Wednesday, February 21, 2024

How to make a mockery of planning

The future will never be what we want it to be unless we plan it carefully. This is the purpose of professional planning and especially the purpose of 10-year master plans which are mandatory in Maryland. Masterplans are supposed to define the long-term future of an entire county or city, connect aspirations, regulations and resources into a long-term roadmap that provides transparency, predictability and guides all future actions, including resource allocation.

Bill 03-24 withdrawn, masterplan gutted. Now what?
Baltimore SUN 2/21/24

This is a lot. Which is why Baltimore County needed two years to complete its 2030 plan. Four years late, it finally was on the docket of the County Council on Tuesday to pass through the last gate, its final adoption. Alas, through a slew of amendments from every single councilman (there are no women in Baltimore County's Council) the vital parts of the plan were shredded before it was adopted. The more then two year process was snubbed with radical changes that the public never saw, let alone could comment on, and to which the professional planners could not respond.

Yes, there were some good and meaningful amendments, but especially two of the three Republican council members used the opportunity to thumb their nose to the Democratic County Executive and his planning staff. By removing the most meaningful element of the plan, the redevelopment nodes, from their district they neutered the plan. Wade Kach did it for eliminating and modifying several controversial nodes, but councilman Crandell took the cake: He asked for removing all the nodes in his district. Of course, the council could have voted down such an egregious attempt of turning two years of professional work into a meaningless tome by rejecting clearly spiteful amendments which  were clearly not based on any planning metrics. Yet, "councilmanic courtesy" prevailed once again, and all but chair Patoka gave the nod to even this rather frivolous amendments. 

This charade took place in the context of the Olszewski administration's bill 03-24 which would have allowed residential use in business zones, provided they were located in one of the redevelopment nodes. I wrote about this bill in this space before. 

The principally good bill was marred by a flawed  introduction which clearly soured the the mood of even the most sympathetic council members. Yesterday, then, in a late attempt to save at least the masterplan, the Executive promised to withdraw the bill in favor of a new bill to be introduced later. The idea appears to be to create mixed use overlay zones that gives the council a choice for each node whether or not to apply the overlay. 

The result of all this political sausage making on a topic that should be guided by facts, statistics, data and clear objectives and principles is that now the masterplan is in ruins and the mixed use bill withdrawn. Whatever overlay bill would be meaningless without nodes. That is especially apparent for Lutherville Station, a failing mall next to a light rail station (See here and here) which had become the posterchild of the entire redevelopment concept of the masterplan and of how outmoded current county zoning really is. A mixed use development proposal has languished there for years due to the councilman's objection and a small faction of the community yelling "no apartments-no compromise". 

The systemic problems that the Exec's bill and the masterplan tried to address remain, of course. They have been compounding for decades, whether it is zoning, transit, transit oriented development or mixed use. 

The Council may feel they achieved a victory when they defeated bill 03-24 and knocked the legs off under the masterplan, but it actually acted to the detriment of the County at large.  Without a strong resolve to add mixed use and housing in those failing commercial corridors all across the County, no matter whether an individual member may object to it for parochial reasons, the County will not be able to comply with the HUD mandate for affordable housing. 

Just as the masterplan is supposed to do, one needs to see the bigger picture, which is

  • A lack of quality walkable, attractive mixed use communities that other jurisdictions have and that people want to see
  • A glut of underperforming low quality commercial corridors that drag down adjacent communities
  • A significant housing shortage.

Auto oriented ailing commercial corridors forming the
forming the "geography 
of nowhere (Liberty Road)
As a consequence, middle class, middle housing people are not only not coming to Baltimore County, they are actively moving out. This hurts the County's tax base, its workforce and its school performance in the same way as this type of out-migration has hurt the City for decades.

The council now has to show that it can actually do better than revenge zoning and spite and solve the very real problems Baltimore County clearly has.

The State, meanwhile is moving along with its own bills intended to resolve the housing crisis by forcing jurisdictions who keep stalling into allowing more housing.
Baltimore SUN 2/21/24

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Thursday, February 1, 2024

HarborPlace Design Review - Round 2: More Questions

The HarborPlace design team (architect Gensler and Landscape Architect Unknown Studio presented to the City's Design Review Panel (UDAAP) for a second time today and presented the memorable moment when a team that was sent packing in the first round only to came back with the exact same design  expecting a different outcome. 

To be fair, in the initial review UDAAP didn't so much criticize the design as the lack of a process that showed how the team arrived at the design and the absence of submittals required during the concept plan review. In today's meeting those omissions were filled and the UDAAP process "rebooted" and the second session is considered an extension of the first.  

