Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Noxius Brew - the Westport story

The Baltimore Brew fulfills an important role of investigative reporting from a perspective not covered in the SUN, the BBJ or the City Paper. Fern Shen and Mark Reutter have written fine pieces of excellent journalism.

But when it comes to Gerald Neily, once Baltimore's erstwhile municipal transportation planner and now a frequent contributor to the Brew, and his opinion pieces, all bets are off. In Tuesday's edition he is serving up one of his most curious brews yet: Under the screaming headline  A victim of Port Covington: the “Other Baltimore”. In Westport - Is a poor black neighborhood being held hostage by Kevin Plank’s plans? It goes on like this:
The  adverse impact of the Port Covington plan on poor and disenfranchised neighborhoods – the “Other Baltimore” so starkly highlighted during last year’s civil unrest – is not just conjecture or a conflict of values.
The absence of development in one of them, Westport, is proof.
Not that talking about Westport would be inappropriate in conjunction with Port Covington. To the contrary, Westport, Port Covington, and Brooklyn were connected communities that shared much more than just the Middle Branch. (Cherry Hill as such didn't really exist back in the days when the Middle Branch was an area with beaches and still didn't exist when Port Covington turned into a significant coal transfer hub with a big railyard and a modern coal loading pier for ships before and during WW II.)
Pat Turner's now defunct vision for Westport (source: Turner Development)

Pointing to Westport, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay as poor communities that for many years have seen little investment, and requesting that those communities should see improvements from the Port Covington Development, is also fine. But asserting that the Westport waterfront development previously associated with Pat Turner is not moving forward because Kevin Plank bought it and that he is stifling development is where the argument becomes pure hyperbole.

To recapitulate: When Pat Turner was the "big toast" (Neily) he proposed a high-end and quite large mixed use, transit oriented development. It was not as large as Port Covington, but with $1.4 billion and 50 acres and 2,000 homes, millions of square feet of office space, a hotel and a 65-story skyscraper, and public waterfront access, it was a gleaming dream bigger than anything else that was proposed in Baltimore at the time. Turner had hired the famous landscape firm Field Operations to design an environmentally friendly waterfront, not so different from what Sagamore envisions with its habitat conservation zones. He had won the Westport community over by promising investment in the community and public waterfront access to all.
Snazzy waterfront look-out rendering
(source: Turner Development)

But the 2007 financial crisis and the big recession that followed sank Turner's ship and he could not hang on to his land holdings after all refinancing options had been exhausted. Pat Turner had successfully developed Silo Point and a project near Little Italy, but he didn't have the resources to carry the cost of the huge Westport project through a prolonged recession. He had sunk millions into site acquisition and the demolition of the vast BGE plant and the former Carr Lowry glass company. He had engaged all sorts of consultants for renderings, plans and concepts. All that was pre-development cost with no cash coming in except that he had secured a $162 million TIF and received $620,500 in American Recovery & Reinvestment Act stimulus funding for site clean up.
Westport waterfront promenades and parks  (source: Turner Development)

As Mark Reutter had pointed out in an analysis of TIF funding, the Westport story and Turner's fate could serve as a cautionary tale for how the City approaches the Sagamore project. But that is not where Neily is going. Instead he has this demand:
As a precondition of any public subsidy for Port Covington, Plank should be required to sell Westport.
The city should then flatten the economic playing field, so that developers and residents can look at various options for the Middle Branch as a whole that could benefit rich and poor alike.
Freeing Westport from its dormancy could give the community and various business interests, including manufacturers and light industry, a chance to lay out their visions for the area’s future.
And real competition among developers could break the “arms race” of ever-bigger public subsidies for upscale projects that not only reek of favoritism, but cause so much resentment and despair in this city. (Neily)
Neily's calculation seems to be that after a lot of the initial pre-development cost went up in the flames of Turner's bankruptcy, Westport waterfront development could magically become an assortment of affordable housing. Neily seems to assume that the Westport TIF would somehow remain in effect, even though he says that not much additional infrastructure is needed:
Westport after the demolition of industrial structures
The demand for new infrastructure there is low compared with Port Covington. The light-rail station is already there. All of the demolition and much of the industrial remediation have already taken place. (Neily)
 This is conveniently overlooking the fact that there is no access from the Westport station to the waterfront. The station sits on top of a 25' retaining wall. Having worked on a bridge design from the station spanning over the freight line running there as well, I know that significant infrastructure is needed to make the station useful for new development. Just as in Port Covington, there are no roads, there is no water and sewer, and for all we know, there are still foundations and possibly remaining industrial contamination as well.

