March 31, 2018

Growth fueled by transit - but only in the right places

Lack of rail transit has always been included in the litany of reasons for Baltimore's steadily declining population, with critics usually pointing specifically to the cancelled Red Line, including The Baltimore Sun's recent (March 26) editorial.

But there has never been a correlation between rail transit and growth in Baltimore. There could and should be - but there hasn't been. Rail transit has its advocates, and so does development, but they seldom properly put them together. It even looks like a conspiracy with rich developers and normal working folks working together to keep them apart. Such unity of purpose is rare in this city.
Oldham Crossing - a project made possible by the cancellation of the Red Line,
which would have been on a 70 foot high elevated structure where houses are getting ready to be built.

Red Line experience

Developers actually wanted to keep the proposed Red Line stations as far away from growth as possible. Harbor East developer John Paterakis forced that area's station to be pushed as far away as possible from the critical Central Avenue development corridor, which is also the spine for Harbor Point which is now under construction by Michael Beatty.

The same is also true for the Canton Crossing development, where the proposed Red Line station was pushed into the median strip of Boston Street so that the ongoing development could be as disoriented from transit as possible, with full resemblance to a typical auto-dominated suburban strip center.

All these areas are booming right now, even with the dead Red Line. Other projects that have benefited include the 173-unit Oldham Crossing townhouse development between Greektown and Bayview. The Red Line was supposed to bisect through the heart of that site on a 70 foot high elevated structure which was necessary to climb over the railroad tracks to the west and Interstate 895 to the east. Without the death of the Red Line, it is highly doubtful that this project would have ever happened.

Another project which had previously been cancelled due to Red Line construction was the rebuilding of the Broadway Market adjacent to the underground Fells Point Station at Fleet Street. The two-block market has now been revived by a different developer, with construction to begin this summer on its first phase on the north block and completed in 2019 to the south. With the half empty market acting as a barrier, Broadway has had the feel of two different streets - the touristy Fells Point waterfront to the south and the Latino-flavored Upper Fells Point to the north.

It is crucial to the integration and continued growth of southeast Baltimore to dissolve this barrier, because Broadway is its main north-south street which needs to serve as a spine for the larger community extending north to Hopkins Hospital and beyond. However, there is still a strong feeling among many that such growth is a threat to either the Latino business district to the north, the tourist restaurants to the south, or both. And there has never been confidence that either the new Broadway Market or the Red Line could solve this problem in a satisfactory way.

Threatening sign at the intersection of Broadway and Lombard Street, just north of the previously proposed Red Line Station, and several weeks after the annual deadline for police enforcement.

Adding to this controversy is the city's "official" policy of cracking down on employers who pick up workers along Broadway, who are otherwise seen as loiterers. However, despite the longtime presence of signs threatening that police will provide enforcement, this policy seems to be a "nod and a wink", unlike similar signs and policies elsewhere in the city aimed at homeless camps. The threatening signs don't even have a stated year of applicability, so as soon as the doomsday deadline passes for one year, as it did a few weeks ago on March 3rd, the threat simply renews for the next.

Meanwhile, the growing Latino population is one of the city's few bright spots in terms of both growth and diversity, amid the continuing fleeing to the suburbs by whites and blacks alike. However, long term trends may point to increasing Latinos, Asians and other ethnic groups fleeing to the suburbs as well. There's not much evidence that any one ethnic or racial group inherently likes the city any more or less than the others. Washington, DC has gotten publicity from its growing white population, with blacks no longer being in a majority, but there is no evidence that this could repeat in Baltimore.

Harlem Park Red Line Station - the official plan is shown on the bottom, with no adjacent transit oriented development,
 just the "Highway to Nowhere". Some community folks preferred no development, which they viewed as a gentrification threat.
Replacing the highway with transit oriented development is shown on the top view.

Meanwhile on the west side of town

On the west side of town, the Red Line was planned to be down in the trench of the "Highway to Nowhere" where it would be as far away from its surrounding urban activity as possible. This truncated Interstate highway has proven to be obsolete, but the planners have steadfastly avoided any push to get rid of it and replace it with new urban growth.

Low income residents have to a large extent been like-minded with the high-powered developers. Many of them feared that the Red Line would bring "gentrification" where new higher income development would push the existing low income residents out of their communities. So even though the attraction of new development is virtually the very definition of growth, they opposed it. Instead of gentrification, they wanted any new higher income development to be linked to a proportional amount of new low income development, which has previously been a stumbling block to getting any development at all.

This process has played out at the Uplands housing development just south of what would be the Edmondson Village Red Line station. But only the first phase has been built and the project started languishing long before the Red Line was cancelled. There is still hope for the project, its large swaths of vacant land and its incredible but crumbling historic mansion, but the plan has never been physically oriented or integrated to the planned Red Line in any meaningful way.

Previously built rail transit lines - and the future

None of these trends are new or unique to the Red Line plan. The Baltimore Metro rail line built in the early 1980s, was supposed to attract new growth to the State Center, Mondawmin and Reisterstown Plaza stations, among others. A limited amount of nearby new development has occurred over the ensuing four decades, but virtually none of it has actually been oriented to the transit stations.

In the early 1990s, the Metro was augmented by the central light rail line. The State Center and Lexington Market station areas served both lines, and both corridors have only become increasingly desolate over the years. Attempts to attract new development have increasingly called for major subsidies, even though many hundreds of millions were already spent to build the transit lines in the first place. And even these major subsidies have been futile.

