Wednesday, August 8, 2018

How the SUN move could become a catalyst for unplugging Calvert Street

The SUN's move of its offices and newsroom to Port Covington touches three questions: What will happen to the old site on Calvert Street, what happens in Port Covington and what is the future of the SUN? The answer to the last question is especially unclear: Represents the move a rise for the paper or is more of a very long sunset? But the answers to the other two questions are far from clear as well. Uncertainties represent opportunities. Baltimore needs to gear up to seize them.
Unfortunate brick modernism on Calvert Street

First announced in January the is year, the expiring lease at the current SUN headquarters on Calvert Street put the gun to the head of the SUN, although it had the option to renew the lease as well, with the SUN operations occupying only a small part of the building, not an attractive optioon, especially after the Tribune Media Company, which owns the SUN, had sold the SUN's sprawling 5.5 acre 435,000 square foot downtown facility in May of 2017 to the property management company Atapco Properties. Already in 2014 it had sold the SUN's Port Covington printing plant to Sagamore.

Atapco goes back to the Baltimore Blaustein brothers, who after a meteoric rise in oil business, merged with Exxon and later entered into real estate in 1961 with the still standing Blaustein building on Charles Street best known in the City. Atapco plans the revive the mostly dead SUN complex with mixed use, but no details or designs are known.
The SUN complex on Calvert and Guilford near completion in 1949. Note the
remnants of the elevated tracks from bygone streetcar days. (SUN Archive)

It isn't clear what Tribune Publishing, which had renamed itself Tronc for while, plans to do with the SUN. Tribune Publishing is currently in the news for trying the merge with Sinclair Broadcasting, a process that seems to have hit a bump lately. The sale of assets is never a good sign for the future of an enterprise and likely more part of the long decline of print-media than the beginning of a new rise. Sagamore didn't buy the SUN facility because newsprint was such a great investment but because the company has big plans for the area where the plant sits. So the future of the SUN in Port Covington is certainly not ensured. Nevertheless, Sagamore Development welcomed the move of the SUN newsroom and offices to their planned new town back in January, 2018 with this statement:
“We’re excited at the prospect of welcoming another tenant and continuing the on-going progress at Port Covington, Having the Baltimore Sun, an iconic presence in Baltimore since the 1800s – and most of its employees – come to Port Covington speaks to the excitement around the development and its momentum.” Sagamore Development President Marc Weller in a statement.
South Baltimore publisher Kevin Lynch, describes in detail how the SUN will be incorporated into the Port Covington plan in phase 1B of their phasing plan which began in April of this year:
The SUN complex is an ugly fortress like structure, no matter how one looks
at it. 
The Sun Park property includes The Baltimore Sun’s large building and two large parking lots south of the building. Sagamore Development is planning a reconfiguration of the 60-acre property to relocate the parking. It will also be creating a new street, “Purple St.,” to provide access to The Baltimore Sun building and new parking lots which are planned west of the building. Purple St. will be a northern continuation of Insulator Dr. at a newly-built intersection at Cromwell St.(Kevin Lynch)
While the initial phases of Port Covington keep the SUN in place, the final build-out plans envision it gone. Maybe that is symbolic for the meltdown of the paper that has gone on for so many years. On the other hand, Sagamore Development may find itself in a position where it wants to hold on to tenants and users it already has. So far, the SUN is an important business in the Baltimore economy, let alone that it's hard to imagine a city of Baltimore's size without a daily paper, real journalists who can do research and investigative journalism beyond what the online outfits can muster.
The SUN printing plant in Port Covington as seen from I-95. Friendlier
design, but already slated  to disappear

With the future of the SUN in the stars, the future of its headquarters on Calvert Street is the most tangible next thing of importance to Baltimore.  To fully understand that site one needs to look at the past, presence and future of the Jones Falls Valley.

68 years ago the SUN built initially a combined printing facility and newsroom facility, since 1988 Calvert Street is only the newsroom and office. In spite of its size the downtown location never gained any stature as a landmark or icon and did really nothing to revive downtown. One can drive by the giant complex a thousand times, and one would still not remember anything but a mass of bricks in a street that is not exactly rich in high-points except for the Courthouse Square. Going north one enters into a canyon of buildings choking the street with unremarkable facades. If Calvert Street feels decidedly peripheral, it is!

Up and down the JFX, the Jones Falls valley is a barrier, in part due to geography, but mostly because of the expressway and the land use decisions that ensued. The northern section currently see promising redevelopment that will help knit things back together even if the physical barriers remains. The Penn Station area is under complete redevelopment (See previous article here). The future of the southern end is responsible for nothing less than the future of Baltimore's historic downtown and the neighborhoods to the east. Wise planning could overcome all the barriers that have accumulated over time along the sunken river in its valley and the elevated expressway above it.
The elevated highway “is very disturbing from the viewpoint of architectural design and the impact it will have as a visual and physical barrier through the center of the city,” Local architects in 1962.
The SUN facility is part of the barrier, even though it was designed and largely constructed before the destructive freeway. Mercy Hospital and its mammoth garages and the SHA headquarters and its mega garage to the north are all part of a fortress and edge mentality. All are uses one would certainly want to keep, but all are designed as barriers because of the hostile freeway behind and the inability to have meaningful east-west views and connections. The assortment of uses on the east of the Fallsway is worse. Uses are marginal (such as BGE facilities, parking lots) or placed there because nobody else wanted them such as the prison complex.
Full build-out concept as submitted to Amazon
A much more fine-grained and permeable future arrangement should be part of a masterplan that Planning should adopt as a long-range vision. A guide that reaches far into the future would help currently being developed Jonestown and Oldtown plans and every neighborhood going north. Such a plan could build on the good work that has begun in 2009 when turning the JFX into an at grade urban boulevard had been studied.