UDAAP minutes of 11/16/23: How do the streets to the north intersect with the project? The team has not shared what happens at these key nodes. Are they being maintained as entry points? Will they be redesigned?  How does that edge interact with the development?

There needs to be a much more rigorous investigation of the possibilities with regard to the massing and placement of buildings. There's absolutely no telling why the 2 towers are positioned where they are on Light Street, why they are on one side and not the other. 

The team is encouraged to challenge the morphology around the forms as they develop – provide more analysis on how these forms evolved from the initial concept and why specific locations were chosen over others. • The proposed buildings could be placed anywhere in the world; what about this site in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has shaped the buildings? If the team feels the building is in the wrong place, then it can be shifted. If not, then show the Panel why it is properly located. Either way, it needs to be studied for that conversation to happen. § Based on studies of the building form, the environments and public space will shift again and need to be solved. There is quite a bit of work left ahead for this project. The team is encouraged to be flexible as the process continue.

On the first day of February the team returned with the exact same design but with a lot more material to explain why the design looks the way it does. 

UDAAP usually wants to see and participate in how a project evolves. The reverse process in which a completed design is explained after the fact was highly unusual. An observer was left with the nagging impression that sketches and explanations were offered to justify a design that had already been completed and couldn't be altered and that some of those images may have even been produced for this meeting and not as part of the design evolution. Reviewer and architect Pavlina Ilieva observed that "Normally at a presentation of the masterplan concept level not so much is already realized" 

Nevertheless the explanations were illuminating and UDAAP was appreciative of the effort,even though not entirely satisfied that things have to be the way they were presented. 
In all, UDAAP members once again told MCB and lead architect Gensler that revisions were needed to their highly debated plan to redo the city's iconic Inner Harbor site.
And that includes the "character" of the project itself, says Osborne Anthony, a UDAAP member.
"I get the feeling just looking at it, that it’s beginning to take on an air of exclusivity and I’m a bit concerned about that," Anthony said. "In my mind, Baltimore is not chic. It’s a gritty area, it’s blue-collar. Its history stands for itself." (BBJ)

Below I will show most of the images that were presented as screenshots to explain the design, many of which had not been previously shared. Where applicable I share design reviewer comments per my notes. 
(All images MCB)

Birds eye view of the assembly of proposed buildings
Pavlina Ilieva comment: A building like the sail needs room to breathe. It needs space around it.
Ground level view from near where the Constellation docks looking southwest
.Pavlina Ilieva comment: What will this look like on a Tuesday when the crowds aren't there? How does this space feel like when the people are not there.? Will it have intimacy and feel welcome. What will people do there?
These framework sketches are illustrative of a mental construct that guides the later design. 
"Big Water"

Details of the Freedom's Port  Plaza bringing water towards the city

The idea behind the Freedom's Port Plaza. Sharon Bradley comment: Sharon Bradley: The Freedom Park works well as an arrival point but needs to express its topic in the materials .  Be careful of over-programming the water.

showing the footprint of the building outlines
Pavlia Ilieva comment: the disciplines really interacted I am sure not that the buildings landed and then the open spaces were made to mitigate them rather than the buildings being actually derived from a master concept.
Sharon Bradley comment: The water should not be overprogrammed

This plan shows the existing pavilions overlaid on the proposed buildings

This image shows HarborPlace in the context of the overall promenade
Pavlina Ilieva comment: "Colonizing the water" doesn't have to be all at HarborPlace, you have the entire promenade for water access.

This is a section through the high-rises and across Light Street
Kevin Storm question: Where is the parking? Response: Parking would be under or wrapped.
Panel question: Would there be affordable housing. Response: Yes, 10% affordable units at 60% AMI per new city code.
This framework sketch shows the idea of echoing the marshes that were originally around the Baltimore Harbor. Pavlina Ilieva referred to this sketch as a concept that much better than the completed design shows how buildings could be part of a landscape.

This rendering shows the upper and lower promenade next to the
 proposed office building. Pavlina Ilieva question: What is the first floor use of the building. Response: Undetermined. Pavlia Ilieva comment: I question that the masterplan logic requires that the spaces they create with the connections need to be filled with buildings. This was never interrogated . The logic of "how do we we fill the parcels with buildings is most problematic with that little building next to the WTC. In the composition it looks like a space filler. You don't have to fill the space on the ground with buildings. It could be a park.
"Public realm

Public Space and retail level interface

Public Space and retail level interface
Pavlina Ilieva comment: The design is too much about movement and not enough about being in a place. Where is the "there"?

