Thursday, April 19, 2018

A new day for safety on Baltimore's streets?

As Michelle Pourciau, Baltimore's Director of Transportation likes to say, she manages the largest piece of real estate in all of Baltimore City. That is true, Baltimore's Streets and public right of ways may constitute up to 30% of the city land area, that would be 30 square miles of land! This week Pourciau got prime time TV coverage to talk about her streets on all major local channels by announcing to ticket those who block intersections.
New fines bring lots of media attention (Screenshot CBS)
“Motorists who block the box cause traffic congestion, delays and prohibit vehicles from passing through the intersection safely. But also it creates dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, because they can’t walk safely through crosswalk areas.” (DOT Director Pourciau)
Unfortunately, a lot is not well on her real estate. In large part designed by an infamously car-centric traffic czar of the 1950s, Henry Barnes, it isn't a great exaggeration to say that the streets of Baltimore have become a truly mean place in which it is too easy to get killed or maimed, not only by gunslingers but by speeding drivers who pretty much ignore all the rules without fear of any repercussion. Each year, nearly 20,000 crashes occur on city streets, including 30 percent of all statewide pedestrian crashes and 17 percent of all traffic-related pedestrian injuries. 513 pedestrians were hit by cars in Baltimore City in 2016, 20 fatally. "Leading the State", the Mayor said, certainly not an area where one wants to be in the lead, even though Baltimore continues to be the largest city in the state.
St Paul Street at Fayette Street: A notorious place for blocking the junction
(Fox TV photo)

The City announced action package to do something about safety is good news. (Department of Transportation Launches Comprehensive Safety Campaign Aimed at Reducing Accidents on City Streets). However, the package is rich on slogans (“Don’t Block the Box”, "Don't be that person") and meager on facts, metrics or benchmarks. The media attention was given to the announcement that the City will enforce "blocking the box" with $90 fines and a point for a moving vehicle violation. Blocking intersections is certainly a big nuisance and fining violators worthwhile, it is hardly a logical outflow of a careful analysis of the biggest hazards on Baltimore's Streets.

The lack of data and analysis is especially surprising, given that a safety campaign in light of unacceptable fatalities, crashes and injuries is not a new idea. It really should be a follow up to Mayor Rawlings Blake Baltimore Strategic Transportation Safety Plan of 2015 which set pretty specific targets: It included these goals:
Rawlings Blake's safety plan of 2015: Forgotten?
  • Recalibrate City’s Safety Efforts to Be More Effective 
  • Goal 2: Improve Data Collection, Coordination
  • Goal 3: Reduce Pedestrian-Involved Injuries and Fatalities by 50% 
  • Goal 4: Reduce Bicycle-Involved Injuries and Fatalities by 50% 
  • Goal 5: Reduce Impaired Driving Injuries and Fatalities by 50% 
  • Goal 6: Reduce Injuries and Fatalities in Crashes Involving Older Drivers by 50%
  • Goal 7: Reduce Distracted & Aggressive Driving Injuries and Fatalities by 50% 
  • Goal 8: Reduce Crashes, Injuries, and Fatalities at the Highest Crash Locations in Baltimore City by 50%
Each of these goals was set for an eight year time-frame and was accompanied by a set of specific actions such as this:
The Department of Transportation should quickly analyze the top 10 high-crash locations (intersections and segments) to identify and implement low-cost improvements such as advanced hazard identification warning devices/ dilemma zone guidance, signal re-timing, turn restrictions, additional and upgraded traffic controls (signals, signing, and markings) to immediately improve safety. Conduct “before” and “after” studies to determine the effectiveness of the improvements. 
Establish and train a multi-discipline team of planners, engineers, maintenance personnel, law enforcement, and safety professionals to conduct up to six corridor audits per year to carefully review crash data, field investigate roadway conditions, report on potential road safety issues and identify opportunities for improvements in safety for all road users.
It isn't clear if any of the many actions in the plan were actually undertaken and if the annual data collection has improved since 2015. The announcement this Wednesday made no reference to the 2015 action plan and provided no indication whether crash statistics have been improving or worsening, no baseline data and no targets. (Unfortunately crashes and fatalities have been going up recently in national, state and local data). Similarly, the revival of traffic enforcement cameras for speed in school zones and red light running was also not based on specific crash data or set in relation to the 2015 plan.
Whistles but no tickets: Those officers can't issue citations. (Photo: DOT)

The SRB plan was strong on improving the data base and mapping of crashes. A search on the DOT website with the keyword "crash statistics" yields as the only result the newly announced safety initiative. One can't know if the new Transportation Director read the 2015 plan at all, what she thought of those goals and what her Department has been doing since 2015. 

From a citizen perspective it is disconcerting if each successive head of DOT starts from scratch instead of building on what was done before. Even more troubling would be if the department sat on its hands since 2015. The new emphasis on enforcement and fines is also not all that comforting, especially in the case of the "block the box initiative", since it wasn't announced from where the capacity  to monitor the infractions would come. The whistling DOT traffic officers in their lime vests have no enforcement power and cannot write tickets, especially not those that carry points. So it would take Baltimore Police to do it; we know they are busy elsewhere.

Talking about police: Just as crime can't be eradicated through policing alone, frequent and blatant traffic violations can't be eliminated by enforcement alone either. In both instances one has to address the root causes of the problem. In the case of  Pourciau's real estate, Baltimore's streets, it is all too often the design that contributes to those streets being so hazardous to pedestrians and bicyclists and even to the car drivers themselves.
Inappropriate design causes speeding  

"The Highway to Nowhere", for example, invites people to be used as a 1 mile drag-race course, designed for speeds like an Interstate, people routinely press the pedal to the metal and easily reach 70 miles an hour in the middle of the City. The three available lanes allow the rogue drivers to weave around slower traffic. No reason in the world why this useless stretch of freeway could not be seriously reduced in width for a tamed flow of traffic appropriate for downtown. The extra space could be added for a wider green median.

