September 23, 2016

The next Port Covington could be Patapsco Hill

Now that the Port Covington deal seems to be done, the post-game analysis has begun. The word most often used to describe the massive Under Armour/Sagamore development is "unprecedented". It clearly breaks the previous rules.

Most Baltimoreans want to know how the deal will affect the city's overall fiscal health and economic climate, while some are more concerned with specific job and housing opportunities for low income residents.

But to Corporate America, the question will be: Where can we find another deal like that?

While Port Covington is unique, there is another very large site nearby with the same critical geographic attributes, being in Baltimore but not of Baltimore. It's an isolated site of roughly 50 acres that could be called "Patapsco Hill".

Patapsco Hill development as it could be seen looking west from the Patapsco Avenue bridge over the Patapsco River.
 The tallest tower at left is shown at a height of about 400 feet - just because Google Earth can do it.

Patapsco Hill

The Patapsco Hill site is roughly bounded by Patapsco Avenue to the north, the Patapsco River to the east, Southwest Park in Baltimore County to the south and the Central Light Rail Line to the west.

The city of Baltimore is often said to be "on" the Patapsco River, but really only a very small portion is - mainly Reedbird Park between Cherry Hill and Brooklyn. The Inner Harbor, Middle Branch, Northwest Branch and Outer Harbor are actually an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay.

Patapsco Hill is the only large developable land mass in the city that can accurately be described as being on the Patapsco River.

The site is currently being used as a truck and junk storage yard and was formerly a landfill, which accounts for its lofty ridge above the riverfront parkland to the south. In this age of "brownfields" remediation and "smart growth", and with the Patapsco Avenue light rail station located conveniently along its border, this site of about 50 acres is crying out for a better and more environmentally responsible use.

The river has most recently been known for the tragic and destructive flooding upstream in historic Ellicott City. Cleaning up Patapsco Hill for efficient high density development would be a great alternative to more flood-inducing suburban sprawl near the sources of the river watershed.

Patapsco Hill is as similar to Port Covington as is likely to be possible. It has a waterfront with boat access along the wide and wild portion of the Patapsco River, so it's kayak-ready. The 230 acre Southwest Park right at its doorstep can also provide many other recreation opportunities, yet is vast enough to swallow up a large population of users while retaining its rustic character.

With the adjacent light rail station already in place, there is easy access to downtown and even easier access to BWI-Marshall Airport. It's also close to the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (Interstate 895), although like Port Covington, a developer would probably ask for new and improved ramps. The adjacent portion of six-lane Patapsco Avenue is also extremely underutilized.

Patapsco Hill location - about two miles south of Port Covington.

All the same hype as Port Covington about attracting the "millennial" generation could apply to Patapsco Hill, although they'd perhaps be a bit more suburban-oriented millennials. But even Port Covington's design combines urban and suburban trappings. We want it all: urban, suburban and back-to-nature.

The Patapsco Hill site is also extremely isolated, as demonstrated by the fact that no one ever seems to talk about it. While it is near the city neighborhoods of Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, the Baltimore County neighborhood of Baltimore Highlands and Anne Arundel County's Brooklyn Park, it has no access from any of them, being cut off by two railroad lines (one freight, one light rail) and the Patapsco River.

Patapsco Hill looking eastward along Patapsco Avenue, with its light rail station in the foreground.
 The Cherry Hill community is seen to the left behind the CSX freight railroad tracks.
 Brooklyn and Brooklyn Park communities are in the top background beyond the Patapsco River and I-895.

Twice in a Lifetime Opportunity?

The fact that another site exists with such similar attributes to Port Covington also demonstrates that the city should not bargain from the presumption of scarcity. Baltimore is a very large city with lots of opportunities all around. The only scarcity is that each of us has only "one life to live" - to evoke a defunct soap opera. That's fitting, because the dealmaking in this city often resembles a soap opera with a new episode every day. There will be a new "search for tomorrow" and if the city is not prepared, all we can say is "now what?"

As such, the Port Covington deal has not prepared Baltimore for the next one. The project evidently exhausts the city's borrowing limit for Tax Increment Financing. There is no funding source for the new expressway ramps. The city still has a school aid shortfall. The next developer will still face the same angry crowds demanding more community benefit funds. And the real negotiation took place in secret, so we don't really know how it proceeded and what the city actually agreed to. One of the few things we can infer is that the vaunted "but for" rule has been thrown on the scrapheap of history.

The word "unprecedented" is fitting because with no guidelines, the next deal will be unprecedented too.

