March 20, 2017

Metro West should become Heritage Crossing South

The vacant desolate Metro West office complex and the beautiful but isolated Heritage Crossing neighborhood next door need each other, as does the rest of northwest Baltimore beyond.

Former City Housing Director Dan Henson, the man in charge when Heritage Crossing was being developed in the 1990s, wanted the new neighborhood extended southward to take over the land now squandered on the "Highway to Nowhere". The time has finally come to achieve Henson's vision, now that planning has begun for redevelopment of the huge Metro West complex after its abandonment by the Social Security Administration.

Looking south from Perkins Park along Myrtle Avenue in Heritage Crossing, toward the Metro West tower,
which seems more accessible than it really is because the intervening "Highway to Nowhere" wall is hidden from view.

The elements for success are there. One can see the Metro West tower majestically in the distance from Heritage Crossing's lovely Perkins Park and imagine a large, connected and prosperous community, just as Dan Henson did in the 1990s.

But the contrasting reality is jarring. Beautiful Heritage Crossing stands adjacent to vacant hulks of abandoned rowhouses. Homeless people have been chased by the city from one campsite to another under and around the "Highway to Nowhere".

Economically, the biggest danger sign is that Caves Valley Partners was able to buy the million-plus square foot six-square block Metro West complex from the federal government for a mere $7.1 million. Contrast that with the recent Harbor East real estate deal that valued the single Legg Mason building at nearly $300 million for about half the square footage.

Events at Metro West have proceeded rather predictably from the account just over a year ago in my blog.

A design for a 2,200-car parking garage at Metro West was rejected by UDARP Thursday.
Metro West parking garage proposed by developer Caves Valley Partners, with retail frontage
along Saratoga Street to the south. MLK Boulevard is to the left (west) foreground
 and a bit of the "Highway to Nowhere" eastbound overpass can be seen in the left (north) background.

Step Minus One: Proposed massive Metro West parking garage

The first step in Metro West's redevelopment process has been a very bad one. The developer's recent plan plops a huge 2200 car parking garage down on a large vacant parcel (shown above) with no clue as to how it relates to anything, thus violating just about every principle of good planning. This parking garage plan was quickly rejected by the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel.

The fundamental problem with the monster Metro West parking garage proposal isn't simply how big, ugly and imposing it is. The problem is that it needs to fit properly into a comprehensive plan for the entire six square block site, and it just can't.

The parking garage site simply eludes all possibilities for good planning. It sit on a "superblock" that is far too big, bounded by Saratoga, Greene and Mulberry Streets and Martin Luther King Boulevard, equivalent in size to three square blocks, which creates a fortress mentality. This means it inevitably creates dead spaces, or "border vacuums" as Jane Jacobs called them in her seminal book, "Death and Life of Great American Cities".

The small ground level retail space shown on the Saratoga street frontage is a very lame attempt to address this problem. The chances of any kind of healthy retail being attracted here is somewhere between slim and none.

But all the frontages surrounding this garage site would be similarly desolate. To the south, the other side of Saratoga Street is the derriere end of the University of Maryland campus. MLK Boulevard to the west is just a huge congested traffic artery. To the east is the rear "service entrance" for the existing Metro West complex and to the north is the "Highway to Nowhere" as it slices through the site - possibly the next location for the nomadic homeless camp as the city chases it away from site after site.

Planners can deal with perhaps one, two or maybe even three dead sides to a development site, but not all four. Here they decided to pretend that the Saratoga Street frontage was somehow viable, but it really isn't.

Proposed connection of Myrtle Avenue in Heritage Crossing (left, northwest) and Pine Street through Metro West
 (right, southeast) which I proposed in 2011. This plan also includes the elimination of the north (westbound) overpass
 of the "Highway to Nowhere" over MLK Boulevard and the southward relocation of Franklin Street (foreground, west).
 (I apologize for showing the new buildings about twice as tall as I should.)  

