Monday, February 29, 2016

Does "gentrification" equal displacement?

This Sunday the SUN placed an editorial by Baltimore Reverend Dante Hickman on its opinion pages in which the pastor asks the old gentrification question with new urgency. He uses some national examples of urban revitalization of previously distressed areas as examples of what shouldn't be done. About our neighbor Washington DC he writes:
Our nation's capital was once known as "Chocolate City," but recent development has changed the demographics, with nearly half the residents today white. A southeast D.C. neighborhood called Anacostia is rapidly changing, for example, increasing its portfolio of people with disposable income to support a great deal of retail.
I find this interesting because I typically use the District, a city which had been seen as a total basket case not very long ago, as an example that proves that cities in deep distress can recover, can fill vacant houses and revitalize and grow. Before DC, Boston had done the same, and to some extent Philadelphia is doing it right now.
New market rate housing in Hampden, Baltimore
(photo: ArchPlan)

The District grew by more than 60,000 people in ten years not by displacing a whole lot of people but by adding new people. Baltimore, by contrast, is still adding about as many people as it is loosing which is why the Mayor's goal of 10,000 additional households has been elusive to date. The 2,250 new apartment units recently completed in the downtown Baltimore area, the 1,680 apartments under construction and over 3,000 still in planning have hardly displaced anybody since they are mostly conversion of old office or industrial buildings or new apartment buildings on what used to be industrial land or parking lots. But while they slowly fill, a stead y stream of working and middle class families still leave Baltimore's established neighborhoods, leaving behind possibly vacancies and the potential for blight, the opposite of gentrification.

In DC, by contrast, in-migration was much stronger than out-migration. If all the new residents in DC would have displaced old residents, there would be not as much net growth, even though, there certainly still is some out-migration.

The DC City Paper reported last year in more detail who is coming and who is leaving. The results were surprising since it did not confirm the common assumption that the the affluent move in and the poor move out. They discovered that in-migration included a lot of people of lesser means, especially among singles with dependents.
The more interesting question is who's coming, and who's leaving. We can find some of the answers in another recent report from the CFO's office.
The conventional wisdom is that D.C. has been flooded with well-heeled 20-somethings in recent years, while low-income families have been pushed out by rising housing costs. But the numbers tell a different story.
According to an examination of tax data by the CFO's office, there's a sharp income divide when it comes to demographic change among D.C.'s single and married adults. And it's almost the opposite of the commonly held belief.
Hickman's complaint about the relative shrinkage of African Americans in the District, this new demographic reality doesn't prove that black residents got pushed out, it means that more other races came in, actually increasing the diversity of the city.
New affordable housing on North Avenue
(photo: ArchPlan)

The translation of Boston or DC to Baltimore is fraught with peril. However, it is fairly safe to say that Baltimore like the District needs to re-populate the city so there will be less abandonment, more taxes and more demand for retail and services. To have healthy functional sustainable communities there needs to be economic and racial diversity in all communities. The Reverend concludes his editorial with a call for diversity as well, but throws in a piece about the "integrity of pre-existing culture" that isn't otherwise much explained in his column:
Will we follow the same detrimental patterns of other major cities that have given in to gentrification? Or will we develop a new model that leads the country in redeveloping communities of affordability, diversity and integrity to pre-existing cultures? I'm pressing for the latter.
The discussion about opportunity cannot be separated from the issue of affordability; there is no question that DC has an increasing affordability problem. Opportunity should mean that the existing conditions and poverty are not considered immutable and can be overcome. In fact, Baltimore should aspire to a revival where the existing high rates of poverty will be lowered, where new opportunities arise from the fact that our city will attract new talent, disposable income and growing industries which offer new jobs. The Brookings Institution in a report released just now advises how cities can have the kind of economic development that avoids further polarization between rich and poor. One of their "action principles" is this:
Invest in people and skills—
incorporate skills development
of workers as a priority for
economic development and
employers so that improving
human capacities results in
meaningful work and income
gains (Brookings Report)
Abandonment: Former Sphinx Social Club,
Pennsylvania Avenue, Baltimore
This is not a "trickle down" theory but a realization that without a broader tax base, without more diverse demographics, especially in dis-invested neighborhoods, there won't be better services, better schools, better retail and safer communities. The future of Baltimore does not simply lie within, it also has to come from outside. In spite of all the rhetoric, this is also true for Maryland and the entire country.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for reference to the Brookings Report 16:30h

Brookings Report about Equity and Economic Development
Sagamore "We will build it together" video

Rev. Donte L. Hickman and his Southern Baptist Church recently completed the Mary Harvin Transformation Center in East Baltimore which unfinished had burnt down on the day of the uprising last April.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Clowns at Crosswalks or what we were missing at the Mayoral Transportation Forum

From the forum venue one can see what the invited candidates have in their focus: City Hall.