 Martin Luther King Boulevard, Druid Hill's Lake Park Drive, Key Highway, sections of North Avenue, Northern Parkway and many other arterials are also too wide and designed for speeds that are higher than the posted speed limit.

It is precisely this issue of design which must match the desired (posted) speed limit that is a core topic of Councilman Dorsey's Complete Streets legislation which, if implemented, would go a long way to make City streets safer. The bill is finally moving in the legislative process after it had reportedly been stalled by DOT for nine months. There wasn't a mention of the bill at Wednesday's safety campaign announcement.
Speed kills: From Complete Streets website

For true safety to be achieved on Baltimore's streets, it won't be enough to have flashy campaigns. Instead it takes a systematic analytical approach based on real data. It takes  realistic goals and systematic measures of progress. And it takes collaboration between DOT, City Council, MTA, police and those agencies that want to foster economic development.

Street safety is better where streets are not just "traffic sewers" but are vibrant main streets with open businesses, busy sidewalks, curbside parking, bike lanes and safe crosswalks. These are matters of design first and enforcement second. Vibrant streets are not only safer in terms of traffic but also safer in terms of crime. What could be a better investment for that publicly owned real estate?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Baltimore's urban green becomes famous for more than carrots and sticks

Baltimore's parks, gardens and food farms have been discussed in the context of food deserts, equity, social determinants of health, Vacants to Value (V2V), stormwater management, resilience and workforce development. Last Friday the national organization Project for Public Spaces (PPS) added its voice reporting about yet another purpose: Urban gardens as a place for immigrants and refugees.
Sustainability Open House at the War Memorial Building last week
(Photo: Philipsen)

The Office of Sustainability inside Baltimore's Department of Planning, can put up a good show and get an excellent response as became quite obvious at last week's Sustainability Open House Baltimore. The large exhibit space at the lower level of the War Memorial was teaming with activity and the wide array of displays clarified how green spaces relate to all those topics. The Baltimore Sustainability Plan is up for comment here.

Baltimore has a robust culture of urban gardens, urban farms and CSAs which government agencies such as the Office of Sustainability, non-profits such as Baltimore Green Space or Hunanim (City Seeds and School of Food) have cultivated for years.

Some of the harvest has been part of Baltimore student's cafeteria food for years. Some is coming together in advanced operations such as the Baltimore Food Hub which opened last year in East Baltimore. The activities have made Baltimore a go-to place for connecting schools, education, equity and urban food production. 

The Planning Department is hoping to open a new green chapter with the new Green Network Plan which has been in the works for several years and is now out for final comment. A single plan is trying to tie all green spaces together with a special emphasis on under-served communities.
The Baltimore Green Network plan's vision promotes urban resiliency through land use equity. The plan seeks to transform vacant properties into green community assets - and to connect these spaces to schools, homes, retail districts and other activity centers. 
Baltimore Green Network: Draft out for comment now
At the root of the plan lies the insight that green islands won't do much if one can't get there or if they are not connected. Or as Ryan Dorsey likes to say about inaccessible assets: “If you can’t get there the opportunity might as well not exist”.

The Baltimore Green Network Plan (BGN), therefore, consists of nodes and corridors whereby some of those nodes and corridors already exist and some would need to be created to create a network. 

In many respects the draft plan is reminiscent of Baltimore's 2015 bike masterplan which included everything that an ideal bike city would offer but didn't offer an implementable plan with priorities and a clear strategy how one could achieve the end plan. Something the Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee achieved with its 2017 plan update. Similarly, the BGN needs that kind of simplification to be actionable plan. 

As far as urban gardens as a forum for immigrants to grow roots in a new community, PPS got involved in Baltimore in 2017 in a new kind of place-making effort.  PPS writes:
BGN overview plan: A confusing array of corridors and nodes
In addition to the crops the refugees were planting, Baltimore’s gardens began to nurture a sense of social cohesion among residents. In the fall of 2017, PPS joined the International Rescue Committee (IRC) staff in Baltimore to help the New Roots gardens reach beyond their initial purpose, and combat social separation in refugee communities. PPS and IRC staff, along with several community partners and stakeholders evaluated the urban gardens and discussed whether they were bringing long-time locals and refugees together. 
Thus, what some Old World countries with their urban garden-colonies have never forgotten was reborn in Baltimore. Using current terminology, gardening was rediscovered as as place-making and as a place to build social capital.  Again PPS:
Baltimore farm food truck (source: PPS)
More than a space just for refugees, the gardens would be even more valuable as spaces designed to attract everyone; bringing about the small daily interactions that break down barriers between people. Now, the New Roots program is part of “a grassroots approach, helping people to see across difference,” through the lens of agriculture.
This is precisely what Baltimore needs, places where people can see across their differences. If the new bike and trail network plan (including the Rails to Trails loop), the Green Network and PPS' work with refugees get connected the right way. a lot could be gained. Don't forget to leave your BGN comments here
Rails to trails loop plan: Simplicity!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

PPS Baltimore article
Baltimore SUN, 2015: Refugees find comfort in an alley garden in Highlandtown
Video of Mayor's Green Network announcement





Related on this blog:


Urban Farming - A passing Fashion or a viable Solution?

