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

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