June 28, 2017

Rash Field plan is now a McKeldin Park-style tweak

Inner Harbor planning is becoming more like an exorcism and less like a plan.

It starts out with sweeping grandiose "game changing" ideas and ends up as just a campaign to bury various problems and annoyances under a bunch of landscaping and hardscaping. So now planning for Rash Field is lurching to the next phase, just as the grand opening took place for the new McKeldin Park.

Brand new McKeldin Park with the massive fountain demolished and gone - desolate on a beautiful
low-humidity summer day. The Questar Tower is under construction in the background (to the south).

The weather was glorious this past weekend and the Inner Harbor was well populated with tourists and visitors, but the brand new hyped-up McKeldin Park attracted only a few curiosity-seekers. Why would anyone hang out in a glorified median strip surrounded by traffic snarls when they could instead join the happy throngs promenading around the waterfront?

In the new McKeldin Park behind the west shore, there's nothing to explore and no place to go. There used to be a huge interactive fountain that some people loved and some hated, but everyone was transfixed by. Now there's just some benches and landscaped dirt bunkers.

Here's the blog article that shows what McKeldin Park used to look like with its massive fountain, and what it could look like with pedestrian connections that work.

Then this past sunny Monday, they brought in a new attraction to enliven the deader than ever open space. They parked a huge tractor-trailer inside McKeldin Park to promote some new movie that opens in theaters this week. The truck was basically a mobile billboard with visitors invited to interrupt their harbor walk by coming into the rear of the trailer to see some kind of promotional blurb for the movie. This is what the Inner Harbor has come to.

On to Rash Field

Now as an encore, the city's usual planning consultants have taken their act to Rash Field on the Inner Harbor's south shore. Rash Field does have some basic advantages over McKeldin Park, but they're  attributable to geography, not planning intelligence. Rash Field is big, it's right on the water, and it sits in the formidable shadow of magnificent Federal Hill. But so far it has never amounted to much despite many attempts. At least their new plan doesn't include tractor trailers, but it does include smaller trucks (explained below).

Because it's location is so good, Rash Field has found a home with beach volleyball players. Some powers-that-be hated this, just as some hated McKeldin Fountain, but gradually the planners ran out of other workable ideas so the volleyball enthusiasts will survive for now. After all, it's just a sand pit.

The latest plan is presented at www.rashfield.org with lots of pretty pictures and buzzwords but practically no context as to how it would fit with the rest of the Inner Harbor or its surroundings.

This year old rendering has been revised slightly since, and shows more context than anything in the latest presentation.
But the context - Federal Hill to the top - is basically irrelevant.

Renderings of the new revised Rash Field plan basically follow the same old formula - show lots of aimless people to suggest that there's something new to attract them. Then show lots of meandering paths with lots of landscaping and trees. This is now called planning.

From special spatial to prosaic programmatic

As with McKeldin Fountain, this devolution happened essentially as the dollars dwindled and the plan went from being spatial in nature to being programmatic in nature. What "programmatic" means is just a laundry list of the stuff that is customarily found in parks - you know, sports, trees, etc. It's brought up to date in the 21st century with "extreme fitness" (entertainment for the rest of the fat slobs), a skate park (emulating what's already in the Hampden and Carroll Park neighborhoods) and the latest trend, food trucks.

Food trucks! As if all the permanent restaurants and food stands around the Inner Harbor are lacking in some way. As if driving a truck onto the scene is something unique for the "world-class" Inner Harbor! Unique, that is, unless the food truck driver decides to start his motor and move on to the next street.

What concept could possibly be less relevant to a permanent plan than food trucks? Well, maybe the answer is the adjacent Science Center's parking lot, which is canopied by solar panels which may have been "cutting edge" a few years ago, but now look like they belong to a 1950s drive-in burger joint. Now if they could just hire kids on roller skates to come out to the parking lot and take your food truck order, maybe they'd be onto something. At least for a week or two.

What's really pathetic is that the plans didn't start out anything like this. Instead, the basic, now ignored question was: How can the Inner Harbor plans fit in with the surrounding area?

The view from the top of Federal Hill toward the Inner Harbor's west promenade is interrupted by assorted multi-level doo-daddery. What's needed instead is a straight pedestrian connection from the west promenade to the foot of the hill. Rash Field is to the right. Science Center is to the left, in front of which is their solar paneled parking lot. The Questar Tower is under construction in the center background.