So, Neily assumes that Kevin Plank could be forced into selling his Westport fire sale acquisition for a reasonable price, that a new investor would show up and buy the site from Plank and that this new investor could somehow be coerced into building affordable housing on the site. All that parallel to the biggest Baltimore project in 50 years competing right around the corner. Those are a lot of assumptions for which there is extremely little evidence in the market place. Turner would have done everything to make his Westport project work. Alas, he had to declare bankruptcy because he "couldn't make the numbers work", big TIF notwithstanding. The difference between Turner and Plank is, that the latter has a growing and prosperous company that is supposed to be the nucleus of the new development and is the engine that fires up the otherwise non existing demand for the planned surrounding mini-city. While Under Armour could go up in flames, all current indicators point in the opposite direction.
one of the Westport LRT station Bridge concepts resulting from a collaboration
between ArchPlan and Parameter Architects 

Neily is not alone in the assumption that the heavy burden of up-front development cost arising from converting pollution laden brownfields into development parcels with a high quality public infrastructure should easily be carried by developers, especially if they are rich.  He and others conveniently forgets that the construction and upkeep of public amenities like water, sewer, roads, sidewalks, promenades and parks has historically been paid by a municipality out of the general fund.  He and others forget that development is an economic undertaking and that it has to make economic sense or it won't happen. Adding all those infrastructure costs into the pro-forma of the proposed housing, office and retail spaces would move the cost outside any realistic expectation of recovery.

Neily and others who can't fathom that Baltimore should grow and have new development areas such as Harbor East, Harbor Point or now Port Covington adhere to a line of thinking in which each apartment and each office that goes into those newly developed areas is taken away from downtown or "the neighborhoods". But urban development is not a zero sum game. Cities are not static and if they try to stagnate, they will die. Most companies, retailers and condo owners who now reside in Harbor East or that go to HarborPoint would never have invested in downtown or the existing neighborhoods. They wanted class A facilities and they got them in an area developed under state of the art standards. But others still invest in downtown and in many neighborhoods, too. Neily is right, this leaves the question what to do with the areas that don't have any "market" as an extremely important topic. But cannot simply conflate glitzy new development with blight and construct the former as the cause for the latter. That may be a populist view, but it doesn't make it right. There wouldn't be one bit less blight if Baltimore didn't have any glitz at all. Just an even more diminished tax base.

Urban expansion areas for state of the art development is common practice around the world, often deployed as a startegy to jump-start ailing or constrained cities. Annapolis constrained by the surrounding County and a strict historic district expanded in this manner along West Street. Washington DC expanded at the Navy Yards and along the Anacostia. Paris, France built its La Defense area. The two port cities London and Hamburg jump started their once flagging cities with the Docklands and Hafen City. None of these developments are particularly affordable. But they took the pressure of historic areas and allowed cities that couldn't grow laterally to expand inside.

Neily's Baltimore Inner Space blog has developed many intriguing ideas. But the concept of forcing Plank to give up Westport so that it could be developed as an affordable antidote and competitor to Port Covington lacks any foundation in the economic realities of big urban redevelopment projects. As presented, it amounts to a toxic brew that does nothing but rile populist sentiments as becomes evident by many of the comments under his Brew article.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA