Friday, October 8, 2021

In Pigtown a Microcosm of Baltimore

 Created  as a distribution warehouse when Baltimore was a railroad town with rail access loading docks and 8 heavy concrete floors towering high over the small two story rowhouses of Pigtown, 1100 Wicomico ("Where Baltimore’s tomorrow is built today") is now everything that is exemplary for the post industrial legacy city:
The WICO front entrance area: dwarfing its neighbors
(Photo: Brevitas)

A co-working space where creatives, non-profits and start-up businesses work cheek to jowl
a place to conserve the heritage of sowing
a brewery and video arcade (in the works)
In 1915 distribution warehouses were called wholesale businesses. This one was an innovation for its size (416,000 sf), its large freight elevators, conveyor belts, and the logistics of how the wares were flowing through the building. This particular Amazon of the day was owned by the local immigrant Jacob Epstein, born in 1864 in Lithuania, who came as a 15 year old to Baltimore. Two years later, he already founded the Baltimore Bargain House, a business he incorporated in 1894. When even the Bargain House on Liberty Road  (now the Nancy Grasmick Building) which Epstein had completed in 1911 wasn't large enough to hold all the goods he peddled, he commissioned on the eve of WW I in January 1914 an all new type of building that was bigger than any other in Maryland (it predates the Montgomery Ward building), a huge cavernous structure which current owner Chris Regan describes as  "more of a hive". The Sun of January 11, 1914 notes that three steam engine run trains could be unloaded at the same time at a loading dock connected to the B&O tracks. Those tracks can still be seen leading into the building. 
Baltimore SUN 1914, trains, trucks and merchandise
(MD Jewish Museum)

To realize his dream Epstein hired local architect Joseph Evans Sperry, also known for the Enoch Pratt Library (Hampden Branch) and the Bromo Seltzer Tower. Epstein's enterprise was quite an economic powerhouse with employment peaking around 1600 people. Baltimore Heritage notes:
Epstein also built a local community of employees, which included over 1,600 people. The workforce was relatively diverse, comprising of immigrants from various countries as well as industry experts from across the nation. Many workers remained employed at the Baltimore Bargain House for decades.
Mail order was already a thing back then, and Epstein issued annual catalogs featuring his goods that could be ordered and delivered, quite like today, except without a computer and, in his case, limited to wholesale. The Henry Ford Museum has some of his catalogs on display. It explains:
His catalogs featured a variety of clothing, personal accessories, fabrics and household goods available to shopkeepers and retailers.
Page 192 of Epstein's mail order catalog in 1915
(Henry Ford Museum)

The Jewish Museum of Maryland
describes Epstein in a biographical sketch as a figure of note in Baltimore, in a long list of other outstanding Baltimoreans:
Epstein was the Baltimore Jewish community's most prominent philanthropist in the first half of the twentieth century. He established the Mount Pleasant Home for Consumptives (the Jewish TB sanitarium) and played a major role in the Federated Jewish Charities and the United Hebrew Charities, the two organizations which would later merge to become the Associated Jewish Charities. He was the Associated's most important contributor in the 1920s and 1930s. He helped establish the Baltimore Museum of Art and sat on the Board of Directors; his personal art collection was one of the founding collections of the museum. He also raised funds for the establishment of the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. Epstein also helped finance a Baltimore baseball team in 1913 for the short-lived Federal League.
Epstein was a major civic leader. He served on the Public Improvements Commission, the supervisory body charged with developing the land that Baltimore City annexed from the County in 1918, which tripled the size of the city. He also worked to make Baltimore the major supplier of goods to the South.
The once modern building eventually became a giant albatross. After its heyday under Epstein who died in 1945, Pigtown's largest building was largely forgotten. It idled in the hands of Baltimore City from 1976 until 2003, when it took its first run as an innovation center, then under the name of "the Raleigh". under the helm of a Boston firm and with the intent of creating a business telecommunications incubator and a trade center that would focus on bringing U.S. headquarters of Chinese businesses to Baltimore. (BBJ). The building changed hands for $1.25 million. In 2007 the building changed hands again for now $8.8 million and was finally sold again in 2017 for $10.9 million, this time to the current owner Tower Hill LLC. The building is now assessed for 10.38 million.
Sew Bromo: Tradition and progress in the garment industry
(Photo: Stacey Stube withNicole Samodurov and Susan Clayton
Sew Bromo)

The spirit of the current 1100 Wicomico is Chris Regan, a  Brown University graduate who wanted to be an architect but wound up graduating as a behavioral science major working in financing and  affordable housing. In 2001 he created his own real estate and consulting firm Tower Hill which now operates out of the Wicomico, which is the company's flagship revitalization project.  Regan discovered that "the WICO" has deep historical roots and made sure the building was redesignated as contributing in the Pigtown historic CHAP district, although he didn't success to get funds from the forever underfunded State historic tax credit program. It irked him that the vacant and burnt out Ice House team received $3 million and had to return the money for non action while his employment hub went empty.

Some of today's occupants dream big just as Epstein once did. And not all is about new technology. For example, Stacey Stube: Born around the corner to an immigrant she moved her "Sew Bromo" enterprise into the building, a step that was featured in the Baltimore Business Journal. She operates under the brand name Elsa Fitzgerald.

[Stube] is plotting a pilot to bring entrepreneurs and industry experts together to help grow a new generation of fashion businesses.
The SEW BROMO - Fashion Innovation Hub will support startups by providing education and small-batch production support. Stube hopes the space can serve as a small factory operation, where local and global fashion entrepreneurs can learn about garment manufacturing from the digital space.
The hub will provide fashion entrepreneurs with ample space, tools and support as they navigate everything from learning traditional garment-making skills, to crowdfunding to support production, to online marketing and sales.

