Sunday, June 5, 2016

Park Heights: Time to learn from failure

Trying to do the same thing over and over can be sign of a persistence; more likely it is a manifestation of poor learning.

Comprehensive site acquisition, relocation of all remaining residents, complete demolition and all new development through a master-developer has failed in the Uplands, in Poppleton and at EBDI.

But this approach is precisely what Baltimore Housing repeats for the 49 acre Park Heights area included in the most recent RFQ. A small piece out of the 1200 acres that comprises the section of Baltimore known as Park Heights, but still pretty large when it comes to rebuilding it. (It is, for example an area more than three times the Heritage Crossing redevelopment of the former Murphy Homes highrises). For good measure the City wants to add another 13 acres once the first part has been redeveloped. The RFQ says:
49 acre "clean slate" area: Six master developers under review
The 49 acre RFQ area is in the final stages of City-sponsored acquisition, relocation
and clearance. Significant portions of the remaining properties in the Major
Redevelopment Area, consisting of approximately 13 contiguous acres, are also
planned to be made available for redevelopment and rehabilitation activities.
Acquisition, relocation and clearance of severely blighted properties within these 13
acres is estimated to commence upon completion of these activities in the 49 acre
RFQ area. Development teams are encouraged to incorporate these 13 additional
acres into their comprehensive vision for redevelopment of the community.
 So what is the problem with this approach, or more precisely, what has failed in the three other cases?

The answer isn't simple, just as anything that has to do with the redevelopment of dis-invested areas in Baltimore or anywhere else in America is anything but simple. In fact, the RFQ follows one of the suggestions made by the Boston urban planning firm of Goody Clancy in their masterplan. The RFQ is part of  the three-year planning process that culminated in the Park Heights Master Plan which was formally adopted in 2006. The Plan has more than 50 recommendations.

To state it clearly: I don't believe that the problems of extreme income segregation in American cities are caused by the current housing authorities, wherever they may be and how dysfunctional they may be. (Historically, housing authorities did actually actively contribute to racial and to income segregation).

Contrary to general public opinion, I even believe that Baltimore Housing has learned a lot while Commissioner Paul Graziano headed it up. The Vacants to Values approach to abandoned properties and buildings has become a lot more sophisticated over the years and is considered a national model in the fight against blight. In spite of various scandals and incompetent management of its own housing stock, the combined department of Housing and Community Development has managed to work well with HUD, received grants and pilot programs such as the Rental Assistance Program RAD and Moving to Work (MTW). There is an impressive workplan. It won't be easy to replace Paul Graziano with a more savvy person, as all mayoral candidates including the likely new mayor, Catherine Pugh, have vowed to do.

But Housing's own success stories show that redevelopment with a finer brush works much better than the clean slate approach. Good examples are the redevelopments in Barclay (Midtown) and Oliver (East Baltimore). Neither in Barclay nor in Oliver were all residents relocated nor was every single house razed. Instead, infill and redevelopment became a tango of old and new with the essential structure of an existing community left in place.
Marginal businesses in Park Heights (2003 ArchPlan archive)

By contrast, Uplands, Poppleton and phase one of EBDI insisted on the costly clean slate approach that destroys every remnant of the existing community, physically, socially and economically. The official term for clean slate  is urban renewal or slum and blight removal, both are highly charged terms because of the disastrous track records of both strategies.

But these ideas remain alive and well in the minds of many people, including that of suburban politicians like Governor Hogan.
The clean slate approach is destined to fail, no matter how often it will be repeated, especially in situations where there is no obvious market and demand.

The level of failure in the three noted example areas is different for each one: The Uplands successfully completed a suburban-looking phase one redevelopment but now seem to be stuck with that insular foreign-looking small new community surrounded by acres of weeds. Meanwhile, the merchants of nearby Edmondson Village continue to miss the 1000 households that once populated the Uplands area as customers for almost 20 years.

In Poppleton hundreds of rowhouses had been bought out or razed in anticipation of a big comprehensive redevelopment. But the selected master developer, La Cite, couldn't get its act together in 10 years and probably never will.

At EBDI the leadership learned a lesson from phase 1, where all residents had been displaced and all houses demolished (parts of the phase one area still stand vacant). Embarking on phase 2, renovations of existing houses were included with a small number of residents actually staying in place. The jury on an eventual success of EBDI is still out.

The common failure in all three cases is that under the guise of physical "improvements" (knocking down neglected vacant buildings), the social capital of entire communities gets wiped out. As a special injustice, those get the shaft who stuck it out in declining communities over the decades. The strategy is not just ethically or morally dubious, it is also economically disastrous.

The removal of the remaining residents simply pulls the rug from under whatever stores and services are left in the community, including the not to be underestimated underground economy, and I don't mean drugs, but "hacks", auto detailing, bake sales, unofficial hair cutting and the like. The already shaky mom and pop businesses cannot survive the decades it takes before a new community may germinate, a very uncertain prospect to begin with, as the three examples demonstrate. Clean slate removal also diminishes the local tax base (if residents get shipped to the County and remaining businesses shut down) and creates a no-go zone among the remaining communities that drags them further down and makes their struggle for survival even harder. No-go means, whole areas where nobody patches potholes, plows snow, sweeps or patrols the street. Blight removal through demolition and relocation means first diminished city services, no doubt about it.
2003 blight removal under Mayor O'Malley: "Neighborhoods first"
(photo: ArchPlan Archive)

The SUN's excellent article on the occasion of the City's RFQ for the 49 acre site notes the failed Baltimore redevelopment examples; yet everybody interviewed for the article expects that in Park Heights the outcome will be different, truly amazing.

The clean slate approach received new air under its old wings since the Governor's promised added funds for his project CORE which especially targets demolition.

It is time to realize, that the most successful communities in Baltimore are those with their historic fabric left intact and the most successful economic developments are those that use the scalpel instead of the sledgehammer.

The laudable goals included in the RFQ (see below) would be much easier to achieve without first denuding 49 acres of all residents and structures.
Build a Recognizable Urban Neighborhood That Respects the Community’s History, Value and Traditions. Create a distinctive mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhood and sense of place that retains the area’s unique attributes while creating a nationally recognized new community that retains an urban feel and is characterized by: pedestrian-scale, moderate density, accessibility and connectivity, transit oriented development, public spaces and amenities.
Achieve Economic and Social Diversity. Target housing opportunities to a broad range of incomes, from very low income residents to moderate income and market rate households. Build housing products that accommodate households at all points in their life cycle, with a mix that may include rental and for sale, market driven and affordable, large and small units, multifamily, town houses, and single family detached units. Housing is expected to be provided for a range of households with disabilities.
Instead of the insistence to bring entire areas under city control ("land banking") the City should encourage existing residents to remain, support them and ask developers to do new construction between existing residents and rehabilitate any structures that are contributing to the character of the community. The insight that "superblock" approach has failed to work should not only apply to the Westside of downtown but the neighborhoods as well. The $24 million spent on acquisition, relocation and demolition of 260 properties would have been better spent on subsidizing rehabilitation and incentives for new residents to come to the area.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

SUN article about Park Heights
Park Heights Master Developer RFQ
Park Heights Masterplan

ArchPlan applied in 2003 for consulting services for the Park Heights Masterplan and was shortlisted along with Goody Clancy, the firm that received the contract.