July 10, 2017

"Green Network" Part 1: Four priority areas for growth

The biggest pitfall faced by the "Green Network" plan now being developed by the city's Office of Sustainability is taking an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach. Instead, when looking at the vast network of nodes and corridors on their "Vision Plan" map (as updated May 18th), the question must be answered: What are the top priorities?

The plan needs to zero-in on those critical areas where the integration of open space and development can propel the city's economic growth. Four prime candidates are offered below.

The landlocked median of the "Highway to Nowhere" has a huge amount of unused green space.
Despite being difficult, unsafe and illegal, this area is here used by pedestrians where Fremont Avenue is interrupted.
The vacant Metro West Tower is shown to the east in the background beyond MLK Boulevard.
(Note: Some trees were planted here recently after this photo was taken.)

Instead, the plan is full of presumptions about what to do with areas of mostly local community significance. For instance, what is it about the triangle bounded by Gay and Chester Streets and Sinclair Lane that makes it a designated "Community Node", whereas its complementary triangle (bounded by Federal and Milton Streets, with Gay Street as their shared hypotenuse) is not? There are surely some reasons, but if a local group or developer came along and said they were ready to create some major green space on the leftover triangle to support local needs, the city would not say "no" just because it violates the "Green Network" plan. And conversely, an even bigger question is what is it about the chosen triangle that signals the city should pour resources there instead of other areas of the city? It's all about priority.

"Green Network" priority must be economic development

There are some very smart (and very patient) people who have gone to the meetings held by the city to "vet" its plans to give them legitimacy. The keys to the entire "Green Network Plan" are contained in the final three points of the June 15, 2016 Green Network meeting results (page 9), which hit the nail directly in the center of the bullseye:
  • Green space does not equal amenity unless it is thoughtfully designed and/or programmed and maintained.  Replacing blight with green space = more blight.  Need people to activate space.
  • How does the Green Network Plan relate to transportation infrastructure/new bus plan/bike path?  Is there opportunity to green part of "Highway to Nowhere" as connector and community asset? What does the community think?
  • Planning process need to be in two areas of the city. Please do not hit and miss. Let's complete one area at a time to see an improvement.
These three points all relate to one overarching theme: The need for economic (and thus human)  development. A plan is not an end in itself. It must be a tool which is used to make the city a better place to live and work.

That means more human activity. Simply tearing down buildings and replacing them with open space means less activity. Open space needs to be located where it will generate the most activity, because that's where the people are. People don't like to use desolate open space and tend to avoid it except for perceived nefarious activities. Cities like Detroit and Youngstown have used large swaths of open space as replacements for urban development simply because they felt they had no choice. Baltimore has choices.

So open space must be coordinated with new development. Open space must be used as a tool to attract new development. Of course, this is not news to anyone who has ever been involved in Baltimore's planning. Green space planning has been a key element in mega-projects like Port Covington, Harbor Point, and the new development north of Hopkins Hospital (Eager Park). And it certainly has gotten plenty of lip service for the Middle Branch "Gateway" corridor anchored by Horseshoe Casino (even though the city ultimately decided that a giant parking garage and a Greyhound bus terminal were better waterfront uses than green open space amenities).

The "Green Network" plan needs to answer the question of which large areas will the be the focus. A very astute meeting participant said, it should be "in two areas of the city". I've proposed four candidate areas below.

It can't be done with watered-down planning that spreads the amenities in a thin veneer throughout the entire city.

On the other hand, people have countered that no area should be so "privileged", and that resources need to be directed to the rest of the city and not just favored fat-cat developments like Port Covington. But this can be better done through incremental and grassroots initiatives to aid communities in improving their own streets and neighborhoods rather than a top-down comprehensive planning process being used in the "Green Network". Such efforts need to be nurtured as enhancements to what the city already has.

Since the "Green Network" is a comprehensive large-scope effort, it must focus on areas and projects that are big enough to be of city-wide significance.

Picking Priorities

The city's "Vision Plan" map certainly shows numerous candidates for large scale new open space development. So what should be the selection criteria? It only needs to follow current city policies: The priority areas should be selected by:

1- Where it can attract numerous people

2- Where existing geography, resources and "anchor institutions" can be leveraged

3- Where there are major economic development opportunities

So which candidate areas fill the bill? Our smart meeting participants cited the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor. Yes! This is a huge current wasteland that penetrates into the surrounding communities of Poppleton, Franklin Square, Heritage Crossing, Lafayette Square, Harlem Park and Sandtown. It is focused and anchored by over a million square feet of empty space in the Metro West complex, which was occupied until recently by the Social Security Administration. The topography of the current highway "ditch" also creates unique development, open space and greenway opportunities.

However, the City has apparently opposed any larger greenway type of development here. The City allowed the federal government to sell Metro West to a private developer, Caves Valley Partners,  without any coordination with such a plan. The City also insisted that the "Highway to Nowhere" be maintained throughout the failed decade-long Red Line light rail planning process, except for one block at the west end between Payson and Pulaski Streets. Ironically, the Red Line planning process also included land use scenarios that eliminated the highway overpasses over MLK Boulevard, which would have sacrificed the highway's ability to serve traffic, but without opening it up to surrounding areas. The "Highway to Nowhere" would still be there, but would become even more useless.

The city also planned a bike/jogging loop along the top rim of the west end of the "Highway to Nowhere", which would have related to nothing in the area (not even the Red Line, which also related to nothing in this area). Presumably, they finally realized how pointless this would be.

The only current hint of additional new development is a billboard sign by the developer which advertises a "pad site" on the Metro West property, which is real estate language for the type of free-standing development suitable for a Royal Farms or other gas-convenience-fast food style store.

City "green" planning for the Middle Branch Gateway

The large scale urban corridor where the city has done the most recent "Green Network" style planning is the Middle Branch and Horseshoe Casino "Gateway" area. But the city's experience is an excellent example of what not to do.

As previously mentioned, the Middle Branch waterfront near the casino has been used to build a huge 3500 car casino parking garage and a Greyhound bus terminal isolated on a peninsula - uses that are seemingly as incompatible with waterfront amenities as they could possibly be. Except that this was the continuation of an ongoing pattern of waterfront destruction. In the previous decade, the city enabled the development of a Walmart and Sam's Club that completely cut off the other side of the Middle Branch waterfront.

Free-standing "pad sites" have also been an extensive part of the new development in the corridor, with numerous gas-convenience style stores recently being built and rebuilt along Russell Street, along with two self-storage warehouses, in concert with the new casino.

The city also enabled the Sagamore Development to let its Westport waterfront lay barren for what could likely be several decades or more until their Port Covington mega-project gets built.

In sum, along with the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor, we can also rule out the City government making the Middle Branch gateway any kind of genuine green space development priority as well, unless they're pushed. The conspiracy theorists and cynics in our midst thus have plenty of evidence to argue that the "Green Network" Plan is merely a city smokescreen to divert attention away from the bad planning which has been recently happening.

Here's the City's idea of enhancing the waterfront: A 3500 car casino parking garage,
which dwarfs the Middle Branch Trail bridge behind it. And this is not some isolated mistake:
It's highly reminiscent of the Walmart and Sam's Club that created a dead waterfront at Port Covington.

But it's not too late. The city holds many cards, and could still use a combination of pressure and incentives to promote and coordinate "Green Network" development in these two areas. These corridors are also so huge that new development can begin to take place at multiple locations.

Four Recommended "Green Network" Priority Areas

Let's think big, even if we need to act somewhat smaller. Let's designate the largest possible swaths of the two corridors discussed above as priority candidates for "Green Network" development:

1 - The "Highway to Nowhere" and MLK Boulevard Corridor - This could encompass a huge footprint of West Baltimore, not only the large corridor from Metro West (Greene Street between Franklin and Saratoga Street) to the West Baltimore MARC Station, but also the MLK Boulevard corridor from Howard and Chase Streets at State Center to Washington Boulevard at Pigtown, including the University of Maryland campus and biopark. In addition, the city's bike plan includes an extension along the Amtrak tracks from the MARC Station to the existing Gwynns Falls Greenway at Baltimore Street, which has somehow been left off the "Green Network" map. The federal government is planning to spend billions upgrading the Amtrak line from there to Penn Station, so this is a prime candidate for local mitigation development.

Camden Yards-to-Masonville "Green Network" Corridor

2 - The Middle Branch Gateway Corridor from Camden Yards to Masonville - This includes all of the Camden Yards stadium complexes from Camden Street adjacent to the downtown Convention Center at Howard Street, all the way south to the Middle Branch waterfront in Westport, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn to Masonville. The Stadium Authority's current lease extension negotiations with the Orioles owner Peter Angelos would fit into this process to enhance Camden Yards, as well as the current community related planning spawned by the Horseshoe Casino and Port Covington developments. At the south end, the Masonville Cove nature preserve built by the Maryland Port Administration on the Middle Branch waterfront is currently cut off from the Brooklyn community by a concrete plant and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway. These areas need to be stitched together.

To these two areas, I recommend adding two more corridors:
Marc Szarkowski's proposal to the Warnock Foundation for integrating Carroll Park and Golf Course,
the B&O Railroad Museum, the historic "First Mile" rail line and the Mount Clare community.

3 - The "First Mile" Corridor from the B&O Railroad Museum to the Gwynns Falls Greenway - This area includes the north edge of Carroll Park and the adjacent 1.3 million square foot Montgomery Park office complex. Along with Fort McHenry, the B&O Railroad Museum should be the city's premiere historic attraction but the neglect of its surroundings has been a major detraction. Several decades ago, they had a major plan to create a "Williamsburg of Railroading" in this corridor, but its lofty ambitions were beyond the museum's capabilities. More recently, the city and state planned an intermodal rail-truck freight terminal that would have extended into the area. Now that both plans are dead, a new plan is urgently needed to blend the corridor into the surrounding communities and Carroll Park, which is a magnificent recreational and historical resource whose north perimeter remains a dead industrial wasteland.

Pimlico-to-Roland Park "Green Network" Corridor - Unifying the racetrack with some of Baltimore's
 better neighborhoods would eradicate the reputation that the track is in a "bad" area. 

4 - Pimlico Racetrack to Cylburn to Roland Park Corridor - The renewal and redevelopment of Pimlico Racetrack area is one of the city's top priorities. The area needlessly suffers from a poor image, but is actually close to some of the city's premiere parks, neighborhoods and economic anchors. The area's perception can be greatly enhanced by creating a westward linkage to Cylburn Park and then beyond across the Jones Falls Valley and Roland Park, one of Baltimore's elite neighborhoods.

Adjacent to Pimlico Racetrack at the west end of this corridor is the Lifebridge health complex anchored by Sinai Hospital. At the east end in Roland Park is the Baltimore Country Club. Both of these institutions have significant open spaces which they need to balance with development. This should be done in a way that is compatible with the needs of the corridor as a whole. 

Again, the city has not shown much interest in this area as part of the "Green Network". A prime property on the most visible and accessible edge of Cylburn Park near Cold Spring Lane has long been the city's "stump dump" for churning up dead trees. Next to the "stump dump", more green space has recently been turned into an electric substation. These areas were previously supposed to be incorporated into the city's Cold Spring Newtown, but that development plan has instead been downsized and made more isolated.

One notable issue is that Cylburn Park was re-branded as an "arboretum", which then became a de-facto justification for shutting it off from the surrounding areas with only its only access point being a driveway from Greenspring Avenue. But Cylburn Park could be the linchpin for unifying the area's many attractive but disparate neighborhoods to Pimlico - including Roland Park, Mount Washington, Levindale, Cold Spring Newtown, and Cross Keys. The proposed extension of the Jones Falls Trail north of Newtown can be part of this unification process.   

In sum, all four areas discussed above have lofty economic development objectives, which need to depend on using green space as a crucial amenity attraction. This is what could make the "Green Network" an indispensable tool in promoting Baltimore development and amenities.

It's all about priorities.

Here are a few select links to blog articles about these "Green Network" corridors:
(Part Two tomorrow: The role that the City's "Green Network" corridor planning should play in reviving and promoting "Bike Boulevards")

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