The venue, located in the former Brink building that is now a well equipped Real News studio, allows a considerably sized audience. (The Real News Network (TRNN) is a non-profit, viewer-supported daily video-news and documentary service which doesn’t accept advertising, government or corporate funding but is sustained by viewer donations and earned revenue. Website).
Mayoral Transportation Forum at Real News studio (Photo ArchPlan)

The 1000 Friends of Maryland, Transit Choices, the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance and CPHA invited to this issues forum of the Baltimore mayoral candidates to discuss transportation. They had sent out a seven item questionnaire to all candidates ahead of the forum and eight of the over 30 candidates had responded in writing. Booklets with the answers lay in the chairs for all visitors to the forums. There was a lot of action outdoors, with a campaign helpers and activists handing out all kinds of materials.

But the main action was on the stage under the glaring studio lights: initially only seven candidates, Elizabeth Embry, Nick Mosby, Alan Walden, David Warnock, Sheila Dixon, Carl Stokes and Patrick Gutierrez; Catherine Pugh arrived late from a legislative session in Annapolis; others had not responded in time and were not present. DeRay Mckesson's responses are included in the book but he was ill and couldn't attend. In his written response he says he would try to bring the Red Line back and supports the current Title VI (environmental justice) legal challenge of the cancellation.

Transit Choices founder Jimmy Rouse laid out the importance of transportation in introductory remarks in which he stressed transit as a crucial element for social justice and for attracting business and millennials to Baltimore. He suggested as streetcar line on North Avenue as an appropriate response to the "disturbances" of last April. He said that he remembers the 68 riots and that not much has changed on North Avenue.
Real News venue with view of City Hall (Photo: Brian O'Malley)

The candidates had three minutes to respond to a broad multi-pronged question from moderator Marc Steiner which asked how important transportation is to the candidate, what the main three transportation priorities would be, and what the candidates would do with the Baltimore Department of Transportation (BDOT).

The candidates had drawn numbers in what order to respond and chance would have it that poll leader Sheila Dixon was the first to respond.

Dixon pointed out that when she was Mayor she knew that transit could transform neighborhoods and touted her past accomplishments including the creation of the city-run Circulator bus system and the project "Orange Cone" which as she put it "increased the number of lanes not only for cars but also for bicycles". (Orange Cone was a repavement project).

Embry, who was next, pointed to the fact that a third of city residents have no access to cars and that this number was as high as 70% in some neighborhoods. She noted that therefore the city needed to be "walkable" and that it needs all modes of transportation. She advocated for a universal fare card, for implementation of the new zoning code and noted that BDOT is poorly managed.

Warnock noted his 276 neighborhood tour in his truck as an irony at a forum focusing on transit. He pointed out that the city doesn't control the bus system but still advocated for a "modified" Red Line" that would only entail the western spur and end at Lexington Market which "could be our Penn Station" with transfer to a subway. (Not sure what Penn Station he referred to since we already have one).

Walden, the only Republican in the group intoned his statements with a perfect radio voice he had practiced for years on WBAL radio. He went back in history, pointed to his upbringing in New York City and called it "a terrible mistake" when the rail systems (streetcars) were scrapped in favor of bus. He said he disagreed with the Governor on the Red Line but said that "there were all kinds of alternatives" to it. He seemed to prefer surface solutions over tunnels.

Mosby pointed out that he was the only candidate who had released a transportation platform so far. He noted that "Baltimore was always a leader in transportation" (historically) and how "upward mobility was interwoven with good transportation". He bemoaned that there hasn't been a transportation plan for Baltimore since 2003 and then went into his regular stump speech story about his mother getting up "at 4:30 in the morning to catch two buses going to Social Security".
wide angle shot of yesterday's forum (Photo Rich Hall)
Gutierrez stated that he was "fed up with poor transit" and that "we deserve better" and then went immediately into his stump speech logic that in current politics the problem isn't the absence of ideas but the inability to implement them. He points to his experience as operations manager at a big bank. He allowed though, that the proposed Baltimore Link bus system should be implemented.

Stokes took the opportunity to stress that he supports all the major transportation bills pending in Annapolis right now, namely better oversight over road spending, abolishing the fare box recovery and an oversight board for the MTA. He picked up on Rouse's streetcar idea and said he would advocate "for a streetcar on North Avenue from Hilton to Milton with a spur down Pennsylvania Avenue".

Then candidates took questions from the audience ranging from the B&P tunnel to physically separated bicycle lanes, citywide 20 mph speed limits, a comprehensive transportation plan and what to do with BDOT.

