Monday, September 26, 2022

Baltimore's newest thing is an old hat elsewhere: Topgolf

Peering out my office window from the historic Wicomico building in Pigtown I wondered about those big sticks going up right behind another new construction project on Ostend Street, the new 3,400 seat Paramount concert venue at the corner with Warner Street. 

The view from my window: A giant net towering
over city rowhouses (Photo: Philipsen)

Recently the purpose of the more than 150' sticks becomes clear after netting connects the sticks and a closer inspection of the venue reveals a three story open horseshoe shaped structure facing the giant net. Further investigation revealed that what is happening here on the former Animal Control and Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) is another piece in what I would call Baltimore's new fun zone at the Middle Branch and is related to the biggest fun palace, the Horseshoe Casino. Ok, fun is in the eyes of the beholder, but  is often defined as approximately opposed to purposeful or productive activity.  Top Golf, under that definition fits fun. The more serious term for the fun zone is the Warner Street Entertainment District, a term used by the Baltimore design firm BCT which has designed the Casino and developed concepts for the area. 

The 250,000 sf district will transform an abandoned, desolate industrial zone into a thriving recreational corridor with the addition of an 80,000 sf Paramount music venue, 65,000 sf Top Golf facility, 30,000 sf Yards Social Bar, 320-key branded hotel and 34,620 sf of interlacing retail. (BCT website)

Maybe you are like me and wonder, what on earth is topgolf? For an answer I recommend this really entertaining article by the golf experts titled "A beginner's guide to Topgolf, the best way to enjoy golf while knowing nothing about it".

Topgolf player Minneapolis (Explore Minnesota)

The article starts off with this reflection about not having invented this lucrative activity:

If you’re like us, you wake up every morning and spend 10 minutes staring at the ceiling thinking, What have I been doing that’s so important that I didn’t think to invent Topgolf? and then you hit yourself with a waffle and head off to your relatively boring job. (Golf Digest)

The article explains the activity of Topgolf much better than I ever could, so here I quote again:

Topgolf has exploded thanks to its forehead-slappingly simple formula: driving range + bar + accessible vibe.  Short version: three-story-tall driving range with bar and kitchen. The range is populated by several dozen bays, which you and your group can rent by the hour. Each bay is essentially a private driving range tee with a waitstaff. Six can play at a time, all ages. (Golf Digest)
For more detail I recommend reading the full article. 

Rendering of the Baltimore facility (Topgolf)

One doesn't have to be an expert in Topgolf to see that at least three different visions are tugging on the available land around the Middle Branch which my colleagues at the AIA Urban Design Committee called "Baltimore's second waterfront" as early as in a 1992 masterplan for the Middle Branch. Family centered fun, accessibility and a softer more natural water's edge celebrating marshes, wetlands and habitats was part of our vision then. 

Another  version emerged which saw a string of sports venues lining Russell Street, Oriol Park, the Ravens Stadium and then a third large sports venue that was proposed in various forms (a 2007 proposal suggested a new arena here) but ultimately the casino won out.

With the casino a third vision came to be, one for which the Middle Branch was merely an afterthought. The giant parking garage directly along the shore attests to that. 
Here at Topgolf, we’ve made socializing a sport through a blend of technology and entertainment – and that’s just the game! If you journey through our venue on any given day, you’ll find a place buzzing with energy. There’s no pressure to have a good golf swing or score a lot of points. It’s all about everyone having fun. (Topgolf website)
The first vision, the Middle Branch as a natural waterfront is not dead, though. It was nurtured by Pat Turner's Westport design when he engaged the landscape architects of Field Operations (New York High Line), Kevin Planks Port Covington and lately the "Reimagine the Middle Branch" design once again presented by Field Operations and ironically largely funded by "casino impact grant funds". 
Field Operations rendering of the Middle Branch: 
A new shoreline design envisions improved water quality
and resiliency measures that protect communities from damaging
storms, while adding trail connections, boardwalks,
and scenic beauty to the Middle Branch.

The plan’s long-term vision is guided by three Equity Frameworks: Protect and Connect the Shoreline, Transform Barriers into Connections, and Strengthen Communities with Parks and Programs. These frameworks organize a series of projects to be implemented over the next two decades and identify three major priority areas: an expanded Middle Branch Park, Ridgley's Cove, and the Loop Trail. 

Middle Branch Park, already a destination on the waterfront, will be expanded and improved with a new boathouse, improved boating and fishing piers, an expanded playground, an event lawn for festivals, and a covered outdoor pavilion for gatherings. At Ridgley’s Cove, large expanses of new marshland will form a “maritime park” and provide critical green stormwater infrastructure for nearby areas that are vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. (Field Operations website)

Neither the casino nor the Topgolf facility will do anything for access or enjoyment of the Middle Branch except for providing funds for trails and enhancements through community benefits agreements. An ideal planning approach would look for direct synergies between the land use along the shores of the Middle Branch and the vision of the Middle Branch as an attractive and healthy natural body of water. But Baltimore's planners always had trouble with that, all the way back to when against the begging of the AIA Urban Design Committee the Baltimore Development Corporation issued a request for proposals for the Warner Street area that were for industrial uses as an extension of the Carroll Camden industrial park, essentially a continuation of what the area had been in the past.
Reinventing the indsutrial legacy city: Giant sticks
in the air

When I wrote my book, Baltimore - Reinventing an American Legacy City I looked  for ways how the economic and demographic base of an industrial city like Baltimore could change towards a prosperous future in the 21st century. The possible answers are numreous
It looks like for the Warner Street corridor the answer is fun and "entertainment". just as this apparently has been the answer for Fells Point, canton and Federal Hill and likely will be the answer for a future Inner Harbor.

