Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Public Realm

In a talk about infrastructure I listened to New York City's Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver, in charge of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, speaking about "parks without borders", a multi department effort of making public spaces better in New York. Not only parks but whatever public space including roads and sidewalks. Hence the moniker and the involvement of other departments such as Planning and DOT. The program name also denotes the desire to open parks up, remove fences and barriers and include the adjacent sidewalks into the placemaking, an effort that makes even very small neighborhood parks look bigger.
Small parks, sidewalks and streets all belong to the public roam

Nearly 30% of any city's land is public space and Silver asked how well we utilize and leverage all that space to make a better city and a better quality of life.

Silver's approach is community based and relying on suggestions of what spaces should get an upgrade. The previous Mayor and the current one see the importance of green space and gave the commissioner the largest parks budget in New York City's history.

"Parks are the places where you let your brain breathe" says Silver and follows up with the value proposition for green. Well maintained green spaces enhance property values, poor upkeep can actually decrease it. This is important to keep in mind for Baltimore's green network plan. Not every open space immediately creates an added value. Poorly conceived leftover spaces invite undesirable activities or even crime. Good green spaces, however are good for mental and physical health.

It is an innovative idea to not just hand the public roam to the parks and rec people, the traffic engineers or the planners so each can carve out a piece following their own set of rules.  Instead, the entire public space is approached comprehensively by several departments together as an asset. This will take some re-thinking,  especially if one considers how much space is typically devoted to traffic and the car.
small parks are frequently fenced off and closed at certain hours. With
"parks without borders" those fences come down

This goes beyond the notion of complete streets, a much talked about concept that includes pedestrians, bicyclists and transit into the consideration but typically still leaves the design of the public space to traffic engineers and not urban designers. The result can be seen on Maryland Avenue on Baltimore's premier bike boulevard. A big improvement for bicyclists but quite incongruous from an urban design perspective with all those markings, sticks and cars parked in the middle of the street. New York did this as well, but under DOT Commissioner Sadik Khan New York famously also took  those extra pieces of asphalt and driving surface and turned them into people spaces, the most well known is on Times Square.
As laudable as the now realized protected bike-lane is, it is "messy"
from an urban design prespective
A really comprehensively designed public realm would apportion parks, mobility zones, street trees, planters, walkways, bicycle facilities and vehicles in a manner that follows a overarching urban design concept and would probably look much better than the designs that are each optimized for one purpose only and chop the space into specialized subareas.

For that approach the European model of shared surfaces with minimal separation, slow moving cars and as little as possible in terms of signs, bollards, sticks and lines is a good precedent, emulating the classic urban street. That model doesn't work for high volume arteries, but those are antithetical to urban streets anyway and must be minimized. Cities and "freeways" simply don't go well together.

With scare public funds the question of control over public spaces should be an item of concern, what Chris Leinberger calls "place management". Leinberger likes to point to New York's Bryant Park which was restored and programmed with private funds and has generated enormous added value to surrounding properties which in in turn can be used for upkeep. But to whom are these management entities accountable?  A local Baltimore example that raises this question is the Downtown Partnerships de facto management of much of the public space downtown. That this doesn't always stays withoiut controversy has become obvious in the case of the McKeldin Fountain and its current demolition through DPoB.

In an increasingly urbanized future with increased density in cities the question of access to open space and optimal use of the public realm will become increasingly important for the quality of life, the health, and the well being of the community.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Unsafe because of high speeds

Baltimore City has become an unsafe area. People may think first about gun violence that makes it so, but increasingly it is the lawlessness of reckless drivers. In the last few days two drivers killed themselves in high speed crashes right in or near downtown. Given that modern vehicles protect drivers pretty well at what are supposed to be urban speeds these crashes prove the extent of the problem. Pedestrians or bicyclists that could have been near would not have had a chance.

Downtown crash, the building gets hit regularly

Anybody who uses Baltimore streets whether on foot, on a bike, in a bus or by car knows how certain drivers flout the rules with blatant disregard of fairness or the well being of others. Red light running doesn't only occur right after the light changed but increasingly one can find drivers setting off to cross on a red light in the middle of the cycle, sometimes by squeezing ahead on a turn lane and then going straight through. Leaves one kind of speechless.

The urban speed limits of 30mph or 35mph mean nothing to most who think it is fine to go 50 or even 60mph no matter whether there are people walking or waiting at bus stops. Crosswalks in Baltimore don't protect pedestrians, whether they are placed at a traffic signal or not. Bicyclists are honked at and passed at high speed within inches. Worst of all, almost every driver is fiddling with a smart phone either for a conversation in which the phone is held in front of the mouth like a sandwich or is used for e-mail, texting or directions. People who are confused by the instructions of the Google maps lady erratically veer across lanes entirely oblivious to who else is out there.

Anyone who travels to other cities or countries knows that all these behaviors are by no means the price we have to pay for technology and progress.

Whether it is Portland, Fort Worth, San Diego or Seattle, Vancouver, Stuttgart or Copenhagen, there are plenty of places where the street is a more civilized place. where cars stop for pedestrians, red lights and merging buses. Why?

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I suppose we can bring up the usual litany of Baltimore dysfunction as the culprit but we could also take some very practical steps to change the culture.
Police cannot continue to turn a blind eye on traffic just because the gun mayhem has a higher priority. While the "broken window" approach of policing clearly brought about abuse and mass incarceration, there is a kernel of truth in its underlying assumption that smaller lawlessness begets bigger one. That incivility in the street easily ends up in a bigger disregard for others. Someone who dumps a whole bag of fast food trash into the street, drives down a red bus-only lane, turns right from the center lane and runs red lights is obviously of the mindset that laws mean nothing and that the rules are solely governed by how each wolf can get ahead the fastest.