At McKeldin Fountain, the big spatial concept was to realign northbound Light Street traffic away from the Inner Harbor by widening the southbound roadway for two-way flow, so that the park could be physically merged with the rest of the Inner Harbor instead of being isolated in a median strip. The city promised a traffic study of this concept about a decade ago, but has kept the results (if any) under wraps since then. That would have certainly changed the space in a fundamental way, though not for the better. Somebody among the powers-that-be probably now realizes that.

The Inner Harbor does not need to become an even bigger land mass than it already is. McKeldin Park needs to have its own identity, and now without the fountain, any semblance of a unique identity has been lost to greenery and shrubs.

At Rash Field, the big concept was to build a huge pedestrian drawbridge over the Inner Harbor to Pier Six near Harbor East, fundamentally changing the spatial nature of the entire Inner Harbor from being a Chesapeake Bay inlet to being like an enclosed lake. It would also have completed the recentralization of the entire city to focus on Harbor East (and secondarily Federal Hill) instead of the traditional downtown. Downtown would essentially no longer be downtown. Talk about radical!

But somehow, the planners have now gone from that seismic spatial shift to a skate park and food trucks. That may seem odd until you realize that it's totally consistent with bringing in tractor trailer movie promotion trucks.

The next step will be for planners to argue that their previous grandiose plans for the McKeldin Park and Rash Field areas are still on the table and that what they've done recently is merely Phase One. The problem with that is that nothing in their phase ones helps at all in preparing for their ultimate future. Just think back to what planners of the initial Inner Harbor were doing in the 1970s and 1980s. Did they think of any of their work as being phase one for what's happening now? Of course not.

In any event, go ahead and enjoy the volleyball.

What's needed: Real spatial plans

First and foremost, the new Rash Field plan simply needs to connect to the area's surrounding landmarks. Why is that so difficult? The planners seem to treat the surroundings as some kind of distraction. They go out of their way to avoid them. Federal Hill is just this "thing" that hovers in the background. The adjacent highly praised Visionary Arts Museum at the foot of the hill is obliterated completely.

The planners know how to do it, as shown in the previous discarded plan - the plan that was sidetracked by the domination of that giant pedestrian bridge.

The first rule is that "edges" are crucial to site planning. It's how people see things - the curb appeal - and it's how they get in and out and how activity is generated. The latest Rash Field site plans completely ignore the edges.   

Previous grandiose Rash Field plan with drawbridge to Harbor East. The highest priority should be the diagonal promenade from the west shore (bottom) directly to the foot of Federal Hill (right center) but has been removed from the latest plans.

Here are the two essential elements to create the edges that the planners need to get back to:

1. Establish the diagonal spine between the west shore promenade and Federal Hill - The wide straight west shore promenade is the pedestrian "main street" for the entire Inner Harbor. When pedestrians get to its south end near the Science Center, they must think, "Where do I go now?" For the past 40 years, the south shore promenade has not been a strong enough choice, and nothing in the latest Rash Field plans changes that.

The obvious solution is to extend the short diagonal that already exists at the south corner of the west promenade toward Federal Hill. The hill itself can and should be a huge beacon to beckon pedestrians. It doesn't even matter whether or not they get there, but they must be encouraged as much as possible. Federal Hill is a great unique place that exudes real Baltimore far more than any skate park or other sports facility. It must be exploited.

This diagonal promenade is shown in the previous plans (see above), but was removed because it was a short-term annoyance for the planners. Put it back and make it as strong as possible!

2. Put a truly special and attractive landmark at the east end of the south promenade - Right now, there's the Rusty Scupper Restaurant (suggested new slogan: it's better than a food truck) and a squat ugly parking garage. The parking garage, which is slated for demolition, should be replaced by an extension of Covington Street to the waterfront promenade from the Visionary Art Museum at Key Highway in order to create an active "edge". Something really special must then be installed at this waterfront promontory - something that at least attempts the grandeur of the pedestrian bridge - to serve as a beacon for those pedestrians.

