Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Boondoggle over the Bay

Some people just don't get the somewhat counter-intuitive truth that you can't build your way out of congestion because of induced demand from added capacity. Hogan who redirected Baltimore's Red Line funds to build more roads is one of them.

the two existing Bay Bridges
SoTuesday he drove together with MDOT Secretary to a nice photo opp on the shore of the Bay for a brief press conference in which he announced that he ordered a study for an additional bridge across the Bay, because the current one has too many back-ups which are projected to get even longer. (14 miles by 2040). Hogan admitted that a 2015 life-cycle study showed that the existing pair of bridges could be kept functional for another 50 years or so. But hey, what about that pesky congestion that already bothered Donald Schaefer so much ("reach the beach").
Scenic press conference and announcement

The first step which Hogan announced Tuesday is an initial environmental impact study under the federal National Environmental Protection Act NEPA. He has set aside $5 million to review alternatives and their environmental repercussions, a study that could take up to four years to complete. "I won't be Governor when that bridge gets completed" he quipped, "but I want to be the one who got it started". A slew of studies preceded him, in 2007 then MDOT Secretary even studied a transit only bridge (it brought only a 1.1% reduction for the car traffic).


History may not look so kindly on Hogan's initiative.

Not only is the current bridge the only thing that stands between the big metro areas of DC and Baltimore and the large farms on the Eastern Shore, because its capacity limits prevent even more people from moving their bedrooms into the rural areas that are still left east of the Bay. Already the first 15 miles or so along Route 50, which mutated under Schafer to being a freeway, have become overrun by sprawl, gas stations and outlet malls. It has become common knowledge that this pattern of roadway centered development is inefficient, bankrupts jurisdictions in the long run, and is environmentally not sustainable, not to mention rising sealevels. But our Governor doesn't like "smart growth".

The other thing that neither Hogan nor his expert secretary seem to take into account is that we are on the verge of a transportation revolution in the shape of autonomous vehicles. Experts differ whether it will be three or ten years until those will become common, but nobody doubts that they will come. Whether they come as privately owned cars or as fleet vehicles that people hire, they will no doubt increase existing road capacity by somewhere between 50-100% because self driving cars can be stacked closer together, reach uniform speeds, travel in platoons and altogether cause a lot less friction on the road. In other words, those projections about back-ups on the Bay Bridge may be just as obsolete as those 1860 projections how high horse maneuver would pile up in the streets of London by 1920.

Meanwhile Hogan can be sure to get the applause from some of his rural Republican constituents who want to make sure that some State money comes their way, from businesses in Ocean City who can never see enough beach goers flock to their town,  and from those in the "urban elite" who want to get to the beach as fast as possible. There is never a shortage of those who support shortsighted and ultimately failing policies. Luckily, in four years when this first study will be done it may be much
95,000 cars a day in 2040- not a problem with AVs
more obvious what the future of automobility will hold.

Maybe by then Kevin Plank will operate a fleet of hovercraft between Port Covington and Rock Hall and folks will have rediscovered the beauty of travelling right on the water.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Hogan also showed off a new license plat design ("I don't like those red white and blue War of 1812 signs") in which he confessed to have had a hand himself, even his wife did ("she is somewhat better in that stuff").
Definitely hard to read with all that competing black. 


Professor Walter's deadly jump

Salto mortale, a dangerous and daring jump with possibly lethal outcome

Mr. Walter is a conservative economist at Loyola College and occasionally he gets to write columns on the SUN's opinion page in which he takes economic salti mortali, scary, possibly deadly jumps. Take Monday's column in which Mr Walter writes this:
Cutting the city's property tax rate in half would, indeed, cut receipts by about $400 million this year. The contemplated $1.2 billion in city, state and federal subsidies for Mr. Plank's project alone would cover three years of such losses.
But, of course, with a competitive tax rate the city would not only be attractive to Mr. Plank but to untold numbers of others who would like to invest in Baltimore but lack political muscle to win the concessions that would make this worthwhile.
It is well known that conservative economists never see a tax that they wouldn't like to cut and in the case of City property taxes, who would not agree, cutting it would be nice. It is sky high and many bright minds have tried to approach the conundrum on how to reverse the deadly spiral that a shrinking pool of residents has to cough up ever more taxes to pay for keeping the City open, a cost that is not shrinking  proportionally with the sinking revenue. This city has almost saved itself to death already with so many departments decimated to a point where they are only shadows of their former past. Naturally, services shrink in the process as well, not exactly a recipe to attract more residents.
Baltimore City budget: 32% from property taxes

As I said, many bright minds have put all kinds of studies together to address the problem and all agreed that the city has to somehow bring the taxes down to attract new residents. But nobody came up with Mr. Walter's brilliant idea of just not giving Kevin Plank the TIF and cut the property tax rate in half instead.

I wonder why this is? Could it have to do with the fact that the TIF money (or the tax credits he lumps in to get to the needed amount) isn't real money and can't be used for anything until it is drawn from a bond which is secured by the very value and income that the TIF pays for, Port Covington's infrastructure? In other words, if Sagamore doesn't build a thing, there is no bond or any other source to use to make up for the $400 million loss per year that would result from a property tax cut of 50%.
Graphic from Professor Walter's 2011 article "How to make Baltimore
a superstar city"

If Mr. Walter thinks he could find an entity that would issue bonds on his premise that cutting the property tax rate in half would pay not only for itself in three years but also pay back the bond, if he really believes that he lives in a parallel universe. Mr Walter assures that this is what happened  in San Francisco. How did that City do it? With the help of the State of California which basically made a local tax a State affair and made up for the initial losses. having the State effectively preempting a local tax is, in fact, usually an anathema among conservatives. (See also the California Policy Institute's paper).
Proposition 13 and AB 8 generated two important outcomes. First, the property tax is no longer a local tax. Proposition 13 sets the rate and base; AB 8—a state law—allocates who gets the receipts. The amount of property tax received by a local agency is a function of its relative share of property tax levied prior to Proposition 13. For example, a city that previously had a relatively high tax rate receives a larger share of the fixed countywide 1 percent property tax rate. Aside from annexation or incorporation, the only way that local governments can affect property tax receipts is through economic development, and even in these cases, they receive only a portion of the revenues (Public Policy Institute of California)
It turns out that Mr Walter's story that increased attractiveness and economic activity made up for the entire shortfall in SF's budget leaves out that \Prop 13 was statewide initiative and involved a broad set of revised formulas and mechanisms to make up for the urban budget shortfall.

