Friday, July 10, 2020

Moving out of Baltimore's Westside

The last 32 years I spent hoping for the renaissance of Baltimore's Market Center District which was eventually dubbed "Westside". But aside from receiving one of the dumbest booster slogans of the many that were tried out in Baltimore ("The West has Zest"),  the results were far from remarkable.
Howard Street, perpetually failing to thrive
(PHoto: Philipsen)
Now it is time for me to move on.

The slogan was bestowed in the proud tradition of developers who name their projects after what is no longer there. Indeed, the Westside was once Baltimore's retail core and had all the zest a city at the time could muster.

I arrived in time to witness the last vestiges wither: I saw the last two department stores close at Lexington and Howard and the ailing pedestrian zone ripped out in favor of an equally dead Lexington street with two way traffic and a few parking spaces. I saw an ill conceived bus mall on Howard Street be replaced by a mixed-traffic light rail/ cars street that remains lined with shuttered stores. A lot were refurbished though after Honolulu Harry's Weinberg real estate empire, finally let go of them. I saw two busy and popular intercity bus stations close and be relocated adjacent to the city incinerator, the low income bus riders were considered unwelcome downtown. I saw the city expelling a bunch of businesses so an entire block could be offered up to a real estate developer full of empty promises and a whole series of plans for the Lexington Market generated and nixed again. I saw a prominent developer demolish a bunch of buildings waving glorious reconstruction plans, only to leave to big holes west of Charles Street, still no change in sight.

The Incomplete list shows, that not so brilliant city decisions and lack of of oversight plays a role in the absence of really amazing progress, even though Camden Yards, the Convention Center expansion, the Hilton Convention Center Hotel, CenterPoint and the Hippodrome Theatre were built, all projects which were anticipated to give the old retail area a shot in the arm. The late developer David Hillman tried his luck with the adaptive reuse of  the former Hechts department store on one end and the old BGE headquarters on the other, both remarkable projects in themselves, but separated by the ill fated "superblock" which dragged them both down. Whatever investments, no matter how large, remained islands in a sea of unabated disinvestment. 
Weinberg properties on Lexington Street: Demo everything
(Photo: Philipsen)

When my employer, the architecture firm of Cho, Wilks and Benn left Charles Street for West Saratoga Street for what is now known as the MAP building, there was hope and optimism in the air. Kurt Schmoke had just been elected Mayor and hopes were high that Baltimore would amplify its newly gained Inner Harbor luster and also turn around the moribound retail district.

Alas, it didn't happen. One crisis chased the other, some were home-made (Schmoke never really gained the traction everyone had expected), some were national, chiefly with Ronald Reagan beginning a long period in which the government was seen as the problem and not the solution.

Those things are not inevitable. In the same time the Westside largely languished, Cincinnati, another city hard hit by de-industrialization, turned its similarly structured, and possibly even more decayed, historic Over the Rhine area into a stunning success story.

Why did it work in Cincinnati and not here? Baltimore never mustered the urgency with which the mayor and the business community there came together after their own civil unrest; it, too caused by the death of a black man killed by police. There they didn't just talk, but they also acted and assembled the funds needed to turn an entire part of the city around. Their streetcar was never seen as the thing that killed the street but as a train that brought in new energy. There they were very clear what they wanted: Revitalization with equity. Not demolition but restoration, not gentrification but affordable housing, not national chain stores but local mom and pop retail. They wanted a vibrant mixed use community with parks and pools, restaurants and shopping and plenty of housing for all income levels, especially low incomes.
Four Ten Lofts: New Apartments on Eutaw and Mulberry
(Photo: Philipsen)

By contrast, Baltimore could never come up with a cohesive vision and funding plan for the Westside. Was it supposed to be a new residential neighborhood, a restaurant district, a collection of unique mom and pop storefronts, an arts and entertainment district  or a big transit and event center? Leaders usually opted for "all of the above".

The Weinberg Foundation dreamed of Harlem USA as a model and envisioned lots of demolition, a multi-plex movie theater and large national brand stores. Preservationists were rightly outraged, the area is full of beautiful historic architecture. BDC then developed its own masterplan that can best be described as middle of the road. Some demolition, some big stores, some small stores and plenty of new dwelling units. The squabbles over preservation or demolition continued. though, so did the different aspirations regarding the type of retail that should be here. Those in charge seemed to agree usually that the retail that thrived in the area, beauty and nail salons, barbershops and stores that sell luggage and cellphone plans, was inferior or undesirable. That always seem racist in a not too subtle way.

Developers were supposed to introduce their own visions, further exacerbating the dissonant cacophony. Urban renewal plan amendments, big renewal development projects and projects billed as catalytic came down the pike in regular intervals. Some dubbed a success, such as CenterPoint, a full block sized urban infill with some restored old buildings and many bland new ones. The project was supposed to bracket the new Hippodrome. At the time State Senator Barbara Hoffman had skillfully forced some preservation by linking Hippodrome funds to an now defunct "memorandum of Agreement" that classified the many historic buildings as "must be preserved", should be preserved" and "are dispensable". Weinberg's properties north of Lexington Street and east of Stewart's were exempted from the three part classification and subsequently all demolished. To this day nothing replaced the grassy lots. The Westside is still a child that is "failing to thrive".
The Mayfair: decay from neglect always leads to demolition

The hopes and dashed hopes, the three steps forward and two back (sometimes it was the reverse) are legion. many were chronicled in my blogs. A debacle of epic proportion was the so-called Superblock, the failed attempt of the City to play big by redeveloping a really large block all at once, clinging to a developer long after it was clear that his puppy would never hunt. The buildings remaining in this block remain mostly shuttered to this day.

