Wednesday, May 4, 2022

How Should the City Fix its Circulator Bus ?

To some the Baltimore Charm City Circulator ("The backbone of any great city is transportation") is nothing but a toy for the young professionals and "creatives" who live in the affluent parts of the City also known as the "white L". A bus system, critics say, that further cements the racial divide in our city. 

To others the City operated transit system was an encouraging signal that Baltimore's city leaders understood that modern urban  transportation really needs good transit and that  catering to the only communities in the city with population growth was a sustainable smart move featuring an environmentally friendly local transit system that was fueled by electricity, paid by car owners who park in downtown parking garages, and was fun to use. 

The Circulator: Continued ridership losses over the years
(Source: BCDOT)

The original mission of the Circulator was to avoid further downtown parking garages by better utilizing peripheral parking and connecting parking with a free shuttle that would get people from there to their workplace or to downtown shopping and restaurants. The mission was clearly downtown centered and not intended to serve neighborhoods or compete with MTA bus service.

The existing Circulator routes are concentrated inside the "White L"
and barely touch disadvantaged neighborhoods (City graphic)

But the initial Circulator fan base slowly evaporated when a series of calamites struck:

  • the "green" electric buses failed and had to be replaced with used diesels, 
  • a DOT employee in charge of the bus system was caught embezzling funds, 
  • the City wound up suing the operator (Veolia/Transdev) over a dispute about the contractual service obligations 
  • the City hired an outfit mostly known for running limousine services which had neither the required operator training nor the right buses. 
Parallel, the system suffered from "mission creep", cost went up but ridership didn't. To please various constituents the routes had been expanded to a point that operations used more money than the parking revenue surcharge yielded, even if one doesn't count the unexpected cost of the replacement buses. With each trouble the ridership dwindled. When finally enough replacement buses were in place (24 buses are now fully City owned), operators trained and things were running again on all four routes, COVID struck, some service was suspended, ridership plummeted even further. 
Trip purpose: Most trips are not for going to work

The voices demanding a fix for the non equitable, unreliable, money losing and no longer fun to use system became louder. 

No wonder then, that Director Sharkey's new DOT has set out to reform the Circulator and put it into the context of all the other modes the City manages, namely the Harbor Connector boats and the bike and scooter-share systems which DOT licenses. The new BCDOT created a  TDP Transit Advisory Committee Meeting that had six meetings to date, minutes and materials are posted online. Representation on the committee included agencies such as BMC, BDC, DOT and MTA as well as transit advocates such as Transit Choices, the Transit Equity Coalition, the Charles Street Development Corporation, the South Baltimore Gateway partnership, the Downtown and the Waterfront Partnerships and Johns Hopkins University. The creation of the committee and MTA's presence at the deliberations were promising signs of collaboration.

BCDOT also created a separate website "" where one can find various city transportation initiatives such as The Baltimore City Transit Development Plan (TDP), i.e. the reform of the Circulator bus in the form of a "StoryMap" (which requires quite a bit computing horsepower to run smoothly). 

The Baltimore City Transit Development Plan (TDP) is a planning process that will develop a five-year transit investment strategy for the Charm City Circulator bus service. The Plan will identify opportunities where the Charm City Circulator service can improve efficiency and equity. This TDP includes analyses of unmet needs, potential route changes to address those needs, and short- and long-term operating plans for the service. (website)

One would think that the reform plans would be mostly driven by ridership, i.e. by supporting the services the most that attract the most riders today. By that metric the Purple Route going up and down the "White L" from Johns Hopkins University to Federal Hill is most successful with 1,548 riders a day and the Green Line with its circuitous attempts of reaching into disadvantaged areas on the est is failing with its mere 181 riders a day. The second worst performer, the Banner Route has 269 riders.

The proposed "optimized route" system: 
Extensions into the "Black Butterfly" (City graphic)

But in a  sharply divided city where everyone is suspicious about what the other one is doing, simply cutting low performing routes would be too simple. Looking at the proposed map, the City has taken the accusation that the system wasn't equitable to heart by planning extensions into the wings of the "black butterfly areas", i.e. the parts of Baltimore that have high percentages of poverty and low car ownership. With that, the City also decided that they won't try to cover the operating cost through parking surcharges which means that a portion is funded from the general fund, i.e. by regular tax dollars. This approach towards more equity contrasts sharply with ideas that MTA had provided some time ago in an attempt to avoid service duplication between the the two transit systems. MTA contributes a small portion of the operating costs and isn't sympathetic to the notion that the City should just run better transit than the State agency and make thus make up for the shortcomings of the CityLink bus system. 
Adjusting the Circulator routes with the goal of equity in mind is a good thing. But the proposed adjustments are only on the margins and the system was originally designed with other legitimate goals. Combining those different goals creates potentially a Frankenstein monster that doesn’t accomplish any of the goals effectively. Brian O’Malley, CMTA).  
On April 26 the City presented a proposed "optimized" new route map and presented the analysis and ideas that lead to the suggested map. The "Optimization Proposal", presumably has taken into account the essence of comments gathered in the past. The website describes the optimization this way:
The Transit Development Plan is proposing improvements to current routes as well as operations improvements of the Charm City Circulator to expand transit access for key equity zones within the city and improve access of transit to job centers not currently served. These proposals include:
Extending the service’s weekday hours so that buses start running at 6 a.m. instead of the current start time of 7 a.m.
Adjusting weekend hours from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., rather than the current 9 a.m.-midnight period on Saturdays and 9 a.m.-8 p.m. on Sundays.
The routes go deeper into the black butterfly areas, the Banner Route was eliminated and the new Cherry Route connects Cherry Hill. Public comments on the website welcome the access to Cherry Hill, decry the loss of the Banner Route to Locust Point and the proposed earlier shut down in the evening. Of course, it isn't a given that ridership will shift as much as the routes. A survey on the current system indicated that only 6% of all riders earned under $30k annually while over 45% earned over $75 k, a stark contrast to the ridership profile on MTA buses. Even though by far the most frequently requested improvement of the survey has been increased service frequency (61%), better headways are not part of the draft improvement package. To the contrary, the headways on the Orange Line will increase by 2 minutes. One third of respondents wanted to see longer weekend evening service, what the proposed system would provide is an earlier shut-down at 9pm instead of midnight. 

