Thursday, June 30, 2016

Can demolition of vacants add value?

The prospect of demolition just became a whole lot more likely for vacant houses sitting in highly distressed neighborhoods. To find out if this was a good thing a lot of residents and advocacy groups showed up at Edmondson High for a meeting that had been called by Baltimore's Department of Planning. The purpose, as Planning Director Tom explained, was "how do we best use the available resources to address the problem of vacants."
Demolition money: Blue: City, yellow: State, red: federal (photo: Philipsen)

Stosur projected maps of the city's neighborhood classifications rated by the market strength of area. He said there were 16,000 vacant houses and about the same number of vacant lots. On a pie chart he showed that 68% of the vacant houses sit in areas where the markets are very weak, which is eminently obvious. But poor markets are dimming the chances of these houses to survive given the logic that Planning applies. The better funded rounds of demolition are already in full swing but were ratcheted up this year with an infusion of State money.

The City had already quadrupled their annual expenditure for demolition from $2.5 million to ten million. But with the infusion coming from the State a cool $17 million will be added for demolition and stabilization in fiscal 2017 alone, $75 million in all. This comes after the Governor re-discovered blight removal as an economic development strategy, or at least as a precondition for one.
Planning Director Tom Stosur explaining the purpose
of the meeting (photo: Philipsen)

To explain the State's excitement about Baltimore deputy State Housing Secretary Ellington Churchill was at hand as well and repeated the promise that there would be $600 million of economic development money, an assertion that State legislators have long debunked.  That impressive number includes mostly funds and programs that had long been assigned already.

City Housing, State Housing, the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and the City Department of Planning are collaboratively working on figuring out how "strategic demolition" can add value. This is a good and promising work across silos. Among the tools is a Green Network Plan which is intended to tell planners whether potential additional green spaces have strategic value. After all, demolition is only one of the strategies under the Vacants to Value program of City Housing. One way or another, value must be added or the action isn't worth it.

Citizens were invited to comment on various green and demolition maps displayed on the walls of the school cafeteria. The maps looked essentially the same but had different labels. Both sets of maps showed what Baltimore Housing had already identified as their priority demo sites. There was no hint what a Green Network Plan could entail and strive for and what the prospects may be to really network fragmented demo sites.
There were a bunch of photos showing what vacant lots could look like, although those didn't represent anything that looked like a network. People were supposed to comment on their preferences.
Good attendance: where to demolish?

When I asked the Planning Director if metrics were used to make the maps on display or to define strategies for green networks or for deciding whether a house should be prioritized for over another one when it comes to demolition. He said those would be developed together with citizens and in response to the kind of input that was expected at the public meeting.

It seems that there should be metrics for all components of planning that were discussed: green spaces and economic development. Metrics should also include urban design and historic preservation. Especially the erosion of street corners with vacant lots and exposed firewalls is worrisome. The objective should be to identify which properties would have the most strategic importance as an open space versus as a rehabbed building. The economic aspects including workforce development and business development are also a matter of critical mass and scale, both important metrics. It isn't sufficient to say there is no market, so the vacant house has to come down. The question should be instead: There is no market, what scale intervention would it take to create one?
Preferences and choices: Paper and I-pads

At no point should it be forgotten that scattered vacant lots typically do not produce value. They yield little or no taxes but cost the City money for upkeep. In a City that is in it for the long haul, the question should always be: how do we attract new residents and how can we improve the quality of life of the existing ones so they don't leave as well.

Rarely makes a demo lot a good garden or park. Even an entire row of demolished houses doesn't make a good park if the open space is faced by the now exposed rears of the homes on the next street. The examples to emulate should be cities like the District of Columbia or Boston who over time filled almost all their vacants up again.

Examples could also be any of our own comeback neighborhoods where there are no more vacants. Those good examples include neighborhoods that had been on their heels like Barclay and Oliver where the scale of a carefully orchestrated intervention created a market where there was none before.

There is no reason to assume that successful arrangement of buildings, streets, alleys and parks should look different in a poor neighborhood than in a more affluent one. Demolition may be the handy fix in the short run, but when it comes to building back a city, turning those weed lots back into a vibrant neighborhood will require more creativity and resources than the rehabilitation of mothballed but stabilized buildings. Those can spring back into being good neighbors pretty quickly and give each neighborhood its distinct flavor and character.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles on this blog:

Green Network or backdoor to demolition?
Park Heights- Time to learn from failure
Why "tearing it all down" is not an option

Workforce development: Where is the Innovation Village on this list?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Protest at "Inside the mind of Sagamore"

There was a sold out event, a torrential downpour, ra-ra promotional video with a Ronald Reagan style voice-over, a protest group bursting on the stage with a megaphone, rye whiskey to drink and watch being bottled, skateboards, NC routers and an African American pastor giving his blessings for everything (at least figuratively). All that was eventually crowned by a double rainbow decorating the sky over Hanover Bridge.
Marc Weller speaking about the Under Armour growth rates
1000 Friends of Maryland event

This report isn't in any way a neutral report that follows journalistic standards.  I am a founding member of the 1000 Friends of Maryland, the organization which hosted the event and as a board member I helped a bit in getting it off the ground.