Of course, in Baltimore, hope springs eternal, and local grit realized renovations bit by bit. Finally, even a new Lexington Market has been started, once again a lift based more on demolition and new construction than character preservation.

All the while existing stores continued to fail, vacant buildings burned, crumbled or get demolished (sometimes all three). An example of the utter inability of getting the departments coordinated and on the tail of a lackluster building owner, is the former Tunnel Nightclub building on Eutaw Street, once known as the Gomprecht Building. Nothing was touched after the gigantic fire years back, a fire that was likely caused by squatters because the building stood vacant. The now burnt out shell, untouched and precarious is a disgrace on Eutaw Street to this day. The best prospect seems to be another demolition and another weedy empty lot.
Lexington Market: Arcade now demolished, no use for the old market
(Photo: Philipsen)

All those years I walked and biked the streets, dodged the pan handlers, the sleeping homeless and ad hoc vendors of all kinds of ware. My base was first the office on Saratoga Street and then my own place at the corner of Eutaw and Franklin.

My cousin who had grown up in Johannesburg went to the market with me on a visit.  "Reminds me of home", she said when seeing the midday scene around the Lexington Market . She told me that she "has never seen something that looks so African outside Africa". She truly liked the lively street-scene and the impromptu character of it all. Yes, the Westside with its many transit stops had more people on the sidewalks than the rest of downtown combined.

Westside Night Market, a small success
(Photo: Philipsen)
Now I moved to Pigtown after I had lost my lease. It was time to downsize and get rid of 25 years of paperwork. Looking through all the files I found not only projects that my firm completed in the Westside (The first new retail in decades, the stores in the 300 block of Eutaw Street wrapping the Comfort Link district cooling plant, some assist to small retailers) but also notes from the many years I participated in the advisory committee arguing with BDC about the best way forward, mostly without success.

For me an era comes to an end. 2020 is the year of the end of eras, globally, nationally and locally. Globally thanks to the virus, nationally due to the end of white supremacy (hopefully crowned by an election that reflects that), and locally, with a young progressive mayor taking over.

The future is far from certain. In tthe fog lurks opportunity and risk, on every level.

Baltimore's Westside, just as the entire city, could slide back even further, or it could make the leap forward that is needed to pull it all together.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

My previous articles about Market Center? Westside (from most recent to oldest):

Market Center: "The quality of the public realm impacts how people perceive and treat a community"

The Gombrecht Building, neglected, burnt and now slated for demolition.

Connecting the dots: Working from strength in West Baltimore

The city convention hotel, failing to deliver in several respects

Westside Stories

Westside Stories (2)

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Is Baltimore transit doomed?

Bus operator under COVID
The Regional Transit Plan is nearing its completion deadline in October. It was legislated when expanding Baltimore region transit was a viable option in principle, except that only Maryland's Governor had thwarted it throughout his time in office. Now with COVID still upon us, transit's perspective looks even more difficult. 

Critiquing a recent article in CityLab I am making the point that this is even less a time to cut transit funding or services. 
When even a progressive voice such as CityLab questions transit's future because of the pandemic, one has to wonder. This article takes a critical look at some of the predictions expressed in a CityLab article dubbed a A Post-Pandemic Reality Check for Transit Boosters.

Already the title choice is dubious. The the urban news and opinion service, which was formerly published under the flag of the Atlantic now sails under Bloomberg with Hyundai as one of its main sponsors. The title implies that those who promote transit somehow miss reality. This is an assumption usually found among conservatives who think that transit is a lost cause anyway.  Laura Bliss, who has written many well informed and illuminating articles about transportation in CityLab, assembled a number of expert opinions which culminated in the suggestion that the future of transit is to be a "social service" focusing on essential workers and a few routes with high frequency reliable service.
“For many years we have a lot of aspirations for transit: We want it to beat traffic, fight climate change, and revitalize communities. But the two things it has demonstrably done in last half century is provide mobility for those without — whether that’s due to age, income, or disability — and allow highly agglomerated places function. My educated guess is that we will see the rise of transit as a social service.” (Brian Taylor, an urban planning professor and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles)

London bus in front of St Paul Cathedral  March 2020: Cashless and fully
enclosed operators were typical for London buses for years
The piece has more problems than just the headline.
It appropriately begins with a historic reference to the Spanish Flu which occurred during the hey days of transit, especially streetcars. But it concedes that transit recovered pretty quickly which does little to support the notion that transit boosters need a reality check because of COVID 19.
In 1918, streetcars were the top urban transportation mode in the United States. And they were packed: Americans made about 140 trips per capita, about 15 billion trips total, that year. [...]Still, the popularity of mass transit did not suffer dramatically in the succeeding years (Laura Bliss)
To get to the period when transit really declined drastically from its 1918 peak, the author has to throw in the Great Depression, the rise of the automobile and World War II, all three not related to the Spanish flu and thus, telling us little about transit after COVID-19. But the limping historic precedent is just the beginning. Much more concerning is what follows couched in the opinions of experts.  The arguments either don't add up or they are alarming for their implications on social equity and climate change.
Transit (blue) takes a beating in cities around the world (Apple Mobility)

The article states correctly that transit ridership after a boom during the 2008 financial crisis decreased again in recent years. As the main reason Laura Bliss  and her her transit experts indicate that data show that formerly "transit dependent" riders were lost in greater numbers than "choice riders". Here this important section of the article:
Explanations for ridership’s downward slide during these years abound. Cheap gas and easy credit for auto loans increased the appeal of car use, while service quality deteriorated on the older parts of transit systems. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft emerged, and a housing affordability crisis pushed many people outside the range of reliable transit.