A year in, Stube didn't quite make her goal of raising $100,000 through a much recognized 8 day 200 mile super-marathon run, but her aspiration to save the history and art of sewing for Baltimore is no less ambitious and her enterprise appears to be flourishing thanks to her tenacity. 

Stacey Stube at 1100 Wicomico's garment factory
Innovation at Fashions Unlimited 
(Photo:Jill Silverman)

Another tenant with high aspirations is Early Charm Ventures. In their own words, they are "a venture studio, founded in 2012 in Baltimore, that converts science to business." The company specializes in taking scientific discoveries made at universities and turning them into start-up companies. They offer their experience in linking companies with researchers. Lifting Labels is "guided by [the] mission to reduce poverty [and] is "Changing Lives with Each Stitch" to ensure that formerly incarcerated men and women can find and retain quality, empowering jobs when they return home to Baltimore City by manufacturing ceremonial apparel." Cindy J. Cosmetic Labs is a woman owned minority business "with her own formulation laboratory for Cosmetic business owners who want to start their own line of products like Hair Care, Skin Care, Color Cosmetics, Men’s Care, Baby Care, and Bath & Body Care." Galen Robotics "is developing a single-platform solution to aid surgeons across several disciplines with minimal disturbance to existing workflows. Our cooperative control paradigm aims to eliminate hand tremor and enable surgeons to realize precise minimally invasive interventions in otolaryngology, spine surgery, and tissue reconstruction that were previously considered beyond human capacity".

The building has plenty of space left, even after a new brewery will open on the first floor, potentially with pop up spaces in the fall and a final opening next spring. Vagrant Coffee already operates a small coffee shop on the first floor. The eight floor, wide open and offering fantastic views across Baltimore on all sides remains up for grabs. Representative of the dynamic image the project emanates, things are in constant flux. The City of Baltimore operated a contact tracing operation here that came and went. Morgan University held events here and had an exhibit about redlining. Politicians hold fundraisers, a food truck sets up and then disappears. Hammering, boring and cutting are frequent noises, telegraphing well through the heavy concrete structure.

Events on the 8th floor: MSU lecture in 2019. (Photo: Philipsen)

I should mention that I rented a small co-working place in the building after my lease on 429 N. Eutaw Street ran out and I was looking at a much smaller space in a creative setting. My neighbors in the co-working suite are sevenwcllc, an interior designer and the marketing startup Goldiata Creative as well as developer Dean Harrison. The current directory lists 52 tenants. COVID has slowed activity in the hub, but certainly not squashed it.

The Wicomico is the spark for other entrepreneurial in the area of the adjacent Carroll Camden industrial park. Next door a 116,000sf industrial building will be converted by Mayorga,Organics LLC, an organic coffee company that also enables sustainable coffee farming in Latin America, relocating from Rockville to Baltimore. Several other long dormant buildings in Carroll Camden Industrial Park are also slated to become active again. Also in a perpetual state of renewal but with a clear upward trend: Pigtown’s “Main Street”, Washington Boulevard with its newly dedicated pig weathervane gateway symbol designed and fabricated by local resident and sculptor Rodney Carroll.   

In the trajectory from innovative hub of economic vitality to decades of decay and dormancy to failed attempts of revival all the way to a renaissance that consist of part future, part past, part entertainment and part food seems to stick. In that the Bargain House/Raleigh/1100 Wicomico represents a mirror to what happened and continues to happen to the entire city. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, September 27, 2021

A Strategic Plan for Baltimore's Transit Buerau

The history of local transit

It has been 51 years ago that the privately owned Baltimore Transit Company (BTCO) had dwindled out of existence and a State operated Baltimore Metropolitan Transit Authority took over which then became the MTA. 
It took 40 years that Baltimore City gave it a shot again to run its own transit in form of the Charm City Circulator. The new service resuscitated earlier attempts Downtown Partnership to operate a "trolley bus" for a while, until they ran out of money.
One of the new fleet of Charm City Nova buses (Photo Philipsen)

The 2010 Charm City bus, clad in purple and green, was an innovative electric bus that looked a bit like a Wienermobil and was charged with an internal gas powered micro-turbine. 

Nevertheless, excitement was great about a bus that was free, had high frequency and that boasted some "real time arrival" signs ("bus comes in 4 minutes"). For a while it looked like the City could show the MTA the way to run a bus. 

Soon the City added a bikeshare program, it too was innovative, at the time it had the largest fleet of electric assist bikes. Then came the dockless bikes and scooters and City DOT began licensing those as well. 

