Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Fund affordable housing through the transfer tax?

For years Baltimore city mayors have promised relief from the high tax and fee levels under which city residents suffer as a result that fewer and fewer residents have to support essentially the same set of services. A proposal from Councilman Henry to increase the real estate transfer tax to bring money into an affordable housing fund has stirred a lot of consternation among those who still wait for the promised tax relief to become more noticeable than the tine reductions to date.
Bill Henry during TIF hearing (Daily Record)

Leveling the playing field has been the elusive goal when it comes to buying, developing or owning real estate in the city more similar to the surrounding counties where property taxes are about half, permits easier to get and insurances much cheaper.

But there is also this:
  • There is an affordable housing crisis in this city and all across America
  • A Baltimore inclusionary zoning code that was supposed to force developers of larger residential developments to set aside of affordable units has been undercut for a variety of reasons (initially because it just got into effect when the financial crisis hit) and has not yielded a measurable relief to the affordable housing shortage
  • A ballot measure to amend the city charter and allow an Affordable Hosuing Trust Fund passed last November. But such a fund remains ineffective if there is no money in it
  • Surrounding counties have done little to build affordable housing in opportunity areas or anywhere else, leaving the city to deal with disproportional demand for affordable housing and long wait lists for units and vouchers
  • Real estate in the city is generally cheaper than in the counties offsetting in part the higher taxes and fees
Baltimore housing activists
Ballot question J in the last election was pushed by housing advocate Odette Ramos. The provision is in keeping with a growing trend to set aside dedicated funds for specific purposes. Mayor Pugh and others have supported an affordable housing trust fund during her campaign. The Mayor's transition report does not include a section on housing.
Question J: Affordable Housing Trust FundThe petition is for the purpose of amending the Baltimore City Charter to establish a continuing, non-lapsing Affordable Housing Trust Fund to be used exclusively to provide broadly defined projects and programs related to establishing and preserving affordable housing in Baltimore City. Revenue for the Fund is as provided in the Ordinance of Estimates, grants and donations, mandatory and voluntary payments made pursuant to ordinances establishing development policy, a portion of tax increment financing revenue and any other source established by ordinance. These allocation methods are not subject to discretion in the budget process, other fiscal priorities or constraints imposed by revenue limitations. The Petition authorizes oversight, governance, and administration of the Fund by the Department of Housing and Community Development and a 12 member commission. 
Last year, at a mayoral campaign event with all candidates, long-term housing activist Jeff Singer described Baltimore's housing conditions in bleak terms and called affordable housing one of the city's most pressing problems. He cited statistics that almost 40 percent of households in the city cannot afford their housing based on the proportion of monthly cost, contributing to 150,000 eviction notices filed each year. Around 2,800 people are estimated to sleep on the street on a given night, according to Singer. In the national context, Glassdoor rated Baltimore as one of the top 25 US cities when it comes to jobs and housing costs.(Baltimore was #19 in that survey, Pittsburgh #1).

Recently Pugh supported the call from the Baltimore Housing Roundtable demanding $20 million towards affordable housing and $20 million towards deconstructing vacant houses. “Mayor Pugh shares the vision of the 20/20 plan,” Anthony W. McCarthy said in November. From previous statements one has to assume that the Mayor expects donations and funds from the private sector.
Councilman Cohen made the connection between affordable housing and crime:
“If we are going to get serious about public safety, if we’re going to get serious about educating our kids,” he said. “Then we have to get serious about stable, affordable, safe housing in Baltimore. The city is looking down the barrel of a housing affordability crisis,” Councilman Zeke Cohen.
Since to date no sustainable funding source had been proposed the idea of the fund had no legs until last week when Councilman Henry  submitted legislation to raise the recording fee by 20 percent and transfer taxes by 17 percent as a “sustainable revenue source” for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The raise would increase the recording fee charged on every $500 worth of property sold from $5 to $6; amounting to about $200 on a $100,000 house sale The transfer tax charged on property transfers would rise from 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent or an additional $250 on that $100,000 house. It is estimated that these taxes would generate about $10 million per year. Council President Young and Councilman Bullock want to create a task force to study funding for affordable housing. The task force would look at Henry's bill and other ways of directing money into the trust fund.
DC Housing Fund achievements

The proposal received swift condemnation by some and support by others. On David Troy's Baltimore City Voters Facebook page opinions bounced back and forth.

Wendy W, an "underwater" homeowner posted: "This is straight BS... homeowners continue to pay for the poor in this City! Yet, businesses and developers get the biggest brakes! Why aren’t they paying for the poor and distressed!"

Richard C. was also opposed: "Completely against this. I'll support something like this when our friends in the suburbs do the same. Why make this struggling city less attractive to newcomers?".

To which Bill Henry responded: "yeah, the competitive disadvantage argument is always a handicap to trying to be more progressive than the jurisdictions that surround us. Honestly though, I doubt that less than half-a-percent of the sales price - split between the buyer and seller - is going to send a buyer out to the suburbs who was otherwise going to buy here...not trying because they aren't trying seems counter-intuitive, when the goal is to get something done..."

Phyllis F was for the bill:  "For the record, I’m a liberal and I have no problem with this because it’s a way for the city to fulfill a legislated commitment to affordable housing it hasn’t been able to because of funding." 
DC housing fund, how funds were assigned

Lynda B is also sanguine about it: "This actually doesn’t sound too bad. The headline of the article makes it sound like it will affect taxes in general, but it’s only during the sale of a property - the recording fee and transfer tax will go up. If it could also include a minute amount on second homes and rentals (not during a sale, but a general fee for providing rental property in Baltimore, like $5 per year per unit you have available - this would not be such a burden on an owner who has a few properties, while the larger companies would shoulder more of the burden (and should be providing more of the lower income housing anyway) you’d have this thing funded in a heartbeat."

Affordable housing trust funds are commonly used across the country and also elsewhere in Maryland. Nearby, Howard County, Montgomery County and the District of Columbia use the tool.

DC's Trust Fund has been in effect for over a decade and is also mostly fueled by transfer taxes. Like in Baltimore, affordable housing fees to be paid by developers in lieu of constructing such units under zoning were never enforced. In its 2014 report the DC trust claims to have provided $320 million for financing and to have leveraged an additional $794 million. Of course, DC has seen an extraordinary housing boom. Just like similar "trust" funds for other purposes such as the Maryland Transportation Trust fund or Maryland's Program Open Space, the DC housing fund had been raided to prop up the general fund.

