Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spotless in Suburbia

When it comes to suburbia, many planners consider  Orange County, Ca as ground zero. Last week I had a chance to stroll around in what is technically the "city" of Irvine.

But as the area is known for its suburban character, "city" is a euphemism in this case, even though there is a train station and a notable university and all kinds of successful employment and, of course, shopping. 

The subdivision in which I took the stroll is a planned community near the university, not unlike Columbia Maryland. Plenty of walkways separate from cars and streets, sidewalks, playgrounds galore, pools, community centers and a shopping center where even the dumpster and delivery area had immaculate landscaping. Everything was so perfect, so manicured, so without cracks and flaws, so free of conflict and weeds that I wished for a piece of trash to mar the perfection. Can you imagine?

So much pristine cleanliness brings to mind the downside of an antiseptic setting (Let them eat dirt) and the strength of diversity, including, yes, dirt, cracks and even trash. That diversity we know from cities. Real cities.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

see also the blog articles
The Dirt about Trash in the City
What Columbia can Teach us

Orange County, CA: Recreation center with pools (Photo ArchPlan Inc.)
streets and walkways are carefully separated in this particular community and streets have wide landscaped center pieces
(Photo ArchPlan Inc.)

a careful system of open spaces, playgrounds and parks permeates the neighborhoods (Photo ArchPlan Inc.)
the pathways away from streets are carefully landscaped, no sense anywhere that the area is drought stricken
(Photo ArchPlan Inc.)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Milan 2015: What are World Expos For?

Moshde Safdie's 1967 Montreal Expo Habitat  (from uncube #32)
The new edition of uncube asks some provocative questions about World Fairs and revisits whimsically the old ones.

Here is how they announce their newsletter #32:

With Expo 2015 in Milan only weeks away, uncube issue No. 32: Expotecture takes stock of what’s so weird, wonderful and plain warped about World’s Fairs, including an exclusive interview with Jacques Herzog of Herzog & de Meuron about why he feels his masterplan concept for this year’s Expo was compromised.
Since the construction of the Crystal Palace in 1851, Expos have become both home and birthplace of the “just because we can” school of architecture – synonymous with progress and humanity’s obsession with its own importance. What began as a glorified industrial age trade fair has transitioned into one of those giant, multi-billion dollar temporary world spectacles that nobody quite remembers the reason for. 
So for this issue we invite an illustrious set of authors to take us on a fascinating journey through past Expos packed with tales of propaganda, politics, nationalism and show-stopping spectacle; fairs drunk with idealistic utopianism and visions of the future, followed by the hangovers that kick in after.
It’s Expo time – remind us why again?
Out now: uncube magazine No. 32: Expotecture 

In an interview Jacques Herzog of Herzog de Meuron reveals what happened to their original masterplan (see below):
So what happened to your masterplan?
It became the official basis for the Expo in Milan - yet only as an urbanistic and formal pattern, not as an intellectual concept. The tent roofs we proposed are now covering the main boulevard in front of the national pavilions, which seems an absurd reversing of our ideas. As I said, we are not involved in the realisation of the Expo anymore. From what I have heard about the coming pavilions and concepts, it seems that this Expo will be the same kind of vanity fair that we’ve seen in the past. 
»Most of all we have to overcome this ridiculous system of national pride represented by individual pavilion design«
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
See also my blog article about the "History of the Future" dealing with futuristic visions and how they have fared. 

uncube #32

It is more of a coincidence that this uncube cartoon done by a Klaus matches up so well with my blog article about futurism on occasion of the exhibit "History of the Future").

"The Future was Yesterday",  by uncube cartoonist Klaus
Herzog & deMeuron masterplan for Milan Expo 2015: uncube interview with Jacques Herzog

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Gloria Transit Mundi

This is meant in the somewhat free-form translation  of  "the world's glory of transit" (the real translation is "so goes the glory of the world", sic gloria mundi transit). 

The glory of transit is by no means guaranteed in the US. But in Denver the stars aligned and grand design has been put into service on behalf of transit on both ends of the soon operational RTD airport commuter rail line. The one end is DIA, the international airport with its gorgeous tent structure and a commuter rail terminus cum hotel conceived in initial concept sketches by Calatrava now completed by Gensler Architects' Denver office. 
The other is Union Station with another splendid tent structure, a magnificent Union Station restoration and lots of TOD. What's missing are trains. Before the 15 minute headway airport trains will be in operation in 2016, only the daily Zephyr from Chicago to California stops here. 