The water taxi, in operation in various forms since 1975, predates all of that. It too, is licensed by the City and operated privately.  In fact, all the noted modes services are planned, designed, procured and licensed by DOT but operated by private companies. This collaborative partnership is practised by many cities around the country, but it has its weak spots which contributed to the fact that each of these modes descended at one point or another into catastrophic failure, forcing DOT to regroup over and over. A full reckoning has yet to happen. A strategic forward looking plan for DOT's Transit Buerau would need to take also a hard look back to rectify what went wrong in the past.
The Transit Bureau is responsible for the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) transit programs including the Charm City Circulator, Harbor Connector, Bikeshare, Rideshare Programs and Transit & Marine Services (Dockmaster’s Office). BC-DOT website

The local mobility debacles 

The calamity came when the innovative electric bus faltered in face of  Baltimore's hot summers and steep hills. It had to be retired long before the normal 10-year lifespan of a bus which cut a big hole into the available funds. The vendor Veolia helped out with some of his own fleet vehicles which eventually descended into food-fight between City and Veolia that ended with a lawsuit Veolia's abrupt departure. The debacle proved that there hadn't been enough oversight and a contract that left too much open for interpretation. Riders were left stranded until the City stood up some emergency service with limousine operator RMA that was based on an emergency contract. When Circulator riders had to board black limousine vans allegedly operated by in part insufficiently trained drivers the charm was off and the flagship service had lost most of its fans. Today, after the City purchase 14 new buses those troubles are mostly overcome.
Short lived: Bewegen Bike share station (Photo:

The innovative electric bikes didn't fare much better. They proved less popular than thought and many bikes wound up inside the harbor or otherwise vandalized. Stung by losses and excessive repair cost the Dutch-Canadian Bewegen company stole itself out of town leaving empty bike stations.  Dockless bike sharing is supposed to fill the whole but has up to now never really taken off in Baltimore. Instead, the City seems to have banked on the latest trend: Dockless electric scooters.

The good old water taxi had its Waterloo in 2004 after one of the two operators had a catastrophic accident in a sudden thunderstorm that cost 5 lives. Subsequently services were consolidated into one remaining company, but questions about the seaworthiness of the light boats remained until the service was taken over by Kevin Plank in 2016 when Port Covington dreams ran strong. He replaced the canvas covered old summer fleet of mostly ponton boats with custom designed faster, seaworthy, year-round boats that allowed ADA compliant access, bikes on board. Plank's long-term goal: Service to the Middle Branch and his new "global headquarters". But after the Baltimore unrest of 2015 tourists stayed away and the fancy boats became a rare feature on the harbor's waters, not operating in winter at all, and in the nicer seasons only on weekends.

All this could be just bad luck or it could be a sign that Baltimore's DOT is struggling. 

Firstly it has to organize itself within the currently unfolding transportation revolution in which cities around the world rediscover that streets could be more than just container for cars by adding bike-lanes, pedestrian areas, bus lanes and a plethora of "active transportation" options, namely the beforementioned scooters and bikes. On top of that ride share by car is a thing that requires new thinking and so do the exploding delivery services that added to the old standby of pizza delivery the delivery of, well, everything. Consequently postal trucks, FedEx, UPS, Amazon, PeaPod and many others are fighting over every inch on the streets, including the bike and bus lanes. 

Secondly DOT also had been diminished by corruption and by mayors who didn't pay enough attention to transportation, saved in the wrong places, and left much of City government rudderless. With a new director and motivated new staff the department is now on the mend.

The transportation revolution blurs the border between public transit and private transportation through new operating modes such as ride-sharing, new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, and new integrated smart phone based payment platforms such as Apple Pay, CharmPass and the like. 

Meanwhile, the bulk of Baltimore's transit remains with the State run MTA which also depends via traffic signals, bus lanes and bus stops depends on how well DOT runs. MTA has its own set of troubles and it has become a popular target of local lawmakers who were stung by the Governor's killing of the $2.9 billion Baltimore Red Line and how he had given the largest city in the State the boot while he let the similarly priced companion project "Purple Line" proceed in the Washington suburbs. A Baltimore transit authority once again seems attractive. Several Baltimore legislators and transit activists prefer such a Regional Transit Authority which would give Baltimore more say in local transit.
SPIN Scooters licensed by the City are required to be also placed in the
Black Butterfly (Photo: Philipsen)

While Baltimore as a city and DOT and MTA as agencies struggled each through their own set of crisis, cities around the world were booming, giving local transit nationally a boost. 

Then came COVID. 

The pandemic did a number on transit in cities around the world. Ridership plummeted by anywhere from 40-90% (MTA). Many local shuttle services like the Detroit Streetcar or the Baltimore Circulator stopped service or ran a reduced service. The Charm City Circulator and Connector resumed regular service on June 7, 2021. They had used the disruption to receive 14 shiny new Nova buses which are still not electric, but they are proven to work. The water taxi continues to run only on weekends on two types of loops.
Failed retail downtown: After COVID downtown 
will never be the same (Photo: Philipsen)

On top of the already ongoing transportation revolution COVID added more disruptions, sometimes exacerbating trends that had been looming for some time: One is the changing function of downtown.
  • Downtown will never be the same again: demand for office work located there will remain weakened. Depending on forecasts, between 10-30% of office workers will never return.

  • This puts downtown retail and restaurants into a tail spin, further depleting transit demand there. 

  • Overall, traffic and travel patterns become more dispersed geographically and by time of day essentially turning "rush hour" into an all day event. The dispersed demand is harder to meet with transit.

The hub and spoke system of transit is no longer valid. At the same time the insight that streets are there for more than just cars has exploded globally. During Covid many cities have leapt forward with the implementation of additional bus lanes and active transportation lanes. Baltimore is far behind its peers in this. 
A strategic plan for DOT's Transit Bureau

Considering all of this history and the attractive portfolio it would be quite interesting to see how  a modern DOT transit office would position itself in the next 5-10 years and how they would differentiate themselves vis-à-vis the more traditional MTA transit. 
DOT’s Transit “Bureau” portfolio of transportation services fits quite neatly the multimodal “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS) concept that in transportation conferences is often touted as the future of transportation.Even though all of DOT's modes are being managed from the same desk, they still don't operate from the same user platforms, a key requirement of MaaS.