Instead, planners think this spine is so unimportant that it is where they just chop off their graphics. Sorry, we're not falling for that old trick! Edges are the most important part of the plan! Certainly the planners can do better - perhaps adapting the reconfigured memorial to the deceased "Pride of Baltimore" crew for this very special waterfront location.

Recommended Rash Field Pedestrian Connections - Shown in Yellow -
Keep it simple, with a direct diagonal from the popular West Promenade to Federal Hill
and a direct link from the Rusty Scupper Restaurant to the Visionary Art Museum.
Rash Field is already a very special geographic location, so those two elements should be enough to attract the throngs to whatever activities take place there, be it volleyball, skateboarding or even... food trucks!

In the Inner Harbor Visitors Center a while back, I overheard a mother asking what was there to do for free with kids. The helpful dedicated volunteer's answer hit the bullseye: Visit the playground at the top of Federal Hill.

As playgrounds go, its nothing out of the ordinary, unlike the new artsy/educational kids' park on Pier 6. But it allows kids to get wrapped up in their own world while the adults revel in the extraordinary park that's part of a real neighborhood at the apex of the city. In contrast, the Pier 6 park is just something to pass through amid the parking lots and buildings. But in Federal Hill Park, you feel like you've really arrived.

The Visitors Center volunteer understood how the Inner Harbor relates to the Real Baltimore better than the planners do. Just as McKeldin Park must be a gateway between the Inner Harbor and Downtown, Rash Field must be a gateway between the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill.

June 12, 2017

Skeptical of BaltimoreLink? Sarcastically shocking!

It's just so darn easy to be skeptical about the comprehensive BaltimoreLink makeover of the MTA bus system that will be put in place less than a week from now. It's so easy that the prevailing feeling has been to simply and quietly sit back and brace ourselves for the harmonic convergence of slow-motion bus and train wrecks.

It's almost a zen feeling. Even the MTA is in on it. It's no "comfort" that they just ejected their Administrator, Paul Comfort, who was the alleged orchestrator of the whole thing, as if to say that BaltimoreLink now has a mind of its own. Fly away little birdie!

New West Baltimore MARC Station bus hub at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere" looking east -
one of the underrated keys to BaltimoreLink 

Yeah, in addition to $135 million to make-over the bus system, Paul Comfort spent an unauthorized $65,000 to make-over his downtown office. But it's the coincident timing and hush-hush nature of his dismissal that is most conspicuous. They won't even call it a firing. Things just don't shake down like that here in anti-Trump Maryland.

And the MTA's transit union doesn't like BaltimoreLink either. As if the bus drivers can get any more surly than they already are. The drivers mostly want to pick their bus routes to avoid getting riders who are even more surly than they are.

The most organized advocacy organization, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, with bigtime business backing, did a massive number crunching exercise to show that the BaltimoreLink plan was misguided, but CMTA's solution was basically just (surprise!) to spend more money!

And yes, a few specific criticisms have emerged in the mainstream media that service is being cut or eliminated here or there. The Sun keeps citing (including today) the elimination of service to Green Spring Station, a small commercial hub in the affluent semi-rural Falls Road corridor north of the Beltway. The real problem with such locations is that employers want to be near the sylvan countryside but still want their low income workers from the inner city to somehow be able to get out there, ignoring the basic need for jobs to be located near the city workers.

BaltimoreLink: A beginning

All this quibbling aside, the best thing about BaltimoreLink is that there is FINALLY a serious effort to organize the bus system in a rational comprehensive way instead of just following the fate of its historic evolution.

There have been many previous attempts to do this. The most recent was the Baltimore Network Improvement Program (or BNIP) which was launched amid great fanfare a few years ago with a massive data collection effort, then slipped into a mysterious veil of secrecy and finally was simply killed right before the last gubernatorial election.

So BNIP was a monumental disastrous failure. So compared to that, BaltimoreLink is already a big success.

The basic nature of bus routes is that they are constantly tweaked instead of comprehensively crafted. Yes, all that tweaking can and often does result in a chaotic disorganized mess, but since such is the nature of bus routes, we might as well make the most of it. In other words: Do the best we can, and then fix the resultant problems. But at least start somewhere.

But BNIP didn't even get to that square one. The MTA can't fix anything if they don't even try.

Specifically, fixes tend to be limited and isolated, so to complement that, BaltimoreLink needs to start out comprehensive and encompass the big picture. And that it does.