Topgolf as a 65,000 sf three story sports bar with a 36' video wall on 6.5 acres fits right into the concept of those otter fun zones in which a large part of the revenue comes from drinking.  

Topgolf is not the name of a new sport, it is a brand and an enterprise. It so far operates 69 venues around the world. (Not only Las Vegas, Austin, Minneapolis and  Denver have it already but also Philly, DC, New Orleans, Richmond, Detroit, Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and even St Louis and many more). 

According to 2018 promises when the project was first announced, the company will create 500 jobs at its Baltimore location and generate $264.5 million of revenue over 10 years. Indeed, "what have I been doing that’s so important that I didn’t think to invent Topgolf?". On the other hand, in 10years will anybody still think it's fun to hit a golf ball from a perch on the third floor into a 150' tall net?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, August 19, 2022

The Rise and Fall of Charles Center - A lesson in urban planning

When Charles Center was shaping up it was described as nothing less than the "renaissance" of Baltimore. 33 acres of innovation and resolve adopted as an urban renewal plan in 1959, funded by bonds and becoming reality in stages, starting in 1962. A mere 60 years later, the dominoes are falling one by one.

Early concept plans of Charles Center Urban Renewal by the
Planning Council 1957 (Archive of UMB)

The Charles Center story has been told so often, it has become part of Baltimore's lore as a comeback city: Baltimore that came out of WWII still big, but mostly stagnant. Compared with today, then the downtown streets were teaming with life, shopping still happened downtown but a sense of doom hung in the air: Redlining, blockbusting, "new towns" and suburban malls fueled "white flight" and setting the stage for a shrinking city. 

So, the story goes, some fearless leaders sounded the alarm, came together and formed the "Committee for Downtown". They rallied around a big plan to stay in the game. Nothing smaller than 30 acres would do in favor of a future that would boast the latest and greatest of urban renewal: Curtain wall towers, modern architecture, underground parking, pedestrian bridges and separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic and also, revolutionary at the time, the preservation of three Baltimore landmarks. 

The Mies building as it presents itself today with the
redesigned Center Plaza (Photo: Philipsen)

The plan fit into a time of optimistic redesigning cities for the automobile, in Baltimore exemplified by a grandiose inner ring downtown bypass, urban freeways and one-way streets. everywhere. Not all of the love for the automobile was actually consumed, but some freeway pieces ("the highway to nowhere") and a much scaled down inner ring consisting of Martin Luther King Boulevard, President Street and the multi-lane pair of Lombard and Pratt Streets are still vestiges of that time.

High quality was expected of the downtown renaissance and leaders invited out of town big name architects to participate in design competitions. Mies van der Rohe's office was selected for the One Charles Center, a knock-off of the New York original, but still a 23 story international style tower with podium, 23' foot lobby, underground parking and a pedestrian bridge designed by Mies right here in Baltimore! The significance of this modern building was such that it was accepted into the National Register of historic places a mere 38 years later, an honor usually reserved for buildings of significance that are at least 50 years old.

One Charles Center put Baltimore "on the map" again with modern office space and all the amenities and the large floor plates the time demanded. After One Charles Center a whole cluster of towers followed! When the new offices were successfully filled, it was only natural that the spirit of rejuvenation expanded to the Inner Harbor to turn the smelly waterfront into an urban playground. 

D'Alessandro, McKeldin, Schaefer, Rouse, Millspaugh and others were the heroes of the time, along with the architects David Wallace, Charlie Lamb from RTKL and of course, Mies. The completion of HarborPlace was the bow on Baltimore's renaissance which became a term among planners around the country that brought hotels, conventions and even tourists.

Such is the well rehearsed lore, it's hard to believe that all of this should be over now, even when we could see the trophies of that time fall one by one: Down came the pedestrian bridges, the Mechanic Theatre, the McKeldin Plaza and the whole notion of separation between cars and pedestrians. It got really bad when the rot spread from Charles Center to the famous pavilions at Harborplace. The Mies Tower seemed to stand tall and unmutable. Until the Angelos empire began to unravel, that is.

The former Burger King now the AIA Architecture Center
(Photo Philipsen)

Now with the feuding Angelos clan holding a fire sale (will the Orioles be next?), Charles Center comes into focus as a mere ghost of itself  more than half empty surrounded by other failing towers already have changed hands and heading towards a far less glorious reincarnation as apartment towers, no matter how often the term luxury is stuck in front of the word apartment. The conversion of the central business district into a fast growing residential neighborhood is the new narrative of success. 

