January 9, 2018

Port Covington's big spinoff: Locke Insulator site

It didn't take as long as expected for the massive Port Covington development plan to get its first big test as a generator of promised spinoff growth, now that the adjacent Locke Insulator manufacturing plant is being shut down and put up for sale.
Looking northwest at the Locke Insulator site from Ferry Bar Park at the south end of Light Street,
 with the Hanover Street bridge to the upper left. The shut-down Walmart
 which will be part of the Under Armour campus is just to the right (east).

Kevin Plank and his Sagamore/Port Covington team did not want this to happen, especially so soon. They quietly grabbed all the land they could to avoid development competition, most notably the empty Westport waterfront just across the Middle Branch, which has been ripe for new transit-oriented development since long before they arrived.

Plank has been sitting on Westport ever since. Their Port Covington plan was also predicated on Locke Insulator laying fallow the same way, so that their multi-billion dollar plans could grow up around it. Unlike Westport, they won't be able to buy it cheap to lock (pun) it up from competition.

But that's good news for the city - at least as good as the regrettable shutdown of yet another old source of good blue collar jobs could be. Locke lasted longer than most, since like Domino Sugars but few others, it was not labor intensive and thus less vulnerable to national and global competition.

What this means is that the 24-acre Locke site can now complement the Port Covington development, while filling some of the gaps that would otherwise remain. The major spinoff push (politically) has been for low income and affordable housing, which is very unlikely to happen on the current Port Covington site. This is perhaps somewhat more likely on the Locke site, although still not a strong bet compared with various sites throughout the rest of the city and region.

Prime real estate


Two major points stand out that will shape the future of the Locke site:

First and most clearly, the Locke Insulator site is actually a more valuable piece of real estate than most of what Sagamore will be putting on the open market in Port Covington. Sagamore has mostly saved its best waterfront land for Plank's Under Armour campus and his recently completed whiskey distillery. The first parcels to be marketed to the private sector will be part of the landlocked Baltimore Sun printing plant property between Cromwell, Hanover and McComas Streets.

Brand new sea of asphalt parking lot to serve the Sagamore Whiskey Distillery,
on part of the Sun Printing Plant property which is eventually to be developed.
 Note that a bit of the waterfront is peeking through to the right.

But the massive ungainly Sun printing plant will remain standing as long as possible, to postpone the expense and other issues associated with getting rid of it. Plank also maintains hope that Amazon's Jeff Bezos will come along and buy into the plan, and maybe figure out a way to incorporate it into his Washington Post. The Sun also likes to keep saying they have a "long term lease", but the entire newspaper business is now in a constant state of flux.

Moreover, the density of the first new development here will also not be very high, if only because there is so much land available (see this post). The densest development is being reserved for the portion of the land right next to the Interstate 95 elevated structure and farthest from the water, which is expected to happen last for both aesthetic and market reasons.

Congestion and the need for great transit


The second important point is the role of cars and transit. The Locke Insulator site will generate another huge influx of trips and traffic to the isolated Port Covington peninsula. It should thus be more obvious than ever that cars cannot be the dominant transportation mode.

But the current Port Covington plan pushes the short spur from the existing light rail line up to the northernmost edge of the site, along McComas Street and Interstate 95. While this is bad for the Sagamore development, it is totally unacceptable for the Locke Insulator site, which will not be part of the insulated (pun again) "campus-style" environment of the rest of Port Covington and Under Armour.

To one degree or another, Locke will be locked out (sorry). The Sagamore plan puts a long wall of parking garages along Light Street between the Under Armour campus and the Locke site, creating a kind of wide service alley which pushes the cars toward Locke. This can be mitigated by good design, but all that traffic will still be there and needs to be accommodated.

The traffic problems will also be exacerbated by the Locke site's very short 740-foot frontage along Cromwell Street (equivalent to about two city blocks). All traffic must be funneled through this segment, with the vast majority entering at the two existing intersections at Light Street and Insulator Drive. The current Sagamore plan layout attempts to discourage traffic on Cromwell Street, and although it had already seemed unlikely that their attempt would succeed, it is now virtually certain to fail. Cromwell will ultimately be congested - period.

City development policies virtually always call for maximizing new development when it doesn't directly impact an existing neighborhood. City Planners (even me) almost invariably say that that density is good. It would be very unfair and likely legally untenable for the the city to try to limit development density on the Locke site because of traffic, when it sits directly adjacent to the gigantic Port Covington site.