The venue, in case that isn't yet clear, was City Garage, the first completed project of what Sagamore and Under Armour plan for Port Covington. No, the event wasn't, what some people mistakenly thought, the 1000 Friends of Maryland doing a fundraiser for Under Armour; which is a pretty funny idea, considering growth and wealth of the sport apparel company and the poverty of the non-profit group that like pretty much all non-profits struggles for the small pool of available grants.  The event was fundraiser for the 1000 Friends who promote smart growth and prudent development, especially in existing towns and cities.  Port Covington was the subject matter and the event was not supposed to be an endorsement but an opportunity of obtaining information on location, straight from the horse's mouth, as it were, which is supposed to be a joke since Sagamore is named after Kevin Plank's horse. 1000 Friends has held many events at redeveloped sites, Tide Point one of them when it was not yet completed and in the hands of Struever Brothers, Montgomery Ward was a venue as well, and so was Disney's Discovery Channel project in Silver Spring; all highlighting infill, adaptive re-use and smart growth.

City Garage hosting a fundraiser for the 1000 friends of MD

Kevin Plank, Baltimore's entrepreneurial wunderkind with a "the sky is the limit attitude" quite rare in Baltimore, is a Republican and was probably responsible for the Ronald Reagan voice-over of the introductory video, but that is just speculation.

Damian Costa jumped on stage after 1000 Friends Executive Director Dru Schmidt Perkins had given thanks to the sponsors and had explained what the growth management group does, safely using distant Charles County as a current example of the groups's engagement in more reasonable growth patterns. I say "jumped" because Costa personifies energy and boundless optimism, quite clearly drinking the Kool Aid that is not only mandatory in the UA empire, but is also infectious.
whiskey bottling operation

As part of the pumped-up attitude big words come quick and effortlessly over the lips of Costa, the venture capital adviser for Plank:
City Garage is the first thing we have done and it isn't done [like this] in any part of the world.
[looking at options for City Garage]:Sounds like an incubator and we have already 40 in Maryland.[I asked myself] what if we can keep some of the companies here?  So maybe we can do something better. Need to do more than small spaces for companies to hang out. [Need to offer a pathway] for the the 20 year old football player with a vision.... 
{We] found it in the Foundery. Stands as a shining example, concept #1: Community and the culture of like minded companies. Come here and put down roots, not like incubator come and go.
And then there is Marc Weller, the President of Sagamore Development. He talked, of course, about Under Armour Lighthouse, the manufacturing space that had opened earlier the same day with great fanfare as a model of manufacturing in the US. He had just worked himself into a crescendo with statements like
[Fabrics] are made with]technology developed 150 years ago. Isn't there a better way?..The Lighthouse is our weapon...our absolute pinnacle... located right next to our designers. Local for local. Pioneering the future.... byproducts the likes the consumer has never seen before....Innovate on every front.
HON protester with bullhorn 
when protesters of the Housing Our Neighbors group (HON) who had staged their demands for 20% affordable housing at 30% AMI at the entrance of City Garage, somehow had found their way into the venue and burst on stage with a bullhorn that was loud enough to drown out Weller's talk.  Much of what the protesters yelled wasn't understandable, but one thing was:
"Housing is a right for all". 
Dru Schmidt Perkins smoothly thanked the housing advocates for their passion and then Weller finished without missing a beat.
"Create an urban park like nothing you have ever seen".
Quoting Kevin Plank: "We are from this city of this city".
There was another video intoning that 
Protesters at the gate
[we in Baltimore] are  writing our own story and Port Civington is the next chapter...We will build it together... Create a world class mixed use destination that innovates"
Sagamore's Scott Gassen explaining the core of the big development project, Under Armour's global headquarters with 4 million square feet of development. With his quiet, calm demeanor he was a welcome relief from the previous high voltage delivery. He explained how the old Sams Club big box, a misplaced and failed attempt of bringing retail options to Baltimore at the shore of the Middle Branch, was now "Apollo" and already housed 300 Under Armour employees. He spoke about the attempts of cutting edge green technology, including considerations of creating a micro-grid, the goal of providing 15% of the needed energy with solar power, reducing water consumption by 70% and creating a "high performance lake" which would provide some type of heat transfer and help the Middle Branch to recover. He even reported that wind-power was studied but not deemed feasible, a simple statement that somehow brought everything into the normal human perspective where not everything works or takes off like a rocket.

Gossen explains the corporate headquarters

Finally it was the Reverend Alvin Hathaway's turn to speak, senior pastor of the at Union Baptist Church and an adviser to Sagamore. He spoke about his legacy of fighting for social justice, noting projects "from the Superblock to Harbor East to now Sagamore" and asked numerous questions: 
how do we grow this city? to take pain and make it a programmatic initiative". How do you craft an effective community benefits agreement?.. This amazing development will propel this city to the next level. We need affordable housing in this development. How can people have an asset in growing  community. Section 3 of the public housing act this development group listens. Understand the promise. This project must lift the spirits of people that haven't been born yet. There will be a whole lot of spin off jobs that will come from this project. I feel the pain of people whose voice is sometimes not heard.  
Later, in the question and answer period (questions had to be submitted in writing) Weller responded to the affordable housing question that Sagamore has with the 10% affordable commitment (of 80% AMI income) offered a record number of affordable units but "that there is much more that we can do".

