Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Port Covington masterplan needs a broader forum

The Phoebe Stanton room is a bit a depressing hearing room at any time. Low ceiling, no daylight, stuffy air. Today, with the Planning Commission hearing for Port Covington's masterplan about to begin, the air was already thick and the room packed with a crowd which must have far exceeded the Fire Marshall's official limit. The crowd overflowed into the Planning department's hallway and lobby with ceiling speakers providing at least the audio of the staff presentation that was given inside the room to the Planning Commission and the public.
Large crowds at the hearing

Planning Commission chair Bill Cunningham opened with clarifying that this hearing was only about the masterplan and not about financing and that whatever opinions about the TIF would not be entertained here.

Then Planning Department staff presented the masterplan in its regional and local context, in the context of the guiding planning documents (the Middle Branch Masterplan, the Maritime Masterplan, the Urban Renewal Plan, existing zoning and the PUD regulations that allow uses that are not allowed in the current M industrial zoning. The slides on the screen were the same as those in the Planning Department's online document which can be accessed here.

The crowded setting did not allow any of the inspiring and sometimes exuberant give and take of the detailed UDARP design reviews of the various plan elements that had taken place in the same space since the beginning of the year.

For the hearing supporters had been shipped to the event in a church bus and had staged a small pro-demonstration in front of the Brenton building before the hearing. Inside, the supporters wore Port Covington T-shirts and held placards, even though they didn't always seem to know much about the project which would be understandable since many came from the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, the church which had constructed the resource and housing center that burnt down on the night of the unrest and was rebuilt in record speed.

Massing plan (Source: Sagamore)
One has to wonder whether Kevin Plank or his development company had any hand in the speedy rebuilt of that or what otherwise the connection to that community could be. (They also are in the process of starting a masterplan for the devastated neighborhood north of the Amtrak tracks and the EBDI area).

I wished that Sagamore would create a few more comfortable public meetings in which Mr Manfredi (the architect) and Caroline Paff (the developer's representative) would explain the plan and its elements as eloquently and in detail as they had done at the UDARP meetings. The question of the TIF rides in large part on the quality of the physical plan itself and the public amenities it offers. A planning department staff report in an overcrowded space is not the forum such a big plan deserves and needs in oder to be widely understood. Understanding being the condition for meaningful comment and critique.
Supporters from Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore

I recall how then Mayor Sheila Dixon kicked off the Red Line planning process with day-long presentation and discussion workshop from which flowed the Red Line Community Compact. There were the Mayor, the MTA, the departments, food, lots of community and plenty round table workshops to mull over details. That is what the Port Covington plan also needs.  A day at City Garage! Maybe the AIA or ULI could organize such an event since our Mayor doesn't seem to be willing to do it. There are plenty of disinvested communities near Port Covington that could benefit from a broad community compact, from Westport to Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
the hearing was still ongoing while this article has been published
BBJ article

Planning staff presents the masterplan