Predictably, there is little public concern with how the expanded system would be funded. There is a comment from somebody who plans to move here who suggests based on her current hometown that institutions served by the routes should contribute. It should, indeed, be part of the discussion why Hopkins, for example, runs its own buses up Charles Street and still wants the Circulator to drop people off at the doorsteps of the University, a duplication Baltimore's transit system can ill afford. The expanded services are estimated to cost $2 m per year in added operating cost. The City hopes to get additional funds from the federal infrastructure bill and considers the TDP a step in that direction. Current funding includes, local, state (MDOT/MTA) and federal money. 

Asked for this article about the proposed routes and if MTA is in agreement with them, Administrator Arnold provided the following response for MTA:

The Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) supports local transit operations in all 23 counties and Baltimore City.  In FY21 and FY22, MDOT MTA provided Baltimore City with $1.6 million for eligible operating expenses for the Charm City Circulator.  The budget allocation also provides $1.6 million in funding for FY23.


While MDOT MTA provides support to local jurisdictions in the development of their local transit operations, decisions relating to service levels, hours of operation, and areas served for the Charm City Circulator remain the responsibility of Baltimore City Department of Transportation.

This map is labeled "Possible Long Term Service": Adding a Poe

The improvement menu of the TDP is interesting for what it does not address:
  • Even in its longer view is also mum on the question how the bus can be better integrated with the other modes that the City operates, the water taxi (Harbor Connector) and the bikes and scooters.
  • Even less is there a hint about the City's transit in a future time when there would be a regional transit authority, something the Mayor and DOT supports. 
  • The electrification of buses as part of the City's sustainability strategies isn't on the menu either
  • nor is an outlook towards autonomous buses and how they could be ideal for short range circulator systems where they are already operating on an experimental base in some cities. 
  • The license with the current Circulator operator will run out soon, but no strategy how a future service agreement should be framed has been part of the Transit Development Plan.
The suggested route changes are not yet final, comments are still possible. Public response is still expected until May 13. Comments can be placed online or emailed to, a clear hint that the consultant Whitman Requardt has been commissioned with running the public engagement. 

If the changes would be similar to the draft, the City owned Circulator's equity pivot would move the Charm bus into uncharted territory with the assumption that poor and non-motorized Baltimore residents would flock to the free service and that the earlier start hours would entice low wage workers to use the free ride while the bulk of the current more affluent non-work riders on the Purple Line would continue to use the buses. If the MTA bus system gives any indication, "choice riders" (those who are not dependent on buses for their mobility) are hard to come by on a system dominated by transit dependent riders. This is especially true now, when transit around the country are still struggling to get the riders back they lost under COVID, in part for fear of infection, in part because of work from home shifts, in part because a large part of the entertainment sector had shut down. Around the country circulator type bus systems complement larger scale public transit as a short trip, hop-on, hop-off addition that fills a small scale mobility need one level up from scooter and bicycle share systems. It isn't clear that the proposed Baltimore Circulator routes stay in their lane, i.e. complementing MTA routes instead of competing with them. 

The implementation of Circulator service changes are expected to occur in the Spring/Summer of 2024. According to BCDOT "the implementation phase of the TDP includes the planning and finalization of bus stop locations, the design and construction needed for the new bus stops, and the installation of improvements at current stops. This time frame also includes federal and city regulatory requirements regarding public outreach and notification about the planned transit changes."

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

the article was update for the MTA quote 5/5/22

Related articles on this site:

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

$20 million public money for the ailing Security Mall

 The entire Southwest Baltimore County political echelon including House Speaker Adrienne Jones was assembled when County Executive Johnny Olszewski  announced that $10 million State and $10 million County money would be set aside for investment at this ailing 100 care mall site tucked in between I-695, I-70 and Security Boulevard. Olsziewksi described the mall as a one thriving hub which he imagined to turn again into a "world class shopping center and and community hub". To help matters along, the County will retain architects and planners to guide a "community driven design charrette".

County Executive Olszewski announced $20 million for 
Security Mall (Photo: Philipsen)

The backdrop for the open air press conference were some back hoes and the remnants of an old Bennigans and I-Hop which had sat as abandoned eyesores along Security Boulevard for years. A couple TV stations had come out, and the print media took notes. 

Speaker Jones, who hails from the area, noted Security Square Mall still remains a vibrant place for many local businesses and an important part of the community. She observed that the communities of the Southwest have often reminded her that the property needs significant revitalization and investment. “This $20 million investment will jump-start this effort and help bring new life to the community.

Council chair Julian Jones recalled the year 2015 when the construction of the $2.9 billion Red Line should have started with a stop "right here where I stand", Jones said. "That would have brought investment to this mall, but now we will do what is necessary, he said and thanked the Executive and the Speaker for their efforts of securing the funds.

Mall redevelopment with housing in Santa Ana, Ca

Of the 5 mall owners only the latest operator spoke, the pastor of the "Set the Captives Free" church, Karen Bethea, introduced as "a force of nature" spoke. The church has bought the former JC Penny wing of the mall and operates community outreach, education and soon a daycare center in the mall. The possibly most outspoken and powerful owner, Howard Brown, was not present. A few years back he was the first to publicly present the idea of a new mixed use town center on the nearly 100 acre mall property. He was convinced he could strong-arm the other parties into his vision. Albeit, this didn't happen.

Brown thinks little of the replacement of the abandoned I-Hop with a new Chick-Fil-A, planned in the same location. This plan follows a defeated gas station and is seen as an improvement by some who are tired of the abandonment and trash. However popular, in terms of urban design and land use Chick-Fil-A is not different from the other 1-story drive to or drive through "pad uses" that ring the mall. Those structures will simply be in the way if the NAACP's Task Force preferred vision should be realized which was developed with strong community participation. The preferred scenario envisions a mixed use urban village with a "main street" lined with higher end retail, market rate housing, some offices, urban parks and civic uses.

The NAACP vision was not mentioned in today's press conference, and none of the task force members got to speak about their vision. Instead, the Executive  spoke  of "a blank slate". Mall redevelopments around the country show, that conversions of old malls into vibrant towncenters don't happen easily, and certainly not without strong leadership. Ryan Coleman chair of the Randallstown NAACP and Danielle Singley, the Task Force Chair know how difficult it is to unit people behind a common goal. Both were at hand at the press conference but stayed in the background.

Demand for retail space is declining while housing needs are unmet
(From a mall redevelopment presentation)

Especially since communities around the mall have already spoken in an at least preliminary manner, there wouldn't be anything wrong with County leadership uniting around the concept of a mixed use center which would not only provide much better services for the community but also provide jobs and become and economic engine in the area which has seen declining school performance and increased crime.

A $20 million investment is a great start if the money is used as a seed to facilitate that all stakeholders rally around a new vision. With potentially millions of additional square feet of use (the current mall on a mostly vacant lot covers an area of about 1 million square foot of use area) nobody would have to fear displacement. Lots of "stuff" could be developed on the vast parking lots long before any part of the mall would have to come down and there would be still room for green open spaces and parks. 

Experiences from other redevelopments show that a new masterplan should not only be developed but must also become legally binding. Public investment in the roads and the infrastructure needed for a new town center could facilitate the creation of fully "entitled" development parcels. Ready to build development parcels right at the Beltway would attract new investors and wake up the current mall businesses from their slumber. In this manner the County-State funds could, indeed, become the first step for a new community hub that is also an economic power-house.

While the new masterplan is being developed in the "charrette" process starting sometime this year, no new development should be allowed in the interim. However, it seems not only Chik-Fil_A is an offender; the County administration itself  is already creating new facts on the ground with a new $1.2 million 8.8 thousand square foot community health center planned in collaboration with the church. Not helpful, should the masterplan recommend that the mall should be leveled, as for example, at the old Rockville Mall in Montgomery County.

With new elections for a Council and Executive with the seat of district 1 vacated by Councilman Tom Quirk, champions of a radically new development model can yet emerge. All three candidates vying for Quirk's seat were present at the press conference today. 

Olszewski himself, whose seat is safe, when asked about a development moratorium during the planning stage responded: "Speak with the Council!". 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Previous mall articles on this blog:

How the failed Security Mall could become a thriving town center (July 2021)

Howard Brown plans second County Town Center (March 2017)

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Druid Park Lake Drive: Baltimore's struggle to implement a new transportation paradigm

Across America transportation and public works departments are trying to wean themselves from decades of following a single paradigm: Make car traffic flow as freely as possible. Baltimore's BCDOT was a leader in making this happen. 
Car centric design: Lots of space for cars, little for pedestrians. 
(Image from TAP, 

Shaped for half a century by the likes of Henry Barnes, an influential traffic engineer who as traffic commissioner shaped the streets of Denver, Baltimore and New York with innovations such as the "green wave" of synchronized traffic lights and the world's first big main frame computer installed in Baltimore to control the signals from a central location. He also invented the "Barnes Dance", a special signal sequence to deal with the pesky pedestrians that tended to cross streets at all times.

Since then, the computer obsolete, and new technologies apparently hard to make work, Baltimore's drivers would wish the lights still had a "green wave". But otherwise the legacy of post-war traffic engineering is still in place, the one way streets (which are a precondition for synchronizing lights), the multi lane arteries with left turn bays, the fragments of freeways channeling suburbanites to their offices downtown and back home.
Druid Hill Park: An asset chocked off by roadway barriers

At Druid Lake Park Drive two elements of Baltimore's rich history collide. The 740 acre  beautiful Druid Hill Park designed by Howard Daniels and opened in 1860 and the 100 year later Henry Barnes inspired Johns Falls Expressway with its complicated multilevel ramps and tendrils choking the park on three sides with in the shape of fast multi-lane feeder arteries arteries. This reduced park access points from 18 to just 5. The matter has become ever more deplorable, the more Baltimore's surrounding neighborhoods fell into disrepair. In 2017 Baltimore architect Davin Hong summarized the problem in a SUN editorial:

Baltimore's Druid Hill Park ranks with distinction among a very short list of large historic urban parks in America. With a pastoral landscape, picturesque reservoir and even the Maryland Zoo, it is a popular destination for not only Baltimore residents but also for visitors from the surrounding region. Yet somehow, its bordering neighborhoods have not benefited from being next to such a landmark amenity. They have not thrived as sought-after communities and are instead deserts to recreation, greenery and quality of life.
Certainly, there are many complex factors that shape the health of communities and that make their success so elusive. But there is one very obvious reason why Druid Hill Park does not contribute to its surrounding neighborhoods: It is bordered by very wide, fast streets that act as physical barriers, separating the park from its surrounding communities as a green island among a sea of asphalt arteries.
Shortly afterwards, Daniel Hindman a community member and physician, added the equity and health angles in another SUN editorial
This photo of the construction of the JFX shows the extent of impact
urban freeways had

While many know of the racism of the park’s past — the segregated swimming pools, tennis courts and playgrounds — many do not know the politics and history behind the construction of the Druid Hill Expressway. The story of the expressway’s construction is a narrative of racism and corruption, that, like an arrow shot from the past, inflicts damage on our most vulnerable populations today. ...The impact of this history is evidenced today in the 2017 Neighborhood Health Profiles, which demonstrate that Reservoir Hill and Penn North, communities that border one of the largest urban parks in the country, have some of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the city. 
Back then those editorials and other activities finally initiated action. However, now with lots of ARPA and federal infrastructure bill money in reach and a much more progressive DOT leadership in place, Baltimore is in danger of missing a critical opportunity. 

