Carter once called it) precipitated widespread backlash.

Such cultural identity is now treated like a brand. The main thing now perceived as Italian in Little Italy is the restaurants. Jonestown culture is now also relegated to the far more visible Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. It now seems unlikely any neighborhood will be renamed something like "Little Israel" or "Little Africa".

Social engineering, whether good or bad, is like a brain transplant. It makes it easier to compartmentalize memories of history and where the city's people have been. As of now, people don't live in Jonestown because of the museum, synagogue, corned beef emporiums, Shot Tower, the old house where the "Star Spangled Banner" flag was stitched, or other organic urban institutions holding on, but simply because they had the right income to fit the socially engineered demographic parameters.
Jonestown "projects" implosion in 2001, with the Jewish Museum of Maryland engulfed inside the cloud of smoke. 
When the Jews moved out and then again when the low income housing residents moved out, and the newly pre-qualified residents meeting the demographic standards moved in, they were like shifting ingredients of an ongoing social experiment.

The Maryland Jewish Museum is still looking for Jonestown, just as Paul Simon was looking for America, and the entire City of Baltimore continues trying to find itself after its recent tumultuous Freddie Gray "unrest" and its subsequent curfew, first mandated and then self-imposed.

The Graceland that Paul Simon longed for was not the one that tourist hucksters created after Elvis Presley died. The musical revolution started by Elvis and others in the 1950s, setting the stage for Paul Simon, was a product of complex and seemingly magical social currents that we still can only partially explain. There was nothing calculated about it.

So is the Jonestown calm real or contrived, temporary or permanent, static or dynamic? In a sense, the most "real" part of Jonestown is now the vacant lots, the missing pieces through which the course of the neighborhood is still to be defined, and for which there is still no economic justification or impetus for development, in marked contrast to the nearby waterfront building boom.

Paul Simon described the calm as "Peace Like a River":

Peace like a river ran through the city
Long past the midnight curfew
We sat starry-eyed
Oh, we were satisfied
And I remember
Misinformation followed us like a plague
Nobody knew from time to time
If the plans where changed
Oh, if the plans were changed
You can beat us with wires
You can beat us with chains
You can run out your rules
But you know you can’t outrun the history train
I‘ve seen a glorious day...
Four in the morning
I woke up from out of my dreams
Nowhere to go but back to sleep
But I’m reconciled
Oh, oh, oh, I’m gonna be up for a while...

October 6, 2015

CPHA Postmortem Report: "The Red Line: what now?"

The report on the recent September 15th Citizens Planning and Housing Association Red Line "Summit" asks that question. The simple unspoken answer is this: Build a west-only Red Line.

The forum's inconclusive deliberations can be summed up by a comment from Brian O'Malley, repeating the "all or nothing" mantra which has plagued the transit plan throughout its 15 year history (page 8):

"Brian O’Malley noted that the state spent $280 million on just planning for the Red Line,
and it would not have made any sense to implement a parallel process as an alternative."

While it is shocking that the Maryland Transit Administration has already spent $280 Million (over a quarter of a billion !!!) on "just planning", without any shovels in the ground, it is also misleading. Although the lion's share of that astronomical sum went to study the Red Line, including a major portion of "final design", it also included the statewide planning process for the entire proposed rail transit system (including the Purple Line).

Any "parallel process" at any price would have been self-defeating. In planning, everything relates to everything else and must be analyzed together. Moreover, a comprehensive "Alternatives Analysis" was indeed a central element of the federally required transit planning process which the Red Line went through.

But since everything else was rejected at one stage or another, the proposed $3 Billion Red Line ultimately was forced to rise or fall on its own. As such, the Red Line became increasingly vulnerable as the years went on and on and on...

The basic mistake was that the MTA treated each of the various steps, starting with the 2002 regional rail plan, as a series of hoops to be jumped through. Their strategy was just to get through each hoop and don't look back.

Baltimore's rail planning history is recounted here from 1968-1998 and here from 1999-2015.

