June 10, 2019

Which community will inspire a real Middle Branch plan?

Baltimoreans know the drill: Whenever some big new hyped-up "game changer" development proposal comes along, like Port Covington, Horseshoe Casino, M&T Bank Stadium and even the dead Walmart, everything in the past gets swept away - both good plans and bad. So the latest of countless Middle Branch plans now being prepared is like a shot in the dark. Let's enjoy the pretty surrealistic renderings by "world class" architectural firms and then focus on the many (mostly) ignored possible developments that could really make this area take off. Here are six of them.
West8 came up with the wildest idea of all - a huge new superhighway on a bridge connecting Port Covington
 directly to Brooklyn. Cherry Hill would lose its long distance waterfront view and have it replaced
 with a view of a highway. Also note that Harbor Hospital gets to keep the entire waterfront for itself.

The proposed new plan is currently at the stage where the three urban design firms are being subject to a competition to determine whose ideas are most favored by the city and the public. The three competing entries are illogically presented in the form of YouTube videos so you get only look at one graphic at a time and must pause the video to give it more than a cursory glance. This may be due to the fact that the city government's computer network has recently been hacked and is out of service, so YouTube is a more reliable medium.

In any event, a competition is a very wrongheaded way of doing it. It is far more important to know which ideas are feasible, economically and environmentally, and most importantly, which ideas can best leverage private investment. This is what the city really needs.

So the real competition is not between design firms. It is between the various portions of the Middle Branch that could attract and leverage greatly needed investment:

1. Westport


Westport was the hottest major development site in town a decade ago, and is still the only one with great light rail access to both downtown and BWI Airport. It is currently out of favor mostly because it is now owned by the Port Covington consortium which wants no competition. It was probably the city's best shot at luring Amazon, but the official "shovel ready" site was touted as the Sunpaper's printing press property in Port Covington. Some other critics think Westport's fall from favor is due to the shallowness of the adjacent Middle Branch, and it is to the credit of the current urban design teams that they are showing how this might be used as an amenity, not a liability.

Westport waterfront becomes Westport wetlands in the West8 plan, which enables the construction of a boardwalk out into the Middle Branch to a helical lookout (lower left). One narrow channel is dredged to provide access for a water taxi.

Westport is the single most critical geographic link between the north and south portions of the Middle Branch corridor, but the city can't go around spending money without using it to maximize leverage for private investment. It would be extremely foolish for the city to put one penny into making the Westport site more valuable until it gets a real commitment for major private investment... period.

2. Port Covington


The part of Port Covington covered by the city's $660 Million TIF tax incentive package is mostly inland rather than directly on the Middle Branch shoreline. The shoreline itself is occupied predominately by a new whiskey distillery, the West Covington nature preserve which the developer has recently converted into a mega-bar after chopping down numerous trees, and by the future Under Armour corporate campus, the offices of which are temporarily housed in the defunct Sam's Club Big Box store on-site.

So while Port Covington is still the "big kahuna" of proposed Middle Branch developments now in active planning, the city has lost much of its leverage to further guide it. Nevertheless, the extent to which Port Covington development takes place will determine how much spins-off to the rest of the Middle Branch. That is now a big uncertainty so at this point, we can only hope.

There is also one major parcel in Port Covington not owned by the Under Armour/Sagamore consortium, the now vacant Locke Insulator site just east of the Hanover Street bridge. This could turn out to be a key property depending on what happens to the bridge, which needs expensive repairs or replacement.

Peter Tocco's photoshopped waterfront hotel veneer for the casino's giant ugly deadening parking garage
 is still the best solution anyone has shown for this portion of the Middle Branch.


3. Horseshoe Casino Gateway


The Horseshoe Casino made a mockery of previous Middle Branch plans when it plopped a 3500 car parking garage directly on the waterfront, while orienting the casino itself toward the strip of gas stations, convenience stores and self-storage warehouses on Russell Street. Then the city added insult to injury by building a new Greyhound Bus station on much of the remaining waterfront green space - a location that has absolutely no relationship to the rest of the city's transit network.

Since then, Horseshoe's economic impact has been spiraling downward with the opening of the state's leading casino at National Harbor and a new casino hotel at Arundel Mills. The next seemingly desperate act  was to convince Top Golf, a chain of slick suburban driving ranges, to open its first urban outlet on the Middle Branch, where the animal rescue shelter currently resides. It remains to be seen how well the Top Golf concept adapts to an urban waterfront setting.

Resuscitating Horseshoe Casino appears to be a task where the city and state governments urgently need to take an active role, because they already have so much of a stake in it as a source of revenue. But the Middle Branch plan is mute to this.

This is the state's only urban casino so it is more sensitive to its surroundings than the others. It needs to overcome bad images people may have of its location and the city as a whole. All the planning so far of the Middle Branch has only made this worse - a place for a stinky incongruous bus station and a huge parking garage that backs onto a highway interchange above a swamp. The pretty pictures in the new plans try to soften this sorry situation but really don't deal with it at all.

The best solution so far is Peter Tocco's image of a waterfront casino hotel (see above) that serves as a narrow veneer to the parking garage and activates the remaining parkland. It's difficult to find good solutions to this hole that the city and the casino have dug for themselves. There may be other ideas, but no one has presented them.