The more people live together on tight spaces, the less such a mindset can be tolerated and the more civility is needed.

Add caption

I vote for traffic education in schools, for police enforcement of traffic rules and cellphone bans and for reactivation of all the dormant red light and speed cameras. I am sure enforcement will do miracles, especially if it is sustained. We sure have plenty of cops out there. They just have to lift their eyes of their own laptops and handheld devices and take notice of an issue that greatly diminishes quality of life in this city.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, November 28, 2016

The last few days of Stephanie Rawlings Blake

Luke Broadwater wrote a good review of Rawlings Blake's legacy in Sundays SUN. 
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake led Baltimore through monster snowstorms, an earthquake, a derecho and a riot. She was mayor for the city's lowest murder rate in decades — and its highest. She's been cheered, and she's been booed. (SUN)
The article summarizes aptly what the Mayor achieved and what problems remain unresolved. A lot of what sits in the unresolved category has been sitting there long before Stephanie Rawlings Blake became Mayor and one has to wonder if a Mayor can fix Baltimore's systemic urban problems as they are related to race, dis-investment and inequity.

Warning: The Mayor gives a speech
(Photo: Philipsen)
The steep increase in crime after the unrest is not unique to Baltimore, for example. The foreclosure crisis has been brought to the city from the outside, and so are drugs. But good department leaders and hard work can pay off, even on systemic problems. Andres Alonso worked miracles with Baltimore's schools, so did Holly Freishtat with Baltimore's food policies and Beth Strommen with sustainability policies. Police Commissioner Bealefeld  had worked miracles with the crime rate but it didn't prevent the Baltimore Police from receiving a terrible report card from the Department of Justice.

Broadwater never mentions Leana Weng and the City's Health Department, one of the best performing agencies in the City with incredible success stories in seeming intractable areas such as infant mortality or drug overdose treatment through Noloxene.

So how about the Mayor herself? She has many critics, she had them before the unrest and she has even more of them now. Citizen activist Ralph Moore is quoted in the SUN saying:
"She started off strong, when the uprising hit, it brought into focus a lot of people's realization that things were not moving so well in the city. It was not just in Sandtown. People were unhappy all over the city. People were unhappy about water bills. People were upset about the housing department. The citizenry was unhappy."
Of course, when are citizens ever happy, especially in a city like Baltimore with such limited resources? The phony water bills that resulted from faulty meters and untrustworthy meter readers alike has been corrected, but high water bills remain as part of the legacy of this city and its age old infrastructure that nobody seemed to have kept in good repair. City provided trash cans have brought some relief on the litter front but the City remains relatively filthy. The Mayor brought protected bike corridors and bike-share to Baltimore but the city remains behind many peers in terms of active mode transportation. The Mayor supported Vacants to Value and some communities such as Oliver and Barclay saw a turn-around but the number of vacant houses remains the same.

Broadwater also notes comments from former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who in now a WBAL radio show host, which are almost identical with Moore's assessment: [Rawlings Blake] "started off strong as mayor but faltered in her later years".

It probably doesn't convince Moore or Mitchell that prominent suburban developer Arsh Mirmiran lauded the Mayor's record by pointing out that "There are cranes all throughout the sky." This traditional measure of the well being of a city isn't enough anymore in post-uprising Baltimore.
Mayoral duty: Ribbon cutting at Open Works
(photo: Philipsen)

I never had any close dealings with the Mayor and initially thought it was my lack of connection with her until I learned that most people found getting access to Stephanie difficult. Unlike Martin O'Malley who worked a room with eye contact and winks until everyone felt that there was a special connection, SRB seemed to always forget who one was.  Eye contact wasn't her strength and I have the suspicion that her rather poor social skills are to blame for a lot of the criticism she is getting. That and her inability to give a rousing speech in public. Her speeches were mostly outright terrible, not in content but in delivery. A Mayor who can't talk is a bit of a problem, but should this weakness color the entire assessment?

The social skill thing is probably more important. Exhibit A, her inability to get along with the Governor. I suppose a Mayor has to get along with the Governor, no matter what. Not doing so is just to the detriment of the City.

SRB always looks as if she is pouting and it isn't just looks, she has indeed a bunch of unproductive feuds and long lasting misgivings, whether it was that struggle with the Comptroller about who should order new phones for City Hall, the feud with Marilyn Mosby about the initial reactions after Freddie Gray and the unrest or the recent firing of her solicitor or, just last week, the battle with Council President Jack Young over the sales of City garages for Baltimore rec centers.

Aside from these people issues, SRB ran a fairly rational and straight forward agenda, headlined by her "grow the city by 10,000 households in 10 years". She was the first Mayor who set an actual target for growth and the only one who seemed to understand how important growth is for the re-invention of Baltimore. One wished only that she would have drilled deeper down on that good goal and developed a set of indicators and policies how to specifically achieve it.
The Mayor doesn't seem to like small talk
(photo: Philipsen)

Luke Broadwater refrained from commentary or opinion in his piece, which is hard when one tries to summarize a period with so many ups and downs. Barry Rascovar in an opinion piece in August of this year didn't show that restraint. He titled his op-ed "The Failed Leadership of Baltimore's Mayor". I think that is too strong.

