January 20, 2016

Unify city and Port Covington: Put a fork in Hanover St.

Sagamore Development Company's giant 13 million square foot plan calls for changing almost everything in Port Covington. But some things are more changeable than others. And since change is expensive, the plan should be selective in what is changed - to invest its precious Tax Increment Financing and other infrastructure dollars wisely.

Hanover Street is the key to integrating Port Covington and old South Baltimore. Simply making Hanover Street work should enable the whole street plan to work.

Hanover Street looking south from old South Baltimore toward the I-95 overpass.
The houses have been nicely rehabbed with a brand new median strip to soften the traffic impact.
This is the primary gateway to Port Covington from the urban grid, but should not bear the brunt of thru traffic.

The Sagamore plan is to be commended for going to great lengths to try to enhance the linkage between South Baltimore and Port Covington. It does this by proposing to eliminate the I-95 exit ramp to Hanover, by extending Light Street southward over the railroad tracks and under I-95, and even by lowering Hanover Street itself to make it part of the new development.

But all of these things would be very difficult and expensive to do, and would probably have major extraneous effects which have not yet been revealed or discussed.

While there is no doubt that a 13 million square foot development is a very large omelet that will require breaking some big eggs, some eggs may be too tough to crack. Hanover Street is the egg that can be cracked with a fork. A fork in the road, that is.

Gigantic Port Covington will need all the access it can get from Interstate 95, and the nation's biggest highway may be the one piece of infrastructure that can't be tampered with to suit Sagamore. And in any event, the current ramp system actually works well, providing all the necessary connections in three directions - both north and south, to and from I-95, and also to and from downtown on I-395.

In fact, it's not the ramp system's connections to and from the Interstate highways that are the problem. It's the opposite ends of these ramp connections into Port Covington that are problematic. Which is actually fortunate, because Sagamore and the city have a lot more control over what happens in Port Covington than on I-95.

Moreover, the goals are not mutually exclusive: If the best possible access is provided at the least cost and disruption, Port Covington can be made a relatively seamless part of the city as a whole.

Hanover Street has already been bent around Otterbein

The small but elegant Otterbein neighborhood is at the opposite north end of the South Baltimore peninsula from Port Covington, and achieved comparable objectives when Hanover Street's traffic pattern was realigned there in the late 1970s.

The Otterbein neighborhood had been condemned and slated for destruction to build Interstate 395 into downtown. But a revised plan saved it, which led to it becoming perhaps the premiere rowhouse neighborhood in all of Baltimore. It also created a site for the convention center.

As part of its renewal, Hanover Street was closed through Otterbein, and it's traffic bent around it in a slalom to Charles and Light Street to serve downtown and the Inner Harbor. Then when I-395 and Conway Street were completed, much of the through traffic shifted away from Hanover to the expressways. That traffic reduction enabled the city to remove Hanover Street's peak period parking restrictions. It took a while for housing renewal on Hanover Street to catch up with the surrounding more local streets, but eventually its houses were rehabbed as well.

So now Hanover Street is poised to be the primary urban grid linkage between South Baltimore and Port Covington. The only problems are that Hanover Street in Port Covington is oriented far more to the I-95 ramps and to the bridge to the south toward suburban Ritchie Highway than it is to the huge future development. This results in a hostile anti-urban environment on Hanover Street, accentuated by its huge and complex intersections with McComas Street and Cromwell Boulevard, along with the ramp and "jughandle" traffic merging and diverging into the flow.

All roads lead to Port Covington

Hanover Street's problems are local, so the solution should be local.

Cromwell Boulevard, built as the spine road for the first wave of Port Covington development in the 1980s (which ended up only being the Sun printing plant), is actually much better suited to handle the through traffic than Hanover Street.

In fact, Cromwell is not very well suited to be an urban street of the type Sagamore is trying to cultivate in its plan. Instead, it serves as more of an edge, adjacent to the Locke Insulator plant and the Gould Street power station, and as an access road for the development in between which will be oriented to the waterfront.

The Sagamore plan gets rid of the eastern portion of Cromwell toward McComas Street and I-95, but this seems wasteful and unnecessary. 

Instead, Cromwell Boulevard should essentially replace Hanover Street as the through traffic spine between the Hanover Street Bridge and northward to I-95, Key Highway, the port and downtown.