Steps One to Five to fix the problem

The problems created by the proposed parking garage cannot be solved in isolation, but can be solved with a wide-ranging step-by-step plan:

1. Create an attractive human-scale street spine through the Metro West site - Fortunately, this is possible to do. Pine Street to the south through the University of Maryland campus has the potential to be such a street. Myrtle Avenue to the north through Heritage Crossing, flanking beautiful Perkins Park, is already such a street. They simply need to be connected, which is what the meandering (a la Olmsted) yellow line through the graphic above indicates. This street could be designed to carry no through traffic, since it could have no median opening at its crossing of MLK Boulevard adjacent to Heritage Crossing. It would approximate the southern extension of Myrtle Avenue which existed from the nineteenth century until MLK Boulevard was built in the late 1970s.

2. Distribute the new parking with new development - Instead of building a single dominant 2200 space parking structure as recently proposed, the parking should be spread to at least two major new structures with "wrap around" office space or other new development along its outer edges. The new Myrtle-Pine spine would actually facilitate this by created an attractive local street frontage for both development sites on either side of Mulberry Street, while not seriously reducing the footprint size of the buildings.

The developer's proposed retail frontage along Saratoga Street would then have a context to be able to function properly, and more retail frontage could be added along the new spine. Saratoga is also proposed as a street to locate a revised west-only light rail Red Line, and this would be an ideal place to put a station, although we know from the Howard Street experience that this alone is not sufficient for revitalization. The retail uses would also compliment the free-standing suburban-style Rite Aid drug store just across MLK Boulevard, which was recently renovated after suffering major damage in the 2015 riots. In the long run, this Rite Aid could be replaced by higher density development as the depressed property values hopefully increase to what they should be.

3. Tear down the northern overpass of the "Highway to Nowhere" and consolidate traffic on the southern half - We know that the "Highway to Nowhere" can be closed with little adverse effect to traffic, as has already been done numerous times for various peripheral construction projects. But while the "Highway to Nowhere" is extremely detrimental to its adjacent community environments, it is probably best to retain one of its two overpasses over MLK Boulevard so that all its traffic does not need to use the intersections with the similarly heavy MLK traffic. Consolidating traffic on the southern overpass would keep it as far as possible away from Heritage Crossing, to facilitate its expansion. This traffic diversion should also allow Franklin Street to be shifted away from Heritage Crossing as well, and perhaps even allow Mulberry Street to be closed just east of MLK to serve only as part of the Pine Street local circulation for Metro West.

In any event, demolishing just one overpass would eliminate the worst aspect of the "Highway to Nowhere", which is its isolated dead space between the eastbound and westbound highways. The single remaining overpass would actually be quite open and airy, and very compatible with an attractive development plan for the adjacent parcels. MLK Boulevard will remain a formidable barrier and the single overpass, open to both people and vehicles, will bridge it.

4. Restore and reopen Fremont Avenue between Franklin and Mulberry Streets through the "Highway to Nowhere" corridor - Old Fremont Avenue is the point where the highway makes its transition from being down in a ditch to the west, to being up on overpasses to the east. It is also the point where pedestrians now dangerously walk across the formerly Interstate highway. By rebuilding and reconnecting Fremont Avenue with traffic signals, the communities would become more unified and the crossings would be safer and more pedestrian-friendly.

A newly reconnected Fremont Avenue would also make an ideal location for an additional station in a revised Red Line plan, because it would not be down in the "ditch" like the planned Harlem Park station to the west. The community of Fremont homeowners just to the south sued the MTA to stop the Red Line tunnel under Fremont from the cancelled Red Line plan.

5. Get rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" in up to six phases to accommodate new development - The city doesn't need to get rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" all at once. The first two steps were already taken at the west end of the highway when its retaining wall was demolished and Payson Street was reconnected through the corridor. These projects were time consuming and lauded as a big deal, but they were really just preliminary. The third step would be to build the connecting roads that will enable the north (westbound) bridge over MLK Boulevard to be knocked down and allow both directions of traffic to be consolidated on the south overpass. One lane in each direction will be sufficient on this bridge and even leave room for new sidewalks and bike lanes, since this will no longer be an expressway.