Space for urban regeneration

Sustainability Plan 2.0



Monday, April 16, 2018

Light as an equity issue

What better time  to think about light than the week of Light City Baltimore? Like much that is taken for granted, upon further inspection, the matter of light is complex whether one looks at it as a basic urban amenity in the streets, or as an accessory to highlight or brand buildings or as a tool of interior design for homes. Much is counter-intuitive, for example that one may see better with less light or that the brighter and whiter lamps of the latest generation use less energy than their dimmer but warmer predecessors. Light is frequently still considered a sign of affluence, certainly of consumerism (Times Square is ground zero for both) but in reality better off neighborhoods tend to be dimmer than those suspected of high crime. Few think of light in terms of equity, and those who do consider the number of broken street lights or the brightness in the street, not the quality of light and how comfortable and inviting it makes a neighborhood at night.
New York City Street at night (Guardian)

Simplistic thinking postulates that crime thrives in darkness and that bright lights are therefore a solution to combat it. Baltimore, deep in the trenches of crime fighting, has long deployed light as a weapon against crime and has flooded crime hot spots with mobile lights bathing whole blocks as if they were movie sets or as if the block had been pulled over and the squad car was now blasting all available lights.

The mayor has determined that certain streets in disinvested communities were too dark and campaigned on thousands additional street lights equipped with bright LED instead of the yellow high pressure sodium "cobra head" street lights that were common for at least 50 years. It has never been easier, cheaper and more enticing to install bright lights. Like with all new technology, there is a tendency to overdo it. Just as wider streets are not necessarily safer, nor a brighter streets. Unintended consequences lurk at every junction: Is it really progress to make the vulnerable neighborhoods as bright as an operating room while the posher neighborhoods savor their darkness with cozy gas lantern replicas? Is it progress when people can't sleep in their street facing bedrooms because misdirected bluish white light messes with their circadian cycle?
The depressing dark hulls of vacant rowhouses

The more technology advances, the more complicated becomes the task of lighting a street, a plaza, a building or a room because of all the choices. Smart lights are programmed to adjust to ambient light and conditions or to how much light is needed depending on activity levels. One of the beaties of natural light (daylight) is its natural variation even in areas where there is hardly a cloud. Morning light is different than light at noon or at sunset. Clouds, of course modify light even further. So far electric light is nowhere near to produce such variation or range of "moods".

 Since lighting can be so much more than it used to be, it is time to consider light as an important design tool and not only as a basic matter of functionality with a binary setting of on and off. Nor is more lighting always better lighting. As anybody flying over the east coast on a clear night can attest, lights have become so bright that it is no problem at all to see them from six miles up. Too much light can be blinding, can make a place feel uncomfortable, can mess with the sleep of people and animals, can distract birds and block the view of the universe. The beauty of a starry night with millions of stars visible with the naked eye has become the privilege of ever fewer people simply because over illuminated gas stations cast their glare for miles.

Different people have amazingly different views of what light makes them feel comfortable. While most people used to having electricity around prefer warmer tones, folks in developing countries where electricity is still novel prefer bright fluorescents. Many Baltimoreans miss the warmer glow of the holiday decorations at the Washington Monument after they were replaced by bright LEDs which can change their colors, but limited to early LED technology, remain in the "cold" range of colors.

The correlation between crime and light is tenuous, correlation doesn't prove causation. Bad lighting can have the opposite effect if it creates glare. Everybody knows the movie cliche when the bright light is directed at the defendant in an interrogation. Savy negotiators know not to place themselves facing the window because they can't see their counterpart's face.
Art installation: Lights inside of vacants (Upstate New York)

Just as too much light can blind, less light can enhance night vision, a somewhat counter-intuitive effect. The natural ability of humans to see in the dark through the gradual dilation of the pupils is blocked by bright light sources, even if they are in the periphery of the field of vision. Bad basket ball court lighting or poorly positioned lights on ski slopes can make exercising the respective sport nearly impossible. Car headlights have become brighter and brighter over time, a vicious cycle, because those blinding lights of  oncoming cars require your own headlights to be bright as day for you to see once the oncoming car has passed.

Far beyond those practical matters, because light can also change emotion and well being it is worh exploring the direct but puzzling relation between emotion, light and the eye's pupil.
For more than a century scientists have known that our eyes' pupils  respond to more than changes in light. They also betray mental and emotional commotion. In fact, pupil dilation correlates with arousal so consistently that researchers use pupil size, or pupillometry, to investigate a wide range of psychological phenomena. (Scientific American)
Even though the scientific correlation between emotion and light remains largely unknown, retailers have long used light to make their stores look "just right". The discounters bright fluorescent ceiling lights are replaced by properly installed specialty lighting in more expensive stores which make the goods look attractive and give the consumer the sense that the goods (and by extensions, they the customers) are precious.
From a psychological point of view, talking about the light is like plunging into the depths of the psyche, but also dealing with the limits and possibilities of the perceptive skills, natural equipment of the human psychophysical apparatus, influencing our health and wellness throughout the life (The Psychology of Light)
the warm glow of historic districts is more convincing
than brightness would be
Even though people generally yearn for the brighter days after long winter nights, and even though humans have a long history of expelling darkness through light, illumination needs to be much more than making the night an extension of the day. Nature doesn't work that way and neither do humans. Architects, lighting designers and the consumers themselves need to take some advice from the book: Dark Matters, a Manifesto for the Nocturnal City

So before unplugging all those dimmer lights in the streets and homes and unscrewing every bulb in every room to be replaced with light emitting diodes (LED), its worth considering truly desirable outcomes to avoid the bad results of thoughtless lighting.

