Thursday, July 8, 2021

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

 Death by a thousand cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feuding owners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rockville Mall, now Pike and Rose (Photo Philipsen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The role of government 

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

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

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

White Flint Mall redevelopment rendering (website)

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

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

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

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

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

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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

Friday, June 4, 2021

Can the scars of the "Highway to Nowhere" be healed?

There are brief moments in history where everything seems possible. With Biden's gigantic plans for infrastructure and recovery even fixing the "Highway to Nowhere" seems to be a possibility.  This monstrosity of past urban planning and transportation (see original plans here) elicited so far only mild interest since its completion, not because its injustice and negative effect on the surrounding communities weren't blatantly obvious, but because undoing it seemed utterly impossible in a City plagued by needs that always exceed its resources many times over. 

Account of dwelling units destroyed by highway alternatives (1960): The highest 
number is indicated for the only segment that was built:
 1,313, dwellings, the majority in fair or good condition (Link)

But today is a different day: Big budget plans are being hatched inside the Washington Beltway and white America slowly begins to see that the country's inequities did not just happen due to some divine scheme, but that they were planned and intended and that transportation was just one of those tools. The Highway to Nowhere is no exception. 

Shrugging the shoulders in face of its ongoing impact, therefore, just continues the injustice and extends the guilt that comes with its creation to this day. I wrote about this highway on this blog under the title "the ultimate insult" in 2016. Since then the collective re-thinking has further progressed.

In "the ultimate insult" I described the road project this way:

That one piece of the [East-West] connection that got built is difficult to be identified as a part of a bigger undertaking, it is too isolated and disconnected, hence it is called the Highway to Nowhere. Because the other parts to the east or the west were never built, the built segment is utterly useless. 

Going nowhere fast: Wasted space, destroyed homes
(Photo: Philipsen)

Nevertheless it unfolded its full destructive potential by clearing out thousands of homes in its path, everything between the south side of Franklin Street to the north side of Mulberry Street was cleared from Pulaski Street to Paca Street, disconnecting the neighborhood of Harlem Park from those of Poppleton and Franklin Square and Midtown Edmondson neighborhood from Penrose. Robert Moses, a planner, authoritarian and, many say, also racist, saw an opportunity to "clean-up" the "slums". He supposedly said, "the more of them that are wiped out, the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run".

In 2021 the Highway to Nowhere is back in focus thanks to the federal Reconnecting Communities Act, and the Economic Justice Act with $435 billion “in immediate and long-term investments in communities of color to address systemic racism and reverse decades of historic underinvestment,” (Press release). Maryland officials have their eyes on this 1970s testament of failed transportation and want to remove Baltimore City’s “Highway to Nowhere,” the 1.3 miles of expressway that was built in the 1970s, cutting right through the densest part of West Baltimore, the only segment of a giant imagined network of freeways that was actually realized.

“We are fully committed to finally ending this long-standing monstrosity” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland.

“It’s never too late to undo the wrongs of the past.These used to be very vibrant communities, very close-knit communities”  Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-District 7.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Van Hollen are co-sponsoring the Reconnecting Communities Act to target communities like West Baltimore separated by highways.

“They were built kind of with the mandate of going through the cheapest land possible,it really bisected—it separated—a neighborhood, a very vibrant neighborhood at the time.” Dr. Celeste Chavis of Morgan State University. 

“The highway to nowhere is the poster child for inequality and systematic racism in our country,” Mayor Brandon Scott.

 The sunken highway with its six 1.3. long freeway lanes and a median which was originally designated for a west extension of the Baltimore subway has elicited big ideas and much smaller actions for decades: 

  • Already, the western end of aborted ramps, retaining walls and bridges has been level to become additional parking for the MARC commuter station. 
  • Already the City used the median strip for a gigantic tree planting effort after the Red Line was choked off by Governor Hogan in 2015, an act that many see as another symbol of institutional racism in transportation.
    Tree planting in the median (Bluewater)

  • Caves Valley, owner of the Metro West Center at the east end of the freeway imagines the overpasses and ramps at Martin Luther King Boulevard to come down in favor of a normal urban intersection, freeing up a significant land area for development.
Other ideas floated over the years, are less practical or far more expensive:
  • Two 1.3 mile long murals painted onto the sometimes 30' tall concrete walls flanking the expressway (Sun article)
  • a 1.3 mile linear park imagined as a sunken inverse of the elevated New York "Highline" park. (ULI Report), Rodricks article)
  • a big linear lake
  • and a dirt-bike park (Sun letter)
  • A mixed use redevelopment with transit

All the ideas suffer from the fact that they are not born from the minds of the communities facing the Highway to Nowhere every day. Instead they are produced by students, artists and professionals who see the highway folly as a canvas to think big. In that, they approach the problem not very differently than Robert Moses once did, when he was involved in the early expressway planning stages that go as far back as 1948. 