Let's recap what happened: The current DOT Director Steve Sharkey is attacking the old ways of car centric thinking on several fronts. 
As Director, his top priority is to focus BCDOT's efforts on initiatives that better serve all users of the transportation system to improve walking, biking, transit and driving in Baltimore (DOT website)
The new paradigm isn't entirely by Sharkey's own making, it also is local law after the City Council  finally approved "complete streets" legislation in 2018 after years of deliberation. The new set of rules gave former DOT Director Pourciau headaches, but they also initiated the Druid Park connectivity project when DOT installed an experiment dubbed "the Big Jump". The experiment was funded by a grant. The complete streets legislation was in its final round.  Then local councilman Leon Pinkett had  organized stakeholders and residents with the goal of leveraging Druid Park for revitalization and provide better access and more equity for those who aren't drivers. The resulting TAP coalition describes itself this way.
Overpass over the JFX at 28th Street before the "Big Jump":
Little room for pedestrians, fast moving traffic

TAP Druid Hill is a coalition of residents, city officials, and community partners working together to increase access to Druid Hill Park for people on foot, wheelchair, transit, and bicycle / escooter. (website)
The Big Jump which opened with a party in 2018 and is still in place, consists of  temporary “pop up” mixed-use trail along Druid Park Lake Drive protected by water filled plastic barriers. The trail proceeds west from Madison Street, across the 28th Street Bridge, and along 28th Street to Atkinson Street.  Additionally, over in Remington, a flex post delineated bike lane was created on Sisson Street from 28th Street to Wyman Park Drive; In part the Big Jump project was making up for the loss of a loop trail around the Druid Lake reservoir which was the result of a giant $140 million DPW project going on inside Druid Hill Park: With 52 million gallons the world's largest underground drinking water reservoir under progress at the park's lake.
Overpass after the Big Jump installation (DOT)

Pop ups like the Big Jump provide an immediate benefit and allow engineers and stakeholders to obverse the effects of an intervention in a real world simulation that is cheaper than lengthy studies, easy to modify, or, if necessary, to abandon. An evaluation of the Big Jump performed by Toole Design, a consultant to DOT showed, that the resulting single lane of traffic in each direction did not lead to a noticeable increase in travel times on the roadway and did not push traffic into other areas either. 87% of folks who expressed an opinion wanted the "Big Jump" solution become permanent.

BC-DOT's new attention to other road users than car drivers puts the department at the forefront of the many current US culture wars from education, LGTB rights, and guns, to bikes and electric scooters. Thus DOT is at odds with the perceived right of driving unimpeded through American cities. In Baltimore, Sharkey's predecessor Pourciau wavered on several early bike lane installations and lost a major battle in the prosperous Roland Park corridor. There were lessons to be learned for the Druid Park project, and indeed, it was much better prepared with much more outreach.

Sharkey's refocused DOT defines the Druid Lake problem in much the way road critics had described it:
While the Druid Park Lake Drive corridor borders the United States’ third-oldest public park and beautiful historic neighborhoods, the roadway is designed with the characteristics of a highway, rather than a neighborhood-scale roadway. Originally a two-lane residential street, the current alignment of Druid Park Lake Drive is now a 4-to-9-lane arterial road that carries high-speed vehicle traffic, lacks safe pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure and effectively creates a barrier between neighboring communities and Druid Hill Park.

 That the streets are also seen as a battlefield for equity and social justice just heightens the tensions. DOT's Druid Lake Park Drive report  ("The Report") says:

Councilman Pinkett (speaking), Mayor Pugh in 2018
at the Big Jump opening party (Philipsen)

The neighborhoods bordering Druid Park Lake Drive are predominantly Black and have experienced generations of disinvestment, racial discrimination, poor public health and decreased quality of life [....]

Equity is a driving factor for the redesign of Druid Park Lake Drive, and ensuring access for all modes, ages and abilities is a key component in creating an equitable corridor. Demographic data for the area within a half-mile and quarter-mile radius of the corridor illustrate what equity means in the context of Druid Park Lake Drive. Of the 88,000 people living within a half mile of Druid Park Lake Drive, 30 percent live below the poverty line, 22 percent live with a disability and 93 percent are people of color.1 Nearly half of households living in the neighborhoods around the Druid Park Lake Drive do not have access to a car. These community members get around by walking, cycling, using wheelchairs, riding scooters and catching transit. Building infrastructure to allow these residents to safely use Druid Park Lake Drive is key in advancing equity. 

After several initial community participation meetings DOT developed a vision:

We envision a reimagined Druid Park Lake Drive that is safe, built for the human scale and accessible for all ages, abilities, and modes of transportation. This future corridor will closely align with the City’s Complete Streets principles, while creating a functional, vibrant, and aesthetically pleasing roadway that reclaims roadway space to re-establish safe multimodal connections between surrounding communities and the park and embraces the area’s natural beauty and historic significance. Through the redesign of this corridor, we aim to  elevate health equity, allow communities to support aging in place, and support expanded transit service to Druid Hill Park.
The community based approach, the outreach, the grant funding, the problem definition, the experiment and its evaluation were all great moves. But where are we now? 
One Lane option and bike/ walkways: 779 votes  (DOT)

Some 5 or so years after inception and 4 years after installing the pilot, the project should be well in the implementation phase. Instead: analysis, paralysis. No money is in the budget for construction, an avoidable condition..

In late 2020, BCDOT retained the services of  WSP, a transportation planning firm. The engineers developed three alternatives for right-sizing Druid Park Lake Drive corridor, more similar to what it was before the expansion after I-83 was built. All three design versions share a 12-foot sidewalk adjacent to residences, three 8-foot “green buffers,” and a 15-foot shared use path adjacent to Druid Hill Park. One of them left like the Big Jump just one travel lane for cars per direction. Another moment for the community to chime in: Which option to build?

The new paradigm and the prospect of a "road diet" predictably drew the ire of ardent promotors of unfettered automobility. A small but vocal and prolific "Save our Streets Coalition" operated under a motto that would make Barnes proud:
Two lane option: 170 votes (DOT)

We are citizens dedicated to fighting efforts to alter city streets in ways that promote traffic congestion (Facebook page)

The group has blanketed the neighborhoods with yard signs and dubious messages against bike lanes on Gwynns Fall Parkway (part of an envisioned big bike-ped loop around Baltimore) and on Druid Lake Park Drive. 

