Friday, December 29, 2017

Why do we have so many fire deaths?

Baltimore racked up not only a record number of murders this year but also a record number of fire fatalities (28 in the middle of December). Even though fire deaths are dwarfed by murders, Baltimore's numbers are not good and the US in general has a unreasonably high death toll from accidental fires. Why?
Annapolis Mansion Fire 2015
In 2016, there were 475,500 were structure fires in the United States. These fires caused 2,950 civilian deaths, 12,775 civilian injuries, and $7.9 billion in property damage.
There was one fire death in the US every 2hrs and 35 minutes each day (including non building fires). NFPA 
 The US fatality rate is 9.13 per 1 million residents
There were 343 fire deaths in Germany in 2015 (Feuertrutz),
The German fatality rate is 4.14 per 1 million residents 
US fire codes for building design and construction are stringent, but are they always applied?
How about the many old buildings built long before the current codes went into effect? What about abandoned buildings occupied by the homeless who heat themselves with whatever provides warmth? What about slumlords who don't keep up with codes and don't get caught by inspectors? What about tenants and owners who disable smoke detectors because they go off every time they fry anything in the kitchen? What about those of us who read those highways signs that when you reset the clocks you should also check on the battery of your smoke alarm (now obsolete)? What about drug abuse which lets parents sleep through the alarms until it is too late to rescue their children? Or smokers dozing off and their cigarette setting the sofa on fire? Extension chords, old building wiring, not UL approved holiday decorations? Candles that were left burning, dryers that ignite the dust that was never cleaned out of the filte,r or the flue crusted with creosote igniting with fire escaping through a cracked liner?
6 children perished in this Baltimore fire in January 2016

All of the above can cause a fire in any country.

The frequency in which these causes result in fire is recorded by the insurance industry. Clearly, the more impoverished, the less educated and the mre disinvested a community is, the higher those incidents. Which likely explains the the more than double fatality rate in the US compared to Germany better than building codes.

But make no mistake, even the wealthiest in the biggest new McMansions are not immune as the catastrophic fire in a big Annapolis house showed in 2015 when a burning Christmas tree set the home ablaze so fast that everyone inside perished. As fire experts will explain, most fire deaths are not from flames but from occupants being incapacitated by the odorless carbon monoxide emanating from combustion which makes victims unable to respond before they even know there is a fire.
New smoke detectors with sealed batteries

The Bronx apartment fire is the latest catstrophic fire on everybody's mind this Friday: 12 people died, apparently because of a kitchen fire started by a small child on the first floor. When the resident fled, she left the door open turning the stairway into a chimney from where the fire spread upwards. New York's walk up apartment buildings have no sprinkler and with 5 stories fall below the high-rise rules.

The London apartment fire in a highrise was worse than any highrise-fire  in the US in recent memory and governments here were quick to point out that such a fire would not be possible under US regulations. The UK fire appears to have been a combination of not having sprinklers, poor egress and highly flammable insulation used for a recent retrofit of the facade. It isn't entire certain that the same insulation panels have not been used here. Some older highrises here don't have sprinklers or sufficiently wide egress stairs either.

Why recapitulate all this, as if there weren't enough bad news already? Because almost every death from building fires is preventable if minimum safety rules are obeyed, starting with the design and construction.  The review of construction documents for permits shouldn't be seen as a nuisance where one should finesse the process in some way to avoid cost, certainly not when it comes to life safety.

And finally, there are the new Maryland rules about smoke detectors which go in effect this January 1st, i.e. on Monday! Surely those are once again seen by many as another over the top regulation by regulation-happy legislators.
Carbon Monoxide: The silent and odorless killer

Here is what it says (some of the linked  text is repeated below):

  • Replace battery-only operated smoke alarms with units powered by sealed-in, ten-year/long-life batteries with a “silence/hush” feature. 
  • Upgrade smoke alarm placement in existing residential occupancies to comply with minimum specified standards. These standards vary according to when the building was constructed. 
  • The deadline for compliance with the new law is January 1, 2018.

Any smoke alarm whether hard-wired or battery-powered that is older than 10 years has to be replaced. 

The date of manufacture, while sometimes hard to locate, should be printed on the back of smoke alarms. If no manufacture date can be located, the alarm is likely outdated and should be replaced to comply with the regulation.

In existing homes, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) only requires a smoke alarm outside the sleeping area and one on each level of the home. However, it also recommends that existing homes be equipped with at least the same number of smoke alarms required in new homes which includes smoke alarms present inside all sleeping rooms. The department’s position is consistent with the recommendation for new home construction.
Smoke detector placement

New construction (individual homes and apartments etc.) requires an AC powered  smoke alarm with battery back-up in every bedroom, in the common area outside of the bedrooms and on every other level of the dwelling unit, with all of the required smoke alarms being interconnected.