The whole notion of downtown is very much in question again, not only in Baltimore, though. This time there are no big renaissance plans in sight. The Downtown Partnership is in search of a "blueprint".The future is is in question

Opinions about the future of downtowns vary, fact is that office workers are returning only slowly and office vacancy rates are on the double digits in many other downtowns, for example Philadelphia. This doesn't stop Richard Florida to editorialize in Bloomberg's City Lab that Downtown Won't Die, but his optimism is of little help for downtown office tower owners or those whose retail needs the office workers, nor will it help city coffers. Downtowns on average cover just 1-3% of city land, but they provide 10-30% of the tax revenue. The optimists from Stantec to Richard Florida and Baltimore's BCT principal Bryce Turner who may be redesigning the Mies building for residences see no big problems with converting the shiny office towers into residences. But it won't be easy for those offices built during the age of urban renewal where a single building often covered an entire city block and where deep 40,000 sf floor plates where all the rage. No matter that the facades may be mostly glass, once one is about 50' away from the facade, there is no further stretching habitable residential spaces any further back into the deep buildings and still have the required daylight and ventilation.

When planning didn't produce big glossy plans but actual
buildings in short order (UMB Archive)

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated challenges facing Baltimore’s downtown core. Commercial vacancy rates have grown into solid double digits as major tenants and jobs move to newer properties outside of the city center. But at the same time, the conversion of commercial buildings to residential properties has made Downtown Baltimore one of the fastest growing and most diverse neighborhoods in the city. Still, these residents lack the stores, green space, restaurants, public safety and entertainment venues they need and deserve.(DPOB "The Future of the CBD")

How can an urban intervention go from being cutting edge to obsolete in only 60 years? Weren't cities meant to be good for the centuries? Where did we take the wrong turn or is Baltimore in the same boat as any other US city? 

It turns out that pretty much everything that was all the rage in urban design in the 1960s turned out to be wrong, whether the fathers were Ed Bacon (Philadelphia) or David Wallace (Baltimore).  At least from today's perspective. The modernist freestanding towers (think for example the USF&G Tower) ignored pedestrians and streets with their windswept plazas and pristine but dull entry lobbies, guiding pedestrians on elevated walkways, turning Charles Street into a service alley for garage entrances and service ramps, and, worst of all, the mono culture of offices over offices which turned out to be giant energy hogs with poor insulation. The glass facades caused the interior spaces to heat up in the glaring sun without help from operable windows  and required mechanical cooling and ventilation year round.

All those issues turned out to be deadly for a lively downtown and as a result those towers are no longer popular as offices, nor are they especially suitable for residential conversions, at least not without major and very costly surgery. 

Hindsight is cheap, and those who are old enough to remember the excitement about Baltimore's renaissance through modernism (including me) will certainly object, that the Charles Center masterplan was not all that bad. Indeed, one can point to a number of innovations that were not common in the 1960s and that pointed in the right direction: Charles Center included open spaces such as Center Plaza which needed some softer redesign but were very much needed in an otherwise crowded dense setting. As noted, three remarkable structures were saved (including the B&O headquarters and the Fidelity Building) and the plan had a residential component with the apartment tower on Saratoga Street and the associated small shopping center. The plan even included with the Mechanic Theatre an entertainment comonent that became famous for its sculptural concrete architecture. Furthermore, the project was executed fast and efficiently through a series of private investors and set high standards for design.

The shameful wasteland that once was the Mechanic Theatre, right
in the heart of downtown (Photo Philipsen)

When we have to witness that even the flagship building, "the Mies" is no longer a desirable destination, let alone a premier address were the most notable law offices, insurers, architects and others want to be we can bemoan that once again we do not cherish our own history. 51% vacancy attests to the rapidly changing preferences that sometimes seem to see cities as objects that can be changed like a wardrobe.. 

Luckily, the building has  a peristent elegance that some of the other towers that came after it don't show. The comparably shallow floor-plates will make a residential option easier than in some of those massive squat towers. Still, the new mantra of converting so many office towers into residences could easily create another mono-culture and glut, especially in a shrinking city such as Baltimore. Those who already live downtown, in spite of their impressive number continue to miss the hustle and bustle that downtown living brings in DC, Philadelphia, New York or Boston, all cities that continue to grow and also seem to recover faster from the pandemic than Baltimore. 

All who care about Baltimore need to ask themselves, how the downtown of the future should look like. A downtown that remains a destination for the region at day and at night and a downtown that is an attractive neighborhood as well. Such a downtown can only be resilient and interesting if it encompasses live, work and play in equal parts, to use this somewhat overused troika of verbs. And more than anything, Baltimore's downtown needs continuity of functioning and active blocks without the big gaps of boarded up and unsafe zones that downtown residents and workers encounter as pedestrians in almost any direction they want to go, whether on the way to the Hippodrome, the soon refurbished Arena, the soon to open new Lexington Market, to and from a subway station or going to the newly refurbished Rash Field, the brand-new HarborPoint or hostoric Little Italy, Fells Point or Federal Hill. The most resilient downtown areas are those that never became office or shopping mono-cultures, in Baltimore and in many other cities. Jane Jacobs had it right all along. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN about One Charles Center

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Can the new Lexington Market be sustained?

 If it was a bit hard to make out what Baltimore Public Markets CEO Paul Ruppert's was explaining to a group of land professionals in the assembly space of the spanking new Lexington Market it wasn't just because of his softspoken manner or the reverberation in the hard surfaced space but also because it is hard to wrap one's mind around the host of objectives Mr Ruppert was describing. 

