June 20, 2016

Cleveland Cavs avert nightmare flashback to Baltimore

With ten seconds left in last night's final NBA championship game, King LeBron James was fouled. He sprawled on the floor, writhing in pain for what seemed like an eternity - along with eternity for the entire city of Cleveland and its half century reputation as a "loser city", without any championships in any sport.

Why do we subject ourselves to such pain? Why do we wrap our collective municipal psyche so much into our sports teams? Cleveland's reputation for losing has brutally spilled over into all walks of life.

With his Cavs clinging to a thin three point lead, it looked like LeBron had an "out of body experience". And this could have led phantasmagorically all the way... to Baltimore.

LeBron James' "out of body experience" laying on the floor in last night's game
It was looking doubtful that he would get back on his feet to sink his free throws which would seal the Cavaliers' victory. If another player had been chosen to take the free throws, LeBron would have been forced out of the game. To be thrust so suddenly into such a pressure packed situation, LeBron's supporting cast may have missed them, giving the ball back to Golden State, where golden Stephen Curry would have been expected to fulfill the script (see John Elway below) by sinking a three pointer to tie the game. With such dejection and without LeBron in overtime, all odds would have pointed to a Golden State Warriors victory and a continuation of Cleveland sports futility.

The four worst days in Cleveland sports history

LeBron came back to Cleveland specifically to rescue his city from this futility and to bring his hometown a championship. This had to be going through LeBron's subconscious as he laid sprawled on the floor, along with the entire fifty year futility of the city in sports, and indirectly in everything else associated with the city of Cleveland.

When hometown born-and-raised hero LeBron had abandoned Cleveland for Miami, it was the second worst day in the city' sports history.

The worst day was when the perennial football loser Cleveland Browns snuck off to Baltimore to become the Ravens.

In turn, Baltimore felt terrible because they had previously lost their beloved Colts to Indianapolis under very similar circumstances. Baltimore's conscience felt assuaged by assurances from the National Football League that Cleveland would get an expansion team to replace the Browns, and that they could call them the Browns with the same colors and logos, unlike the Colts who continue to haunt Baltimoreans as they play in Indianapolis with their old blue and white Baltimore uniforms with the horseshoe logo. Baltimore has never treated Cleveland with the derision that the other division rival in Pittsburgh has piled up.

The third worst day in Cleveland sports history was "The Fumble" by Browns' Running Back Earnest Byner in the waning moments of the 1988 AFC Championship Game when victory had been all but assured.

The fourth worst day in Cleveland sports history was "The Drive" of 98 yards by Denver Broncos Quarterback John Elway for the winning touchdown to defeat the Browns in the 1987 AFC Championship game.

Both Byner and Elway fit into the Baltimore conspiracy. John Elway dissed the Baltimore Colts when he was America's most highly touted college football recruit, forcing the Colts to let the Denver Broncos have him in an illustrious career that included Super Bowl victories as both a Hall of Fame Quarterback and just this year as the team's General Manager.

Meanwhile, Earnest Byner went with the rest of the Browns to Baltimore, where after quietly playing out the conclusion of his fine career, he was selected as the first player for the "Ravens Ring of Honor" despite all his notable achievements having been made in Cleveland.

Is that a slap in Cleveland's face? Certainly, Baltimoreans don't like the way Indianapolis has dealt with the Colts legacy, particularly toward "Mr. Baltimore Colt" Johnny Unitas.

But the uncontested "Mr. Cleveland Brown" is Jim Brown, whose towering legacy is totally intact in Cleveland.

Ozzie Newsome also fits well as both a penultimate great past player for the Cleveland Browns, and great current General Manager for the Baltimore Ravens. But just as a reminder, he has guided the Ravens to two Super Bowl championships with a team that would have been the Browns.

Pro basketball franchises pack up and move all too often. Baltimore lost the Bullets to Washington. Geez, even Oklahoma City was recently able to steal a franchise.

If LeBron wasn't thinking about this kind of stuff as he laid sprawled on the floor with 10 seconds left in the championship game, even in his inner subconscious, it had to be in the dark recesses of many of the long-suffering Cleveland sports fans who witnessed it.

What remains totally uncontested by everyone is that LeBron James is now the anointed "chosen one" of Cleveland's sports legacy, which sits squarely on his very wide shoulders.

LeBron James slowly returns to the game

So last night, LeBron James slowly got up off the floor.  He dusted out his mental cobwebs to shoot his free throws. He staggered in an apparent daze toward the free throw line.

The first of his two free throws missed badly. Thousands of Cleveland sports fans then had another instantaneous but eternal flash to the last fifty years of sports futility.