There are two primary aspects of looking at the big picture of a transit system: It should be hierarchical. And it should be connected.

BaltimoreLink satisfies the need for hierarchy by being built upon its twelve principal high-frequency CityLink bus lines which the rest of the system feeds into. It's virtually impossible to conceive comprehensively of every bus route in the entire transit system, so the twelve CityLink lines provide an overarching structure. Just like how its impossible to think about every word in the dictionary, so our twenty-six letter alphabet gives us a structure to organize all of them.

In turn, a strong route hierarchy will increase the dependency on transfers between routes, so it becomes even more important that the system be connected.

West Baltimore Transit Hub looking west toward Amtrak/MARC tracks - MTA rendering 

Transit hubs that work

Transfers have been the next greatest topic of criticism of BaltimoreLink. Transfers take riders out of their comfort zone and plop them at bus stops in the middle of their trips. So they really need to work. The system needs strong transit hubs. BaltimoreLink provides a needed step in this direction, but again, it's only a beginning.

The key to making transit hubs work is to make sure that the services you transfer from and transfer to are better than the service would be without the transfer. The most time-honored way to do that is a bus-rail transfer rather than a bus-bus transfer. That works well at the Mondawmin Metro Station and fairly well at the Patapsco Avenue light rail station, but not at most other transfer places in the Baltimore region.

The Metro is fast and reliable. The south portion of the light rail line that serves Patapsco Avenue is also fairly fast. Both lines have high capacity. The transfer allows the bus lines that feed them to be shorter and thus more reliable and better optimized for their communities than they would be otherwise.

The longer a bus route is, the less reliable and more confusing it will be. The less frequent the service is, the more crucial it is that the route must be reliable.

BaltimoreLink does strive to increase the dependence on bus-rail transfers, most notably at the Hopkins Hospital Metro station. However, it remains to be seen how successfully these transfers can be achieved. At Hopkins, the bus lines will be dispersed onto Broadway, Fayette, Monument and Madison Streets in a fairly messy and potentially confusing arrangement with no off-street facilities. However, things were so badly dispersed before that it is bound to be an improvement. But this is simply not a good location for a major terminal Metro rail station.

A bolder effort is taking place with the new bus-to-bus transfer hub at the West Baltimore MARC station at the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere". While some riders will transfer to the MARC commuter rail line toward Washington, DC, which may achieve an increasingly local orientation in the future with more stations and transit oriented development, its near-term success will depend almost completely on bus-to-bus transfers.

This hub will have a new high capacity off-street bus loop which is still in the final stages of construction. The loop will accommodate four of the twelve principal color-coded CityLink bus routes. The potential is there for this hub facility to be a major foundation for the enhanced accessibility of all of West Baltimore.

In particular, the Blue CityLink bus line will utilize the high speed "Highway to Nowhere", which will allow it get downtown in a matter of just several minutes. This is essentially the current #40 express Quick Bus line, but the new bus hub will make it accessible to a greater number of riders.   

But it will still be seen as merely a bus line, using transfers from other bus lines. There will be no getting around that if service is mediocre. There will be no aura of the perceived superiority of rail transit.

Comparison with the defunct Red Line

Interestingly, the defunct light rail Red Line was given its own bus system reorganization plan prior to the failed BNIP plan. The plan called for a light rail station at the West Baltimore MARC Station, but with very little bus transfer activity. Nothing in the subsequent BNIP study ever changed that.

Instead, the largest bus transfer point along the entire 14 mile Red Line was planned to be the next station to the west, at the Edmondson/Poplar Grove intersection in Rosemont. However, no off-street loop or other bus facilities were planned for this station location at all, making for a clearly inferior transfer experience.

The new West Baltimore MARC Station bus hub will have better transfers and will be a faster ride (at least to the west edge of downtown) than was previously planned for the Red Line. The proposed new Amtrak tunnel plan through West Baltimore will also include a completely new MARC Station which will accommodate a far better exclusive rail and/or bus right of way.

The one aspect of the Red Line which is clearly superior to buses, however, is the potential for transit oriented development, which is sorely needed in the Franklin-Mulberry "Highway to Nowhere" corridor.

