Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Is a West Baltimore Innovation Village the right idea?

Announced on Martin Luther King Day the newly minted Innovation Village can be seen as a bold and innovative step to revitalize the area along North and Pennsylvania Avenues, two street names now known around the world as symbols for impoverished inner city neighborhoods. But before the surprise of this announcement has even sunk in, critics such as community leader Cheatham are already on record. According to the Sun he had this to say:
Pennsylvania Avenue corridor
"What gives them the right to come west? Something is very suspicious here. Folks are throwing around money to groups and organizations that weren't directly affected." (Marvin Cheatham Sr)
The suspicion about anybody taking advantage of the dire conditions is even bigger than the concern about the conditions themselves. The problem of lack of inclusion regarding the idea of an innovation district should be easily overcome, but it is also indicative of a larger problem: Simply declaring one of the most dis-invested areas an Innovation Village is not akin to real change. It is more smoke and mirrors than substance.

Baltimore certainly knows from experience that naming a district such and such zone doesn't make the district different, just think Empowerment or Enterprise Zone. Almost like suburban developers name their subdivision after what they killed with its construction, the economic development designations often stand for what's absent in the zones: empowerment or enterprise, for example.

Innovation districts typically rely on strong stakeholders or "anchor institutions". But not all institutional stakeholders are equally strong or trusted. MICA may be strong but lacks the trust of community leaders such as Cheatham. Coppin, the historically black university, may have more trust but it is better known for promises than action. Struggling with continued low enrollment in spite of a massive campus expansion and with one of the lowest graduation rates in the country. Coppin isn't exactly a powerhouse that can take on a lot of external tasks, in spite of best intentions. The public is still waiting to hear from the new Coppin President about her ideas how to tackle those fundamental problems. 

Once can get the impression that innovation districts are the newest darling of planners and economic development officers. The Brookings Institution has picked up the scent and began tracking innovation districts. They define them as compact, transit-accessible geographic clusters of anchor institutions and companies packed with connections between anchors, startups and business accelerators.
Innovation District Boston

A district that fits that description is the Boston Innovation District, widely considered successful. It is the formerly industrial south Boston waterfront district where the city placed their new convention center. The idea was to combine hotels, conferences, incubators and start ups in a large area that was sitting fallow as a result of industrial decline. According to Boston's own website, this is what happened in the first three years since the zone was initiated:
Added over 5,000 new jobs in over 200 new companies
- Technology companies have contributed 30% of new job growth
- 21% of new jobs are in creative industries like design and advertising
- Greentech + life sciences are growing, with 16% of new jobs in these sectors
New Companies
- Of the new companies, 11% are in the education and non-profit sectors
- 40% of new companies are sharing space in co-working spaces and incubators
- 25% of new companies are small scale, with 10 employees or fewer
The closest approximation to Bostons innovation district in Baltimore would be Port Covington with Under Armour as the engine in lieu of a convention center. Of course, we have our very own East Baltimore Development Inititiative (EBDI), a giant redevelopment effort based on the linkage of innovation (bio-tech) and redevelopment (affordable and market rate housing) fueled by the Johns Hopkins hospital and by the Goldseker Foundation. EBDI was never called an innovation district but operated on many of the same  premises. It is well known that only a few would call EBDI an unmitigated success at this point. It has become obvious, how hard it is to achieve the right balance between new technology jobs and social equity.

Sure, why not go a step further and target African American entrepreneurs and innovators and use anchor institutions such as MICA and  of Coppin as the engines? Doesn't it make sense to begin another big and bold project on the westside of town?
Plenty of former commercial and industrial sites

The Mayor had targeted Pennsylvania Avenue already in her commercial corridor initiatives (LINCS). Several local organizations who still need to get included into the new idea, such as the Druid Heights CDC, have already developed their own incubator ideas. Even though the targeted area in Baltimore doesn't have freeway or water access, it has two stations on Baltimore's only real subway line and is fairly close to I-83.

Brookings is working on a set of metrics that should help local decision makers to assess if an area is appropriate to be designated as an innovation district, and measure progress after the designation was done. Last July Brookings Fellow Jennifer Vey told "DC Inno" (a website in DC that reports about Washington's innovation district) that these items caught her attention as criteria or metrics:
Clearly, you need critical mass. You want to know something about your competitive advantages. What do you do well – particularly in terms of your sectoral advantages?
How diverse are you? How diverse is your economy? While you want to play to your strengths, the best places are probably those that are pretty diverse in terms of economic activity – and diverse in terms of the kind of people who are there; that speaks a little to the inclusion.
How well are your assets aligned with one another? And that leads into the connectivity and collaboration.
How many opportunities are there for connectivity and collaboration?
Finally, there's a quality of place point.
Bruce Katz, Julie Wagner and Jennifer Vey conclude in an article published at Brookings:
There is one unfortunate trend in the rising use of the "innovation district" lexicon. In a number of cities, local stakeholders have applied the label to a project or area that lacks the minimum threshold of innovation-oriented firms, start-ups, institutions, or clusters needed to create an innovation ecosystem. This appears to result either from the chase to jump on the latest economic development bandwagon, the desire to drive up demand and real estate prices, or sometimes a true lack of understanding of what an innovation district actually is.
MICA has included social design into its curriculum and operates a branch facility in the EBDI area. It has successfully intervened  and invested in the Station North arts district. The institution has sound credentials. But can it go the next step and reach that far west? Can Coppin go so far east? Are there enough elements to create critical mass? Is there a diverse economy at all? These are all very tough questions. 

From all appearances the are needs to some more work first. It would be necessary to create some sustainable "virtuous cycles" in West Baltimore that are less based on innovation and more on basic job creation and workforce development. For example through simple services such as "deconstruction", labor intensive manual demolition by local currently unemployed residents, combined with recycling of building materials. That could slowly build skills towards rehabilitation and construction. All that could be fueled by the Governor's new demolition funds and be integrated into "vacants to Values".

Blaize Connally Dubbins who provides health services and transitional housing on Pennsylvania Avenue near North Avenue has a bunch of ideas how folks graduating from detox and transitional housing could find a job in healthy food services or in deconstruction. This could provide a steady stream of long-term renters or even first-time home-buyers that would gradually fill the vacant houses of the area. Roscoe Johnson of the Druid Heights CDC has blueprints for a youth center that includes job training and for an incubator space into which folks from the youth center could step up to. These efforts and plans need to be supported. Maybe these could be the first start-ups. 


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Links:
Baltimore Business Journal
Baltimore SUN
Brookings article