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

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