It should also be noted that on the east side of the city, the bus system reorganization plan for the Red Line also included different bus hub locations as well. The two major transfer locations were to have been at the Highlandtown Station, where bus transfers would have occurred on-street near the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Haven Street, and at the Brewers Hill Station, where an off-street hub would have been provided on the north side. But since the station itself was to be located in the  Boston Street median strip, transferring patrons would have still had to cross this busy street.

In contrast, BaltimoreLink's major east side transfer points will be at the Hopkins Bayview Research Park, and at the previously discussed Hopkins Metro Station. These are superior bus transfer locations in most respects to what was planned for the Red Line. They also delineate what could become an extension of the Metro between these two major health campuses.

It all depends on how the rubber hits the road

When it comes to the MTA, skepticism is a justifiably healthy feeling. We're all just waiting to see what happens. The best that can be said about BaltimoreLink is that it is a stronger and clearer foundation for making further changes to the transit system than the series of historical evolutions which preceded it. This will be the start of a new evolutionary chain. When a problem happens, fix it.

June 2, 2017

Port Covington in ten years: Stubbornly suburban

Driving down Cromwell Street toward the new Sagamore Spirit whiskey distillery in Port Covington, it's obvious and not at all difficult to imagine what Baltimore's biggest-ever development plan will look like in ten years. Just take a mental picture of the distillery site with the periphery cropped out and replaced with what's in the mind's eye.

This view neutralizes any justification to change Cromwell Street in any significant way. The new two building waterfront distillery complex on one of Port Covington's most valuable real estate parcels has set the tone for what will follow. And what one sees in these attractive rustic buildings surrounded by patios and parking lots is basically... suburbia.

Suburbia at Port Covington has now become inevitable. That's why what Port Covington needs now is not its 20 or 40 year blue-sky plan used to acquire $660 Million in TIF bonds from the city, but a solid short-to-medium term ten year plan.

Sagamore Spirit Distillery from Cromwell Street - What you see is what you get, now and for many years

Yes, we are now faced with the real Port Covington - an outcome of real economic forces and not just aerial artist conceptions of what it's supposed to look like in forty years. The view of the distillery down Cromwell Street is what Port Covington looks like now and will continue to look like for quite a long time. It's nice, but that's all it is. Port Covington is a major, major development plan which could have a major impact on the city as a whole, but for the indefinite future, it's just suburbia within the city.

What Lucy Van Pelt really wants: Real Estate

It's all rooted in basic proven real estate economics, not those fanciful future architect's renderings. As when most large new development venture get started, land is the commodity in greatest supply and the best bargaining chip to get things going.

That's how Lucy summed up what she really wanted in the classic Peanuts Christmas Special. She wanted real estate. (Pulling the football away from woebegone Charlie Brown was just an attention grabber.)

That's why, when The Baltimore Sun became Port Covington's first occupant back in the late 1980s, they negotiated to get plenty of what the city and previous landowner CSX had to give in greatest abundance: Real estate. The Sun printing press was put on a site that was about five times larger than what they needed at the time, and infinitely larger than what they need today.

It was even unabashedly touted as suburban, with the catchphrase: "Hunt Valley by the Sea", evoking the office park and shopping mall in north suburbia beyond Towson and Timonium.

Then when the Sun complex didn't ignite a development frenzy, the city's next deal was to give Wal-Mart and Sam's Club another huge piece of raw acreage, ignoring that it's highest potential geographic value was in its adjacent waterfront. It was more Hunt Valley, less sea.

The Inner Harbor even got started this way back in the 1970s. Its first building, the Maryland Science Center, turned its back on the famous waterfront with a blank wall, just like Wal-Mart, and was only re-oriented later when it expanded. Then came psuedo-suburban Harborplace, which was very controversial at the time for being an intrusion on urban open space. This is back when the Howard Street downtown retail district was still hanging on and had grandiose plans of its own. Many people envisioned the Inner Harbor as being an oasis away from downtown, not part of it.

Despite its hyped-up success, the Inner Harbor has been trying to recover from this ever since. Right now, the whole swath from Harborplace and the McKeldin Fountain to Rash Field is being gutted and demolished to get it right this time, as if it was some forlorn part of town.

