February 3, 2016

Metro West speculation on the "Highway to Nowhere"

It's gratifying that the federal government was able to attract bids from reputable developers to buy its vacant former Social Security Administration Metro West complex at the west downtown end of the "Highway to Nowhere".

But it's obvious that the bids, which topped out at $7.1 million, are based purely on speculative value. With 1.1 million square feet of office space, that comes out to less than $6.50 per square foot. (Note: That's equivalent to $13,000 to buy a 2000 square foot  house - you could spend that much just for new floors.) And with about 12 acres over roughly 6 square blocks, there's enough land for much more development than that.

The top offer from Caves Valley Partners is based instead on their anticipation of how much concession of development incentives, tax breaks and infrastructure they might be able to cajole out of the public sector to make any redevelopment happen.

Seldom scene - The view from the westbound "Highway to Nowhere"  looking back eastward
 at the huge Metro West complex, which the eastbound highway splits in two.
This view is dominated by part of the site's vast open space which is landlocked in the middle of the highway. 

Also part of this speculation is how the city's real estate climate will be affected by all the developer deals the city has been making elsewhere, with Kevin Plank in Port Covington and Westport, plus Harbor East, Harbor Point, Canton Crossing, Old Town, State Center, La Cite in Poppleton, and the list goes on...

The city has been giving top dollar subsidies to the very best waterfront development sites, so that makes all the less desirable sites all that much less attractive and valuable. At Harbor Point, the city even gave big subsides to Exelon Corporation to locate there, when they already had to locate in the city by law. And this was after the city's politically powerful Downtown Partnership had already opposed the deal.

It's about as opaque and lumpy an economic "playing field" as one could imagine, with political acumen counting for much more than development acumen.

So it's not real value. Baltimore's real estate market is too dysfunctional for that. The recently concluded "auction" is actually the second attempt for the property, the first one ending with no winning bid.

This auction should also conclude with no winner. Instead, the city or state government should move in and acquire the land in accordance with federal procedures, so that the public sector can decide what investment is in the public's best interests, since the tax breaks and infrastructure will no doubt be financed with public money anyway.

At that point, a true developer solicitation can take place, based on real value, not speculative value.

But the public sector must decide what that real value can be. The nearby impoverished West Baltimore neighborhoods urgently need real help and a real connection to the economic energy of downtown. The issues are too large to leave it to a developer to set the agenda.

Inaction so far

The adjacent University of Maryland has rejected the site, instead proceeding with their ambitious building program elsewhere within their campus and neighborhoods.

The city and state have spent the past fifteen years analyzing the area with regard to the now-rejected $3 Billion Red Line light rail project. Their final plan failed to serve this site or the rest of the university campus. For various defunct reasons, the alignment and stations were located elsewhere.

Also, as part of that long process, the city steadfastly maintained that the "Highway to Nowhere" should stay. This highway splits the site, going right through a hole in the buildings. The city maintained this stance despite the fact that the state closed the highway for months to do prep work for the Red Line by demolishing a huge retaining wall at the west end of the highway, with minimal adverse impact on traffic patterns.

Metro West in the background from the vast landlocked wasteland inside the "Highway to Nowhere",
as seen from near where Fremont Avenue once was. 

The $3 Billion Red Line is now dead, so that a smaller and more viable Red Line plan can now be developed in its place, with more focus on supporting true transit-oriented development. As part of this plan, one or more stations can now be placed adjacent to or even inside the Metro West property.

The state's huge State Center government office redevelopment program, also over a decade old, is also in limbo. It may be seen that Metro West is a better location for some of this office space than State Center.

Planning questions to be answered

The Metro West site has terrific development potential, but it is far too hazy at this point. The property should be secured by the public sector, then the important planning decisions should be made:

Get rid of the "Highway to Nowhere"?

Build a viable downsized Red Line?

Develop a linear park in the Martin Luther King Boulevard corridor?

Create a traffic conflict-free development and greenway plan inside the Highway to Nowhere ditch?

Rehabilitate Upton, Lafayette Square and Harlem Park?

Expand the Heritage Crossing neighborhood?

Create an actually viable State Center plan?

Create an actually viable Lexington Market/Howard Street area plan?

More ideas?


  1. https://communityarchitectdaily.blogspot.com/2016/11/is-there-future-for-red-line.html the BRT red line plan.

    1. Thanks David. Klaus Philipsen's blog piece is actually a response to a Sun editorial from this Monday, November 14. He rejects the Kamenetz/Right Rail concept by citing an MTA "back of the envelope" analysis that they did after their Red Line plan was already cast in concrete. Considering how bad the MTA's zillion page Environmental Impact Statement was, that's not much a rejection.

      As I responded to The Sun, which hopefully they'll print, the keys are simply connectivity and phaseability - building what you can. In contrast, Klaus' approach is simply to look back wistfully at what never was.