A better street plan: Get rid of Hanover Street between McComas and Cromwell.
Connect Cromwell (orange) directly from the Hanover Street Bridge (at bottom) to I-95 ramps (at right).
Create a street grid connecting northward to Hanover Street and its I-95 on-ramp (top yellow) and its I-95 off-ramp (blue).

Here's the key: The intersection of Cromwell and Hanover should be modified so that Cromwell connects directly to the Hanover Street bridge to the south. In turn, the intersection of Cromwell and McComas Street should be modified to facilitate access to I-95. This was the original concept back in the 1980s, but it was deemed too expensive to modify McComas Street underneath I-95 to make the ramp connections work.

But the much larger Sagamore development plan raises the ante, and proposes far more expensive changes than any of this.

Making the intersection of Cromwell / McComas / I-95 work this way would divert through traffic away from the intersection of Hanover / McComas / I-95, and allow that critical area to be oriented almost entirely to local and I-95 traffic only, and thus to integrating Hanover Street between Port Covington and old South Baltimore.

The Sagamore plan attempts to soften that intersection by getting rid of the I-95 off-ramp and lowering Hanover Street, which would have far more widespread impacts and be far more expensive. Instead, Hanover Street could be modified as follows:

1 - Orient the I-95 ramps directly into new Port Covington streets. Since the ramps link to Hanover on diagonals, these streets could be oriented to similar angles: The I-95 off-ramp merges with Hanover at angle which points to the southeast, so it could be oriented to a new street at a similar southeast angle proceeding in a straight shot into Port Covington. 

2 - Similarly, the on-ramp onto I-95 from Hanover is oriented from the southwest, so a new street could be similarly oriented from this point to the southwest.

3 - The angles between these two streets could be used to define an entire street grid for the new development.

4 - McComas Street to the east of Hanover would become an unnecessary complication to this street grid and could be eliminated, or localized to better serve the proposed athletic facilities in the catacombs under I-95. Eliminating McComas would be particularly beneficial at Cromwell because it would eliminate the weave from the I-95 off-ramp onto Cromwell, which is currently not allowed.

5 - Similarly, existing Hanover Street to the south toward Cromwell Boulevard and the bridge over Middle Branch would also be an unnecessary complication and could be eliminated. The Sagamore plan to "lower" the street is tantamount to eliminating it anyway, so this plan would be a simpler, cleaner and more direct way to accomplish the same thing.

Enlargement of Hanover/I-95/McComas area: Hanover Street south of McComas and the I-95 on-ramp would
 be eliminated, and replaced by a fork into the Port Covington street grid to the southeast and southwest (in yellow).
The I-95 off-ramp (in blue) would have similar connections to the grid to the south.
In sum the entire new street grid of Port Covington would be oriented to Hanover Street to the north, and to its I-95 ramps, but with a minimum of through traffic to add undesired congestion and complexity to the traffic pattern. This would complete the transformation of Hanover Street in South Baltimore which was started by Otterbein in the 1980s, away from being a through traffic street and toward being a locally oriented urban street.

As Yogi Berra said: When you reach a fork in the road, take it!

The concept is simple. Hanover Street is an integral part of South Baltimore. At the south end of its urban grid near I-95, there should be a fork in the road to direct you toward the heart of either the east or west sides of Port Covington. 

But all of this is conceptual and schematic, and should be tailored to specific conditions and needs. The Port Covington plan would generate a huge number of trips which would need to be accommodated. The plan's development densities should be tailored to the capacity of the system to serve each specific site.

The optimum alignment of the light rail branch should also be given special attention, particularly maintaining the current Hanover Street rail underpass to keep the transit line away from traffic conflicts. There is also room for roadway and pedestrian underpasses if these would also be beneficial and reducing conflicts.

Issues relating to rehabilitating or replacing the Hanover Street Bridge over Middle Branch may also become important, but these may also present additional opportunities, both in the long term and in the interim when traffic must be diverted elsewhere anyway.

Now that Wal-Mart has been shut down, short term considerations should not be a major constraint on what can be done.

Port Covington's potential is virtually unlimited, but the traffic capacity and infrastructure budgets are not. Let's make it count.

January 14, 2016

Port Covington could be even bigger than it's hype

2016 has just started and Port Covington is already this year's "once-in-a-generation opportunity" for the city. But rather than the Red Line, Harbor Point, Harbor East, Westport, Inner Harbor 2.0, and all the various "last waterfront development" sites, this time maybe it really is.