The new market: The Egg-laying Wool-Milk Pig?
(Photo: Philipsen)

The objectives were often contradictory: Wanting to give the existing merchants a chance to continue their business in the new much smaller building but also wanting a mix of merchants to more closely resemble the community that the market serves. Lexington Market is the go-to place in a vast food desert that spans large parts of the western wing of the "black butterfly".  Also wanting to attract new shoppers and gaining back those that were lost in recent years. Ruppert pointed to the nearby University of Maryland and its large medical complex. Wanting goods to be fresh, healthy and local, catering to the daily needs of low income families while also attracting the discerning tastes of those who found the old market too stale and were looking for modern choices such as crispy fresh bread that doesn't come pre-sliced and plastic wrapped from a bread factory. Old staples like Faidley's fish market must remain, fresh meats as well, but much of the business of a modern day food hall comes from prepared foods. Ruppert says that the team managed to get the demographics right: 45% of all vendors will be black owned and nearly half of all will be woman owned.  As if all of this wasn't already hard enough to do, the market is also supposed to remain the cherished cultural icon that the old market has been through more than a century, even though the surrounding area has experienced decline and modern retail is almost entirely absent in the old retail core. People have different expectations in the 21st century, the age of suburban 135, 000 square foot grocery stores, online orders, to the door deliveries and trendy food halls. Outwardly the BCT Architects designed market channels the old version from a 100 years ago, inside everything must be different. 

A postcard of the historic market, maybe a 100 years ago

Additional difficulties include geography: The entry level on Eutaw Street is 15’ below that of Paca Street, forcing the new ADA compliant market to be organized on two levels. Fresh foods on the lower level, Ruppert says, prepared food upstairs. Lexington Market is not only expected to flourish but also to rejuvenate the entire tired area of downtown, that many people avoid today for the many methadone clinics and abandoned or marginal shops along with a busy street live that many suburbanites find unsettling. In a gesture towards the new inviting outdoor plaza between the old and the new market, some vendors have sales windows for those walking by on the new plaza which is designed to accommodate events and lingering.

The tension between the many goals was illustrated when during a tour through the building Ruppert pointed to a spot right on top of the grand steps leading up to the top level. A great place for a brew-stand, he says, a local micro brewery has already applied, "but wouldn't it say 'gentrification' in this prominent space", he wondered aloud. To be clear, in most cases the vendors have been assigned and many shiny stainless steel pieces of equipment for cooling, frying, cooking and drinks stood proof, waiting to be installed in the various stalls. Kitchen and food preparation plans are taped to columns, next to the vendor numbers and names. 

A grand stair: obstacle and opportunity
(Photo: Philipsen)

The project, designed for $40 million is behind schedule now, even though the shell has been complete for some months. First there was a funding gap stemming from risen cost, a problem that Mayor Scott deftly solved by putting $4.9 million rescue money on top of the initial price tag. Now delays in finishing the stalls are explained with supply chain issues and the general circumstances of a construction industry under stress.  

Ruppert mentioned several times the impediments coming from the surrounding areas. The murder in front of the Hippodrome, the drug treatment clinics and the sad condition of much of the surrounding infrastructure. Does he get the support of the City to fix things before the Market will open in the fall? Answering this question Ruppert's voice is trailing off. I understood him saying something to the effect that this was an important question. Kristen Mitchell Forsyth who ran the Market Center Merchants Association and is now part of the Public Market team is extremely familiar with the area. At times she had cleaned up herself, broom and bags in hand. After Rupperts presentation she walked over to me to tell me that she has successfully initiated a bunch of smaller fixes and repairs on sidewalks, tree pits and curbs. She assures me that collaboration between the semi public Public Market Corporation  and DPW is happening. Sidewalks at the NE corner of Eutaw and Saratoga have been replaced, and the brick sidewalks on the west side of the 300 block of Paca have been replaced, too. The brick tree wells on Howard Street, and some of the surrounding brick sidewalks, have been fixed. She also points to a newly painted facade across the street, part of a grant agreement. Bigger issues, though, remain unaddressed. What is needed, before the market opens, is a comprehensive sweep that includes BDC, Public Works, Housing and code inspectors. Some things have clearly festered way too long: For example, the giant burnt out historic Gomprecht complex on the same block as the market, last used as the Tunnel night club. It still stands as a burnt out ruin, unchanged since the morning after the fire, the cornice precariously dangling above the sidewalk  in spite of years of complaints and discussions about structural safety, loitering, historic preservation, demolition and the shell remains a drag on the neighborhood.

The plaza between the old and the new market:
An invitation to linger. 
(Photo: Philipsen)

As CEO of the public markets, Ruppert is not only in charge of the Lexington Market, but has to address the same set of issues for Federal Hill's Cross Street Market, Fells Point's Broadway Market, Pennsylvania Avenue's Avenue Market, Northeast Market near Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Hollins Market in Southwest Baltimore as well.  A tall order. All of them have recently been in play or are still subject to transformations with equally conflicting goals. As for Broadway and Cross Street, they clearly veered into the direction of gentrification and have become food halls of sort, not what Lexington Market and its smaller brethren at Hollins Street, Pennsylvania Avenue,and in the Northeast are supposed to become.

But how to cater to all these objectives and still have the market in general and the individual merchants in particular affordable, equitable and profitable all at once? 

