August 25, 2016

Camden Yards / Convention Center / MLK Tram-Campus

The recently announced study by the Maryland Stadium Authority to determine how to improve the Baltimore Convention Center is a great idea. The Convention Center is practically right across the street from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Stadium Authority's home turf and its very first project in the early 1990s which began its streak of success.

The natural outcome of this would be to expand the Convention Center into Camden Yards. That would also provide a big push for the city's nascent Camden Yards entertainment district, which extends southward to the Horseshoe Casino. The fact that the Maryland Stadium Authority already manages most of this property for the state makes this a perfect marriage.

Camden Yards could be redeveloped into an attractive "Convention Campus" - including new convention space, outdoor exhibition space, entertainment-oriented venues and supporting development replacing surface parking lots. It would culminate in a new Baltimore Arena - on a far less difficult site than one created by knocking down most of the existing Convention Center or working around the existing arena site to the north.

Camden Yards main lingering issue, which can readily be overcome and turned into a plus, is that it's relatively isolated from the rest of the city by the confluence of Interstate 395, Russell Street, MLK Boulevard and Conway Street. That hasn't stopped Yankees and Red Sox fans from invading the Inner Harbor when they come to town, of course, but it needs to be further encouraged. Seeing conventioneers gallivanting along the Inner Harbor promenade, dressed perhaps in Otakon outfits, is one of the joys of the Convention Center. More of the city needs to share in this.

The old billion-dollar Hackerman all-in-one mega-Convention arena hotel retail plan would not have helped. Just as the huge Javits Convention Center in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan didn't help much until the recent High Line and Hudson Yards developments came along. Big-box conventioneering is a dieing trend, just like big box retailing.

Trey Winstead's "Baltimore Gondola" aerial tram may be the missing link

Trey Winstead has been promoting his aerial tramway concept for the city's waterfront for over a decade, but it still appears to be a solution looking for a problem.

But "How to expand the Convention Center?" may now be just the problem to be solved.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards revolutionized baseball stadiums in the 1990s, but copycat ballparks in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and other places have now made it somewhat routine, if still very attractive in its own right. Winstead's proposed "Baltimore Gondola" looks just like the kind of innovation that can propel the Convention Center and Camden Yards into the 2020s, and extend their impact through far more of the city.

Winstead's plan has received virtually no criticism on its technical merits. It's basically an urban ski lift, but with flexibility to adapt to high-capacity urban situations. It just needs to find its place.

Ski lifts are for mountains - steep and rugged terrain. Baltimore's mountains are the metaphorical kind. We just need to find the kind of metaphorical mountain that the Baltimore Gondola can climb successfully where other transportation can't or won't. The closest comparable urban tram to Baltimore is the Roosevelt Island Tram across the East River from Manhattan, which has operated successfully since the 1970s.

Like a ski lift on a mountain, an urban tram needs to be integral to its environment, not superimposed on a place that's already working without it. If you've got a ski slope, you build a ski lift. Ski lifts don't serve just any mountain - only mountains with ski slopes. They're built together.

Similarly, the Baltimore Gondola aerial tramway would be designed and built together with a Convention Center expansion across the Conway Street, Howard Street, Interstate 95 intersection into Camden Yards. Like a ski slope or the East River, this intersection is a formidable barrier but can be navigated easily by an aerial tram.

Possible "Baltimore Gondola" route to the west, with seven stations: The Inner Harbor to Camden Yards segment
 along Conway Street is the same as the Winstead plan. Then it proceeds southward, then northwest along MLK Boulevard

The "Baltimore Gondola" aerial tram should go west, not east

Winstead's aerial tram plan already calls for a segment above Conway Street from Camden Yards to the Inner Harbor, but where his plan sees this as the west end, it ought to be the east end of a plan that heads west.

In any plan, this segment is crucial. This is not only the gateway to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, it is also both a light rail and a MARC commuter rail station. And it is near an enclosed overhead walkway to the Convention Center above Howard Street. What's needed is a design that truly integrates all this.

