Friday, May 6, 2016

Port Covington - proposal and review

Having sat through a series of design reviews for the proposed Port Covington project, conducted on the highest level of professionalism, I have come to wish that not only more design reviews should go like this project but also that the economic review be held to similar standards.
The Founders Park, suggested as the heart of the development
 (source: Sagamore)

As an urban designer (and not an economist) I can only judge the design of the proposed Port Covington masterplan and the quality of the discourse between the Planning Department's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel (UDARP) and Sagamore's consultants. Having read a good part of  the conclusions of Municap, the City's consultant on economic impacts, TIFs, the fiscal balance and profits in general, I can't help thinking, that UDARP could be a good precedent for how to critically review other aspects of this huge and complex project.

Confidence and competence being the first ingredients. The team of design reviewers are by no means intimidated by a renowned Boston architect whose office prepared the design and whose principal came to every single session to present in person and in great detail nor do the cow-tow to Under Armour's Sagamore just because the company has become such a big player in town. The design review wasn't just waved through like a car through the car wash. Instead it was taken piece by piece through a series of sessions that began in March 2015 with the review of the whiskey distillery and in January 2016 with the full masterplan. Since then there were at least four additional sessions. The final verdict is still out.
Massing sketch with 400' towers (screenshot at UDARP)

The players are Sagamore's Vice President Caroline Paff who each time provides a brief intro and then hands it to her design team, headed by Elkus Manfredi Architects in Boston supported by STV for civil and transportation, Landworks Studio for landcsape architecture, BioHabitats for habitat design and Toole Design for bike and ped consulting. On the side of UDARP are the panelists Pavlina Ilieva, Gary Bowden and Richard Burns as architects and  David Haresign and David Rubin for landscape architecture as well as Planning Director Tom Stosur and UDARP staffer Anthony Cataldo.

The presentations went from guiding principles and project goals to an overview of everything to discussions of  subareas, just as any planning process should be presented.

UDARP took issue with assumptions and concepts from the first session on. They vehemently disliked  a pedestrian bridge that lifted pedestrians across Hanover Street, they considered the building massing blocks as too crude, demanded income diversity and civic uses and even suggested independent energy production.

Never once took Elkus Manfredi's principal and partner David Manfredi a reviewer's suggestion as anything but as a valid idea of a peer which he would integrate into the next presentation. Never did the owner's representative, Carolina Paff deviate from her upbeat cheerfulness, or reject an idea as too expensive and dismiss it as "over the top". At all times only high caliber precedents were used as models and only cutting edge best practices were deemed acceptable, whether it was for streetscape design, promenades, waterfront parks, place-making, parks, multimodal mobility, building massing, habitat protection, storm water management or even "dark sky" compliant lighting. Thus the plan includes rail transit, bikeways, promenades, look-out piers, water taxi landings, bird nesting places and bio-habitats, a restored railroad bridge connection, "complete streets", parks and public plazas and just about anything else that planners and urban designers consider state of the art.
skyline (source: Sagamore)

In spite of this array of "nice things to have", the design reviewers were never awestruck. They never just took what was shown on face-value to simply waved it through. Instead, panelists used  their professional expertise to make counter suggestions or, at times, rejected certain aspects flat-out.

Early on, the perimeter development parcels and blocks were rejected as too large. A pedestrian plaza was considered as too complicated in terms of circulation and how vehicles and pedestrians would traverse it. Hanover Street's suggested turn lanes were derided as too suburban for a presumably urban boulevard. In the next review the perimeter blocks were smaller and more "permeable", the turn lanes had disappeared and "Urban Plaza" had been simplified.

The professionals engaged in meaningful discussions about the future of mobility and what it could mean to parking. They debated the best way to connect the fairly isolated Port Covington development area to the South Baltimore community to the north. Reviewers suggested to move bike lanes, requested narrower streets and relocation of service entrances. Nate Evans who was once Baltimore's bike coordinator and foremost bike advocate is now a consultant advising the team on cutting edge methods to accommodate bike riders who commute and those who pedal along the waterfront for recreation in different ways. Bicycle pathways are still considered unresolved by panelists in some areas.