Even Harbor East, the city's most successful urban development since the Great Depression (yes, even including the vaunted Inner Harbor) got started this way. Through the 1970s, it was envisioned as just a future Interstate highway corridor. When that was replaced by a development plan in the 1980s, it called for an "urban village" of modest density. The adjacent land now known as Harbor Point was then designated to be open parkland.

Victor's Cafe: Harbor East's first building, now gone, as seen from the water.
Only one building got built in conformance with the original Harbor East plan, Victor's Cafe, on its most valuable corner waterfront site. It was a very modest little building with vending machines and electric meters plopped just outside the front door, more like one would expect around Back River Neck Road near Middle River. Victor's Cafe was knocked down in the early 2000s to make way for the Legg Mason and Four Seasons towers.

In sum, all these developments started out with the value of the raw land being far greater than the buildings that got put on it. Other examples can be found in the relatively low density waterfront rowhouses with grass yards and parking pads built along Fell Street in Fells Point and Boston Street in Canton in the 1980s, and in the Key Highway corridor near Federal Hill where the Harborview project was originally supposed to have six high rise buildings but so far has still only gotten one. Most of the higher density development came later after property values increased, or in the case of Harborview, never came at all.

How Kevin Plank has really set the tone in Port Covington

The key to understanding Port Covington is not to think of Kevin Plank as some kind of development savior who will perform miracles to rescue the area from 30 years of malaise and failure. Simply think of what he's doing as the next step in the historical pattern.

What he's done so far fits that pattern. He recently built a nice but modest whiskey distillery on arguably the best piece of waterfront land, his version of Victor's Cafe in Inner Harbor East. He also took the nearby Sam's Club "big box" and re-oriented it to the water, just as the Science Center did.

Eventually Plank plans to knock down the giant Sun printing press and build something there too. The northern part of that huge parcel next to Interstate 95 (the least desirable part that's farthest from the water) is where seven high rise towers are supposed to go, but don't hold your breath. He's got The Sun paying rent every month (or beholden in some other way), so he'll just let that keep happening as long as necessary until development pressure builds. And there's so much land around it that the pressure will be near zero for a long time. Land supply is far higher than at any of the precedents, so it will continue to dwarf demand.

Current Port Covington plan bird's eye view. Highest density has been pushed away
from the existing Cromwell Street corridor in the middle, and toward the seven high rises next to Interstate 95
in the background and in the Under Armour campus in the foreground.

And just what has Kevin Plank done to induce that development demand to increase? Other than supply the hype, not much. Just look again at that distillery from Cromwell Street. Then look at the Sam's Club reoriented for Under Armour, which from a distance, doesn't look much different than when it was a "big box" retail store. And a distant view is the only view most folks will get, as long as that ominous security fence is in the way. Again, this just follows the pattern.

Those seven proposed high rise buildings next to I-95 look an awful lot like the six high rise buildings that were supposed to get built at Harborview on Key Highway, except those were right along the water within easy walking distance of Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor, in an area of relative land scarcity and high value.

The TIF Dimension: "Dawning of the Age of Aquarius?"

The biggest need in all this is to avoid getting intoxicated by Port Covington's $660 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) slush fund, which is mortgaged against the city's future property tax revenue. This money must be spent wisely on projects that clearly lead to new development that are capable of paying it back.

The city's track record on this kind of funding is poor. The city built a Hilton Hotel in Camden Yards with TIF funds, and it has been a perennial money loser ever since. Harbor Point is being largely subsidized with TIF funds even though it's anchor project, the Exelon Tower, was legally obliged to locate in the City of Baltimore even without subsidies.

Harbor East also failed on this count, although its saving grace was that TIF funding was never used. But a large portion of its infrastructure in streets, promenades and utilities had to be ripped up and rebuilt soon after it was completed in order to accommodate revisions to the original "urban village" plan.

And the entire southeast waterfront of Harbor East, Harbor Point, Fells Point and Canton as we know it was never supposed to be developed at all. Until the 1980s, alleged visionary Mayor Schaefer didn't want any of it. He wanted it to be an Interstate Highway corridor. But plans do change.

A saving grace for Port Covington is that the Under Armour corporate headquarters campus which is planned to occupy the vast majority of the waterfront land south of Cromwell Street is not part of the TIF district, and so is protected from that particular financial "house of cards".