Those guys who want to throw her under the bus should ask themselves if there isn't a certain amount of sexism in their criticism. When young and brash Martin O'Malley had his fights it was seen a strong leadership. For SRB its called vindictiveness. Just saying. Mayor Pugh has a different personality and has good social skills. One can only hope that society and journalists will judge her in an even non biased way.  Journalist Broadwater set a pretty good example how that can be done.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN: Leaving Baltimore in better shape than she found it

Friday, November 25, 2016

Brain Surgery at HUD

HUD stands for Housing and Urban Development. Cities like Baltimore have to care who heads the federal department even if housing and urban development are local issues and largely locally controlled. Retired neuro-surgeon Benjamin Solomon Carson has been offered to run the agency. Casron knows Baltimore very well, this is the place he came to fame.
Ben Carson during the primaries

Baltimore has an ambivalent relation in matters of housing. Traditionally the city has done very well with tapping into federal coffers. The original Dollar House program was fueled by federal block grants. The City received HOPE III funds for Sandtown and an unprecedented stream of six grants to rid itself of public housing high rises and build them with mixed income communities funded under the HOPE VI program. Lately Baltimore has successfully participated in the demonstration program called Rental Assistance Program (RAD) which includes innovative ways of funding public housing upgrades through public private partnerships.

Baltimore received the 1000 unit Uplands housing complex from HUD after it had fallen into receivership. The complex was then given to a master developer for redevelopment. Only a small portion has been developed to date.

Baltimore has also been in the cross-hairs of HUD for misappropriation of housing funds and for its past concentration of poverty policies. Obama's HUD secretary Julian Castro has visited Baltimore on many occasions and has recently pushed Baltimore County for allowing poor residents to live in "opportunity areas".

Any developer who uses affordable housing tax credits has to abide by a complex set of rules and standards to avoid exploitation of low income residents. HUD has a regional office in Baltimore.

Baltimore received large Empowerment Zone grants and recently was awarded a $10 million grant to reconfigure North Avenue as a premier transportation corridor.

For this city which is so close to Washington DC that it presents an ideal policy testing ground it matters who frames federal urban policies and whether they are properly coordinated with other departments such as transportation, and EPA. A collaboration between these three agencies had been innovated by President Obama in the Sustainable Communities Collaborative. That initiative in turn gave money to the regional Baltimore area Opportunities Collaborative which reported its findings in 2015.

Ben Carson is said to consider himself qualified for the fact that he grew up in poverty (he was born in Detroit), that he worked in Baltimore and that from going to work at Hopkins he has seen public housing. He said that the public housing hasn't made East Baltimore any better. He said to Fox: “we cannot have a strong nation if we have weak inner cities.” This is certainly true. However, it is very questionable whether Carson, judging by his campaign platitudes, would or could do anything to make disadvantaged areas in the inner cities of America any better.
“some people believe in the Bible, like I do, and don’t find that to be silly at all and believe that God created the Earth and don’t find that to be silly at all...."The current Members of Congress have a combined 8,700 years of political experience. Are we sure political experience is what we need. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no federal elected office experience. What they had was a deep belief that freedom is a gift from God. They had a determination to rise up against a tyrannical King. They were willing to risk all they had, even their lives, to be free." 
[Americans] "who take the disadvantaged people in our country and say, 'You poor little thing, I’m going to give you everything that you possibly need.'"
"That’s not helping those people, and all that you have to do is look what's happened since the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson. We’ve spent $19 trillion and we have 10 times more people on food stamps, more people in poverty, more broken homes, out of wedlock births, crime, incarceration. Everything is not only worse, it’s much worse. You’d have to be kind of stupid to look at that and not realize that that’s a failure and to say we just didn’t do enough of it. That’s what I call stupid," 
"I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed." (Politico)
 It is clear that those statements endeared the retired surgeon (“His background didn’t prepare him to run a federal agency”) to the now President elect.
Should Ben Carson really become HUD Secretary the Peter Principle would have its best example yet. The principle postulates that people get advanced from positions in which the are competent ("Gifted Hands") until they reached their highest level of incompetency.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

New York Times about the possibility tat Carson could head HUD

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Pratt Street- Baltimore's premier mile?

Morgan Stanley's recent announcement to place 800 employees on Pratt Street is the most recent sign that Pratt Street has become hot real estate In spite of all the talk about downtown bleeding out because of Harbor East and HarborPoint. Like much in urban development, the story of Pratt Street is far from straight forward.

Big cities have grand Avenues or boulevards of commerce that often brand their city. New York has 5th Avenue, Chicago has Michigan Avenue, Washington has K Street and San Francisco has Market Street. The Champs Elysees are probably the most famous of the bunch.
Pratt Street

Baltimore has? Umm, Charles Street? Howard Street? Clearly neither of those comes even remotely close to its famous cousins not even during their hey days. Like Berlin after it was divided invented an all new grand boulevard by declaring the Kurf├╝rstendamm as the "showcase of the west", Baltimore declared Pratt Street to be its magnificent mile as part of the great retooling of its waterfront laid out in Roberts, Wallace Todd's (WRT) Masterplan for the Inner Harbor back in 1964.

Many wouldn't bestow the honor of being Baltimore's premier mile on Pratt Street and rather describe it as a 5 lane traffic sewer. But that wouldn't do WRT's vision justice. Baltimore with its old roots didn't have any downtown Street wide enough to be the grand avenue of shopping in the way how Eutaw Place, Roland Avenue or Mt Royal Terrace were the grand residential boulevards.