Two other station areas along the light rail line were specifically targeted for transit oriented development - Westport and Cold Spring Lane. Both have gotten practically nothing in the four decades since.

At this point, the future remains grim, and closely follows the well-established trends. The multi-billion dollar Port Covington project does call for a short spur from the central light rail line into the development site, but this would be located along the extreme northern edge of the site underneath the Interstate 95 Viaduct, as far away from most of the new development as possible.

The Port Covington developer, Kevin Plank, also owns the nearby vacant Westport property which is already served by light rail, but the Westport development has been placed on the back burner so that it won't compete in the foreseeable future.

Ironically, in Plank's effort to attract Amazon to build its second headquarters at Port Covington, some people blamed the death of the geographically far-away Red Line for the failure. But Plank's proposal to Amazon barely even mentioned that the Westport site was ready and available and already had excellent light rail access to downtown, BWI-Marshall Airport and other destinations. If rail transit was so important, the Westport site should have been made into a major selling point.

The challenge: Integration instead of isolation

The apparent bottom line is that isolation is now the number one selling point for major new development in Baltimore, rather than connectivity or integration. Both of the city's current top development sites, Harbor Point and Port Covington, are located out on waterfront peninsulas where they are perceived as divorced from the city's urban and social problems. This also means they are away from most of the city's transit system.

As a result, there are calls for the transit system to be extended, so that low income, transit-captive city residents can gain access to the new development. But the new development would not be oriented to the transit, so the low income residents would remain in the background.

This perpetuates the theme of "Two Baltimores", one rich and one poor. Actually, many people on both sides appear to like it that way. The anti-gentrification faction doesn't want the rich and poor to mingle together for fear of displacement, and the developers are only too willing to comply. Of course, this compliance would be on their own terms, because obviously development will not happen unless developers are willing to do it.

So where do we go from here? If there is one simple basic lesson over the past forty years, it is that expensive, comprehensive, sweeping visions have not worked. During all this time, Baltimore is still grappling with the same basic problems of simply getting developers to oriented their development to transit. Sure, the city could subsidize the bejeebers out of it, as we have already attempted. But such force-feeding is merely a ploy to avoid the real trends.

The city simply needs to identify one or more projects that beat all the negative trends that have been building over the past forty years - projects that truly orient the transit system to new development, that truly unify rather than divide the city, and that are actually affordable and buildable.

These projects don't need to be on a new transit line. They simply need to promote a culture of transit. Large numbers of people don't tend to use transit unless they really need to. Even in New York City, a major transit capital of the world, people basically use transit simply because they need to.

The primary selection criterion should be that the initial scope of the project should be limited, but its ultimate ambition should be open-ended. Projects should feed off each other rather than competing with each other.

Often, the value of a project is based on creating the perception of scarcity. Port Covington and Harbor Point are both inherently like this because they are on peninsulas. It's the old sales pitch: "Quantities are limited so buy now !!!!"

The real city works in exactly the opposite manner: Potential is unlimited, which depresses the urgency to buy in the short-term. It's very risky to be a lone pioneer.

The best way to counteract this problem is to create projects with significant increases in property value which can support high densities. Too much of Baltimore has become dirt-cheap land which is only developable with massive subsidies.

Top Ten Candidate Development Projects

OK, here is a Top Ten list of candidate projects, drawn from throughout this blog, that can move the city out of its current conundrum and toward its unlimited future potential. They are all related to transit, because long-term urban growth is always dependent on transit, but they are not contingent upon building any particular new transit line.

May the best project win!

1 - Replace the "HIGHWAY  TO NOWHERE" with a transit-oriented development greenway from the Metro West site, through Heritage Crossing to the West Baltimore MARC Station.

2 - Create a transit oriented development plan for the COLD SPRING LANE light rail station, renamed "WEST ROLAND PARK", incorporating and integrating the areas from Cylburn Park to Cross Keys.

3 - Create a transit oriented development plan for the WESTPORT light rail station area that really works.

4 - Create a transit oriented development plan for STATE CENTER that really works.

5 - Create a transit oriented development plan for PERKINS POINT - currently the Perkins Homes public housing complex, that really works.

6 - Create a LEXINGTON MARKET TRANSIT HUB, incorporating and integrating the Metro and light rail stations.

7 - Create a transit oriented development greenway along the "B&O RAILROAD FIRST MILE" and the north edge of Carroll Park from Mount Clare to Montgomery Park.

8 - Create a transit oriented development SOUTH WATERFRONT GREENWAY from the Middle Branch at North Westport, though Port Covington and the Locke Insulator site to Cherry Hill and the Harbor Hospital site to Brooklyn and finally to the Masonville Cove nature preserve.

9 - Create a transit oriented development JOHNS HOPKINS HEALTH CORRIDOR from the main medical campus to Bayview.

10 - Create a new UPLANDS PLAN with more upscale housing oriented to the nearby high-end Ten Hills neighborhood and the incredible Uplands mansion.

The purpose of the higher end housing is not just to make more money or to kowtow to disgusting rich people who we all love to hate. The purpose is to create higher land values to support higher density and to create a transit orientation. Once this is established, wonderful "salt of the earth" poor folks will willingly move into smaller, lower cost co-op or rental units. "The meek shall inherit the earth."