It would also inform Atapco what to do with its acquisition of the SUN complex on Calvert Street.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Baltimore leading the nation in stress (Almost - thank you Detroit!)

One could measure the stress of a city by counting how many one encounters on a sidewalk scowling or smiling. How many are angrily screaming into their phones or yelling at each other. Or whether there are any people out at all.
Add caption

One you count how many drivers turn into crosswalks without yielding to those on foot. How many middle fingers one encounters per day. How often someone cuts into line, on the road or in a store. How many are sleeping on sidewalks, how many squeegee kids, how many asking for money.  How many can barely afford their rent, how many suffer from diabetes, obesity or ailments that go untreated for lack of insurance? How many liquor stores per city block. How many have to fear for their lives or that of their children and loved ones even when they simply go around the corner to a store?

Those would all be good ways to collect anecdotal evidence of the stress and how stress shapes our days. Those who live here know already that Baltimore is a stressful place. Travel to other cities provides additional evidence.
“The city is not merely a repository of pleasures. It is the stage on which we fight our battles, where we act out the drama of our own lives. It can enhance or corrode our ability to cope with everyday challenges. It can steal our autonomy or give us the freedom to thrive. It can offer a navigable environment, or it can create a series of impossible gauntlets that wear us down daily. The messages encoded in architecture and systems can foster a sense of mastery or helplessness.” Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (I debated his book with him on WYPR once)
Now there is a data-based study which validates the impression that Baltimore is a stresser. Baltimore sits on rank six of 182 cities total. It would be a great rank for something positive. The instigator of the study, Wallethub, describes its methodology  in which they compared the four stress factors: Work Stress, Financial Stress, Family Stress, and Health & Safety Stress, each weighing in with 25% this way:
Stress and city are often associated
We evaluated the four dimensions using 37 relevant metrics, which are listed with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the highest levels of stress.
Finally, we determined each city’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order our sample. (Wallethub)
One could easily dismiss this list as one of too many lists already, coming from a more obscure web company to boot, wouldn't it be that those four stress categories mirror Baltimore's problem areas so perfectly. Baltimore has actual deficiencies in all four of those categories. Cities with a better stress score, no doubt, fare also better when it comes to work, money, family, health and safety.

Baltimore as stress central is especially worrisome in a period where other cities are climaxing in success and happiness and have long climbed out of the dark valley of the financial crisis.  But we are still sputtering along with our slogans having sunk from "A city that reads" to "Nobody Kill Anybody". That in itself is a stressful thought. What is the possibly smallest common denominator?
Where emotions sit: People color in their body reactions

Every Baltimorean knows the depressing metrics in their sleep: the only east coast city which continues to lose population, a singularly high homicide rate, stubbornly constant vacancy rates, long commutes, high truancy and now record opioid death rates. All this produces stress even among those not directly affected. The key to low stress is a sense of control and the feeling that things are moving in the right direction. In Baltimore any sense of control seems lost. We can't even control our traffic signals. Stressed out people express themselves accordingly. This recent exchange on the Facebook page Baltimore City Voters says it all:
Person 1: "u think it’s okay for other people to come at me sideways and I’m supposed to let it ride... Nah, slim... I don’t play that shit!!!! I expressed my opinion like everyone else. Ain’t nobody gonna come for me".
Person 2: "This idiotic woman sees a grown ass man threaten to send a 12 year old to the hospital and then threaten to “beat the shit out of him” if he sees him AGAIN, meaning one random day AFTER this incident has passed but she thinks she needs to see more ! If brains were dynamite, you couldn’t blow ure fuckin nose!"  (Facebook "dialogue" about Baltimore police arresting a 12 year old who was with his sister looking for their cat)
Whether these two people know each other, whether they meant it or thought they were joking, the tone is an indication of a high stress level. The barrage of bad indicators can wear down the most hearty optimist and city booster. How one feels about one's hometown has a lot to do with individual well being and, in turn, provides the backdrop for public perception.

Trust reduces stress. Citizens want to trust politicians, police and teachers to get things going and having good intentions. But if schools cheat on grades, police robs its own citizens, politicians are indicted trust is replaced with a feeling of powerlessness and suspicion that far exceeds the actual number of such occurrences.
Stress as a topic: Fortune 
Anybody who regularly reads my articles knows this would be a moment to mention the feedback loops: The vicious and the virtuous cycles, upward and downward spirals. It has become harder and harder to ignore the local stress, even for those who are doing well.

Progress difficult to enjoy when it is distributed so inequitably. Even simple fun (like an electric scooter) can be quickly squashed by wielding the large clubs of moral righteousness which declare the fun variably as exclusive, white, elitist, thoughtless or all of the above.

The gender gap, the income gap, the incarceration rates, supremacy, elitism, white privilege, gentrification and sexism are always at the ready for guilt and stress. In a city where so much is going wrong, it is easy, and all too often justified, to unleash those terms to accurately describe what is going on. Facebook and Twitter have become the battle fields in which the new civil wars are being fought, person against person, slur by slur and it has become difficult to find the pics of grandchildren in between it all. The victim of the wars of stress is the consensus without which a community can not make progress. The consensus that makes the people of Baltimore have a sense of common ground is lost. Stories suggest, it did, indeed, exist.