The bike lobby Bikemore and the car lobby Save our Streets called upon their followers to weigh in on the three design options which were polled early this year on DOTs website. Neighbors, of course, voted, too. The results are very clear: 779 votes opted for Option 1 which proposed only a single lane of cars in each direction, 170 voted for option 2, with two lanes of traffic in each direction. Only 15 votes for a hybrid option with 2 driving lanes in one and 1 in the other direction.

Save Our Streets coalition poster: Free to drive

In this culture war reason was winning. Luckily the future design isn't really decided via open polling. Ex-councilman Pinkett's foresight of organizing local stakeholders and putting them in the "driver's seat" (or into the "Big Jump") pretty much ensures that nearby residents will have a voice when it comes to what gets implemented when. . The engineering evaluation showed no downside to the preferred single lane solution, neither in modeling nor in the real world application. So what stands in the way of implementation? Why is the project not  funded for construction, in spite of all the extra federal funding for infrastructure and Covid recovery? The current capital improvement program (CIP) shows no money for the project which is estimated to cost around $30 million in all. It isn't too late to amend the CIP. It is not too late to comment on the DOT report . The comment period for the ends this week Friday. 

Bikemore director Jed Weeks observes that the drawings for the three options are not yet the 30% design level that usually justifies the first tranche of implementation funds. Even when funded, it will take long enough to build the project. William Ethridge, the DOT planner for the project, estimates that it would take 5-7 years to get the project completed, once money is set aside, that is.  

Now is the time to "jump" into implementation. Maybe it takes a decision of the Mayor to finally implement this project and signal that once and for all, Baltimore's transportation paradigm has shifted. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on this Blog: What is the Big Jump all about?

Friday, April 1, 2022

Good News Baltimore: Transit Oriented Development at Metro Station

 One of the problems with Baltimore's rail transit isn't really about trains, service or reliability and isn't the sole responsibility of the MTA, MDOT or that the Governor. The problem I am referring to is "land use". In other words, get off a train at most of the metro, light rail and MARC stops in Baltimore City and County outside of downtown and there is not a whole lot going on. The urban form around most Metro and MARC stops resembles a hole in the donut, the opposite of what it should be. Therefore, the news that MDOT plans to convert one of its parking lots to a "town center" and has selected a local development team is good news.

Reisterstown Plaza TOD area (MDOT)

On December 13, 2022, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) awarded for entering into an exclusive negotiating privilege agreement with Wabash Development Partners to develop approximately 25 acres (approximately 3 acres zoned TOD-4 and 22 acres zoned TOD-3) of unimproved land and surfaced parking lots. The area is a large parcel of land adjacent to a Reisterstown Plaza Metro Station located at 6300 Wabash Avenue in Baltimore City, ideal for a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). This site is at the highly visible intersection of Wabash Avenue and Patterson Avenue. An internal private road, Vertis Park Drive, shared by the MDOT Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) and the adjacent SSA building, provides vehicular access between Patterson Avenue to Mount Hope Drive.  (MDOT Press Release)

Better land use is good for transit. It is surprising how rarely land use is seen as a solution for increased transit use. Intensified land use at rail stations is also good for urban development, it is helping to combat climate change and, combined with affordable housing, it provides opportunity for those who don't have a car. Instead of the hole in the donut, one should see high density and high intensity uses clustered immediately around each station in the region including those "drive to" commuter stations which were designed with giant parking lots. This conversion is often referred to as "transit oriented development" (TOD). 

Wabash Avenue and the Metro Station (Photo: Philipsen)

Of course, the concept of TOD isn't new and even the original planners of the Metro system had ideas for development nodes around their stations as some old brochures prove. But history wasn't kind to Baltimore, the city emptied out and the once proud high capacity Metro found itself sitting in just those areas that are now known as the left wing of Baltimore's famous "butterfly". Today, with equity on planners' minds, a housing affordability crisis, and Park Heights being designated as one of Baltimore's Impact Investment zones, it makes sense that the simplest version of TOD is tried once again: The conversion of MDOT owned parking lots into housing and some other uses. And that is what the developer team proposes: Apartments for people that may not have, need or want a car such as low income families, the young and the elderly and people that can reach their work via Metro.  Baltimore's new zoning code uses TOD as a zoning category and states:
Baltimore elevated Metro Station: Greetings
from the 1970s (Photo: Philipsen)

There are many opportunities for Transit Oriented Development in Baltimore City. In the City, TOD will be used to focus on the connection between development and transit as the key to helping neighborhoods achieve their goals and to promote transit use, bicycling, and walking as alternatives to automobile travel.   Currently, our Comprehensive Master Plan, in Appendix D, outlines a TOD Strategy for implementing projects around transit stations that meet TOD objectives. Additionally, the Development Guidebook contains a checklist for Transit Oriented Development which is intended to guide Baltimore City agencies in reviewing proposed projects near transit stations, and in assessing the transit-friendliness of land-use plans, codes, and ordinances. (Baltimore City Dept. of Planning)
40 years after the Reisterstown Plaza Station was completed on Baltimore's one and only subway line, and nearly a decade after the Social Security Administration (SSA) was relocated here on 11 acres of State owned parking lots in a new 500,000 square foot building,  the conversion of the remaining 25 acres of parking  is now in the stage of "exclusive negotiation rights", in which the developers' envisioned project gets its final vetting before the site is actually sold. The Wabash Development team was selected over a competing proposal suggesting a family entertainment center and amusement park. The initial request of proposals had been issued in 2019, attesting to a somewhat glacial pace that will hopefully accelerated in the remaining steps towards realization.