Great ideas are often too big for the status quo and need a "growing in" time. Denver's glorious stations are a case in point. 

Klaus Philipsen FAIA 

ArchPlan Inc., Baltimore is the architect of record for a bus transit center in Langley Park, MD and is a consultant on the $2.9 billion Baltimore Red Line light rail project.

updated 3/29/15 for corrections in spelling and airport line information

Denver Union Station train hall: A market place with a small corner devoted to trains.
(Photo ArchPlan Inc.)
A very puny intercity schedule for a city the size of Denver
(Photo ArchPlan Inc.)

Denver, Union Station: Deserted station area. Laid out for a transit future
(Photo ArchPlan Inc.)

Denver Airport: The area where the new train station will connect directly to the airport terminal. Hotel and station: Gensler Architects.  (Photo ArchPlan Inc.)

model of the south end of the DUI terminal and the hotel and airport train addition
(Photo ArchPlan Inc.)

What it takes to keep a neighborhood stable

Last week when Baltimore had to recognize that it was still not growing I suggested that the city's population base is decided in the large Northeast neighborhoods. Today the Sun has a great article that shows how one of those, Belair-Edison  has managed to keep population, income and homeownership levels stable over the decades with a whole plethora of interventions including St Ambrose's important work. Unfortunately not all of the neighboring communities faired as well. It is obvious that "the market" alone doesn't fix anything. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Klaus Philipsen has been president of a neighborhood association for many years,  several decades back co-founded a citizen initiative running an "activity playground" non profit still in existence. He served on a borough council in Stuttgart, Ger and is currently president of an urban land trust to protect small community open spaces and parks. With his architecture firm he has rehabilitated hundreds of Baltimore City rowhomes for first time home buyers or for affordable rent in Baltimore neighborhoods such as Sandtown, Druid Heights, Sharp Leadenhall, Reservoir Hill and Park Heights. 

Photos: Baltimore Sun

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Facts and Fiction

Sometimes an ugly fact can destroy a beautiful theory, an observation that has frustrated many scientists and theorists. 

The new trend to the cities, the new share economy, peak oil, millenials not wanting to drive anymore, the death of malls, the end of sprawl, the end of sodas and the beginning of the age of local food; the list of trends we like and elevate to new truths is long and in the new age of self sorting of information we see it confirmed day after day in our favorite links and information sources. 

Until an ugly facts burst the bubble and a much more messy reality intrudes. 

This is the case with Baltimore and the latest census that shows that Baltimore is still shrinking, albeit, barely. Still, losing 0.1% population (600 persons) isn't growing. And certainly not growing by 10,000 households which would be over 20, 000 people. 
Apparently all the young people that undoubtedly flock to Canton, Federal Hill or Remington cannot offset the exodus from the much larger areas of, say northeast Baltimore. Along both sides of Harford Road, for example, where in endless rows of small houses in seemingly stable neighborhoods people are worried about crime, schools and bad services like many other communities before them. They still vote with their feet and they don't chose downtown, they move to Baltimore County or, if they can afford it, Howard County. That's where taxes are lower, playgrounds cleaner and more numerous, schools near perfect and where jobs hide in so many office and industrial parks. 

The City of Baltimore needs to do exit interviews. Find out if there are clusters from where people leave and if there is anything that local government can do about it. 
We will get to growth, eventually. That theory is too nice to let it be ruined by facts, isn't it?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Are Malls Dying or not, or what?

A post in CityLab obviously striving for blance elicits this as my comment:

Ok, unfortunately malls are not dead (yet). But America is hopelessly over-retailed, the middle class has seen any additional income in years, Millennials flock to cities and online shopping is growing. Would you invest in a yet bigger and more expensive model of what clearly has peaked? There seems to be a rule that things get even bigger and dumber before they get extinct (SUVs, McMansions, Slurpies, dinosaurs).

Klaus Philipsen FAIA

Here the post: 

Shopping Malls Aren't Actually Dying

Photos of creepy, abandoned malls are eerie, but misleading. Most of America's malls are doing just fine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Cost of Sprawl Proven Again in International Report

As someone who has written again and again about sprawl and how it bankrupts American communities and economies, I was very pleased to see this report mentioned in today's CityLab with the following somewhat bulky title:
Analysis of Public Policies That Unintentionally Encourage and Subsidize Urban Sprawl
with lead Author: Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Let me place below a piece of the introduction and the main graphics for a quick and startling overview of facts that essentially speak for themselves, even if the author puts in 87 pages many specific policy recommendations together that would reduce sprawl, especially in North America where it originated.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author is a founding Board Member of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, a growth management and smart growth advocacy group.