Obviously, a Strategic DOT Plan would not only be about the high flying issues of the transportation revolution or with the causes of past breakdowns. It would also have to deal with all the pesky questions that have never been properly answered, namely funding.

How should city transit be funded?
To answer this it is useful to recall the Circulator he water taxi was a service licensed by the city. Since then the bus service was expanded to the point it requires each year general funds to sustain it. The Connector also bleeds money. Bikeshare and the scooter services as well as the water taxi are supposed to be revenue sources helping to keep the mobility fleet afloat. The good news is, scooters seem to recover quickly after COVID in spite of a still reeling downtown. 


What is the division of labor between MTA and DOT?

BC-DOT and MTA need to closely cooperate in this environment to not cannibalize each other , to create synergy and towards an end to end menu of mobility options in the spirit of Mobility as a Service. It should help that the MTA will shortly come out with its own Strategic Plan, a fisrt for the agency. Cannibalizing of the Collegetown and apartment shuttles crisscrossing the city needs to also end and those riderships need to be consolidated into one commonly funded system

Water Taxi: New Plank designed boats. Good for winter but only
running on summer weekends (Photo: Philipsen)

How viable is the water taxi? How does it relate to the free Connector Service? What is the vision? 
The first question is closely related to the future of Baltimore and how attractive it will be for visitors. The second answer is simpler: Operationally it makes much more sense to combine these services without distinguishing the boats and branding, a requirement that comes from the City.
Free tickets can easily be arranged for workers that use the service as commuters.
The extension to the Middle Branch would offer additional utility for residents and commuters. A fast commuter line should start at a park and ride terminal at Canton Crossing and intercept some of the east west traffic overburdening Boston, Fleet/Aliceanna Streets. 

It makes no sense to exclude anybody from a boat that is running, anyway, no matter when or where. Conversely, it may make sense to operate the water taxi as a on-demand service instead of a semi-fixed schedule service.

 BC-DOT manages the water of the Inner Harbor via their Dockmaster, and wharfage fees, revenue sources that can support the water transit services. Likely there are untapped synergies. Then there is the issue of the docks, ie. the landside stop facilities for the water transit. They are as important for the experience as the boat itself and they are currently very skimpy, not unified and as far as information goes, a puzzle for potential riders.  The docks could act as pearls on the string that is "the promenade", have amenities such as shelters and benches, real time arrival info and at least some should  be hubs connecting to the Circulator and MTA services and offer bikes and scooter right there.

Free water transit: The Connector Service

Is the circulator operating optimally? What is the 5 year perspective?


The Circulator has suffered from mission creep. But a downtown with fewer employees, a future of automated fleet vehicles without a need for parking require to put the service on a new footing. Maybe as a hyper local service that is free and frequent and equitably serves residents, commuters and visitors in downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods.
A service plan should either be based on extensive stakeholder participation or the City should give up being so prescriptive.  If orescribed service and budget don't align, one option is to ask the operators how much service they can offer for a given budget and let them compete over service rather than price.  
The current routes seem to make little sense: The Purple Route is too long and duplicates too many other bus services. The Banner Route duplicates MTA bus 95 and was originally based on a time limited grant. If the service remains it should connect to the water/Connector dock at Hull Street and serve Tide Point/Under Armour. The Green Route looks very "gerrymandered". It needs a clear purpose. For example, it could become a northern east-west route connecting Middle East with Pennsylvania Avenue via Mount Vernon/Seton Hill. The current north south route portion on Broadway could be a separate second north south route and connect up to North Avenue.
The Circulator map shows that the service dominates in
the "white L" and that the green route has a chaotic
routing (website)

How can bike and scooter share be supportive of the bus and water services?
The personal mobility devices change rapidly. DOT needs to remain flexible and manage them so users and non users benefit. The dockless technology needs oversight and organized parking so these scooters are not lying across sidewalks and clutter the environment. Scooters with seats and potential cargo bikes offer new opportunities. Scooters and bikes should be deployed so they intentionally complement the bus and water services 

What does it take for DOT to truly manage this portfolio?
Lastly, the question of the know how and capacity to mange transit and new mobility technologies. The past has clearly shown that lack of oversight, abuse and capacity were issues. The transit Bureau cannot be an afterthought, it has to be a key partner in everything DOT does, including signal priority for transit and the bus and bike-lanes that makes these modes successful

DOT embarked on a Strategic Transportation Plan under Director Sharkey's predecessor Pourciau. It has been pretty quiet around the progress of that plan. A focused Strategic Plan for the Transit Bureau could be a jump-starter and model for the rest of the department.  By the way, MTA also posted its own first ever strategic plan

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

This article is based on a presentation I gave to the Advocacy group Transit Choices on 9//23/21. That presentation can be found here

Friday, August 27, 2021

How to stem the tide of Baltimore's population loss

The results of the 2020 census must be a wake-up call for Baltimore. Just like every previous decade before, Baltimore has been bleeding population once again. My friend Paul Sturm summarized the calamity in an opinion piece in the Sun this way:

Many of the stories about the new census data showing Baltimore City lost over 27,000 people (5.7% of its population) from 2010 to 2020 neglected to mention Baltimore is the only major city in the northeast corridor to see its population decrease over the past decade. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and New York all gained residents during this period — ranging from a 5.1% increase in Philadelphia to 14.6% in Washington.

Even more troubling is Baltimore’s 30-year population trend compared to other major northeast cities — particularly Boston and Washington. In 1990, just over 736,000 people lived in Baltimore City while 574,000 lived in Boston and about 607,000 in Washington. But as Baltimore lost more than 150,000 people over the past 30 years, Boston gained 100,000 residents while Washington added nearly 110,000. Each city now has over 100,000 residents more than Baltimore.