The question about the rail tunnel study that would replace the 150 year old B&P tunnel was mingled with the issue of "bomb trains" (referring to trains carrying the highly volatile bakken crude oil coming from fracking). Candidates' responses showed that they don't always have a firm grasp on transportation planning procedures. In this case on the issue of the Northeast Corridor upgrades in which freight plays a somewhat minor role. The B&P tunnel replacement is a vital piece in that upgrade but candidates went as far as saying they would stop the (Amtrak funded) studies to investigate safety issues. This ignores the fact that this is precisely the point of the federally mandated Environmental Impact Study that had caused these anxieties among residents in West Baltimore in the first place. Warnock reminded folks that double stacked rail cars can't get through current tunnels and that his fact "costs us thousands of jobs" but he suggested that a freight rail tunnel should take a southern route.
Tactical urbanism: "Parklet" in Philadelphia

All candidates supported better bicycle facilities

Senator Pugh had arrived at this point and used DC as a good precedent where the separated bike lanes made bicycling a lot more enjoyable. Stokes considered to eliminate "left and right turn on red" to protect bicyclists and pedestrians. 

On the 20mph urban speed limit that some other cities were testing (New York City), it was clear that most hadn't heard about it and were tepid to endorse such a  comprehensive approach. Only Sheila Dixon went for it, the others opting for "case by case studies", the Republican going even as far as stating that pedestrian and bike fatalities were often the fault of the victims themselves. Warnock quipped: "if we can't get a handle on BDOT we may go only 10mph."

When it came to what to do with BDOT, there was talk about "cleaning house". While Dixon spoke about bringing in "talented people", Stokes upped the ante by saying he would "ask everybody to resign. Everybody, not just BDOT staff". Embry observed how "CitiStat, something that Baltimore had become known for around the globe" had "disintegrated" and how she would reinstate it as an important tool. She also said, that the city needs to "demand from MTA a more predictable service". It was Walden who reminded everybody that "we have 624,000 people in this city and that this is a lot of power".

A benefit from this forum was that transit advocates had come together and agreed on a set of questions with which to elevate transportation as an issue that ties together so many other issues such as jobs, access, equity and social justice. Answering the questions had forced all candidates to think about transportation beyond some sound bite. 

No candidate seems to yet embrace a comprehensive easy to understand urban mobility strategy similar to what Portland, New York or the District of Columbia have done: A rapid and complete re-calibration away from the traditional car- first policies to one where all decisions are guided by an overarching policy with the principle that the pedestrian comes first, transit second and the car third. (Portland). 
Clowns protect crosswalks: Philadelphia

Many cities with courageous mayors and transportation officials who embraced such simple rules were able to transform their cities within a few years. 

The transformation of New York's Time Square by former NY-DOT Commissioner Sadik Khan maybe the most famous example. The deployment  of clowns by Philadelphia's Rina Cutler, Deputy Mayor Transportation and Utilities, another. 

The clowns acted out on crosswalks when cars didn't stop. 

Cutler also installed automated radar on roadsides, but instead of sending tickets to speeding drivers, the machines turned the next signal on red every time anyone was going too fast. 

Humor, courage and out of the box thinking: Let's hope we will have more of it come April and a vote has to be cast.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for the Q&A link 11:40h. Correction regarding DeRay Mckesson 12:38h. 

SUN article about the Forum
The Questions and the Candidate Answers can be found here

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Not another convenience store!

The retail scene produces the least sustainable architecture, based on how long a particular design lasts before it gets replaced with a new one. Sticking out as especially unsustainable are convenience stores, architecturally, in urban design, from a health perspective and as local economic development.
Royal Farm standard edition, columns with flagstone socks (SUN photo) 

Lately  conventional retailers and convenience stores seem to agree that getting gas and food in the same place is a good idea.

Inhaling fumes at the pump usually doesn't come to mind as an appetizer for fried chicken or anything to eat. As far as I am concerned, I am glad about the-pay-at-the-pump feature that allows me to escape the bloated cashier stations with their lottery tickets, smelly bathrooms and snack lines. But just as all gas stations have become convenience stores and many convenience store gas stations, large scale grocery chains not only give out gas points but also put gas stations in their parking lots. None of this bodes well for the fabric of our cities already riling from all the drive through joints.

Con or sin gaz, those suburban convenience stores proliferate inside the city like stink trees. It was good to see a community trying to stem the tide and organize against one of these fake-name contraptions ("Royal Farm"). The locale: Harford Road in Hamilton. Their outgoing councilman originally argued seriously that one of those star-ships which at night is visible all the way to Alpha Centauri would be better than the current vacant lot. But after the Mayor and Planning Director withdrew their support, the project could be defeated except that it gained its necessary variances from the Zoning Board and NoRoFo needs money for an appeal. David winning against Goliath?
NoRoFo Hamilton (Brew photo)

It is bad enough how often CVS, 7-11, Walgreens and their brethren are taking over useful city retail even in prime locations like Pratt Street and Market Place. These chains litter the City with silvery unhealthy chip mini bags and all the other detritus that sells under the flag of convenience and clogs up storm-drains and arteries alike. The token banana sitting forlorn in a basket near the check-out can't fool anybody about the fact that these places are worse than the maligned Korean liquor stores in the hood when it comes to poisoning the poor.