Mr Walter has peddled his idea of the big tax cut before in his Policy Papers under the title How Baltimore to Make Baltimore a  Superstar City. (The 2011 Maryland Journal). Somehow all of the leaders in State and City and even the current Republican Governor have not seen Walter's suggestion as compelling enough to try. Maybe it is because California Proposition 13 today isn't seen as the thing that brought only good results. Already in 2009 TIME attributed the California budget crisis to Prop 13.
at the root of California's [budget] misery lies Proposition 13, the antitax measure that ignited the Reagan Revolution and the conservative era. In Washington, the Reagan-Bush era is over. But in California, the conservative legacy lives on. (TIME)
It is astounding, though, that Walter pulls his silver bullet out again to argue against the TIF for the Sagamore project currently under consideration. One would think that Kevin Plank would be a conservative economist's special friend and that his project is precisely the type of investment Walter promotes, namely more residents who help carry the tax burden.

The TIF is not to provide Mr Plank with tax relief as Walter makes us believe, it has never been seen as such. Instead, the TIF pays (half) of what has been a matter of public domain for a long time: Infrastructure. Infrastructure that will make pretty worthless railyards valuable development land. A self paying proposition in which an investment is leveraged to receive income that before wasn't there. The very thing that economists always promote. And a thing, if properly negotiated, could actually allow the City to bring its property tax rate down.

What do I know? I am just an architect. I just hope that finally somebody takes up his his silver bullet and applies it so we don't have to take the much recycled stories of 1978 as evidence any longer. Gary, Detroit, anybody?


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Summary of 2015 City Budget

Below an excerpt of Walter's story about three cities, Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco which I often use to show that, indeed, Boston and San Francisco were in dire straits once as well and that, indeed, it is possible to fill a city back up and eliminate vacant and abandoned houses. 

Overlooked in the standard story line is a remarkable real-world plot twist, however: some cities have coped with flight, suburbanization, and deindustrialization much better than others. Indeed, cities like Boston and San Francisco — each of which shares with Charm City a bayside setting, an industrial past, and a present that is politically progressive — have made such dramatic turnarounds that today they enjoy status as “superstar cities.” Their periods of decline are so far in the past that comparing Baltimore to them is often considered unfair. (San Francisco, after all, enjoys the advantage of nicer weather, and Boston has, well, awful weather, but… there must be something. A superior baseball team?) In fact, by most measures Baltimore was actually doing better — or, more accurately, less badly — than both Boston and San Francisco in the decades immediately following WWII. From 1950 to 1975, Baltimore lost 10 percent of its residents, but (weather and other conditions notwithstanding) San Francisco’s population fell 14 percent and Boston’s 21 percent. From 1947 to 1972, the number of manufacturing jobs declined by 25 percent in Baltimore, but 28 percent in San Francisco and 42 percent in Boston. Not surprisingly, crime flourished in all three cities as they depopulated and their economies struggled. — Yet as of 1975 the overall crime rate in San Francisco (where Hollywood used to film gritty cop dramas like “Dirty Harry”) was actually 19 percent higher than Baltimore’s, and Boston’s was a staggering 53 percent higher. Then, miraculously, things got better in the other two bay cities. ( pg 36 of the 2011 paper)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Why it took less time to fix a sinkhole in 1997

Last Wednesday the always chipper mailman Tony who delivers the office mail, looked somewhat beaten: "Just when you thought it can't get any worse, there comes another hit".

Indeed, Wednesday, and without much warning, came the day when on-call contractor Spiniello had figured out how to cross the Howard Street light rail tracks with its temporary sewer bypass of a twin set of 24" pipes and obtained all necessary permits (hard to tell which took longer). 
Drilling rigs and cranes (photo ArchPlan)

The resulting construction needed to get this accomplished is astounding in its complexity and scope, and yes, it required the complete closure of Franklin Street as well. 

The last time Franklin Street had to be closed for a sinkhole was on November 9,  1997, when the intersection of Franklin and Park disappeared and a severed gas line exploded and set the hole on fire for five hours, forcing evacuations all around. But after a few weeks pipes were sutured, the hole filled, the road paved and traffic could flow again. This time it is worse and one of the reasons is the quick patchwork that was too common 20 years ago. 

Now the arterial route 40 corridor is fully severed in the eastbound direction at Mulberry and Greene Street and in the westbound direction at Franklin and Park. All traffic get routed around the 1 block (eastbound) and two block (westbound) closure. The closures will be in effect for some time to come. To get under the tracks, a tunnel boring machine will be used that will be placed on the on Franklin west of Howard Street.The boring has to pass under the tracks and some pretty deep utilities running on Howard Street, but above the CSX tunnel under Howard Street, which is pretty deep down at this point. The way I understand it, the borings will be about 24' under the street level and accordingly, the hole in which to assemble the boring machine has to be that deep as well.
Shoring the pit with steel plates (photo ArchPlan)
Shoring the pit with steel plates (photo ArchPlan)

 Before one can dig a hole that deep in between buildings and with the prospect of extensive work at the bottom of the hole, it has to be shored up. To this end, 14 piles had to be driven into the ground, or more precisely, placed into drilled holes. When the pit gets excavated, metal sheets will slide down between the flanges of the piles and shore up the soil. The drilling and placing of the piles took until Friday evening, since then excavation is taking place. The pit on the east side of Howard was dug much faster, just lifting the boring machine out again, apparently requires less elaborate shoring.
The matter is quite reminiscent of the tunnel work envisioned for the Red Line, just this time on a much smaller scale and only temporary.
A big excavator ready to dig the 25' deep pit
(photo ArchPlan)

Once the boring machine is operational, it will drill those holes, one after the other (it can't back up, so it must be reset by crane, I suppose). Then the pipes can be pushed through, they need to be connected with the surface pipes that by then will have been waiting for this moment for more than two months. One all the pipes are connected the big sewer diversion from the 54" broken main at Mulberry Street can finally occur which will allow the actual repair work in the sinkhole to finally begin.
Utility work worldwide: In Baltimore on Time & Materials
(photo ArchPlan)

The big question I had was, wether is the sewage going all this time and wouldn't there have been an easier more direct detour with a fix in the hole much earlier? If I understand it correctly, the broken pipe still carries the sewage in its bottom half while the top is blown. If the loads grow bigger than the bottom can carry, it spills. As for the direct fix with a mini detour, that isn't being considered because that sewer main is shot over a much longer distance with many other places where the street shows already signs of being washed out. So the plan is to fix the whole length, bless their heart, with a plastic liner that essentially creates a new pipe inside the brittle old one.