  2. Personally, I'd like to see the state center campus relocated to the area and have the current state center campus reimagined as a McHenry row type TOD project.

    1. Sounds good to me! The reason the State Center project is such a fiasco is because the State made it so much more complex than it ought to be with its legal and financial deals. Just today, The Sun's editorial throws even more dirt on it. There's no lack of downtown office space. Thanks Cnunn, for making it so simple!

    2. I agree. I don't understand why it was decided to lease office space from a new developer, after owning office space. In my mind, it would've made more sense to confine the state office buildings to one portion of the site, and relinquish the rest of the site to a developer to rebuild and redevelop as they saw fit. Then the state still would've owned their buildings, but the developer would still have the foot traffic of a major employer in the area.
      Now, with MetroWest empty, I think that it would make more sense for the ramps to come down from the highway to nowhere, leaving the space from MLK to Greene and Saratoga to Franklin completely open to be developed as the new State Center as an anchor for the Downtown West area, along with the newly remodeled or rebuilt Lexinton Market, which could also spur the MTA to move forward with a central Lexington Market transit hub with the new BaltimoreLink crisscrossing the area.

    3. https://communityarchitectdaily.blogspot.com/2017/01/state-offices-at-metro-west.html?view=magazine

      Also, an interesting take on the MetroWest complex. Mostly, just an extrapolation of one of the ideas touched on here. I still say that the ramps crossing MLK should come down, exposing the parkland in front of the MetroWest tower, that's currently hidden from MLK.

    4. Well, Metro West absolutely needs a GOOD PLAN, that's for sure. A good designer could come up with something clever, like the guy who did the "Highway to Nowhere" Red Line rendering for me. The current situation where the vast land between the eastbound and westbound highways is trapped and wasted is totally unacceptable.

      On the other hand, the only thing wrong at the State Center site is the real estate market. The location and access are already good to great. Unfortunately, the real estate market in much of greater downtown is totally dysfunctional, so things end up being fought in court (most recently the Mechanic Theater site). If there was money to be made, they'd quit haggling and get on to building.

  3. Another idea is to transform Metro West into a public safety building. The Baltimore Police HQ is a confusing maze of corridors in a terribly aged and decrepit building right next to the block with a garage that is entirely too small. The department also leases space off site for the offices that can't fit within the main building itself. Fire HQ is housed with other city offices in 401 E Fayette St. By placing both Fire and Police HQ together in Metro West, it would free up space for other city offices. In addition to that, there has been talk of the current District Courthouse at Fayette St and Gay Street being too small and in need of replacement. By moving Police HQ, the current site would become immediately available to be remodeled and restructured as a courthouse, or the block could be razed entirely, save maybe for the current Central district station house, for the purpose of building an all new courthouse complex complete with secure parking for Judges and other courthouse staff. Having Metro West transformed into a Pubic Safety HQ would also mean having a 24/7 presence in a part of downtown that needs it. It would also provide a large number of consumers for nearby restaurants and shops, namely Lexington Market.

    1. Good ideas! I usually don't get too involved with specific uses on my blog, but that could work! The main issue is that our Police Department seems to be into creating its own fortresses rather than integrating with the surrounding city. I recall when they actually cut off East Baltimore Street adjacent to their headquarters between Gay and President Streets after 9/11/2001 so you weren't even allowed to walk down the street. It was easy for them to do because the street had already been closed for construction of the Metro subway underneath.

      The street has never recovered and is just about the deadest place in downtown, despite the Metro Station and the nearby nightlife. It was once really vibrant, with a tethered hot air balloon ride attraction and a grandiose plan for an apartment tower over the Metro Station.

      But now, there's a "Berlin Wall" between Baltimore Street and the north end of Market Place by the Children's Museum and the Rams Head live music complex. It's as if the police and the public want to stay as far away from each other as possible. Maybe they do. Does this have anything to do with perceived police dysfunction? That's for another blog!

      Your good idea of a 24/7 police presence was also argued in Remington to get the Northern District Station to move there from Hampden. Instead, they put it in the semi-rural green space away from everything, along Cold Spring Lane between the JFX and Greenspring Avenue.

      What I'm afraid of is that the Metro West site lends itself too well to being a fortress, which is what it already was when Social Security was there.

      But all that's needed is good planning. Let's keep trying until the city finally gets it right!

    2. I agree that the department has made it seem like they want police and the public to be away from each other. To their credit, they seem to be working on it with sensing sessions and incentives to make city living more attractive for first responders. But, they have a long way to go, and hopefully they'll eventually get it right. But, like you said, that's a topic of discussion unto itself. While I share your fear that Metro West may once again become a fortress, I also fear that it will become a hulking, rotting shell defining the entrance to downtown from US 40.

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