Nothing creates more hopelessness than having the light at the end of a tunnel declared an illusion or worse, light that creates more shadow for those on the right side of whatever issue. Generations too enlightenment, the Enlightenment with a capital E, that is, as seeing the light, once and for all.

Of course, it isn't just Baltimore which is caught in this conundrum, even though people in other cities seem to be a lot happier, it is the entire country which has lost the consensus what it means to be American. Hope as a concept is ridiculed by authoritarian leaders who are not plagued by any doubts (Putin, Erdogan, Modi and Trump) and stoke the fires of stress, fear and depression with ploys, that unlike good old warfare and torture, are too ephemeral to grasp, such as cyberwar, misinformation, lies, insults, election tampering, Twitter storms, hacking, and other stuff most don't even understand. Thus stress has become international. Enlightenment and the arc of history towards progress is not only once again uncertain, to many the entire idea has been suspect all along.

Weather is some kind of equal opportunity stresser.   Indeed, the happy go lucky Californians (Fremont, CA, stress rank #182) are presently choking in smoke and coughing in droughts while stress laden eastern industrial cities (Detroit, Newark and Cleveland, #1, 2 and 3 in the stress ranking) drown in floods. Climate change takes the crown as a stress inducer. Articles like "How Did the End of the World Become Old News?" (New York Magazine, July 26, 2018) are re-tweeted until the last spark of optimism is extinguished.
Surrounding ourselves with positive and encouraging people during stressful times can brighten our mood and help us put things in perspective. Who wants to be with someone who is negative all the time? There’s nothing more depressing or stressful, so avoid those who stress you out. (Tip #7 of 15 against stress, Fortune)
The best thing to do: Pack the bags, visit new places, shut off the Twitter feeds and read a good book. Of course, not everybody can afford this and pangs of guilt will reverberate long after one has left town.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

This blog will have fewer articles in coming weeks due to travel. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The future of Penn Station

Baltimore has a tremendous asset which is not often talked about: It sits on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor (NEC), the closest thing the US has in terms of high speed rail and by far the busiest rail corridor in the country. Penn Station is Amtrak's 8th busiest station nationally, all positive top rankings that should be a strategy how to move Baltimore into the future just like the Port and airport.

With its comprehensive NEC plans, Amtrak hopes to double the 900,000 daily corridor ridership by 2040, not counting the riders which use Penn Station to ride MARC trains planning to offer an additional 16,000 seats a day on top of their current 30,000 daily trips by 2020. Penn Station needs a lot more platform and station space to process those passenger numbers and will become an economic engine in the process.

The lesser known backside of Penn Station (Photo: Philipsen)
Congressman Elijah Cummings has been promoting Penn Station for decades and he was there again on Tuesday night when Amtrak had invited to a "kick-off" event dubbed "Next Stop: Baltimore Penn Station" when he spoke to a filled auditorium in the UB Business Center.
“The Baltimore community has waited a long time, too long for the redevelopment of Penn Station” (Elijah Cummings)
In spite of the lack of strategic discussion about Baltimore's role on the NEC, Amtrak's call for envisioning the future of the station and the lands surrounding it, found a lively response from community members, transportation activists, train buffs and preservationists.

All the basics of a community planning session where there, the sticky dots to indicate the travel mode with which participants arrived, where they lived or worked and their motivation to attend. The round tables on which participants rotate from topic to topic and register their ideas, concerns and comments which a member of the project team staffs to record the essentials.
Visioning the future of Penn Station: Three rows of tables, three topics
(Photo: Philipsen)

Also part of the visioning session, the project overview and the obligatory declaration that this visioning session "was the beginning of a journey" (Natali Shieh, Amtrak), an assertion that is far from reality, considering how long efforts have been underway to get a handle on the future of the historic station itself and the fallow lands that surround it. The last step in this tiring journey was the December 2017 selection of  a master developer team consisting of developers, architects and contractors known as Penn Station Partners. The team includes Beatty Development Group, Cross Street Partners, Armada Hoffler, Gensler, RK&K and Cho Benn Holback.

Whatever all those firms have done since December, they didn't show it in this session except that Gensler's Chris Rzomp asked a number of "what if" questions which suggested that the firm had done some initial analysis. One of the what-if questions dealt with the chopped up station plaza and its many conflicts between vehicles and pedestrians and the idea of moving all intermodal connections to the east and west of the station so a pedestrian only front plaza could be created. Another what-if question asked about taking all the transit functions out of the historic building to a larger modern building. Various renderings from the initial submission give an inkling that this design idea has been around for a while, showing a modern station hall on the north-side of the tracks. However, Elaine Asal, outreach specialist at Gensler, insisted that the community meeting on Tuesday was, in fact, a beginning.
Available real estate in the study area (Amtrak presentation)

Stripping the historic building of its main function, to be a glorious portal to train travel would be a rather alarming prospect. Technological changes in the way how people purchase tickets and how trains are operated may mean that less space is needed for ticketing, that waiting times would be shorther and that amenities would be more integrated with arrival and departure.  At the same time, changes in retail would also indicate that retail wouldn't have to play the predominant role it does in Washington's Union Station.