In Southern California, Taylor and his colleagues have found that the largest drops in ridership have come from groups that were traditionally the heaviest, most economically dependent users of transit. Lower-income immigrants in particular have abandoned buses as car ownership among those communities has increased. While the share of discretionary riders has increased slightly, thanks to increased investment into rail and rapid bus service geared toward more affluent commuters, “their added trips are still overwhelmed by lost trips from others,” Taylor said.

Bus with front portion temporarily blocked for driver safety

If this analysis would hold for major transit systems across the country, it would seem curious why the article recommends to focus on the the very group that left transit in droves and to ignore the riders that seem to have come to transit more recently. But this is exactly what is suggested in the article:
But the best indication of the future face of transit may be the people on board right now.
In other words, focus on those super dependent riders that can't let go of transit, even in the midst of a pandemic. That would be a stunning reversal of the past efforts of attracting the so called choice riders and increase the pool of transit riders beyond those who have no other option. The article isn't subtle about who the "captive" riders are:
Transit, an urban mobility navigation app, has found that 68% of the people using it to plan bus and metro trips right now are women, most of them black and Latinx.
To be sure, the desire to attract "choice riders" has been rightly criticized by folks who bemoan the lack of equity in transit systems where the fancy rail lines and commuter buses serve the wealthier populations while poor neighboorhoods have to take the unreliable and slow bus. On closer inspection, though, achieving equity is more complicated than not providing service for wealthier folks any longer. It is no solution to eliminate the better services and leave poor riders with the crappy service. One has to remember that the desire to cut services and concentrate investments on buses instead of rail has always come from those who use equity only as a smoke screen to defund larger transit investments, just like Hogan did.

Transit is always about the network. Cutting services and routes will hit the riders hardest who have no other choice of mobility: Transit limited to the poorest neighborhoods and the low paying job centers would essentially not only lock those essential workers (those "on board right now) into the geographic areas of concentrated poverty which currently have the longest commute times but also deprive them to make any other "non essential") trips.

In the neighborhoods in which these workers live and work, most everything is seen as a "social service", from substandard public housing to substandard schools. It is precisely this attitude of seeing basic functions such as mobility, housing or education as something that should be delivered differently for the rich and the poor, that is one of the the causes of inequity in the first place. 
Airport bus, Dulles International: The problem of safe
transit under Corona is universal 

Social scientists, educators, architects and transit professionals have long realized, that improvements on those services can only be achieved if  they are provided to a economically diverse clientele. In other words, only if transit providers need to worry about "choice riders" going elsewhere, precisely because they have a choice, will they provide an acceptable service. Not, if riders consist exclusively of those who have no other choice but to accept whatever crappy service they get.

The article concedes that service reduction would cause even more ridership reduction. This is, in effect, cutting the legs off its own argument.
“There’s an elasticity that shows if you cut service by 10%, you can generally expect ridership goes down 3-6%,” Greg Erhardt, civil engineering professor at the University of Kentucky, specialist in travel behavior and transportation planning.
Admittedly, as long as the risk of catching a potentially deadly virus exists, transit will not be the most attractive form of transportation for those who can alternatively hop into their own car in which no virus threat exists. But the article also concedes, that the car is not an option for large cities.
Who will ride in the wake of coronavirus? Passengers will inevitably return in dense cities with extensive systems, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where transit is critical for thriving urban economies to function (Taylor)
If transit can't be substituted in those large cities, it has to be made functional and safe during a pandemic. That is where the real challenge resides. If transit can be made safe in large cities, it can work even better in smaller ones. The solution is not service reduction and giving up on transit as a solution to congestion, bad air and climate change, just as the pandemic cannot be the excuse for giving up on education.

As widely understood now,  the pandemic enlarges existing problems and accelerates existing trends. In the case of transit, it means that transit experts and agencies have to solve the long standing issues of unreliable, crowded and unhygienic bus transportation by making buses more pleasant and comfortable, offer faster and more reliable service and by supplementing fixed route, fixed schedule service with flexible on-demand type services that seamlessly integrate with existing transit. This is exactly what the buzz word transit as a service  means which had become popular before the pandemic. COVID-19 has shown that transit is essential to keep this society going. But one can't just  put this insight on its head by saying it needs to function only for essential workers. That is as deeply flawed as  to say water is needed for survival so one can cut food. It makes much more sense to say: if transit can be fixed and made safe, reliable and even enjoyable for essential workers, it can be that also for everybody else.

This is my no means a small challenge. As the action group Dream Corps - Green for ALL notes in the its current "issue paper":
Transit agencies must now tackle a host of new questions: How do we protect transit workers and riders from the virus? How can we innovate service delivery to prioritize essential workers and those dependent on transit to meet basic needs? How do we fund public transit operations in the short and long term? And, how do we fund other ongoing and critical projects such as transitioning fleets to cleaner fuel technologies and zero-emission vehicles — actions necessary to combat climate change and protect public health — in the midst of uncertain budgets? (DreamCorps)
Many Issues that have been debated for decades. They must now be implemented. That means investing in transit instead of further disinvestment.  Measures that merit investment include:
Report by DreamCorps
  •  fully integrated regional fare compacts in which one single ticket is valid among all forms of transit mobility in the entire region. 
  • cashless and contact free forms of payment that accelerate service and provide increased operator safety
  • "last mile" services that integrate services known as ride-sharing, bike sharing and scooters
  • Express or commuter direct service routes with limited stops that originate not only in posh suburbs and go to choice employment centers but also originate in poor neighborhoods and go to low paying jobs.  
  • Emission free vehicles that improve air quality and reduce carbon emission. The impact would be especially useful in poor neighborhoods where parks are scarce and emissions from incinerators, factories and diesel trucks are concentrated.
There is no way that the pandemic should be accepted as an excuse to open up another round of anti-urban policies, defunding transit or given the single occupant automobile another lease on life since those exact repeats would throw us back decades in the fight against climate change and wasteful use of limited resources such as open space, challenges that will ultimately prove much more difficult and dangerous than COVID-19.

 Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, June 8, 2020

At the intersection of way too many calamities, Baltimore is holding up well

And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. (Ta-Nahesi Coates)
The intersection of a pandemic, unrest about police violence, a White House occupant who is entirely off the rails, an unabated high crime rate, and a never ending local primary is so complicated that it can't be managed as an all way stop, in which each side gets a turn, one after the other. Instead, the issues plaguing this city are connected and intertwined, in many ways going back to the root cause of America's original sin.
A mural of local anti-violence activist Kwame Rose in West
Win McNamee/Getty Images via CityLab

This situation requires immediate nimble responses, but also a long-term strategy; none of the possible responses  are prescribed in a rule book. Baltimore isn't alone in this year of calamities, but few cities face so many challenges at once.

Surprisingly, so far, the news for Baltimore are not all bad. In many respects Baltimore is faring better than many of its peers.

  • Take the pandemic, in spite of Baltimore's many pre-existing conditions, the City so far has a lower death rate and better results than the surrounding County and better than Prince George's or Montgomery Counties. 

  • Take the unrest about police violence: Baltimore is one of the few larger cities with significant protest turn-out that hasn't seen any major property destruction or violence, a fact that found national recognition in this CityLab article
  • And take the election: After lots of sputtering and many questions about fair access it emerges that the City can do more than recycle old faces and ideas. And when it comes to the country's president, the man stands no chance in this city anyway.

Peaceful in Baltimore
Just as the initially violent national protest movement in the wake of George Floyd's public execution quickly became peaceful after it was clear that the White House occupant was just itching for a martial fight. Baltimore was one of the few cities which showed that other ways are possible. Positive models and precedents quickly reshape a narrative. DC Mayor Bowser's street art, no matter that some criticized it as more "performance" than action, provided a powerful counter point to a bumbling president holding awkwardly on to a bible.

Baltimore, provides a powerful image of a city that, although deeply affected by police violence, can avoid another conflagration by way of communication, strong community leaders and a police that is trying to learn the bigger lesson from a disastrous past.

Imagine the power that would come from a young black mayor, elected because his trustworthiness is bigger than his ambition and personal agenda?
Too close to call: Scott/Dixon race for Mayor

The intersection of those large forces that are much bigger than this city, and even bigger than  this nation, is not a place to be which anybody would select voluntarily.

COVID19, an unstable and ineffective police, high crime, a psychopath in the Oval Office and another mayoral election needed because of malfeasance of the previous office occupant, are traumatizing circumstances, each by itself. Their combination can be devastating, to individuals, to the community and to the body of politic.

Race is in some form or another the connecting tissue of all of these issues, it plays a role in how people are affected by the virus, by the sagging economy and by an ineffective but abusive police. All the while, a subset of privileged white men seems to be willing to do just about anything to hold on to power, no matter the demographic odds. The way in which race drove the Baltimore mayoral scandals is harder to explain, but one aspect is the enormous extra pressure to which black female leaders are no doubt subjected.

At this particular intersection, every turn could lead to the cliff and every day can provide another opportunity to fall off. Every day opens unknown risks, but also previously unknown opportunities. It looks like we have to live with this for some time to come and not only adapt but also act. Potentially attend a large protest in the midst of a pandemic. Prepare for a protracted fight over the elections in November. Trust a young new Mayor, or forgive an older one who abused our trust once before. Learn how to be safe and still participate. Be radical but also caring.

How much the ground has shifted under our feet can be seen in the public discussion that has now become mainstream. For a moment many white Americans seem to feel guilty. For a moment drastic change seems to be within range. For the moment a country used to barging forward becomes reflective. Various shifts that were previously only wishful thinking have become a topic of serious discussion:

  • For example the demand to utilize the COVID recession for turning the society towards a more sustainable future,  one where long-term public good trumps personal profit. and where the god of growth gets finally replaced with quality of life. This was until recently seen as a radical position, it is now advanced in a conservative business magazine such as the Economist.

Radical language and symbols in mainstream media

  • For example defunding and potentially disbanding some current police departments. This was a fringe position even in Baltimore, where the police has been deeply discredited and where a strange structure makes it a State agency within the city. 
  • Think about Hopkins doctors, Baltimore policemen and congress people kneeling in awareness of racial inequity. What was first highlighted through the pandemic and now again by  police brutality has dramatically increased the breadth, depth and width of "Black Lives Matter". 

The dust hasn't settled, the fog hasn't lifted and at the moment this is written, it isn't even clear yet how the Baltimore mayoral primary will end.

Baltimore's future crime rate will depend as much on the new Mayor as on police reform.

The prospect of the general election in November can be very dark or it could be a final act of liberation. So far, so good for Baltimore. At least when one considers all the other possibilities at this particular intersection.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, May 15, 2020

Baltimore in 2021

Mass unemployment, city services curtailed, trash piling up in parks and alleys, crime remaining sky high, empty storefronts everywhere, bursts of social unrest, and a downtown full of panhandlers but devoid of office workers. The promised COVID vaccine approved, but in short supply and only available in States with staunch supporters of the re-elected president. Is that the Baltimore of 2021?

Or a Baltimore boosted by a federal Marshall Plan for cities, initiated by a new President and approved by Congress, and skillfully employed on the local level by an energetic new Mayor and Council, both also responsible for the efficient and fast distribution of the new COVID vaccine which gives people confidence to go out and about again?

Both futures seem possible. Peering into the future has become far more difficult under the regime of SARS-CoV2, especially now after it became clear that things won't be back to normal any time soon.