Will the Market Corporation be prepared to keep the merchants alive should they find it difficult to sell enough in this phase of Baltimore's history when many office workers didn't come back from their remote work, when students and hospital employees fear to tread in the area and tourists stay away from Baltimore, because it appears to be too dangerous? When much of the surroundings still signal neglect, no matter the small fixes on the public right of way? 

The new Prospr on Fayette apartments and
hotel complex south of the new market
(Photo: Philipsen)

Ruppert remained circumspect. Yes there are some wrap-around services provided to merchants, to help them get going, not only by the Public Market Corporation but also by the market developer Seawall and by BCL, Baltimore Community Lending. "This is Baltimore's largest small business incubator",  Ruppert pointed out. But outright rent subsidies are not planned is my understanding.

 Asking whether the market can survive before it has even opened and when everyone has the highest hopes for it may feel outright blasphemous and defeatist. "Typical Smalltimore spirit", some may object, just when this project is supposed to lift the entire Westside and Market Center area over the hump. 

Yes, I would respond, the fact that the new market is beautiful and now within grasp after so many years of agonizing over its future is a great success. On the other hand so was Oriole Park, the construction of Baltimore's first new streetcar in the early 1990, the Convention Center expansion, the Hippodrome, the Everyman Theater, Centerpoint and the successful conversion of the old Hechts Department store. Positive signals are also a number of successful new projects in the area such as the new mixed use complex just to the south of the market and the Paca House social services west of the market. 

The fire ruin at 360 N Eutaw in the same block as
the market, untouched since 2017
(Photo: Philipsen)

Somehow, though, all this has not yet translated into a truly vibrant revitalized destination neighborhood that would be in any way comparable to Over The Rhine in Cininnatti, the new Union Station and stadium area in downtown Denver  or even the revitalized downtown of Lexington Kentucky. 

For this to finally be achieved the Superblock and the the Weinberg demolition site across the street and next to the Steward's building need to be developed, the streetscape has to be upgraded and brought into shape. The goal must be several contiguous city blocks without shuttered shops and vacant buildings and decaying sidewalks. Public markets can thrive if they are located in thriving commercial areas. 

Until that is achieved, the Public Market Corporation better angle for lucrative leases of the soon to be vacant old market buildings east and west of Paca Street so they have some cash-flow in addition to the already money making garage to prop up the market to whatever level is needed, so it can sustain to be the area magnet everybody wants it to be.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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Thursday, July 21, 2022

How much is too much?

What do  Yard 56 in Greektown, the Northwood Shopping Center, HarborPlace, Madison Park North, The Linden Apartments, the Rotunda, 300 East Pratt Street, an apartment building in Lauraville, Eddie's in Charles Village and Clipper Mill have in common? 

Its hard to see a common denominator between all these places all over Baltimore which include projects that are fully or partially complete and many more that are just plans on paper. The matter may become even more confusing if one adds in projects such as the $100 million Drexeline Town Center redevelopment in Drexel Hill, PA. the Arundel Plaza in Glen Burnie or a good number of so-called core-plus warehouses complexes.

David Bramble explains his Yard 56 project
to ULI members in May of 2021

Most people won't be any smarter if one tells them that all these places are owned by MCB, Real Estate LLC, a company headquartered in Baltimore and a  self described "vertically integrated private real estate investment, development, and management firm". If one adds that MCB was founded by David Bramble and Peter Pinkard, there may be some head nodding. Bramble has been in the news lately when he opted for HarborPlace, a steadily declining property that had been in the spotlight for years. Mayor Scott announced the deal with Bramble's MCB in his "state of the city" address earlier this year. Many news media desperately tried to learn a bit more about David Bramble, the public face of MCB and what he is up to. 

"This is a once in a lifetime chance. This is a Baltimore project that is going to be big. So many people who love Baltimore want to see this happen, and people realize how important this is to the fate of the central business district. We're going to do our best to deliver a world-class project." (Bramble as quoted in the Baltimore SUN )

Folks in Reservoir Hill may have read this with some doubt. They knew Bramble as the owner and developer of the 8 acres of empty fields along North Avenue across from Bolton Hill that once constituted low income housing development Madison Park North which had been known as "murder mall". The housing complex had been vacated in 2014 and MCB identified as the developer in 2016. The buildings were then demolished and the site has been sitting fallow ever since. Bramble described the project to the Baltimore SUN this way:

Proposed Madison North townhomes on North Avenue
(Rendering Bauer Architect)

[a] "marquee site with major implications for West Baltimore and the new innovation district.This is a super, super important project for the city and we want it to happen but it's going to require a lot of coordination and a lot of community involvement," (Bramble in 2016 as quouted in the SUN)
Apparently Madison Park North (as it is known know) will proceed with construction this year after various issues regarding Amtrak's new tunnels and Planning Commission approval have been resolved. A presentation of the design to UDAAP last year didn't go too well, the design shown to the Planning Commission was a modified plan and will be the base for the next round at UDAAP. 
Northwood Shopping Center redevelopment (MCB)

Bramble has been in the news before, mostly with some brief statement about the his latest project, for example when he bought Clipper Mill from the embattled ValStone property group. No plans have for the controversial Tractor building or the new townhomes have since emerged
“It was a difficult negotiation, but this is an amazing project in an amazing community in BaltimoreOur goal is to hit the ‘re-set’ button with the community and figure out how to get the remainder of this project off the ground" (Bramble to the Baltimore SUN of June 21).
High significance could also be attributed to Baltimore's longest stalled project, the former News American site at 300 east Pratt Street for which Bramble proposed at some point a 40 story tower. In June last year, though, with downtown office vacancies hitting records Bramble told the BBJ that he could not in good conscience develop such a big project now and declared it "on hold". The office space is still listed as "available" real estate and is seen now in the context of a redo HarborPlace.  Together, these present a heavy lift.