So WRT's vision for Pratt Street was that it would become the missing grand boulevard but in an unusual fashion. It would be asymmetrical, a boulevard but also a frame and backdrop for the Inner Harbor, more open on the waterside and more solid on the downtown side. There would be a 100' base lining the street and taller buildings would have to turn 90 degrees to allow views of the water from further in.
Pratt Street Desigh competition: An early concept for a two way street

For a long time, though, vision and reality didn't quite match in spite of the original high standards that the Inner Harbor Development Corporation had painstakingly set for design and a set of famed architects that were selected to execute "the frame" and solitaires along the water such as Ian Pei for the World Trade Center. The boulevard remained dull and dominated by traffic mostly because there was nothing going on on the first floor level of buildings and the wide sidewalks were "shielded" from traffic with berms that also blocked views and did not at all convey the urbanity that comes from lively sidewalks.

The discrepancy between vision and reality was not lost on the Downtown Partnership which after a idea charrette with professionals and community input in 2008 commissioned Ayer Saint Gross and the Olin Partnership to develop ideas how to make Pratt Street live up to the original expectations. ASG originally favored turning Pratt Street into a two way street but the idea was thwarted by city transportation and a much tamer plan was eventually developed.
A "backpack" to enliven the street

Since 2008 some berms have been removed and some dull building faces received a "backpack" on the first floor with storefront retail and restaurants opening to the sidewalk. Retail has come and gone (Best Buy) but the tendency is for more. The little cluster of pubs west of Liberty street with their outdoor seating shows that an urban ambiente doesn't need heroic action, just an active business that looks good on the ground level.

There is now enough activity in certain parts of the Pratt Street corridor to attract Baltimore residents and not just conventioneers, visitors who come for ball games or tourists. If businesses don't have to rely entirely on those intermittent users, the street will eventually become a real part of downtown and an important link along the waterfront.

The real estate boom with Pandora Jewelry LLC at 250 W. Pratt, Transamerica at the former USF&G tower, and a host of new restuarants and stores should provide Pratt Street with the boost it needed to truly become Baltimore's premier boulevard. But it is a far way from being a shopping street on par with its peers. But the potential is there, in part because there is no real premier mile competition except for the relatively small cluster at Harbor East.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about recent real estate moves on Pratt Street

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Baltimore Sanctuary City and the federal government

It doesn't fit the current narrative but the idea of cities as sanctuaries against federal crack-down on illegal immigration was born during the Obama administration because of his dual strategy of enforcing immigration laws and borders patrols while also welcoming immigrants  through the Dream Act and accepting refugees.
More deportations under Obama than under Bush

The matter of sanctuary cities was already a national dispute in July of 2015 year when the House passed a bill that would deny federal funding for any City denying collaboration with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The bill then failed in the Senate and never went anywhere.

Baltimore's Mayor and her Police Commissioner aligned a desire to grow Baltimore back by 10,000 households in 10 years with a 2012 promise and executive order not to have local police crack down on immigrants by asking for their immigration status in the course of routine police work with certain exception for felons and persons on federal watch lists. The "sanctuary city" policies were an attempt to signal to the world that Baltimore welcomes immigrants. The Mayor affirmed immigrants last week that those policies will continue.

Several US legacy cities have benefited from a significant influx of new residents resulting from legal and illegal immigration. Immigrants tend to concentrate where economic opportunity is high, other immigrants of the same ethnic origin have already established themselves and where cost of living is not prohibitive. Baltimore with its high poverty and unemployment rates has long lagged behind other cities in attracting immigrants. Johns Hopkins University and Hospital have long attracted legal immigrants as students, post doctorates or researches creating a diverse and multi-ethnic climate in a certain areas of the City. On the side of lower skilled workers, the Broadway corridor and Highlandtown slowly but steadily became destinations for Latinos especially from Central America. A study for Baltimore City conducted with the help of the Abell Foundation put numbers on Baltimore's renaissance as a "port of entry".
Since 2000, Baltimore’s reputation as a city of immigrants is being revived. This new wave of immigrants most often arrive not from Europe, as many did a century ago, but from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. The increase in foreign new arrivals has led the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings to name Baltimore a “reemerging gateway.”3 Due to this new wave of international arrivals, Baltimore’s immigrant population has increased by 20,000, to more than 45,000, 7.3% of the city’s population. (US Census, American Community Survey)
Hispanic population distribution in Baltimore
(Source: BNIA)

Media are currently speculating about a showdown between the new administration in Washington and the estimated 250 or so sanctuary cities. A show-down would feed the narrative of the divided country with  the role of heroes and villains assigned according to political conviction. There are those who are convinced that tolerating illegal immigrants is the beginning of general lawlessness.
The Left would have you believe that this is hateful, that’s it’s racist, that it is somehow wrong to deport a person who comes here illegally and then commits an additional crime. But plenty of the offenses that bring people into contact with police (robbery, violent crime, drugs) are things that citizens would be detained for anyway. Why should American taxpayers foot the bill for food, housing, healthcare, and clothing of someone in a penitentiary, rather than give that person a one-way ticket home? (Outset Magazine)
Then there are those who think that persecuting undocumented workers is just the beginning of ethnic cleansing.
"This idea that ICE can be your local law enforcement butts up against constitutional issues," said Sundrop Carter, organizing director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. (CBS News)
The truth is not in the middle between those two extremes, it is more complex. The presence of immigrants who entered the country illegally is not simply a function of an individual breaking the law, it is a function of the US economy depending on a set-up in which illegals are openly attracted and then employed with a wink and a nod by industries that clearly benefit from them.
Absolute numbers and percentages of foreign born population

That cities may seek them out for augmenting their often shrinking population plays only in a small way into this system. At the core the longstanding practice of employing illegal immigrants provides a win for folks coming from economically depressed countries and a win for industries here that have a hard time filling positions with Americans. The fact that the system is based on breaking the law is not satisfactory and most can agree on that. However, the fix should make the law such that it properly reflects reality and not to inflict significant harm on a great number of individuals and on the economy at large. In light of the debate and past deportations the number of illegal immigrants has leveled off with those coming from Mexico drastically shrinking. The reduced influx leads to the fact that now over 60% of illegal immigrants have been here for ten years or more, for them deportation option is less and less a viable option.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

The recent debates about immigration have shown that the topic isn't discussed any longer in rational terms that address facts and practicalities. The issue has become a matter of political purity with each side claiming an ethical monopoly. Regardless whether one looks at immigration economically, morally or from the pragmatic perspective of a community looking for new residents, there is very little that would justify drastic deportation measures, even though, the wink and nod system certainly has also negative effects. It isn't so much that immigration is taking jobs away from Americans as that available illegal workers depress wages because they can be blackmailed and exploited without having proper recourse. That wage depression is, of course, the another reason why employers, especially in seasonal industries, like the status quo. Often forgotten, the exploitation and the two class worker system make the illegals themselves victims.
Spreading fear with numbers

While one can agree that the presence of undocumented workers has two sides, how the problem is solved touches on the very DNA of  the American society. At stake is the long-held American aspiration to a society that is as open and free as possible. Is there still consensus around this goal? This is not small potatoes by any measure.

The issue has a lot of meaning to Baltimore, a city built on immigration almost from its beginning.
As of 2011, more than 45,000 foreign-born immigrants called Baltimore home. The majority of New Americans, more than 75%, have arrived since 1990. 52% of the foreign-born population has arrived since 2000.6 The largest group came from Latin American countries, including substantial populations from Mexico, El Salvador, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and growing numbers from South America. While the Hispanic community is spread throughout many neighborhoods in the city, they are heavily clustered east of downtown around Patterson Park and Highlandtown. The city also has more than 10,000 immigrants from Asia, with significant populations from China, Korea, India, and the Philippines. Baltimore’s Asian populations are clustered around Johns Hopkins’ Homewood and medical campuses, as well as in downtown and midtown. Undocumented immigrants are likely under-represented in these numbers. While the census bureau does its best to count all residents of a jurisdiction, multiple impediments exist that make accounting for everyone challenging. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that the state of Maryland had approximately 275,000 undocumented immigrants as of 2010 (City Report)
Highlandtown bus stop
(Photo: Andy Dahl, Southeast CDC)
Meanwhile, it is hard to overestimate the amount of woe and anxiety the election result has caused especially among urban minorities. Cities which protect a group that is being blamed for economical problems and threatened with a complete upending of their lives and that of their families do not only act pragmatically, they do the right thing. Nobody benefits from targeting workers who themselves are the victims of a poorly functioning system. It is good to see Baltimore's leaders among those who have taken this position in the past stand ready to continue it even if it may cost them federal dollars.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Role of Immigrants in Growing Baltimore (Baltimore City, Abell 2014)

Philly Voice: Mayors of 'sanctuary cities' say they'll fight Trump's plans, Nov 15, 16

Monday, November 21, 2016

What the new Mayor should keep

Given the smooth transition that both SRB and Catherine Pugh aspire to, it isn't likely that the new Mayor will throw out the baby with the bath water, no matter that this seems to be increasingly the general sentiment of voters.
Pugh transition leaders

Mayor Elect Pugh has already indicated that she will keep Police Commissioner Davis. Maybe less controversial, she thinks very highly of Health Commissioner Leana Wen, a sentiment shared by many. So she will certainly survive the change in administrations her as well.

Here a few a few more suggestions what and whom to keep:
  • The goal to grow the City. The goal of 10,000 households needs to be made more specific and be complemented with specific strategies how this is to be accomplished. Keeping residents from leaving and attracting new residents is not mutually exclusive and both needs to be both part of the strategy.
  • Some core elements of Vacants to Value (V2V). After decades of attempts to stave the flood of vacant buildings, Housing has finally devised a fairly workable process and has a few areas of success. The matter is much more complicated than "give us the dollar house program back". It is important that some staff that has worked through the issues of keeping track of vacant lots and houses, freeing titles for disposition and offloading them in a strategic manner for community use (community gardens etc.), rehabilitation or demolition remain and build on what has been learned to date.
    The importance of Baltimore's Public Markets
  • The Baltimore Office of Sustainability. This is a not very well known section inside the Planning Department which does great work and needs to continue making Baltimore a greener, more sustainable community that also works on climate adaptation and urban farming. Cities will have more responsibility now that EPA may become greatly diminished.
  • The Baltimore Charm City Circulator. The original concept of a city-run bus that complements MTA's service and provides free connections inside downtown and between downtown and various inner neighborhoods is still viable and popular even though operations have suffered from lack of funds. The Circulator needs to be self sustaining from parking taxes and benefits payments of institutions along the routes. The free commuter routes on the water should also be retained and integrated with the Circulator. 10 minute headways are key.
  • School CEO Sonja Santelises. Baltimore City students need steady and firm leadership that allows nothing but excellence. Under former school super Andres Alonso Ms Santelises has learned first hand how a strong manager can make a difference. She needs to have chance to bring her promising skills to bear.
  • Market Executive Director Robert Thomas. Mr Thomas is in this position since 2014 and some may wonder why not more improvements are already in place at any of the markets. It is hard to say what the reasons are for the sluggish pace but the Director is full of creative ideas and may not have had the chance to implement them as fast as he wanted. Municipal markets can play a key role in neighborhoods especially in a city as under-served in retail as Baltimore.He is a MIT trained architect, 

In my thirty years in Baltimore I have felt several times that the City was about to break free from its economically depressed state and finally break out to take the position it deserves and could play.