To add insult to injury, this winter proved that these chains never tell their staff that sidewalks need to be cleared from snow and ice. It is time that the proposed zoning code reins in those places in favor of useful retail which the city really needs.

Klaus Philpsen, FAIA

Hamilton Royal Farms Dispute, the Brew
Walmart Convenience Store prototype, Bentonville Arkansas

See also on this blog: Why reopening the Rite Aid is not only a cause for celebration
Architecture of Convenience

suburban CVS model

Burnt out CVS: West Baltimore (Sun photo)

CVS Pratt Street (photo: ArchPlan)
Midtown: Replacing a local icon with a CVS

Market Place, Baltimore (photo: BBJ)


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Transit Routes on Google: Soon with Circulator!

Soon Baltimore will get a step closer of towards integrated transit display on Google maps. Barring a last minute objection of Baltimore's Board of Estimates (not a totally predictable body!) regarding collaboration with Google, the online giant will soon display the Baltimore Circulator on its popular maps under the transit option.

So far, the Google maps show only MTA connections. The addition of the Circulator comes to you thanks to a federal grant and the work of TRIP, the Transportation Resource Information Point. TRIP is part of Laurel based Central Maryland Regional Transit, a non-profit which provides transit planning and mobility management solutions after it relinquished running actual regional transit to its sister organization RTA.

According to Philip LaCombe and Jaime McKay of TRIP, the Circulator information will be static for the time being, i.e. display only scheduled arrival times. For real time info one has to go to the Circulator website or look at displays at select stops with information from NextBus.

Current real time info for the Circulator is limited to its own app
Increasingly apps organize our life which makes Google maps popular even with geeks who usually prefer smaller apps like Waze, (which was bought by Google)  Transit App or Where is my Bus and many others.

Transportation is a favorite field on the journey towards the "smart city". Transportation Techies have their own "Hackathons" and meet-ups where they share their latest applications. One such event took place last night at WMATA's headquarter in DC.

Google maps provide bike and walk connections, the fastest route by car and since 2007 also transit with scheduled arrival times. The latest frontier at Google: Live Transit Updates. another GTFS feed that gets real time data from on board vehicle location systems and lets the maps show the actual time of arrival. Google relies on what schedule and route info it gets from providers. So far in most places that is only (static) info. In the Baltimore area both the MTA and now TransDev, which runs the Circulator on behalf of the City, so far can only provide static data.

Transit agencies like MTA and Transdev also provide their own online transit info through their websites or through own apps. Last year MTA equipped all bus stops with "Bus Tracker" numbers allowing riders to get text messages with real time bus arrival. However, MTA and Circulator real time info is famously unreliable due to outdated technology.  Open source apps developed by hackers (who get the schedules and routes without formal agreements) or by giants like Google have the upper hand for the convenience of neatly wrapping all modes into one package using GTFS feeds.
Real time transit info is available on Google maps in London and Seattle among other cities (Android). Google has provided (static) transit info on its maps since 2007

Transit advocates have long said that the user doesn't care who provides what services as long as it gets you where you want to go. Full multi-modal integration of real time info is the ultimate goal.

How good actual arrival time information is depends on how reliably the transit agency obtains it and how much it is willing to share it.  So far, MTA's real item info is spotty because it relies on old fashioned radio signals from the buses rather than a satellite and GPS based Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems.

MTA is in the process of procuring new satellite based AVL for their bus fleet for reliable real time info. Once it will have all that working, MTA can do what LA's Metro did as a "soft" launch last December, display actual bus and train arrival times on Google maps in three colors (Green: On time, red delayed arrival, black, scheduled, no real time available). Other US cities employing this feature include Seattle and San Francisco, several large cities overseas (London) have advanced to real time as well.

Meanwhile, Google maps with static schedule info will be the best we can get in Baltimore. But at least now we can see how MTA and City Circulator overlap and complement each other and plan a trip accordingly.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated 2/24/16 8:42h

BBJ article
Metro Hack Night IV

Hackathon Presentation of the open source app Traze

Beyond Traffic: Baltimore's chance to jump the queue

Beyond Traffic: DOT Challenge Grant
Transportation will undergo significant changes in the next few years, one of the game changers will be the "Autonomous Vehicle" (AV).

The AV in itself could be a disaster for cities if AV’s would remain privately owned and used like current cars. A commute that could be used as work-time could give sprawl another lease on life because longer commutes would become acceptable if one can do other things than stare at the tailpipe in front.

On the other hand, AVs could become a component of the sharing economy where AV’s are not generally privately owned owing to the insight that a major investment into a device that sits around over 95% of the time is really not a good investment.   

Shared AVs could be dispatched similar to Uber and would essentially be always on the move. Unlike current cars they wouldn't need multiple parking spaces held and built for them but just a few dispatch lots. In other words, a lot of parking space could be re-assigned to better uses. Looking at any Google satellite image of US cities, one can see how much space is currently devoted to storing cars. Much of that land could become real places with, active and productive uses. What a gift for cities! 

The US Department of Transportation, to its credit, has recognized the opportunity. Late last year it issued a challenge grant with a potentially $40 million award:
The grant, the supporters and the applicants
The vision of the AV as it was imagined in the sixties:
Not the future we should want!
A walkable city is also a livable city
The USDOT is encouraging cities to put forward their best and most creative ideas for innovatively addressing the challenges they are facing. The vision of the Smart City Challenge is to demonstrate and evaluate a holistic, integrated approach to improving surface transportation performance within a city and integrating this approach with other smart city domains such as public safety, public services, and energy. The USDOT intends for this challenge to address how emerging transportation data, technologies, and applications can be integrated with existing systems in a city to address transportation challenges. The USDOT seeks bold and innovative ideas for proposed demonstrations to effectively test, evaluate, and demonstrate the significant benefits of smart city concepts. 
The USDOT will make an award of up to $40 Million award for one mid-sized city that can demonstrate how advanced data and intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies and applications can be used to reduce congestion, keep travelers safe, protect the environment, respond to climate change, connect underserved communities, and support economic vitality. 
The initial application was due at the beginning of February and Baltimore is one of 78 cities that took up the challenge. Approximately five cities will be selected as finalists and will receive $100,000 to create a more detailed plan.  The finalists will be announced in March, 2016.

Baltimore has struggled to implement progressive transportation strategies and would be more appropriately called a follower than a leader when it comes to safe pedestrian facilities, a bicycle network or reliable transit. But Baltimore could jump to the front of the queue with a focus on innovation and strategies how to embrace the AV.  Imagine how Lombard Street could be re-designed without all those parking garages, how different Harbor East or Sagamore's "Plank-Town" could look if the didn't have to park thousands of cars!
Baltimore and its engineers, architects and planners need to be at the table when it comes to planning for a future with self driving vehicles in which cities are freed from the unhappy dominance of the car and become better places for people.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

"Beyond Traffic, Challenge Grant: List of applicants
DOT Smart City webinars

Monday, February 22, 2016

What Route 32 tells us about Hogan and the future of Smart Growth

We know that our Governor pays close attention to giving back to the more rural areas of the State. "Putting the money where people actually use it", in his words, translated in transportation: Spend money on roads not transit. One can quibble with how many people actually use transit, but there is no question that a lot more people drive.

So what is wrong with a transportation policy that spends the money where the users are (and have paid for it with their gas tax dollars)?
Open space in western Howard County (SUN photo)

Turns out, that a whole lot is wrong with the diversion of transit funds from the Baltimore metro region to rural areas of Maryland on many levels. Even the assumption that this would put the money where it was generated is wrong.
Wasteful large lot sprawl development in western Howard County
  • First, so many people drive because US policy has subsidized driving over transit for at least the last 70 years. To use the results of a false policy as justification to continue it just reinforces the trend in an endless feedback loop. 
  • second: even if one followed the logic that the money has to go where it comes from (chiefly the gas tax), based on vehicle miles traveled and traffic counts, the vast majority of gas tax comes from the metro areas, thus the money would have to be spent in the same core region for which the diverted transit expenditures would have been used. With 200,000 vehicles a day on some sections of the beltway there is no area in the hinterlands of the Eastern Shore or Western Maryland that has anywhere near those transportation needs.
  • third: roads don't solve congestion, they create more through the unintended consequence of induced demand which will wipe out whatever benefits in travel time can be accrued in the short term. This rule holds true where the demand for travel is large. In thinly traveled areas toad investments don't bring travel time savings because one can already travel at the speed limit now.
  • roads fuel sprawl, a known unsustainable model of spatial allocation that makes it increasingly impossible to maintain all the necessary infrastructure and bankrupts public coffers.
Spending road money to widen Route 32 in western Howard County illuminates the issue quite well. In the case of  widening a road in the designated agriculture preserve of western Howard County proponents of the project don't even try to hide that they want to kill smart growth policies that have been in place for decades and were last re-affirmed in Howards Plan 2030. Land along Route 32 south of I-70 is zoned on both sides Rural Conservation (RC) or low density Rural Residential. The area is way outside the water and sewer service zone. With a republican Governor and County Executive, proponents of the road widening see their opportunity and want to upzone the land along the road. The traffic alone doesn't justify the widening. West of Route 108 volumes on Route 32 are about half of what they are east of 108. (26,000 to 53,000 vehicles per day).

Upzoning will only allow 300 additional dwelling units there says the new Republican County Executive. But that growth model is precisely the problem. Most of Maryland's growth happens inside the so called "Priority Funding Areas" but the small percentage that happens outside gobbles up the by far largest share of land simply because it occurs on large lots outside of the water service districts in those areas where minimum lot sizes are somewhere around three to five acres per house. 300 additional houses on 3 acre lots would gobble up 900 acres of farmland! In other words, maximal land waste for minimal gain. A totally unsustainable pattern, given that nobody can make more land.
27.6% of parcels consume 75.2% of the land area
From 1982 to 2010, 41.4 million acres (approximately 65,000 square miles) – an area equivalent to the state of Florida – of previously undeveloped non-federal rural land was paved over to accommodate our growing cities. Of these 41 million lost acres of open space, over 17 million acres were forestland, 11 million acres cropland, and 12 million acres pasture and rangeland.

Maryland State law currently requires State expenditures to be concentrated in "Priority Funding areas".  It looks like the Governor can easily circumvent those smart growth laws, two previous attempts by the 1000 Friends of Maryland to prevent Route 32 widening failed in court.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

For a more in depth analysis of the linkage between land use and transportation see my weekly blog which will be published this coming Friday on Community Architect.

SUN article about route 32
Vanishing Open Space
Howard 2030
Traffic Volumes in Maryland
Where Route 32 narrows down. (SUN photo)
The white area is the development area and the green areas are the western preserve

“if you continue to allow low-density sprawling development, then any developer in their right mind would say, ‘This will be lucrative,’ whereas smart growth is going to be complicated and expensive.” Dru Schmidt Perkins in 2009 in the Washington Post

Friday, February 19, 2016

Affordable Housing and demolition on North Avenue

Woda Development, headquartered in Ohio, has become a hero of affordable housing in Baltimore, especially after the record time re-build of the Mary Harvin Transformation Center with 61 affordable apartments for senior citizens and a community center with job training, counseling for those living with HIV/AIDS and other services after the devastating fire on the day of last April's unrest.

The current conditions of the north side of the 3000 block proposed for the new affordable apartments 
Woda had already completed affordable housing in Penn North, a few hundred feet from where the unrest had started, the 91 unit Penn Square Apartments. And further west on North Avenue, in 2012 Woda had completed  the Gateway South development, affordable units designed by Cho Benn and Holback which I highlighted in a architectural critique as an example that affordable housing doesn't have to be ugly.

Yesterday, Kevin V. Bell, Senior Vice President at the Woda Group was back in Baltimore for the presentation of the Gateway North Apartments, right across from his earlier project in the 3000 block of West North Avenue. The project sitting within view of Coppin University will be 82,000 sf, 41 apartments and a smattering of retail and community spaces.
Proposed Woda Design (Marks Thomas Architects)

UDARP was not entirely smitten by the proposal. They criticized that the two sole demo survivors, previously rehabbed rowhouses were too isolated to be convincing. Panelists requested that the differentiation between the part of the block with retail and the part without should pick up the language of the existing conditions in which the rowhouses are set back from the sidewalk. They suggested that the massing should be broken up to reflect what was successfully done on the south blocks. Especially the two lane drive that takes up almost the entire backyard drew comments. It was seen as a waste of space when a narrower one way circulation system could easily be conceived. Developer Kevin Bell got visibly agitated by some of the suggestions, signaling to his design team members to object.
The south block is broken up with access in the center
While the south-side was built on largely vacant land, the north-side requires demolition of an entire row of dilapidated historic houses and a large villa. The missed preservation aspect of the design got short thrift in the review because the presentation aerial had craftily photo-shopped away what was to be demolished, no historic preservation rules apply here and clearly, the developer didn't want to deal with rehabilitation and single rowhomes or villas to complicate the project supported by low income tax credits.

The two rowhouses were only spared the wrecking ball because they are owned by the City which is also the offerer of the land for this project and were fixed up with City funds. The most significant but dilapidated corner house was suggested to be taken down and replaced by a row of trees to cover up some of the now exposed firewall in plain view when going west on North Avenue. All other structures, including a once fairly splendid villa were not even mentioned, much less discussed.
The proposed north block (Marks Thomas)

Sure, the villa is completely devoured by weeds and is not in stable shape anymore, but as everybody knows by now, those buildings can be restored beautifully and can add an authentic note to new construction.

How beautiful would it be to take the corner-house on the east end out of the deal and let HABC find somebody to renovate it and use the villa for the community functions. With all this new demo money flowing into the City, Housing should prove, that demolition is their last resort as Commissioner Graziano never tires to emphasize.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about UDARP (subscribers only)

Looking west on North Avenue, Coppin State is not far

Current abandoned rowhouses along the 3000 block are set back

the demolition of this opulent manison was not even mentioned in the UDARP presentation 

Woda Senior VP, Kevin Bell (Photo: BBJ)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Smoke and mirrors or a dream come true?

What if a developer would buy a big chunk of land ideally located along a major interstate, next to a thriving historic community and adjacent to a long winding waterfront?