And the basic reason is that Port Covington really consists of numerous important pieces of a very large ongoing puzzle, rather than a single ultimate "be-all and end-all" of urban development.

From the window of a light rail train - the empty Westport waterfront in the foreground,
Port Covington in the left background, linked by the Hanover Street bridge to Cherry Hill to the right

Most obviously: Kevin Plank's Under Armour is the kind of young growth company that every city bends over backwards to try to attract. The competition among cities is intense. Compare that to Exelon, which was already committed by law to locate in Baltimore even as they were showered with unnecessary tax breaks to ensure they'd go to Harbor Point anyway.

Just as importantly: Port Covington is gigantic, much bigger than Harbor Point, even including all its peripherals. The plan is for 13 million square feet of development, and the density isn't even that high.

More importantly: Port Covington is far larger than Under Armour could ever be, and would consist of far more development than just Under Armour.

Most important of all: Sagamore, Under Armour's development arm, has bought up the Westport waterfront site across the Middle Branch, making it larger still. Westport is the poster child for the "real Baltimore", a struggling neighborhood which has had to deal with the grandiose unfulfilled development promises of its adjacent empty waterfront.

Indeed, while Port Covington is part of south Baltimore, it is much more a part of the west than the east side of the city. That's not just Westport, but also Cherry Hill, Pigtown and all of West Baltimore.

The Port Covington project thus has a physical linkage from the glamorous waterfront to the areas of Baltimore that need help the most, and upon which the goal of saving the city must really be predicated - making the "Two Baltimores" into one Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Harbor Point's Michael Beatty had the audacity to demand that the city issue its entire Tax Increment Financing package to build all its lavish infrastructure and parks on a breakneck schedule, and the city complied. Of course, as the Exelon Tower nears completion in Harbor Point, the city still hasn't even begun construction of the promised Central Avenue bridge to get there from Harbor East. Ha ha.

But Port Covington is so gigantic that even Kevin Plank won't be able to get similar deference. The city should thus be able to increase its leverage to maximize the ratio of private to public investment. Even if the city doesn't play it's cards quite right (does everything ever go right?), that should be a big plus for the city.

Let's just hope for some semblance of competence and perspective....

Transit and transportation factors

In last week's presentation of the Under Armour Port Covington plan to the city, their transportation planner R. J. Eldridge said “If you’re a transportation geek, you’ll find it here.”

I guess they're talking to me with that quote, since I'm a "transportation geek". Especially since their plan includes a spur off the existing central light rail line from Westport to Port Covington, a concept which I was the first to raise here.

But a whole lot more people will need to "find it here" than just us transit and transportation geeks. This plan is so huge that it needs to be built around transit by necessity. There is no way automobiles can supply anywhere near the total of the access requirements, since the plan calls for an astounding 13 million square feet of development. That's enough that it could complete the gutting of downtown Baltimore that has already been started by Harbor East and Harbor Point on the east side.

Sagamore Development Company's proposed Port Covington plan

On the highway side, the plan includes a total reconfiguration of the northbound off-ramps from Interstate 95 to both Hanover and McComas Streets, which would be a sufficiently complex endeavor to make the light rail spur look like child's play. The murky graphics presented so far are not able to convey what this entails, but the motivation appears NOT to be to provide greater access from the ramps.

The plan's main motivation for moving the ramps appears to be to create a stronger classic urban style street grid extending southward from existing South Baltimore. They also would like to lower Hanover Street down to meet this new grid, which would be another daunting project.

The desired outcome appears to be more of a transit-orientation for the development, but not necessarily better access, either from a better or higher quality transit or street system. We shall see.

Reasons to believe

Here are some reasons for hope:

1 - Hopefully, Sagamore's embrace of transit is real and not just hype. In contrast, after an entire decade of Red Line planning which twisted the plan into a dead-end $3 billion boondoggle, Harbor East developer John Paterakis decided to pull out the rug, forcing the line to be further contorted to push the Harbor East station further from his future development as well as Harbor Point. Paterakis and his Harbor Point colleague Michael Beatty simply and rationally didn't believe in the Red Line. We should and must do better in Port Covington.