Each time either home-made problems (an indicted Mayor, policing and the unrest) or external crisis (the Great Recession) stifled the progress and the self doubting started all over again. The latest change in Washington, no doubt, represents yet another external challenge for Maryland and its biggest city. Mayor Elect Pugh has said that she is not fazed by this particular problem. She and a largely new City Council need to grab the bull by the horn and make Baltimore a leader in the important new role as a counter-balance to the anti-government regime shaping up in Washington. In spite of all misgivings, it is ineffective to start all over again every time when a new Mayor comes into office. It is much more effective to build on successes. In spite of Baltimore's reputation, there are quite a few.

The question what policies and people should stay in place and which should be toppled should be one in which many residents and stakeholders get engaged. I invite everyone to post comments below this blog or on the Baltimore City Voters FB page or on Catherine Pugh's online site.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The above is solely the opinion of the author and entirely independent of the fact that he was appointed as a member of the Pugh transition team subcommittee for transportation.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pennsylvania Avenue Rising

In an encouraging introduction "the other Baltimore baker", James Hamlin of the Avenue Bakery, proved  that a successful business on Pennsylvania Avenue is possible, 
Penn and North Mural on the side of the Arch Social Club (photo: ArchPlan)
He was followed by Brad Rogers, member of the Urban Land Institute and leader of a Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) for Pennsylvania Avenue with a remarkable presentation. The TAP had been held in October of last year  on Pennsylvania Avenue. Rogers presentation last night was an ambitious but plausible case for the revival of this once thriving African American Baltimore "main street".

The full report is available online. Rogers explained the report in his presentation but punctuated his slide show with poignant observations that kept the pretty large audience of residents and city representatives riveted. The event took place at the community space of the St. Peter Claver Church where Fremont Avenue intersects with Pennsylvania Avenue.
The legendary, dynamic, and shamefully overlooked history of Pennsylvania Avenue is the single greatest asset that the neighborhoods have at their disposal. It is a unifying principle around which divided communities can organize. It is a brand under which new businesses can grow. It is an identity that can draw customers and tourists from outside the Corridor – not to mention from around the country. (ULI Report)
James Hamlin and Brad Rogers (photo: ArchPlan)

"The demolition of the Royal Theater was a crime", said Rogers when explaining the cycles of history on Pennsylvania Avenue. "The Royal Theater is not there but it's ghost is the embodiment of everything that Pennsylvania Avenue was." 

The report uses Beale Street in Memphis as an example of how a corridor can recover even though it has gone through a very hard downturn in a history very similar to the one of Pennsylvania Avenue. The emphasis must be on organizing, focus and partnerships ULI notes about the Beale Street example. A Development Corporation brought the various groups under one roof to focus on revitalization. This reminded Druid Heights CDC Executive Director Roscoe Johnson of  the PA Avenue development council that he had convened many years back. "We have come full circle", he said. 

Memphis created the three-day Beale Street Music Festival that brought people to the corridor and attracts today about 100,000 people per night. Pennsylvania Avenue once had the Easter Fashion Parade as an annual attraction, it was revived for one year a while back but the Avenue clearly needs a bigger aim. Rogers suggested to move the African American Festival from the parking lot between Camden Yards and the Ravens Stadium to Pennsylvania Avenue. Memphis also built a basketball arena in the corridor and created the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum.
James Hamlin at yesterday's
presentation (photo: Philipsen)

The revival of PA Avenue is not solely hinged on one big idea, Rogers displayed a whole firework of ideas from pop-up events on the green space where the Royal Theater once stood to mobile farmers markets composed of the Arabber horse carts and their fresh food. ("Wednesday in front of the Avenue Market and on Sundays afternoons after church on the Triangle Park", Rogers suggested). 

He thinks of the space next to the Royal Theater marquis as Pennsylvania Avenue's "Y-Not Lot", an event space at Station North at the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue. Put the new Baltimore Jazz festival here, he proposed, not Druid Park. "There is no jazz without alcohol" Rogers observed and figured bars and restuaruants on Penn Ave would be a great thing to enliven the street. Rogers called the intersection at Penn and North "holy ground" and the true "gateway" in the Penn Ave corridor. But his slides showed that this gateway doesn't work yet, too much asphalt and too little in terms of intense use. He showed a library in Minneapolis that was stacked into a larger mixed use building. Combine the library with a health clinic, Rogers suggested and the representative of library sitting in the audience nodded in agreement.  

The ULI report and the unrest have already spurred some unusual collaboration between agencies. The City and MTA collaborated on a successful federal grant application that brings $10 million to North Avenue under a project titled North Avenue Rising, a project mostly focused on the reorganization of the street for more equitable mobility (bus and bike lanes, better pedestrian safety). 
the current #13 bus on North Ave will be the Gold Line under Link Bus
(Photo: ArchPlan)

Under the moderation of Ben Hobbs from BDC a slew of city representatives from Planning, Housing, Parks, Transportation and the MTA got up to describe how their projects and funding will help to implement the Pennsylvania Avenue plan and West Baltimore. 

Baltimore Markets leader Robert Thomas was full of ideas what he wanted to do at the somewhat ailing Avenue Market, including pop-up spaces for hobby cooks and homemade cooking. BDC already reinstated the Main Street program under the guidance of the Upton Planning Committee and Mary Blackwell. "I get things done" she promised. MTA will upgrade their bus operations and stops at Penn/North as early as next year for the start of the Baltimore Link Bus program. The Parks Department will spruce up the small "tired parks" on North Ave and Pennsylvania Avenue to "show that the City has skin in the game", DOT will spend $2 million on pedestrian improvements that will be coordinated with the North Avenue Rising project.
Pennsylvania Avenue: Focus on the two blocks at the
Avenue Market (ULI)
photo: ArchPlan

No doubt, there have been previous spurts and starts on Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue that have not succeeded. This time, the circumstances may just be right to really get something going here. Hopefully the new Mayor will make it a priority.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles on this blog:

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Demolition through neglect

As someone who promotes rehabilitation, adaptive re-use and restoration over demolition the constant roar of huge yellow excavators and the sound of building walls and roofs coming crashing down is unsettling. It is the sound that has surrounded my office for weeks now.
Demolition of 414 N. Howard Street (photo: ArchPlan)

Funded by BDC and organized by Baltimore Housing, demolition has become the last chapter of decades of neglect for several structures on Howard Street. First it was the old Academy Hotel (1860) that was demolished because it had become unstable, then most of the Mayfair Theater (see article) and now an unremarkable but still historic building in the 400 block of Howard Street. It, too, had fire damage and water had leaked through the burnt out roof for over a year.

The building at 414 N. Howard Street had been part of a 2014 request for proposals that BDC had issued and to which the Le Mondo theater group with Ric Royer and developer Winstead Rouse had responded. But after the fire the group swapped the building out in favor of an adjacent structure to the south that they purchased from a private owner leaving the damaged structure again without hope and stewardship.

The westside of the 400 block of Howard Street already has a gap with a somewhat incongruous green space. Now it will soon have a second one.

This is even more disappointing in light of the recent wave of investment that finally seems to have reached the long ailing north half of the Westside. The eastside of the 400 block of Howard Street is in the hands of the Washington Baltimore Development Company which plans a conversion into a 300 unit apartment complex with the fronts of the existing buildings maintained and about 14,000 of ground level retail. (Plans were shown to UDARP in June 2015). Enterprise is putting the finishing touches on a multi family complex on Mulberry Street right around the corner and the Time Group erects luxury apartments on Franklin Street.
Nothing is left of the old Academy Hotel but a new structure
is rising  (photo: ArchPlan)

There is little point now in crying about these demolitions that have become unavoidable through decades of neglect. But one can't help thinking that the tax dollars now spent on demolition would have been of much better use for shoring the structures up when they fell into the City's hands and when stabilization would have been relatively easy to do. The old bromide about prevention and cure should guide the new Mayor when she will look at the Westside once again to determine where it should go. Many of the structures have been identified as to be preserved in a legally binding Memorandum of Agreement between the City and Maryland's Trust for Historic Preservation. It isn't too late to shift from a reactive mode and begin stabilizing the buildings that survived a hundred or more years of Baltimore history.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Howard and Franklin in 1915

Howard and Franklin in 2016 (photo: ArchPlan Inc.)
The remnants of the Mayfair stage house (photo: ArchPlan Inc.)

The Mayfair during demolition (photo: ArchPlan Inc.)


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Is selling those City garages a good idea?

Downtown parking garages for neighborhood rec centers, who wouldn't prefer a rec center? That was at least what Stephanie Rawlings Blake thought even before the Baltimore unrest, way back in 2014 when she initially pitched the idea. 
Municipal Garage: Market Center

But the Mayor's plan stalled because Council President Jack Young objected with two arguments that he seemed to use like a lawyer, the second kicking in just in case the first failed, no matter that they contradicted each other. Young said he wanted two "super-centers" (instead of the long list of smaller improvements and centers the Mayor prefers) but he also argued that  it would make no sense economically to sell four garages that make $2.8 million profit each year and cash them in for what is estimated to be a combined sales price of $60 million. The result was our very own impass with neither side budging or providing any additional information.

The Mayor has a long list of recreational facilities in mind for funding. The list includes rehabilitating or building 11 fitness and wellness centers for residents of all ages for $84 million, $20 million  for renovating five community centers and $20 million more for upgrading four outdoor sports centers. Additionally, upgrades to four existing outdoor pools and three "spray pads" is estimated to cost about $13 million.
Municipal Rec Center: Carroll Cook on Eager Street
One of the central arguments after the March 15 uprising centered around the lack of investments in neighborhoods and that the young people had "nowhere to go". Providing facilities for people to meet, work out and have fun would clearly enhance the quality of life in the neighborhoods served by the facilities and move some of the youth off the streets into  more productive activities. As such channeling money from parking into recreation looks like a good investment.

But the economic argument has teeth as well. If everything would continue as it is, including interest, the garages would produce in 20 years more money than their sales generates. Young also wonders if there are willing buyers, which is a bit surprising if the garages are, indeed so profitable.

Many cities have sold assets to generate short-term liquidity and most analysts say that the numbers don't work for the municipality in the long run. But even economists disagree, as these quotes from 2010 WSJ article about cities selling their assets show:
"The deals are part of a broader restructuring of our economy that carries big risks because of revenue losses over time," says Michael Likosky, a professor at New York University who specializes in public finance law.
"The City of Los Angeles shouldn't be in the parking business," says Mike Mullen, senior adviser to L.A.'s mayor. Mr. Mullen was hired from Bank of Montreal to study selling some of the city's assets, including parking spaces, which bring in about $20 million annually.
Even if it sold four garages Baltimore would remain active in the parking business and would have to maintain its Parking Authority, presumably with reduced efficiency due to a reduced economy of scale. There are 11 more garages to manage along with the metered parking. The proceeds from parking garages and parking taxes are also crucial for funding the free Charm City Circulator and contribute to the City's bond rating.

