Friday, November 11, 2016

Driving and parking dominate UA campus design review

A massive 1500 car 800' long and over 100' tall parking garage designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson raised concerns with UDARP members reviewing the first massing concepts for Under Armour's new headquarters campus on Thursday. So did the fact that the part of the perimeter park along the waterfront that falls into the section of the headquarters couldn't be reached by car once the company campus has been fully built out.

Masterplan with company campus bottom right,  Brian E. Miller, 
Director of Corporate Real Estate, Under Armour presenting to ULI 

Thus the debate about Port Covington has come down to what is a subject of concern in almost anything that is discussed in Baltimore, transportation and especially cars and parking. It is time to shift the focus. Sagamore made a good start. Their proposed masterplan includes enlightened aspects of sustainability and through the community benefits agreements also of inclusion and equity. On transportation the design team established the objective of a 50% "mode split", meaning 50% of all travel would be by means other than a car. However, it isn't quite clear if that meant circulation inside the planning area or also to the Port Covington Development. Marc Weller, president of Plank's private real estate firm, Sagamore Development pointed out that Baltimore would need a lot better transit for a less car dependent development. An application for federal funding for a light rail spur onto the Port Covington area didn't make the cut in the last round. It is unclear whether the chances of success in the coming round will be any better given the new winds in Washington.
 
Company campus in full build out as seen from the water (Sagamore Development)
Progressive transportation options are essential for the Sagamore plans to succeed. Better options than building giant parking garages should be possible, given that a transportation revolution based on semi and fully automated cars, trucks and buses is just around the corner. A development that is laid out for a 45 year term must not only anticipate but shape this revolution.

What could be done in Port Covington?
Phase 1 headquarter campus: Courtesy: Under Armour
The proposed 250 acre urban masterplan and the corporate headquarters on about a fifth of the area can become beacons and precedents for America's urban transportation just as Under Armour's Lighthouse is intended as a beacon for manufacturing. Port Covington could be a small city without individually operated combustion-engine cars. Sounds fanciful? Such a car-free small city already exists for some years outside Freiburg Germany. Port Covington allowing only semi and fully autonomous electric vehicles inside its HQ campus (and later the entire area) could save enormous amounts of money from not building structured parking and reduced capacity on all those streets. Instead the development could aim for so called "naked streets" which rely on a full and safe co-mingling of walkers, bicyclists and vehicles on shared spaces. These type streets are no pipe-dream either, they existed in some places in Europe and in some downtown applications even before AVs were introduced or discussed as an option and have shown to be safer than streets with designated lanes, curbs and barriers.

Olli "proof of concept" AV mini-bus (Local Motors)
Given that AVs are not widely used at this point and UA needs to begin construction next year, how is the AV supposed to help now? 

Certainly, temporary solutions and a soft transition are needed. Given that UA controls over 200 acres and that phase 1 of construction plans for about 1500 workers (in addition to those about 300-500 that are already working at the converted Sams Club or could be placed there), there is plenty of space to park vehicles outside the campus on the periphery of the Port Covington planning area, preferably right at the I-95 ramps where traffic would come in.

Self-driving electric van shuttles are tested for service in Helsinki, in the US Local Motors has produced several prototypes with the hope that they be tested here. Just in the same manner as UA and Sagamore Industries stepped far out and not only bought the water taxi company, but commissioned an all-new vessel, land-side traffic needs the same kind of innovative thinking. Autonomous electric shuttles would find an ideal running circuit in Port Covington, provided the roads there are generally closed to traditional vehicles. AV buses would be an instantaneous branding success for a brand that thrives on challenge. The concept would attract creatives globally by showing that Baltimore is not only a place where new things being reserached and talked about but where they are in actual service. 

Port Covington would teach Baltimore in a real world setting on how to deal and manage AVs so the policies and experiences could eventually be expanded to all of downtown. Experts expect fleet based AV transportation operating like the Uber Pool service to free up to 30% of urban space either for development or parks and plazas for people rather than cars. This very desirable future would be a leap forward in urban quality of life. But it won't come by itself. It needs risk taking, initiative and experiment, all qualities fully embraced by Kevin Plank in everything else he does. 

With the new Mayor and administration coming into office, Baltimore has a unique opportunity to ramp up its urban transportation policies. Approaching transportation in Port Covington in a daring way not only by water but also on land would set a new standard that hopefully will be followed by a much more efficiently operating MTA bus network in June 2017 and a revamped Charm City Circulator as well.

In the next session of UDARP the garage should be replaced with a staging area for AV's, demand based transit and storage for shared vehicles such as ZipCar and Uber Pool and a state of the art bike facility. Such a facility would be so innovative and so much smaller that UDARP wouldn't fear its urban design impact any longer. And the notion that something isn't a park if one can't drive to it, forget that. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about UA campus plan UDARP review
Baltimore SUN article