As for safety in neighborhoods, it should be less about brightness and more about community pride and identification. The best contribution to safety comes from residents who identify with their community.

A committee of Senator Shirley Nathan Pulliam's Social Determinants of Health Task Force which is now officially legislated through bill SB 444 is looking to improve health in vulnerable communities through lighting. This seemed really far fetched even to the committee members themselves until they looked at an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation tested in Washington State in which not the street lights but the private ones at the front doors of houses were the target. With a few funds neighbors were enabled to fix broken bulbs and lights to brighten up the side-walks leading to a marked uptick on how residents rated their own security and community.  In that program those individual front lights would still be missing on vacant buildings, though, a major problem for Baltimore.

The dark hulls of those vacants depress the minds (and health) of their neighbors in many ways, lighting or the lack of it is only one concern. But there is a model program for this problem as well. An artists' campaign of putting lights into the windows of vacant buildings in upstate New York not only shed a light on the problem of abandonment but also let the affected neighborhoods shine in a new light.  Even though temporary, through feeling valued, it did a lot more for the residents than those mobile lights Baltimore employs for crime prevention. Or as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation discovered, by donating money to give people the resources to install front door lights: To heal a community, build capacity. As for creative ways of using light as a way to make better places, Light City Baltimore can provide ideas.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Let there be night! Metropolis Magazine, 4/2018
Breathing Lights, NY

Related on this blog:

What are the light innovations in Baltimore?

Celebrating light in dark times - "Light City Baltimore"


Friday, April 13, 2018

Scott Plank, the future of Hollins Market and Southwest Baltimore

Is Southwest the next neighborhood in Baltimore to prosper? Washington Boulevard looks better than it has in many years, the La Cite development is sprouting, the largest new residential development west of the Martin Luther King Boulevard  since the redevelopment of Lexington Terrace and the UM Biotech is adding building after building. Bill Struever's Cross Street Partners  is active in the area with the renovated Lions Brothers former livery stable, now a 38,000 sf fully leased office building. As it is typical for any area on the verge of a breakthrough, there are those who are delighted and those who are concerned.
Image of the area north of the market with a future event plaza (Warhorse)

Scott Plank of Warhorse Development has bet a lot of chips on the Southwest with his agreement with Baltimore City to operate the Hollins Market for 15 years and with his investments in the surrounding area. The City would maintain ownership of the market.

If someone white and with the name Plank comes into the area, the camps of delight and concern split even more than they may already split traditionally. Plank moves right into the space of the tragic American race relations for which Baltimore has become an epicenter. To some such investment in vulnerable neighborhoods is the response that many had hoped for after the 2015 unrest. To others, wealthy developers swooping into communities of color is alarming. There is little that bridges those two views.

In Hollins Market those race relations had manifest themselves in the past as tension between  between the merchants and communities along Baltimore Street and north of it and the artsy types hanging out around the Hollins Market. The Sowebo Festival, 35 years old and thriving, is a wonderfully diverse annual affair which unites the communities once a year. The Hollins Market area has seen its ups and downs over the years. Always almost "getting there", meaning a place where there is some vibrancy with restaurants, galleries and event spaces and not too many vacants and then slipping again. One of those downward slides happened when Gypsi's Cafe collapsed during a careless renovation with dishes, silverware and commercial kitchen all condemned and being bulldozed before anything could be retrieved. That was one of those moments when one had to wonder if the City really care about revitalization. But that is long ago.
Baltimore Street, a registered Main Street (Southwest Partnership)

Southeast Baltimore, i.e. the communities of  Barre Circle, Franklin Square, Hollins Roundhouse, Mount Clare, Pigtown, Poppleton, and Union Square have since made great strides towards a unified approach with the creation of the Southwest Partnership which created in 2015 a community vision plan.



Hollins Market and District Hollins Market is the oldest existing public market building in Baltimore and the Market and the surrounding commercial district have the potential to again be a social and economic hub for the community. The Market and existing businesses in the district currently provide residents with accessible food, services, and community space. Increasing walkability, commercial activity, and density and maintaining and restoring the historic character of the Market will restore them to a major economic, nutritional, and
social asset. (Southwest Plan)


Scott Plank is on the long journey of building trust in disenfranchised communities. Last year he finished the remodeling of the Western Police District building in the heart of Sandtown as a community friendly and open facility, a truly tricky task, given the strained relations between police and community. Plank's Hollins Market lease is no small commitment, but "it is much bigger than the market", Scott Plank told me during a brief conversation about the project, referring to the "square" around the market and the questions surrounding the future of retail on Baltimore Street and the area overall. "Much bigger" also means about $6 million dollar already invested in the area in about 60 properties, rowhouses, retail and mixed use as Warhorse Cities CDC development director Jim Mills explains. Trust building includes retaining existing tenants in those rowhouses and assisting them with better lease terms where needed, Mills says. 15 market rate renovated and new dwelling units will be offered for sale shortly.

When asked about the always present concern of gentrification, Mills says that gentrification involves "developing/bringing something in the community that it doesn't want" Mills states, while Warhorse is providing "a rejuvenated market which the community needs so desperately". The company is also owns the Belvedere Square market near York Road and Northern Parkway which it began reviving in 2013 and operates a market in San Francisco. No doubt, conditions in Southwest Baltimore require a different approach. An earlier idea of beginning with sprucing up the square around the market has been tabled for lack of funds. Plank and Mills confirm that they are considering "pop-up" instlallations instead, at least on the north side of the market. The first phase of work will be now a renovation of the market shed. The head-house and the the second floor have to wait a bit longer until more funding is secured.