This distant northward view of Patapsco Hill from the Patapsco River shows the vastness
of  the adjacent 230 acre Southwest Park, and the relationship to the downtown skyline,
 barely seen on the distant horizon. To the right is the split of the Harbor Tunnel Thruway
 into two legs, toward I-97 to Annapolis and I-95 to Washington, DC.

What the City needs even more than exciting new development opportunities is an economic climate which is conducive to such plans. Developers need to know what they will be facing, especially out-of-town developers who have no local political expertise but have access to a whole world of capital funding. Each new plan should demonstrate what is possible and thus pave the way for the next one.

The Patapsco Hill site is partially in Baltimore County and abuts Anne Arundel County, so it also calls for an even broader political consensus. The city should not act like we follow only our own rules without regard for the rest of the state or the increasingly global economic arena.

Or even worse, making up new rules as the game is played.

Patapsco Hill as seen looking northward from the Baltimore Highlands Light Rail Station through Southwest Park.

September 12, 2016

Big Port Covington needs an even bigger light rail line

For big Port Covington to achieve its over-the-top development ambitions, it's becoming increasingly clear that it will need more than just its own little light rail spur. What is needed is a whole new light rail line that links the rest of the city to the entire three miles of underdeveloped waterfront between Westport, Port Covington, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

Proposed 3-mile light rail spur, beginning at a new North Westport station along the existing Central Light Rail line,
 with two stations each for Port Covington, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

Both proponents and skeptics insist that the Port Covington project must elevate the entire city, even while admitting that it's isolated from the city and cannot solve the city's economic problems all by itself.

Attention has focused on human development - job training, education, et al - but physical development is what Port Covington is. It must physically fit in to the city even while it necessarily stands out, far more than even Harbor Point. For this, improved transit is the only answer.

Two early danger signals from the "all in" strategy

The city is now in an extremely odd position. It is fully in bed as a partner with the developer. Port Covington is now "too big to fail".

Splitting the project into manageable increments would be the ideal solution, but that doesn't suit the agendas of either side. Smaller developments would create smaller issues and problems. Instead, the ante has been raised to a dizzying level.

From the physical development standpoint (which has gotten scant attention), two major danger signs have already emerged from this "all in" strategy: (1) Federal rejection of funding for the new Interstate 95 ramps; and (2) Developer Kevin Plank's decision to leave his Westport waterfront land outside his multi-decade Port Covington program.

The new I-95 ramps were probably unworkable anyway, and they couldn't increase overall network capacity. Transit is the only way to do that.

Leaving Westport would out is also understandable from a business standpoint, since Port Covington is so huge already and they don't need the competition. But the Westport community has already suffered from many years of speculation and disinvestment due to previous failures. Some people say Westport must wait its turn, but that only feeds the fear that Port Covington will thrive while poor areas of the city rot.

Will Westport continue being the forlorn town across the river, like East St. Louis or Camden, New Jersey? Westport already has a nearby casino like East St. Louis, and Camden is being considered for one.

The proposed Port Covington light rail spur plan doesn't even include a Westport station. It would just whiz by.

Transit linking into the entire city

The proposed light rail spur must promote development goals for the entire city, not just Port Covington. Not only would the current plan bypass Westport, it also would not traverse Under Armour's corporate campus at the south end of Port Covington. Instead it would be pushed up against I-95 at the north edge of the site.

Instead, Port Covington's light rail stations should be major development nodes that are built around transit and walkable to the entire site.

The developer's solution is to serve the majority of the site with a "rail circulator" that requires a separate transfer from the light rail line. There has been no case made thus far for this concept and it is almost certainly unworkable and pointless - just one of the toys in the plan.

The plan also includes water taxis and buses, which are nice for some local trips, but not a serious infrastructure plan for a site that must accommodate many thousands of trips per day.

Port Covington needs to be walkable. The light rail stations should be hubs for walking to all the destinations throughout Port Covington, not dependant on transfers to another expensive circulator, especially a rail circulator which has no flexibility to change as needs and conditions change.

Large transit-oriented waterfront redevelopment areas in working-class Cherry Hill and Brooklyn,
 showing four proposed light rail stations

There are three more possible major waterfront development sites within a very short distance of Port Covington that can greatly benefit from the same kind of transit-oriented development - Westport, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, The light rail line should serve all of them.

A Westport to Cherry Hill to Brooklyn Light Rail Line

A better solution is thus to build a much larger light rail spur that connects all the potential waterfront redevelopment areas in a three-mile corridor from Westport to Port Covington to Cherry Hill to Brooklyn. This line can be implemented in clear and do-able steps:

1 - Build a "North Westport" station now - along the current Central Light Rail Line, near or just south of where the line goes underneath I-95. This will be a link to a first phase for the Westport waterfront redevelopment, a connection to the casino area (including the abominable new Greyhound Bus Station) and a future transfer station for light rail trips to and from BWI Marshall Airport.