4. Cherry Hill


The Cherry Hill community is where the potential of the Middle Branch has already been most realized and where planning concepts can most easily be tested. If folks want to just spread out a blanket or jog along the shore, they can do that now on the large grassy area north of Waterview Avenue. But not that many do. The key is connecting the waterfront to development, and the only use that does that is Harbor Hospital - not exactly quintessential waterfront activity.

My crude Google Earth graphics of waterfront development interspersed with the Harbor Hospital in Cherry Hill has a lot more reality potential than most of the superior renderings of the Middle Branch Plan design teams.

The simplest and probably best solution is simply to encourage Harbor Hospital's ownership to sponsor a development plan for the parking lots and underutilized areas around the hospital that is sensitive to the shoreline. This would encourage more recreational and other people-activity such as just passively hanging out. The hospital has made development proposals in the past, but obviously never got enough encouragement to follow through.

Another view of possible waterfront development adjacent to Harbor Hospital in Cherry Hill. The Hanover Street bridge leading to Port Covington is shown on the right.

Cherry Hill is also the community which would benefit the most from a new light rail spur, such as an extension of the one in the Port Covington plan. This proposed spur was hyped up when the Port Covington plan was being sold to the public, but has been almost totally left out of the conversation and drawings since then. A longer spur extension to Cherry Hill along with transit oriented development would refocus the interest. The existing light rail station on the opposite side of Cherry Hill is well used, but is not very close or convenient to most the community.

5. Brooklyn and Masonville


It was gratifying to actually see the latest Middle Branch plans extended as far south as Brooklyn, but the urban design firms did not do much with it. The southern terminus of the waterfront is shown in the plans as the Masonville Cove nature preserve, which has already been meticulously restored as part of the Maryland Port Administration's development. However, this is blocked from the rest of the Middle Branch and the Brooklyn community by a concrete plant, and none of the plans show this as changing in the future. The concrete plant clearly needs to be redeveloped for an active waterfront use.

Potential Brooklyn waterfront development on the current site of a concrete plant,
 as seen from the Masonville Cove nature preserve.

Such a project could be very attractive to a developer seeking a site that is isolated from the usual urban hubub, but still linked in. The linkage to the rest of Brooklyn would be via the site just to the west which is now occupied by possibly the world's most wastefully sprawling urban intersection between Hanover and Potee Streets and Frankfurst Avenue. Efficiently tightening this intersection would free up much waterfront land and for the creation of linkages to Brooklyn, Masonville and northward to Cherry Hill, where traffic on the Hanover Street bridge over the Patapsco River could be greatly curtailed or even eliminated.

6. MagLev Train Station


Cherry Hill appears to be the current leading contender for a Baltimore Station on the proposed mega-billion dollar 300 mph Magnetic Levitation Line between Washington DC and eventually to New York. This is more of an accident of geography than a planning decision, but Baltimore must be prepared to respond with its own intelligent plans nonetheless.

This station site is wedged between the Cherry Hill Light Rail Station and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and was chosen by engineers because it could be built on an elevated alignment instead of an even more expensive tunnel. But north of this station, it would still need to enter a very large tunnel portal somewhere in the Middle Branch/Westport lowlands area, under the very severe constraints of maglev alignment geometry. The impact on the Middle Branch and Westport could be severe.

A Baltimore maglev station would be a major boost to the city economy, so serious provisions would be necessary for high density transit oriented development. The most likely site for this would be the existing commercial and industrial uses in this part of Cherry Hill, which is probably not the best from the city's point of view since until now no plan has ever proposed displacing the current uses and jobs.

The other station option studied by the maglev consultants was downtown, most likely Camden Yards, which is certainly better for the city but billions more expensive. Another alternative proposed here is Patapsco Hill adjacent to the Patapsco and Baltimore Highlands light rail stations, just south of Cherry Hill and west of Brooklyn. This would be the least expensive option, especially in the short and medium terms and if it eliminated the need for a very expensive station at BWI Airport.

A Patapsco Hill Maglev Station would be a major stimulus to the Middle Branch plan and all its surrounding communities, but without undue impacts and pressure on Westport and the northwestern portion of Cherry Hill.

The role of the current Middle Branch Plan


The design competition for the latest Middle Branch plan has provided some attractive future scenarios that illustrate what a wonderful resource it is, but there are practically no clues as to what the city should do next. The first lesson is the one taught by Dr. Hippocrates: "First Do No Harm". Because harm is exactly what the city has inflicted with its casino and bus station developments and by letting Westport get imprisoned by land speculation.

The future is largely in the hands of outsiders: The Under Armour/Sagamore development team in Port Covington, the Caesar/Horseshoe team running the casino, the MedStar team which owns Harbor Hospital, the Japanese/American consortium trying to build a Maglev line, the owners of the Locke Insulator property, the Vulcan Materials Concrete Company and probably some other firms flying under the radar.

The city does have some priorities in the area that cannot wait until outsiders decide what to do, but these are not intrinsic to the Middle Branch plan: The Horseshoe Casino must be fixed so that it is a viable revenue generating competitor with the Arundel Mills and National Harbor Casinos. The proposed light rail spur needs to be planned so that it provides maximum benefit to the city as a whole, not just for Port Covington's speculative plans. And planning and design for the new or improved Hanover Street Bridge must proceed for the maximum benefit to the entire area.

As for the Middle Branch plan, it must be used as leverage to get its best outcome from any and all of the potential investors, and not simply as an end in itself.

Hargreaves Jones interpretation of the ecological evolution of the Middle Branch. Global warming is said to be raising the sea level, but the Middle Branch is being submerged under wetlands.

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