What business owners, tenants and residents in the area probably care most about is: How long will it take and when will Franklin be reopened? From what I gathered, if the borings work as planned, Franklin will be reopened with two westbound lanes in four weeks at the earliest. The sinkhole fix will go through the rest of the year, probably into 2017.  The Center Street sewage pipe is fixed, but workers for phone and electric are still in the ground doing their things. So that will also still be about a month.

Meanwhile DOT traffic engineers will review the area with a field visit this week to see how traffic flow can be improved. 

The 1997 caused the vacant building at the northwest corner of Oark and Franklin to be demolished, it's foundations weakened. So far, the new crop of sinkholes hasn't threatened any buildings yet. And there were no fires yet, either. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The article is compiled from inquiries to a DPW Inspector, several Spiniello supervisors, a superintendent and City DOT.
Diagram of a lined pipe

Injection of plastic liner




Thursday, August 25, 2016

Baltimore is not Fallujah

To have the opportunity of going back in time after a crime was committed by playing back what happened, for example, what car drove up, how many people got out and entered the house, when they come back out and were they went then, review the respective ground cameras and get the close-up shots of faces, license plates and details, wouldn't that be really cool?
Baltimore from 8000 feet looks innocent enough, but a high res camera can
see individual figures (Photo: Bloomberg News)

What investigator would not want to be able to go back in time like that? Its a dream come true for all detectives who make their living trying to piece things together retrospectively from little snippets left behind, from observations, conclusions and records. Instead of all that deductive work, taking a film that shows what actually happened and run it backwards and forward until all steps are seen, explained and make enough sense to identify the folks who did the crime, who wouldn't prefer that?

But how could such a thing work? Who would have seen everything without knowing what will happen next and where and when? Where would that epic film be that shows everything that has happened in a big city all day long and would allow the detective to simply "spool" it back? Even in Huxley's Brave New World nobody had this particular ability.

But as we know now, thanks to Bloomberg News, all it takes is a contract with Ross McNutt, an unsuspecting Non-Profit that inadvertently channels the money, a donor who is interested in refining the technology ("philantropists" the Bloomberg article calls the donor couple), a Cessna, a couple of pilots who want to get some flying hours down to keep their license active, and a, for once, entrepreneurial police department and, voila!, Baltimore has become Fallujah!

Persistent Surveillance contractors get a corner at the police headquarters
(Photo: Bloomberg News)

It may seem to some all along that way, but the fact that the technology was refined to be applied in Fallujah for war conditions to track hostile individuals planting IEDs requires special consideration, because it is precisely this genesis which holds the key for judging whether employing a Cessna over Baltimore to create endless film loops is a splendid idea or not.

The system was active for 100 hours in January and February, and then 200 more hours between May and now. McNutt said there is some time left on the contract. 

As usual Baltimoreans are split on how serious the matter is. "What's the big deal, I have nothing to hide; if it solves crime, I am all for it" say the ones and "unacceptable, atrocious intrusion in our privacy" say the others. 

The police who commissioned the whole thing says sheepishly that it wasn't supposed to be a secret action, although, of course, it was. The aptly named Persistent Surveillance company who offers the technology says that the films are too grainy to show faces or enough detail to identify a car or person. Although night and zoom technology also exists, it didn't get used in Baltimore, or so they say. But secrecy and technological shortcomings are not the real issues here, anyway. What matters is the before-the-act wholesale dragnet type of surveillance (bulk surveillance) doesn't distinguish. Its purpose can be anything, because when you can roll back time, new purposes can come to mind in endless ways. "While we are at it, why don't we also look for xyz", it doesn't take much fantasy to imagine the possibilities of abuse.
The Cessna in question in the hanger
(Photo: Bloomberg News)

This discussion we had already when the country, and indeed the world, discussed Snowden's revelations about eavesdropping on just about every phone call that was made in the entire country and from abroad. We had a thorough debate about bulk surveillance and big data. The arguments then we're the same as now, namely that real eavesdropping would only occur if and when there was a real suspicion and that the resources weren't there to really listen to a lot of stuff. It was determined then, that these lines of reasoning didn't make bulk surveillance right and that wholesale recordation was, indeed, inconsistent with our constitution, a free country because it constituted systemic violation of privacy. The program got scrapped.
looking not too happy (Baltimore SUN)

What police was thinking to pull this "21st century investigative tool" (police spokesperson) on the people of Baltimore in a time when trust in police is at a minimum to begin with is everybody's guess. The police sure are slow learners. The program should be scrapped immediately and McNutt sent back to working for the military, in war zones and emergencies. The Mayor who mumbled something about Baltimore being "on the cutting edge of innovation" with this, she needs a "dope slap" for once again not really getting what's going on.
Our future Mayor said she needs more information. Wasn't too much information precisely the issue here? 
There is no evidence in Baltimore's crime rate or poor crime clearance rate that this technology provided a breakthrough. To give the police the intelligence they need takes more than flying a Cessna! 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Trust instilling? (Photo: Bloomberg)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Can Kevin Plank solve Baltimore's affordable housing crisis?