"Our projects are part of an overarching vision for the revitalization of the greater community" the Warhorse CDC states in some notes put together on occasion of a community meeting this week. "The historic Market is the epicenter of this project, connecting historic neighborhoods like Union Square and Pigtown with the University of Baltimore and 1,000 UMbio Park employees. Warhorse is also partnering with the local James McHenry Elementary and Middle school.

Aside from the complicated sensibilities of Baltimore the Warhorse investment in the Hollins Market relates to the future of Baltimore's Markets altogether, almost all facilities are in play for major change without that any particular "proof of concept" had been tested and proven successful. Cross Street Market will be redeveloped and operated by Caves Valley which presented a new retro design in late December after Warhorse had dropped out of the partnership early in the process, anew approach was also recently announced for the Broadway Market in Fells Point. Across the country the market concept has gained new popularity as food hall, not really a concept, though which adequately addresses the food access and health issues of vulnerable communities in the Southwest. Beyond the future of public markets looms the entirely open question of the future of retail. Baltimore Street, once a thriving retail district still has largely vacant stores. How can the market square and the "Main Street" create synergy? What type retail would work? Certainly, the addition of large amounts of retail space in the La Cite project won't help to create a meaningful concentration and focus.

At the community meeting this week Plank's plans for the 17,000 market were well received. The architect for the renovation is Ana Castro of JRS Architects, the firm which also designed the Western District police station re-make.
Construction is scheduled to begin this fall and last about a year. Potentially the head house area could be used as "swing space" for some existing merchants says Jim Mills.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

SouthBmore.com about Warhorse investments at Hollins Market area

Baltimore market related articles on this blog: 

The future of Baltimore's oldest market
Broadway Markets - an unfulfilled promise (Oct 2017)


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

How to sway a City Commission

Mount Vernon was all about historic preservation and height limits - until this guy came along: Dennis Richter, resident of the neighborhood, property owner, rehabilitator of various historic properties, soft-spoken and well-reasoned, trusted by the community, someone about whom a neighbor says: "He gives us the best he can". That Richter changed Mount Vernon's narrative would be an understatement, and he will change the community's physical being as well. How is the subject of this article.
Existing historic buildings
The CHAP Mission is to enhance and promote the culture and economy of Baltimore through the preservation of buildings, structures, sites and neighborhoods, that have aesthetic, historic and architectural value.CHAP goals include preserving historic architecture and monuments; reclaiming broken neighborhoods; preventing demolition by neglect; and integrating our City's past into its future. (From the CHAP website)
After initially confirming the historic significance of the current building ensemble, CHAP proceeded in November 2017 to give the developer a economic hardship permission to demolish the historic block which includes Eddies in Mount Vernon. The vote was 9:2. The rules for permitting demolition based on "substantial hardship" are set forth in the CHAP regulations and they are stringent:
From CHAP Rules and Regulations
Proposed development (Ziger Snead presentation, screenshot)

“This was a big hurdle,” developer Dennis Richter told the Baltimore Brew after the meeting. “We’re very fortunate in being able to move forward.” With the hardship ruling the Commission had given away its biggest chip. But CHAP had a say one more time, since the regulations require that it has to also review the design of the proposed new structure.

This Tuesday the commission convened again for this purpose. After having taken the significant first hurdle, one could imagine that the architect and developer would show up with a design that would follow all the rules laid out in great detail in the Mount Vernon Historic District Design Guidelines for New Construction and not try their luck once more.  Again the hurdles are not insignificant. "The Mount Vernon Historic District Design Guidelines must be used for all new construction located within the historic district", the guidelines mandate.

But one could also imagine that the team was emboldened by its initial success and would just continue to push the envelope to see how gullible the historic commission really is. The team seems to have taken that second route when they presented a building that is taller than the guidelines permit.
Proposed project as seen from northwest along Cathedral Street
Having bulldozed the preservation mission of the Commission with the argument that the old buildings wouldn't allow any reasonable development and certainly not one that would be "catalytic" in Mount Vernon, the developer, his architect and a who is who of Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district put their guns into position once again, this time to fire their way towards approval of a building that exceeds the applicable height by 16% or more than an entire floor, even though the guidelines state "One of the most important aspects of new construction is its height" and lists "Designing New Construction that exceeds the maximum height limits" under "Prohibited". Because of this CHAP's staff recommended for the project "disapproval".  The fact that the project was 116' high in a 100' zone with some equipment being possibly even taller and that the Mount Vernon Design Guidelines were adopted into zoning limit buildings to 100' in the area where the project is proposed triggered staff's "speed camera", they didn't have any other option. There is no leeway in the matter.
Architect Steve Ziger during his presentation

The staffer Caitlin Audette went through the lengthy history of the vehement height battle which the Mount Vernon community had fought for years and which ultimately led to those limitations established in the Guidelines, the Urban Renewal Plan and the new zoning law.

"Exceeding of height limits is prohibited", Audette explained, especially after a 20' height bonus that had been once optional under an 80' limit was in effect had been rolled into a height limit without exceptions or a bonus.