The simplest, best way to build the Red Line is to just replace its 3.4 mile downtown tunnel with a four-block leg
 on or partially under Saratoga Street, from MLK Boulevard into a Lexington Market Transit Hub,
which also serves the existing Green Line (Metro) and the Blue Line (Central Light Rail).

Each hoop was another iteration which changed the plan, but there was never any meaningful feedback to determine if the evolving plan still made sense in its overall context. Thus it became an "all or nothing" plan, which is how it has been characterized by both the Red Line's planning professionals and by its political leaders, both before and after it was cancelled by Governor Hogan and his Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn.

In effect, the MTA allowed the Red Line to design itself. They couldn't figure out how to run it without impacts through downtown, so that required a tunnel. They couldn't figure out how to tie it into the Metro, so that required a separate two-block long pedestrian tunnel (although its engineering was apparently postponed). They only found one tunnel portal location that would work at each end, on Boston Street and inside the "Highway to Nowhere", so that defined the tunnel. They couldn't cram the line into the middle of Boston Street or Edmondson Avenue, so that required reducing street traffic capacity by a third to a half, thus greatly increasing congestion and traffic spillover to other routes. They never did test the Red Line as part of any subsequent future system.

Another statement made by Brian O’Malley, Director of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (and brother of the previous governor who had supported the Red Line), was that "the Red Line was never meant to be a standalone project." (page 6)

But by killing the rest of the projects which would make up the system, first the Metro extension to Morgan State and the "Mini-MARC" rail project, then later the "BNIP" bus system plan which Governors O'Malley and Hogan both squelched, all due to perceived lack of feasibility, the Red Line became just that - a standalone project.

Meanwhile, the cost of the Red Line exploded from about $1 to $3 Billion, with no real evidence that the rise would stop there. Who would pay what share of this rising cost was very uncertain. The open-ended 10-percent local city and county share was shrouded in smoke and mirrors. The "Public-Private Partnership" (3P) was just a convoluted house of cards. Even the vaunted $900 Million federal share was illusory, as demonstrated by how a similar sum for the committed DC Purple Line seems to have vanished in the ongoing federal budget process.

In a real sense, the Red Line actually died to avoid its funding threat to the DC-suburban Purple Line, whose 3P and local funding shares seem to have at least some basis in reality. One multi-billion dollar rail transit project was clearly all the state could get, and clearly the Purple Line was better poised than the Baltimore Red Line.

Back to Square One?

This CPHA summit was essentially the fulfillment of the MTA's ongoing threat - which continued unabated under both the O'Malley and Hogan administrations - that their $3 Billion Red Line plan was "all or nothing" and the region was now forced to go back to Square One.

The MTA planners even went so far as to infer throughout their planning process that building only a piece of their Red Line plan was not even feasible. That assertion goes against every other rail plan the region ever had, other than the 2002 plan with the Red Line.

As if to demonstrate this, CPHA polled the participants of their preference for the next "Regional Scale Project" (page 11). Of the five options given to choose from, the only one which represented a remnant of the Red Line included the segment which had been specifically noted as being "fatally flawed" because it included the billion-plus dollar downtown tunnel - "West Baltimore MARC to Bayview MARC".

A vote either way on CPHA's poll confirmed this. Over 70% voted against that alternative in favor of something less expensive and more modest with buses and commuter rail, while the remaining group of less than 30% decided to vote for it anyway despite it already being continuously rejected throughout the decade long planning process.

In sum, nearly 30% wanted to save part of the Red Line, while the other 70% wanted something less expensive and more buildable. So let's give all 100% what they want.

The Simple Incremental Solution

Every regional transit plan since the 1960s has had a rail line in the US 40 West corridor. Virtually no one is against that in some form and no one has identified any fatal flaws to it. So here is the simple inexpensive Red Line solution:

1 - Build the Red Line as already planned and designed (with tweaks of course) west of the downtown tunnel for some distance, as determined by practical and economic factors. The rest of the west end to CMS/Woodlawn can be built later if so desired.