When I bought some stuff at the local deli Trinacria, hard hit by the rotten infrastructure around both of its locations with sinkholes and surface sewer pipes pretty much strangling its businesses, the only other customer in the store, a local resident, commented, "and with all that going on we want to give that rich guy Plank all that money".
Council Hearing about affordable housing: shouting and
fingerpointing

One can't blame him for the misconception. Most people don't understand the concept of "self-funding". But the various pastors attending the City Council Hearings about the Port Covington TIF bills should know better. Instead they toot the same horn as if Kevin Plank was at fault and guilty of all of Baltimore's ills from redlining to bad police practices. And, of course, the affordable housing crisis that shakes all of America.

I am not saying, "give the guy (Plank) a break already. He is young and successful and he wasn't even alive when Baltimore's fate was tilted into the current direction". I don't suggest amnesia. I understand that last year's unrest was a wake-up call and that it, the report of the Justice Department, the conditions in Sandtown, Park Heights or McElderry Park cannot be easily isolated into buckets, each a different silo. As Carl Stokes said to me, "it is all connected". Having lived through the second of the two unrests in 48 years, with crime and health discrepancies sky-high, I am not one to simply say, "look at all the cranes, Baltimore is doing just fine". I get that we are in a different place now.

But pointing the finger at Sagamore representatives and accusing them of racism is another matter.  It follows the same simplistic populist instinct that a presidential candidate follows when he points the finger at Mexicans and blames them along with Muslims and the Chinese for everything that is wrong in America. Scapegoating is not solving any problems. Especially not if the object of derision is a successful local entrepreneur that brings jobs to the area and wants to invest a cool $5.5 billion in the local economy, a condition that many other cities in America would be glad to face.

Yes, true, he wants $535 million of infrastructure cost paid through public bonds and another $700 or so in tax breaks and the City is most definitely entitled to ask, "and what do we get in return"? Even if it must be understood that neither the tax breaks nor the TIF financing are supposed to take a single dollar out of the City's funds and that not doing Port Covington would not enable the City any more to fund schools, infrastructure or affordable housing. It would at worst do nothing for the City or, if the submitted numbers are right, flush a few millions of new tax dollars per year into the municipal revenue stream.

Housing Advocates demonstrating at City Garage (June 2016)
And then there is the housing issue. Baltimore Housing has not been able to maintain its ever diminishing housing stock and is suffocating from deferred maintenance. In spite of years of demolition and sales of public housing units, living conditions in what is left as housing managed by HABC is often deploring. The city is full of vacant housing units and still, waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers are a mile long. Homeless are camping in the streets. It is easy to suspect that there is something foul. But what? Housing advocates point the finger at Commissioner Graziano, another easy scapegoat and surely, there have been terrible things going on under his watch, including, incredibly, sex required for maintenance. But how about if these advocates would lift their eyes and look over the local horizon and discover that most US cities suffer the same housing crisis, no matter whether they are poor or rich?
Baltimore Homeless

So if somebody comes along and wants to build a new city with reportedly 14,000 new housing units, it is only fair to see to it that there is a good amount of affordable housing in the mix. No question about it. A diverse population has been a desirable goal, Jim Rouse knew this some 50 years ago when he designed Columbia with that goal in mind. But pastors and advocates can't get around a simple issue: In the current cost structure, to make a housing unit affordable, it has to be subsidized whether it is for rent or for sale. Even in Druid Heights, an area where relatively cheap two story townhomes with a porch can be built on land provided for minimal cost, an average of $50,000 or so are needed for each unit to achieve a purchase price that low income first time home-buyers can afford without getting a mortgage that exceeds 30% of their budget. Depending on what affordability level one wants to achieve, the subsidy level per unit in a tall multifamily structure as they are typically envisioned for Port Covington would be much higher.

The City is supposed to have collected money from developers for an affordable housing fund according to the inclusionary zoning bill and should have have such support funds to bring about affordable housing. Alas, they don't. Nor is there enough money coming from HUD to support renters that present their vouchers to landlords so that HUD funds would cover the difference between a market rent and what a specific voucher holder can afford. That means that the difference has to be carried by the developer. Surely there is somewhere a threshold for how many affordable units the market rate ones can support. I don't know where that threshold is because it depends on many factors and requires data not everybody has.

It is instructive, therefore to look at a report that the controller of the city of San Francisco has issued that studied this very question of how many affordable units one can require a developer to build before sinking a development altogether. The question in SF is highly acute and very high on the agenda because the place is in such demand that the cost of housing (to buy and to rent) has gone through the roof. So the advocates want 25% affordable housing more than double the currently required 12%. Of course, Baltimore isn't San Francisco and both, the cost to build and the market to sell or rent are as different as night and day. But guess what,  the report says that even in SF anything above 18% would actually reduce the amount of housing to be developed. This should give those pause, who want Sagamore to do 20% in Port Covington, twice the rate of what Sagamore agreed to do on their own including competitive low income housing tax credits to the extent they can get a hold of them.
Among the conclusions of the San Francisco report:
Affordable units in housing block at Transbay Center in
San Francisco
•New apartment buildings can rent a maximum of 18 percent affordable units before new housing is likely to be impeded. The idea is that the higher the affordability percentage, the less money developers will pay for the land. At greater than 18 percent affordability, the value of the land will drop to a level so low that owners won’t sell the land.•New condominium buildings can afford 20 percent affordability before new housing is likely to be impeded.•There is no indication that high-rise projects can absorb greater affordability.•Ownership projects are three times more likely than rental projects to pay the city a fee rather than include affordable housing on site. The city should increase the fee levels in order to give developers incentive to build affordable housing.•Conduct a feasibility analysis every five years that will influence the affordability requirements.The controller also recommends requiring the same affordability requirement for all projects in all neighborhoods. That’s significant because some affordable-housing advocates argue there should be higher requirements in neighborhoods facing significant displacement,
Sure, there are still some other avenues, for example the new Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD) in which developers can buy up public housing units and obtain unit based "vouchers" form HUD to build new affordable units in new locations. Such a thing could be worked out for the Perkins Homes "project" where the previous developer just jumped ship leaving Perkins Homes in Fells Point in the lurch.

But here is the rub when one looks at the bigger picture in which housing is only one element: For a fair Port Covington deal, the City should negotiate hard to get to a point where revenues to public coffers accrue earlier and in a more secured way then the current application shows, where the City has to wait for 40 years until the tax revenues start to flow in full. Per the current TIF bill, the the City would not partake in any upsides that come from real estate transactions and land sales in the sense of profit sharing. Profit sharing is one of the things BUILD wants to see, that seems fair enough: If real profits are made, the City gets a share, if not, well, not much harm is done, because without profit nobody will ever see all phases of Port Covington realized.

If the City is serious about profit sharing than this is the reality: The more the project gets loaded up with requirements for community benefits, low income housing and other items that cost money  and reduce profit, the less profit there will be to share. As MuniCap and BUILD's own analysis already shows, the currently projected profits aren't even enough to consistently pay back the bonds without special assessments on taxes inside the Port Covington development district levied over a period of 20 years.

The reverends, Carl Stokes and Mary Pat Clarke (who is married to a developer but threatened that there would be no deal unless the developer agrees to amendments) need to decide: More benefits or more profit sharing? It can't be both.

No single economic entity can solve all the City's problems without sinking the ship, not even Under Armour. In plain English, you can't kill the goose and expect it to lay the golden eggs as well. If Port Covington in the full build-out would really have 14,000 new units and 1,400 of them would be affordable than that would be more affordable units than the Housing Authority -built after Lexington Terrace, Lafayette Court and Murphy Homes were imploded and rebuilt as The Terraces, Pleasant View Gardens and Heritage Crossing. As in San Francisco, an analysis is needed what would truly work.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

San Francisco Business Times: Does San Francisco's 25 percent affordable housing requirement go too far? Early reports say yes.
Regarding the San Francisco affordable housing feasibility report:
The feasibility analysis was sure to be controversial no matter the findings, given the concerns over housing, affordability and displacement.
Its genesis stems from Proposition C, the June ballot measure raising the affordability requirements from 12 to 25 percent. When Prop. C was first proposed, Mayor Ed Lee criticized the 25 percent requirement as arbitrary. Developers warned that it would effectively kill the creation of new housing.
Ultimately, both dropped their opposition, in part because Supervisors Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin, the sponsors of Prop. C, agreed to adjust the percentage based on the feasibility analysis.

The eternal Baltimore sinkholes


The ground gave way on July 5. On August the 19th the hole that consumed all lanes of Mulberry Street still looks the same and there is no apparent sign of work. With school vacations coming to an end, traffic  will be a nightmare for all modes with high volume three lane Route 40 eastbound traffic rerouted to Saratoga Street with only one lane next to busy bus stops.
The Mulberry Street sinkhole the morning after

What happened? Water, sewer and all the underground conduits had been severed or compromised. The biggest problem: Sewer. An elaborate sewer detour involving dual above ground black plastic sewer pipes was conceived and relatively swiftly installed, including all the places where it cuts off pedestrians or driveways into parking lots or alleys. But to this day the sewer detour has not been activated and without it, the sinkhole won't be repaired.

That's right, more than 1.5 months after the hole formed, contractor's and engineers have still not figured out how to run the two-pipe sewer detour under the tracks on Howard Street and above the CSX tunnel underneath. (an update for the solution finally envisioned is placed underneath this article)

As the New York Times explains in a great article last weekend,  big cities don't always know where there stuff is buried, in part, because there are so many conflicts that things aren't always exactly where the plans show them to be. As a result, there is a lot of detective work necessary before any serious digging can begin. "Peek and shriek" is what the New York Times says contractors call this.
Maybe not surprising to some, Germans have widely
used system of marking the coordinates of water, gas,
right on site with markings on poles or attached to
buildings
On Howard Street at Franklin two times test pits were opened and covered again, yet the sewer detour pipes still sit unconnected. Spinniello, the private contractor, on-call for the Centre Street and Mulberry Street sinkholes, undertook training by CSX to be allowed to dig above the railroad tunnel, MTA was consulted, but the pipes remain disconnected.
the Center Street sinkhole some five months after it happened
(photo: ArchPlan Inc)

Meanwhile and related to the sewer disconnects on the Westside, major amounts of raw sewage are directed into the stormwater system and into the Bay every time it rains hard. (At the tune of 48,000 gallons per one occurrence and 200,000 gallons at another per DPW reports).
The Baltimore City Department of Public Works estimates that over 200,000 gallons of rainwater, mixed with sewer water, overflowed last night and early this morning at West Saratoga Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. The site of this release is where bypass operations are occurring, related to the July 4 sewer collapse on nearby Mulberry Street. That sewer, which is almost seven feet in diameter, remains closed, necessitating bypassing it with temporary lines. The overflow entered the storm drains which lead to the harbor.
Of course, the matter of failing infrastructure is not limited to the two prominent failures on the Westside. Acting under a consent decree the City is in a decades long effort to catch up with deferred maintenance. So far DPW did not live up to the set deadlines.

It is hard to tell where complexity ends and incompetence begins. From the perspective of those whose businesses are cut off, whose trip to work takes 10 minutes longer, whether they use a car or a bus, and those who live in the area and can hardly get out their door, there is an urgency to all of this that one can somehow not detect from the repair preparations and proceedings. When will this be treated like the emergency it really is?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

update 8/24/16:: In what is the final strike regarding the Howard Street crossing, Spinniello has closed all of Franklin Street on Wednesday during rush hour, diverting traffic onto Monument and Madison Streets, each single lane. A big dig is imminent but not for the pipes but for a hole to set a boring machine west of the tracks that will drill two 24" "tunnels" under the light rail tracks. Once the tunnel boring machine has arrived on the east side of Franklin, another big hole has to be dug to lift it out again. Both of those excavations are "cut and cover" and need steel pilings to shore up the sides. So the street closure is for a drilling rig to be put into position for the pilings. Then excavation, then placing the boring machine, then boring and then placing the pipes and hooking them up. estimated time for all that two months. Meanwhile all the sewage from the disrupted sewage line at the Mulberry Street sinkhole will continue to flow wherever. It is hard to shed the feeling that the 3-4 months it took to find and install a workable detour for the disrupted sewage would have been better spent in getting the actual pipe reconnected with the sewage simply pumped away from the work area. 

Related articles on this blog
The Sinking Infrastructure of the Westside
Are Contractors cheating the City?

A picture gallery of above ground sewer diversion:

Franklin Street, once a traffic sewer is now a sewer sewer (photo: ArchPlan Inc)

Regular repairs have occurred in the area since last year. Did they contribute to the sinkholes?
(photo: ArchPlan Inc)

with double pipes on both sides pedestrians have a difficult time at intersections
(photo: ArchPlan Inc)

Barrels, ramps and pipes, the new Westside esthetics (photo: ArchPlan Inc)

New businesses at 520 Park struggling to get a foothold in the new normal
(photo: ArchPlan Inc)

The Howard Street light rail tracks over the CSX tunnel seem to be an insurmountable obstacle.
Pipes remain disconnected here (photo: ArchPlan Inc)

The sinkhole at Mulberry  remains unchanged after some initial clean-up (photo: ArchPlan Inc)


 An idealized diagram of the city utility layer cake. Minus the pedestrian underpass, this is about
the situation above Howard Street with additional tracks on top. Graphic NYT


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Park Heights: 64 vacant acres still waiting

Sheilah Kast of Midday asked me to participate in a show about the rejuvenation of Park Heights together with the Executive Director of Park Heights Renaissance (PHR), Cheo Hurley. Motto: Bold New Heights. (For the podcast click here)

The occasion for this topic on the talk show goes back to June when the SUN had written a nice piece about Park Heights and about the City's Request for Qualifications for a master-developer to take on 64 acres in the middle of the 1,500 acre Park Heights master-plan area. This RFQ caused me to write a blog article titled "Time to learn from failure".
Does a new beginning always have to start with
demolition? Baltimore SUN 2011

Aside from that the word master should be seriously re-thought in a City where the complementary word that comes to mind is slave and not Meister (the German root that alludes to expertise as in master and apprentice), there is much else wrong with the idea of a master-developer who gets a 64 acre blank slate.

What I thought was wrong with the "blank slate approach" I wrote about in the June article. I am kind of glad to see that the City, indeed, didn't find such a master-developer who was ready to take on  an area that is about 30 city blocks large. No surprise, given that this is the most distressed part of Park Heights and not contiguous with any of the areas of strength (it is close to Sinai Hospital, though). Where would the money come from to build in an area that has "no market"?
64 ac redevelopment area targeted by the city since 2009
(RFQ map)

So during the radio show we had this discussion about investments and which one would be strategic. What would be a strategic investment in Park Heights? Where would it be made? More importantly, maybe, do strategic investments require that everyone in a 64 acre area needs to be removed and relocated, and that every structure must be demolished? Aren't there enough large vacant lots to build infill of almost any shape or form?

Relocation and demolition is, according to Cheo Hurley, where a good chunk of the casino money goes that communities including Park Heights receive from gambling revenues. (About $60 million in 30 years according to Hurley).
If demolition and relocation isn't absolutely necessary for redevelopment, then the expense isn't strategic and the money shouldn't be used for that purpose.

One of the bigger goals of Baltimore City is to build a broader tax base. To that end, the Mayor wanted to get 10,000 additional households into the City over ten years. A goal too modest to begin with, and one that won't be achieved anyway, at least not at the current pace when at half-time population gains and losses are balanced at best.

So how does it make sense to demolish units and relocate residents, some even outside the city? How does it make sense to diminish neighborhoods further that have already bled themselves down to the bones?  In't demolition and relocation like setting leeches on them? How does it make sense to actively reduce culture and history and the institutional memory of a community and at the same time fret about gentrification and how the city loses its culture and character? How can all this be called a strategic investment?

I know, some folks in distressed areas are truly desperate to get out, and families with kids who move to opportunity areas will have a better chance to flourish. On an individual scale that makes sense. But fiscally and as a strategy to revitalize Park Heights it doesn't make sense at all, especially not if it uses the Casino community benefits funds. Instead, what should be done is put the money into everything that make residents want to stay and makes the place attractive enough that new folks want to live in the community.
What's left of the commercial core on Park Heights Ave
Baltimore SUN.

To keep people living in Park Heights, clean and green strategies, foreclosure counseling, work-force development and active efforts to connect people and jobs are all important and some are done by PHR.

And when it comes to brick and mortar, supporting existing homeowners and renters should be a priority. Help folks to take care of their homes should go beyond weatherization programs and should include a basic health assessment in which it is determined how much of the poor health-outcomes have directly to do with the poor indoor air quality in substandard housing. Fixing up homes that are occupied by low-income homeowners and help them to create better living conditions and better equity in their homes should be a central tenet of revitalization in all distressed communities as part of wealth creation, given that a home is usually the biggest asset people have. But those programs barely exist.
It is decay and could be beauty: The same type homes are thriving
on Guilford Avenue in Charles North 

To attract new folks to Park Heights it makes little sense to assume one can attract them to the middle of disinvestment surrounded by blight.

Instead, it makes sense to begin at the periphery where stable communities exist, near Druid Hill Park, near the two Metro subway stations of Rogers Avenue and Cold Spring West, and at the northern edges near the County line.

Young folks who look for an active lifestyle may love the proximity of Baltimore's premier park which remains an under-leveraged asset. Others may like proximity to Metro transit. In none of the mentioned areas would one find 64 vacant acres (not even on the Metro parking lots), but a few vacant houses here and there and a good number of vacant lots exist almost everywhere in Park Heights. The small investments of triage in the more stable areas, that is what incrementally adds value and leverages scarce dollars effectively if used for scattered affordable and market rate units.

Many times such infill could be done without subsidies. Maybe the Park Heights Renaissance Gardens elderly housing development on Pimlico Road nearing completion is a good example for such infill, regardless how exactly it was financed.

Renaissance Gardens, new housing for the elderly
(Grimm and Partner )
Healing from the edges eventually would require and support a healthy core, namely a village center with good stores and services.

All these things have been analyzed and laid out in the 2006 overall master-plan and again in 2009 in a assistance program by the Urban Land Institute. But maybe not in sufficient clarity.