What unfolded after the staff presentation was a spectacle of a special kind and one that brought about the admiration of Commissioner and former UMB law professor Larry Gibson.
I taught appellate argument, it was very impressive how Mr Ziger and Mr Richter argued the case as “de minimis” (Commissioner Larry Gibson)
So what did the presenters do to elicit such praise from the admired lawyer and civil rights advocate?
First, Dennis Richter, the developer, reported that he had held no less than five public community meetings, conducted a field trip to Washington and emphasized how much he responded to community desires since developing his initial designs. As a result, he casually noted that, with the community amenity spaces included in the project, it just got a bit taller. "Yes", Richter responded in his best German accent upon a question form the Commission, "I could build it lower, but then the numbers wouldn't work", at least not "without cheapening the design", especially the expensive facades without which "Mount Vernon wouldn't get what it deserves".
Diagram of the height limits in Mt Vernon

Thusly primed, the next volley against "disapproval" came from Richter's architect. Importantly, this isn't just any architect but Baltimore's most eminent designer Steve Ziger who is most known for his modernist buildings including MICA's Brown Center and the grey zinc panel box at Baltimore's Historical Society in Mount Vernon. Ziger is also an immediate neighbor to the project site with an office on Morton Street. Ziger calmly but eloquently presented a series of slides.

First he agreed with the staff reviewer by confirming that he very much likes "the idea of the rising bowl" (the height limits of the Design Guidelines that step up with the distance from the Washington Monument), a concept he called "valid". He then proceeded to show maps, height diagrams and photos of all the tall buildings in the district constructed before the guidelines and which were "grandfathered". "We cherish them", Ziger said, "because they were well done", subtly putting his design into the league of  buildings like the Belvedere. Like those precedents, he pointed out, his building has a base, a middle and a top, a point CHAP's staff reviewer had already observed.

Ziger explained that his project's 116' height was driven by the elevator, really, because "we didn't want to break the cornice line of the roof."  He than promised "116’ is a hard line, we commit to that", as if 116' was , indeed, the mandatory height limit and not 100'." He repeated how precious the facade materials were, how much depth the new facade would have, how light and shadow would liven it up and how most of the year the 116' building would never cast a shadow on the City Cafe across the street. The fact that "we are right adjacent to the 140’ zone makes a 16’ excess height a minor issue" he concluded coolly, adding: "So we are comfortable" (with what we propose).

Some in the commission, notably chair Tom Liebel, an architect who had voted against the hardship approval, were visibly less comfortable and still fretted about the precedent such a height violation would set. That is when the applicants unleashed their third salvo, a phalanx of the most venerable citizens of Mount Vernon, all testifying in favor of Dennis Richter's character as much as for the project.
Commission Chair, Tom Liebel

First in line was Steve Shen, a local homeowner and volunteer of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, where he chairs its Architectural Review Committee. "Great project, quality design" he said. Then he went into treacherous territory:" What precedent does this set? Each project needs to be evaluated on its own merit", a position in obvious conflict of the long-held position of his association that there need to be rules and predictability, so that not each developer could curry  favor with the powers to be. "The height battle was fought in broad strokes," Shen continued, "we don't want to be like DC where each building looks like cut down with a hedge trimmer", he elaborated and added "context is key. There should be leniency at corner lots and transition areas", repeating Ziger's "de minimis" argument.

It was Charlie Duff of Jubilee Baltimore, "an authority on Baltimore’s architecture and development" and "frequent lecturer on architectural history" (Jubilee website) who as an always great orator provided the crescendo in words which caused architect Ziger to be "moved to tears" as he confessed to Duff after the meeting.

"I was part of the height fight" Duff admitted in his testimony, but height "is not murder, its zoning" he intoned giving the "minimis" yet another twist. "Dennis Richter and his development are doing us a favor" he proclaimed, "they are building a building that is better designed than any building in Baltimore in this millennium. It is doing a favor for the people of Baltimore." Then he paused for emphasis, turned to the CHAP chair, looked him in the eyes and ended with all the gravitas he is so apt to muster:  "To CHAP I say,  it is your opportunity to recognize a remarkable building”.

Commissioner Bob Embry after asking some quite pertinent question regarding the legal standing of the height limits but then offered a quote from the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a small mind", thus giving the Commission a literary out of their conundrum. After that the deliberation of the CHAP commissioners was mostly jovial banter.
View along Cathedral Street

The Commission unanimously approved the design including its height violation. The developer needs to go to the City's zoning board next to get a waiver on insufficient parking and the height. It is easy to see how that board will be swayed.

Should the Historic Commission have voted otherwise? Certainly the project is well designed, certainly it is in the transition to the adjacent height zone of 140' and certainly a $35 million 126 unit building with a large grocery store or food hall will have a bigger economic impact than a refurbished collection of historic buildings housing an Eddies mini-mart. Certainly a tenth floor adds to the economic viability and more units may, indeed, offset expenses on the facade.

The demolition approval due to hardship already skirted hard on the edge of compliance with the three standards set in CHAP's regulations. Dispensing of the height regulations is not within the purview of the historic commission and sets an awful precedent.

The argument that bigger is better because of higher economic viability would be true for any project in any historic district, well designed or not. Applying this logic to a historic district would mean the end of historic preservation, plain and simple. Liking the architect and the developer shouldn't be enough to disregard the rules, no matter that transcendentalist Emerson also said "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall." Immanual Kant and his categorical imperative would be a better guide, essentially postulating that an ethical decision must be scalable.  And as far as law: Consistency is the great hallmark of a society which submits to the rule of law.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

A streaming video of the session can be found here

See previous articles about the project on this blog:

Misunderstanding historic preservation
Tearing down Eddies in Mt Vernon?


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

State transportation: Lessons from this legislative session

Pretty much everybody agrees that one of the greatest challenges for the Baltimore Washington Metropolitan area is transportation. As in too much congestion, not enough transit, long commutes and no convincing plans for the future. Employers and employees complain how poor job access hampers economic development and environmentalists and environmental justice advocates agree that poor transportation is a serious equity issue.
lots of harmony in Annapolis.  (Photo: Maryland Reporter)

So how did the Maryland Assembly did on transportation in 2018, now that the legislative session came to an end yesterday? When you look at the local papers, transportation doesn't seem to have been on the agenda. They don't even mention the topic in their list of big wins of this years over 3,000 bills.