What if this developer would employ a renowned national urban design team to come up with plans for an ideal city that includes everything urban designers currently dream of?

Such as a grid of streets that allows traditional city blocks but has just enough irregularity to make them interesting?
A quirky grid, plenty of open space

What if those roads would relate in "desire lines to visual anchors beyond" the new city?

What if the developer would give the public not only waterfront access but provide a string of parks with it?

What if he would transform a major but bland, non descriptive and car oriented gateway into the larger city into a memorable place with sidewalks and retail?

What if the plan was truly multi-modal with bike and hike trails leading in and out and through the site, with a light rail spur and water taxis?

What if the developer would include adaptive reuse of existing structures and landmarks to achieve or retain authenticity?
a near eye level view of the suggested massing across the water

What if ecology consultants would ensure ecosystem systems which perform in terms of "pollinator routes, bird nesting areas and being community catalysts"?

What if landscape architects emphasized the public realm with amenities and place "moments" into the landscape of habitats, with considerations for water filtration, diversity and resilience and the "cultural legibility of urban systems"?

If traffic engineers would design transit into the plan, protected bike lanes and protected intersections with pedestrian refuge islands, crossing distances and eco-medians instead of performance optimized levels of service for cars? 

In short, if a developer came in and promised to build an entire city designed to the best standards currently available in terms of architecture, ecology and mobility and would do so right here in Baltimore, what should one say? 
Framing views form the street ends at the water with "perches" and
architectural follies (the view west)
Would this be nothing but smoke and mirrors or a dream come true?

Should the response be that it could be the best thing that ever happened and embrace it as much as possible?

Or should one suspect that this is just a bunch of high-paid out-of-town consultants having well rehearsed the vocabulary that is currently en vogue? That whatever would really be built, would not live up to any of these goals anyway; and if it did, it would still not help the poor, the disenfranchised, reduce crime or do anything to diminish the huge rifts we see in our city? 

I am talking about the Port Covington, of course, the new Plank-Town and today's design review session in which the western portion of Under Armour's new city was presented in some detail to the design review board UDARP. What to make of this largest ever privately proffered proposal with its 266 acres and 13 million square feet of suggested development? How should mayoral candidates think about this? How the City Council?
UDARP rejected the idea of a bike ped bridge across Hanover Street

Not that the high-octane design team led by Elkus Manfredi Architects and the developer represented by Caroline Paff, VP at Sagamore Development, intimidated UDARP or make those reviewers be awestruck.

Not at all, the team received a fair share of criticism for aspects of the design they presented.

In fact, the architect, David Manfredi, received the brunt of the critique with the observation that the massing of his buildings wasn't nearly as thought-out as the streets, parks and landscape designs of his consultants.

Hanover Street, as it is re-imagined north of the to be reconstructed bridge, received a good dose of skepticism as well. The biggest gripe: a proposed pedestrian and bike bridge designed to safely bring those walking and biking along the shoreline across Hanover Street. UDARP panelist wouldn't want any of it, truck traffic or not, they wanted a design that keeps pedestrians on the street level and that slows Hanover Street traffic so that safe crossing was possible.
Bike boulevard along the waterfront street

But there is no doubt that these self confident design review responses were informed by the big-picture thinking and the extremely high standards that the designers and the developer have set up themselves.

Planning Director Stosur encouraged even bigger thinking with the suggestion of a tunnel for the through traffic to I-95.

Except for that one suggestion of the road tunnel ("that may be beyond our scope"), the design team and the developer never responded defensively or with the usual explanations why it couldn't be done. The dialogue was truly focused on finding the very best design. That this was a serious attitude, was evident through the inclusion of previous UDARP comments that had already been worked into the concept. 

Only who has observed how this city has moved from hardly having any development to review, resulting in the most modest expectations of being happy with anybody who would build anything anywhere, even if it was a CVS next to the Symphony, can truly appreciate the miracle of what is going on with the Kevin Plank sponsored masterplan.
3-D view of the waterfront boulevard
Naturally, there will be lots of water flowing down the Patapsco River before the plans will be finalized and even more before shovels in the ground will prove that the plans can become reality.

But the level of discourse, the high expectations and the constructive manner of response, these things won't be forgotten, they will have lifted Baltimore to a new place, even if Kevin Plank would walk away from the plan tomorrow.

But the good thing is, that is not nearly as likely as the many other developments that have evaporated would suggest. Under Armour's management has shown that they mean business, various small components of the big plan are, in fact, already underway and their company is on a trajectory of success that is all too rare for Baltimore corporations.
Little love for the skinny median: Suggested Hanover Street interesection

Even without tired platitudes of "the rising tide that lifts all boats" or trickle-down theories often employed to justify developments that chiefly serve the well-to-do, even if one assumes that none of this big development will really solve Baltimore's protracted poverty problems, it still needs to be welcomed that this city is finally shedding the obsession that big things can't be done here. I for my part would advocate for a heavy dose of optimism regarding Plank-Town.

Oh, and yes, at the foot of Hanover Street the architect should really solve the "gateway" issue with a sense of arrival, a gesture of massing and architecture that forms an urban plaza instead of those two strict parallel rows of equal height buildings that currently line Hanover Street in a pretty relentless manner. As far as Hanover Street as a truly urban boulevard, give it a beefy median as UDARP suggested, constant width, no left turns carving pieces out like in a suburb!

But I am pretty sure, that will be precisely what we will see in the next round of design review anyway.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

corrected for Caroline Paff's title

all images are screenshots of the UDARP presentation. Renderings Elkus Manfredi, Boston

Transit: Light rail along I-95

Protected intersection: Protected bike lanes and bulb-outs for shorter crossing distance 

The massing model was considered lacking by UDARP: Not diverse enough, too much of the
same, no clear typology regarding "interface and connections"

Suggested eco-system topics: "Provisioning, supporting, regulating, cultural"

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Why there is so much waste in road construction

Pork roads are those which are not built based on need but on political favor. The practice is alive and well and now there is a bill in Annapolis to put a damper on it.
"Unfortunately, today's reckless power grab over transportation funding shows that certain members of the legislature are still more interested in playing politics and advancing their own agenda than working together for the good of the entire state."(Governor Hogan on Facebook).
But the reality is a bit more complex. Even when Hogan's predecessor Democrat Martin O'Malley collected votes for his Maryland Transportation Financing And Infrastructure Investment Act of 2012 (the gas tax increase), transportation and environmental advocates were concerned about giving the State more money for transportation without stronger requirements that would ensure that the money would be spent wisely.
Transportation bill announcements in Annapolis (Sun photo)

O'Malley's tax increase, chiefly a means to fund the Maryland's large transit projects, the Purple and the Red Line, ultimately passed precisely because such measures were not in place. The common practice of bartering allowed O'Malley to collect rural votes with a promise of "pork-roads" all across Maryland.

What broke the camel's neck was Hogan's move to kill the Red Line anyway even after those roads had been committed. Hogan redirected the freed transit funds towards even more rural roads to nowhere. Thus, HB1013  and Senate bill SB908 - The Open Transportation Investment Decision Act - were introduced this year and received support from Senate President Miller and House Speaker Busch.
"Getting rid of the mystery of how, why and where roads get built in Maryland will only increase citizen confidence in the process." (Mike Miller, Senate President)
The Senate bill is summarized this way:
Establishing State transportation goals; establishing measures by which the Department of Transportation is required to score the extent to which major capital projects satisfy the goals; requiring the Department to evaluate, score, and rank specified projects for inclusion in the draft and final Consolidated Transportation Program; requiring, with a specified exception, that capital projects with higher scores be ranked ahead of capital projects with lower scores; etc.
Road projects receive little scrutiny: HOT Lanes on I-95,
interchange with I-695 (photo JMT)
 The desire to score transportation projects according to purpose and need is certainly not a new idea.

In fact, the national landmark ISTEA transportation bill enacted by President George Bush Senior in the early 1990's tried to do just that. But as it turned out, criteria and metrics were diligently applied to (federally funded) transit projects like the Red Line under the strict regulations of "New Starts" while frivolous road construction continued almost unimpeded.

Given how much the entire country is vetted to the car as the only mobility option, it is not surprising that a culture of mutual back-scratching has evolved between the road industry, politicians and anybody else with a stake in current policies. The asphalt lobby is a powerful force across the nation which is neither interested in less or in longer lasting construction.

Roads to nowhere, bridges to nowhere, widening of roads barely used and pristine pavement in the hinterlands of America while urban streets are in shambles, who would not have seen that? Hogan's road dollars went, among other projects, to a road from Cumberland to Pennsylvania and one on the Eastern Shore to better reach Rehoboth, in both cases the  dollars would widen the roads in Maryland only to lead into a narrow unimproved section as soon as they reach Pennsylvania and Delaware respectively.
Governor Hogan when he announced to kill the Red Line

The irony is that efficiency in government spending should be where Republicans and Democrats find common ground. If new government revenue (taxes) are off limit (Republicans) then it would only stand to reason that efficient and effective spending would be in order. The proposed bills do just that. Similar measures have been enacted in Virginia, Louisiana and Texas.

"We're hardly talking about the most progressive places in the world", said Dru Schmidt Perkins Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, one of the groups calling for years for better oversight of MDOT's spending. Schmidt-Perkins is a strong critic of the annual "Road Show" in which MDOT officials travel the state to compile the list of projects to be funded in the Consolidated Transportation Program CTP.  Too often the squeaky wheel got the grease without much proper vetting.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Sun article
SUN commentary regarding the bills discussed here