ULI report: "Creating a beautiful boulevard"

For a true reconciliation project that undoes at least in part the historic and current injustice, whatever is done should help to undue the past damage. This means real physical connectivity from north to south far beyond the stark concrete bridges that span the "ditch" today. All the "linear" proposals" that do not overcome the deep cut going through the communities would just paint a scar with make-up, potentially deepening the separation. True healing would make the cut go away. 

Gerald Neily, "Baltimore Inner Space", mixed use and transit

Mayor Scott recently participated in a conference call of mayors speaking with Biden's new Transportation Secretary Buttigieg. Scott told the BBJ:

The right way to do this is to right the wrong without further displacing a Black community, without further ignoring what they want (BBJ)

One way to reverse displacement is to recover the lost space by filling the giant gash. 

This would be a gigantic effort with a staggering price tag, were it not for one other gigantic project, also with a giant price tag, being imagined nearby. I am talking about the B&P tunnel replacing todays age old tunnel under West Baltimore with a repaired old tunnel and three new bores. Those new tunnel tubes would produce potentially enough dirt to fill the ditch and the "spoils" would come out right where today's MARC station is.

And while we are talking about the synergy between big projects, let's also hope that the Red Line could be revived. Hogan will leave office in 2 short years; couldn't a Red Line revival be in the offing along with the big infrastructure bills hatched in  Washington? After all, that project had been designed all the way to the details over 13 years with a price tag of more than $250 million for design!  Even if the ditch were filled, couldn't at least a tunnel space be left, through which to run future transit?

West Baltimore communities started conveningearlier this year to discuss West Baltimore's future (The grass roots effort is for the West Baltimore Masterplan. This should be the place to put the Highway to Nowhere on the agenda and to come up with a plan that addresses the past injustices, the current needs and the future potential of this big scar that put West Baltimore on the decline. Time to reverse this trajectory!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA  - All my blogs in one place!

Previous articles about the Highway to Nowhere:

A detailed report about the Baltimore freeway battle can be found at Raymond Mohl's account or in the document "The Baltimore Interstate Highway System by UM
 Professor Garrett Power.
Andrew Giguere Thesis,  College of Arts and Sciences of Ohio University, 2009

See also on Community Architect From Displacement to Opportunity: Overcoming US Highway Injustices

Monday, May 24, 2021

Land Use shenanigans in Baltimore County

Baltimore City and Baltimore County are "joined by the hip", even if a look at the map looks more like the County has a vice grip on the City. Whatever the case may be, I have frequently reported about the interdependencies. Both jurisdictions have started their 10 year masterplan process under MD law and now with equity, inclusion, social justice and climate change on almost everybody's radar, it is more urgent than ever that development and land use planning are transparent, sustainable and inclusive. County Executive Johnny Olszewski  and Mayor Brandon Scott have both vowed to make local government more fair and transparent. 

A small recent development example in the County brought me out to testify at the Baltimore County Council as board president of a land trust along with executive director Barbara Hopkins. We both subsequently penned the below article to point out why those special side deals disguised as laws especially made for specific developers are not a good idea. The matter is not an isolated case but a persistent practice as one can see in this 14 year list of cases compiled by a community activist.

But first a flavor of the bill with the sections that show how much this bill makes its own law for only one single lot in the entire County.  This is what is stipulated in the bill:

Age-restricted single-family attached dwelling units, Subject to the following conditions and restrictions, are permitted:

·         On a development tract that is adjacent to the Honeygo overlay district if

·         Any portion of that tract is part of a planned 1 shopping center Approved prior to January 1, 2021:

A. Occupancy restricted:

(1) the owner of each unit is required to ensure That, at the time of any sale, conveyance, or lease of a unit, at Least one occupant is 55 years of age or older;

(2) persons under 18 years of age are prohibited from residing in the unit; and

(3) notwithstanding subparagraphs (1) and (2) the condominium association may permit persons between 18 and 55 years of age to reside in a unit if necessary to care for an occupant or to prevent an undue hardship.

