Friday, August 12, 2016

TOD in Woodbery - is BDC still needed?

Sometimes deals come so late that they lose importance. This may be the case with a land swap with BGE along West Cold Spring Lane announced by BDC this week.

Back in 2000 hundreds of participants came together to think about how the Jones Falls Valley could be jump-started. (Article). One of the obvious ideas: Transit oriented development at the Cold Spring station of the Baltimore Light Rail Line. A large coalition of stakeholders from BDC to the Jones falls Watershed Association and from Greater Homewood to MTA agreed back then on planning principles that stressed connectivity, access, the environment and preservation. There was more talk about stewardship, conservation and scenic corridors than new development, even though attracting new business was mentioned. A final version of a masterplan was never formally adopted, though, because the Planning Department and the Planning Commission at the time did not take external plans and officially adopted them.
Aerial of the Cold Spring West area at the JFX and Cold Spring
LRT station

There were some commercial properties along Cold Spring Lane, there was an abandoned BGE gas tank and there was a Light Rail station in the middle of nowhere with a tortuously long ramp as the sole access. People drew more or less elaborate concepts how a small mixed use node could bring eyes to the station and make this highway style section of Cold Spring Lane more urban. (The same roadway is very attractive a mile to the east).

Even then in 2000 the area had been a hot potato for some years with active members of the Woodberry community trying to protect the forests and natural areas along the Jones Falls against incursions from Loyala College and from MTA. The transit agency considered in 1999 to build a 5 acre commuter park and ride lot where BGE had its gas tank.
The Jones Falls as a recreational amenity

Some of the nature loving Woodberry residents who collected wild mushrooms in the area were concerned about development then. Jumpstart to 2015 and the SUN carried an article with the headline: Hampden area flooded by development. That is an interesting choice of words, considering that one of the big worries in the valley is the reoccurring flooding of the Jones Falls. (The last big flood event there happened two weeks ago).
Proposed development at 2001 Cold Spring Lane (UDARP presentation 2016)

Projects in the pipeline include a mixed use project once proposed by architect-turn-developer Donald Kann, who had proposed a 180 unit project with 100,000 sf of offices and retail mixed in that ran into various hurdles at the UDARP design review. ("I don't know what this project feels like, it's not urban. It's not suburban.", Richard Burns). The project sits in direct vicinity to the land included in the BDC land swap.

In its latest incarnation the project is headed by Klein/Manekin and includes 280 apartments. It had been back at UDARP early this year.

Other projects listed in the SUN article about the Jones Falls valley:
  • The Pepsi site at 1650 Union Ave., owned by a Himmelrich Associates affiliate. Proposed is 75,000-square-foot grocer, about 300 apartments and four 3-4 story buildings with retail and offices. Himmelrich, developed Meadow Mill and the Mount Washington Mill, 
  • 1600 Roland Heights Ave., part of the Hedwin complex,  proposed for 250 apartments or 140 townhouses. The Sparks developer also builds 29 new townhouses on Cairnes Lane in Hampden.
    The trail, long in the making now complete
  • 3100-3200 Falls Cliff Road, which manufacturer Simpson Strong-Tie plans to vacate next year. Edye Fox Abrams hopes to convert the roughly 100,000-square-foot building into 80 apartments and keep some light-industrial tenants.
  • Four industrial properties, including the Schenuit factory in Clipper Mill Industrial Park, across the Jones Falls from the Pepsi plant, went under contract with Remington Properties LLC. expecting a non-industrial use, starting with the convesrion of the vacant, 150,000-square-foot former rubber plant.
  • In Hampden, Medfield and Hoes Heights, at least three developers have approached neighborhood groups about smaller residential projects on Buena Vista, Redfern and Hickory avenues, which would add about 75 new rowhouses to the area.

Recent flooding pushed cars around at Meadow Mills parking lot
It looks like some of the focus has to shift back to the original goal of letting the Jones Falls Valley shine for its natural assets that have so greatly suffered from the JFX atop Baltimore's premier river. To that end the road diet for West Cold Spring Lane is as urgent as ever so pedestrian safety there would be enhanced, the greenway could cross easier and the future developments would not sit along a high speed suburban roadway.

As for the old gas tank site: Sitting near the bottom of the valley, on a steep drop adjacent to the river, it should probably remain a green space with the emphasis less on development but on additional access to the train stop, creation of a trailhead with transit access for the adjacent now completed greenway and maybe something "outlandish" such as an attractive beer-garden.

Finally, Baltimore needs to study air flow as a matter of air quality in a non-attainment area under the Clean Air Act. The Jones Falls Valley should already be an important "green lung" for the heat islands of the inner city. It should be enhanced and not built shut. But that has never been studied. Once we would know how cooler and heavier air flows (at night) from the large green areas along the valley into the hot and polluted city center, it would provide information how and where development can occur without jeopardizing that likely asset.

No need anymore for BDC to jump-start the Jones Falls valley. It is happening on its own now.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article
SUN article about Flood of Development

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