Friday, January 8, 2016

Big, bigger, biggest: "Plank-Town" at Port Covington

While Baltimoreans, in what has been one of our favorite past times for decades, rip out their hair about what ails this city, investors announce one project after another, and one bigger than the other. Before long we should hardly be able to recognize the place.
TV cameras are unusual at UDARP proceedings (photo ArchPlan)

When Under Armour  shares their design for "Plank City", a whole new section of town replete with 40 acres of parks, a light rail line, water taxi stops, retail, housing and offices with no name yet, the city's design review panel (UDARP) and the Planning Director are in awe, the hearing room is packed, media coverage is abundant and even a TV camera jostles for space among the journalists.
The presentation included depiction of a set of standard street
sections for "Gateway Boulevards, A Streets, B Streets and
curbless Streets"

With its 266 acres the planned area is bigger than Harbor East, Harbor Point and Canton Crossing combined. With 9 to 13 million square feet of possible development, the same is true for the gross development area.

Not to forget the main reason for the endeavor, the "global headquarter" of Under Armour about which was practically nothing said.

It alone is with 50 acres about the size of Harbor East and HarborPoint together, the planned 3 million square feet are about the same as all development planned for HarborPoint.

No wonder that the UDARP panel and the Planning Director needed some time to gain their footing again after the Sagamore team was done presenting their ideas using slides that were titled
"We are from this city. Of this city. We are going to help create something great in this city"
Caroline Paff, a VP at Sagamore who represented Under Armour at UDARP summarized her team's design presentation with this vow:
"we are in" "we made this commitments... we have the mass to make critical pivots in transportation behavior not only for Port Covington". 
It looks like Under Armour has not only the power to change Baltimore's transportation (Plank Line instead of Red Line?) but to create a number of other critical pivots: The City's Planning Department is finally relinquishing all pretense to be the masterplanner for Baltimore. When Planning Director Stosur  concludes that he
".. can't imagine a more auspicious start to one of the greatest development opportunities the city ever had"
and kindly asks the developer to be inclusive and allow diversity, he admits that he not only doesn't sit in the drivers seat, he may not even be in the car. (To be fair: The City does have a Middle Branch masterplan, but it isn't clear to what extent it has any standing in this Sagamore plan)

The City used to be in der driver's seat: Charles Center and Inner Harbor, a probably about equal size redevelopment undertaking, was done under the auspices of the semi-public Charles-Center and later the Inner-Harbor redevelopment agencies. It was the City that established the expectations and the ground-rules. It was  Mayor Schaefer who conceived of Harbor East as Baltimore's next frontier and pushed the reluctant baker John Paterakis to become a developer. Those times have changed. The next big developments that followed, the former Allied site (now Harbor Point) and Canton Crossing were master-planned entirely by the private side. Only the billion dollar urban renewal north of Hopkins is still overseen by a City conceived development agency (EBDI). It is about to fade into the background after masterplans and development frameworks are in place and master developer Forest City is half way through the redevelopment.

The interesting thing, though, is that the developer vows to do all the right things without a city imposed framework plan or set of rules: Green development, public access, walkability, transit, public parks, mixed use, mixed income housing, waterfront promenades, all this is presumably included in the concept designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects of Boston. Why? Caroline Paff put it this way:
"We want the best people in the world to work here".
The more enlightened corporations and development entities understand that today design and a high quality environment are key to success. To be competitive in a global marketplace in a time when creative employees are a company's greatest asset, and employees can allocate anywhere in the world, standard stuff just won't do. It looks like that in the current time corporations are frequently more enlightened, more progressive, innovative and cutting edge than government. Clearly, relying on that is very risky since the corporations are not accountable to the public, can change their mind on a whim and often wield too much power already. Besides, the gilded age happened already and we should not repeat it but learn from it.

The most important pivot, though, may be the courage to think big and act big. Instead of not raising expectations (the past mantra of city planners) now having the highest expectations is the new normal. Instead of the "we can't do this in Baltimore" it is a new attitude that is taking root: An attitude of not only "can do" but one that says we as a city deserves the best we can get. With those new attitudes Baltimore could finally reclaim its rightful position in a prosperous and growing region.

Further probing of the so far very general concept plan will show whether Under Armour's new town can, indeed, deliver on the very high expectations.

On first blush the framework seems to start on the right foot even though it doesn't seem to contain any specific "wow-effect" or innovation. It doesn't have a goal of being carbon-neutral or "net zero" in terms of energy, nor does it contain anything about renewable energy production or the like. As UDARP panelist Pavlina Ilieva correctly observed, the design doesn't even seem to anticipate that automobile parking would drastically shift in the next twenty years when autonomous vehicles should become common. The team showed massive amounts of parking in large six story parking podiums along I-95.

Other comments of UDARP panelists Bowden and Burns questioned the size of some of the blocks along the edges which would not be permeable enough to allow good waterfront access, the lack of a water edge promenade around the area designated for the corporate headquarters, and a certain monotony if proposed development would be mixed use along all streets. It was suggested that maybe some streets should be quieter and reserved to residential use as in Manhattan's northern sections, when one turns into side streets off Broadway.

But maybe the lack of flashy eye-popping design gestures is for the better, especially in a presentation of a framework plan for such a huge area: Building a normal city with varied streets and blocks and plazas will much more likely stand the test of time than futuristic plans which in the past always have been proven wrong as soon as their ink had dried.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated for paragraph on "attitude" 1/8/16 11:00am

Press about the plans:
Baltimore SUN
BBJ
SouthBaltimore.com

The masterplan layout (screenshot)

The transportation and transit overlay by STV consultants (Screenshot)