B. The maximum residential density allowed on the Development tract shall be 16 dwelling units per acre and the residential development shall occupy a maximum of 4 gross acres of the development tract. 

C. Notwithstanding any regulation to the contrary, development of a tract under this subsection shall be

Governed by the following bulk and area regulations:

(1)   residential development is exempt from any front, side, or rear setbacks or any setback from the center line of any street;

(2)   Development of property under § 259.9.a.6 shall 

(3)   Not be considered to be located within the H overlay district, shall not be subject to any other standards or design guidelines outlined in this section, shall satisfy the requirements of § 32-6-108 of the Baltimore county code by paying a fee in lieu consistent with the fee that would be imposed on an elderly housing facility, and shall be exempt from the requirements of §§ 32-6-108 and § 32-6-111 of the Baltimore county code.

Why Even a Consensus Plan Shouldn't Circumvent the Law

By Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, Board President and Barbara L. Hopkins, Esq., ASLA, Executive Director 

It is a good thing when community members, a developer and a councilman come together to find consensus on development, especially when the agreement includes hard-core, anti-development neighbors. It is also good to replace additional strip commercial development with much needed housing. This is, in part, what happened when the Southern Land Company, and representatives of the surrounding communities, agreed on a plan for a 1.49-acre parcel on the Southeast corner of Belair Rd. and Honeygo Blvd. in Perry Hall.  It was not surprising, then, that Councilman Marks presented the outcome as a success in the County Council work session this last Tuesday.

What is not good, is when such a consensus gets cast into a Council bill and eliminates all the land use regulations, zoning, and required offset fees, which are in place to protect the public, to benefit a single piece of land and a single developer.

When NeighborSpace spoke out against Bill 46-21 and the compendium Resolution 67-21, we were cast as outside interlopers who rained on the parade at the last minute. (In point of fact, no one involved in the nine months of consensus-building ever mentioned the discussions to us. We found out owing to our practice of reviewing the Council website regularly).

To understand why NeighborSpace took the risk of being seen as the skunk at the garden party, it is necessary to understand a few basic facts about development:

  • Practically all the land in Baltimore County is subject to zoning;
  • When somebody doesn’t like the zoning, a rezoning application can be filed every four years;
  • If rezoning somehow doesn’t fit the bill, one can apply for a planned unit development that creates its own set of standards but has more oversight in the approval process; and
  • If one part of a lot should be commercial and the other residential (as in this case), one can also subdivide the land and rezone only one portion.

But none of this was done in this case. Instead, the Councilman introduced legislation that intends to create its own rules for this parcel, a result that should give us all pause. Here’s why:


The bill and resolution are symptoms of a systemic disease that has plagued the County for decades, becoming the bane of residents and developers alike. The disease is called “ad hoc lawmaking,” legislating for a limited purpose without regard for the contents of comprehensive and community plans, for established zoning rules, and for other important provisions based in federal Constitutional law that are there to protect the public from the adverse impacts of development.

For other symptoms, one need only look as far as the County Code and the Zoning Code. They have been rendered so impenetrable and obtuse by these long-standing practices that only their drafters, aided in no small way by legions of developers’ attorneys, can understand them. And the whole process perpetuates itself, year upon year, owing to the unfortunate principle known as “Councilmanic Courtesy,” which, translated, means “I won’t question your zoning bills if you don’t question mine.”

Because the disease is systemic, moreover, its impacts are far-reaching and they are very harmful, so much so that the patient is now on life support. That’s what led us to speak out against the legislation last week, offering the following reasons why we hope that other council members and our loyal readers will realize that it is not in their interests to sit idly by while this legislation heads toward passage:

1. The Legislation is Likely Illegal

There is a strong case to be made that the legislation could be rejected should it be challenged in court because it is unlawful “spot” or “contract” zoning, an agreement between the developer and the zoning authority (the County Council), which is illegal, because, among other things, it grants the property owner a special privilege not available to others and interferes with the government’s exercise of its police powers, a case we will definitely make in the paragraphs that follow.