Black History Bulldozed for Starbucks? Really?

Black history bulldozed for another Starbucks: Against the new Baltimore 


This is the title of a Salon.com story on Monday written by the young Baltimore writer D. Watkins. I I take issue already with the headline. 
Which Starbucks bulldozed African American history in Baltimore? Better yet, which disinvested African American community in Baltimore wouldn't want a Starbucks but has little hope that one will come any time soon? 

What was bulldozed in Baltimore were the "projects". 
Not sure how many people would wax nostalgic about Lafayette homes, Lexington Terrace, Flag House or Murphy Homes, the Baltimore versions of the Gabrini Homes in Chicago.  Yes, they were demolished and yes, the destruction destroyed social fabric and displaced poor black people. Still, when these high rises were imploded, the community stood and cheered, hardly anyone wanted these monstrosity homes to really stay. The replacements were nicer homes in each case, but gentrified? The new communities that rose in place of the tower buildings are still almost entirely African American (with the exception of Albemarle Square, the last of the conversions and they are still most affordable rentals or subsidized homeownership homes. There is no Starbucks in any of the new communities.

And then there are the communities of Historic West Baltimore (a National Register historic district). Not sure that in Sandtown Winchester,  Druid Heights, or Rosemont there is today any less black culture than 10 years ago. And if so, then because even more black middle class fled in the foot steps of white middle class. The folks who care and are still there want good food, good services and investment.

Then there are the communities of Poppleton and Middle East (now  EBDI) where houses were, indeed, flattened for big development. But in both cases there hasn't been a Starbucks sighted yet, too unsure if developers really can make something work in these areas. I would say that the wholesale demolition and displacement  in both cases was the wrong strategy, too similar to bad stories of urban renewal that preceded them in the seventies when African American communities in Sharp Leadenhall or West Baltimore received almost fatal blows from the interstate projects.

But communities need diversity to thrive. 20 years of life expectancy due to health disparities as found between Rosemont and Roland Park won't get eliminated by nostalgia, identity or "culture" alone. It takes people and people of all races and classes to repopulate these communities. And it takes change beyond the entertainingly stereotypical  classifications of look-alike suits or skin color that Watkins employs to describe a cartoon of a city, that certainly isn't Baltimore. Whatever gentrification is taking place in this town is not taking place in the black communities. And maybe that is the actual problem.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, March 23, 2015

Small is beautiful! Still and again.

After decades of meeting shrinking household sizes with larger and larger homes that culminated eventually in McMansions on five acre lots, the pendulum is finally swinging back. Micro apartments, small houses and tiny lots gather steam in hot markets where rents are high and land is scarce such as Manhattan or San Francisco.

The small house is not new, of course. In some trending California neighborhoods houses were tiny to begin with, and now fetch top dollars for sitting in cozy, walkable and booming neighborhoods such as Hillcrest or Southpark in San Diego. Sometimes the micro house has an accessory unit in the back of the narrow lot, good for in-laws, renters or AirBnB to pay the skyrocketing taxes. This one way how many old hippies make gentrification affordable while maintaining the proverbial small footprint and being in sync with the burgeoning share economy which looks quite familiar to them anyway. 

Thus old trends and new trends meet, mingle and help turn what had been an utterly failed and unsustainable pattern. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

All below pictures were taken by author in the San Diego neighborhood of South Park within a few blocks of each other.

updated for additional photos 3/26/15

The historic small house in South Park, CA

Cozy back yard complete with sustainable active transportation devices

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The old Litany about Bus Transit

The second big Baltimore bus reform appears to fizzle. Why? The wisdom is that the lines need to be reformed to match the new shape of Baltimore. But maybe that is too ambitious? 
Maybe find out what the two or three worst and best performing lines are and analyze what the reasons in each case are. And then reform those bad lines to some set performance standard. 
What are the reasons for the bad performance?

Too long a run?
Too many stops?
Dwell times too long?
Bad traffic manGement?

Expand success line by line. 
Expand the Quickbus service. Put rigorous standards on fleet maintenance and operator performance. Give incentives when performance goes up. Simple stuff before complicated stuff. 

Reduce dwell times at stops can enhance performance more than anything else. 

I must say I agree with Rahn that better service shouldn't take 18 or 10 or even five years to achieve and that it doesn't need to be "gold plated". It is a matter of efficiency and reliability. The car industry has shown that more for less through efficiency is doable by copying from the Japanese. Running a bus on time shouldn't be so hard to do if the system isn't stressed to the limits. If it is that stressed, then cut some low level services to free equipment and staff to have less stress in the system. 

Anything that allows the MTA to say: See, our buses perform. 

From what I see things aren't as bad as the reputation, anyway. MTA has a fleet of mostly modern, clean buses. On-time performance is up. Possibly there are more problems in headquarters than in the actual operations. Those who publicly bad-mouth the buses the most never seem to ride them. 

Sun photo

The Share Society and Bar Design

After decades of seclusion get ourselves behind walls, hedges and fences, in cubicles and walked restaurant booths, in suburbs and gated communities it seems like we woke up one morning and said: enough! More accurately our kids now known as Millennials had enough of that lifestyle that privatized everything.

A lot has been written about the share society open source and open data. Even more about sharing cars via Uber and beds via AirBnB,  Zipcar and bike-share (and I won't even include the more sultry share options via Tinder or whatever). It is only logical that we now finally get to the essentials, to bars and restaurants, to shared tables to be exact.

Secluded and partitioned tables of four occupied by couples who stare at each  other in silence and where there are no open seats unless an entire table is unoccupied have given way to the much more effective communal tables where everybody sits together around one long table like it has been the custom in Bavarian beer taverns and tents like forever? 
In Baltimore's Uber hip Parts and Labor restaurant long stainless steel tables somewhat like long kitchen sinks allow happy fellowship over organic brats or ice cream with lard. 
The also hip replacement of the burnt out Donna's shop in Mount Vernon, Doobie's also offers camaraderie on share tables and so does the successor of the Bay Cafe. Probably this trend didn't originate in Charm City but in California or maybe Austin. Certainly long tables grace the brand new brew pub of the South Park Brewery in the trendy South Park section of San Diego. 

Share table in South Park brew pub 

Parts and Labor restaurant Baltimore 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

An Arts District Evolves: Station North

"Load of Fun" was formed from a furniture store loading dock lettering. It was Sherwin Mark's idea who had laid the groundwork for artists to come to Station North some years back. The Baltimore Design Center started its first seeds here. Marks lost the venue when it got condemned and so did Single Carrot, a then fledgling theater company.  With the help of the Deutsch foundation the place will live on as a core piece of Station North and the Single Carrot Theater now helps revitalize Remington a few blocks to the north. 

It is hard to believe as new as the Station North  Arts District is, it already has layers of history. Which is what makes a city a city. 

Motor House arts center to anchor Station North neighborhood - Baltimore Sun

Friday, March 20, 2015

Resilience and Towers on the Waterfront

Resiliency has arrived at your door steps: Literally. Two new waterfront developments are faced with a new Baltimore City requirement to build first floors of residences and commercials structures 1' above the 100 year floodplains established by FEMA.

The result can be quite a headache when one considers the conflicting requirements of a lively active streetscape along urban arteries like Light Street (The proposed 414 Light Street tower) and Pratt Street (The proposed tower on the former News American site), ADA access and an either flood proof or elevated floor design.

The designers of the News American site took the raised floor to go all the way to a nearly 500' tower. See Business Journal report here.
BBJ screen shot of UDARP presentation of 300 East Pratt by HKS architects