On the other hand, table discussions indicated a desire to open the station up to the north side and in that sense the northern station hall in Gensler's renderings is just the right move. The round-tables discussed the three topics Public space, station and transit, character and identity. Comments ranged from dislike for the Borofsky sculpture to considerations of how Washington workers could be seduced to buying homes near Penn Station in Baltimore and worries about pricing out the affordability of Station North. Several participants stressed the importance of integrating the inter-city bus service such as Bolt Bus better and make the light rail connection easier to use. The 18 table facilitators from Gensler, Cross Street Partners, Beatty Development, the Central Baltimore Partnership and Amtrak will huddle soon to distill the greater wisdom of it all.

Meanwhile Amtrak will proceed with improvements on platforms and tracks in preparation of the launch of the second generation Acela trains in 2021. Current Amtrak NEC trains reach about 150mph top speeds and sustained sppeds of about $120mph.

The hope for transit oriented development (TOD) on Amtrak owned sites near stations is part of a nationwide "asset monetization" effort by Amtrak which includes similar initiatives in Chicago, DC, New York and Philadelphia, all going through the same three part proposal stages Penn station completed. Amtrak is looking to leverage what real estate it owns towards a private public partnership (P3) that self funds facility improvements and the creation of attractive multi modal transportation hubs. One of the nation's larger P3 efforts involving a historic Amtrak station has been completed in Denver where TOD around Denver's Union Station has created a flourishing new development area.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
The front of Penn Station with security bollards, taxi lane and Male/Female sculpture
(Photo: Philipsen)

Penn Station hall ceiling (Photo: Philipsen)

Table topic 1 (Photo: Philipsen)

Table topic 2 (Photo: Philipsen)

Table topic 3 (Photo: Philipsen)

View south from vacant upper floors of Penn Station (Photo: Philipsen)

Old switch and signal control center on second floor of Penn Station ((Photo: Philipsen)

Old switch and signal control center on second floor of Penn Station ((Photo: Philipsen)

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The scariest bridge in Baltimore

The scariest bridge in Baltimore may well not be the Hanover Street Bridge, well known for its deteriorated state with exposed rebar and chunks of concrete falling out of the decking but the Edmondson Avenue Bridge over the Gwynns Falls in West Baltimore. And the reason wouldn't be its 110 years of age or a poor state of maintenance but the bridge replacement work itself underway right now. What happened?
Remaining eastbound span with demolished span area
in foreground (Photo: Philipsen)
In modern bridge repair or replacement, it has become common practice to do the work while maintaining traffic by repairing or demolishing one half at a time, with the traffic on the other half. In the case of the stately Edmondson Avenue bridge dating back to 1907, this was facilitated by the fact that the bridge had been built in two halves and that they were meant to be structurally independent of each other. So when the westbound (northern) half was demolished starting in 2016, the state of 1909 was recreated, when the eastbound span had been completed but there was no westbound span yet.

During current construction beginning in December of 2016 the three lanes of traffic on each half had been channeled into two lanes in each direction compressed into the eastbound span. This may sound simple enough, but rebuilding such a big bridge is not an easy operation.

How complex it is can be guessed by looking at the work from the Gwynns Falls trail that traverses underneath the bridge and is sometimes open to the public even though it threads through the construction and staging zones which spread on the northside of the bridge along both sides of the Gwynns Falls River. From below one can see that  where the westbound span and its eastern abutment wall once stood, there is now a gigantic temporary shoring wall holding back the earth. And that is were the trouble arose with the copious rains of spring and summer. In May, after heavy rainfall, the right westbound lane sank enough to create a small ski jump right at the abutment that left many scrape marks in the asphalt and required real slow-down. The significant dip was twice filled with asphalt. But the lane seem to sink further.
Gwynns Falls Bridge

A couple of weeks ago, the remaining four lanes were reduced to just one lane in each direction with  the center closed of by barrels without any work being performed in the closed lanes. This, along with the resulting major traffic back-ups that ensue when a six lane arterial carrying upwards of 50,000 vehicles a day gets reduced to wagon bridge with just a single lane each way, made me suspicious. I sent an inquiry to DOT Director Pourciau and her communications office, asking whether the closure had to do with settlement and a possible attempt of mitigation through load reduction. An attempt to find out whom to contact at Stantec was without success. DOT's response to my detailed questions confirmed the hypothesis:
The massive amount of rain we have received this year has managed to infiltrate the previously unexposed portions of the bridge. This infiltration has caused some settlement. We are currently working on a repair plan to mitigate this issue. The lanes were closed to reduce the loading.(Vigil German, DOT)
Not a good feeling to sit stuck in traffic on the 540' span in a fully loaded 40,000 pound bus some 60' above the river. One has to wonder, is this bridge really safe? Obviously, with rain abound again, contractor Tutor Perini, bridge architects Stantec and DOT decided that it wasn't, at  least not with the full traffic. Does one lane of traffic each way make the deciding difference? Is that eastern abutment really stable?
Hanover Street bridge (Photo: Philipsen)
Once everything dries out, we will re-evaluate the bridge and re-open the closed lanes if it is safe to do so. (Vigil German, DOT)
That everything dries out isn't assured if current weather patterns continue. The eastern abutment sits at a low point of Edmondson Avenue, sloping towards the bridge along the Rosemont neighborhood to the north. The heavy stormwater would have been able to flow into the now exposed soils of the demolished westbound span right behind the temporary retaining wall, behind the steel piles and the wood lagging that replace the old concrete abutment. Naturally, the water would also penetrate sideways under the area of the active traffic lanes and the still standing abutment of the eastbound span, potentially softening and allowing settlement in the approach path. This could also destabilize that wall and the entire remaining structure which, having lost the second span also lost lateral stability, even though the two structures were designed to stand on their own. Deck and arches had been connected and where sawed off when the second span came down. During the 110 years of use and wear the two spans may have well have "leaned" slightly into each other providing lateral bracing.
1909 photo of construction progress

One has to trust that the engineers overseeing the complicated repair and replacement operation don't want to lose their sleep at night and properly assess the risks. One has to hope that the massive traffic on US 40 and the fact that there is no readily available detour, is not a factor for taking risks one wouldn't consider taking if a full closure would be less disruptive. Ironically, a detour suitable for drivers who know their commute alternatives, Franklintown Road through Leaking Park, had to be recently closed for wash-outs and fallen trees.

The bridge consists of a four-span, closed spandrel structure constructed of reinforced concrete and extending 541 feet in length and is 87.9 feet wide outside to outside. The structural condition of the bridge was declared basically intolerable requiring high priority of corrective action in 2014. The historic bridge was started in 1907 as a replacement of an older bridge and was constructed with streetcar tracks and in two halfs for east and westbound traffic, similar to the approach for its current replacement. Designs and specifications for utility replacement and abutments were prepared by Sabra Wang in 2012.
Bridge deck before demolition after median was removed
The road surface was continuous across the full width
photo: Philipsen)
The rain events are not only blamed for the settlement but also for delays and the destruction of a concrete sewage pipe running along the Gwynns Falls.. DOT provided this information regarding schedule to Community Architect:
The numerous flooding events have delayed the contractor. We are working with the contractor to formulate a recovery plan to try and get back on schedule. We will provide updates to all commuters and provide alternative routes.The current completion date is in the Spring of 2021.(DOT)
Proposed bridge rendering from 2016
The new bridge, once completed, will respect and rebuild the historic arch structure of the early concrete bridge which can be found in similar execution across the Gwynns Falls as a railroad bridge on Frederick Avenue and remotely similar also for the Hanover Street bridge. 
washed out bridge on River Road
(Photo: Philipsen)
One of the requirements imposed on the Department of Transportation by the Maryland Historical Trust was to maintain the historical arch nature of the bridge. Like its sister bridge downstream (Frederick Avenue over the Gwynns Falls and CSX) the bridge will feature an arch fa├žade where the bridge will appear to be an arch bridge if viewed from upstream or downstream. However the main supporting members will be precast concrete girders. (DOT)
The heavy rains which devastated Ellicott city earlier this year have brought down an entire concrete road bridge along the Patapsco River on River Road near Ellicott City. They have washed out soil behind abutments of many other much smaller and simpler bridges. The fact that new movement and settlement is acknowledged on an assembly that has stood for 110 years without fail is alarming, no matter how much one believes that engineers can calculate the risk correctly.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
The view from the west shows the back of the western abutment with the pile and lag temporary retaining wall
in the foreground and the forms for the concrete wall to be poured further in. The space between those tow would be filled
and become the support for the approach slab which will be"hinged" on the abutment

The same view as above showing all arches of the remaining span which will be demolished in phase 2

View from the east where the soils behind the temporary retaining wall where washed out 

The remaining westbound lane has a "bump" on the approach area indicating that some of the supporting soil softened
or was washed out

Concrete swales were created to catch run-off at the eastern temporary retaining wall but washouts occurred behind
the lags.

View of the eastern pile and lag temporary retaining wall and how it turns to support the soil under
the approach slab of the remaining span where some washout appears to have occurred.

Updated for sewage spill and additional photos 7/31/18. All photos copyright Klaus Philipsen.

Related article on this blog about the bridge construction work:

Edmondson Avenue Bridge replacement (12/2016)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Does it make sense for Baltimore to sue Big Oil?

Baltimore surely has a lot to worry about. Is it a good use of its resources to go after "big oil"? The city not always known for bold action did just that this month: A suit was filed by the Mayor and City Council versus Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP, Citgo and 21 other oil companies.

Even though this wasn't the first city suit against oil companies, it still caught the attention of national media and immediately provoked all kinds of snide responses.
Oil in Curtis Bay, Baltimore: Environmental burden and rising waters
Sadly, Mayor Pugh is doing the same thing previous Baltimore Mayors have done. Ignore the need for real reform in the city.And instead, just try gimmicks to raise money ("petefrombaltimore" on CityLab)
But those cheap shots look even cheaper if one considers the history of similar lawsuits, whether one thinks of tobacco, lead paint or asbestos. Especially the asbestos suits are strongly tied to Baltimore and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, whose firm still has 17,000 individual asbestos suits pending in Baltimore's courts. Tobacco, lead and asbestos were almost as common as petrol, but they have clearly lost whatever luster they had by now. Lawsuits played a big role in that.
"For 50 years, these companies have known their products would cause rising seas and the other climate change-related problems facing Baltimore today," They could have warned us. They could have taken steps to minimize or avoid the damage. In fact, they had a responsibility to do both, but they didn't, and that's why we are taking them to court...We are asserting our claims in state laws, and we will be making vigorous claims, meritorious claims, in state court,” he said. “We intend to prosecute this case through to the end.”  Andre Davis, Baltimore solicitor
People old enough to remember will recall that in each of these cases lawsuits were initially ridiculed with the same arguments which are used for ridiculing suing Big Oil over climate change. Especially the tabacco suits were met with denial of damages and later with the argument that smokers should have known that they took a health risk. Commentators on the Baltimore Big Oil suit are eagerly pointing out that the City still fuels its trucks and boats with Diesel and that the Mayor has a gas powered car. But this misses the point in a similar way it did with big tabacco.
Oil has many connections to modern life
"The people of Baltimore deserve their day in court," Richard Wiles, Executive Director Center for Climate Change, DC
The point is that those large corporations, which for decades made gigantic profits off their damaging product, did everything in their power to make people addicted to their product. In the case of tobacco the corporations went to great length making nicotine addiction stick far beyond the point where one can talk any longer about the consumers' responsibility for their own body. Ultimately, the courts found tobacco guilty. (United States v. Philip Morris). A parallel discovery is currently emerging about the role of pharmaceutical companies in declaring opioids harmless.

In the case of oil, discovery is not yet as far advanced, but there is already evidence that oil companies launched targeted disinformation campaigns about climate change at a time when they themselves knew better.
For decades their own scientists quietly published peer-reviewed research concluding that humans are causing global warming. That was the face we saw from Chevron’s lawyer. But at the same time, oil companies were funding contrarian scientists and think tanks to spread denial and doubt about that same science. (Guardian, 3/23/2018) 
In a court case between Chevron and the two coastal cities San Francisco and Oakland Chevron's lawyer accepted climate change:
"From Chevron’s perspective, there is no debate about the science of climate change, [...] Chevron accepts what this scientific body—scientists and others—what the IPCC has reached consensus on." Theodore Boutrous, Chevron lawyer.
Illustration JohnCook ScepticalScience
San Francisco and Oakland's case against big Oil was dismissed on June 26. US District Court because Judge  William Alsup got cold feet, my decidedly non-legal term for this.
San Francisco and Oakland’s lawsuit is effectively asking the court to “conduct and control energy policy on foreign soil.” If any branch of government is going to do something as big as shutting down global oil production, Alsup reasons, it needs to be done by elected representatives, not one judge and jury making a decision for the entire world. (
Baltimore's suit was filed in the State Circuit Court in Baltimore City. After lengthy elaborations about climate science, the economy and geography of Baltimore including a crudely colored map showing areas of flooding through sea-level rise the 137 page claim alleges that defendants created a "nuisance", "interfered with public rights", "failed to warn", provided a "defective" product ("negligent design defect"), "trespasses" and violated the Maryland Consumer Protection Act. As such the Mayor and City Council are seeking "compensatory damages", "equitable relief", "abatement", "civil penalties", "attorney fees", "punitive damages", "and other relief as the court sees fit". The City solicitor requests are jury trial. In spite of some customization for Maryland and Baltimore, the suit is largely a carbon copy of similar suits filed by 13 other cities.
Rising sea-level projection

When federal judge Keenan ruled in New York's case against oil companies in favor of the defendant, he wrote:
"Climate change is a fact of life, as is not contested by Defendants. But the serious problems caused thereby are not for the judiciary to ameliorate. Global warming and solutions thereto must be addressed by the two other branches of government," ..."“The immense and complicated problem of global warming requires a comprehensive solution that weighs the global benefits of fossil fuel use with the gravity of the impending harms. To litigate such an action for injuries from foreign greenhouse gas emissions in federal court would severely infringe upon the foreign-policy decisions that are squarely within the purview of the political branches of the U.S. Government. Accordingly, the court will exercise appropriate caution and decline to recognize such a cause of action.” (John Keenan)
 Naturally, the New York decision elicited different responses on both sides of the issue. For the Union of concerned scientists their president Ken Kimmel commented:
 “The fossil fuel company defendants claimed in court—and the judge apparently agreed—that it is entirely up to Congress and the president to address climate change, but these same defendants and their trade groups have fought successfully against even modest laws and regulations to cut the carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels that causes global warming. My grandmother would have called this ‘chutzpah.’” (Ken Kimmel)
Map in the complaint
Forbes contributor David Blackmon took a dim view of Baltimore's action one day after New York's case was tossed. would have thought that the City of Baltimore might have chosen to take a step back and possibly try a new angle after the setbacks dealt to their fellow cities.  Instead, they chose to plow ahead and deploy essentially the same strategy while expecting a different result. We all know what that is the definition of. (Forbes)
It remains to be seen whether the narrower focus of the claim on Maryland state laws will make a difference. When asked to comment on the Baltimore case, State Senator Bill Ferguson cautioned from his vacation spot that he doesn't know much about the case. He ventured to say that it could "come down to a fight about proximate cause". His "gut sense" is that "the real fight will be whether the City can establish just enough proximate cause to an identifiable City harm as to get past an initial motion to dismiss. If the City can get into discovery, then it's an interesting ballgame," Ferguson states. He added that he thinks that City solicitor wouldn't have entered such a high profile case " unless he thought there was a real opportunity here".
Sea-level rise has consequences: This could be the new normal

Tobacco is an example where "regulation by litigation" was successful. Similar suits against the gun industry have failed when Congress gave the industry blanket immunity and didn't go anywhere.

One can expect that cities will try a little while longer to seek compensation in the courts until they find a judge who is willing to take the case. Cities, indeed, bear a large portion of the cost of new the weather patterns with their high winds, extreme rainfalls and rising sea-levels.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Mayor Pugh's Press Release

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Planning Director to leave after 31 years of city service

Whether this is still part of the phase in which Mayor Pugh installs her own cabinet (Tom Stosur is a holdover from Mayors Stephanie Rawlings Blaker and Sheila Dixon), whether 31 years of working in various city agencies (mostly Planning) were really enough for one person or whether there was some other reason is not easy to determine. Fact is, instead through a press release, originally planned for last Friday, Mayor Pugh announced this morning in a cabinet meeting that Planning Director Tom Stosur had submitted his resignation from his post effective October 1. Asked to explain, Stosur provided this statement this to me:
Tom Stosur (BBJ)
“I will be retiring from City Government service as of October 1st, after 30+ years—essentially my entire professional career.  Nearly a decade of that time has been spent serving as Director of this great Department, and as Executive Secretary of the Planning Commission.  It’s really been an honor and a privilege to serve in these roles, to work with such dedicated and talented staff and colleagues, and to play a role in Baltimore’s ongoing evolution and progress.  I’ll be forever grateful for this opportunity.” (Tom Stosur)
Stosur, who holds a Masters Degree in regional planning from Cornell, started in Baltimore City Planning in 1987 at a time when the late legendary Larry Reich still held the reigns. Reich had been the chief planner under five Baltimore Mayors; Stosur made it through three. But he beats Reich in terms of his total tenure at the City by 6 years.
Stosur in 2010 (

Even if it was only for three years, Reich would have been a great teacher for the young planner Stosur beginning his first job. Unfortunately cities, city planning and the strength of the Baltimore Planning Department were on a waning cycle at the time, certainly compared to 1965 when Reich took his job, and it continued even beyond 2009 when Stosur was appointed by Mayor Dixon right around the time she was indicted. But Stosur served long enough to benefit from the then following period of urban renaissance that allowed him regain some ground and lead with some large initiatives such as a new zoning code, the Baltimore Green Building Code, the integration of the historic commission CHAP into the Planning Department, and the creation of robust offices inside the department which deal with sustainability, resilience  and urban farming. Recently the department created the position of Assistant Director for Equity, Engagement and Communications, and found out how unbalanced resource distribution had been in recent years.
"Tom Stosur deserves credit for having navigated the department through five years of Transform Baltimore and cerdit for getting the code itself into a more flexible and modern era. For example by including Transit Oriented Developmet and relaxing parking requirements." (Alfred Barry, former Deputy Planning Director)
According to the City charter, the planning department is instrumental in creating the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), which gives it special standing among the many departments in need of capital funds.  By definition, the Department of Planning is  supposed to plan, and other departments are supposed to implement. However, this simple set-up requires that the various agencies coordinate and work well together. In the initial years after Larry Reich retired in 1990 the department shriveled in its importance, in part for lack of leadership, and other city departments such as Housing and BDC jumped into the breach. Some of Baltimore's most formative developments, such as the redevelopment of all the large public housing highrises under HOPE VI and the BDC planning of the Westside (Superblock!), fall into that period. When Stosur took the post he slowly but surely regained some of the lost turf. Mayor Pugh who had her eyes set on restructuring Housing and BDC seemed to help Planning in holding its own.

Then this year the Mayor directly intervened in Planning's affairs when, with some influence from her special adviser Jim Smith, she restructured the design review process, initially called Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel (UDARP) and now relabeled as the Urban Design and Architectural Advisory  Panel (UDAAP). Two vocal panel members were abruptly retired. While the renaming seems to be mostly semantic, it was motivated by developer complaints about the process as not development friendly enough and discouraging investments. UDARP was only advisory in nature all along, but the intervention certainly signaled how the Mayor's office wanted to see Planning's oversight of development.

Stosur worked in Planning from 1987 to 2005, when he changed departments to become a senior facilities planner for Baltimore City Public Schools. In 2007 Mayor Dixon hired him as Assistant Deputy Mayor for Neighborhood and Economic Development before making him Planning Director in 2009. Asked about his future plans he offered:
“The immediate plan is to have no immediate plan. We will be taking a few months to decompress, travel a bit, recharge, and consider the options for our next chapter. It’s been a great run!”
In Baltimore's current turbulent conditions, a strong Planning Director would be more useful than ever.
"I think that a new Planning Director needs to understand what economic development can bring towards solving the city's problems, even though [such development] is seen in many areas as suspicious". (Alfred Barry)
Strategic decisions galore: How to balance demolition and rehabilitation of vacant rowhouses, whether to plan for new jobs or new residences, how to find the right course between equity based planning versus "building from strength" and between planning for existing residents versus for new ones, and how to distribute resources effectively but also fairly and equitably.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, July 23, 2018

How safe are Baltimore's Harbor vessels?

The horrible drowning of 17 Duck Boat passengers in Missouri brings to mind a time when those Duck Boats plied the Inner Harbor and Baltimore's Streets, the riders happily blowing their duck whistles while listening to the tour guide explaining the city's attractions. Duck, which operated here for seven years with up to eight boats, left Baltimore in 2009, in spite of the ideal water/city combination. In that they were like the other national or international tour chains, such a Big Bus which found our tourism not lucrative enough.
Baltimore Duck Boat before 2009 in the Harbor

Baltimore Duck Boat on Pratt Street
So  Baltimore is left with water taxis and a few local fairly large and sturdy vessels, not much to worry about one would think.