2. If It Passes, the Legislation Will Set Legal Precedent for What Could Happen in Your Neighborhood

If this bill and resolution become law, they set legal precedent, establishing that it is okay for the County Council to take the Executive Branch out of its traditional review role and to set aside rules requiring developers to pay their fair share of the costs of development. The end result is that existing taxpayers are left to pick up the tab and developers and their attorneys are invited to employ these same tactics in your community.

3. The Legislation Represents Really Bad Public Policy

By "legislative fiat", the review process that is in place to protect the public from the adverse consequences of development, along with the requirement that developers pay their fair share of the costs of open space and schools, are taken out of play, cast aside like yesterday’s news.  Simultaneously, development standards designed to control land use and spur commercial development are watered down. Let’s look at each of these issues in turn.

A. Exemption from Development Review

The bill exempts the project from the traditional development review process, which requires the submission of plans to the County and several levels of review and public comment, and instead requires approval by way of what is known as a “limited exemption” under Section 32-4-106(B)(2) of the County Code.  

The scale of this project (and its deviation from the approved development plan) far exceed what is typically reviewed as a limited exemption, such as the construction of one, single-family dwelling or the building of an accessory structure like a garage. There are good, sound public policy reasons for review by qualified members of municipal agencies. That is a proper exercise of a government’s federal, Constitutional police powers, long-standing authority to protect the public from the adverse impacts of development, and we should be incensed and deeply troubled when such review is set aside so cavalierly!

B. Exemption from Contributing to the Cost of Public Facilities

Bill 46-21 exempts the project from complying with County open space requirements under Section 32-6-108 of the County Code and also from paying impact fees under Section 32-6-111.  Like the requirement for review, these provisions have a similar legal and Constitutional basis designed to protect the public from the adverse impacts of development.  When you look at Perry Hall, moreover, you find examples of the very problems these laws were designed to address. Let us explain.

(1) Setting Aside the Open Space Requirement

At the Work Session testimony was offered that setting aside the open space requirement is warranted because there are four parks nearby.  We learned, moreover, that the developer has agreed to make his project more attractive by installing benches, sidewalks, fire pits, dog stations and grills, and also to provide a $15,000 contribution to Angel Park.

Developers making their own development more attractive should never count as providing open space or paying related fees so that open space can be provided elsewhere. Even in Perry Hall where there are several parks, moreover, access to them other than by car is still a problem. The website “” gives the area an overall walk score of 28, a rating that means “car dependent.” Development plans should never forget that more than half the population lacks the ability to drive because they are too young, too old, too poor, too impaired or otherwise have no car readily available to them.

But these rebuttals really only scratch the surface of what is wrong with setting aside the open space requirement. The real problem is that, because open space is a very pressing problem inside the County’s older communities (i.e., inside the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL)), current law requires the developer to provide open space or pay a fee to the County. (In the interest of full disclosure, 20 percent of the fees collected come to NeighborSpace). Eighty percent of the fees collected go to the Department of Recreation and Parks and it is incumbent upon it to use that fee for open space within the Councilmanic District. And in spite of the testimony offered at the work session, there are plenty of open space needs in the district.  The map below, which comes from the NeighborSpace GIS model, shows where the protection of open space should be prioritized (darkest purple+ highest priority) to create positive social, economic, and environmental livability outcomes, by, for example, providing recreational space, buffering streams, and improving property values. The needs are myriad. 

Benches, sidewalks, and fire pits are not open space. Moreover, existing law should determine the fee, not the developer and the Councilman, and the Department of Recreation and Parks should be permitted to decide how that fee is used to address the many livability challenges shown in the map below.

(2) Setting Aside Impact Fees

Section 32-6-111 of the County Code requires new residential development to pay its proportionate fair share of the costs for land, capital, facilities, and other expenses necessary to accommodate development impacts on infrastructure and public school and public safety facilities. Let us not forget what led to this provision in our law, enacted just a few short years ago. The County was facing a dire budget situation, particularly when it comes to paying for the renovation and construction of its schools.  In fact, the school overcrowding situation in Perry Hall is what led to the instant proposal for age-restricted housing. How little sense it makes then, to turn around and exempt this project from paying impact fees.