2 - Reinstate the previous MTA "Locally Preferred Alternative" plan to run the Red Line from the west tunnel portal location of the current plan (near the Mulberry/Fremont intersection) in a surface alignment to MLK Boulevard. This plan had only previously been eliminated because a tunnel portal on MLK Boulevard had engineering problems which emerged after it had already been approved.

3 - Develop a new plan for the short portion of the Red Line between MLK Boulevard into downtown. Three possible options are:

a - A short four-block connection along Saratoga Street from MLK Boulevard to Eutaw Street into a Lexington Market Metro Station Hub, which would include a two-block long "cut and cover" tunnel into the station's mezzanine (non-track) level.

b - A short five-block all-surface connection along Saratoga Street from MLK Boulevard to Howard Street, connecting into the existing light rail line, sharing its Lexington Market Station.

c - A slightly longer all-surface connection from MLK Boulevard to the Inner Harbor, terminating at Pier 6 next to Harbor East, with various options in a manner similar to the MTA's all-surface "Alternative 4A" in the Red Line's Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

A mostly surface plan has the advantage of future integration with a streetcar system which could include more than one connection into downtown and elsewhere, and far better connectivity to major downtown locations such as the University of Maryland campus and the now-vacant Social Security "Metro West" site which urgently needs a redevelopment plan. (See this 2013 Baltimore Brew article.)

Anyone totally against a light rail Red Line can focus on re-opening the planning for extending the Metro beyond Hopkins Hospital (which should never have been closed because it affects the Red Line), although the CPHA poll didn't recognize that option.

There is no reason whatsoever to start over at "Square One" on the Red Line, and the CPHA "Summit" certainly did not provide one.

September 24, 2015

Three Pilot Projects to Start Fixing Traffic/Transit

Better signal timing - new circulator bus lines - fixing traffic flow

Baltimore needs to learn to walk before it can run. Here's a simple step-by-step guide to getting started - one project each in north, south/west and east Baltimore, each located where it can most readily demonstrate the greatest improvements.

Instead of flailing from one overwrought, overhyped, chronically delayed transportation project to another, this city needs to start with the basics and then build from there. Each of these could be a step to fixing the entire city transportation network.

Step 1 - North Baltimore: Fix the traffic signal timing

The corridor from Mount Vernon to Charles Village is the best place for a pilot project to fix the timing of the traffic signal system because it is dominated by one-way streets, which are easier to time correctly than the two-way streets.

It's quite simple. Reduce the signal cycle time (combined red, green and yellow time) as much as possible, so that traffic does cannot see a long simultaneous swath of green lights proceeding from intersection to intersection that invite cars to try to race through as many as possible. This will also allow the time interval between when the lights change at adjacent intersections (called the offset) to be set to the optimum speed for the traffic. If two adjacent traffic signals turn green simultaneously, the signals are mathematically set for a speed of infinity, which is just what some motorists will attempt to do!

Cycle times of 60 seconds or less work in Philadelphia and Portland. They can work here too.

If two intersections are 370 feet apart, then to set the signal timing for 25 mph, the offset between when their signals turn to green and red should be set to 10 seconds - 37 feet per second or 25 miles per hour.

Minimizing cycle lengths also reduces delays, giving motorists less incentive to run the red lights and block intersections. It also reduces queueing. If a cycle is half as long, only half as many cars will stack up after the signal turns red.

Long signal times are often rationalized as being better for pedestrians. This is mostly wrong. Yes, flashing "Don't Walk" intervals should be a certain length in order to provide enough time to cross the street to avoid getting caught in the middle. But the law is that any pedestrian already caught in a crosswalk has the right-of-way regardless of the signal.

Moreover, it is the "Walk" signal time that varies depending on the cycle length, not the flashing "Don't Walk" time. Pedestrians don't need long "Walk" signal times. "Walk" is just the indication to get off the curb and start walking. Once you start walking, the "Walk" signal has done its job.

Much worse is a lengthy solid "Don't Walk" while the traffic and pedestrians on the conflicting street have the right of way. Lengthy solid "Don't Walk" signals are just an incentive for jaywalking.

In Philadelphia, they've actually been able to get rid of many pedestrian signals altogether because the traffic signal turning green/red is the only cue that pedestrians actually need. Yes, some streets in Philly are pretty narrow which makes pedestrian crossing easier. That can be duplicated by installing curb bump-outs, which would come after Step One.

Shorter signal cycles and slower traffic actually increase traffic capacity because they reduce intersection blockages and allow shorter safe distances between moving vehicles (fast traffic needs to spread out). Slow traffic is better for everyone, at least down to about 25 mph.

Instead of continually messing around with long-promised but never delivered two-way streets or complex "cycle tracks", Mount Vernon and Charles Village should first undergo a complete traffic signal system re-timing. That may change the entire outlook on traffic of motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and residents alike.

The #1 bus line is currently just another route segment among many between Mondawmin and Downtown.
It would be far more effective reinvented and optimized as a "Circulator".

Step 2 - South/West Baltimore: Split the #1 MTA bus line into circulators

The Maryland Transit Administration's #1 bus line starts at Sinai Hospital in northwest Baltimore, proceeds southward to the Mondawmin Metro transit hub, then meanders around West Baltimore into Downtown, then continues southward to Fort McHenry.

Nobody should actually want to take a trip like that. If you want to travel from Mondawmin to Downtown, you should take the Metro subway, which takes 7 minutes to Lexington Market. The #1 bus line takes about 25 minutes for the same trip (according to the schedule). Sure, there are some folks who have extra time and would prefer not to get off their bus and transfer to the Metro (or another bus). But vehicle operating time is critical to organizing a rational efficient transit system, and that's the whole purpose of the Mondawmin Metro hub. Time is money for the MTA.

Meanwhile, the city government decided to get into the transit business to run its own "circulators" because the MTA bus system just doesn't do a very good job of serving shorter trips.

The big basic problem is that the longer the route, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong. And longer routes ought to be optimized for higher speed, relative to shorter trips. For example, a 100% difference between a 5 versus a 10 minute trip is not that big a deal, but the same proportional difference between a 30 and 60 minute trip is a much bigger deal - both for the rider and for the MTA.

Shorter bus lines can thus not only be more reliable, but also closer to the people. This can be used to cultivate local community pride and identity. Meanwhile, longer routes can be made faster by avoiding every stop, zig, zag, nook and cranny within local communities.

The #1 bus line is the perfect prototype for the MTA to begin optimizing its system for shorter and longer routes. It inefficiently meanders around, but it connects to the Mondawmin Metro hub, the system's best connection point, and it terminates at the end of a peninsula at Fort McHenry, so any possible further extension is not an issue.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped city has been forced to cut back its "Banner Line" Circulator which serves Fort McHenry, putting the line into what former MTA head planner Henry Kay characterized as a "death spiral" - less frequent service means less riders which then calls for even more cutbacks which means even less riders and on and on.

Here's the solution: Split the MTA #1 bus line into three separate routes: (1) Sinai Hospital to Mondawmin, (2) Mondawmin to Downtown, and (3) Downtown to Fort McHenry.

The Fort McHenry leg would replace the "Banner Line" Circulator. The west leg would become a new circulator serving such neighborhoods as Franklin Square, Harlem Park and Sandtown. The Sinai leg would be a shuttle to and from the Metro. Each would be optimized and "branded" to serve the specific needs and identity of each community.

Each would also create opportunities for creative funding and operating agreements. The "Banner Line" had a special subsidy from the federal government to serve the Fort McHenry National Monument. Hospitals commonly fund and run their own shuttles, so Sinai could be invited to do the same. Transit lines run by outside private-sector contractors are a common arrangement, both for the MTA (on so-called "commuter" routes) and the city's Charm City Circulator.