On second glance, though, there were some transportation bills and most passed. The tally just lacks the real zingers that would make the public's blood boil.

The biggest transportation impact comes from The Maryland Metro/Transit Funding Act (SB 277/HB 372), a bill that is so complicated that it makes anyone in the Baltimore area yawn except the biggest transit geeks. For one it deals with far away Washington, and two it deals with the "state of good repair", something that becomes only interesting if one gets stranded on a defunct transit line, again and again.  This, of course, is exactly what happened first to the Metro riders in DC and then also to those in Baltimore.
CMTA graphic depicting lopsided transportation expenditures 

Consequently, the bill started out entirely focussed on DC's WMATA and then expanded its scope to include the MTA.  WMATA's needs huge are huge and have been enumerated for some time with a carefully crafted lobbying package of $500 million each year to be scraped together by Maryland, Virginia and the District. Maryland's Governor's entered the deal with an annual offer of $125 million a year. But the bill that passed in the end has Maryland pay a $167 million a year and includes a funding package for MTA and the Baltimore region as well.
For fiscal year 2020, the governor shall include in the state  budget an appropriation from the transportation trust fund for the  operation of the administration that is equal to the appropriation for  the operation of the administration in the fiscal year 2019 state  budget as introduced, increased by at least 4.4%. (b) for each of fiscal years 2021 and 2022, the governor shall include in the state budget an appropriation from the transportation  trust fund for the operation of the administration that is equal to the  appropriation for the operation of the administration in the state budget for the immediately preceding fiscal year, increased by at least 4.4%. (c) (1) for each of fiscal years 2020 through 2022, the governor shall include in the state budget an appropriation for the capital needs of the administration of at least $29,100,000 from the revenues available for the state capital program in the transportation trust fund. (2) the appropriation required under paragraph (1) of this 18 subsection may not supplant any other capital funding otherwise 19 available for the administration. (HB 372 text)
The dynamic of finding at least some balance in the funding request came when  MTA saw itself forced to shut the Baltimore Metro down right in the middle of the initial bill deliberations and when the Baltimore delegation had determined that this region should seek some money as well, even though the MTA did not have a nearly as detailed analysis of their capital and operating needs. The WAMTA bill was amended and with Senator Bill Ferguson and Delegate Brooke Lierman in the lead the MTA will get annual increases of 4.4% and annual capital increases of $29.1 million between FY 2020 and 2022. In turn, the MTA will be obligated to create a detailed needs assessment and the region will prepare a regional transportation plan. The way how the Baltimore region leveraged its way into the bill was a big deal according to Dru Schmidt Perkins, former Director of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, now a consultant who monitored the progress of the bill in Annapolis. There are a number of lessons in this.

  • Collaboration works: Instead of fighting over the money, the two metro regions worked together in forcing the Governor and his road enthusiastic Secretary to direct a reasonable amount of Transportation Trust Fund money into transit so that both rail systems can run in a good state of repair. 
  • An election year is a good time for a big ask: To his credit, the Governor stayed on board with the bill even after the annual expenditure increased. He is poised to sign the bill and managed to look throughout like a reasonable guy when it comes to transit and not like the transit hater who nixed the Baltimore Red Line.
  • Transportation doesn't know jurisdictional boundaries and clearly traverses between Washington and Baltimore, even though the two Metro systems don't connect. 
  • Baltimore is in desperate need of a clear road map for transportation that includes some additional transit. After the Baltimore Red Line was taken off the table no significant new rail systems are on the books, even though the Baltimore region continues to grow. 

The initially pretty flatfooted agenda of transportation activists regarding progress in Annapolis was a bit surprising. MTA, for example, has a pretty well defined plan for the long range development of the MARC commuter service (created in 2013), a fairly low hanging fruit, given the importance of the DC to Washington connection and that there are no other big transit projects, if one doesn't want to consider a hyperloop or MagLev serious contenders. Why did investment into MARC per the long range plan not get more promoted?
MARC plan 

Also, given the big theatrics around the issue of transportation metrics in 2016 which the Governor then called a "road  kill bill" and which transportation activists considered essential in preventing that Secretary Rahn would spend all the money in the Transportation Trust Fund on roads and extra lanes, it was surprising the topic totally disappear in this year's session. The 1000 Friends of Maryland made a substantial contribution towards appropriate metrics in this report. MDOT developed its own scoring model here. The methods of measuring the effectiveness of proposed investments is important enough. It deserves its own article.

Lastly, if one looks at Maryland's session in the context of the recently approved federal budget, it is urgent that the State and the local jurisdictions line up  what the major transportation programs should be. Washington left transportation spending programs not only intact but added money. The new federal appropriation bill, enacted March 23, provides over $86 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation which represents an increase of almost $10 billion over DOT’s  current funding levels. Funding increases spread over road, transit, and rail programs and include programs that seemed in jeopardy such as the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER), Transit Capital Investment Grants program (CIG), and Amtrak. (source, Smart Growth America)

This region has a big dog in the race. But sometimes one would hardly know it. Hopefully the mandated new regional plan will provide the needed perspective.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Jones Falls River, still an undervalued Baltimore asset

Ruin of historic freight station  on Falls Road
Yes, there are two refurbished Mills, a popular Italian beer restaurant, a bike shop and a microbrewery along the scenic corridor of Clipper Mill Road and Falls Road. The corridor is book-ended by blooming Union Avenue in Hampden on one side and the new Nelson Kohl Apartments on West Lanvale Street in the flourishing Station North on the other.