At each new review David Manfredi returned with a modified design, presenting an improved scheme and the admission that the plan had been made better through the dialogue. Reviewers sometimes minced no words: "I abhor and detest that you have underground parking under Urban Plaza" David Haresign said yesterday. "You are not a traffic guy" he advised Manfredi, "you are an architect. Make architecture out of this and let those traffic engineers take it on later," he requested pointing to the roads around the so called Urban Plaza. During that most recent review Planning Director Stosur practically burst out stating "what is completely missing is something that is a little neighborhood like other successful neighborhoods. Why are you rejecting it? Everything seems to be Superblock". Such a fundamental criticism in the eighth inning would typically bring about a defensive response by the owner or the architect even in the civilized UDARP setting. But Manfredi conceded that Stosur had a "good point" and Paff promised to address housing typologies, civic service accommodations (Ilieva: "Civic buildings have an urban organizational role.") in the next presentation. The panel had, indeed, asked about family housing, civic buildings and schools in the very first presentation. In spite of the general responsiveness, these items seemed to have not been well addressed yet.

I have been around the block often enough to know that big projects often start with a honeymoon phase, that design is one thing and reality can be another, once hard economic realities set in. We saw that in Westport, where Pat Turner's beautiful design, prepared in part by famous firms like Field Operations, went up in smoke when he, the sole engine for the project, ran out of steam. Under Armour is a stronger entity but an enduring long future over decades is no certainty. The crux of this project, too, is its dependency on one star. As I have written before, the history of urban development knows "sugar daddies" and company towns for a long time, and it shows successes (Florence under the Medici) and failures such as Pullman, Illinois). So in reviewing the economic model, there should be the same give-and-take as in the discussions about design.  TIF, tax credits, public and private funds, side agreements for affordable housing, community benefits and public benefits, should not only be checked for their equity content but also for their resilience in bad times. Resiliency means redundancy, a host of funding sources and revenues that feed the project until it can eventually stand on its own.
the so called eco zones. (Source: Sagamore)

The folks from Hafen-City Hamburg presented such a model when they came to Baltimore and it, too started with public investment and gradual pay-back. For the project to fund its later phases with proceeds from its early ones, a careful strategy is needed. Phasing of the 25 year project has not been discussed much yet, except that there was talk about dividing the TIF into "tranches". 

Even though the project slogan "we build it together" is a bit cheesy and raises suspicions about how much public and private interests are really aligned,  from the design approach to date it seems that there is sufficient overlap between public and private interest for the famous "win-win". To attract qualified employees in a world where cities compete in quality of life, Under Armour needs to offer more than a standard corporate campus built in isolation. For Baltimore to thrive, it needs to have growth, a more diverse tax base and it can certainly use a big growing and flourishing corporation. That potential overlap in interest was sufficient for a very civilized and constructive debate about design. From an urban designer's perspective, the negotiations about the Port Covington masterplan are like a first rate very instructive continued education class. That in itself is novel in a city where a lot of mediocre design has been accepted under the false premise that anything would be better than nothing.

Turning a former railyard into a testing ground for best practices in environmental design, transportation, mobility, housing, offices, retail and recreation and even (in small parts) historic preservation, seeing those best practices aspired to, envisioned, discussed and put into shape feels like a miracle in a city far too short of miracles.

The task is now to use the upcoming TIF debate in the city council for  turning the project into an equally progressive and creative model for equity and economic development. While the size of the TIF is clearly driven by the high quality design, a bare minimum design should not be posed as a viable alternative. Doing a bare bones (or no) Port Covington won't make more money available for investments in Sandtown and East Baltimore. What will be developed along the Middle Branch can shape Baltimore's future. To set a new benchmark for urban redevelopment, Baltimore better pull out all the stops and let only the best be good enough; not only with design as the metric as Denver did it with their Union Station TOD, Boston with their Innovation District or DC with the Naval Yard redevelopment, but also in workforce development, local job creation, affordable housing, neighborhood development and social capital. Baltimore's chance of becoming a model.

Just like the masterplan was discussed at UDARP, the fiscal debate should be fair, open, have give and take and become a competition for the best ideas.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA