Thursday, September 8, 2016

Old Town - from ruins to glory?

Old Town has been languishing for so long that most residents in Baltimore hardly know where it is, let alone remember that it was once one of Baltimore's touted urban renewal projects with Dollar House and all.  Even fewer people know that it is part of the core area where Baltimore had its origins.
The derelict Old Town pedestrian mall (SUN photo)

Since then a lot of water flowed down the Jones Falls and the Patapsco. Certain urban renewal elements such as the elevated the Orleans Street Viaduct and the also elevated Jones Falls Expressway (JFX) isolated Old Town to an extent that it was hard to get to and disconnected from the traditional city street grid. That it was ringed by large housing projects such as Somerset Homes, Lafayette Square and Flag House did not help either but at least provided local customers for the stores

In spite of all the history, today it is hard to even get a few attractive photo shots in the area, so much has been left derelict to decay and fire or has been demolished altogether. Now Somerset, Lafayette Square and Flag House have been demolished, the latter two rebuilt as mixed income communities, to the south far down Central Avenue sits the thriving glitz community of Harbor East. Real estate development and adaptive reuse have crept north on Central Avenue for quite a bit. But where Somerset homes where there is nothing but dirt and the Lafayette redevelopment drastically reduced the number of households, all factors that made retail in Old Town so impossible that most stores are closed now.
Urban renewal gone array (Photo: BBJ)

The big-picture changes are positive enough for an illustrious team to form submit interest and a proposal to the Baltimore Development Corporation which has been looking for re-development for decades. For long the focus has been on getting a full size supermarket there, but after starts and stutters, all attempts fizzled.
"We have incredible assets in Baltimore that aren't tied together. Hopkins is separated from downtown as well as the communities around it. Connecting these areas will have an incredible domino effect on nearby neighborhoods." (Michael Beatty in the BBJ)
The latest development team consists of heavy hitters: Beatty Development Group, Henson Development Co., Kevin Johnson's Commercial Group and Philadelphia-based Mission First Housing Group. The proposal is to build a mixed-income community with rental and for-sale homes, a park, community center and a grocery store on the roughly 16 acres that are part of the original RFP  (which does not include the historic district area where the shops are still standing) and another 24 or so acres that the team is looking at to create a larger context for masterplanning that could eventually include as many as 1,100 new housing units, of tax credit affordable housing and market-rate homes, 1.0 million square feet of office space with medical offices linked to Hopkins physicians and 180,000 square feet of retail.
The Old Town sites in context (ASG masterplan)

"We are not smarter than the previous folks", Dan Henson remarked, pointing out that his team is only working through a larger area now.

This larger masterplan was presented by Kevin Johnson of Ayers Saint Gross Architects to UDARP, the City's design review board. In spite of the attempt of looking at the bigger picture ("McElderry Street aligns with the dome of Johns Hopkins"), the plan was not convincing and left the UDARP panel to have a lot of fundamental criticism. Gary Bowden remarked on the outset that it is "very ambitious to act almost like EBDI without any commitments from anybody." He commended the team for its audacity of including so much land in the plan the team doesn't control, but it was clear Bowden was skeptical if this wasn't overreach. Tim Pula simply responded: "We got work to do".

The proposed plan tries to reestablish the historic street grid, but in an area so heavily disrupted, this isn't necessarily successful. Rich Burns observed that "you are setting up McElderry as this axis which ends in the back of the old pedestrian mall retail".  He also took issue with the way the western edge and its buildings don't respond to Ensor Street, another one of the conflicts that arises when everything should show a good face to a street. Pavlina Ilieva chimed in that maybe Jefferson Street needs to be the street to carry through (instead of McElderry) and "daylight" at Gay Street. 
A massing diagram  for the full site. Yellow is residential, red preservation
 (ASG masterplan provided by Beatty development)

David Haresign noted that Gay Street as "the diagonal is significant thing". He observed that "the [new] south side of Old Town and the [old] north side have no relation, although they should be kissing cousins". There was much debate whether the grocery store (40,000sf) was in the right place at Central and Ave and Orleans Street, whether the proposed green space along Central Ave was too large and should be broken up and how a future relation to downtown would be established once the warehouses and the JFX separating Oldtown today would come down. Planning Director Stosur admonished the team that "the historic part is going to be there. What is going on there (the old shops) will be critical to your success." Burns said:" You don't control the historic part but you control their future anyway".
The massing model from a different angle:Northwest view (ASG masterplan
provided by Beatty development)

In the end several panel members agreed on a suggestion that would probably solve a lot of the problems. "You need to claim the opposite end" (looking east from Hopkins), Pavlina Ilieva suggested and supported Gary Bowden's idea of placing the supermarket at the corner of Gay and Orleans Street across from the historic and iconic firehouse. Jefferson coming out to Gay Street could be widened at that juncture and form an urban plaza. Such a move would give the plan the desperately needed "there" that it is still lacking. An iconic corner building with a remarkable odd shaped urban plaza could, indeed, become the signature pieces of the ambitious plan that is so hard to do, because there are too many pieces outside of the control of the developer.
Plan View excluding the site of current housing, just east of Gay Street
(ASG masterplan)

It is good that the City is not promoting condemnation or an even larger land assembly which often has proven to be fatal by pushing out the last bits of activity elsewhere. But the City could establish Old Town as a test case for voluntary collaboration between the various entities holding titles to the land in the interest of a better and more cohesive outcome. Beyond issuing an RFP that shows two instead of one isolated development area, there seems to have been little that the agencies have done to bring the other parties to the table. 

Dan Henson with Mission First are the first to develop for the phase one work of affordable housing ideally to begin in 2017. The architect for the housing portion is Grimm and Parker. Henson referred all questions to Tim Pula who represents Beatty Development, a company with no experience in affordable housing. Pula said that to his knowledge 99 affordable replacement units are required by HUD as a result of the demolition of the Somerset project. Pula said that a "deep dive" is currently being performed to investigate the current infrastructure and cost associated with it. Apparently there are some encouraging news: The City has upgraded some sewer and water in the area, but the final results are not yet in. The inevitable question about TIFs is, therefore, not even on the horizon yet.
Phasing plan: Phase 1 is affordable housing. The parcel numbered 3.1, 3.2. and
2.1 to 2.4 are not under the control of the development team.
 (ASG masterplan)

Old Town is a critical linchpin to the future of East Baltimore. Done right and with a longterm perspective in mind, it can unlock the potential of much land that sat fallow way too long.

Klaus Phipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN:
New Developers offer a Glimpse of Plans
Big-name developers team up to tackle Old Town Mall

BBJ Thursday: Developers unveil early plans