But there are plenty of eyesores as well, chiefly the dilapidated old train roundhouse and the ruin of a trackside freight station building surrounded by trolley carcasses.

The actual jewel of this corridor, the Jones Falls River, runs its course, hidden behind a screen of shrubbery, over rocks and falls only known to those who canoe on it.  The Jones Falls, shadowed in large parts by the viaduct of the I-83 expressway running over top of it since the early 1970s, and banished underground in its final stretch towards the Inner Harbor since 1912, looks in some spots like a wilderness in West Virginia. In short, it is an undervalued and shackled asset which has been waiting for decades to be re-discovered.
161 Jones Falls River Plan 

Luckily, there is now the newly founded group of  the Friends of the Jones Falls, which came together in March of this year, when over 75 people assembled in the Motor House to work on a vision for the river. The event was guided by the Neighborhood Design Center, the Central Baltimore Partnership, Bluewater Baltimore and others.

As Al Barry, a former deputy director of the planning department  well knows, the idea of giving the Jones Falls more prominence has been around for decades. Barry has been part of it for a long time. For example at a daylong workshop in 2001 aiming for a masterplan for the valley. Barry, today a planning consultant, advises the owners of the refurbished mills and the developers of the old Pepsi Plant in the valley is now helping the Friends of the Jones Falls to achieve a break-through.
Baltimore City is a water city. At one time, Baltimore thrived on the Jones Falls Valley corridor. Today, the corridor needs Baltimore to restore what has been broken. Although Baltimore’s past planning projects may not have always been kind to the Jones Falls Valley, as with most things in life, they were part of a learning process. (Megan Griffith, 2012, Treehuggingurbanism)
In fact, the idea of the Jones Falls as a linear park didn't need the New York High Line as a spark. It predates the High Line by half a century. In 1961 "The Planning Council" of the Greater Baltimore Committee published a Jones Falls Valley Plan for the Municipal Art Society and the Board of Recreation and Parks. In its introduction the document says:
“Few Baltimoreans have seen the treasures of nature which lie along the ten-mile Jones Falls Valley. The Valley has long been ‘hidden’ from the view of passers-by. Now, as the Jones Falls Expressway opens up the once-hidden vistas, we are confronted with a great opportunity. The concept of The Valley as a continuous urban Park—a peaceful retreat for city dwellers—has been proposed, hoped for, talked about, for sixty years. Dreams were dreamed, but translation of the vision into reality was always blocked by the lack of a detailed plan and a vivid image of what the Jones Falls Valley could become. Now here is a Plan. From it we can create a marvelous asset for all of Baltimore to enjoy.” (Jones Falls Valley Plan)
Baltimore City failed to act on the big idea, namely it didn't protect and procure the right of way of the old M&PA railroad.
The roundhouse with collapsed front roof today (Photo: Philipsen)

Today the big ideas for the Jones Falls involve the removal of the expressway at least below Penn Station and the daylighting of the stream. very expensive propositions. Again, Al barry with his clients was instrumental in developing those concept plans.

Smaller ideas, such as a Jones Falls Trail and the already noted re-developments have already been implemented. Events such as canoeing on the river or Sundays when one can bike and walk on the expressway to experience what is below outside a racing metal box, have been held for many years. What is missing though, is a transformative project that elevates the Jones Falls status in the City for residents and visitors alike.

There will be sure plenty of ideas coming forth under the guidance of the newly formed advocacy group. A very old one, first proposed by fellow architect George Kastritzky, (the K in the name of the then eminent Baltimore architecture firm of RTKL), would be the use of the historic 1910 Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad (known as the Ma & Pa) roundhouse as the streetcar museum. This idea had been further investigated by Ziger Snead Architects in 2004. Time to dust it off a final time!
Ziger, Snead Architects, 2004 roundhouse plan
(Friends of the Jones Falls)

This roundhouse is another symbol of city government failings. Even though, then Mayor McKeldin liked Kastritzky's idea, the Department of Public Works eventually won out and kept it as an equipment yard. The City has let the structure fall into disrepair since it purchased it in 1958 to store roadside maintenance equipment and salt in it. Four years ago salt had corroded the roof structure so much that the roof collapsed.

In a revival of Kastritzky's idea, the sad looking roundhouse would re-built and become the centerpiece of a rejuvenated streetcar museum. Instead of running from those metal barns further down the street, the museum operated by volunteer streetcar enthusiasts, would run from this refurbished historic structure built for rail vehicles. Its current area could become a park. Instead of running the trains on weekends along dilapidated ruins and turn around at the salt barn wreck, the trains would run the full length of the corridor, from West Lanvale Street behind Penn Station all the way to Union Avenue.  The project wouldn't be run by City DOT or MTA, it would remain a part of the streetcar museum but funded by the major stakeholders along the way, from Ernst Valery's Nelson Kohl which would get unprecedented trail access to David Tufaro's Mill projects to the breweries on the Hampden/Woodberry end of the corridor.
The Jones Falls in its scenic section (Photo: Philipsen)

This year Baltimore's Green Network Plan is coming out in its final form. It should be the year when the 1961 Jones Falls Plan gets implemented and the river finally finally comes out of its shadows.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


The Jones Falls River Valley Corridor
The History of the Jones Falls, Stanley Kemp, 2016
Baltimore Heritage, the History of the Ma&Pa Railroad and the Roundhouse










The current streetcar museum with 1968 metal barns

The Ma&Pa roundhouse when it was still used by the railroad
Photograph from The Ma & Pa: A History of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad, George W. Hilton. Courtesy Charles T. Mahan, Jr.