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 ptrajectory 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"