The fourth and fifth steps will be to complete the new local north-south streets: Fremont Avenue across the corridor and Pine Street underneath the overpass to Myrtle Avenue in Heritage Crossing. The sixth and final step would be to close the remainder of the "Highway to Nowhere" in the mile-long ditch between Fremont and Payson to create a development and greenway corridor, as depicted in the rendering below.

MTA rendering of the Harlem Park Red Line Station, with the "Highway to Nowhere" removed and replaced with new development
 by Marc Szarkowski, The existing Calhoun Street overpass is seen in the background (to the west).

Step Zero: Plan comprehensively !!!

Right now, Metro West's developer appears to be acting under the assumption that since it paid a bargain basement price for the property, this will be a bargain basement project. Not only did they recently submit a bare-bones generic garage plan, they have also advertised for a "pad site" development, which is real estate parlance for a free-standing suburban-style use like a gas-convenience-fast food outlet.

But the city can't afford cheap shortcuts because this is a critical location and resource for the success of all the west downtown and northwest city neighborhoods, which are now suffering greatly. That's why the price was so low in the first place.

The city and state have already spent hundreds of millions on various projects in this area, including Heritage Crossing, the University of Maryland, and its Biopark, and have been trying to spend much more on the Howard/Lexington area, the La Cite development in Poppleton and other projects. And all this is just the beginning. Much more investment is needed in Lafayette Square, Harlem Park, Upton and other nearby neighborhoods. Metro Center is as critical as any of them, or perhaps more so because it sits on the fulcrum of downtown and the city's entire northwest corridor.

The first step in all of this is for Caves Valley to work with the city revise the design for the Saratoga Street parking garage so that it fits into a quality comprehensive plan instead of simply appearing to be plopped down on the site. The quality and coherence of Metro West must meet the standards that have already been set by Heritage Crossing, just as any new development would in any high quality city neighborhood.

March 15, 2017

33rd St. to Gwynns Falls: Updating Olmsted's Parkways

At the beginning of the automotive age over a hundred years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted conceived one of America's original parkway systems right here in Baltimore. While the lush green appearance of Gwynns Falls Parkway, 33rd Street and The Alameda have changed remarkably little over the years, the way they function and serve the city has always been in flux.

Olmsted's 1904 report stated very clearly that the parkways mission was always about the big picture as well as the design details: The parkways should "be treated as far as possible like extensions of the parks to bring them to the people and place them in touch with each other.”

Inside median view of 33rd Street looking east from The Alameda toward Lake Montebello.
It's already a very attractive greenway, but the challenge is to make it feel like a park.
The festering trash is a sign that this is now a "no man's land"

A lifetime of riding on various parkways has conditioned us to see them from off to the side, either on the road or sidewalk. But the real Baltimore parkway experience can only be had from being inside the median itself. Their typical width of about 40 feet is enough that the surrounding heavy traffic can feel like mere background. The Olmsted parkway medians really can be treated like parks if we would only let them.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is promoting a proposed 35 mile greenway loop that seeks to link and maximize the use of 25 miles of trails that already exist, to "create a powerful interconnected trail network around Baltimore City." But two of the critical gaps in this loop network are Olmsted parkways - 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway.

The RTC's trail network proposal is precisely the means to treat the parkways "like extensions of the parks to bring them to the people and place them in touch with each other" as Olmsted envisioned. The parkway medians need their own trail. 

Baltimore Greenway Trails Network Map
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Plan for a 35 mile greenway loop, including Gwynns Falls Parkway (#2) and 33rd Street (#4)
 and encompassing the existing Gwynns Falls Trail (#1) and the Inner Harbor (#8).

What would Olmsted do?

In over a hundred years, traffic and other conditions have changed dramatically, but the Rails-to-Trails goal remains the same as the original Olmsted goal: Treat the parkways like parks.

Back then, the neighborhoods around these parkways were considered suburban, and the whole concept of suburbs was relatively new. As conditions evolved, the parkways came to be considered extensions of the houses' front yards. Then as the traffic grew, the gentry moved farther out into suburbia and the green space inside the parkway medians became more isolated - a pretty sight but little else. So now it's time to rededicate to Olmsted's goal by making the parkway medians a people place.

One of RTC's plan options would do that: Create a pathway inside the medians for people to experience them up-close as extensions of the parks.

Along most of 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway, this would actually be fairly simple to do. Of course, simply laying down a 12 foot strip of asphalt would not do justice to the legacy of high quality design that Olmsted and his successors are known for, most notably in the presence of the stately rows of magnificent trees which line the median.

We also know that high quality design requires a variety of disciplines - not only landscape and urban design but also environmental and traffic engineering. We know that the new pathway must respect the trees. We also know that the pathway must not harm the permeability of the median to avoid poor drainage and excessive runoff. And we know that traffic can be controlled but it can't be eliminated.

In sum, the proposed pathway will create opportunities that can work very well in some respects but there will be limitations. It should not be cheapened with bad compromises.

How to make the parkway paths work

The way to accommodate people on pathways inside the parkways is simply to minimize conflicts between cars and people. This can be accomplished to four different levels:

1 - Gaps in the parkway median should be closed where possible. There does not need to be an opening in the median at every intersection, with full access to and from each of the low-traffic local streets. Cutting back access will also be beneficial to the neighborhoods by reducing traffic short-cutting thru the neighborhoods. It will also be a welcome sight to be able to see the attractive green parkway in the view corridor at the ends of these streets instead of just seeing more pavement.

As an example, closing the three median openings on 33rd Street between The Alameda and Hillen Road at Lake Montebello - at Tivoly, Fenwick and an alley - would create a continuous traffic conflict-free greenway of nearly a third of a mile in length.

A continuous greenway of almost a third of a mile, uninterrupted by traffic, can be created
 between Lake Montebello (top right, east) and The Alameda (left, west) in the 33rd Street median,
due to the lengthy blocks in the Lakeside (top) and Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello (bottom) neighborhoods.

2 - Gaps in the parkway which cannot be closed should be made as small as possible. There is very little need for the pavement openings in the parkways to be as large as they are now. They should only be large enough to track the traffic paths and no larger.

An example of this is the 33rd Street intersection with Old York Road. "Flexi-posts" have already been installed in the median opening as a cheap traffic-calming and diversion measure. Although the better solution is to close the median opening altogether, the second best alternative is to extend the median out to where the flexi-posts are now located.

This Old York Road median opening was already the very smallest (45 feet) along the entire length of 33rd Street. The flexi-posts have reduced it to about 20 feet. But the median openings for the other minor intersections on 33rd Street range all the way up to over 80 feet at Ednor Road - the equivalent of crossing an eight-lane highway! The median opening at the Guilford Avenue "Bike Boulevard" is a less-than-average 60 feet, but designing it for bikes-only would be appropriate, essentially bringing the width down to zero. All in all, there is great potential for increasing green space and the integrity of the parkway simply by putting the 33rd Street median on a pavement diet.

These "flexi-posts" in the 33rd Street median opening at Old York Road (looking west) are a cheapo temporary way
 of doing what needs to be done - reduce the size of the median opening to only what is needed.
Better yet, close the median opening altogether. The "Waverly Village" sign is also very non-park like
 and blocks the greenway, more like one would expect to see in suburbia than a park setting. 

3 - Wherever the parkway median must remain open, left-turns from the parkway should then be prohibited if possible. This means left-turn traffic would be accommodated from the side streets, but not onto the side streets. This further prioritizes the local neighborhood streets for residents. Also, the necessary size of a median openings for left-turns from side streets would be smaller than that from the parkways, because these vehicles can make wider turns.

4 - Wherever significant traffic conflicts remain, special signalization for pedestrians and bikes along the greenway should be provided. At some major intersections - Charles, St. Paul, Loch Raven, Alameda and Hillen - left-turns are sufficiently heavy that signalization is the only solution. At Charles and St. Paul in particular, the left turns are so heavy that it probably justifies the current lack of any median at all in the block between them. In that case, it is probably best to use signals to direct pedestrians and bikes to the existing sidewalks and bike lanes, for which further improvements are no doubt possible.

The goal should be to create the highest quality and most park-like environment inside the medians for people. With this priority, the pathways will not provide the best possible speed and connections for bicycles. Many skilled and commuter bicyclists will find it more advantageous to use bike lanes and routes along the streets than to use the pathways inside the parkways. This will also help resolve conflicts between bikes and pedestrian users of the parkway trails.

Better solutions may also be available for specific locations. In particular, the critical intersection of Gwynns Falls Parkway and Auchentoroly Terrace on the edge of Druid Hill Park is very poorly designed for anyone - pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and the neighborhood as a whole. This intersection, as well as Druid Hill Park's entire edge highway system, needs a major redesign and realignment (see my 2010 BaltimoreBrew story - update coming soon).

The Gwynns Falls Parkway is particularly beautiful adjacent to Hanlon Park (to the left/north).
The median and park should be integrated in human design as Olmsted intended.
Gwynns Falls Parkway also provides great opportunities. Perhaps the most beautiful segment of the entire parkway system is adjacent to Hanlon Park. The new greenway path in the median of Gwynns Falls Parkway is an opportunity to extend the pathway system into Hanlon Park and northward to lovely Lake Ashburton. This should be given attention before the upcoming reconstruction of Druid Lake takes place to give the community more options during its severe disruption.

The large 35-mile RTC greenway loop is also a framework for an even larger system. Alameda, proceeding from Clifton Park to 33rd Street and northward, should also be given similar attention to 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway. The 6-mile West Baltimore greenway loop which I have proposed would also coincide with the RTC loop system along the Gwynns Falls Trail. This trail and others may be seen as tools for redeveloping the city as much as for access and recreation.

Urban parks are precious. Even after a century, the Olmsted parkways are as invaluable as ever to maximize the use of Baltimore's parks and green space for urban living.

March 1, 2017

Fix Pimlico and Preakness, shutdown Laurel Racetrack

In a horse race between Pimlico and Laurel, the "experts" and bean counters say Laurel is a much better racetrack and location than Pimlico. It has a larger market area, better access and it's in better condition. They even tout better parking as a selling point.

But it's still bad economics to close down Pimlico and move the Preakness to Laurel. Port Covington and Pigtown were previously promoted as better racetrack locations than Pimlico too, but that didn't mean we should build a new racetrack there either.

Three basic economic points should dictate the future of Pimlico Race Course:

   1. Horse racing is not now, nor is ever again likely to be, a major economic engine for growth in the city or state.
   2. The basic economic value of the Laurel Park racetrack site for virtually any kind of redevelopment is higher than Pimlico.
   3. Both the Pimlico and Laurel need to be redeveloped to serve as full-time economic generators 365 days a year, not just during the limited and sporadic racing seasons.
Pimlico Racetrack at Northern Parkway and Park Heights Avenue.
The Mount Washington and Park Heights neighborhoods are respectively to the north and south.

Talk of putting a new racetrack at Port Covington only came grinding to a halt when Under Armour came along and devised a multi-billion dollar plan for their corporate headquarters along with a major high density surrounding urban development. The same things that made Port Covington a good racetrack site - accessibility, visibility, market area, etc. - made it a far far better location for something much more valuable.

That's a law of economics. It's not just about value. It's about comparative value.