2 - The Central Light Rail Line has already existed since the early 1990s, and is easily poised for a simple branch to serve Port Covington. Yes, people rightly criticize the existing central line's flaws, but compared to the Red Line as was proposed, it's actually a very good rail line. It has close to twice the capacity per train, it has potentially very good connectivity to the Metro, to the bus system and a large part of future city growth, and the south half of the line from downtown to the airport and Westport/Port Covington is actually relatively fast and conflict-free.

3 - Under Armour clearly wants a non-auto dependent plan. Since it is clearly oriented to a classic urban street grid and is tied into the rest of South Baltimore under Interstate 95, it's not a suburban-style fortress. It is a contradiction that isolated peninsulas like this and Harbor Point are considered the most desirable development sites, but that's just another challenge we have to deal with.

Balanced investment strategies

The overall key to the project is phasing the public infrastructure in a way that maximizes benefit to the city as a whole. This can be done because unlike Harbor East/Harbor Point, Port Covington can actually be part of a wide-ranging development strategy which encompasses large parts of the city which desperately need it. Here are the steps:

1 - It starts with Westport, a part of old Baltimore right across the Middle Branch from Port Covington which has hit hard times since speculators swooped in to buy old houses, then sit and wait for the long overdue big development. Westport is already served by the light rail line and since Under Armour has also bought up its big waterfront property, they could quickly pick up where bankrupt developer Patrick Turner left off.

2 - It then proceeds northward on the light rail line to the downtrodden Howard Street corridor, which would be the key downtown linkage to the Under Armour empire. This west side area has been hit hard by the eastward drift of downtown toward the waterfront of Harbor East, Harbor Point, Fells Point and Canton. Port Covington helps return Howard/Lexington to its rightful historic place at the center of the city.

A new Port Covington Red Line - which shares the existing Central Light Rail (Blue Line) tracks between
 a Downtown Lexington Market Metro (Green Line) Hub and Westport, where it branches off to Port Covington 
3 - This in turn is highly complimentary to building a far less expensive and more cost-effective west-only Red Line. Such a Red Line could either terminate at a comprehensive transit hub including the Lexington Market Metro Station and the existing light rail line, or actually be physically linked to the Howard Street light rail line. If the latter, the Port Covington branch could actually become the east portion of the Red Line, replacing what had been proposed. The west side Red Line would be built as previous planned, then proceed into downtown and Howard/Lexington, south on the existing line to Camden Yards and Westport, then east to Port Covington.

The alternative concept of physically terminating the west Red Line inside the Lexington Market Metro Station should still be considered, and may be the better option. In this case, the Port Covington light rail branch would mostly likely proceed north on Howard Street to Penn Station. (Of course, the areas intended to be served by the defunct east Red Line also still need attention. The east waterfront needs more effective bus service and perhaps streetcars, and the Metro should be extended eastward from Hopkins Hospital, toward Hopkins Bayview.)

4 - A west Red Line has its own important development opportunities. It would directly serve the million-plus square foot Metro West complex abandoned by the federal government, which needs to step up and ensure its redevelopment. A west-only Red Line would also serve the University of Maryland downtown campus, which was supposed to get two Red Line stations which both had to be scuttled due to the cost and engineering difficulties of the tunnel. And new emphasis should now be given to getting rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" and replacing it with genuine transit oriented development and integration with the rest of West Baltimore

Compared to Harbor East/Harbor Point

Port Covington is far more crucial to the city's future than Harbor East and Harbor Point.

Harbor East and Harbor Point plans created controversies that pitted them against "The Other Baltimore". The powers-that-be tried to defend the huge tax break deals for these projects by saying that they only involved money which the city would never see unless they were developed.

That didn't wash. If the city gives the greatest tax breaks to the most desirable developments, it creates severe disadvantages for every other lesser potential project down the pecking order.

Then the only advantage is spin-off development. With prime development properties located out on isolated peninsulas, the spin-offs of Harbor East and Harbor Point are relatively slim or even negative, because it takes away from downtown. The downtown powers-that-be even argued that Exelon should have been relocated in downtown or kept at their current location, the Inner Harbor Candler Building, until they realized it was a losing battle.

So in sum, the first key to Port Covington is to really use the tax breaks in a well-controlled and phased manner to induce maximum private investment.

And secondly, maximize spin-off development opportunities.

If this is done, Port Covington could be even bigger than its hype.