Developers go tall on prominent Pratt Street site

Mar 20, 2015, 7:27am EDT

Reporter-Baltimore Business Journal
Email  |  Twitter  |  Google+
The hotel and residential tower proposed for the long-vacant 300 E. Pratt St. site on the Inner Harbor is now in the running for among the tallest buildings in Baltimore.
The limitations on the narrow surface parking lot across from Harborplace are now coming sharply in focus as the development team has been forced to increase the height of the tower to 48 stories, much higher than the previous 430-foot proposal. A 48-floor building is likely to top 500 feet, putting the proposed building in the ranks of city skyline mainstays like the 529-foot Transamerica tower.
The core issue in imagining the 300 E. Pratt St. tower is this: The smaller the piece of prime real estate you build on, the taller the tower has to be to make the project financially viable. The lead developer for the proposal, Comstock Partners, wants to install 400 residential and 200 hotel units with first-floor retail on the site.
In plans presented to the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel on Thursday, officials for HKS Architects acknowledged the site where a building can go is shrinking. New flood regulations mean the tower has to sit eight feet above street level, forcing architects to use precious land for stairs and ramps that provide access to the raised first floor of the tower instead of using it to increase the size of the building.
That reality puts a serious squeeze on the developer, which now has to fit the same number of apartment and hotel units into a smaller space. The result is a much taller tower, but also a new design that won praise from the city's review panel on Thursday.
"I love that you’ve taken the constraint and made it into a positive," said David A. Rubin, a UDARP panelist.
Thursday's meeting, however, only focused on what's known as "massing" — what the size and shape of the building will look like. It didn't touch at all on important architectural details such as windows, doorways and balconies for the apartment units.
Even so, it was seen as a major step forward for a proposal that got mixed reviews when the development team went before the panel in December. For a site that has been among the most frustrating pieces of undeveloped land on the Inner Harbor, even the most incremental steps like Thursday's hearing are seen as major leap forward.

New Baltimore flood regulation

Images from that article illustrate the Pratt Street side entry design:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Open Space Requirements, Waiver Fees, Smart Growth and Quality Communities

The is increasing evidence how important parks and open spaces are, thanks to among others, The  Project for Public Spaces in New York that has devoted its entire existence to this cause.

Zoning requirements for open space often have not caught up to the insight that smart growth, dense, mixed use urban development and open space preservation go together and are not opposites.
Too much regulations are still mired in the post war pattern of uses segregated subdivisions with open space created for each development, creating a patchwork of set asides that were essentially useless as placemaking elements or for  green infrastructure.

Baltimore County is reviewing their open space guidelines and their waiver fees today in a Planning Board meeting based on a staff report on the current waiver fee structure.  Current rules were recognized as

  • complicated, 
  • hard to understand, 
  • not transparent and 
  • full of unintended consequences such as penalizing affordable housing or exemption all high density development in "Town Core" (TC) districts even though those districts have the highest open space deficiencies and the high intensity new developments proposed would create the biggest additional demand.

There are many questions:

  • how much space should be required per dwelling unit? 
  • Should commercial development be exempted?
  • Should payment in lieu be encouraged?
  • How much should developers have to pay and on what should the fee be based?
  • Should fees vary by zoning or by other criteria or should it be a flat fee?
  • Should high intensity developments such as condos, affordable housing, TOD and mixed use-town-center development pay the same, more or less than low intensity development?

There seem to be strong forces at work who don't see the bigger picture and the fact that, in the long run, developers and residents alike are winners where good parks, trails and open space amenities make good communities.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

I will testify at the Planning Board today on behalf of NeighborSpace, an urban land trust devoted to open space protection.

NeighborSpace open space protection
Towson, asphalt and concrete with very little green

Overflow crowds in Towson for the Planning Board hearing about open space fees protesting the fact that core areas in the county are totally exempted from paying for or building open spaces and the administration recommends to continue this failed policy. 

Update 17:34h

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Transit Ridership and Gas Prices

All the talk about Millennials shedding their cars cannot betray the fundamental relationship between the cost of driving and transit usage.
MTA bus stop

With gas prices at dramatic lows under $2 a gallon, levels that nobody had expected to ever see again, it comes as no surprise, really, that the many year long increase in transit ridership seen in most major US cities has come to a screeching halt.  In fact, it has reversed in many places such as Chicago and LA.
WMATA survey

Baltimore is only one of the cities with a decrease in transit riders in 2014 with a 5.7% dip in bus riders and 4.6% overall. While it is always good to expect better transit service, the real cause of the drop is not home-made but part of a bigger trend.

We don't even have to blame the MTA for that, nor should Maryland's new governor Hogan and his "best highway builder" DOT Secretary Rahn get any ideas. The need for good transit in cities will remain, the low gas prices, not so much!

Baltimore Transit

WMATA survey

WSJ article
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
My firm ArchPlan Inc. was a consultant with MTA for the implementation of the MTA Quickbus system, Baltimore's version of a Rapid Bus system with fewer stops but short of full blown BRT as it has been implemented by WMATA in DC and by MTA in LA.

udpdated 3/18/15  9:12h