The Philadelphia Housing Trust fund was created in 2005 and is funded by mortgage fees. Its achievements are more modest than those of the District. The 10 year report lists that the HTF has raised nearly $109 million and assisted more than 27,000 households. It has done this through the production of 1,482 new or rehabilitated homes, major repairs to 2,281 homes, improved accessibility for 1,381 households, repair of 12,986 heaters, homelessness prevention for 2,713 households, and utility assistance for 6,399 Philadelphia families.

Since nationally the most important funding source for affordable housing has been the affordable housing tax credit, which is in jeopardy because of the federal tax bill currently being in reconciliation in Washington, local funding sources will likely become an even more important lifeline for affordable housing and the many households who depend on it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN story
Ten Year Report of the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund


Monday, December 11, 2017

Life with a plug-in hybrid

Just when I thought I wouldn't have to or want to care about cars anymore and would consider my vehicle simply a convenience and utility, not a status symbol or toy, I was forced to focus on the vehicle once again and had to realize how much a car still intertwines with modern daily life.

The car I had driven for seven years had over 110,000 miles with the first set of brakes, was manually shifted and the radio turned on and off with a button one could find without looking. Because it was a diesel, it didn't need spark plugs, a distributor or a timing belt and got up to 54mpg on the interstate, allowing trips of up to 700 mile without refueling. All the while the thing was peppy and allowed quick merges or rapid acceleration from 50mph to 70mph as one needs it sometimes in tricky freeway situations. The trunk was cavernous and held my bike without dismantling any more than the seat. It also held a full size spare to replace a flat in a pinch and continue travel at regular speeds. I could change a wheel in 15 minutes flat.
Simple, reliable and frugal but deceptive: The VW Diesel

In short, all seemed just fine until it turned out that this very vehicle that I had bought for its combination of utility and frugal environmental qualities was a fraud. Not that it didn't have all of the above advantages, but it did it by lying about its noxious NOX emissions. It really didn't comply with the California emission standards or, for that matter, with any standards for Nitrate Oxide and obtained its US licenses by cheating. Which, exactly, was the matter of the VW Diesel scandal which forced the world's largest automaker to buy my car back in the world's most expensive comsumer compensation case which includes penalties to the US government and the pain and suffering payouts to owners who are aggrieved by the deceit.

But what to buy next? What vehicle sold in the US was simple, spacious and had great gas mileage (45mpg or better but while adhering to the law) and would get you at least 600 miles without seeing a gas station? The answer: No such vehicle exists here. Only two vehicles comes close.
Nursing an electric car in a parking garage

What I finally bought is EPA rated at 54mpg and goes 600 miles between gas stops, but it isn't simple. In fact, it is one of the most complicated cars on the market: It has an electric motor and a battery pack that lets the car go around 27 miles in full electric mode (enough for an average daily commute) and it also has a gas motor for any trips that are longer. The arrangement has the advantage to completely take away the "range anxiety" that invariably befalls the full electric driver when the estimated amount of miles left falls precipitously because of a steep mountain, high speed or cold temps while the next charging station is still far away.

The radios today have no buttons, the trunk is mostly taken up by batteries (no bike will fit), the back seat is only for two and there is no spare tire at all. The car starts without any noise through a push button that illuminates a vertical screen as big as a laptop and displays a little musical animation as a signal that it is ready to drive. A dizzying array of options is on display. Some information pops up on a display above the dashboard. When everything is on, one gets the feeling to sit in the cockpit of a passenger plane. The car has radar and cameras and keeps the speed, the distance to the car in front and the lane all by itself, and it also gives grades to the driver after the off button gets pushed. ("Excellent acceleration, good climate control setting" etc.). It also turns lights on and off, dims high beams and detects pedestrians. All this babying the operator takes a lot of getting used to, especially for a guy who doesn't like to ask for directions.

But the car also needs constant nursing. Take a few short trips and it needs a couple of hours charging time on a regular 110V household receptacle to be electrically "topped off" again. Deplete the charge entirely and the charging takes a full six hours. I was afraid I would forget about the umbilical cord and just drive off, but the car wouldn't allow that. "Charge lid open" it explains helpfully on the dashboard and refuses to budge. It doesn't budge either if one of doors isn't properly closed.
or via extension cord in the woods

The car made me look up what electricity really costs. I remembered the 9 cents or so per kilowatt hour which the various electric companies advertise, but that is before all the taxes and fees. Everything included, the rate is more like 14 cents. Still, with about 6-8 kwh per full charge, one gets at least 25 miles for about  a buck, not possible with gas, not even when the gas is cheap and the car gets 50mpg. Besides, driving in all electric mode is truly addictive. Instead of the vroom-vroom of the combustion engine which gives the standard male an extra push of testosterone, the electric motor responds quick and direct but with hardly a whizzing noise it exudes all the excitement of a sewing machine. So guys, no testosterone. Instead stress free gliding through rush hour traffic nourished by the ambition for a good better eco score at the end. Gentle is the maxime, not brawn, and I tell you, it does change a man. In short, the result is just what one wants to see more often in a city in which pedestrians, bus riders and bicyclists desperately need better air to breathe, a bit more space and more respect.