Pratt Street section today and proposed

Light Street section today and proposed
Ilieva question: What is your option if these public street realignments don't come through?
 Response: Many public space improvements especially along the promenade are needed, whether we develop or not. See also Waterfront Partnership's Promenade Report. 
Comparison of the water edges different cities
Osborne Anthony comment: For your precedents why don't you go to Fells Point and tell us what you learn from there. I am concerned about an air of exclusivity. Baltimore is not chicque, its gritty. This needs to be reflected in the program and the uses. Try to capture "The true cultural tapestry of Baltimore".
Proposed building heights dip towards the Freedom's Port Plaza

Diagram of the connections to the water via street grid extensions
Osborne  Anthony's comment: You open up the roadway aligned viewsheds to the water and then what? There is no gathering space or recognition of arrival.
Same for pedestrians arriving at Pratt and Light. How do you carry forth into the ped circulation at Pratt and the connection to the stadia. Who are the users of the IH, past, present and intended?
Where are you key points of access after parking, by transit? 
Proposed floating sundecks and wetland-islands. 

public space at the Sail building

Conway Street corridor, view before and after

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, January 26, 2024

Charting the Future of Downtown Baltimore

On a recent winter Friday only a handful of lunch guests found their way into the B&O Brasserie on Charles Street. But the Architecture and Design Center across Fayette Street located in Mies van der Rohe's Charles Center building in a space once occupied by Burger King and then Staples was filled to capacity by folks who cared about the future of downtown. 

In spite of new development, downtown feels empty
even at noon on a Thursday (Photo: Philipsen)

The occasion was that the Baltimore City Planning Department had invited design professionals and stakeholders to a "design charrette" for all of downtown, from the Inner Harbor all the way up to Penn Station and from Martin Luther King Boulevard to President Street. This design workshop is part of a series of such events that the department wants to host towards an update to the Baltimore Comprehensive Plan of 2006. Doing this now, the City is a full 8 years behind the State required 10-year update cycle. The update has been in the making for a while and becomes more urgent every time another large project pops up that would benefit from a guiding framework plan, most recently the MCB proposed HarborPlace development. 

The event theme is “connecting our assets” and our starting point will be the recently developed ULI recommendations for Downtown Baltimore. The charrette will begin with a brief presentation covering the high points of ongoing plans and development in Downtown Baltimore, followed by break-out workshop style sessions.
The break-out sessions will be topical and geographical, and teams will be multidisciplinary. Teams will prepare recommendations and pin up their work for review. The charrette will conclude with a gallery style public open house to gain additional public input. (From the invitation)

However, the question hovering over the charrette participants is much bigger than the Comprehensive Plan update. The big question is the future of downtown, not only in Baltimore but in cities around the country, and, indeed, the world. Architect Davin Hong had set the stage with an editorial in the SUN

Charrette Poster 
If you were to walk around downtown Baltimore today, you may feel a little uncomfortable. With foot traffic noticeably sparse and storefronts empty, many streets feel somewhat abandoned and unsafe. The environment is missing the level of activity you would expect in a dense urban setting, all of which is the inevitable result of decades of economic decline. (Davin Hong, AIA)

COVID not only slowed the progress on the new Comprehensive Plan to a crawl, it also did a number on downtown, chiefly because the office workers who were initially forced to work from home were unexpectedly reluctant to come back. This in turn translated into even more retail and gastronomy failing, obviously a mechanism that is not limited to Baltimore. How much it applies to cities across the nation and the world depends on many factors, including demographics, the jobs offered in cities and how easy it is to get to them, whether a city is a tourist magnet and to what extent downtown had already been transformed from strictly office use to also being a neighborhood with apartments and condos. As a result of all these factors, some cities were hit harder, some less so. Cities are current trying to get the data to understand what is happening. Office and retail vacancy rates are regularly reported, but how many people come for how many days to work in downtown is harder to determine. 

One recent study compared cell phone data which indicated how many people are moving  through downtown before, during and after COVID. This study put Baltimore at an astounding 95% of recovery,

Planning Director Chris Ryer speaks to the charrette participants
(Photo: Philipsen)

ranking it second after San Diego. Eye level observation, however, tells a different story. Empty sidewalks, boarded up stores and fewer and fewer restaurants. Cynics attributed the cellphone data to the many homeless people that reach record numbers in many cities, especially San Diego. Other indicators are parking usage rates, transit ridership and hotel bookings. In no instance have the Baltimore numbers recovered to the pre COVID levels of 2019.