That is difficult to achieve in older homes without opening up ceilings or even walls. Therefore:

  • For homes constructed before 1975, the new law allows smoke alarms that are battery-operated but the units need to be sealed, long-life smoke alarms equipped with a hush feature. No more 9V replaceable batteries!
The trigger point for the new requirements is January 1, 2018. 

A big hole in the law is that one and two-family dwellings units are exempt from the State Fire Prevention Code in the sense that fire authorities have no legal right of entry into individual occupied dwellings to verify that smoke alarms are present and operational. But homeowners will be obligated to act under the law if they sell or rent out their homes:
  • The residential property disclosure form provided to the purchaser of specified single-family residential real property must include whether the smoke alarms (1) are over 10 years old and (2) if battery-operated, are sealed, tamper-resistant units incorporating a silence/hush button and use long-life batteries as required in all Maryland homes by 2018.
  • Landlords of one-and two-dwelling units must upgrade battery smoke alarms to new, 10-year sealed battery units. They cannot rely on the tenants for that.
The most effective fire death prevention is a sprinkler system. Sprinklers are now required for all dwelling units in Maryland and no fire deaths have been reported in any unit that had sprinklers.
However, sprinklers are relatively expensive and not easy to retrofit.

The second most effective fire death prevention method is a functioning smoke alarm. They are dirt cheap in comparison to any kind of damage are fire can cause. In fact, many fire departments hand them out for free.
Thursday night apartment fire in the Bronx: 12 people died

New Year is a time of resolutions. Complying with the news laws about smoke detectors is a resolution easy to keep. Once a fire is raging and insurances, police and lawyers ask questions afterwards, it is too late.

Happy New Year!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

Due to travel these articles will be less regular in the coming weeks. Please look also for updates on the compendium blog here.

Related articles:

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Imagining a meeting between Pugh and Macron

Catherine Pugh and Emmanuel Macron never met. And if they would, they may be intrigued about the similarity of some of their views and problems.  The French President would have to use his pretty good English to mask the Mayor's lack of French.
Macron in Clichy sur Bois

Macron lives in the Palais de l'Elysee, for which construction began before Baltimore was even founded. But Pugh's City Hall isn't shabby either, splendid from the outside and in some places inside, even though the Mayor's office on the second floor suffers from a mezzanine that has been jammed in to create more space. Paris is the tourist capital of the world, but Baltimore is "the greatest city in America" as everyone knows, who can read and has seen Baltimore's bus stops.

An imaginary discussion about how to deal with poor neighborhoods would be instructive, if for nothing more than to illustrate that Baltimore is not unique in having unrest, police brutality and large numbers of young people of color who feel left out, disenfranchised and once in a while take things in their own hand.

Macron has made big waves in Europe thanks to his youth and an unconventional approach that can't be pegged in the traditional left right categories. Pugh is hard to peg in traditional political categories as well. During the unrest she was in the streets hugging the revolting youth but she also voted against the $15 minimum wage, and on friendly terms with a Governor who doesn't understand Baltimore, maybe hoping for the upper hand through flattery, just as Macron does with Trump.
Pugh meeting homeless (Baltimore SUN)

Both leaders preside over a seeming intractable problem: Violent, crime ridden and neglected minority neighborhoods. The difference: In France these poor communities are located in far flung suburbs outside the core cities  in the so-called banlieue making them even more invisible than America's "inner city neighborhoods" which typically are the forgotten communities here.

Macron recently conceded that the French State has contributed to the radicalization of some youths in the French Banlieue.
"In these neighborhoods we have closed schools, cut aid for the oldest and youngest, and other groups have arrived touting solutions for all of that. Radicalization took root because the state checked out." (President Macron)
One has to understand that in France the President feels responsible for Paris in that way of thinking that gave DC its limited autonomy. Former President Mitterand littered his capital with his grands projects, no matter that Paris has a mayor as well. In fact, a comparison between mayor Pugh and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo may be illuminating as well. Hidalgo has become known the world over for her anti-car transportation policies banning diesel vehicles and trying to eliminate all combustion engine automobiles by 2030. But Hidalgo isn't in charge outside the peripherique, Paris' version of the beltway where the banlieue is located. In a way she is the mayor of the "white L" without "the black butterfly".
Mayor Hidaldo celebrates car free day on the Champs Elysees 

So it is Macron who plans to tackle the root cause of social and economic isolation in those suburbs and wants to overhaul funding for public housing, expand child care, improve public transport links and offer subsidies to companies that hire youth from targeted areas.