To make up for emasculating the driver, the car looks aggressive from the front (think sting ray). From  the side and back one would describe it more aptly as goofy.   But after a week or so even a utility oriented owner begins to like the goofy thing for all its thoughtfulness. I drove it twice a 300 miles to Virginia and back and for several weeks on my daily commutes and errands and must say, the overall experience is really nice. I felt less tired after the 5 hrs trips and the combined gas mileage including the electric bits at the beginning and end was 57mpg on the long  freeway journey, better than my diesel and without cheating. Of course, the price is that the car is somewhat sluggish uphill and the engine sometimes sounds as it is complaining, but only if one tries ambitious things. On the 2000 miles to date I drove about 44% of the time in electric mode and achieved an overall (gas) fuel consumption rate of 78.6 mpg. For one thing, I would never have thought that the ratio of short trips under 25 miles which I could do electric would amount to almost half of all the miles. The readout taken from the car display also proves that I drove too much and spent way too much time in the car in spite of my efforts to use the bus at times, walk a lot and do all errands around my workplace by bike.
Aggressive look for a softy car

There is an app to find (ChargePoint) charging stations that deliver 240V and charge the car in 2 hrs. Many of those do the first 6kwh for free. The car also comes with a $100 credit for use at Chargepoint stations. I used one in a public garage in College Park which made me park about half a mile from where I wanted to go but alloed a nice stroll along Baltimore Avenue where I could admire all the new stuff going on there. There is also one charging station in Baltimore's Lexington Market garage and several other City garages. (Good for Baltimore's Parking Authority!). One station is easily taken up by an all day parker, though, so time limits need to be established. There is no charging at Morgan University, which is a shame for a school that teaches urban planning and lots of engineering.

I bought a Christmas tree which I strapped on the roof and did some shopping on a snowy Saturday without having to worry about those short trips that normally spew pollutants and wreck an engine because it never properly warms up before it is shut off again, all things that don't apply to an electric motor. A heat pump churns out some some warmth and can be started while the car still sits on the charger, warming it up without depleting the battery. Neat.
Lots of data stored and on display: Fuel consumption

The car is a Prius Prime (Premium). Hyundai will soon offer a very similar model called Ionic. GM also has a plug in vehicle with gas engine called Volt but it costs more, has a much lower mpg when running on gas and only half the range.

Still, I really didn't want to give my car all that attention. Hopefully charging, thinking about when and where to use the battery and remember to switch propulsion methods at the correct places will become one day second nature. I know, though, I will hate it when I get my first flat and will have to try a fix with the glue that gets inserted with a toy like electric pump.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, December 8, 2017

Street overhaul: Des Moines beats Baltimore

As a keynote speaker at Transit Choices  meeting this Friday Baltimore's new  transportation Director Michelle Pourciau who comes from private consulting after 22 years with DOT in the District of Columbia including a brief stint as acting director stressed the need for a comprehensive transportation plan and a systematic asset inventory. She characterized herself as impatient, a planner who can think beyond the pavement, on the job 24/7 and described "her house" as including the largest piece of real estate in the city: the streets.
Baltimore bike lane challenges (Bikemore)

After Pourciau, Bikemore's Executive Director Liz Cornish took the stage. Her topic was much more mundane: An update on bicycling in Baltimore. With Porciau and her key staff (Frank Murphy, Valorie Lacour) still in attendance, Cornish started with a quiz: Which US city has recently announced the most aggressive street overhaul? The guesses included all the usual suspects, Portland, Seattle, New York and Washington, all cities which made big strides in redistributing their streets. The answer which Cornish revealed surprised everybody: Des Moines Iowa. What moved this town in Iowa to the top of the heap was a decision of its city council on Monday of this week to adopt a new mobility plan for downtown Des Moines which calls for eliminating nearly every one-way street, reducing the number of vehicle lanes and growing the city's network of bike lanes. The plan had been conceived with the help of  the Urban Land Institute, ULI and the Des Moines business community.
Pourciau speaks at Transit Choices
(photo: Edelson)
"This isn't just an exercise to add bike lines. "The purpose of the project is to really focus on safety of all users, including drivers, by slowing traffic to the speed limit, and to encourage economic development." Larry James, chairman of the Urban Land Institute of Iowa.
The plan has “Short term” components for 2018 and 2019; “medium term” for 2020 and 2021; “long term” for 2022 and 2023 and is supposed to cost around $33 million. This is pretty fast. The secret: Des Moines isn’t proposing to rebuild any of its streets and, instead, is just reallocating existing road space. The bulk of the overall modest cost isn’t even for paint, signs, curbs or posts  but for adjusting traffic signals when one way streets turn into two-way streets.
Des Moines pilot project for street overhaul (People for Bikes)

Maybe Des Moines' plans wont happen as fast as they plan to implement them. But they won't have any difficulty beating Baltimore as Cornish proceeded to show next. Baltimore's progress in realizing its own bike masterplan, not to mention conversion of one-way streets, is so sluggish, one could call it a standstill. The once projected rate of 7.5 miles of bike facilities per year has been missed by a wide margin and one-way street studies and other risky proposals such as closing roadspace next to McKeldin Plaza sit on the director's desk on the pile of undecided matters. As Pourciau wistfully noted, many things had been put off because the Department was "waiting for her", leaving her with a big backlog of matters ranging from the Circulator that continues to cost more than its funding sources provide (we won't cut any service next year, Pourciau promised) to postponed decisions about eliminating certain rush hour parking restrictions. That unprocessed load is large even before the transportation plan and the inventory will take up additional resources. The plan is supposed to be started early next year with the help of one of the on-call consultants and be completed within six months, a record time for these types of plans.
Bikemore proposal for North Avenue

A good starting point for demonstrating how an aggressive overhaul of Baltimore's streets could look is North Avenue Rising, a project based on a federal TIGER grant that is supposed to increase transportation equity, enhance economic development and make the 5 mile corridor a friendlier street. The project recently made its official debut at a series of community meetings which didn't satisfy Liz Cornish who tweeted:
"We can afford a project that gets North Avenue right the first time. We can't afford to spend $27,330,000 on the existing project. North Ave + the people deserve better" (Liz Cornish on Twitter)
Cornish points to a  Bikemore survey about the North Avenue project where she suggests separated bike-lanes and dedicated transit lanes in the center. At Friday's Transit Choices meeting founder and chair Jimmy Rouse topped Cornish's assessment with his own vision: A streetcar running from Hilton to Milton. " What better way to tell the communities in east and west Baltimore that somebody cares" he asked.