Empty lots are not indicative of MCB's abilities of getting things done. The company can point to a slew of successfully completed projects, especially in the shopping center area, among them Yard 56, the former Eddie's, the Arundel Plaza in Glen Burnie, and the Northwood shopping center near Morgan University which is nearing completion. 
Proposed project: The Linden (Marren Architects)

With all the projects, MCB's staff has grown significantly and includes two prominent former Struever Brothers team members, Amy Bonitz and Josh Neiman, the latter specifically to direct the many new residential development projects, which mostly exist only on paper. Most advanced is probably the second phase of Yard 56 near Hopkins' Bayview,  with a 225-unit apartment building and large medical center. 

The successfully completed projects notwithstanding, one has to wonder, how much can MCB stomach, how much attention can it pay each project and how healthy is it for Baltimore to amass so many pivotal sites in one hand? It may be unfair to ask such a question of a developer who expresses optimism, is bullish on Baltimore, takes risk, is a longtime Baltimore resident and a star in the minority owned business world. Bramble has a degree in politics from Princeton and a law degree as well. What more could one want?
Proposed tower at 300 East Pratt Street (HKS Architects)

Yet, Baltimore has a lot of experience with rising stars, great promises and ultimately failing projects. Residents of cities like Baltimore, always teetering at the edges of success or failure, often at the same time, we tend to look for rescue from a heroic figure that swoops in and solves all the woes. William Donald Schaefer comes to mind as a heroic mayor, Jim Rouse (HarborPlace, Cross Keys) was such a hero with a national reputation and after him his "student" Bill Struever in partnership with Ted Rouse until the great financial recession nearly wiped the famous SBE&R out. (Struever has a come-back as Cross Street Partners with a number of big projects such as Hoehn and and the Amtrak project). Pat Turner comes mind who put Locust Point in the map with his creative Silo Point condo project and then crashed with a mega project in Westport. The most recent example of a local hero is Kevin Plank and his Port Covington that made headlines around the country and is now slowly shrinking to a much more pragmatic scale and aspiration.
Some "game changing" projects never came off the ground, for example the News American site on Pratt Street which saw many giant tower renderings on paper while the reality remained to be a sea of parked cars. In the case of the site of the former Mechanic Theatre, there is a big nothing after demolition years ago. Other projects that once really put Baltimore "on the map" have moved past their prime and have turned into liabilities. Such a project was Cross Keys until Caves Valley developers came in to infuse new life. The two HarborPlace pavilions rose and sank like the sun from their success under the Rouse company to decay and broken promises under General Growth and then Ashkenazy. Meanwhile other developers finish one project after another, such as Beatty Development at Harbor East and HarborPoint but at a heavy cost to Baltimore's future tax income thanks to generous TIF bonds. Beatty in collaboration with Dan Henson (also a former Struever partner)  is now also addressing affordable housing in the very large Perkins Homes and Oldtown project duo.
Planned Lauraville apartments (Alexander Design Studio)

MCB's projects may not be as flashy and not as subsidized, their designs range from modest and plain to elaborate, they are prepared from a wide range of different architects. Regardless, the success of these projects is urgent for Baltimore, either for their prominence (HarborPlace, News American, or for the contributions that the many new multifamily housing projects will make towards mitigating the national and local housing crisis (Madison North). The projects were initiated during a time when residential real estate was flying high and signify a pivot of the company from commercial and retail to residential where the company has less experience. An economic stricture is on the horizon, whether it will be a full recession, another financial crisis, a bust of another real estate bubble, or something altogether new remains to be seen. 

Can MCB do them all this? An inquiry with David Bramble with a request to answer a few questions about capacity and financial risks for this article remained unanswered. Not surprising given how much the man has on his plate. Baltimoreans can only hope for the best while trying to get better acquainted with one of its more enigmatic development heroes. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, July 8, 2022

No way to run a train

Baltimore's single route light rail with its 30 miles of track is theoretically the easiest train system to operate: Go from A to B and then back with two spurs allowing certain trains to turn into BWI and Penn Station.

Baltimore Light Rail: Running back and forth on a single route
(Photo: Philipsen)

With train speeds of an average of about 25 mph the 30 mile end to end trip is scheduled to take 80 minutes. Over 50 available light rail cars  provide enough rolling stock to populate the route with two car trains every 10 minutes in both directions all day long, including layover times and spur runs, still leaving a reserve for cars to stay in the shop for repairs. Two maintenance facilities allow to dispatch relief trains from two ends in case of disruptions or breakdowns.

With a system that has almost everywhere two tracks and sufficient crossovers, it should be possible to bypass stranded trains or do track maintenance without service disruptions.

But a combination of underfunding, poor maintenance, poor operations and convoluted regulations have managed to give riders a very different experience for many years to the point that this simple system became completely dysfunctional. Covid was just the last challenge that sank the long leaking ship.