Let Poppleton, EBDI and Uplands continue to wait for the magic of the omnipotent master-developer. They have at least strong anchors in the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins to support the effort, or, in the case of the Uplands, strong healthy adjacent neighborhoods such as Edmondson Village, Ten Hills and Hunting Ridge. And yet, all three are still struggling.

All other distressed areas better stop big scale demolition and relocation and protect everyone who is already a resident and figure out how to best attract many new neighbors.

This may sound too simple, I know, real life is more complicated. But fundamentally, I think there is hardly any other way.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Updated



Park Heights Masterplan 2006 



Thursday, August 18, 2016

Social Determinants of Health - much more than bricks and mortar

These blog articles have often stated that better cities are not mainly a matter of brick and mortar but a matter of addressing people, a wisdom that has been first imparted in full clarity by Jane Jacobs when she engaged against brick-asphalt-and-concrete guru Robert Moses in New York when she wrote her seminal book about The Death and Life of the American City.
Sandtown: unfavorable conditions for health on many fronts
(Photo Washington Post)

This isn't something that architects and planners easily digest even though Jacob's insights have long been adopted in the profession. Deep down we are bricks and mortar people.

People stuff is somehow soft and metrics and measurable outcomes are hard to define. We can deal with livable, sustainable and resilient communities as long as this translates into building something. Lately the goal posts have been moved again towards healthy communities. ULI has added that target as part of the Advisory Services Program  in which experts are dispatched to cities to do a week-long planning session with stakeholders (I participated in the first one held in a series of three). The American Institute of Architects' national  Regional and Urban Design Committee, which a chaired until recently, will hold a regional conference in Tampa under addressing Health and Urban Design. but frequently architects and planners are at a loss what a healthy city really means.

That's where Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) come in. The approach of talking about health outcomes that follow from certain social and physical conditions (whereby the social ones usually determine the physical ones, and not the other way round) provides hard metrics. We know the sobering facts. For example life expectancy disparities: that life expectancy in Sandtown Winchester is like in Rwanda (65.3 years) and the one in Roland Park (83.1 years)is higher than anywhere else in the world, even Switzerland (82.7 years).
Diagram for  Social Determinants of Health

I learned a lot about SDOH on Wednesday this week when State Senator Shirley Nathan Pulliam, a trained nurse and representative of of the 44th District invited me to attend a retreat of her SDOH working group that has met throughout last year to define actions around the topic.

Pulliam's district is tortured as a result of redistricting due to Baltimore's population loss and due to gerrymandering. It includes large swaths of West Baltimore and County areas such as Woodlawn. The new district straddles the County and City line, a good thing,  if one considers that the City can only thrive as part of the region. Most County residents think that urban pathologies are a matter of the City alone, an assumption that is far from the truth even if the bias that the County is so much better off is promoted in the City as well.

The issue of segregated communities and increasing disparities doesn't stop at city lines. Ferguson outside of impoverished St Louis showed that and even Howard County's Columbia is not free of those problems anymore. This is why SDOH is a comprehensive approach that can work everywhere. It is an approach that forces specialists to come out of their silos and look at the many aspects that affect a pretty good indicator of our overall well being: Our health.
Senator Catherine Pugh, elected Democratic candidate for
Mayor addresses the SDOH work group (Photo: Philipsen)

The mission of Pulliam's  SDOH group reads like this:
Multi sectoral network of committed partners who are focused on improving social, material, economic and physical circumstances in which people live, work play and pray so that communities can have the thriving, high quality life that they deserve. 
To that end the group consisting of health professionals, educators, politicians, community leaders and researchers has formed committees for
  • Health and human services
  • Education
  • Housing
  • Social justice
  • Workforce Development
Health, a matter that was for long relegated to a small set of disciplines including doctors and nurses, has entered the main stage. Baltimore's Health Commissioner Leana Wen has gained more national popularity than the Mayor and Police Commissioner combined. Dr. Richard Jackson, a medical doctor, has for years taught planners and architects about healthy communities across the US and abroad.

The matter of health as an indicator of the well being of communities and a guide for broader policies has been adopted internationally not only by the World Health Organization (WHO), but has become a matter of broad research and policy studies for at least a decade.

As someone at the retreat explained, as we solve one set of problems after another, the tasks get more complex at each level and one has to dig deeper to understand them. That certainly applies to urban planning.

It is no longer sufficient to build affordable housing, for example. nor is it sufficient to build better schools. We can't build ourselves out of our problems, no more than traffic engineers can build cities and communities out of congestion. Brick and mortar won't do it if the people that those structures are supposed to serve are left behind.

This, more than anything is what Sandtown Winchester has taught us and all the attention and hand-winging that came in the wake of Freddie Gray's death has deepened the lesson.  Why couldn't $130 million transform Sandtown was the Washington Post's headline. They couldn't, because the efforts of rebuilding the neighborhood was done without truly empowering the community in it, several attempts of doing so, for example through the creation of an Empowerment Zone notwithstanding.
Senator Nathan Pulliam poses with Senator Pugh at the
SDOH group meeting Wednesday (Photo: Philipsen)

Andre Robinson, Executive Director of the Mount Royal Community Development Corporation, who represented as a co-founder the Innovation Village West Baltimore at the Senator's retreat, understands this. His and the Innovation Village founders' hope is to not only unleash the creative potential of the people in the community but create a stronger economic base as well. Mr. Robinson noted that 14,000 people live in the area defined as the Innovation Village, 9,000 live there and only 450 live and work there. Indeed, there seems to be room for improvement.