C. The Watering Down of Legal Standards

Resolution 67-21 creates a Commercial Revitalization District on the site. It is hard to see how “revitalization” applies to a largely undeveloped plot of land. The Resolution doesn’t clarify this except to say that “the County Council finds that there exists a need for assistance to the property owners and businesses in the aforementioned area in order to stimulate public and private investment and renewed interest from surrounding residents and others in the community.”

As the County website and the program brochure for Revitalization Districts show,  the program is targeting the often failing older commercial corridors, never a single corner property or largely vacant, unbuilt land, as is the case here. In spite of the fact that the program is managed by the Planning Department, there was no testimony offered by the Department in favor of this new district to which it will be required to dedicate a planner. Should the resolution be approved, moreover, the developer will be eligible to apply for a five-year and possibly even a ten-year credit against property taxes. There are sound public policy reasons for providing tax benefits to developers that revitalize older commercial corridors like those shown in the map below, left. But no evidence has been mustered to suggest that the southeast corner of Belair Rd. and Honeygo Boulevard, shown in the map below, right, is one of them.


What happened here is not an isolated case.

None of this will change unless citizens hold their elected officials accountable. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Note: The strike-out portion of the bill regarding the open space regulation occurred as an amendment  after an initial protest. 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Port Covington - on course or a vanishing dream?

Bait and switch the ploy of offering a person something desirable to gain favor (such as political support) then thwarting expectations with something less desirable (Merriam Webster)

There is no ploy, but it is easy to get confused in the $5.5 billion story of Port Covington which is told in chapters and sub-chapters that shift with the times. The multitude of players alone can make one's head spin: There is Kevin Plank, the former Under Armour CEO, who was first front and center and acts now as a background figure. He has his hands in a conglomeration of businesses that are called Plank Industries, Under Armour, Sagamore (now Weller Development) and then there is Goldman Sachs, a partner and funding source. Then there are potentially significant tax increment financing benefits, a community benefits agreement for seven communities dubbed SB7.

The book of modern day Port Covington doesn't only fall into "chapters" but also into parts: The "World Headquarters" of Under Armour, and then the rest of Port Covington. Both parts and their chapters have changed a lot since the book went first on sale and was eventually "bought" by Mayor and City Council in 2016 for as much as $660 million, a price tag that would only come due if the new developments are fully built and all tranches of the TIF would have been issued. In Baltimore not all bought the story, to this day there are friends and foes of the big Port Covington vision. Are foes who say: I told you so correct? Was the whole thing simply a mirage, distracting the City from more important tasks?
Baltimore Magazine title story  Dec. 2017 showing the full Port Covington
rendering prepared by Sagamore

Certainly, a full build out is very likely much further away than originally imagined. Real construction is limited to what is called "chapter 1B" , a chapter that keeps getting new titles. Lets recap: Port Covington sits on the "wrong" side of I-95, facing the Middle Branch but was forgotten and cut off from thriving Federal Hill ever since it ceased to be an important coal transfer station between rail and ships. In spite of various past attempts of putting stuff there such as the Baltimore SUN printing facility and a Sams Club and Walmart, the site remained grungy and more characterized by Baltimore's bygone industrial past than any kind of revival. 

There was a still active factory (Locke Insulators), a popular seafood bar and then the failed big boxes sitting idle. The SUN plant sat surrounded by not much. Then Kevin Plank incongruously built a large whiskey distillery with a posh restaurant there which was designed half urban, half suburban and even rural, including a rural water tower. Plank also acquired the empty suburban waterfront big box stores and converted them to what was described as temporary facilities for the staff that didn't fit any longer into Tide Point. When Plank unveiled his aspirations for an entire new town covering all of Port Covington those early projects certainly didn't give a hint of the scale he now had in mind. Tide Point in itself reflects the ever shifting history of big visions and industrial conversions. The former Proctor and Gamble soap factory had once been envisioned by developer Bill Struever as the crown jewel of a "digital harbor". But the bubble burst and so did the idea of a "digital harbor". Struever managed to fill the vast soap complex with more conventional tenants anyway, until the Financial Crisis of 2007 cut the legs off from under the Struever empire and forced him to divest from some of his most valuable assets. Meanwhile Under Armour had became the darling of Baltimore's tenuous economy. Kevin Plank took advantage of Struever's troubles by seizing control over large parts of the Tide Point complex. Now its brand name was installed on the roof broadcasting the success of the miraculously growing apparel company across the harbor. But soon even Tide Point was considered as too small for the want to be juggernaut.
Current Tide Point UA Headquarters
Plank's big visions for Port Covington were bigger than anything that Baltimore had ever seen. Bigger than Charles Center, bigger than than Harbor East and Harborpoint. Heck, with 235 acres bigger than all of those combined! The whole City went gaga over the prospect of so much development; deliberations about the plans and the cities subsidies had to be moved to the War Memorial Hall to accommodate friends and foes of the project. The project split public opinion in Baltimore which became ever more weary of its growing inequity and the ever wilder dreams of the wealthy. 