To avoid past mistakes it is necessary to take a critical look at what has passed as TOD before, here or elsewhere in our region. For example, the already mentioned SSA facility, also on MDOT's land. It serves at stately workforce of 1,600 employees. But they were supplied with 1076 parking spaces. The assumption that 67% of all workers would drive to work isn't "transit oriented" oriented thinking. Not only does structured parking take up space and is very costly, it also encourages driving. The old now shuttered SSA downtown facility sat within walking distance of several neighborhoods, the Lexington Market Metro station and was served by various bus lines. All things considered, the much touted SSA TOD may have not only not brought new transit riders but may have caused additional driving. 
Pike and Rose near Rockville, TOD on a former mall site 
(Photo Philipsen)

Other local projects, previously labeled TOD, are equally hampered by parking: Take Symphony Center near the Meyerhoff, another project characterized by a giant garage, that has probably done little to enhance ridership on the light rail line. Or take Owings Mills, often held up as the best example for TOD in this region: Yes, it is large scale mixed use and creates a somewhat urban feel but it still mostly a mostly a park and ride station. The huge parking garage acts as a visual and physical barrier between the "town center" and the Metro station terminus of our subway line.  The probably locally best TOD is Clipper Mill in Woodberry. It wasn't really conceived as a TOD, but replaced abandoned space with a large, varied and creatively designed amount of  uses right near the light rail station.

The Wabash Development team under Dean Harrison with participation of Ernst Valerie and KPN as the Architects for the concept plan that was selected by MDOT suggests four phases of realization for a number of different developments. The BBJ obtained an edited copy of the proposal dubbed "Wabash Town Center" through a public information request. The BBJ describes what it found out this way:
The first phase would yield two mixed-use buildings with office and retail space. One of the buildings would be up to 100 feet tall and the other would be up to 60 feet high. A road named after the late U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings extending from Wabash Avenue to Vertis Park Drive would be also be created as part of the first phase.
The second phase would result in 20 townhomes with so-called "granny flats" and a 42-unit senior home [..] based on a similar concept at Johnston Square.

The project's third phase would create a pedestrian bridge to the nearby Social Security Administration campus. A pedestrian plaza called “Legacy Walk" would showcase community art and provide space for small events, a street theater, outdoor wellness programs, community gatherings and outdoor exhibitions. 
A fourth and final phase of development would include the construction of a "medium-scale" nursing home and space for food trucks and a farmers market.
If realized, those four phases together could have the elements that deserve the classification as TOD and maybe just enough density to be called "village center" or "town-center". Best practice examples show, that true TOD requires that the station, the development and the adjacent road ways together form a pedestrian friendly environment where it pleasant and safe to walk from and to transit or from the surrounding areas. 
Mosaic TOD Redevelopment, Fairfax County 
(Photo: Mahan Rykiel, Associates)

The Reisterstown Metro Station leaves a lot to be desired in the area of pedestrian friendliness. Conceived as a car friendly commuter "park and ride station" with some bus transfers the focus was and remains on easy car access from the freeway style 5 lane Wabash Avenue which separates the MDOT owned parking lots from the Brutalist era elevated concrete Metro Station. A covered pedestrian bridge connects the parking lot with the station above Wabash Avenue. Those high bridges with their necessary elevator and many dank corners creating safety concerns are less than ideal for the elderly, mobility impaired, or people with strollers, or after dark. 

For a real TOD transit and the development have to work like hand in glove. The station itself needs some redesign and adjustments for direct, easy and safe access. This means three parties have to work closely together: The developer, the MTA and City DOT. 

The good news is that upon inquiry all parties appear to be ready for just that. City DOT's Capital Planning Chief Allysha Lorber stated that a grant application to modify Wabash Avenue is in the works. MTA is integrated by the fact that MDOT is the land owner who issued the request for proposals in the first place which demands coordination. The developer is interested to lower his cost by building as little parking as possible, even though, MDOT still requires replacement parking. In this location that is probably misguided since there are plenty of park and ride spaces on the stations up and down the line (other holes in the donuts).

Getting TOD "right" is an art. So much so that there is a national website just devoted to TOD. It shows a slew of representative US precedents from which to learn and that have gained recognition. Many are located in the DC region in WMATA's service area. Baltimore's developers need to study these examples, from Columbia Heights (DC) to Pentagon City, Clarendon (Arlington County) to Mosaic (Fairfax County) and Pike and  Rose (Rockville). 
Affordable Housing near transit by Enterprise Community Partners
Denver (See article

There is a lot at stake. Good development has ripple effects. Mediocre development just sits around and uses up space. Baltimore's rail transit urgently needs a shot in the arm. Even before Covid hit, the LRT and the Metro systems performed way under capacity with a shrinking ridership over the last decades. Now, after being hit by COVID and many office workers still working from home, the systems are barely limping along. 

One of the development partners on Dean Harrison's team, Ernst Valery, his investment and development firm is headquartered in Station North. The Columbia and MIT trained with a bacjelor in Planning knows how to do TOD. He is the developer of the Nelson Kohl apartments behind Penn Station with minimal parking. One of his largest  projects is currently in design in Richmond, California. Up to 870 apartments with minimal parking as well as a business incubator and some retail to be constructed in three phases, everything located within an easy walk to an existing Amtrak station and the terminal station of the BART line that connects Richmond to San Francisco. One can hope that this know-how will be successfully integrated into a truly successful TOD, one that deserves the label. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, March 18, 2022

"Vacants to Value" becomes "Buy Into Bmore": More than just a name change?

 In her signature suite and bow-tie outfit Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy laid out her many responsibilities in front of a room full of developers, investors, former and current administrators including her former boss, Paul Graziano who had placed himself modestly into the last row.  Only when it came to the few daycare centers which for some odd reason DHCD still runs but tries to get rid off, did she briefly refer to Graziano by saying "he would know something about that topic". This wasn't meant to imply he wouldn't know about the other topics, still this interpretation briefly lingered in my head, before her forward looking presentation recaptured my attention. Many good things seem to be in the offing, many having to do with efficiency of the nearly 400 employee department itself, whether it is for permits or the release of federal grant money to small local recipients who suffer because payments take forever.