It looks like Pourciau will have her hands full.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

People for Bikes about the Des Moines plan

Thursday, December 7, 2017

What makes citizens suspicious about government and developers (with current updates)

The bad reputation that government and developers currently have in many quarters is a drag on the well being of cities, towns and villages because they cant exist without either. The more disparities in communities and neighborhoods increase, the more the popular assumption flourishes that corruption and sleazy backroom deals are the cause. Since national trends such as income disparity are mostly not driven by local decisions, the temptation to identify a tangible culprit is understandable but leads most often to inaccurate accusations. Even the infamous redlining maps were not local but issued by the federal Housing and Urban development offices of HUD. Still, local government should set a standard of openness and fairness to expunge the corruption narrative through transparency and predictability, two characteristics favored by citizens and businesses alike.
Economic segregation in the Baltimore Towson Metro area between 1970
and 2010 on the household and the neighborhood level

But there are cases where the procedures and deals are so obtuse and hidden, that they tend to taint the entire picture. Two recent cases are located in Towson, both involve Planned Unit Developments, (PUD) County Government and (initially) the same developer, even though the two situations are otherwise unrelated and have each their very own trajectory.

The one is the saga of Towson's Gateway development which involves a firehouse, open space, trees, a gas station, a convenience store and what seemed to be a great way to have a cake and eat it, too. It started in 2013.
The other is Towson Row, a huge project that was supposed to put Towson on the map as an urban destination on par with Bethesda or Silver Spring, places that turned from sleepy suburban outposts to vibrant urban places with busy streets all day and evening. While opinions about Bethesda as a precedent differ among businesses and residents, there was consensus to give Towson a more walkable and active downtown with vitality as a key ingredient to make streets safer and more enjoyable.

Both projects are currently most notable for what is not happening and for what they are not addressing.
Towson Gateway: Originally proposed development

In the case of the Gateway, what's not happening now is a large Royal farm gas station on which community and developer never saw eye to eye. The developer points out that the the lot in question is surrounded by car oriented facilities such as another gas station and a diner with parking in front and that their proposed development was entirely compatible. The community sees the property entirely differently, namely as a symbol and doormat for what the future Towson should stand for.  They point to the downtown zoning district which ends precisely with this lot and which doesn't allow gas stations. The community was so upset with the PUD introduced by local Councilman David Marks as a tool to wiggle out from the gas station restriction, that the local councilman eventually filed a motion to withdraw support for the PUD, a pretty unusual move for somebody who himself has introduced the PUD.  The council responded in an unusual manner as well by breaking with the tradition of councilmanic courtesy in which the council usually follows the lead of the member in  whose district a project is located. The council rejected Mark's motion and submitted itself to a compromise crafted by Councilman Tom Quirk from Catonsville whom Executive Kamenetz had asked to act as arbiter.

In the compromise the developer agreed to eliminate the gas station but also asked for more time to put a new deal together and suggested that the purchase prize should be lowered to account for the loss coming from the delay and having to undo whatever they had prepared to date. This, in turn threatens to undo how the Executive had envisioned the deal from the onset, namely that the sale of the lot would pay for the new firehouse and would even have a bit of money left. Of course, the deal had one huge inherent conflict right in its DNA: The ability to realize the purchase price of $8.3 million was contingent on the county approving the construction of a gas station not permitted by the property’s zoning.
Since the new firehouse is long complete and active, the County is now on the hook. The initial Gateway deal expires in 2018. Late in November the SUN reported that  the County Executive had extended the deadline by five years already in July and without asking the council. Promptly the harmony after the compromise ended and new accusations began to fly. Suspicions are heightened by a whole series of unfortunate missteps:
Towson Gateway protest about tree removal

  • The administration's initial intent to build the new fire-station on a green space that the community wanted to see protected (another site was found).
  • The County's acceptance of a proposal that included gas pumps even though they don't comply with the zoning for the site. 
  • The County's cutting 30 trees  and doing partial demolition on the site in April of this year even though  the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations assures that the sales document stipulated the transaction "as is" and the PUD stipulated that the trees should be maintained. Caves Valley Partners had indicated during the development review process that the trees were not compatible with its proposed development plan
The other Towson project roiling Towson, Towson Row, announced in 2013 as well,  is much bigger (1 million square foot) and is precisely the type of project for which PUDs are envisioned: Stretching over many parcels and requiring a set of mixed use urban buildings which the County zoning code never envisioned. Although the density and scale of the proposed project shocked some anti development community members who  tend to wave the density and traffic flag across the nation whenever development is proposed, the project was seen by many others as bringing the needed critical mass to Towson allowing attractive retail and vital streets. In spite of intense interest during public meetings and some critical questions about how much public open space the project would provide, either on-site or off-site (or via payments), the project moved  through the approval process pretty smoothly. (The developer says community appeals delayed the project by a year).
Initial Towson Row rendering (Caves Valley Partners)

When in 2015 two entire large city blocks were flattened, to make space for the new development, 5 acres in all, everybody thought now the project was real. Except, after the demolition not much else happened and eventually rumors began to fly. The developer explained that unexpected large rock formations made an underground garage impossible and sought to amend the PUD to re-arrange things without underground parking. During the re-design there no work on the site, except some utility relocation. Then, in May of this year Greenberg Gibbons joined the development team as the new lead fueling the general assumption that now, with the additional horsepower under hood, construction would commence in earnest. That didn't happen. Anybody willing to travel a few miles south into the city could see how Caves Valley was pulling off a mixed use development of similar size without a hitch. Stadium Square has completed three large buildings to date.

With the year nearly coming to an end and no visible activity on the Towson Row site, news broke that Baltimore County will aid the developer with a complicated $43 million tax deal which, in a large part, trades tax breaks the developer would be entitled to after completion for cash up front spread over the next 5 years. It is estimated that  the County would break even on $26.5 million forgone tax credits 12-14 years after completion. $16.4 million portion are tied to hotel taxes as a "hotel tax grant" repaid by the room occupancy tax over 30 years as estimated by the private consultant firm Sage Policy Group (Anirban Basu). The matter will be before the County Council under fiscal matters as a "development agreement between Towson Row Statutory Trust and Baltimore County" for a vote on December 18. A fiscal analysis is currently being prepared and expected to become available as a "Fiscal Note" on the auditor's webpage. The Council webpage does not provide any information at this time. The meeting will be open to the public.
Towson Row celebration after demolition (Baltimore Fishbowl)

The new development partner Brian Gibbons told the SUN that Towson Row was "not economically feasible as designed" and that the $43 million up front assist from the County represents "the minimum threshold we needed with our partners".
The BBJ reported this week that developer Gibbons announced the begin of construction for mid 2018 with the Whole Foods store planned for the development all along, followed by 300 units for student housing. The article makes no mention of the tax deal.