But the capsized Duck in the stormy lake in Missouri also brings to mind a deadly water taxi accident in the winter of 2004  which occurred under very similar conditions. Five passengers died in the Harbor near Fort McHenry.  It was a Seaport pontoon boat which had capsized in a sudden storm when a wind gust took hold of its large canvas side and made it roll over and float upside down with its passengers trapped underneath. Then just like in the Duck boat incident now, passengers did not wear life vests and were held down by the canvas enclosure. Still, 20 passengers were rescued. Could anything like that happen again in Baltimore?
We will never forget the lessons learned from the “Lady D” accident. (Michael McDaniel, President & CEO, Baltimore Water Taxi in a statement for this article).
All of Baltimore's remaining vessels are very different from the amphibious WWII type Duck vehicles, which operate in the not so well regulated space between land based buses and water based vessels. The amphibious vehicles were originally designed for military use in landing operations on beaches. Safety experts have said for some time that those crossover vehicles are neither properly designed for land nor for water safe and, therefore, not safe in either. They are high up on the road, lack bumpers and impact zones and they are too narrow and shallow in water to be stable. By contrast, the Coast Guard had approved the ill fated  water taxi for the route that it took back then because, as the NTSB report would declare in 2006, it had erroneously granted sister status based on a boat of a different size.
Baltimore Seaport water taxi pontoon boat prior to 2004

Baltimore's Harbor passenger vessels are regulated by the Coast Guard which issues various certificates based on categories of seaworthiness and risk. Operators need to hold Merchant Mariner Credentials. Water taxis fall into the category Small Passenger Vessels with more than 6 passengers under 100 gross tons. Public passenger boats also have to comply with accessibility requirements as defined by the US Access Board.
The area of operation for each vessel and any necessary operational limits are determined by the cognizant OCMI, and recorded on the vessel's Certificate of Inspection. Each area of operation, referred to as a route, is described on the Certificate of Inspection under the major headings “Oceans,” “Coastwise,” “Limited Coastwise,” “Great Lakes,” “Lakes, Bays, and Sounds,” or “Rivers,” as applicable. Further limitations imposed or extensions granted are described by reference to bodies of waters, geographical points, distance from geographical points, distances from land, depths of channel, seasonal limitations, and similar factors. (46 CFR part 176)
The pontoon boat that sank in front of Fort McHenry was at the edge of the area it was allowed to ply, i.e. up to Fort Mc Henry from where on the water opens up and a different set of rules applies regarding speed and seaworthiness. Seaport, then operated by the Living Classrooms Foundation as a competitor to Ed Kane's Water Taxi operation, ceased to operate water taxis after the accident. Kane's water taxi remained in operation but has since been partnered with Plank Industries. Kevin Plank's involvement led to the development of a customized boat manufactured in Baltimore's Brooklyn based Maritime Applied Physics Corporation, MAPC.

Today, most of the water taxi service is provided by five new 55' vessels, the Key’s Anthem, Cal’s Streak, Thurgood’s Justice, Billie’s Voice and Edgar’s Muse, a fleet that is still growing. The boats are ADA-compliant and bike-friendly, with WiFi, USB charging stations, heating, and drop-down windows. The boat is modeled as a modernized version of the classic Chesapeake Bay deadrise workboat and is licensed to carry 49 passengers and 2 crew members. Two pontoon boats remain in service. They are owned by Baltimore City and used to provide the free Harbor Connector service during morning and evening rush hour with the short jumps across the Harbor.
MAPC water taxi currently in service. Old pontoon boat in background

Baltimore Water Taxi also still holds on to the seven older catamarans, four of which are certified to operate past Fort McHenry. 

The new MAPC vessels with their high bow are more stable and powerful than the pontoon boats and catamarans  and are allowed to operate beyond Fort McHenry as it is necessary to service Port Covington. Baltimore Water Taxi has strengthened its rules when to stop service based on severe weather warnings. Service is stopped for all boats based on the needs of the least stable boats, the pontoons. The standards could potentially change after the entire fleet has been converted to the new boats in 2019, according to McDaniel.
The Baltimore Water Taxi continually monitors weather conditions that could adversely impact operations and follows the Small Passenger Vessel Safe Operating Conditions recommendations of the USCG.  If a hazardous weather condition is forecasted and/or detected within three nautical miles of our operating area, we immediately halt the service until those conditions improve and/or the situation is deemed safe.  The Baltimore Water Taxi uses a network of public and private weather monitoring stations to assist with this task (i.e., AccuWeather, The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, MyRadar, RadarUS+, WeatherBug, etc.).
We prioritize safety. (Michael McDaniel)
The Duck boats in Missouri had been on the lake well after such warnings had been issued. Once caught in high winds and waves, they did not have the power to steer into the wind and make headway against the waves making them essentially helplessly floating objects, even though one of the two boats managed to cut through anyway.

New Baltimore water taxi. Seaworthy through Low center of gravity, high bow
The Baltimore water taxi and Connector fleet is well underway towards becoming a viable water transportation mode that can serve tourists, commuters and those who just want to get quickly to the other side of the harbor year round. The services have not yet unfolded their full potential.  Water transit is only useful if its is reliable and not just a fair weather operation.

Baltimore Water Taxi operates under a Baltimore City license which includes the free and the paid service. The contract has just recently been renewed. (see here). Some questions about better landing facilities, more interconnected dependable service, additional direct routes which could relieve the congested Boston Street/Fleet Street corridor with a higher commuter  volume remain to be worked out.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles on my  blogs:

Water Taxi - Urban Transportation between Uber and the Bus

How to achieve real Baltimore "Passenger Ferry Services"