There is really only one solution: The proposed light rail spur must be directed southward through Port Covington to directly serve the Locke Insulator site, instead of being kept out along the northern I-95 periphery as in the current development plan (see this article). The light rail spur must be planned to serve the maximum possible number of riders instead of being directed at the fringe - literally.

A possible extended light rail spur that starts at a new North Westport Station along the existing light rail line,
 extends east to West Port Covington just south of I-95 (west of where the current plan would end),
 then south to the heart of Port Covington at Cromwell Street (in or just north of the Locke Insulator site),
 then over the Middle Branch to Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

It is unclear what the issues are that led to the way the current Port Covington plan deals with light rail. The public phase of the federally mandated Alternatives Analysis process has not yet begun. By keeping the light rail on the periphery of the site and not orienting it into the focus of the new development, the light rail is more likely to be used by low income service workers rather than attracting the "choice" upper income people who would then be more likely to stay in their cars. This was also the strategy for developers along the ill-fated Red Line in southeast Baltimore, where the light rail stations were pushed away from the newest development at the Central Avenue corridor, Harbor Point, Canton Crossing and Brewers Hill.

This wouldn't work for the Red Line, and it won't work the Port Covington line. Getting people out of their cars is important for success. Perhaps even more crucial is that the higher income folks are the trendsetters to make transit an accepted part of the cultural mainstream. Let's face it - most people like to ogle and emulate the rich (even if they also like to criticize them for "white privilege" or even just for acting white.) Right now, light rail is considered déclassé - just look downtown on Howard Street.

Time should be of the essence to Locke up a deal


Ironically, most of the infrastructure items on Sagamore's wish list for their $660 Million Tax Increment Financing slush fund will be of no benefit to the Locke Insulator site, or will actually detract from it. The worst of these proposals include:

1 - Getting rid of the ramp from northbound Interstate 95 to southbound Hanover Street, which provides a direct connection toward Locke.

2 - Lowering Hanover Street down to grade level through Port Covington, the construction of which would create an awful traffic mess, depending on its coordination (or lack thereof) with the reconstruction of the Hanover Street bridge.

3 - Eliminating the direct connection from Cromwell Street to McComas Street west of Key Highway, which also provides a direct connection to Locke.

The Locke Insulator development project would be better off to get going before any of these projects get moving, especially if that could make a sufficiently strong case to kill the projects altogether.

On the other hand, the light rail line is not proposed to be funded with a share of TIF money, although it should, especially considering that the Federal Transit Administration has a rule that mandates a 10% local share in the cost. The relocation and reconfiguration of I-95 ramps has already been rejected for federal funding, and using toll money as is normal for I-95 projects, seems unlikely.

But if somehow Amazon was to choose Port Covington for its new headquarters from among its many suitors across North America, all bets would be off and Amazon would certainly end up writing its own ticket. And since Amazon is an intelligent operation, they should choose Westport as their central campus anyway, which doesn't need anything on Port Covington's priority funding list.

The smart thing to do in marketing the Locke site's redevelopment is to expeditiously time it for the moment of maximum Amazon buzz, so that the buyer would get a feeling of positive anticipation that Amazon would actually chose Baltimore. If they do, it's the maximum spinoff jackpot, and if they don't, it would help relieve the hangover that would befall Governor Hogan, Mayor Pugh, Kevin Plank, etc. to grab as many of those subsidy dollars for beneficial projects as possible.

Locke site is a test case for spinoff development


In sum, integrating transit into Port Covington is the crucial measure to integrating it into the city as a whole. Making the Locke Insulator site work is another chance to make light rail work. So the proposed light rail spur should be aligned to have a convenient station to the most active part of the new Locke Insulator development, with good attractive pedestrian connections into the rest of Port Covington and the Under Armour campus.

The Locke site's waterfront is also located at the narrowest part of the Middle Branch. This will facilitate an extension of the light rail spur across the Middle Branch to Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, creating what are far better development opportunities for more affordable, working class and/or low income housing (and some higher end housing too). This linkage can happen on a new light rail bridge, or incorporated into the renovation or replacement of the existing Hanover Street bridge.

In order to make Port Covington's spinoff development work for the long-term future, the first opportunity at the Locke Insulator site must show the way.

4 comments:

  1. I wonder if the current plan for the light rail spur isn't meant to push people into their cars, but to push people into Sagamore boats.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! That's an awfully slow boat ride... Cruising all the way around the tip of Fort McHenry will be like cruising around Cape Horn or the "Cape of Good Hope" before the Panama and Suez Canals. And then you'll have to transfer somewhere to a bus to get anywhere else like Camden or Penn Station.

      Delete
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