August 9, 2016

Port Covington made simple: Ten key points

To sum it up:

1. Yes, it's a good project. - Simply put, it's urban, which is what the site demands. Previous attempts by CSX (truck terminal), The Sun (newspaper printing press) and WalMart (big box retail WalMart and Sam's Club) were all plans that belonged in the suburbs. This plan is oriented to continuous public waterfront access, and it's fine-grained street grid is the best way to organize the sites to provide the necessary flexibility for a wide mix of uses over a long term.

Pretty but pretty useless bird's eye rendering of Port Covington plan

2. Yes, Tax Increment Financing is the right way to pay for it. - Future tax revenue from the development is the best security from which to borrow. Tax base growth is what the city needs more than anything.

3. Yes, it's isolated from the rest of the city. - It's on a waterfront peninsula which insulates it from the city's problems. That's Port Covington's advantage. Don't fight it or complain about what it is.

4. Yes, it does divert development from elsewhere in the city. - That's an economic fact. Kevin Plank also bought nearby Westport, which already had a similar grandiose mixed-use urban waterfront development plan with similar Tax Increment Financing. Since then, he has sat on it with no development plans so that he could focus on Port Covington. The city needs to deal with that. Plank's plan is very attractive, but the entire city needs growth and jobs, not just Port Covington. The city has already said they can't afford to underwrite all the TIF bonds, so what happens when the next Port Covington comes along? Like Westport? The city can't let this project suck the air out of our long-term growth. This is just another step, albeit a fairly big one. The infrastructure plan must be affordable, not a roll of the dice. That idiotic "game changer" term needs to be put to rest.

5. It won't solve the city's low income housing problem. - Port Covington is a bad place for low income housing, period. It's way too expensive and the city's housing problems are way too pervasive. The city's dysfunctional real estate market which caused the abandonment of tens of thousands of houses is the root of both the problems and the solutions.

6. Each infrastructure project in the plan needs to be considered individually on its own specific merits. - Planning and building forty years worth of infrastructure as one all-inclusive package is a terrible way to proceed. Conditions will constantly change, as they already have, with the denial of federal funds for the expensive complex new expressway ramps. Making the new street grid dependent on these new ramps is a blueprint for a house of cards. Traffic capacity is fixed anyway. The site's internal grid can only hold so much traffic, travel demand between Washington and New York won't be decreasing, and Interstate 95 won't be getting any wider.

7. Infrastructure construction must be linked directly to development. - Simply build the streets, buildings and related facilities for a specific location at the same time as each other, so they can be coordinated with each other. In the previous Port Covington plan, a huge parking lot was built for future retail beyond the Sam's Club which never happened, along with a ridiculous curved entryway to line it up with the Sun printing plant. In Harbor East, new streets, promenades and utilities were built and then soon ripped out because they could not accommodate the Marriott Hotel, Legg Mason Tower and other new buildings. In Harbor Point, the spending plan has already changed drastically due to cost overruns that have turned the TIF bond revenue into a massive slush fund. And the potential for such abuses would be far higher with the current Port Covington plan.

8. Keep the bells and whistles separate. - The Harbor Point developer argued about how crucial it was to spend a huge amount of money on the new waterfront parks and promenades to support the project. But now under the reality of construction, all that is being cut back because the buildings must take priority. Surprise - some of Harbor Point's gold plated bells and whistles weren't such a high priority after all. Moreover, parks and associated amenities are a matter of taste and need to be tailored to the preferences of real users. In the Inner Harbor, tastemakers have now decided that the expensive McKeldin Fountain wasn't such a good thing after all, and they want to rip it out at still more great expense. Amenities should be have their own debates and proceed at their own pace.

9. Strongly emphasize transit-oriented development. - The only way to accommodate the proposed development density is by orienting it as strongly as possible to regional transit. The stations on the proposed central light rail spur must be the locations for as much of the total development as possible. This should also be done as soon as possible to cultivate a "transit culture". But what usually happens in the early phases of these developments is that a lot of cheap surface parking is created which prevents this. That's already happened in Port Covington. The proposed separate streetcar loop is also a danger sign. To a significant extent, it would replace walking trips rather than car trips. A far better tool for organizing the trips would be to locate the light rail stations in as close proximity to as much of the development as possible. The current plan shows the light rail spur pushed up against the north edge of the site near the Interstate 95 catacombs. That's bad. The light rail line should be central to serving the entire site and all the development.

10. Enough with the hype! - Those slick bird's eye renderings of the development serve no use except hype value. The renderings prevent any specific element of the plan from being seen clearly, completely and without distortion. OK, we get it. We'll build it together. That means wisely investing OUR tax money. The current Port Covington debate insults our intelligence.

So figure out exactly what's Phase One. Then issue its TIF bonds and nothing more. It's that simple.

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