Alice Kennedy explaining the puzzle pieces

But one thing, especially caught my attention: The Buy Into B'more initiative that had just been announced together with a $100 million infusion into Baltimore affordable housing initiatives. $39 million are supposed to go into addressing vacant homes, in part motivated by the tragedy of three fire fighters dying in a vacant home that caught fire earlier this year. (See Mayor's press release)

From O'Malley's push for 5000 homes to be eliminated from the vacants list to "Vacants to Value" (Rawlings Blake), to Brandon Scott's "Buy into Bmore" the list of Baltimore Mayors trying to reduce Baltimore's 15,000 vacant homes in City possession  is long and complete. Yet, thanks to a steady flow of new abandonment the 15,000 vacant homes remained as a figure that didn't budge. Alice Kennedy said that the properties are now offered on a dynamic website that would function much lake MLS listings proliferated by the real estate portals of Zillow, Redfin and Trulia. Indeed, anyone used to Baltimore's clunky turn of the century style websites for payments, permits and rental licenses will be surprised about how smoothly and elegantly the site operates. The main features are a set of filters through which one can select what type property in which area one is looking for and a map that shows all available properties or those that match the filters. The map can be enlarged to the point that it shows individual parcels which can be clicked for parcel number and a photo and additional info from the SDAT records. 

Vacants can be an imminent danger 

It is questionable that a more fluid and modern access to the vacants database will make those go away or lead to a stampede of buyers. However, the added transparency should help avoid behind the scenes preferential treatment where certain entities seem to have had early access to data, an item that was rumored to have caused the sudden and then surprising demise of the previous Commissioner in 2016. For better or worse, the large amount of investor money which had been sloshing around the globe and that had contributed to overheated real estate markets in many larger US cities left Baltimore if not untouched, but relatively cool. While real estate values improved here also, the 18% gain is small  compared to boom cities such as Austin (56%) San Diego (34%) or even places such as Cincinnati, Cleveland or Columbus, OH (26, 25, 24%). 

One of Baltimore's revitalization problems appears to be a lack of focus resulting from policies that oscillate between "building from need" (Schmoke)  and "building from strength" (O'Malley). It isn't entirely clear where Mayor Scott lands on this matter, but his Planning and Housing departments jointly support  setting investment priorities as spelled out in the Baltimore "Impact Investments Zones". Those zones can also be selected as one of the filters in the Buy Into Baltimore maps. The Impact Investment Zones are based on anchor institutions and areas of strength from which to build up. 

The strategy of prioritizing investments in areas that have a chance of being turned around, often due to strong anchor institutions had been created by Mayor Pugh and goes back to papers that circulated during the O'Malley time. The problem is that this strategy can easily conflict with a focus on equity and social justice . The conflict amounts to the tension between economic strategies and ethical and moral strategies that are less based on market economics and more on making up for past injustices. For sure, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive and wealth creation in disadvantaged populations is an example of overlap. 

Screenshot of Buy Into B'More

A current case that illustrates the conflict is Council President Mosby's "Dollar House" bill which focuses on the formerly redlined communities in the "Black Butterfly" and which is stalled in city council because of economic arguments. That is to say that many council members follow Alice Kennedy's line of reasoning. She testified when the bill was up for debate, that the offered support is too little in deeply disinvested areas and would leave new property owners stuck with property that is valued nowhere near what it cost to fix them up. The eligible properties are also scattered and not consolidated as in the original Dollar House program. The matter  is currently unresolved and proves that good intentions are not sufficient to achieve the desired outcomes.

Kennedy who had worked in Baltimore's Planning Department before switching to Housing sees the bigger picture with its connections between housing and health, economic development, safety and even education. (see her talk about this in the Video: "Engaging all pieces of the puzzle"). Kennedy has begun to dismantle the silo mentality in which city agencies often still operate, in spite of all the previous aspirations to the contrary. Kennedy sets especially on closer collaboration with the Planning Department which puts the annual capital budget together. 

Screenshot of Buy Into B'More

Her broader view leads her to switch the focus away from vacant house reduction through demolition to avoiding vacant houses in the first place, i.e. through prevention. In that, she looks for upstream interventions similar to what Mayor Scott promotes as a necessity for combating crime. This makes good sense: Once a house stood vacant for an extended time, the fix is much harder than if one can prevent it from becoming vacant.. To this end Kennedy collaborates with the Green and Healthy housing initiative on the use of a part of  the $39 million dollars for stabilization and improvement of  homes that are occupied by low income residents in deeply disinvested areas as owners or as renters. Even owners can't get a simple home improvement loan because of lack of sufficient equity. Housing strategies must lift up the home values of entire neighborhoods, or investments will remain money down the drain in which the cycle of improvement and vacancy will churn indefinitely. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, February 25, 2022

Baltimore's vital signs - Anything pointing in the right direction?

Population growth as a remedy for Baltimore has been the topic of this blog for many years. (See here, here here and here)). 20 years ago when I advanced the topic with then Mayor O'Malley growing Baltimore back to 850,000 residents, what seemed to be the "carrying capacity" of the city without massive new infrastructure or new high density zoning, seemed not too far fetched. But instead we lost another 66000 people.

The 2020 census tells us that pretty much every larger city in the northeast and across the nation gained population, but Baltimore lost 5.7% of its residents.  Detroit, Milwaukee, and Memphis were the only other large cities in the loser camp.  All surrounding areas in our metro region grew, Baltimore County surpassed the City in the 1990s. However, the picture isn't only bleak, a deeper look is warranted. (See this report)

Maybe it is comforting that the last 20 year loss is only half the one Baltimore experienced in the years between 1980 and 2000. Or, that the number of households in the City actually grew in the last decade by 1%; not much, but definitely not a loss. The reason for that surprising fact is simple: Households become ever smaller and so it is that there are now more occupied housing units than there were in 2010, just fewer people in them. There are other bright spots: In the last decade the City gained 24,473 primary jobs, (+ 8.3%), although, workers who live in the City do not necessarily work in Baltimore, but their number increased by 4.2% as well. Over half of the City’s workforce commutes into the City and more Baltimoreans work outside the City than live and work in the City. Asian origin rpopulation grew by 46%, Latino population by 77% but  even combined represent merely around 12% of the overall population. 

BNIA suggested growth strategies

of all Baltimore st

Baltimore did not lose population across the board. 15 statistical areas (CSA) actually gained poplution,  the CSA with the biggest gain is downtown (+47%). A pleasant brightspot is Barclay, a formerly invested Charles North/ Midtown community that saw growth on the basis of careful and well planned intervention and investment. In all three CSAs went from loss to gains: Greater Charles Village/Barclay, Orchard Ridge/Armistead and Southeastern. Meanwhile the Latino population grew by 77% during the decade and Greektown became a strong growth area. 