Splitting the #1 line can be the prototype for restructuring the entire transit system to optimize routes by trip lengths, eliminate redundancies and better assign responsibilities for transit run by the MTA and other institutions such as the city, hospitals and colleges.

Step 3 - East Baltimore: Decide between one and two-way streets

Political perception and historical happenstance have mostly decided whether streets in Baltimore are one or two-way, not rational competent traffic analysis. Most people still complains about traffic.

North Baltimore has mostly one-ways. That provides the best opportunity to rationalize traffic signal timing, which should proceed first before any decisions are made to change traffic flow, which is a much more arduous process.

East Baltimore has mostly two-ways, some of which work fairly well because of ample use of left-turn and parking restrictions (Orleans and Fayette Street) and because Pratt and Lombard end at Patterson Park (they were converted between Broadway and the park a few years ago).

South Baltimore is similar in that Charles and Light Streets end abruptly to the south, although Light Street becomes so narrow that two-way flow causes problems.

West Baltimore is a very odd mixture, even on couplets. Pratt is one-way eastbound while its couplet Lombard is two-way. Fayette is one-way westbound while it couplet Baltimore Street is two-way. Washington Blvd. becomes one-way between MLK Boulevard and Russell Street.

The big focus should be on the east-west streets through Fells Point, which have the biggest traffic problems. but not until people are confident about the capabilities of traffic signal timing to meet their needs.

That is why the Step One pilot project (above) should be conducted first to optimize the traffic signal timing in the north corridor through Mount Vernon and Charles Village, before anything major is done in the southeast.

There are actually numerous real opportunities for improvement in Fells Point, despite feelings of helplessness and despite the city's lack of action on traffic as they have approved a huge amount of new traffic generating development.

The easiest measures to implement are left-turn prohibitions and short length parking restrictions at specific problem locations, to create "daylight" at intersections to accommodate various maneuvers related to turns.

This is what the city recently did in restricting parking along a short length of Aliceanna Street just west of Boston Street to accommodate a minor left-turn movement into a small parking lot. Whether it was worth the trouble is debatable, but it simply indicates it can be done.

Unfortunately after that, the city created mass confusion and disgust by secretly planning to remove the rest of the peak period parking along all of Aliceanna Street through Fells Point with no substantial justification. Councilman Kraft then said it was OK to keep it a secret because the city wasn't going to change its mind anyway, but after the secret came out, the city did just that.

Aliceanna Street traffic has been tamed through Harbor East (the highest density area in southeast Baltimore) by a traffic circle at its intersection with President Street. That encourages traffic to divert to Central Avenue and Fleet Street.

Much flexibility in resolving the question of one-way versus two-way flow is afforded by the fact that there are three successive east-west through streets - Aliceanna, Fleet and Eastern Avenue. Potentially, two of them could be converted to a one-way couplet and the third "downgraded" to a more localized orientation.

As per the precedent in Harbor East, it would seem that Aliceanna Street would be the best candidate for traffic de-emphasis. Moreover, Aliceanna ends at Boston Street, while Eastern and Fleet continue eastward.

Thus an Eastern-Fleet one-way pair could transition eastward (perhaps at Boston/Chester Street) into the current two-way pair, with unbalanced flow as has worked well on Pratt and Lombard near Patterson Park. A first small step toward this has already been done at the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Haven Street in Highlandtown, where the city installed left and right turn lanes to promote some diversion onto surrounding streets which has successfully reduced congestion.


Better signal timing is the most important factor and should be first. Many people have rightly resisted traffic changes because they don't have faith that the city can pull them off. But other high density cities have signal timing and one-way streets which work well, so Baltimore can too.

So a series of limited manageable pilot projects is the best course. First, optimize signal timing in north Baltimore. Work with the MTA to optimize the bus route structure in west and south Baltimore. Then fix the traffic flow in east Baltimore.