The Under Armour campus is also considered the major "catalyst" for the rest of the development, but this is a dubious assumption. Land glutted suburban-style development just doesn't work that way. Suburbia begets more suburbia. Under Armour will be governed far more by its own financial performance against its corporate competitors like Nike and Adidas.

Lessons to be learned: A short-term Port Covington plan

The entire Port Covington planning process has been an attempt to induce top-down proactive development by sheer force of will. It has been a fight against the forces of "organic development" that occurs at its own pace in response to the overall forces of economics.

But Port Covington can't be developed that way. The overall real estate market will have the final say and must be respected. Land parcels will be developed one at a time. All the resources at the disposal of both sides, buyers and seller, will be negotiable. And the resource in greatest abundance is land. The market will proceed at its own pace and the market will prevail.

What Port Covington needs is a short-term plan that recognizes and respects the realities. Here are the major points:

1 - Cromwell Street should be maintained as-is, a four to six lane boulevard, as the major spine of Port Covington. Such wide boulevards can be made into attractive people places in spite of heavy traffic which is inevitable as a sign of growth and vitality. It has already been tweaked with landscaping, bike lanes and on-street parking, and more can be done. It's adjacent suburban trappings are a bigger question than the street itself.

2 - For the foreseeable future, all new development in Port Covington east of Hanover Street will use Cromwell Street. Period. Make the most of it.

3 - The configuration of the east end of Cromwell Street, on the other hand, will likely need major improvement within this time frame, from where it intersects McComas Street proceeding eastward to Key Highway and accessing I-95. But new I-95 ramps are not in the offing and would be of dubious usefulness anyway.

4 - A serious rail transit plan must also be developed right now, so it can be integrated with a solid transit-oriented development plan which is crucial to the ultimate success of any major urban development. Right of way must be reserved. It cannot be an afterthought, as it has been with the abysmal failure rate of transit-oriented development in the rest of Baltimore.

5 - The rail transit plan cannot be relegated to the northernmost part of Port Covington along the McComas Street catacombs underneath Interstate 95, as is the current intention. Rail transit also cannot be made dependent upon those seven high rise buildings which are proposed to flank Interstate 95. That plan is simply not real enough.

6 - Another unavoidable point is that lower income people are the backbone of any urban transit system, not the prospective affluent market for those seven high rises (with or without a lucky few poor residents winning the "inclusionary zoning" lottery.) That's a strong reason for extending the proposed light rail spur southward to Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

7 - The proposed separate disjointed "closed circuit" streetcar line plan is also not real enough, and needs to be scrapped. Like the distillery, too much of Port Covington will be of insufficient density for it to have any reasonable chance of success (cue Procol Harum's "Whiskey Train"). The rail transit system must be as integrated and connected as possible, which has been a huge problem in the rest of the city.

8 - Renovating the abandoned railroad bridge across the Middle Branch to link Port Covington to Westport and West Baltimore should be a priority, whether for people, light rail vehicles or likely both.

9 - The existing central light rail line should be made Port Covington-ready. That means building a new North Westport Station on the existing light rail line to serve future new Westport waterfront development as well as the rail spur to Port Covington. It would also be a transfer station for Port Covington rail riders to connect to the south, most notably to the airport.

So where is the best place in Kevin Plank's Port Covington real estate empire to put transit-oriented development? The best place might not be in Port Covington at all. It's more likely in his fallow landholding on the Westport waterfront just across the Middle Branch, where the central light rail line already goes and where the local working-class neighborhood already supports it.

Earlier highly urbanized conception by Design Collective for Port Covington. It's not going to look like this, ever.

The continuing intensification of real estate pressures toward higher density development is currently focused away from Port Covington - to Locust Point and the rest of the South Baltimore peninsula including Federal Hill and Sharp-Leadenhall, as well as southeast waterfront areas from Harbor East and Harbor Point to Canton Crossing and Brewer's Hill. Port Covington must compete with all this.

The Westport waterfront should become an active part of the Port Covington real estate sales portfolio. With the right planning and marketing, it may become the most attractive site for early urban development before much of the Port Covington "suburbia" dwarfs and the seven I-95 high rise giants on the Baltimore Sun site.

Kevin Plank has built a waterfront whiskey distillery and renovated the abandoned Sam's Club, while the rest of Port Covington waits. Cromwell Street sets the tone.