The real problem is [that the] overall population loss in Baltimore was 52%. 10 times more than any other city except for New Orleans, but that is because of Katrina. Baltimore effectively suffered a cataclysmic event in terms of population loss on the scale of Katrina between 1990 and 2010, without the requisite reinvestment. We don’t have a gentrification problem. We have a lack of development problem Seema D. Iyer, PhD Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance—Jacob France Institute, UB

Anyone who has followed the maps of former Morgan University Professor Brown who now heads up the Black Butterfly Academy will not be surprised that once again the black butterfly neighborhoods are the victims: They lost more residents than any other neighborhood, led by Carrollton Ridge, where population decline in the decade was the steepest. The mapped result of population change once again gets us to the black butterfly shape already known from race, poverty and vacancy distribution and pretty much every other indicator.

What all this means is that not only are Baltimore's residents highly segregated by race and income, but the population loss is no longer caused by white flight. Instead, the City is losing black residents at a higher rate (-15%) than white residents (-11%). Poor black residents are no longer putting up with living in disinvested formerly re-lined communities. As soon as there is an opportunity, they will leave. In a vicious cycle, the vacant houses and the underutilized schools that are left behind will accelerate the exodus ahead. 

The black flight is not surprising. Quality of life metrics measured by the Neighborhoods Indicator Alliance are clear indicators many changes of the decade are pointing in the wrong diection. For example health: The disparity in life expectancy from one census tract to another increased from a 19.4 year difference in 2012 to a whopping 21.5 years in 2018. Thus the zip code is a bigger determinant of one's life expectancy than one's DNA code! While the teen birth rate declined 60% in the last decade citywide, baby health is still an issue: The rate of babies born with a satisfactory birth weight remained nearly unchanged and is still under 90%, lower in poor neighborhoods.

BNIA known for its "vital signs reports" and the annual data day has looked deeper into the Baltimore Community Change 2010-20 and created six individual research reports which are worth studying. The above data are taken from those reports.

BNIA is no longer just amassing data, it is now intent on enabling social change. In a press release the university institute states:

Historians may well mark the decade that just passed as one of the most tumultuous for Baltimore. From the Great Recession to civil unrest after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, to the widespread problem of vacant houses and the COVID-19 pandemic, Baltimore's neighborhoods have been buffeted by multiple economic, political and public health storms. The challenge is how to leverage resiliency where it exists and capitalize on opportunities when they arise.

What can be done: BNIA will organize Baltimore's first. Community Change Summit during the week of March 21-26. All who are interested can attend a session to help in developing data-driven solutions together with the help of a graduate student team consisting of four students from Morgan State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the Universities of Michigan and Illinois, with various technical backgrounds in urban planning, communications, and public health. The effort is sponsored by the France-Merrick Foundation, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Baltimore Community Foundation. 

In a recent presentation Seema Iyer emphasized the importance of access and networks with which she meant that well connected neighborhoods have better home values and a better quality of life. She noted access to grocery stores, transit and jobs as well as education. The importance of those connections is beyond doubt. Asked whether the disconnectedness is the cause or the result of disinvestment and abandonment, Iyer responded to me that it mattered less what is cause and what effect than that the cycle is broken. Iyer sees the need for networking in broader terms, all the way to intentional and organized social contacts between communities and all efforts of building "social capital". She uses social theory when she speaks about "divergence" and how  declining neighborhoods become isolated, "physically, digitally, socially and financially".

Grocery stores and schools close when population dwindles and clearly, the poorer and less educated the demographic profile of a community, the fewer available jobs there are in reach contributing to transit disconnectedness. 21% of City residents have a commute to work that is longer than 45 minutes, with Southern Park Heights leading the pack of the longest commutes (33% exceed 45 min.). This is especially hard for the nearly 30% of residents without access to a car, in several communities that share is between 50-60%.  17.5% of residents commute by transit citywide, but in many communities that share is between 30 to 40%, in Sandtown it is 60%. Iyer sees the problem not only as one of distance or of the service itself, but also as one of cost and is suggesting that the MTA and the City could create free boarding zones, especially on Baltimore's "main streets" which should be developed as community hubs where to find services, WiFi, free transit and amenities. She imagines that communities would flesh out some of these concepts tailored to their specific needs.

Council President Mosby re-introduced a Dollar House bill with the goal to lure low income residents to becoming homeowners in formerly redlined communities. Alas, the bill ran into heavy crossfire, not because fellow council members or Housing Commissioner Kennedy would be opposed to black homeownership, but because they question how much the envisioned $25,000 per buyer would do towards fixing houses up (a cost often exceeding $180,000) or getting a mortgage to cover the difference. Especially questionable: Is it right to lure low income home-buyers into heavily disinvested areas where the finished house value will exceed by far what the market  will likely yield for many years to come. Thusly "under water" owners would be trapped in their house in the same way already existing homeowners in those areas are. 

Overall, Baltimore has become a posterchild of the predicament that the entire nation will have to face sooner or later, namely that a community cannot thrive if it is built on gross in equity. Even Baltimore's encouraging statistics will mean nothing if  investments in the disinvested and vulnerable communities can not be achieved to a point that these will improve as well. This is a point also made by Seawall Development principal Thibault Mannekin in his recent book in which he compares Baltimore to South Africa. The holy grail is improvement without the pattern of displacement and gentrification found in Washington DC, San Francisco, Austin or other cities that are booming. The level of re-investment needed in large parts of Baltimore far exceeds what the City or even the State can achieve by themselves. A  recent Atlantic magazine  argued for reparations. A national program for reparation in tandem with the Build Back Better bill stalled in Congress is the kind of scale that is needed to bring cities like Baltimore, Memphis and Detroit back on their feet. Professor Lawrence Brown has made this point for years. 

The Ukraine war will divert attention away from solving these domestic problems so they can fester even longer, even though they themselves have already weakened our international standing. 

Klaus  Philipsen, FAIA