Light Rail ridership this century: Down (MTA webpage)

On June 5 this year with baseball fans finally back in the stadium and enjoying a game, the trip home via light rail turned into an ordeal. Trying to get home would be riders stood on Camden Yard's platform and waited, and waited. The Next Train announcement board remained stubbornly black for  a 20 minutes and finally sprang to life with a southbound train expected in 42 (!) minutes, longer than Sunday headways even without a game. A quick check on the app showing trains on the system only showed three trains on the entire 25 mile line, two right behind each other going north and only one going south, it was still in Hunt Valley. 

Deteriorated embedded track in downtown
(Photo: Philipsen)

On July 5 a traveler posted on Facebook a similar plight for people waiting  for a train to take them home from the airport. Here, too, there was no train listed at all and then one was indicated still 40 minutes away. A great welcome for a tourist or visitor coming to Baltimore and being excited that there is a direct rail transit option for getting to downtown. 

This year these two incidents were not outlier experiences but representative of a new normal at Baltimore's light rail system. Even though it was clearly known to the administration,  the situation did not elicit immediate and swift remedial action and not even communication with riders. In the full month between these two events the service had neither improved nor were riders made aware of the situation with posters, online message, emails or in any other way. The gap between the enthusiasm and belief in good transit exhibited by leading MTA staff and the actual service out on the ground continuous to be a source of amazement for any observer. One has to conclude that the willing folks at MTA are held on an awfully short leash by MDOT under which MTA operates. 

Finally, on June 28, the MTA came out with a press release and with a single culprit: A lack of train operators. The remedy: Service cuts.

"In response to a shortage of operators, the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration (MDOT MTA) today announced a temporary adjustment in Light Rail service to align service levels with operator availability and ridership, which remains low compared to pre-pandemic levels. Beginning, Sunday, July 10, weekday trains will operate on a modified Saturday schedule. There is no change to weekend schedules. This temporary service adjustment will ensure that Light Rail riders have a schedule they can rely on. (Press release)

But folks arriving at BWI and judging the Baltimore region by the first impression they get when trying to use the train transit option at the airport had no way of knowing that the Maryland MTA had more problems than other transit agencies in the country, and given up providing reasonable train service altogether. The same was true for travelers arriving at Penn Station with no obvious info that the spur wasn't running (See this video from April of this year). Visitors to Baltimore (yes, they still exist!) will still be unlikely to find out on MTA's website unless there is actual information posted at the station. 

Train stranded due to icy wires (Photo Philipsen)

MTA has finally begun to react to some of its longstanding practices that contributed to the operator shortage: Such as the union negotiated practice of considering light rail as an awards program given to senior bus operators. Apparently the prestige of a train was considered a perk, even if route picks on light rail are essentially impossible since there is only one route to pick. Reportedly MTA and ATU have finally agreed that hiring outside operators would be acceptable. Needless to say, before improvement from new hires can be felt, a lengthy training period needs to be successfully completed and staff to do the training is also needed. 

“We recognize the critical role that Light Rail and transit in general play in the lives of our riders. While we are disappointed that we have had to take this step, these temporary adjustments will ensure our riders can count on their scheduled train arriving on time. We are working diligently to return to our normal service level.” (MDOT MTA Administrator Holly Arnold)

True, less frequent trains are more acceptable than ones that don't show up at all. Still, to understand how operator shortage can lead to a full collapse of the schedule one needs to see that Baltimore's light rail problems began long before the pandemic. There were wheel problems and there were shelters where the glass remained busted out for months. LRT was the last to get onboard GPS and real time train location. The ticketing system remains complicated, especially if one has a day-pass. Downtown trains remain extremely slow, in part because of uncoordinated signals and in part due to a horrendous condition of the tracks. The train midlife overhaul took many cars out of the system. Track repairs shut the system down time and again forcing people on to "bus bridges". Other problems are not of MTA's making: The trains run on top rickety infrastructure. A tunnel fire underneath light rail closed the street for a week. In one case part of the station platform disappeared in a sinkhole. Land use near stations has never seen a coordinated push towards intensified, "transit oriented" development. 

As a result light rail managed to lose riders ever since a peak of ridership of around 30,000 per day after the grand opening of the system in 1992 when trains were the pride of Baltimore and ran on schedule most of the time. The capacity of the system could have easily reached 50,000 riders or more a day as other single line cities such as Houston, Seattle and Phoenix showed, even before they expanded their single lines to truly become systems.

Expanding the single route light rail line is a a feat that Baltimore never managed to do. After 20 years finally a second light rail line was planned to augment the north south line with an east west line. It took 13 years and $250 million to bring this second line to a shovel ready level of design when the current governor pulled the plug on the project, forfeiting almost $1 billion of federal funds. Now, 40 years after the first Baltimore modern street-car began operating, no additional light rail project is in sight. 

Large cars, large capacity for post game hauling
(Photo: Philipsen)

This is the worst time for a public transit system to collapse: The urgency to act on climate change has never been greater. The transportation sector with its 40% contribution to greenhouse gases offers ample room for improvement, in an urban area chiefly through transit. Transit agencies around the world are struggling to get riders back after COVID kept up to 70% of riders out of trains and buses, either because they worked from home or for fear of infection. To its credit, MTA kept most of its service intact, in spite of COVID so that essential service workers and transit dependent users would not be stranded.