Beyond this segment, the tram should proceed through Camden Yards to the southwest. The next station should be located south of the MLK Boulevard, which would serve as the anchor for the new Camden Yards Convention Campus. The large adjacent parking lot between MLK Boulevard and Hamburg Street just north of M&T Bank (Ravens) Football Stadium would make an excellent site for a new arena (Carmelo Anthony Arena?) designed for convention-oriented uses.

This station site is also centrally located to serve the rest of the new "Entertainment District" southward to the Horseshoe Casino.

Beyond that, the tram could then be extended northwestward across busy Russell Street and above Martin Luther King Boulevard to the heart of West Baltimore, further extending the reach of downtown and the Inner Harbor for attractive new development opportunities.

The tram could be a perfect fit, but only if everything is planned to work together, in concert with new development.

Station locations

Here's where the stations could be located:

Inner Harbor - Between the Visitors Center and the Light Street Harborplace Pavilion, which is an ideal place. Tourists to the Visitors Center are perfect candidates for side-trips into the "real Baltimore", which is where the Gondola would go. Of course, some new West Baltimore development would be necessary to ensure that this reality is not too real.

Camden Yards - An ideal location where Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the light rail station, MARC commuter rail station and the convention center come together. There is significant additional development potential as well, including more intense and street-oriented use of the famous Oriole Park Warehouse, and "air rights" development over I-395 and Howard Street to provide even better linkages.

Camden Yards South - The parking lot between M&T Bank (Ravens) Stadium on Hamburg Street and I-395 would make a great site for the new replacement arena and the north anchor of the city's new "entertainment district". This could extend southward along a new Baltimore "Bourbon Street" to the casino. So far, this nascent entertainment district has been bottom-feeding, as exemplified by the recent announcement of a new Hammerjacks III music venue to be located in the obscure catacombs underneath Russell Street just south of Ostend Street and the football stadium. This is actually a very healthy sign, not to expend the best development sites on things that don't need them. (The exact opposite kind of development happened with the city's idiotic decision to put the new Greyhound Bus Station out on a waterfront peninsula near the casino, disconnected from all other transit.)

Pigtown and Pratt Street - The stations along MLK Boulevard would position this community as West Baltimore's mirror image of Federal Hill (yin to its yang). This stations should be accessible from the west side of MLK Boulevard, not isolated in the median. Further, the median and the highway as a whole should be narrowed as much as possible, to increase the land for the station sites, surrounding parkland, new development, and buffer space for the existing neighborhood.

Huge Martin Luther King Boulevard through the University of Maryland campus
 is a much more suitably scaled place for an aerial tramway than 19th century Fleet Street to the east. 

University of Maryland Campus and BioPark - This station should be designed and located to make MLK Boulevard a focal point of the campus instead of a barrier. Again, the roadway and median should be narrowed as much as possible, which should be do-able without appreciably increasing congestion  or reducing capacity.

Heritage Crossing - Let me be the first to suggest that the huge proposed redevelopment by Caves Valley Partners of the abandoned Metro West Social Security complex should be named "Heritage Crossing" - in homage to the gorgeous neo-Olmsted mixed-income neighborhood adjacently located just across the "Highway to Nowhere". This would be a call to finally get rid of the highway, expand the city's horizons and reunite all the adjacent neighborhoods. A sensible west-side light rail Red Line would also have a connection at this point (instead of the defunct tunnel under Fremont Avenue). Moreover, this would make particular sense if a busway was implemented in the west Red Line corridor on a temporary or even a permanent basis.

In sum, this kind of west side plan would enable the Baltimore Gondola to become integral to new development, the same way that ski lifts are integral to ski slopes.

Improving on the current east-side "Baltimore Gondola" plan

Under Armour's Port Covington plan is the ultimate example of the current trend of increased developer power and responsibility over the city's planning process. Under Armour has literally written a billion dollar ticket for new infrastructure, including $660 Million in city Tax Increment Financing (TIF).

The Port Covington plan is far too big to not be a precedent for the next wave of development, despite all the controversies.

It thus strongly points to Tax Increment Financing as a strong candidate to be the funding source for an aerial tram. In turn, it would demand that developers would have an extremely strong say in building the tram.

Current version of the official Winstead "Baltimore Gondola" plan 

That makes this year's iteration of Winstead's Baltimore Gondola aerial tram plan (shown above) extremely puzzling.