2 - Include light rail in the upcoming Hanover Street Bridge study. Incorporating light rail in the major Hanover Street Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge rebuilding plan would be much more efficient than considering light rail from scratch. Three alternatives for light rail could be: (1) part of a whole new replacement bridge, (2) a great way to reuse the current historic bridge for "people" uses like fishing, bikes and pedestrians, with the heavy traffic shifted to a new parallel bridge, or (3) operation of light rail in mixed traffic lanes incorporated into a renovation of the current bridge.

3 - Have light rail go through the entire Port Covington site, not just the north end - Light rail must be designed to be the source of the vast majority of the new access capacity for the entire development.

Grossly overdesigned one-way northbound Hanover Street in Cherry Hill could be downsized to a local light rail street.
To the right (east) only Harbor Hospital and vast seas of  surface parking stand between here and the waterfront.
To the left, various low-grade suburban-style parcels ripe for redevelopment sit between here and the Cherry Hill community.

4 - Redesign Hanover Street in Cherry Hill as major new light rail and local development spine - Through traffic would be shifted to a two-way Potee Street, instead of Potee's current role as the one-way southbound couplet for Hanover, for which both streets are grossly overdesigned. This concept was actually considered in the early '90s as part of the transition of South Baltimore General Hospital to Harbor Hospital, but it was too ambitious for its time. Both Under Armour and the development revolution around Hopkins Hospital have demonstrated that the time is now right for a major new development plan to link the waterfront, Harbor Hospital and Cherry Hill to the rest of the city.

Middle Branch trail adjacent to Harbor Hospital (unseen to the left) - Port Covington can be seen across the water
 at the north end of the Hanover Street bridge, with the downtown skyline behind it.

5 - Extend the light rail line southward to Brooklyn - along Hanover Street, to do the same thing. The Brooklyn waterfront is now mostly occupied by the city's largest and most grossly overdesigned intersection at the convergence of Hanover, Potee and Frankfurst. It can be reconfigured and tightened up to create an active new community-accessible waterfront and redevelopment, extending eastward along Frankfurst Avenue on a site now occupied by a concrete plant to the Masonville Cove nature preserve.

The graffiti and crenelation laden Castle Restaurant on Potee Street in Brooklyn
 would be adjacent to the end of the light rail line.

6 - Terminate the line on Potee Street in Brooklyn - just north of Ritchie Highway near the city border. This is a vacant site that had been proposed for a courthouse which ran into environmental problems. It can better be developed as a transit hub to intercept bus and automobile trips destined for Port Covington, downtown and the other activity areas. North of here, the light rail line would probably be best suited for an elevated structure to send it over Patapsco Avenue, the Harbor Tunnel Thruway and the CSX railroad tracks.

"One Baltimore" or Two?

There has been a lot of talk lately about whether the Port Covington project will help lead us to "One Baltimore" instead of two separate unequal cities that divide the rich and poor. Clearly, Port Covington's geography reinforces this division. A larger light rail project which encompasses both rich isolated Port Covington and the "Other Baltimore" of Westport, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn is the best means of unifying this divisiveness.

But equally important is attracting new development across the entire income spectrum of this "Other Baltimore". This plan would be in a good position to do so because it would serve areas that are not already being developed, but are in a strong position for development by virtue of their proximity to the waterfront.

But development of these other areas needs to happen in concert with Port Covington. It should not just be a slow march of invading yuppies or millennials, such as was started in Federal Hill in the 1970s, before spreading southward to overtake Locust Point and now Port Covington, before then proceeding at a glacial pace over many decades into Westport, etc.

A healthy city attracts geographically broad-based redevelopment. If it merely is seen as an economic tug-of-war between rich developers and a poor city, either the developers will win due to their ability to exploit the city's desperation, or they'll go elsewhere and everyone will lose.

Unfortunately, that's mostly how it continues to be seen. Bishop Douglas Miles of BUILD, one of the leading advocacy groups for the poor in the recent negotiations, proclaimed: "To any developers out there, when you come to the table now, come with your checkbook ready" (Sun, Sept 9).

That sounds like an odd threat toward the people we're trying to lure to invest Baltimore, particularly when it refers to a developer who is poised to be awarded $660 Million in city TIF bond money up front, with the benefits to the city to come later, if at all.

The entire city needs developers and development, and every tool must be seen according to its ability to get it.