The same thing applies to Laurel. Its location halfway between Baltimore and Washington, with its own MARC rail station, has far more potential economic value than what it could ever return for horse racing, which has already pretty much reached its peak. Relative to its economic potential, Laurel needs a new land use and development plan just as much as Pimlico does.

The main difference is that major redevelopments in Baltimore must be catalysts for uplifting their surrounding areas, whereas Laurel is surrounded by the dynamic Washington metropolitan area where new development only needs to fit in and complement what is already there.

The fact that we're talking about Laurel versus Pimlico, one or the other, says that we're obviously not talking about horse racing as a burgeoning industry. However, it is still a highly visible and iconic industry.

Laurel simply doesn't need high visibility, but Pimlico and Baltimore does.

Even the warm and fuzzy "emotional" factors aren't so fuzzy when translated into economics. The annual Preakness "Triple Crown" race draws 135,000 people, and Laurel would be incapable of physically accommodating that many because it does not have a usable "infield" area inside the track. More importantly, the long storied tradition of this "Triple Crown" event isn't just emotion, it's everything. If we lose that tradition, we lose everything. It can't be remade from scratch.

The Preakness is very important to the state and city's marketing image, which is where the real value is.

So here is the agenda:

The Maryland Stadium Authority has just completed its Phase One Study of Pimlico, which concluded that a major racetrack makeover will cost approximately $300 Million. That's very reasonable in terms of recent price tags for major modern sports facilities, but it is far too much for a part-time venue that's only fully utilized once a year. The most important outcome of the study is that it appears that all involved parties want to proceed with a follow-up Phase Two.

So here is the way to proceed from here:

1. Create a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the entire Pimlico site, in which the renovated racetrack serves as an anchor motif, but which also includes other uses which can feed off the horse theme and create full-time year-around economic activity. The marketing theme is simply that people love horses and their unique traditions, and that can be a major attraction for year-around uses.

2. Then prepare an assessment of the value of redeveloping Laurel as well, based on closing down the racetrack and starting over with a clean sheet on a very valuable site.

3. Then begin partnership negotiations between the state and local governments on the one side and Stronach Group, which owns both race tracks, on the other. Negotiations that include both sites will provide more leeway than treating the two sites in isolation. A pot sweetener at one location may facilitate concessions at the other. It is beside the point that more money can be made from horse racing at Laurel. The overall bottom line for all uses on both sites is the key.

4. Include Timonium racetrack and fairgrounds in the discussion. Timonium is another valuable underutilized site with an obsolete racetrack, served by light rail and surrounded by very active suburban development. Perhaps Pimlico can be made into an exposition center and the Maryland State Fair can be moved there from nearby Timonium.

Stronach will contend that Laurel is the best home for racing because it requires the least investment on their part, creating the lowest priced baseline for their investment. This sets up the state as the investor that would spend the lion's share. Investors like to use other people's money.

The state needs to resist this position as much as possible, because private sector investors including Stronach would stand to gain the most from a maximum investment in redeveloping Laurel.

Here's a major precedent: Sites for a new Yankee Stadium were being considered in New York. The primary options were The Bronx, adjacent to the existing stadium, and Manhattan's west side. Manhattan had all the economic advantages, but The Bronx was ultimately the better choice. So the Bronx Bombers stayed in The Bronx right across the street from legendary old Yankee Stadium. And now the west side of Manhattan is prospering even more, with billions in new investment from the High Line to Hudson Yards to Hell's Kitchen. Of course, Laurel isn't Manhattan, but the point is the same. Laurel is at the intersection of four of the most affluent counties in the country: HoCo, MoCo, PG (#1 for AfrAms) and AA.

One could also think of horses as basically being Maryland's version of China's pandas. Nobody would ever suggest that pandas could or should become a major part of China's overall economic output, but they are a potent symbol for Chinese tradition and culture.

The same goes for horse racing at Pimlico. It's not fuzzy, vague or outmoded. Horse racing at Pimlico is simply a solid theme to build upon which adds real economic value.