Many predictions about the future of cities are dire. More so, when the city is Baltimore. The Atlantic diagnosed "A Make or Break Moment for Cities" and predicted nothing less than "a reversal of the urban renaissance":
Empty JFX during Corona: The end of cities?
The possible result is nothing less than the reversal of the “urban renaissance” that began roughly a generation ago. Renaissance is a freighted term, to be sure, and it elides as much as it describes, but some aspects of it are unarguable. After nearly four decades of capital flight, investment returned to neighborhoods that had been dismissed as unsalvageable. And so did people. In the 2000 census, Chicago posted its first population growth in 50 years; in 2010, Philadelphia did the same. Most spectacularly, New York City, which lost more than 800,000 residents during the 1970s, has welcomed an astonishing 1.4 million people since.
On first blush it would appear plausible that the time of cities is over and suburbs are in again, if density, public transit, crowded bars, museums, concerts and sports events are out, and distance, open space, and working from home is in.
Cities are broke, office districts dormant, services cut to the bone. And wealthy white families will, in some number, move to the suburbs, sapping City Hall’s coffers when they go. Metropolises may get the gridlocked ’50s and the bankrupt ’70s all in six months. (Slate)
The truth won't be quite as simple. Too often before have cities been declared dead and wound up to be better than ever before. Many cities overseas don't even ponder such dark thoughts but are gearing up for a gradual recovery. Closer to home, that the suburb isn't necessarily the victor  is illustrated by the fact that Baltimore County has been hit just as hard as Baltimore City and that shiny Montgomery County is even worse off.
How hard will Baltimore City get hit? How tough will it be for the next mayor to get the city to open up again and get the books in order when income is braking off on so many fronts at once?

Too many City neighborhoods, spaces, businesses and start-ups in Baltimore always operated on the brink, even in better times. Too many people without work, too many failing schools, too much crime and also corruption. The large "black butterfly" areas of east and west Baltimore are known for their huge disparities in job access, health, homeownership, poverty levels and educational attainment. But clinging on for bare life also occurs in the "white L." Consider the problems of the  Hilton Hotel to make a profit as a convention center hotel, the almost vacant pavilions at the Inner Harbor or the difficulties of the Baltimore Symphony, all testimony that Baltimore seems to be a city that is always on the cusp, even in boom times when other cities created sound cushions of resilience. Baltimore is always on the verge of a renaissance but never quite able to really get there. Now, when the going gets really bad worldwide, what will the global recession do to our city?
Do people like to work from home?

Baltimore tracked the trajectory of other post industrial cities, pivoting from smoke stacks to services, especially in education and medicine. Like successful cities, Baltimore invested on becoming a place of experience that attracts conventioneers, suburbanites and tourists alike. We have our occasional stars, rising like comets, Mr Paterakis, the baker, Mr Becker of Sylvan Learning, Mr Plank of Under Armor. But only Paterakis really had staying power and his company is still a power house and a job center. But overall, "made in Baltimore" has become more a slogan than a reality. The reputation of economic heroes isn't good in Baltimore. Maybe the future belongs to small, local “makers” again. OpenWorks crowd source mass production of face shields was a great start.

What made Baltimore attractive in recent decades was its quirkiness, its restaurant and food scene, its arts and music scene, its festivals, the ethnically diverse population, the rich architecture and the long history. Plus the Orioles and Ravens, of course. All of it gave Baltimore the authenticity that attracted young people to come to town, in spite of the many shortcomings. It also allowed people of different ethnic backgrounds to feel at home here, even when the city was far from providing any type of equity. But everything that relies on gathering of large groups of people, chance encounters and the bustle of a vibrant city is now the opposite of what distancing demands.


Looking at those areas of strength, they are all in peril, but nothing more than the restaurants. Probably nothing has offered Baltimore more urban flair than the many restaurants that have sprung up in all corners of the City, ranging from basic successors of corner speakeasies to hidden secrets which were written up in the most renowned national foodie magazines. Imagine boarded windows at all the places where lively restaurants once stood, and one can instantly imagine the loss. A wonderful example of how restaurants transformed a once desolate block is the block where the Charles art-house movie theater sits. Now there are no movies and no diners withstanding heat or cold at those outdoor tables.
Masked and waiting for curbside pick-up

With the prospect of not being able to reopen to full capacity for a long time to come, local restaurants, food spots, bars and hangouts are the hardest hit segment of all small business enterprises. City Cafe has already announced its demise after a 26 year run.
"In a lot of ways, our problems in the restaurant business are only just beginning," he said. "When you reopen and you have mandated capacity at 50% or less, and you also are dealing with the public's general fear of coming out, the restaurants are going to be breaking even and after all this time you need to be turning a profit." (Gino Cardinale to the BBJ)
The much liked space was once before near the breaking point, when one of its founding partners was murdered on Baltimore's rough streets in 2001. Joe Square in Station North is rumored to be next. The Alexander Brown restaurant on Redwood Street closed as well. The BBJ reported:
The pandemic spelled the end for the high-end restaurant in the heart of downtown Baltimore, which opened 15 months ago in a historic building that was once home to investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons. But even before the outbreak, the Alexander Brown suffered from a location with few visitors, little residential traffic and a challenging parking situation, partner Blake Casper said in an interview Friday. The pandemic spelled the end for the high-end restaurant in the heart of downtown Baltimore, which opened 15 months ago in a historic building that was once home to investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons. But even before the outbreak, the Alexander Brown suffered from a location with few visitors, little residential traffic and a challenging parking situation, partner Blake Casper said in an interview Friday. (BBJ)
The list will certainly grow, considering that restaurants have struggled since the unrest of 2015 to gain customers back. There were too many restaurants competing over a too limited base of guests. Just ask Steven Rivelis how hard it was to keep the Elephant on Charles Street going until he couldn't hold on to it any longer. This was quite a while before COVID. Or ask the restaurants which have tried to make it work in Baltimore's Westside around the Hippodrome and the Everyman Theater. It has been a struggle and several failed there over the years. How can they survive now with the event venues shuttered indefinitely and the lunchtime crowd even thinner than it has been before. Or think of the food halls such as R-House and Mount Vernon Market which were conceived as heavens for restaurant start-ups. Or the new Broadway Market, how will it survive without tourists? All of Fells Point, really?