LeBron stared again at the basket. He shot again. The ball rattled around the rim, then slowly down and in !!!!!!! The Cavs had an insurmountable four point lead !!!!

And thus their savior LeBron James averted the nightmare scenario of failure and the dreaded downward spiral toward another re-enactment of their sports legacy, including the threat of another exile to a place like Baltimore.

The overwhelming weight was lifted. Cleveland was the champion of the National Basketball Association.

June 13, 2016

Build Westport NOW with a Port Covington land swap

Here's the simplified follow-up to the article I wrote last week for the Baltimore Brew, after which I realized I should tighten my points to defend against the diversions cast about by the critics.

The primary point: The vacant Westport waterfront needs to be developed as soon as possible. Patrick Turner was poised to do this when his project went bankrupt. It was then sold to Kevin Plank, who is now poised to develop the even more massive multi-billion dollar Port Covington site just across the Middle Branch.
Westport waterfront property as seen from the existing light rail station,
with Port Covington in the background across the Middle Branch

While is in both Kevin Plank's and the city's interest that Plank's development company focus most intensely on Port Covington and not have his attention be diverted by Westport, the latter remains very important to the city and the local community.

The city and Plank have crafted a very wide-ranging public-private partnership for Port Covington, including $660 Million in Tax Increment Financing and other support totalling over a billion dollars for this long-term effort. They're in bed together. That's not an aspersion. Just fact.

On the other hand, the Westport development shouldn't have to wait. It's an existing community with real live human residents. But many of its rowhouses have been bought up by speculators who have allowed them to deteriorate while waiting for the new waterfront development money. Other commercial sites along Annapolis Road have also languished for lack of a sufficient market with sufficient disposable income to support them.

Meanwhile, the city has another major new development initiative in the "Gateway" corridor between the Camden Yards stadiums and the Horseshoe Casino. The city has become highly dependent on the casino as a revenue and jobs generator, as well as on the surrounding area as an "entertainment district" to provide a place for mega-bars and other compatible uses away from other neighborhoods.

The success of all these initiatives requires that the new developments be well connected into the city, to reinforce their "urban" identities, but not so close that the negative impacts spill over. That's the main reason people are attracted to the city in the first place. The Horseshoe Casino must promote its urban qualities. It cannot compete directly on this basis with the suburban Maryland Live! Casino in Arundel Mills or the upcoming National Harbor Casino in Prince George's County on their own terms.

Westport needs to project a positive urban image on the casino. Right now, too much of the casino's image is defined by being located along the Russell Street gas/convenience store strip, or in some kind of inner city no man's land, or just a bad image of Baltimore in general.

Proposed casino hotel built as a veneer for its waterfront garage facing a new Middle Branch Parkway,
would create an impressive new "urban face" for the casino - as envisioned by Peter Tocco.

Again, the Gateway development can't wait. The casino competition is already well underway. The city needs Westport to be a southern anchor of this Gateway Corridor.

The proposed agreement between the city and Kevin Plank's Sagamore development company is highly complex. But resolving the status of the Westport property would be a relatively minor inclusion, compared to all the extensive financial and property transactions it will contain.

City acquisition may be the solution

There is uncertainty as to whether the private sector is ready to come in and develop Westport. So the clearest and most direct resolution would be to have the city to acquire the Westport property as part of the extensive Port Covington land swaps.

Once the city acquires the Westport waterfront property, it can do with it whatever is in the best interest of the Westport community, which has remained constructively engaged in the ongoing planning process, as well as in the interests of the city as a whole.

The city can then also construct streets and conduct remediation directly instead of as part of subsequent agreements with developers. The city can also subdivide the properties to encourage more broad based involvement by smaller developers.
Proposed Middle Branch Parkway spine road between Westport (upper left, south) and Camden Yards (lower right, north),
with a new North Westport light rail station in the shadow of Interstate 95. Part of Port Covington is shown at the lower left.
In my view, one of the most important elements of the development of this Gateway corridor is to create a spine road extending from the Camden yards area to Westport to unify, enhance and urbanize the development and waterfront open spaces. Another key is creation of a new light rail station in north Westport near I-95 to provide a convenient transfer point between the Port Covington spur and the line traveling southward to BWI Marshall Airport.

Acquisition of the Westport waterfront would facilitate these projects. It is common when building such major projects for larger land parcels to be acquired, with the leftover land disbursed after that.

In the grand scheme of the massive multi-billion dollar Port Covington development project, resolving the status of the Westport waterfront property would be a relatively small part. Issues about interest from other developers and about how much the land is really worth may seem unclear and daunting, but having the city acquire the land would make them more straightforward.

It should be a relatively simple matter to agree that transferring Westport ownership to the city as a part of the big Port Covington land deal is the best and most direct way to proceed.