This isn't any longer just about housing or even social programs. it is about communities that can stand on their own feet.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Next: The Under Armour Water Taxi

Right in the middle of all the Council deliberations of the unprecedented sagamore TIF request for Port Covington comes another piece of news from Under Armour: They plan to buy out the current water taxi operator, Michael McDaniel of Harbor Boating ("Current operator will continue as partner") and have submitted a bid to the City for a renewal of the water taxi license. which was due April 1 of this year and is on the agenda of the Board of Estimates today. There is one other bid for the City to review submitted by Ferries Inc. of Washington State where a number of ferries are operated on Puget Sound. The RFP included a five year license duration, Sagamore is now talking about a 20 or 30 year term they are seeking.
This image has been circulated showing a photo-montage
 of the anticipated new taxi boat

Some Baltimoreans and maybe even some share-holders may freak out about the prospect of Under Armour taking on another piece of Baltimore into their already pretty broad portfolio after they took on the Recreation Pier in Fells Point, Walmart at Port Covington and put company operations into the remodeled building, build a whiskey distillery near the Baltimore SUN printing facility, bought City Garage, bought into the maker company Foundery and have their own production experiment going on in there (the Lighthouse) and brother Scott Plank and his Wahorse Development LLC have also their hands in College Park near Kevin Plan's alma mater.
A Baltimore SUN map showing the old and new landing points (blue is new)

One should take a closer look at the water taxi deal and what is known about it to date. It looks  as if with UA's help a few long-term objectives transit advocates promoted for the water taxi could come quickly into reach, namely to make it a much more robust, year round viable transit option.

Earlier this year I criticized City DOT for writing an RFP that aimed for nothing more than the status quo for the water taxi service and which separated and differentiated artificially and uneconomically between the free commuter service (Harbor Connector) and the water taxi for tourists and bemoaned that both use those flimsy boats that are not very seaworthy and impractical in winter.
Instead of starting a new age in Baltimore's water transit that could really be calledpassenger ferry service, the RFP was simply dealing with the fact that the license for the water taxi services needs to be renewed from time to time. The RFP asks to provide the exact service we see today. Same vessels, same landings, same routes, same frequency and the same confusing distinction between Harbor Connector and Water Taxi. (Blog)
If everything goes the way it was announced in a Plank Industries press release today, the most exciting news is maybe that the UA boats (the water taxi would be an operation of Sagamore Development which is part of Plank Industries, which in turn are an arm of Under Armour) will be built in Baltimore, and apparently really fast. The press release says this:
custom-built in Baltimore by MAPC, a maritime design and manufacturing company located near the South Baltimore neighborhood of Brooklyn the company will hire 30 new welders and craftsmen thanks to this deal. The 55-foot ADA-compliant, bike-friendly vessel is modeled on the classic Chesapeake Bay deadrise boat, featuring an electric/hybrid diesel engine with 1/20th of the carbon footprint of the current fleet.
A photo of a study model for a ferry that is taken from the MAPC website
Getting rid of the canvas clad ponton boats that look like a mix of a backyard patio enclosure and a tent and which are susceptible to tipping over in strong winds, would be a great step towards real water transportation. MAPC is probably a new entity for most in Baltimore, but that just shows that we should pay more attention to what happens under our nose.

The employee owned company says about itself on its own website:
Since Mark Rice founded the company in 1986, MAPC has worked at-sea, in desert environments, in mountainous environments, in the air, on live-fire ranges, in foreign facilities, and in simulated warfare environments...[..our partners are] the US Navy, US Air Force, US Coast Guard, DARPA, Bath Iron Works, Northrup Grumman, Thales, Booz Allen Hamilton, AAI Textron, Alion Science and Technology, Oceaneering,
The DOT RFP also didn't include a network overhaul. With Sagamore at the wheel, one can be sure that the network will be expanded to included the Middle Branch and probably also Canton Crossing and Harbor Point, two large developments the City didn't bother to include in their RFP as must serve docking places. Sagamore says that the final line maps are still in development but stated that the number of stops will increase from 12 to 21.

Another item I had suggested on this blog, is better integration of the water taxi with land side transit, especially the Circulator and that the stops would become actual intermodal stations with some amenities and in the case of Canton Crossing also substantial park and ride parking. Those details are not available at this time except that the Water Taxi will be integrated with the Uber app so that the boats and their location/arrival times can be seen in real time. Not bad!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

related Water Taxi articles on this blog:

How to achieve real passenger ferry services (5/2/16)
Can Baltimore's Water Taxi System Become Viable Transit? 9/9/15
Water Taxi - Transportation Between Uber and Bus 7/25/14

News on the Plank Taxi:
Baltimore SUN
BBJ


From my 5/2/16 blog a few of the suggestions I made then about a better Water Taxi:

  • The City should express an aspiration to provide robust rear-round water transit service with expanded hours, expanded service points and routes and better vessels like those being used in New York or Chicago
  • A scope should only be defined as a minimum baseline service for price comparison but bidders should be allowed flexibility to provide alternative service scenarios and business plans to expand the operation
  • The three large developments at HarborPoint, Canton Crossing and Port Covington need to be included as mandatory service points. 
    Partial Port Covington plan showing water taxi piers. (Graphic: Sagamore)
    The current water taxi does not serve the Middle Branch and is too slow
    to do it effectively
  • The City should analyze to which extent water transit can pick up some of the transit deficits in the eastern portion of the city where roads are routinely clogged and the cancellation of the Red Line further exacerbated the problem. 
  • The construction of the Red Line Park and Ride facility at Canton Crossing should move forward as a ferry terminal parking lot with frequent service from Canton Crossing
  • The RFP assumption that the commuter and the visitor services should be delineated and separate should be questioned as likely inefficient and costly. (The City currently pays the provider twice as much for the sparse free Connector service than it takes in from all Water Taxi license fees combined). 
  • Instead all water transit should be one system with a electronic fare card based on the Charm Card system that allows commuters to use the system for free as the City committed to do in return for certain federal grants. 
  • All other fares should be also Charm Card based and include demand based pricing, likely resulting in better fleet utilization and higher passenger volumes during inclement weather than the currently fixed high price tourist fares. (applying a demand based fare structure is common for airlines, but also for Amtrak and transit such as WMATA in DC)
  • The city shouldn't be in the business of owning vessels, even if they are new technology like an electric boat that the City apparently will get through federal dollars. If City owned vessels can't be sold due to federal obilagtions, they should be leased to the provider with all responsibilities handled by the provider)
  • Requirements for intermodal coordination with the Circulator, MTA, bike share and tour buses should be included as mandatory
  • Land-side facilities should be drastically improved until they deserve the term "terminals".