Baltimore's Symphony Orchestra was legendary. As recently as in 2018 it performed a concert devoted to the American composer Leonard Bernstein at the world famous Royal Albert Hall in London. But as everybody knows. the BSO was on the brink of disappearance before the virus hit and little has been heard since then. The Meyerhoff symphony hall  is large, it isn't always fully sold out and coughing is laways unwelcome there. Maybe it can open with social distancing rules in place. In 2021 Marin Alsop will step down as music director. The BSO may not find a new director in its current condition. But small clubs, music bars and venues that thrive on the vibe of a crowded small space won't open any time soon. Artscape is unlikely to happen, nor any of the parades and festivals that make Baltimore so special. (For a detailed report on how cultural institutions are hit, see this SUN article).
Councilman Pinkett handing out masks in
West Baltimore (Photo: Philipsen)


For decades Baltimore has suffered from large corporations being bought out and moving their headquarters to other cities. Additionally new office locations close to the water at Hrabor East or Harbor Point have cannibalized demand in downtown. in the age of cloud files and virtual meetings the  office itself has experienced a transformation, generally with a reduced demand for space per person. The pandemic will likely accelerate the trends away from one person=one cubicle. Social distancing will require that half the staff continues to work from home to reduce crowing in lobbies, elevators and office floors. As result Baltimore will see even fewer people in the streets and places that rely on office workers buying things or eating lunch out will suffer. Parking garages will remain half empty and the city parking tax revenue will shrink along with the fines from illegal parking.  It is unlikely that any shovel will go into the ground for new office buildings any time soon.


Baltimore's streets won't stay as empty as it was at the height of the lockdown, but the need for distance will require a new distribution of space. In part that may match up with the "complete streets" agenda of those who always wanted to give pedestrians and bicycles more space. But the push for increased transit usage has become much more difficult. It is way easier to keep distant in a car than in a bus or train. As a result, the existing inequities in mobility will become even worse. Corona has already illustrated the injustice of essential workers being forced into crowded buses while the more privileged can work from home but have a car in the driveway, just in case. There is no easy solution for safe transit travel in a pandemic. likely the bias Maryland's governor has for highways will further marginalize transit.


A battle about education funding is already brewing after the governor vetoed the Kirwin funding bill. Baltimore is more than anyone else in Maryland dependent on improved education as a tool to improve the chances of Baltimore's youth. In the City youth needs transit to get to school, making the question of how schools can be safely operated even more difficult. Children of families with a low emphasis on education which frequently are poor have suffered the most from the closed schools. As in so many areas, the virus is exacerbating the existing disparities and that will continue to reverberate, even when schools begin to operate normally again.
Operation Cease Fire: No less killing in the pandemic

Development and demographics

In the mayoral debates there is agreement that Baltimore has to stop the shrinkage of its population. But our mayoral candidates differ in what solution they suggest: Attracting new residents (Miller, Vignarajah) or  by keeping existing residents here (Dixon). This isn't just a mathematical game, the two approaches of stabilizing the size of the city require different sets of action, even if in reality, whoever gets elected, will probably employ some kind of mixed strategy, partly attracting new residents and partly keeping existing ones. The already noted Atlantic article observes correctly:
The first, if not most obvious, item on such a list would be to expand immigration and refugee resettlement. American cities have rarely expanded as a result of “natural” population growth. The number of people who leave cities has usually eclipsed the number born in them. In other words, cities have always relied on newcomers to maintain their vitality. That was true a century ago, and it remains true today. As scholars have now documented, before the hipsters and kale chips and artisanal beer arrived in American cities, immigrants played a central role in the urban renaissance of the past generation.
In spite of the vast amounts of vacant houses, there remains a shortage of affordable quality housing. Most economists agree, that multi-familiy housing will continue to see demand and financing, especially if it is affordable. Just like during the financial crisis, many projects in the pipeline may pivot from upscale to affordable, desirable from a needs perspective but not as good for the city's tax base.  Big fancy projects such as Port Covington will likely slow even further than they already did before COVID hit. Large redevelopment areas such as the Uplands had been stalled for decades, the new economic crisis will make their completion even less likely.

Fiscal health

US cities, especially former industrial legacy cities have suffered from a lack of money for decades resulting in shortchanged maintenance of schools, pipes, roads and transit. This will become much worse when so much revenue has broken off from a economy running in some kind of suspense. Cities can't pull themselves out on their bootstraps. They do need a big federal bail-out much more urgently than airlines or the auto industry. Or better, they should have a higher priority, because there can't be a healthy America when half of its cities are bankrupt. Funding cities to recover requires a different mindset in the White House, to say the least. In the end, bringing cities back to life and prosperity has no alternative, especially if one considers climate change and the fact that cities have a much smaller carbon footprint than suburbs. To quote the Atlantic once more:
One can imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic will leave a cityscape of closed businesses and empty storefronts and people who can no longer afford housing. Federal intervention could help ensure that large corporations and real-estate conglomerates don’t swoop in to fill every available void. In fact, the pandemic presents an opportunity to rewrite banking policies so that they reward small rather than big, and to initiate housing programs that expand opportunities for working- and middle-class people, reversing some of the trends that have made it harder for people to afford the neighborhoods they live in.
I would add that the country needs to levy a Corona solidarity tax for those who earn over a certain level of income and can easily afford such a contribution.