The City of Chicago sold 36,000 parking meters to Morgan Stanley in 2008 and soon started regretting the deal in which the investor is expected to recover the $1.16 billion price tag in twenty years while the City is stuck for 50 years with zero proceeds from those meters. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal acknowledges that there is a whole cottage industry of consultants, lawyers and bankers around privatization who is looking for "jurisdictions of opportunity" like ambulance chasers are looking for crash victims.

Catherine Pugh 
Catherine Pugh is right to not jump to a conclusion on this matter that may land in her lap. The parking assets could rapidly lose value if and when the next transportation revolution comes to pass which involves autonomous vehicles and hopefully a shift from privately owned cars to fleet vehicles that operate on demand and are shared by users. In that scenario, the demand for parking would drastically shrink and garages would be worth only the land on which they sit.

The current Mayor wants to bypass the City Council altogether in a murky move that involves a shadowy "Off Street Parking Commission", a group that hasn't existed since 2007 and supposedly can wave through the sale of the asset which ostensibly is owned by "The Mayor and City Council". SRB should leave the matter entirely to the new Mayor and City Council which should decide on the base of a sound analysis, something that the current Mayor failed to produce in spite of the two years that passed in the current limbo.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN article about Mayor bypassing the Council

National League of Cities Municipal Action Guide
Wall Street Journal, 2010,
The Baltimore City Municipal Garage brochure

Monday, November 14, 2016

Is there a future for the Red Line?

One of the pathways towards a Red Line looked like this: Vote for a Democratic President in 2016, vote Governor Hogan out of office in 2018 and try to reinstate federal and state funding on the base of the existing design and its environmental permits and reviews.
Red Line simulation (on Edmondson Avenue)

That pathway was a fairly thin straw but its proponents pointed to the Inter-County-Connector as an example. It had hibernated and came back from a long slumber when the political constellation was right.

With last week's elections having gone they way they went, prospects to revive the Red Line have further dimmed, even though the Presdient Elect speaks a lot about infrastructure. It isn't clear what he means and what his administration would support. If Governor Christie is any indication, the signs point to highways, roads and bridges, not rail and not transit.

As far as the next Governor, Baltimore County Executive Kamenetz has set his eyes on that position.  His County has opened up another route for a future Red Line as part of this year's annual transportation "road show". It is part of  the process in which the next transportation project list and budget is determined and where a wishlist is being submitted by all Maryland jurisdictions for funding from the State's trust fund.

Kamenetz always had issues with the Red Line, until the current Governor struck it from the menu, that is. Not entirely unlike Governor Hogan he thought the Red Line as designed had too much tunnel and didn't connect enough with the other rail systems,  even though at least the latter part wasn't correct and the former begs the question what alternative would work better.
The original Red Line alignment connecting east and west to downtown

Kemenetz now warmed up a version of a partial Red Line that the "Right Rail" coalition had propagated for years in their effort of  preventing subway or surface rail on Boston Street, no matter what. In that version the Red Line, or whatever such a transit sustem would be called, would still have its western terminus deep in Baltimore County at CMS and Social Security, but would never go further than Lexington Market. There, anybody wanting to go further east, would have to trasnfer to the existing metro line with its underground station right in front of the Market.
"Right Rail" Coalition

This sounds like a plausible idea until one considers a few details: The western half of the Red Line without the eastern part does only half the job. It provides additional access to some disenfranchised communities at Edmondson Village, Rosemont, West Baltimore and Harlem Park and a job center in Baltimore County, but it does not provide direct access to downtown or the growing centers at Harbor East, Harborpoint, Canton Crossing or Bayview. Anything to the east would be limited to what can be reached via Metro, i.e. mostly the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the new EBDI area with its biopark.  The truncated Red Line would do nothing to alleviate congestion and access problems on the east side along Fleet and Aliceanna Streets.

The western half of the alignment isn't as easy or cheap as all the "boondoggle" talk about the dopwntown tunnels as the main complication would suggest. The truncated line would still have to cross the Beltway on a long and tall bridge structure at Security Mall and would still need a Cooks Lane tunnel since residents there did not accept any surface option on the narrow and hilly street.
Las Vegas Bus Rapid Transit

More critically, the Red Line, as it was engineered and approved, would have left the median of the "Highway to Nowhere" to go under Fremount Avenue and become a fast connection under congested downtown and historic Fells Point. The Kamenetz version would have to find a new route from the Highway to Nowhere to Lexington Market, an alignment that wasn't designed, engineered or permitted and one that requires two 90 degree turns. That segment alone would be enough of a departure from the permitted line that new environmental studies would be needed and any hope to ride the coat-tails of $240 million worth of past engineering would be dashed.

A quick back-of-the-envelope type analysis that MTA did to evaluate the Right Rail Coalition's suggestion showed significant cost and engineering issues to make an underground terminus of the half-line a plausible and direct connection to Metro in the manner that ones knows from the Metro Center station in DC.

Kamenetz doesn't seem to be set on using the existing Red Line engineering and offers that such a half Red Line could also be Bus Rapid Transit instead of light rail. That mode was studied as an early option during the Red Line project planning, but it was not engineered. It is unclear how or where a surface bus coming in from the west could provide a decent transfer at Lexington Market without being disruptive to one of the few Streets in the current Westside that have a decent amount of retail and activity: Saratoga Street.

True, the region and the City need to think about the future of the metropolitan transit system beyond the simple revival of the Red Line, even though, a revival would be the only quick way to utilize the efforts of 12 years of planning without having to start all over. But shots from the hip of political leaders would need a lot of additional analysis before they become really viable alternatives.  This is why the cancellation of the Red Line was such a huge blow to Baltimore.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN commentary