There's no problem with the Segment between Stations #1 and #2 on the west side of the Inner Harbor, which is identical to the easternmost segment of this west side plan. The Segment from Stations #2 to #3 would also work for either plan, as an intelligent (although perhaps not aesthetic) alternative to the big pedestrian drawbridge in the Inner Harbor 2.0 plan prepared by the city's powers-that-be. But obviously those powers don't want trams there.

The first big problem - probably fatal - is that there is no station in  the segment between Station #3 (Pier 6) and #4 (Broadway/Fells Point). That means no station directly serving Harbor East and Harbor Point, by far downtown's biggest recent development area. It can easily be imagined that the developers have already quietly conveyed their opposition to the entire tram plan, and at the very least would forbid any station near their areas. That's exactly what Harbor East developer John Paterakis told the city and state about their Red Line light rail plan, which followed the exact same route and hence became one of the nails in the Red Line's coffin.

Moreover, Harbor East and Harbor Point have already gotten all their infrastructure funded. Harbor Point's uses a generous allotment of TIF bonds, so they're certainly not going to be ready for even more TIF financing, if it's even possible.

Is historic Fleet Street in Fells Point a place where people could envision looking up at an aerial tramway?

Then there's the thorny problem of making an aerial tramway fit into the 19th century streetscape of Fleet Street in Fells Point (see photo above).

Finally, there's no potential for any more new infrastructure-fueled whole-cloth development along the Fells Point and Canton waterfront, near Stations #4, #5 or #6. From now on, everything there will be infill development, not amenable to a TIF tax district.

None of the other major new development sites in southeast would be decently served by any tram plan. These include Perkins Homes (which I recently discussed here), Canton Crossing, Brewers Hill and the Highlandtown Loft District. So it's back to the drawing board, folks...

A west side tram plan is more likely politically and financially feasible

In contrast, TIF financing should be eminently feasible for a west side plan for any land that ends up on the tax roll for development, most notably the massive former Metro West Social Security site recently purchased by Caves Valley Partners.

Much of the Camden Yards land owned by the State of Maryland Stadium Authority could be returned to the tax rolls for redevelopment. A new arena would be a demonstrable money-maker (unlike the city-owned TIF financed Hilton Hotel nearby). New parking garages for the development and events would be a lucrative cash cow as well. The area's premiere political player is Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who should be ripe for a deal now that he has seemingly won the war to stop the state's State Center plan. A new Camden Yards development plan would be an entirely different kind of deal.

The University of Maryland at Baltimore, of course, is also state-owned, but is surrounded by much developable land as part of the associated BioPark.

The city's west side really really needs more new development. The drift between the city's east and west sides has become increasingly glaring - focusing attention to the "Two Baltimores" disparity. The Caves Valley Metro West site is not only the gateway to Heritage Crossing, but also to gritty Harlem Park and Sandtown, which is where Freddy Grey died in police custody before last year's uprising and riots. The riots extended southward to the Rite Aid drug store just across MLK Boulevard from this site.

Unfortunately, Caves Valley's first move has been to market part of this huge property for a "pad site" - real estate parlance for a free-standing fast food joint or a Royal Farms-style gas/convenience store. This would be a disastrous precedent.

We must think big to STOP THE PAD - and set the stage to create the best possible socially-conscious development.


  1. Can we call the Tram-Campus a Tram-pus? Is there an example of an existing arena designed for convention oriented purposes?

    1. Wouldn't a Tram-pus attract tramps? Philadelphia's basketball arena was used for the Democratic National Convention a few weeks ago, and it seemed to adapt well despite being several miles down Broad Street from their regular Convention Center (but with a subway under it). Come to think of it, the classic soul group, The Trammps, were from Philly. It all fits.

  2. It occurs to me that , in addition to possible application as a waterfront harbor/stadium to fells circulator, It'd be good for getting over the jones falls valley . As a replacement for the hamden shuttle bug, and filling in a transit gap. Mondowmin metro, to the zoo. And then, either going over parkland to the woodberry light rail system, or to Mill No 1 (which could become a light rail stop), up falls road to Roosevelt Park.