The rays of hope

Popular believe has it that there is always opportunity in crisis. We will see. It could be that Made in the USA or Made in Baltimore will get a boost from the insight that supply chains become a problem when they get too complicated. Urban farming, farmers markets and non-meat food options could see stronger demand, Baltimore with its many fallow lands could build its already strong leadership in the arena further out.

It could be that people having been conditioned to the 6' distance will yearn for urbanity, density and proximity once the threat of this virus has subsided and that bars, shared office spaces and food halls will thrive again along with ethnic festivals and crowded sports arenas. The trend towards outdoor dining will become stronger, because managing aersols there will be much easier than with indoor AC.

It could be that loyalty to local businesses gains strength and that it is the big chains which cannot withstand the pressure of several months without income while small owners power through it. JC Penny went bust, department stores have had a hard time for a while. It could be that the slow lock-down period with some of the introspection that came with it, has built up a strong demand for art and cultural expression so that galleries, museums and will thrive.

It could be that Tourism will shun cruise ships and far-flung places for a while in favor of a weekend in an interesting city.

COVID has brought into sharp focus what doesn't work in America and in Maryland. It is a great time that Baltimore finally claims the leading role it needs to play in this state. We shouldn't vote for a Mayor who is satisfied with anything less than that. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also on my blog:

Friday, May 8, 2020

How COVID 19 stresses transit riders and the MTA alike

Rarely come the breaking points of a society into as sharp a focus as in the current pandemic. Far from being the  equal opportunity threat to everyone one might superficially consider a virus against which all humans are unprotected, COVID 19 hits the most vulnerable especially hard. Transit is like a magnifying glass for this condition.
MTA bus operator with mask. (Photo: MTA)

On a transit bus what is good for the health of essential employees riding the bus to work is not necessarily good for bus operators. The health of the homeless using the bus for shelter adds another layer of complexity.

The passengers: Being a bus riders is never all that much fun, what with buses being late, not showing up at all or breaking down en route? In the pandemic all of that happens more frequently, especially when the entire Eastern Bus "division' had to temporarily shut down because COVID had been detected in the facility. Fewer buses, fewer drivers (Absent due to quarantining), less seating, and longer commute times where the result, adding insult to injury for essential front line workers riding to their job in hospitals, nursing homes, government offices, construction sites or grocery stores who have to go to work during a pandemic.
Public transportation agencies are playing a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic response, and they will continue to do so as we navigate the road to economic and social recovery throughout our nation. Public transit agencies have worked tirelessly to provide bus and rail service so that essential workers can get to hospitals, pharmacies, and grocery stores during the COVID-19 emergency, underscoring how essential it is to keep public transit running. (APTA Brochure)
"Essential Travel Only" (Photo: Philipsen) 
Being an operator is never an easy job, but it, too got harder in the pandemic when initially drivers got in close contact with everyone boarding the bus through the front door. Many got infected and several even died in the pursuit of this vital front line work. Rear door boarding was implemented to protect drivers but leaves regular bus riders on their own in the back.

Lastly, the homeless have long become a familiar sight on transit. Everyone using the subway in a major city knows the folks performing, begging or holding speeches on the trains.  In the pandemic being homeless is extra hard, in Baltimore where there is only one subway line, riding the bus becomes inviting, especially right now when rear door boarding has eliminated the ticket check by the operator.

In short, in the time of the pandemic, transit, always an explosive topic, has become an even more volatile topic. Below a few notes from drivers and riders posted on the Baltimore Transit Facebook page:
So the red 3666 decided to not stop at university hospital because the driver saw the homeless ppl and didn’t stop but the driver left ppl who really needed that bus
And now I'm sitting here for another 34 min waiting for another Bus. Its so frustrating 
I’m telling you they have the buses on a Saturday schedule which means less buses and they will be crowded because those MF’S won’t stay in the house and just let essential people ride. Once it’s a few people standing up that social distancing kicks in and the bus won’t stop. I’m sorry you’re going through that but until everything goes back to normal this will continue to happen 
everyday last week I had a run that I was suppose to get relieved on out of 5 days I got a relief on 1 day. 2 of the 5 days I pulled the bus in to the yard. The other 2 days I just stayed out and did another round trip by that time it was 10:00pm and was time for me to go home. Everyone is doing something diffrent everyday most of us don't have a set schedule
short staffed a lot are still out quarantined. I just don’t understand why they would do a Saturday schedule when all the methodone clinics are still open and they are crowding the buses meanwhile real essential employees can’t get on, it’s pathetic
Masks required on transit in every state
Better off folks sheltering at home may wonder why the buses are even operating in a time of social distancing. Indeed, transit ridership has gone down between 60-80% across systems all across the nation. Still, the question why transit at all overlooks the facts on the ground in Baltimore and most metro areas: How about this: Those staying home benefit from the many workers that go to work every day, no matter how much some jobs put them at risk. or this: Baltimore is a city where in some large neighborhoods more than half of the households have no car. Those workers have no other way to commute than the bus, and residents without a car have no other way to get necessities. In short, transit remains a vital lifeline, "Stay at Home" orders or not.

After initially running the full schedule the MTA responded to reduced ridership by thinning out service to Saturday service levels, no matter that the remaining riders needed to adhere to workday work hours. Seeing congestion, the MTA added more runs to the Saturday schedule on heavily frequented routes. MTA currently collects hardly any fares, so whatever operations add to the deficit that all transit agencies have anyway. The BBJ reported that MTA will receive $385 million federal COVID funds. The BBJ stated that MTA's total 2019 operating bugdet was $881 million.  The extra money may help for a bit, but with a huge backlog in repairs and reduced income from the transportation trust fund, MTA's financial future is in jeopardy, no matter how thin the current service.
Homeless on a MTA bus

Operators and riders dread the thinned schedule: Small crowds of workers, the down and out and the "invincibles who don't care about masks or take them off once inside the bus. They all greet the drivers at bus stops sometimes forcing operators to pass without stopping or do jump out of their seats to call for order in the back of the bus.  Some drivers call all non essential riders "joy riders", a term that doesn't sit well with homeless advocates.

The transit conundrum under COVID is coming to a head in many cities across the world, but it is particularly acute where poverty and homelessness are exceptionally high, as in Baltimore. Tension between a driver and an irate passenger in once instance escalated into an operator being shot in the early days of COVID operations.
 Some bus drivers let ppl get on without a mask!!! And dont say nothin to them at all. (Baltimore Transit)
Seriously does any of the MTA Top Officials ride the Bus . You cant tell me that you trying to keep your Operators or Riders safe😣. First we had to wait for the Blue. And we didnt even made it down to Eastern Avenue leaving Bayview and the Bus was allready crowded. I think its a Slap in the Face for everybody who risking there Life's rightnow and can't get to Work or can't get Home. And on Top of it I'm Shoulder to Shoulder with other People.And no I'm not blaming the Operators . They have to breathe the same Air than we do. Sorry I had to vent. (Baltimore Transit Facebook page)
There is no easy answer. Pre-existing problems won't be solved in a pandemic, more likely they become bigger and more pronounced. MTA had to quarantine drivers and shut down entire "divisions" (the garages from where the buses get dispatched) but is now back to running all garages. Many solutions that may work elsewhere will exacerbate fault lines that have been in place in Baltimore for a long time.

  • Police action, for example: Should the police clear out the homeless from subways and buses as New York City began to do? The MTA has their own police force. But wouldn't this just heighten the distrust and smack of the old policing tactics that targeted poor black men in particular?
  • Or identification of essential workers via an app like it is done in China. Should the State issue "essential Worker IDs" that would have to be checked by MTA staff at bus stops or in the bus? Wouldn't that disadvantage those without smart phones in a time when the issuance of physical cards would be impossible? And what about other users who go shopping or to see a doctor?
  • Should essential workers simply accept the heightened risk that comes from crowding and unhygienic conditions on the bus and live with prolonged commute times? Isn't that the problem to begin with, namely that our transit commute times are too long and the buses to unreliable?
  • Should the MTA send more buses out until everyone who wants to ride can find a safe distance to other riders? That would be an obvious solution if the MTA would have endless funding or enough drivers ready to roll, even when sick leave began to rise, in part due to COVID?
  • Should front doors be re-opened but cash transactions be eliminated so no interaction with the driver is needed? For that the driver enclosure would have to be extended to provide better protection, a costly undertaking keeping even more buses out of circulation?
Sooo. I'm on my way to work. On the bus. The bus line is running on. SATURDAY schedule. But...ALL the people going to work are on their regular schedule.meaning we still have to be at work on a weekday schedule dozens of passengers are cramped on a bus. With NOOOO. Possible choice to social distance. My second bus doesnt run for another hour. (Baltimore Transit Facebook page)
None of these solutions seem to be particularly practical or convincing. Maybe a combination of some of these may work, especially considering that solutions will be needed for some time to come.

Whatever is done, some will see it as an extension of the inequity already permeating society and of the unfair practices of enforcing laws on the back of those who are already vulnerable. But sometimes one needs to think outside the box:

A creative suggestion regarding the homeless came from a bus operator: He proposed the MTA should run a few of the articulated longer buses along routes that are especially important to the homeless, thus taking pressure off the regular routes. He took his cue from the Baltimore practice of using buses as warm up or cooling spaces during Artscape in the summer or the Monument Lighting in the winter.
Though you may encounter a few “bad apples”, for the most part homeless riders aren’t a problem. They genuinely want to get on, feel safe as transit is much safer than the streets, and go to sleep. That’s it. Create A “Transit Care Bus”- Use an artic if you have them; they will allow safe spacing. Layover The Bus At HotSpots and Run The Route To Other Hot Spots.- If you dont know where the homeless hot spots are, ask your operators, they’ll know off hand. Periodically run the route through those corridors picking up patrons and promoting the resource at the same time. (Bus Operator 1198 on Medium)
The media are full of stories on how we have to imagine a world in which Corona will dictate all of our steps. Transit is front and center in these discussions, along with elevators in buildings, classrooms in schools, restaurants and offices, all the places that don't make 6' distancing easy.

Those who never liked transit and prefer the private car, take advantage of virologists attributing the catastrophe in New York to the city's subway.

Those who always thought people should drive less take the cleaner air and the empty city streets as an opportunity to propagate a batter distribution of streetscape for pedestrians, buses and bikes.
Driver protection zone (Chicago)

And those who depend on transit simply hope that service will soon get back to normal frequencies and operations.

Which of these scenarios will come to pass? As it is the case for almost everything else, the future of transit is deeply immersed in the fog of the ongoing battle against the virus.  Large cities will never work well without transit in the same way as tall buildings won't work without elevators or international travel will require planes.

As with everything else, though, there are hidden opportunities. "Never let a good crisis go to waste", Delegate Robbyn Lewis quoted Winston Churchill in her effort towards are more equitable and safer transportation system in Baltimore. In that sense cities may come out of this crisis with a heightened awareness of how important functional transit really is to keep things going.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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