But it came as it had to come, as anybody who pays attention to biblical or fairy tale morals knows: pride cometh before the fall. The UA star did not rise indefinitely. After the earlier growth seemed to be inflated, UA got into really turbulent waters from which it is only now slowly recovering. Today the big project has slipped out of focus.

Still, optimistic press releases and happy ground breaking events kept coming and Weller, Plank and Goldman Sachs kept assuring everybody that all is going as planned and the ambitious Port Covington vision was still well on its way. 

Baltimore's officials liked nothing better than to believe that, especially after Freddy Gray, the State's cancellation of the Red Line and State Center and now during the COVID Pandemic. But there were and are growing signs of trouble: The attempt of offloading the whole site to Amazon didn’t even elicit a yawn from Jeff Bezos. Then "Chapter 1B", had a groundbreaking but was stuck on "horizontal" infrastructure work for a long time. When Weller finally cut the ribbon for "vertical" construction in March of this year with Hogan in attendance and Mayor Scott chiming in via Zoom, the mixed use complex had morphed already twice: from being a part of a new city, complementing UA's headquarters with urban vibe, to "Cyber Town USA", a dream to create a anti-hacker cybertown near NSA in the wake of spectacular ongoing hacking schemes, including an attack on the City's servers to its currently final incarnation as a speculative mixed use project. 
“With Maryland’s highly talented workforce, cutting-edge research institutions, and more and more innovative companies locating here each year, no state is better equipped or better positioned to be the cyber and innovation capital of our nation. This new development at Port Covington will further spur development of cyber companies, bringing much-needed jobs, capital investment, and business opportunities to Baltimore City and our state.” (Governor Hogan in October 2018)
The cyber dream evaporated when the envisioned key tenant, DateTribe in the end didn't sign on and 1B became a simple but still large speculative mixed use complex, which will include three boutique loft-style creative office buildings totaling 180,000 square feet, a vibrant market, restaurants, shops and shared amenitiesclearly a scary proposition in a time when the future of offices and of retail seem are in doubt thanks to adverse trends that Covid only accelerated.
Chapter 1 plan including the SUN plant (1B in red)

The new UA Headquarters after a drastic diet

For a while with UA shrinking its workforce it seemed very much a question whether there would ever be a new UA "World Headquarters" in Port Covington. The former big box there had even been turned into a vaccination center for a while and no UA employees were spotted there. But last week seemingly good news emerged: The “world headquarters” are not dead! But a closer look indicated that jubilation would be premature. What was shown as the consolidated new place for UA was smaller than Tide Point and by some estimations had shrunk by 40%. That's a lot of dieting! The company shrouds this conversion from giant to dwarf in artful words stating that they "reimagined [the headquarters] for a post COVID environment." The goal on the 50 acre potion of port Covington designated for Under Armour is still to " to “consolidate the company’s global corporate and Americas regional functions into one location, greatly enhancing operational efficiencies and innovation capabilities.”

Chapter 1 development area

This barrage of verbal smokescreens was accompanied by renderings that one could describe as shocking, especially in comparison to the renderings that had been circulated just a few years ago. The new pictures looked more like Canton Crossing than the Dubai-style UA-Tomorrowland that originally had been supposed to outdo apparel leader Nike. The once temporary Walmart and Sams Club big boxes were now permanent and the high-rises with the proud UA logo on them had shrunk to a simple 300,00 sf office building that with its five stories could probably be built out of wood sticks on a concrete podium. And yes, lots of surface parking, nothing about parking under the I-95 viaduct, a light rail extension from the Hamburg Street Station, autonomous shuttles or other progressive mobility options. 

There is a lot to unpack. Kevin Plank who owns all the land of Port Covington, Under Armour which owns the 50 acres designated for its headquarters, Weller Development responsible for all the rest, financed by Goldman Sachs. The financial partner, in full understanding that a huge development like Port Covington would need an engine, conditioned its deal with Weller Development on Under Armour building its headquarters in Port Covington.
The originally imagined UA World Headquarters

The Brew stressed this linkage between Goldman and the headquarters in a recent article and concluded somewhat hyperbolically:
"the clause effectively says that Plank could lose everything if UA fails to build its headquarters on the peninsula.  It’s a penalty, however, that Plank could escape if UA opted to build on the peninsula. He needed something – anything – to show his financiers that his shaky office-apartment project, dubbed “Chapter 1,” has a future".
Hard to say if the recent announcement about Under Armour's diminished headquarters plans is, indeed, simply a move to keep Goldman Sachs on board, or whether UA is serious about relocating the UA operations to Port Covington. There is also no way of knowing how successful "Chapter 1B will be without any major tenants having committed at this point (at least nothing is known publicly about firm tenants). There is no need for the Schadenfreude of those who never liked the UA vision in the first place. Baltimore can use a successful Under Armour and a redeveloped Port Covington more than ever. Just think of the Plank Industries owned Baltimore water taxi operation, City Garage, Nick's Fishhouse, the distillery, the posh Pendry hotel in Fells Point and all the sprinkles of the original Plank wealth that created success stories in Baltimore, not last the SB7 agreement into which Cherry Hill, Westport, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay and others put a lot of hope. Weller Development claims to have painstakingly fulfilled its obligations to date and having paid out $9 million already. Further fulfillment will depend on real development proceeds. Those are far from certain, the way it looks today. Still, the term "bait and switch" doesn't apply as long as there is no ill intent, no matter how critical many have been of Plank's intentions all along. 

Port Covington as a coal transfer station and train yard
Yet, the City better pay attention. It laid out the first $148 million tranche of TIF bonds for "Chapter 1B" for which bonds had been on sale earlier in the year. The public money will be coupled with an investment of $516 million in private funds that will be spent on the construction of three apartment buildings, two office buildings and 1,000 parking spaces. 
"Port Covington is a long-term, bold vision for helping to build a better Baltimore. The TIF bond sale was met with overwhelming demand, and the overall deal successfully closed last week, which is significant proof of institutional investors’ belief in the future success of the project. We are thrilled about this important milestone, and what it means in validating our vision." (Kevin Plank quoted in the BBJ on Jan 5, 2021)
With TIF bonds, if the repayment is not covered by the expected tax proceeds, the public will be on the hook eventually, especially in the worst case, where Baltimore City could be "the last man standing". With the new Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry a Sagamore TIF skeptic, it remains to be seen how future TIF tranches will fair at the City Board of Estimates.

The City doesn't release its TIF bonds all at once and the full $660 million TIF exposure may never happen. On the other hand, the economy could go into overdrive after the pandemic and Under Armour could emerge from its consolidation phase stronger than ever. The City has hired an excellent consultant team that will turn the Middle Branch into a major asset. Biden's infrastructure money could give Baltimore a real lift and possibly even fund the originally envisioned light rail extension. Port Covington development proceeds could give all the equity talk some real money to use. But at this point, all those things are just hope.
The original vision for an new city in the City

For the time being the City should insist that the overall masterplan be either legally binding or revisited and amended and ensure that some real commitments are made for any parts that are realistic in the next 10 years. Most important is that the high standards for public areas of the original masterplan will be maintained. 

And if the new UA headquarters will remain as anemic as shown last week and "Cyber Town" doesn't come to pass, Weller and the City better find a new force that can provide the necessary fuel for a full development of Port Covington. The most likely candidate? Housing. There is a huge shortage of it. And that would be not luxury housing but affordable and standard market rate housing. 

But before all attention goes again to Port Covington, the City should first see to it that its currently largest housing project, Perkins Homes and Somerset will go as planned. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Original vision for the UA campus

Chapter 1 rendering. (1B is a smaller part of this)

Overall Port Covington illustrative plan from 2016