Driver shortage is an issue around the country for transit agencies and school bus operators alike. Yet, other transit agencies tried to be in front of the problem, mostly by adjusting their spring 2022 schedule to reduced ridership and availability of operators and by offering significant sign-on bonuses to attract drivers. MTA seemed to be caught off-guard to an extent that their pledge looks quite ironic: 

The State of Maryland pledges to provide constituents, businesses, customers, and stakeholders with friendly and courteous, timely and responsive, accurate and consistent, accessible and convenient, and truthful and transparent services. (MTA Service pledge website )

Covid or no Covid, the airport trains are always waiting at the platform at Denver's airport. Trolleys and trains in Philadelphia, Boston or  DC provide reduced service but without major disruptions. Transit systems around the world also experiment with free rides, reduced and simplified fares (WMATA, Boston, NYC MTA) and with a host of communication improvements in an effort to lure people back to transit. 

The federal government packaged new transit money into the Infrastructure Bill and issued a whole compendium, academics posted papers with advice how to recover in and after the pandemic. A concerted MTA effort is not visible.

To the contrary: While MDOT orchestrated a gas tax holiday, it increased transit fares on July 1 per a mandated routine adjustment law as if no problem existed. There is no special investment in sight, that would lure riders back, no matter that this would be the age of transit when gas prices are skyrocketing. In Germany a federal initiative that brought a $10 flatfare monthly transit pass to all metro regions acrosss the entire country found 16 million buyers in the first three weeks (The campaign will run for three months). MTA, by contrast, breaks its "pledge" every day. Its services are neither timely, responsive, consistent, nor transparent.

Excuses for poor performance are numerous: Too many signals in downtown, cars on the tracks, crashes, broken limbs or ice on the overhead catenary, overhaul of tracks and vehicles and even overcrowding after ballgames. 

It shouldn't be that way. The LRT system was originally designed to deal with all of these problems. For example the MTA has a diesel engine that can push stranded trains in icy conditions and brush off the ice from the wires. But some things never got properly implemented, for example signal priority on downtown streets. Other assets never came properly to bear: MTA operates North America's largest vehicles, wider and longer than anything else, made for peak demand, for example before and after stadium events. The Camden Yards Station has a tailtrack to store additional trains, if needed it could be lengthened. The football stadium has its own elaborate station. All stations were designed for three car "consists" that are a whopping 297' long. 

Still, post game operations have been a problem for decades. Complaints of crowded stations and trains, excessive waits, and even of fans being stranded altogether have persisted over the decades. Three car trains were rarely used after William Donald Schaefer, the father of the Baltimore LRT system, was no longer Governor, not even at events. Lately the MTA runs single car trains most of the time.

Howard Street sinkhole, devouring part of a the platform 
(Photo: Sun)


Repairs on the too far deteriorated train wheels and tracks and a multi-year "midlife" overhaul of the fleet created a never ending array of disruptions, bus bridges and delays. In the early years MTA had begged for money to eliminate the initial cost saving single track sections in the alignment. But the now consistent dual track (except on the spurs) was not used to maintain service when track repairs were needed because of lacking or abandoned crossovers. Train service was stopped entirely in the segments needing track repair and "bus bridges" were established until riders lost patience with the constant upheaval and fled in droves.  

The much touted rebranding of MTA's transit services under the name "Link" (as in Bus-Link, Rail-Link, Metro-Link, Mobility Link) did nothing to turn the services around, not even before COVID. On occasion of the systems 25th anniversary in 2017 I wrote an article "Why Baltimore's Light Rail underperforms". All of the reasons I listed then still persist, namely poor land use planning. Today one has to add: Poor management, poor operations and total lack of communication in spite of newly installed technology. The system now is not only dated but unloved. It has lost the trust of riders which is particularly bad right now, when it would be essential to gain lost riders back. 

The biggest light rail cars in North America (Photo: Schumin Web)

The problems have not gone unnoticed. Almost all Democratic candidates for Governor have promised to revive the cancelled Red Line in some way. Editorials in the SUN demand better transit, employers have linked up with the Washington region in order to create leverage for better transit. Reportedly transit played a role in the rejection of the Baltimore-DC region as a world cup soccer venue. Baltimore legislators and transit advocates are working on ways to wrestle the responsibility for Baltimore transit from the State and create a regional transit authority instead. 

MDOT seems unfazed. At a recent event of Transit Choices MDOT Secretary Ports was asked about what transit investments were planned with the additional $300 million from the federal infrastructure bill and the $100 million from the State's Transit Safety and Reinvestment Act, He did not suggest anything. Someone asked what about connecting the Penn station spur of light rail also to the northbound service of the system so Baltimore's upgraded Amtrak Station would be better connected to the local light rail? Ports had never thought about it. This full Y connection had been cut from the original system for cost reasons, but could still be built. 

Improvement of the ailing Baltimore light rail system will hopefully be initiated by a more transit friendly Governor as a result of  this fall's election. The bar is so low, that almost any candidate could raise it. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Note: The writer was part of the design team for the LRT system .1988-1992 and is a member of Transit Choices and Transform Baltimore Transportation.