I have long held the opinion that population growth is the closest to a silver bullet that Baltimore has to offer. (see previous blog articles here and here). More people would add resources, avoid school closings, help retail and prevent our neighborhoods from falling into a cycle of decline. More demand would stabilize real estate values in declining neighborhoods and would help maintaining a qualified and versatile workforce. In all, maintaining Baltimore's population would make life of existing residents better, not worse.

Blue= Population gain, red =population loss.
The Black Butterfly and the White L in 
different colors
 By contrast, the ongoing shrinkage brings even higher concentrations of poverty, even lower demand for retail, it depopulates our schools even more and exacerbates the growing disparity between the the labor pool that is needed versus the one we have. All of this would further deprive existing residents of opportunity.  As such the discussion whether growth would serve or deprive existing residents is really moot and so is the discussion whether additional residents mean "gentrification". 

In a city that had been “built-out” by the 1950s in terms of its size and geographic boundaries, how many people move in or move out is at the root of many issues at the neighborhood level. Using this one measure (the change in total population at the neighborhood level over two points in time) can help everyone better understand the interconnected set of issues and experience residents, businesses, and other stakeholders are having. (Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance)
BNIA's map published shortly after the latest census indicated the renewed staggering losses that Baltimore incurred. The map  also shows  that the losses are not at all evenly spread. Instead they follow the by now well known pattern of the "black butterfly" and the "white L", terms coined by Lawrence Brown, a former Morgan State University professor, describing the poor, disinvested and almost 100% African American communities in East and West Baltimore in the shape of two butterfly wings and the thriving center area spreading east along the waterfront which is often majority white. Brown also publishes the annual Baltimore Apartheid Syllabus. As BNIA's Professor Colin Starger referring to Brown's maps and terms illustrates in this video, the pattern of the maps is pervasive across many indicators and data sets that the BNIA institute has compiled. Starger explains the correlations the maps illustrate.
"And yet, you can see that the same basic pattern is repeating itself over and over to me. And I have to say, that as a visual thinker, this is a powerful indictment of structural racism. And it is a powerful indictment that is rooted completely in data that has been verified by BNIA and is open source and available to the entire world.
And we can see that you're not going to be able to solve one problem unless you grasp this whole situation. Unless you understand that everything is related and the type of hypersegregation that Dr. Brown is talking about isn't just a product of one simple system.
And it's not just the product of intentional discrimination. Rather, it's the product of a system that just kind of has a lot of inertia, doesn't care, and advantages some people and disadvantages some people, and has all sorts of implicit biases built in."

 Clearly, population loss is most concentrated in the most disinvested communities of east and west Baltimore.  And yet, the answer can't simply be to pump lots of money into these areas and growth will follow.

The plight of deeply disinvested areas is not new, nor is the desire to do something about it.  The debate about the best way was exemplified by the different positions that Mayor Schmoke and later his successor  Mayor O’Malley took. For example: "Working from greatest need" was Schmoke's approach, "working from strength" was O’Malley's with theoretical support from Paul Brophy. Based on biggest need, Kurt Schmoke and developer Jim Rouse tried to rebuild Sandtown together, not from the top down but based on community support and the BUILD coalition. My firm and I were a small part in the rebuilding Sandtown effort after 1992. We all know what happened: The Sandtown dream died, not for lack of effort or will, but for lack of the resources needed to work against the market and the tide of  ongoing urban flight. After Freddie Gray died Sandtown became a symbol of failure all across the world. Today the problems in Baltimore's deeply disinvested areas are much bigger, not smaller than then. 

"You can’t push the rope", Bill Struever, a developer  with ties to then Mayor O'Malley used to say. O’Malley using his "working from strength" approach wanted to invest in east Baltimore using Johns Hopkins as the anchor of strength which would fuel the revitalization effort in the Middle East community now known as EBDI. O'Malley never developed a specific growth strategy for Baltimore. His time is now mostly remembered for his "broken windows" approach to crime and the mass incarceration that followed. Middle East was largely depleted of its original residents, dislocation was as  massive as the investments making the successes of this east side development still suspicious to many.

Still, working from strength continues to this day to be the strategy Baltimore's Planning department and its Director, Chris Ryer,  lack of resources is still the deciding factor. Five  “impact investment areas” were identified under mayor Pugh, they did not include Sandtown. The brochure has since been modified to include more areas. Ryer speaks a lot about “middle neighborhoods” communities that have not yet failed and which have somewhere near them elements of strength, a park or some anchor institutions. Asked in a 2019 interview by the American Planning Association about the Planning Department’s approach to community development in the city Ryer said this:

It’s what we would call a “middle neighborhood strategy”: neighborhoods that are not wealthy, not in good shape, but not highly distressed. Fifty percent of Baltimore’s population live in these middle neighborhoods —  not highly distressed, but not highly successful. They could go either way. This is where the community development world plays now, because they don't typically have the resources for the distressed neighborhoods. We know in middle neighborhoods, our target areas, there are certain corridors that matter a lot: Greenmount Avenue in Waverly or Pennsylvania Avenue or any arterial in middle neighborhoods. They’re typically a mixture of residential and commercial, one of which is not really functioning in the market. (APA)

The term goes back to a 2010 study "Great Neighborhoods Great City, Strategies for the 2010s," which followed the previous census and the hand wrining about population loss then. Data from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore and the Department of Planning suggested a tri-part city: Neighborhoods that are stable and attractive (36 percent, now known as the "white L") "middle neighborhoods" which are stable but require attention to offset potential deterioration (35 percent) and those already seriously deteriorated (29 percent, now known as the "black butterfly"), places from where residents continue to leave.