That large scale developments are proposed and then don't happen for long time or not at all is not unique. The City of Baltimore has several sites that have been either vacant lots for decades (such as the prominent  McCormick site at the Inner Harbor which sat empty for 25 years until the current development finally came though) or as an assortment of vacant buildings (the Superblock) or as a prominent space in ruins (the site of the former Morris Mechanic Theater). In many of these cases there were big public announcements and then only silence and rumors until attention faded altogether. Even that subsurface conditions upend cost estimates and geotechnical borings done prior to design is not unheard of. But that a developer joins a project 4 years after its inception and then declares it "economically not feasible" six months later is unusual, especially if external circumstances didn't change and the economy is humming. It certainly furthers the notion that the public didn't get the full picture in the beginning. 
5 vacant acres in the heart of Towson 

While in the case of the Towson Gateway it was the the County who set up a scenario in which the imagined win-win was almost impossible, in the case of Towson Row it looks like the County is on the short end of the stick. Not wanting to look at 5 acres of emptiness, what are the  administration and the council members supposed to do? 

Maybe the debate of this public aid can include the discussion of the startling economic segregation this metro area experiences not only in the City, but also in the County.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for information on the County "Fiscal Note" and link (below) to Development Agreement under consideration

County information release of 11/24/17
Development Agreement for consideration by County Council
Fiscal Note (addendum issued 12/11/17)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The universe and Baltimore's vacants

“Who would have thought that astronomy has something to do with vacant buildings?” wondered Tamas Budavari, a cosmologist and assistant professor for applied math at Hopkins. Indeed. But here he stood with his Hopkins colleague, Philip Garboden, a guy who combines a bachelor in classic Greek with a masters in public policy and soon with a masters in applied math and a doctor in sociology. Next to the two academics stood Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman, all presenting at a workshop of the 21st Century Cities Initiative held at the Baltimore Renaissance Harborplace Hotel at Pratt Street. The workshop topic: The partnership between Housing and JHU on "Smart Blight Remediation".
Michael Braverman (left) with Tamas Budavari and Philip Garboden

“Just like how galaxies cluster in the universe, houses also cluster in the city,” Budavari says. “So if you have a vacant house in a given place, there's a higher probability of finding other ones next to it.”

Will such a geeky excursion in science and statistics help the city fix its problems with its 17,000 or more abandoned houses? 

Data-based policy is all the rage and Mayor Pugh is a great proponent of evidence-based approaches to Baltimore's problems. Braverman, who in addition to his J.D. holds a bachelor degree from Hopkins tried the Hopkins Avenue already when he was Deputy Commissioner.
Vacants and their markets

Demo cost in Baltimore
He understands, how vexing the problem of the empty houses can be, they drag down property values, don't add to the tax base, harbor criminals and the homeless and often are in imminent danger to burn or collapse. While citizens may not distinguish between "unoccupied" and "vacant", for insurances and policy makers, these are different animals. Cities can’t easily tell whether homes are only temporarily "unoccupied", for example, when renters move in and out, sales have not settled yet or buildings are on the market for a long time, or whether they are truly abandoned in cases where owners walk away from mortgages, taxes, maintenance costs which may exceed what the building is worth .The collaboration with Hopkins hopes to not only find these unoccupied homes but also figure out if they’re about to be abandoned, creating a kind of patient prognosis, which like a physical, is supposed to identify problems for possible prevention instead of dealing with the expensive cure once decay has set it in.

"Sometimes I joke around that we're creating glasses that will allow us to see new dimensions of the vacant-building universe," Braverman is quoted on Hopkins' website describing the collaboration. In astronomy and astrophysics scientists can use background radiation to go back and forth in time, in the case of Baltimore's vacants its "big data", i.e. connecting the dots of  data, such as water, gas, and electricity usage, postal deliveries, tax payments and possibly even cellphone use. 
Science in decision making 

Presumably, a high volume of unoccupied houses is a precursor of imminent abandonment. Those principally habitable unoccupied homes would potentially be ideal candidates for a Dollar Home program or for accommodation of the homeless, provided one can come to terms with the owners and the community. 

Commissioner Braverman also used the Hopkins brain trust to give him quick answers on which buildings are likely to collapse anytime soon, notably those who are end-of-row-units with un-braced walls due to missing roof and floor joists which tie walls together. 

Housing also uses fairly sophisticated maps showing market strength. In strong housing markets there are no vacants, in middle markets some, and in distressed markets there are many. Housing targets middle market vacants for code enforcement to achieve that owners either sell or repair. In the distressed markets, the department looks to create clusters for demolition by "firing the owners" (Braverman) since scattered demolition of middle of a row buildings is unsightly and also requires costly work to stabilize newly exposed sidewalls. The highest cost in the creation of demolition clusters is the cost of relocation households stuck in the middle of abandonment, burdened with a home that has no market value, cannot be sold and has no equity to receive loans for repairs.
In spite of code enforcement and closure of cases the
number of vacants increases due to new abandonments 

Braverman and the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance (BNIA) have often declared that vacant houses are the best proxy for market strength of a neighborhood, with a fairly low number of vacants tipping a neighborhood over the edge to becoming a weak market. Which begs the question of cause and effect, since one could argue if the vacants drag down the neighborhood or if a down neighborhood creates the abandonment in the first place. Certainly in disinvested communities there is a vicious cycle creating a downward spiral. In spite of this ambiguity, Braverman, his Hopkins partners and also Governor Hogan (project CORE) are intent on strategic demolition as a solution, convinced that demolition will add value. 
Stately but unstable, rowhouse in Harlem Park

New Orleans and Kansas City, KS are closely watching what Baltimore is doing. As fellow Bloomberg Cities they are slated to be next in the 21st Century Cities collaboration. Meanwhile, New Orleans' mayor Landrieu has developed his own common sense strategy against vacant properties which was also presented in the workshop. In a simple evaluation matrix the qualitative question whether a rowhouse "contributes to the character streescape or neighborhood" is a key component in the determination whether a building should be torn down. 

Astronomists don't ask those kinds of questions, but sociologists do. That is where Philip Garboden of Hopkins' Poverty and Inequality Research Lab comes in.  He looks at the human factor and tries to address the bigger questions of equity and social justice which hover large over the final disposition of vacant buildings, the question of relocation of residents, and the evaluation of neighborhoods. In an earlier presentation at the 21st Century Cities symposium, planners from Detroit had described which principle their Mayor's applied to his famously decimated Detroit neighborhoods: "Every neighborhood has a future".  

When it comes to Baltimore's vacants, no data science can replace the ultimate question: What should the future of Baltimore's distressed neighborhoods look like and will each neighborhood have one? 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for additional graphics
NOLA questionaire

JHU  Battling urban blight with big data
Baltimore SUN about the 21st City Initiative
CityLab: Using Astronomy to fight urban blight


Related articles on this blog:

Monday, December 4, 2017

One year in: Can Baltimore's Mayor succeed?

After a very competitive mayoral primary Democratic winner Catherine Pugh kept a low profile until the general election. Immediately after being elected she presented her transition team during an event in Sandtown. As an indication how much she felt in the driver's seat, a month later, she turned the table on her transition committee on transportation when she invited Sadiq Khan to speak to the group in the conference room of the Greater Baltimore Committee. The transition team, in Pugh's words to "evaluate agency operations and government services and make recommendations for how they can be better run" found itself suddenly on the receiving end of recommendations. 

Pugh during the campaign (Photo: Philipsen)
Pugh's personal interests don't particularly include transportation, but by bringing in former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ex-transportation commissioner, she indicated she would listen to progressive heavy hitters. Sadiq Khan's positions such as that "transportation is no longer a matter of engineering, its a question of imagination" and that "you can't change the big ship of the city without a plan" had been exemplified in New York where she stunned traffic engineers by closing parts of Times Square to cars and implementing miles of bike-lanes on Manhattan's crowded streets.
Khan was a welcome sight in Baltimore where the local DOT had not shown much imagination for quite some time. Turning her head and addressing the team from her seat, Pugh gave the impression that she would follow Khan's advice and begin a new era in transportation. Transition members where impressed and hopeful that a break on the supreme reign of the automobile in Baltimore City was imminent.

Another impressive step came when Mayor Pugh at her first cabinet meeting loaded all her department heads into a bus  and had them walk in Sandtown from one hot-spot to another, asking each department leader what he or she could do to solve the problem.

Barely in office, Pugh had to finish work for a consent degree with the then still Obama controlled justice department dealing with police reform. She did it on time.

Those early steps painted Pugh as a decisive leader who would hold her administration accountable and not tolerate business as usual. A year later, it is clear that the Mayor, an avid runner who knows well how to pace herself, did not maintain that initial speed and urgency. It took her until July to appoint somebody in charge of the rudderless department of transportation and her appointment still has to prove that she is an impatient, creative and fearless leader in league with Sadik Khan. Instead of urgently moving forward, Pugh threatened to go backwards by taking out a new, not even finished "protected bike lane" in Canton, because she thought it had not been well enough deliberated. Another misstep came recently when the City's Transportation Priority Letter to the State was delivered late and only after the SUN reported that no letter had been filed. Instead of clear priorities the letter contained a quickly thrown together incongruous assortment of projects.
Groundbreaking with developer Danforth (Photo: Philipsen)

Transportation is not the only field where promise seems to outsize delivery: As promised  during her campaign Pugh split the beleaguered housing department into Baltimore Housing and Community Development,making them two separate entities. After that bold move, though, neither leader has come out with a decisive new idea on how Housing would become more efficient or how Baltimore's affordable housing crisis should be solved. The announced restructuring of the Baltimore Development Corporation is also stuck, or at least not public.

Both, as city council person and as State Senator, Pugh gained a reputation for being disciplined, smart, extremely hard working during long hours that would start with a pre-dawn run surveying large parts of her city by pounding the pavement and end late after evening community meetings. She eats and sleeps so little, that at times she appears to be in a daze. But the next meeting or a microphone will snap her right back into high alert, with a quick wit and, compared to Stephanie Rawlings Blake, soaring rhetoric. She was and is also known for having cultivated an excellent network of powerful men who appreciate her business acumen and certainly also her sense of style. (She was once a fashion adviser to Radio One's Cathy Huges and ran a high fashion consignment store on Washington Boulevard). Aside from fashion, Pugh is modest. Before she got her assigned black SUV as Mayor she drove around in age old beaters such as an old green Jaguar and later a Jeep Cherokee, often without buckling her seatbelt. Her house in Ashburton is historic but small.

Already as a Councilwoman Pugh engaged with the private sector. Through sponsors and donations she initiated the Baltimore Marathon and the Baltimore Design School, Baltimore's first all new school in decades. Her attempt to further good causes through money from the private sector was maybe most clearly exemplified by her 2001 "Fish out of Water" campaign, in which private companies sponsored customized fish sculptures in front of their enterprises that would later be auctioned off to support Baltimore youth programs. She repeats her ask of the private sector at any opportunity, for example her State of the City talk in March of this year:
Our goal is to make our schools a part of the community, centers of enrichment.  Here is where I call on the Private Sector. This year’s Youth Works program has seen our largest number ever of young people applying to work this summer, at 12,500 youth.  All of these children must work.  I am calling on our faith-based community, business leaders and philanthropic organizations to help us meet this goal.  If we don’t employ our youth, the drug dealers will. (Mayor Pugh)
When the first marathon was held, Pugh ran the entire race in spite of a bleeding foot. Even today Pugh still starts most days with a 5am run through her neighborhood. This type of perseverance is what secured her enough votes to beat the crowded primary field. But her knack of hanging out with the rich and powerful to get them to support her or her causes still makes many think that the Mayor isn't really all out there to support the poor. Her strong desire to get along with Governor Hogan doesn't help her image either nor do colorful supporters such as convicted lobbyist Bruce Bereano, Senate President Mike Miller or Baltimore's who is who of entrepreneurs, developers and chief net-workers who have kicked off the traditional Pugh New Year fundraiser held at Gertrude's restaurant at the BMA for years. The Baltimore Brew, always ready to stab the powerful into the eye, has scouted out Pugh's calendar on her first anniversary in office tomorrow and reported with delight that she will spend the evening at the ultra posh Caves Valley Country Club in Baltimore County.
Pugh with Senator Nathan Pulliam (photo: Philipsen)

For some the uneasiness turned into hostility when the new Mayor killed the Baltimore City $15 minimum wage bill, in the view of many, at a minimum a massive strategic blunder, if not an unforgivable violation of liberal and progressive policy. When the Mayor, in a quick and surprising move, took down Baltimore's Confederate status it looked for a moment that Pugh had found her footing and disgruntled supporters were ready to forgive her the previous "transgressions." Mayor Pugh has taken many prudent steps, including fostering innovation, strengthening recreational facilities, making Baltimore a Bloomberg City which gets support and advice from best practices across the nation and the world,  but she is probably no progressive but a pragmatist who has little patience with excuses or ineffectiveness and pays attention to streetlights which don't work or prides herself of implementing mobile job centers.

But, as the SUN points out, what really keeps the Pugh administration cornered is Baltimore's crime. In a lose-lose position, the Mayor can neither be tough on crime without alienating the community reeling from the history of Baltimore police which brought federal oversight to the department, nor can she only focus on the social long-term solutions without giving the impression that she has no immediate answers. Originally intent on following Council-president Jack Young's goal of "spending more on education than on police" Pugh suggested in her budget to cut police overtime and shift $5.5. million from the police department to schools. The unrelenting crime rate forces her now to say that the police needs "hundreds more officers".

Baltimore has not been kind to its mayors for decades. It seems that it takes a very long time before mayors can bask in some kind of friendly nostalgic light. Four-term Mayor William Donald Schaefer is now widely seen as a good mayor, but at the time, many residents had grown tired of his showmanship, his focus on grad projects and, as it was bemoaned even then, the focus on downtown and the inner harbor instead of the neighborhoods.

Baltimore's first elected black Mayor, the highly educated Kurt Schmoke, soon earned disdain for being ineffective because he couldn't stem the urban flight that took on dramatic proportions under his term. Still, he managed to be elected three times and is now a highly regarded university president.

His successor, councilman Martin O'Malley was initially seen as very effective, not only with crime reduction and his world-famous CitiStat but also with his resource protecting approach of working from strength. He headed for the Governor's office after two terms. Today, he and zero tolerance policing are seen as the reason why thousands of young African American men began languishing in prisons feeding a long-term cycle of even more impoverishment and crime.

Former council-president  Mayor Sheila Dixon, although admired in inner city neighborhoods, brought it only to one term because had to leave in disgrace when a giftcard scandal brought her a conviction of on one misdemeanor count of fraudulent misappropriation. Her successor Stephany

Rawlings Blake, who was seen as intelligent but too disengaged and isolated, resigned after only one and a half terms, heavily damaged by the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent unrest during which she was initially not seen. By contrast, Catherine Pugh was on the streets of West Baltimore day and night, fearlessly hugging kids and calming tempers.
Pugh at new EBDI park  (Photo: Philipsen)

Of all these previous mayors Pugh holds only Schaefer in some higher regard.

Catherine Pugh loves her job. She says she "is married to this city". Baltimore's Mayor holds a powerful position. Baltimore's recently reconstituted city council, with its many new and young, progressive members, wants to hold her accountable but is also willing to cooperate. Her friendly attitude towards Governor Hogan is probably the only way, given how dependent the city is on State funds. So what are the odds for success?

Most residents want Pugh to be successful. Baltimore really can't afford to have another Mayor go up in flames. One year after having elected Pugh to office, the city can't afford to stand on the sidelines or simply observe. There is no good alternative to her succeeding.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Catherine Pugh's State of the City address of March 17, 2017
Baltimore Magazine: Pugh profile (Jan 2017)
Related on this blog:
Clowns at the Crosswalk - What we were missing at the Mayoral Forum
Mayor Pugh's Agenda

Friday, December 1, 2017

The biggest threat to the Eastern Shore isn't water

Before rising sea-levels  can become life threatening to the Eastern Shore asphalt may be the biggest threat fueled by a Governor who hasn't seen a road project he doesn't like, including widening of far afield roadways like MD 404  or MD 219 becoming narrow country roads in the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and Delaware. Hogan says: "the war on rural Maryland is over ... you have a voice in Annapolis." (in Cumberland on 10/14/17) It isn't surprising that his Department of Transportation has embarked on an environmental impact study (EIS) for another Bay crossing. The study got its own website and kicked on November 15 off with a rather dull online presentation of what such a study entails. Even a small sample will put you to sleep:
Governor Hogan at the Bay Bridge (SUN photo)
A Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is part of a two-tiered process, will be prepared by MDTA and led by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The two-tiered process provides a systematic approach for advancing potential transportation improvements. The regional analyses undertaken during Tier 1 will involve evaluation of approximately one-mile wide corridors using a broad-scale level of detail for engineering and environmental information. The Tier 1 EIS will result in selection of a corridor alternative that best meets the study purpose and need. Following the Tier 1 study, a Tier 2 study will identify specific alignment alternatives within the corridor alternative that is identified in Tier 1.
 Contrary to the dull text, the matter of the Bay crossing is existential for the DelMarVa peninsula. At stake is nothing less than the future of the Eastern Shore. Governor Hogan describes the future this way:
"Marylanders all across the state depend on being able to cross the Chesapeake Bay, but the reality is that there is simply too much traffic, and that it will continue to get worse." (Governor Hogan on August 30, 2016)
Secretary Pete Rahn also sees a bleak future:
"The Bay Bridge can be maintained safely through 2065 with preservation and maintenance work; however, studies show that by 2040, motorists could experience up to 14-mile delays," Secretary Pete K. Rahn. 
Unfortunately extraploating the future form the past or applying linear zero sum game thinking is highly inaccurate in transportation. The equation more roads =less congestion has been proven wrong ever since the first roads have been built. The dynamic between road capacity and travel demand is far from static because added supply also changes the demand. People decide trips based on their duration. If added lanes will shorten a 20 mile journey from 30 minutes to 20 minutes the range of people who consider 30 minute commutes as the acceptable limit has geographically expanded potential users from 20 miles to an area of 30 miles.
US 50 congestion near Bay Bridge

Furthermore, transportation has long been redefined from moving vehicles (over a given distance) to creating mobility for people and goods. In the mobility system there are many more variables in play than a given supply and demand. Variables include land-use (which influences the need for trips and their length in the first place) as well as mode. Proper land use can shorten trips or avoid them altogether. Mode choice may mean short distances can be walked or biked or longer ones be undertaken by bus or train.