No matter that some of the promo material sounded over the top, the sheer size of the undertaking, the scale of the ambition, the level of excellence aspired to,  is impressive even to someone who may have become cynical and worn from decades of promises made and not fulfilled. 
Panel discussion: Written questions from the audience

In City Garage and in the Apollo buildings UA has proven already, that they can create things in very short order in a City where most everything takes years of agonizing debate. City Garage has people filling rye whiskey in bottles, folks building skateboards and in the Foundery a huge place full with high end NC routers, foundry hammers and the like that has already enrolled hundreds in classes, only a few weeks after being completed. It is easy to imagine how a place like this is good for the much discussed workforce development and how it could become a pipeline for training people tat could help build those 14 million square-feet of stuff that would represent Port Covington in full build-out. Discussions with the West Baltimore Innovation Village are already underway. As pastor Hathaway said,
"Don't give up on believing in the best in our city."
There will be much more debate coming up when the City Council will take up the Masterplan and the issue of the TIFs and there may be lots of opportunity to answer many of the questions that are not answered yet. As a litmus test for it all I suggest this: Would any part of Baltimore be better off if Port Covington would remain an abandoned rail-yard? The protesters seemed to think so, but as many do, they described the TIF as City money going to Sagamore, not an accurate description. So far, I haven't found anybody making the case convincingly, that yes, without that Sagamore project we would have a better Park Heights, a better Sandtown or a more prosperous North Avenue.
Foundery's Jason Hardebeck explains his makerspace with
Bob Embry of the Abell Foundation looking on

The higher standard, that the development should provide benefits outside the development area is one that Sagamore is striving for.

And then there is the question of infrastructure projects. There are those, who think that UA just should pay all the infrastructure out of their pocket, even in public spaces and those who think that the proposed infrastructure is overdone. Those need to ask themselves: Would you rather see basic no-frill roads and infrastructure (minimum cost) or the cutting edge practices with public parks, promenades, bikeways, habitat restoration and micro-grids that are currently driving up the cost?
As proposed, the infrastructure is jointly paid for by Sagamore and the City and only with funds that will be generated by this project itself.
Skateboard fabrication and shop

The 1000 friends event provided a good dose of Kool Aid, a lot of figures and images, some critical information, but most of all an on the ground first hand impression of who the Sagamore people are and what their ideas look like. Most of those I talked to at the event found this very valuable.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

all photos: Klaus Philipsen
A rainbow over the Middle Branch

BBJ article about the UA Lighthouse opening

Update: Press about the 1000 Friends event:

Ed Gunts Baltimore FishbowlPort Covington Jogging Trails May Contain Recycled UA T-shirts

Baltimore Sun
Protesters disrupt Port Covington speakers

Real News
Tired of Tax Breaks, Baltimore Activists Disrupt Developer Fete

Baltimore Brew
Big Dream Dicey Moments

SRB last hurrah at the National Conference of Mayors

As much as Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is prone to making a splash at all, she did so at her last US Conference of Mayors this last weekend. She had chaired the conference since last year, an excellent platform for an urban leader. During the four-day gathering in Indianapolis more than 200 city leaders met to discuss policy issues impacting America’s cities and their economic health including community policing, federal investment in America’s cities and public-partnerships. The most notable speaker at the conference was presidential candidate Hillary Clinton who reminded the Mayor's that her husband had been a great friend of cities. 
Stephanie Rawlings Blake at last year's conference

The conference ended Monday in Indianapolis with the baton handed over to Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. SRB's splash was some national news coverage she got by showing solidarity with Flint Michigan and decrying the national urban infrastructure crisis. She knows what she is talking about with her own city being dug up left and right to fix aging pipes. The Mayor's conference issued this news release with Rawlings Blake's name in the title line:
“We have worked closely with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to help spread awareness about the lead contamination that has afflicted her city’s water supply. We will continue to do everything we can to bring resources to Flint that are needed to recover and re-build the city’s water infrastructure,” said Mayor Rawlings-Blake who appointed formed Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, USCM CEO & Executive Director Tom Cochran and a resource team to travel to Flint on several occasions to better understand what the Conference can be doing to bring the resources and national attention to Flint that it desperately needs. Rawlings-Blake today made those comments during her President’s Report – her outgoing speech as she approaches the end of her tenure as Conference President. Flint (MI) Mayor Karen Weaver was present during Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s presentation and was recognized for her tireless work on behalf of her residents.
While Baltimore has been in the national spotlight since the unrest last year, the Mayor's national profile at the Mayor's conference brought less attention to Baltimore than it could have with a somewhat less tongue-tied spokesperson. One mayors conference had even been held in Baltimore. 

For one thing, the city went empty in the Smart City Challenge issued by the US Department of Transportation in competition with over 70 other cities. The challenge had been issued under the leadership of US Secretary Foxx who has a keen interest in the nexus between transportation and social justice. Baltimore has a lot to offer in this arena and Foxx, indeed, came to the City and stood atop the "Highway to Nowhere" to announce a small grant to beautify the Fulton Avenue bridge spanning the highway.

But the City's Smart City application didn't make it through the first and into the shortlist. The final winner was announced last week: Columbus, Ohio. A city only slightly bigger than Baltimore, a "legacy" city as well, but one that has managed to grow faster than any other in its region. Foxx announced Columbus as a winner for the clear focus in its pitch on Linden, a disadvantaged community. The Columbus entry outlined how smart interventions will bring better and smarter transit to the neighborhood along with a smart card that can buy transit and many other Columbus services.

It would have been nice if Foxx had come back to West Baltimore and Sandtown Winchester and would have announced that the City was the winner of the Smart City challenge for its unique focus on that area.

The opportunity should not be entirely lost though: The public private partnerships formed for Baltimore's application to the Smart City Challenge should endure and be leveraged for improved services to West Baltimore. The new Mayor can see to it that this will happen. Catherine Pugh, the designated Democratic candidate for Mayor was out in the streets of Penn and North last night again after another member of that community had met an untimely and violent death and caused large gatherings in the area.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Red Line: "The fight is not over yet"

For a small contingent of activists the Red Line isn't really dead yet, they say "its isn't over until the last one gives up".

There were about 30 on Saturday that haven't given up yet, they assembled at the West Baltimore MARC lot which has been for years the venue of announcement regarding transit, from O'Malley announcing the preferred Red Line Alternative here in 2007, to Mayor Rawlings Blake urging the Governor to build the line to Hogan himself announcing his Baltimore Link Bus initiative.

The possibility of revival is pinned to the small window that comes from a Title VI complaint that the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition filed, alleging that Governor Hogan violated civil rights laws and statutes when he cancelled the Red Line exactly one year ago.

The NAACP filed a similar complaint but was not at hand for the anniversary protest.
Red Line protest at the anniversary of the cancellation
Carrying T- shirts and posters with the logo of the Equity Coalition, the group marched to the Helen Mackall Park in West Baltimore, chanting "What do we want? Red Line! - When do we want it? Now!". It was a beautiful Saturday morning and a few folks sat on their porches wondering what this was about. Nobody was persuaded to join, though. People in West Baltimore know many projects that were promised and never happened. Some where never quite convinced that Red Line would ever happen either.

Chief Organizer Samuel Jordan, one of the four community economic development activists who signed the Baltimore Red Line Title VI complaint, pointed out that transit in Baltimore provided a real access to jobs problem:
"One out of three jobs take more than 90 min to get there by transit. Studies show that 45 min is a breaking point. Our roots begin in the title 6 civil rights law. We need a real transit system.. ..This community will bear the brunt of the cancellation of the Red Line. The impact of the governors action have a racial [undertone]. 
Sam Jordan, organizer
Jordan explained that the complaint is based on three corner stones. He says the Governor:
  • Never offered a substantive reason for the cancellation 
  • He called the reallocation of state funds "theft" and said that "there was never an equity analysis done". 
  • The Governor never consulted with the people he damaged. 
New elected democratic candidate for District 9 (West Baltimore), Dr. John Bullock participated in the march and spoke at the park as well, reminding folks how he had participated in an 18 months planning process about station development around the planned Red Line stations (SAAC):
Access is opportunity. Access to jobs is terribly needed. I spent 18 months on the West Baltimore  SAAC. It was a beautiful process. What is the opportunity in our city? (Dr. John Bullock, Democratic nominee for City Council District 9)
John Bullock, Council nominee (D)
Joshua Harris, Green Party candidate for Mayor said:
The Red Line was an opportunity to interconnect our city and break the divisions. It's not over. It only takes a small group to make a difference. We need to unify our city, the Red Line would have done exactly that. (Joshua Harris, Green Party Candidate for Mayor)
Grant Corley who had once co-founded the Red Line Now project support group reminded everybody:
"If a city has no transportation it can't thrive."
 Community member George Carter used to work at Ice House. He said: "We have new lampposts but nothing is done about the vacant houses...If you see a tree growing from the basement through the roof you see decades of neglect....Where is the market? It's a viscous cycle we need to get out of it.  I have seen the community go down. My mother still lives here. It is hard for her to get around. Transportation issues affect us all. 

Dave McCloy spoke as a member Transit Operator Union and as a MTA bus driver. "When the 900 million from the Red Line were taken you were robbed".  Rev Witherspoon junior who lives on Fulton Avenue cited the case of Thurgood Marshall and his suit that became Brown versus Education. "This issue is bigger than politics", he said, adding "this is a human rights issue. It is a righteous fight. Jesus only had twelve and he was able to revolutionize a corrupt system. 
Local artist: "with the stroke of a pen"

A local community artist lamented "they shut it all away from us with one pen stroke. [Once] Baltimore was a community of communities, now it is only a community of businesses."

Glenn Smith who grew up a block from MARC station and had been displaced by the Highway to Nowhere" said about the Red Line: We did everything we needed. All was aligned. Every time we get somewhere the lines is moving. That has to stop!" Mike McMillen, another MTA bus operator and union member from Cherry Hill said his dream was to operate one of the new Red Line trains:"Hogan took my dream away. I travel through the US. We are behind in transit", he said.

Richard Hall who leads CPHA thanked Sam Jordan for pulling this together and reminded those assembled: "We need to grow. Hogan canceled the Red Line through a press conference. He took the state money to build highways in rural areas. Talk to your friends and neighbors to get the Red Line back!"

Jordan in closing the event reminded all that
"the key of prosperity for all of Baltimore is justice for all of Baltimore." 
He said  "Ignorance is the governor's chief ally. We have to educate.
Nobody says the odds in our favor."
Reverend Witherspoon Jr.

The complaint is under review at the federal Department of Transportation. MDOT has sent documentation about the decision making process at the request of US-DOT. As this is an administrative complaint, no court or judge will be hearing the matter. The outcome could be that US DOT will issue a report in which the State may or may not be be reprimanded or even threatened with losing federal funds.

At this point, the matter is still open, though, and no federal reaction is public. US DOT Secretary Foxx is known to be quite outspoken about the link between transportation and civil rights.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Former area resident Glenn Smith
Founding member of the More Transit Equity Group:
access to education via transit

Friday, June 24, 2016

Reinventing the suburbs: Alternative scenarios for the Promenade project

This is the final piece of the Catonsville series investigating the relative lack of investment in the Southwest quadrant of the County, the potential of the "Village", the Spring Grove site, UMBC and the Promenade development proposal. This segment about the Promenade comes in two parts. Here is part 2, evaluating alternative development scenarios for the project. 

Aside form location, topography and urban design two other determining factors and big issues are transportation and, of course, "the market".


All scenarios would have to address access and circulation. Any new high density development needs to consider other ways to get around than the car. If walking distances are too great, then only two other options remain: Transit and bicycling.

Especially the distance from the university campus and from the "Village" could be overcome with a transit shuttle system not unlike the one UMBC already operates. The efficiency of such systems could be much increased if they would be demand based, i.e. the buses would operate like an Uber ordered by a group of people. The vehicles could be "green' and operate electrically, for example. If the Spring Grove innovation campus with 1 million square feet of research and incubators plus the Promenade would be realized, more serious transit would be in order and MTA would have to be routed to serve this complex.

The bicycle would be another way of getting around internally to cover the given distances, especially if there were a bike share system and potentially electric assist bikes like they are planned for the Baltimore City bike share. Only by solving the mobility and connectivity challenges would have any of the following scenarios a chance.


Who would invest and locate in the proposed development and under what circumstances? To discuss that question I called a trusted resource, an expert in market studies who is currently working with Baltimore County on a workforce analysis. I asked him about the big economic drivers and trends. He reminded me of an important truism that certainly applies to this isolated site: "People need a reason to be there". He confirmed that the Spring Grove site could be quite suitable for development responding to the ongoing shift towards a knowledge-based economy. According to Steve Whalen, UMBC's president has already expressed interest in expansion into Spring Grove.
Promenade development masterplan (Whalen Properties)

After identifying some of the concerns regarding the Whalen plans,  a good way of illuminating a potential path forward is the delineation of various alternative scenarios. I see three scenarios for the promenade but only one with a good success rate.

1. The Promenade as a regional destination lifestyle center

For Catonsville residents or existing merchants to get excited about the Promenade, the project would have to be complimentary and supportive of Frederick Road and the "Village". There are many examples where new development unencumbered by small historic floor plates can be supportive of a traditional main street and can complement mom and pop retail with bigger brand-name stores. The nearest example can be found in Annapolis in the symbiosis between historic Main Street and the new developments along West Street (especially the large redevelopment at Taylor Avenue).

For a synergistic relation between old and new to work, though, the distance needs to be walkable and spatially obvious.
Village festival in Catonsville
Even if one includes the entire Spring Grove campus as part of a bigger masterplan, there remain residential areas which will be separating the commercial sections from the redevelopment areas. The distance from the central square in the Promenade development to the intersection of Ingleside and Frederick Road is almost a full mile, not what is typically considered easy walking distance.

Short of a frequent shuttle system, this would require people to hop into a car and drive down the beltway to the Wilkens Avenue exit, an operation that may be normal for Los Angeles and unfortunately is also the best  that Owings Mills and White Marsh achieved, but it is certainly a solution that feels obsolete and is not what best planning practices would suggest.

But more importantly, there are not enough entertainment and retail elements in the proposed project to create such a draw that people would make the effort to get there. That makes it very unlikely that the Promenade could succeed as a regional lifestyle center that would draw from the entire southwest area. The retail shown to be located below offices buildings would be fine to support what is in the development itself and what is located nearby. The floor-plates, though, would be too small for larger brand name stores and too little in order to form a critical mass. The large amount of proposed offices not only would do little to enliven the development, it is also hard to see where the office demand would come from in a location without an urban surrounding or a waterfront. Millions of squarefeet of attractive office space will soon be offered at Canton Crossing, HarborPoint and also Port Covington.
UMBC campus. The Promenade would be near the top left

2. The Promenade as "college town"

That leaves the Promenade as a possible adjunct to UMBC, a"College Town" which provides the urbanity that the students can't find on their own campus. But connectivity is lacking in this direction as well:  The campus surrounded by a ring-road that acts like a moat. There is not so much distance to the Promenade site but the north end of the campus is mostly parking lots and there is no existing direct connection to Kenwood Road, the Promenade's access road and spine.

The White Marsh Avenue lifestyle center concept fascinated high school students for a while and became a popular teenager hangout. To draw university students requires a higher caliber attraction. From-the-ground-up instant urbanity is hard to achieve. The current masterplan concept is not nearly as cohesive as the National Harbor development near DC, or Baltimore's Harbor East, the result of an award winning masterplan by renowned archietcts Ehrenkrantz and Eckstut who designed Battery Park in New York. Public spaces for the proposed Port Covington were fine-tuned over six months of design review by high end architects from Boston.
Lifestyle Center Santana Row, CA 

The current Promenade design by Design 3 lacks not only the size to stack up with those other sites but it also lacks the finesse. So far the plan is little more than an assortment of different building types that would need a lot of work before they begin to form convincing and attractive spaces on par with Bethesda Row, downtown Silver Spring. or Clarendon in Arlington County. Especially the Clarendon example shows how retail, housing and some offices can all be integrated into a customized truly mixed use structure that forms a very attractive open space and creates a very plausible transition from high density to single family housing. To be an effective colleg-town, the proposed Promenade does not show enough restaurants, stores or attractions to create the critical mass and cohesion that is typically the trademark of success. The current design makes each of the various buildings representative of just the dominant use in it.
Anthem House in Locust Point, Baltimore

3. An urban community as part of an innovation campus

If the Village and The existing university campus alone won't provide enough air under wings of the Promenade to take off, Spring Grove may make the deciding difference.

What if we assume speculatively that the 1 million sf of space of the current Spring Grove campus would really become an innovation district and an extension of UMBC, with research and incubator offices slowly spreading over the campus at the rate of which the Status would declare the campus surplus?

What could the Whalen's project do as an appropriate response to such an innovation campus? What would make it a welcome investment ending the drought of major investments on Baltimore's Southwest side? Probably not office space because there is too much office competition and because Spring Grove would largely also be office use.

Taking a page from the re-invention that the Raleigh Durham Research Triangle is currently undertaking, quality housing would be very synergistic. Housing of a kind currently that is currently not found in the area, such as higher end condos and apartments. Density living with a n urban touch could be marketed to those who work in the imagined Spring Grove innovation park ("Live where you work").

If the Spring Grove development would be conceived as a most residential neighborhood, it would make a lot of sense to sprinkle in retail, restaurants and amenities that would serve the new residents, the people from the current UMBC campus and the knowledge workers from the new innovation park. A research park cum new neighborhood would be a symbiotic pair and a county-wide specialty, It would also be an attraction for the knowledge workers which already make up about 50% of the county workforce and are estimated to increase to about 75%. Designed that way the development would be a new neighborhood and not a beltway attraction.
Density multi-family development in San Diego (photo: Philipsen)

With high density and an urban lifestyle through built-in amenities and the nearby "Village" such a new neighborhood could be very viable. But to be successful it would have to be on par with cutting edge multi-family development such as it will be found at the Anthem House that Bozzutto currently builds in Locust Point. From the upper floors of Promenade apartments one could even see water and the Key bridge in the distance. Whalen could fly a drone to capture this view.


Critics of the Promenade are concerned about too much development, density in the worong place, the placement of new development on remaining green spaces and the piecemeal destruction of historic Spring Grove, not last through redevelopment of the hospital on the old site. These are all valid concerns which must be offset with benefits. The proposed project still has to prove that the benefits outweigh the problems.

As far as destination retail, its best chance is the redevelopment of Security Square Mall, an area larger than downtown Annapolis and ripe for an infusion of new energy.

The redevelopment of huge failing swaths of oversized commercial stuff that paved over the landscape during the rapid expansion phase of the suburbs is the real ground zero in the ongoing reinvention of the inner suburbs that is needed so they remain viable communities of the future. But that is another story.

Whalen Properties is well positioned for that move as well with its professional center being located immeditaley to the south of the failing mall.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Read the other parts of this series

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Catonsville's Promenade project: Where between quaint and innovation?

This is the third and final piece of the Catonsville series investigating the relative lack of investment in the Southwest quadrant of the County, the potential of the "Village", the Spring Grove site, UMBC and the Promenade development proposal. This segment will come in two parts. Here is part 1, introducing the Promenade project. The final installment will evaluate the development options for the project. It will be published tomorrow 

The small and in parts quaint Catonsville "Village" is clearly one of the more pleasant inner ring suburbs. Many want to keep things as they are and hate the question where this old streetcar town wants to be in 20-30 years.

Fate may not be benign enough for inner ring suburbs to allow coasting on the status quo, just as the "legacy" cities in the core were not able to maintain the status quo either.  Many predict that in 30 years core cities like Baltimore, Cleveland or St Louis will have recovered thanks to their historic substance, their grand parks, their anchor institutions, their walkable densities and a relatively decent transportation system. These are all "good bones" that predate the boom of the suburbs. In that prediction, the sprawling suburbs lacking mixed, use, density, walkability, cultural institutions and parks will be the ghettos of tomorrow, devoid of authenticity, urbanity and lacking the jobs that drive the new knowledge economy. In that view Ferguson outside of St Louis was just a beginning of increasingly volatile social conditions reaching the suburbs.
Catonsville "Village": Fourth of July Parade

Those dire predictions appear like hyperbole if one talks about Catonsville with its firehouse, Sunday farmers market,  little shops and famous Fourth of July Parade that has recently seen an uptick in young families moving to the area.

Still, even if one doesn't take the ghetto forecast too seriously and concedes that Catonsville is a bright light on most metrics, it is clear that in Baltimore County's inner ring suburbs the population mean age is high by national standards, that concentrations of poverty increase, and that many school districts suffer from poor test scores, conditions that were considered unthinkable for Baltimore County that tended to look down at the City.

As nice as Catonsville is, it is part of the entire southwest of the County. Obviously there are many things that the southwest area of the County doesn't have, whether it is a first-rate grocery store, big like Wegmans, or small like Trader Joe's. None of the trendier brands like DSW, Target or Urban Outfitters have a location in the southwest. There is neither a bookstore nor an Apple store, not even a real sit-down coffee shop, a brew pub or a beer garden, all supposedly indicators for a thriving retail scene. Old Catonsville has no centrally located attractive park, no public square or even an identifiable village center.
In the County's masterplan 2020,  investment seems to be directed everywhere else (Owings Mills, Towson, White Marsh) but not to the southwest.
Spring Grove site: Top right between Wilkens and Beltway
the site for the Promenade

In rapidly changing times standing still means sliding backwards. There are many signs of decay along route 40 or at Security Square Mall and not enough new development, infill and adaptive re-use to make up for it. One of the few large historic buildings in the "village", the old Elementary School on Frederick Road is only on a reprieve from the wrecking ball, its fate uncertain even though such a building could be a great arts center or house the type loft style apartments that attract so many millennials to the City.

That is the context in which I asked the title question of my first article in this series "Does Catonsville need the next big thing?" And that is the setting in which to consider the campus of Spring Grove described in the previous installment where I suggested it as a prime candidate for an innovation district anchored by UMBC. This the bigger picture under which to consider The Promenade development proposal that has been around for a dozen years, long enough to be reflected together with Spring Grove in the County's Comprehensive Plan as an Urban Center (T-5) area.
T-5 includes higher density mixed-use buildings that accommodate retail, offices, townhouses, and apartments. It has a tight network of streets, with wide sidewalks, steady street tree planting and
buildings set close to the sidewalks. (County Masterplan 2020)
Steve Whalen of Whalen Properties is the developer who came up with the Promenade idea. He told me that this bigger context was also on his mind when he suggested the Promenade development in 2004 as a 1.4 million square foot mixed use development with retail, big boxes, a cineplex, offices and residences placed on 50 acres along the west side of the Baltimore Beltway, some of it occupying land of the Spring Grove campus. There were some flashy renderings. Whalen says he had California's Santana Row development in mind, an early mixed use development which was for a time on the front page of magazines touting mixed use development, infill and "lifestyle centers" as the successors to the increasingly failing malls.
2004 rendering of the envisioned Promenade Plaza: Balloons and people

One of Whalen's problems right away was that he is well known as a local player, his most visible projects are a few  medical office buildings on Rolling Road surrounded by parking lots, quintessential suburban concepts lacking any sense of urbanity. Whalens architects are D3 - International with Jim Baeck, located in Catonsville in one of his professional buildings with a lot of work in South America.

In the "30,000 foot above the ground big-picture-mode" of looking at Catonsville, Spring Grove, UMBC and the Promenade all at once, it is tempting to imagine that the Promenade would be the link that creates a connection between the Catonsville "Village" and the university campus, injecting a few college-town elements that the university needs as much as the village needs the students to attract retailers. But such a sweeping vision meets some significant bumps upon further inspection.

For one, Catonsville's pretty conservative merchants just shrug their shoulders when they hear about students as potential customers. UMBC may as well be on a different planet. Then there is the inconvenient fact,  that The Promenade doesn't make connections, certainly not to the "Village" and unfortunately not to the campus either.

Lacking a larger narrative for the project, many residents started their opposition to the Promenade ("Prome-not") before some even knew where this development exactly would be. Opponents could easily seize on the project's relatively isolated location and its initial reliance on Spring Grove property still in the hands of the State. Opponents zeroed in on the protection of Spring Grove and its open spaces.  Whalen may have had California's Santana Row in mind, but most people in Catonsville imagined White Marsh, Owings Mills or the mall in Columbia, and imagined things they didn't want to see in their community and especially not where there is still a lot of green today. So they collected 1,200 signatures for the preservation of Spring Grove as a recreational open space (Opposition leader Paul Dongarra).
Original Promenade plan, the left half placed on Spring Grove land.

The project's orientation towards the ever wider Beltway didn't help much to allow the "sense of place" that is the trademark of the neo-urbanist mixed use developments which try to create "urban fabric" from scratch through "lifestyle centers" that are supposed to infuse suburbs with urban vitality.

Being stuck between the unwieldy eight-lane beltway and bucolic greenery, Whalen's Promenade got quickly mired in opposition and the State's snail's pace of declaring land of Spring Grove "surplus". To jump-start things, the developer proposed  a large medical office building a few years back, across the beltway and intended as a catalytic spark for the Promenade. But it, too didn't come off the ground when neighboring communities filed lawsuits and appeals; so far they lost them all, but until today that project is still held up in court. The building's design is so klutzy with more similarity to the First Mariner tower in Canton than to a successful beltway landmark catalyst, that the County's planning director found it too stuffy and asked for more glass, a rare design intervention in Baltimore County. As such the project concept failed its role as positive indicator for the things to come.
The medical building trial balloon. Source: Whalen Properties

Now, 12 years into hearings, protests and often bitter debates, Whalen has proffered the idea of moving forward with a smaller Promenade without the use of Spring Grove land. That approach includes an already approved BM zoned parcel and plus an additional 14 acres (maybe half of it actually buildable land) to be rezoned from residential and resource zoning to "major business" (BM) all owned by Whalen. The matter is now before the County Council as part of the quadrennial re-zoning process, County staff  is recommending the zoning change, Promenade opponents are once again speaking out against it, still on the grounds that the developer could jeopardize some part of Spring Grove. The council has to decide by the end of August.
"If Spring Grove never happens, this would be a viable development project on its own." (Whalen to the SUN in March of this year)
As with the proposed medical building, Whalen's 14 acre area to be rezoned intends to benefit from the reconfiguration of the Wilkens Avenue interchange at the Beltway. Wilkens Avenue is the one and only real access point. The extensive ramps and loops at the interchange have left hilly and wooded land undeveloped. Available for Whalen to buy, but difficult to develop.
Overview of a full Promenade concept with phase 1 starting on the left as presented for rezonig request
(source: Whalen Properties)
The skimmed down Promenade project version, as shown to the Council in a conceptual build-out, realizes 1.1 million sf on about half the footprint of the original proposal with significantly increased density. The program includes four office buildings, each above a level of parking or retail (the tallest 12 stories high, the lowest only four levels plus podium, with a total of 675,000 sf), an eight story 125 room hotel, 240 residential units in two six level apartment buildings and a potential boutique hotel with 100 rooms. Additional housing could be placed along Wilkens Avenue. The plan shows a 2500 car automated parking structure and a couple of low restaurant buildings located at what is called "town park".

While not including Spring Grove property may appease some opponents and free the developer from waiting for the State to offer land, the project still suffers from a number of disadvantages which are part of the DNA of the site and its location but also home-made, resulting from the design of the masterplan and its specific layout.
Enlarged Phase 1 of the Promenade project as approved  for BM zoning.
(source: Whalen Properties)
Inherent location problems include:
  • Access is tenuous and limited to Wilkens Avenue to the south. 
  • There is no clear connection to the UMBC campus
  • There is no practical connection to the "Village"
  • The super-sized beltway is a really bad neighbor for any more intimate  place-making effort
Design issues include:
  • The development is too linear to become a networked development in itself (such as Harbor Point or Harbor East in Baltimore City, "tight network of streets as per the T-5 definition) 
  • The development looks "dropped in", i.e. it isn't integrated with its surroundings by a road network or by picking up on topographical or man-made features.
  • The buildings along the beltway strive for visibility from the beltway while also trying to form a lively "main street" with their other side. Buildings with two fronts are rarely successful on both sides
  • The overall concept is partly laid out as new urbanism (lining buildings up to form a street) and partly like an office park from the seventies with "buildings in a park". The tension between those two concepts seems unresolved.
How can those adversities be overcome? How can the southwest attract sigificant investment and development that hedges against decline or stagnation?

The final segment with an evaluation of alternative development scenarios will conclude the series tomorrow.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Baltimore - The best place in the world to change the world"

This is the slogan of Baltimore Corps, another one of the entities that set their eye on Baltimore as "the social change capital of America".Baltimore Corps' President and CEO Fagan Harris explained his organization today to an audience of movers and shakers attending Ballard Spahr's breakfast series.
Fagan Harris, CEO Baltimore Corps

Baltimore Corps tries to bring talent to Baltimore and keep it here by attracting potential fellows from "flagship" partner universities around the country in response to the assessment that "We don't have a bench of talent" plus a "narrative problem" all the while "Baltimore is on the frontline of social justice".
“What New York City is to finance and San Francisco is to technology, Baltimore is for social change. If we can get it right here, we can get it right anywhere. We have more models for strengthening communities than many other places.” (Harris speaking with the Case Foundation)
Fagan Harris observed that demand for pathways towards social entrepreneurship is there and reported that the biggest motivator for millennials to locate somewhere is "optionality" ("thank you for introducing this new word to me" said Delegate Mary Washington who was in the audience).

Harris explained the term as "option value" which I understood to mean that millennials like to take an initial job that opens additional options.  In other words, working on the social justice front line in Baltimore will look good on the resume. By cultivating close ties with over 30 universities they get talented graduate students to apply as "fellows" to Baltimore Corps. In the last three years the organization graduated over 100 fellows. This year they received over 1000 applications. Baltimore Corps is a clearing house, Fagan explains. "Others do things like this nationally, but we want to go deep in one city". Fagan is a hometown boy with an education from Stanford, Oxford and a Rhodes scholarship who in his young years already completed a stint as program officer of a non-profit in Oakland, at the White House and at the Aspen Institute before coming back to Baltimore in 2013.

One  fellow was at hand to describe his work with the Baltimore Health Department under the leadership of Health Commissioner Leana Wen, probably Baltimore's most famous member of government and a board member of Baltimore Corps and ardent admirer of Fagan Harris. “Fagan is one of the people shaping the future of Baltimore,” Wen told Nick Fouriezos who writes the OZY posts.

139 social impact organizations applied for Baltimore Corps' fellows, an impressive rate that is sure to make a difference for those social impact enterpreneurs that become ever more numerous in the Baltimore. Fagan named as an example the CUPS Coffeehouse, initially Holly Gray's one person place combining workforce development, re-entry program and being a community hub. He sent fellows to help out in the endeavor.

Getting fellows interested in working with government is a challenge, said Harris, maintaining that social impact cannot be achieved soley through non profits or social entrepreneurs "on the fringe of the problem" if the core (government) is not addressed. Asked about his measures of success, he named talent retention. He mused, "why can't we mentor fellows also for the next and after next carrier step?".
Baltimore Corps Alumni

Having just explored Innovation Village West Baltimore I asked Mr Harris if he has spoken with Richard May who believes that "the talent is already here". It is on my calendar for tomorrow, he responded. It should be an interesting conversation.

As Jon Laria of Ballard Spahr who organizes the series of breakfast meetings at his high powered law firm noted, "there is so much going on in Baltimore. It is important we learn about it and make the connections".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Profile of Baltimore Corps by the Case Foundation
Stories of Baltimore Corps alumni

From Baltimore, Maryland, Fagan is the co-founder and CEO of Baltimore Corps, an organization dedicated to building a stronger Baltimore by mobilizing a new generation of leaders focused on urban renewal. Fagan is proud to work everyday strengthening one of America's greatest cities. Previously, Fagan worked at College Track, a national after school program dedicated to creating college-going cultures in historically underserved communities. As Fellow at the Emerson Collective, Fagan staffed the White House Council for Community Solutions where he supported efforts to harness the talents of Opportunity Youth. As a passionate service advocate, Fagan has worked to ask and empower Millennials to pursue careers of social impact at Stanford University (where he was Student Body Vice President) and later, at the Franklin Project, a national cross-sector effort dedicated to revitalizing citizenship through service. Fagan studied international human rights in Ireland as a Senator George J. Mitchell Scholar and holds a Masters of Philosophy in Comparative Social Policy from the University of Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar. (Echoing Green)