Barclay is the showpiece of a turnaround community, it may have started as something less than a "middle neighborhood". But it worked from strength: Its strength was the Central Baltimore Partnership and the universities in it that helped to organize a strong community based and inclusive strategy. (I previously wrote about working from strength, Baltimore's neighborhood development and Barclay here). But Barclay is small, close to the "white L"  and it would take many many Barclays to eliminate the ills of the Black Butterfly. Many other middle neighborhoods are not part of the black butterfly configuration and sit further out along Perring Parkway or the Liberty Road corridor, for example.

Looking at the latest census and BNIA's map, the"middle neighborhoods" would be orange or yellow. One could say that it is less relevant to have the right analysis explaining the biggest population loss, but how a workable remedy can look like. 

As in COVID, in the end we don’t beat "the virus" with moral arguments or pointing to rights and the like, but by doing what is practical and what curbs the spread. Moral arguments won’t beat urban decay or the flight out of communities that have been in decline for decades. Instead, how to leverage available resources most effectivley to prevent people from leaving where smaller investments can make a critical difference. Sandtown, Harlem Park and large parts of Park Heights offer a glorious past and some really tough residents that are wonderful community organizers. But turning these communities  or the vast areas north of the Amtrak "piano" in east Baltimore around requires  nothing less than federal and State reparations in the billions of dollars.  

In sum, building from strength in an incremental but systematic way has no practical alternative, unless there would be a giant policy shift, for example, the payment of reparations. And then there are the overall quality of life issues in the city, crime, schools and transportation, all three are recognized but only the schools improvement program is funded and on a somewhat solid footing.

That gets us get back to Paul Sturm's commentary. He points out that one giant difference to the cities to which he compares Baltimore is transit, or in Baltimore's case, the lack thereof.  Sturm references various studies which point to the link between poor access and mobility and poverty and the continues:

The research of the University of Baltimore’s Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance comes to a similar conclusion. “The impact on urban neighborhoods of long commute times is highly detrimental to population growth,” the Alliance says in a 2016 report.

More data about the impact of unreliable public transit in Baltimore comes from the Baltimore Collegetown Network. In its 2018 survey of students at 16 schools, only 36% said they were “definitely or likely” to remain in Baltimore after college, with “Better Transportation” cited as the most frequent response to “What is Baltimore missing that you wish it had?”

The prospects of Baltimore getting better transit are not rosy, the talk about reviving the Red Line notwithstanding. However, the Biden administration and the possible infrastructure packages represent opportunities which Baltimore must use. Good reliable access to jobs and opportunities for those without the ability to drive is a must for any city; alone climate change dictates it. 

With each decade the lift of stemming the tide of flight out of Baltimore is getting bigger and harder. Time to get it done. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Updated with a more succinct summary 8/28/21

Improving public transportation is key to reversing Baltimore’s population loss | COMMENTARY

At the Patapsco Light Rail Station, riders can connect between the light rail line and buses. The Maryland General Assembly will take up the proposed Transit Safety and Investment Act this session. Jan 11, 2021. p2
At the Patapsco Light Rail Station, riders can connect between the light rail line and buses. The Maryland General Assembly will take up the proposed Transit Safety and Investment Act this session. Jan 11, 2021. p2 (Amy Davis)

Find SUN the op-ed here.

Paul Sturm ( is Chair of the Downtown Residents Advocacy Network

Thursday, July 8, 2021

How the failed Security Square Mall could become a thriving town center

 Death by a thousand cuts

Security Square Mall is one of the dying  malls that dot America from sea to shining sea. But while successful mixed use town center style redevelopments have become success stories and new economic engines, Security Square mall's decline is reaching levels that many had thought unimaginable a few years back, even when the vultures were already circling over the 90 some acres making up the mall. There are at least 3 creepy videos about the mall on YouTube. A recent petition to do something about this malls has garnered 800 signatures. The Reisterstown branch of the NAAPC is forming a working group to figure out what can and should be done. Mall owners fight each other in court.

Security Square Mall: "The  eagle has landed", an isolated, winged object
in the landscape (Google Earth)

The 1 million square foot mall was built in 1972, a winged structure surrounded by a vast sea of asphalt. By comparison: All of historic Fells Point in Baltimore  is comprised of only 75 acres and has 15,000 residents, the new HarborPoint development in Baltimore City rising where the former Allied Signal plant once sat is only 26 acres large, but is planned for 3.0 million sf of development. In short, the 90 acres of the mall represent a very poor use of land.

The mall has been dying when Montgomery Ward became a Seoul Plaza, and when that gave way to a bunch of Asian themed small stores, , and a husband and wife church called "Set the Captives Free" and when Montgomery Wards became a truck driving school.  It died when Sears closed in October 2019, when Old Navy left, when Hechts became Macy's and Macy's tumbled from one reorganization to the next. Today the only recognizable retail names left are Macy's and Burlington. 

COVID has given the dying mall another blow, and yet, the emaciated mall is still pretending to be a viable destination. Still,  there is no practical plan for the future, not even an official vision.