For the charrette the reporting on data fell to Claudia Jolin, Vice President of Economic Development at the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPoB). In the chirpy manner that is customary for DPoB she presented a few facts and figures from the various reports her organization has amassed, including the Analysis of Market-Rate Housing Demand in Downtown Baltimore Neighborhoods and Adjacent Areas and a ULI report from 2021, the 2018-28 investment forecast  including that from 2018 to 2028 6.5 billion of investment are in planning, construction or completed, that about 1000 units are underway in "residential conversions"

New apartments in downtown (Paca Street)
(Photo: Philipsen)
 (from office) with "nearly 25 completed projects centered around Downtown living". The forever stalled "Superblock" is finally moving through an actual review process with a new team and design and about 3000 employees are being relocated from the State office complex to downtown. Looking forward, the DPoB housing analysis estimates that the downtown area should be able to absorb an additional 1,250 units annually over the next five years. 

Downtown was long heralded as the fastest growing census trackin Baltimore, however, the census facts are more nuanced as the DPoB housing reports notes:

According to 2022 estimates, 41,998 residents live in the Downtown Statistical Area (DSA), approximately 787 residents less than the 2017 population of 42,785—an estimated drop of 1.8 percent over five years. However, the number of households in the DSA increased from 19,140 in 2017 to 19,388 in 2022, a gain of 1.3 percent.

After downloading these facts and figures, the crowd broke into 9 study tables separated by 6 geographic areas.  Each table had a moderator, sketch paper and a map at the ready in the usual charrette manner. With architects, planners and landscape architects dominating the scene, all kinds of diagrams and sketches emerged quickly which were then pinned on display boards, presented and explained by the table leaders and open to public review over beer, wine and snacks. 

Sketch showing high priority pedestrian routes in yellow
(Photo Philipsen)

True to the theme of the evening "connecting our assets", many sketches and ideas focused on connectivity and the walking experience in downtown. One group led by Bryce Turner who is part of the MCB design team for HarborPlace suggested a walkway right through the convention center that would act as an extension of Camden Street from Oriole's Park all the way to HarborPlace, giving pedestrians a direct route after ball games and allow conventioneers a safe and direct route to the Inner Harbor as well. One group proposed a big new open space west of Oldtown, others spoke about the barriers that need to be overcome on all side of downtown to connect back to the neighborhoods. Architect Peter Fillat minced no words when he reported about the area around the refurbished Arena; "All those walk connections in the area suck", he stated.

Table group at the charrette (Photo AIA)
Sharp Leadenhall community leader Betty Bland Thomas spoke about how I-395, the Federal reserve and the Convention Center have cut her community off from direct access. A view on the map confirms a whole serious of large urban renewal type super blockages that starve downtown from pedestrian flow from the south. 

The Planning Department's downtown charrette showcased visionary leadership, uniting our community to collaboratively envision the future of our beloved downtown. From pragmatists to dreamers, Baltimoreans expressed deep passion for the future of our city center, finding a platform for diverse aspirations in this event.(Claudia Jolie)

The hosting members of the Planning Department, Renata Southard and Caitlin Odette now face the task to incorporate the ideas and concepts into the emerging Comp Plan. A synopsis of the charrette is promised to appear on the Comp Plan website soon. Hong in his editorial puts a lot of stock in a good masterplan:  

A visionary master plan fully embraced by the state, city, Downtown Partnership and Greater Baltimore Committee can potentially make transformation possible.

The gap between the massive amount of development that, indeed, has happened in downtown including the near 40,000 people that call the area home and the daily experience of downtown as devoid of the lively vibrancy we associate with successful downtowns remains a somewhat unresolved mystery. Why can't Baltimore sustain more retail and restaurants in its downtown? Why does neither the refurbished Lexington Market, nor the remodeled highly successful Arena nor the many new downtown hotels and apartment buildings spawn vibrancy and eyes in the street? Why do the sidewalks remain empty and the desire of retailers to open shop here absent, even when the folks that now work from home are largely compensated by the influx of State office workers who relocate from from State Center? 

The unofficial answer is crime, or at least the perception of it. Add to that the principally welcome fact that the gaze of recent mayors has shifted from a fixation with downtown (for example under Schaefer) to a new focus on the well being of neighborhoods, and it becomes clear, that Baltimore's downtown can by no means be assured of a bright future.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Downtown transit rider in front of abandoned department
stores: Waiting for Godot?
(Photo: Philipsen)

Related on this blog:

Is Downtown Baltimore Doomed? (2021)