Mobility planners also employ demand management strategies that reduce demand not only through land use or mode choice but by making transportation cost respond to demand just as in Uber or airline pricing . Cost can be influenced through incentives (making transit tickets tax deductible or employer paid etc.) or through "sticks" such as making driving or parking more expensive during peak times.  As in any management system, planners seek to find optimal usage patterns that utilize an investment without being too spiky. A spiky pattern is one where during certain periods all potential users want the system at once while it sits largely fallow for the rest of the time.

The Bay Bridges are a case of very spiky demand, with peaks concentrated on a few hours during weekends in the beach season. From the above it is obvious, that high congestion during those peak hours does not necessarily mean that the solution has to be added capacity. The demand problem could, at least theoretically, be also solved by spreading the demand through dynamic pricing, or reducing it by offering mode choice (rapid beach buses) and different land use patterns.
Where to cross the Bay?

And all these variables do not even account for the imminent transportation revolution: The appearance of self driving (autonomous) vehicles (AV) which will change everything, long before the last automobile will be converted to run itself. How? Roadway capacity modeling shows that human drivers use roadways very inefficiently: For example by being inattentive, aggressive or incompetent drivers cause friction that in turn causes surrounding vehicles to take evasive action, break or anything else that causes friction and ripples through the system which often amplify over distance until far away vehicles come to a complete stand-still. AVs, by contrast can travel in densely packed platoons in almost ideal flow conditions. Transportation models show that even with only 50% AV saturation, road capacity increases. With 100% saturation road capacity is estimated to almost double.  In other words, the AV, almost certainly a widespread reality by the time a new bridge span would open, will have made the new bridge obsolete before it even opens.

Hogan's mantra that only additional pavement can solve the problem is certainly wrong, especially for a Bay crossing where demand is very intermittent and spiky.

The simplicity of traditional auto-orientated transportation planning becomes even more evident if one puts transportation into the context of economic development, the environment, equity and sustainability. The single minded focus of "reach the beach" by car and as fast as possible has already drastically changed the Eastern Shore, and not for the better as most residents on both sides of the Bay would agree.

Reversible lanes, toll collection on only one side, and EZ passes are classic management strategies which allowed the bridges to absorb the added capacity that all the additional pavement on both sides of the Bay Bridge along with the replacement of the draw-bridge at the Kent Narrows have brought. As an unintended consequence large parts of Kent Island and beyond have become part of the Baltimore-Washington commuter-shed, converting stretches of US-50 into commercial strips more reminiscent of Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie than the scenic, calm and peaceful rural roads which used to characterize these parts of Maryland.
Unsustainable waterfront development 

The question of how Maryland should look in the future lies at the doorstep of the State's Department of Planning. The now aborted effort of Plan Maryland tried to address some type of larger picture that would avoid the complete homogenization of the State from the mountains to the sea which results from unregulated and unfettered business as usual. Current land use planning, which Hogan sees solely in the hand of local government, is often at odds between different jurisdictions, is frequently myopic and certainly doesn't provide the bigger picture statewide perspective which is needed for smarter planning. Governor Hogan does not believe in State planning; but he nevertheless started an effort to comply with Maryland's law that requires some type of State Plan. He calls it Better Maryland.

To truly plan for a better Maryland the ongoing unprecedented paving-over of farms, forests and open spaces has to be curbed. The question of a Better Maryland and an additional Bay Crossing are inextricably intertwined. Transportation and land use cannot be resolved in isolation from each other.  No longer can one believe the transportation planner myth that their systems simply follow land use. Instead, transportation shapes land use and always has.

Anybody who cares about Maryland's rural spaces needs to understand that the true "war on rural Maryland" occurs when shopping centers, gas stations, roads and soul-less subdivisions are allowed  to gobble up centuries of culture and geography. The idea of an additional Bay Crossing is nothing but a declaration of war on the Eastern Shore as most Marylanders  know and love it. As such, the Environmental Impact Study now underway is not just a dull process for geeks, but an opportunity to put a stop to the madness of designing each road for the short moments of maximum demand.

To make this point I submitted the following official comment regarding the Bay Crossing on the MDOT website.
There are many ways from land use to transportation management and dynamic pricing to manage peak demand on the existing bay crossings that would not require added capacity to mitigate congestion.
Bay Bridge Run
Furthermore, it is almost certain that autonomous vehicles will have a wide penetration by the time an added crossing would be in place. Almost all experts AV prognosticate that the AV will add anywhere between 50 to a 100% of capacity on existing available pavement areas, in part through efficient platooning and speed with no or much less friction from human behavior in part through narrower travel lanes for guided vehicles.
On the other hand, the impact of added vehicles flooding to the Eastern Shore is significant for the culture and the ecosystem of the peninsula which most Marylanders cherish.  This has already become evident from past efforts to make "reach the beach" easier. Only a few would consider the transformation of the landscapes along US 50 and MD 404 which now in parts resemble Ritchie Highway or York Road a positive. Homogenizing the rural landscapes through sprawl is the true "war on rural Maryland" , not the alleged restrictions stemming from carefully planning Maryland which strive to maintain the historic landscapes and cultures in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.
As a Maryland resident, a a friend of the Eastern Shore, as a planner and transportation expert I am opposed to any additional vehicular bridge crossings and strongly suggest to solve existing very "spiky" capacity problems (capacity issues exist only at relatively short peak times, probably less than 5% of total time) through transportation management, mode choice, dynamic pricing and preparation for AVs. Those no-build scenarios must be fully analyzed and included in the alternatives for the EIS.
In 2015 I ended an article about the Bay Bridge with these words: Therefore, considerations about the future mobility in the larger region should begin with acceptable outcomes and work out how those outcomes can be achieved instead of open ended extrapolations of current utterly unsustainable trends. 
I think in 2017 this still holds true.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also my 2015 article:
Why a new or wider Bay Bridge would be the wrong answer