Historically, shopping malls have been isolated, single-use developments that
stand apart from the community. Their exterior presence is typically monolithic
and overscaled, with blank architectural forms that are oriented inward—toward
vast, climate-controlled shopping arcades—and that turn their backs on surrounding neighborhoods. Parking structures and lots accentuate this effect, creating a concrete moat that limits accessibility from beyond the site, except by automobile, and separates the mall from community life. In the 1950s, this was the brave new world of shopping; in the 2000s, it is an anachronism, an artifact of a world that no longer exists. (ULI Mall Paper)

Feuding owners

A sea of asphalt around an empty burg: Security Square Mall
(Photo Philipsen)
Things are so dire that  a witness in the Board of Appeals Case No. CBA-21-008 testified that a recent fire in the vacant former Sears area could not be quickly extinguished, because the successor company couldn't be reached and the firemen had to break in to get to the flames.

The legal case sheds a light on the reasons why no progress has been made with this mall. There are five different owners with very different outlooks.  The owners don't pull in the same direction, more accurately, they are at each others throat. 

The Board of Appeals case is based on one owner wanting to build a "pad use" in form of a WaWa convenience store and gas station and had filed this project under a "planned shopping center" designation which Baltimore County approved, even though this lowest tier development would be the last thing that is needed here. Blocking the edges of the mall property with additional auto oriented uses would cement that status quo as an island and stifle creative, comprehensive new development.

A Greek inspired failing shopping temple
(Photo Philipsen)
Another mall owner, Howard Brown, who developed the Owings Mills Metro Center, filed an appeal to revoke the designation as planned shopping center.  His lawyers argued this designation isn't applicable to this mall. The verdict is still out. 

Howard Brown himself has obtained development approval for two office buildings on the mall property, which would also present an obstacle for a comprehensive redevelopment in conflict with Brown's other idea of turning the ailing mall into a  vibrant town center. At least that is what he announced publicly in a full throated community meeting on a Wednesday night in March of 2017 in Woodlawn, where Councilman Quirk had introduced the developer as a "truly transformative" force. (I wrote about this here). 

"As in most malls, it's time [for it] to be scrapped and it's time to come up with a new concept. You don't have anything in this area. You have suburban apartments, you have retail strips but you don't have an urban center which encompasses all of it. Macy's will probably close soon and then Sears will probably follow and then the mall is done.... Time to start a new concept...Retail is dead after 9pm, mixed use town-centers have life 24/7" (Howard Brown at the Woodlawn community meeting and as quoted in the SUN).

Brown then also predicted "five years of litigation" but suggested, he would be the winner and come out as the "master developer" for the suggested urban redevelopment that would look "as if it was 

The spooky interior of what used to be the JC Penny store (Mall video)
downtown Baltimore City, [but] located in Baltimore County".  Since then over four years have passed and an end of litigation is not in sight. No further refinements of Brown's redevelopment ideas came to light either.

Mall to mixed use town center: An old hat by now

The idea of scrapping ailing malls and department store studded shopping centers and replacing them with urban, walkable, high density, mixed-use" developments has been realized all across America. These re-developments create "traditional" town-centers with streets, sidewalks and storefronts and restaurants lining a grid of streets interspersed with small open air activity spaces.

Good examples can be found near Washington, for example at Rockville Mall (which was converted to Pike and Rose) and the White Flint conversions in Montgomery County, and on Metro Stations in Arlington County, such as Clarendon

A high intensity "transit oriented development (TOD) had also been the assumption when the Red Line had been designed to terminate in the Social Security Square area, before this rail transit line was killed  by Governor Hogan in 2015. 

Rockville Mall, now Pike and Rose (Photo Philipsen)

Several malls in the Washington area, such as Tysons Galleria and Pentagon City were already conceived in a more urban form from the start and have been substantially upgraded and revised in recent years. 

The issue of dying malls has been so pervasive for so long that as early as 2005 the Urban Land Institute (ULI) convened a high powered expert group  and developed "Ten Principles for Rethinking the Mall". Those princop[les are still applicable today and should be considered when it comes to Security Square Mall:

  1. Grab Your Opportunities or They Will Pass You By
  2. Broaden Your Field of Vision
  3. Unlock the Value of the Land
  4. Let the Market Be Your Guide
  5. Create Consensus
  6. Think Holistically Before Planning the Parts
  7. Connect All the Dots
  8. Design Parking as More Than a Ratio
  9. Deliver a Sense of Community
  10. Stay Alert, Because the Job Is Never Done

Why the future of this land is so vital for the County

The question of hulking Security Square Mall is no trifle matter for the future of the western part of Baltimore County. which in this area is a fairly narrow section hemmed in between Patapsco State Park and Baltimore City, bifurcated by the Beltway.  Many of the county neighborhoods in this western and southwestern area fall into the category of "inner ring suburbs", a planner term for the older suburbs which tend to have been overlooked by investment and subsequently have taken on some of the demographic and economic dynamics of the neighboring core city.

A 2007 sketch showing how the Security Square Mall area could have a
street grid and be a towncenter (ZGF Architects)
"Inner ring" downward trends can include sinking population, higher crime, low performing schools, lower home values, and lack of quality retail. 

These threats have been recognized for some time. Years back the County created revitalization districts  and some serious efforts were made to revive historic "streetcar villages"  such as Catonsville and make them attractive destinations. While the restaurant and music scene in Catonsville has become a success story, and Pikesville offers some attractive retail such as a Borders Bookstore and a Trader Joe's grocery, most westside residents have to do their shopping  for clothes, appliances or quality home accessories in rather distant places such as Columbia, Harbor East or Towson. 

Meanwhile county homebuilders and developers are complaining that they are running out of space to build. A 90 acre dense redevelopment could allow millions of square feet that wouldn't have to happen  on the few remaining farm-fields or in forests inside the urban-rural demarcation line (URDL). In fact, the redevelopment of Security Square Mall into a dense urban center would fit nicely with the original concept of vibrant new town centers which had been conceived when the URDL was first created. White Marsh, Owings Mills and originally also Security Square were the place where development was supoosed to be concentrated in order to save the farms and fields outside the URDL

2007 sketch how a new town center could look as seen from Security Blvd
(ZGF Architects)

But real town centers  don't happen by just waiting for them. They take active planning as the ULI case study of mall redevelopment clearly postulates:

One clear insight that comes from these case studies is the vital role of the local (state, county, or city) government in leading the repurposing effort to
bring back economic activity in the area. The cities and counties in these
case studies have provided public support through infrastructure, financial incentives, and streamlining the process for investors. 

The Security Square mall area is extremely well connected, even though access to I-70 is somewhat cumbersome. It is also a transit hub with several bus routes terminating on the mall area itself. Higher density here would not overwhelm roads or transit, nor would it remove any valuable forest or open spaces. Compact new development would actually improve the enormous storm-water run-off that the totally sealed off area creates today. Just as Clarendon in Arlington County shows, high density development of apartments over top of retail, restaurants and entertainment  could taper down at the edges, so it wouldn't overpower the surrounding low density residential areas. As in Clarendon, the development could surround a public plaza or small park in which events could take place, picnic and outdoor eating in the summer, ice skating in the winter. 

Target, Whole Foods and several other "big box" retailers have developed urban versions of their standard suburban boxy stores, examples  can be seen at the Whole Foods at Harbor East, in Columbia, the Target at Columbia Heights in DC and many other places around the country which feature lower level parking and sometimes two story or upper level stores which can be reached via sloped step-less "escalators" that allow shopping carts to be moved between the levels. In that form even those stores could then be incorporated into a redevelopment.

How Security Square Mall is divided up into
separate properties (Board of Appeals exhibit)

A high density mixed use redevelopment of the 90 acre area of Security Square Mall could also incorporate all current owners as equity partners and provide opportunities for existing retailers to return. The new development would have so much more space to offer, that nobody would have to be displaced and pushed out, except for the truck driving school. 

Per the communities desire, the development could include a community outreach center or other public functions, such as a post office (as in the current mall). The redevelopment could offer housing of a variety that is usually not found in the County, except for Towson, including affordable and accessible housing units which are in extremely short supply in Baltimore County.  

In short, opening up several million square feet of development space would be a great economic development initiative. It would provide jobs during construction and operation, could give a boost to existing communities, create a new destination, offer attractive shopping and dining opportunities, and bolster the County tax coffers. Heck, coming so late to the party, this redevelopment could aim to outdo all those who came before and become a model in sustainability and equity, especially by incorporating local minority owned businesses, the best stormwater management practices, lush vegetation, attractive open spaces and net zero buildings that make their own energy through solar, geothermal or other renewable sources.

The role of government 

At least three past County Administrations missed to act on any of the ULI principles. When asked about Security Mall and its potential as a major transit oriented development during Red Line planning, the late County Executive Kamenetz pointed to the mall as a private matter. It's in the hands of all those owners not government's business he told me. 

Now with equity and climate change as the major agenda items being front and center for all local officials, shrugging the shoulders about the protracted legal mess at Security Square Mall is no longer an option. Nor should it be an option to bring urban mixed use development to the southwest of the County by using green spaces or low density single family housing as proposed by the Promenade development promoted by Whalen properties. That development doesn't have nearly the same connectivity and it would cannibalize the potential of the Security Mall redevelopment. 

The potential of the Security Square Mall property  won't be unlocked without pro-active government involvement, the hard work of achieving a consensus on the desired outcome, figuring out the development partners, the financing and the incentives and decisions needed to make it all work. 

White Flint Mall redevelopment rendering (website)

In many places these type of complex deals are achieved in public- private partnerships for risk sharing and a broader access to funding options. In the case of Owings Mills' Metro Center, the partnership included the State of Maryland and its MTA, the County and the private developer, Howard Brown. MTA owned the surface parking lots of the Metro station that were needed to build the center. Thus, the State offered the land and funded a garage that would replace the lost parking.  Brown built the mixed use structures and the County contributed a library and the Community College branch.

In such a partnership, the initial risk and financial investment is reduced and spread among each group, with the expectation that public investment in a major tenant like a college or library will attract additional mixed-use development. (Maryland Department of Planning)

The Washington area mall redevelopments are architecturally more interesting than Metro Center in Owings Mill. They offer a lot more retail because Metro Center is being cannibalized by two other large retail developments within a 2 mile radius (the old Mall redevelopment with big box retail and the redevelopment of the Solo Cup factory area). This case of uncoordinated an non synergistic investment about which I have written before here and here must be avoided in the southwest area. 

Security Square Mall represents a unique opportunity to get it right by learning from the best of what others did when mall redevelopment was still pioneer work. The promise of a win-win-win for the public, the current owners and the County should make everyone rush to the table. 

Baltimore County government can't sit back any longer just waiting for the mall owners to duke it out. Instead the feuding owners should be forced to come to the table, should they don't see the light by themselves. Options range from citations for all county code violations found on the 90 acres to a development moratorium and, ultimately, the nuclear option, condemnation, if and when life and safety of the public is in peril, as when the fire department couldn't locate an absentee landlord.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The article was corrected for the sequence of changes of store is the mall. Montgomery Ward did not change into a JC Penny but turned into the truck driving school and other uses.