He is not the first President to make big announcements about lifting the banlieue just like Pugh isn't the first Mayor trying to address the issues of East and West Baltimore. Many French presidents have dabbled with subsidies, half-hearted job programs and housing projects, and then forgotten about the banlieue until more violence erupted leaving a real solution to the next president.
“No social policy can sustain itself unless there is also a parallel economic success story at hand, which can carry it, and pay for it.” (President Macron)
That is also Pugh's view who put support of Port Covington first in her list of priority transportation projects she wants to see in Baltimore enumerated in her "priority letter" to the State Department of Transportation.  Pugh is also a fervent supporter of Amazon's HQ2 coming to Baltimore. She routinely turns to the private sector to fund her initiatives to combat the dearth of opportunity in disenfranchised neighborhoods. Macron, a former banker says about his job training program:
Pugh as Senator hugging youth during the unrest (NBC)
“It’s not a policy of subsidies, it’s a policy of investment in people.”
Pugh, a business major and small business owner would like to see her initiatives the same way.
“Half the workforce will be Millennials by 2020 and it is important for business to hire youth to shape the future workforce. In Baltimore City, our young people have proven a desire to work and contribute to our growth and it is incumbent upon all of us – government, businesses, and foundations – to provide meaningful summer jobs for them. We are committed to making YouthWorks a stepping stone to create career opportunities as well as positive learning environments". Mayor Pugh.
Naming discrimination and racial inequality as part of systemic oppression is relatively new in both countries, especially in France.
“fight against discrimination in hiring,”[...] “most efficient response is a toe-to-toe fight, penalize discrimination. Naming them is very efficient. Stigmatize companies that act this way.” (President Macron)
Macron in the Paris banlieu 
Pugh removed statues that were symbols of oppression. On the practical level she extended night and weekend hours of Baltimore recreation centers, initiated a teen business challenge that encourages youth to start businesses, and held a youth summit. Macron equally oscillates between symbolism and pragmatism.

American mayors have long claimed that trash and snow removal doesn't know a Republican or Democrat agenda and seen themselves as CEOs of a service oriented business. The French President has taken this approach to an ever higher level. Addressing the forgotten parts of society languishing in disinvested areas as an inefficiency or as a security problem is certainly not entirely off the mark. Yet it falls short of the ethical and moral mandates that political leaders must be held to as well.
The view of a city or a country as a corporation and its leader as a CEO is problematic for its unrealistic claim of being politically or ideologically "neutral", for its transactional nature and for its false equivalency between a business and government.

Macron is known for pairing his business approach by addressing vision and values with soaring rhetoric which has carried him into the Presidency in a surprisingly clear victory. He managed to layg out a path for the European Union to move on which has saved the ailing confederation from total despair for the time being. Pugh, in our imaginary conversation, could take a few hints from Macron when it comes to vision and values so she can more clearly illuminate where she thinks her path will take us.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Blogging, journalism, clickbait and most popular articles

The blogger will invoke the word “journalism” and call himself a journalist, but he has no understanding of what those words mean. It’s one thing to wax poetic about “hard-hitting journalism.” It’s another thing to use the Inverted Pyramid, develop and adhere to a style guide, work with PR people with some kind of integrity, develop features and breaking news stories separate from opinion and editorial, and generally conduct oneself as a journalist.
A blogger touting his love for journalism is like a high school choir girl saying she loves opera: She might be sincere, but she’s got a hell of a lot to learn. 
How to Tell a Journalist from a Blogger. J. O'Dell 
 H.L. Mencken as a SUN reporter: The classic image
After writing  a weekly article on architecture and urban design for a national audience since 2009, I began writing daily Baltimore specific articles during the winter of 2015, just a couple of months before Baltimore erupted in what some call uprising and some others riots.
Since then I have written 770 daily articles that garnered almost half a million page-views. The weekly columns have continued first every Friday and now about every two weeks.  In spite of spanning now 8 years, there are only 420 of those more thorough columns, still they beat the daily posts by having with 1.1 million clicks twice as many "readers". (Of course, not every one who clicks actually reads, just like not every book or newspaper is read). 
Lisa Snowden McCray, editor the Beat interviewed by Real News:
the old media world is crumbling but a new one is emerging

Interestingly, the most popular article of all times with 59,000 clicks is very Baltimore: The Anatomy of the Baltimore Rowhouse. The more esoteric question of "What has Architecture to do with Quantum Physics" made it to rank #6. Maybe the most satisfying moment of writing those more complex articles came in 2016 when I had written about the LIGO experiment that could prove gravitational waves as an architectural project and received an e-mail from the director of the project in response. (LIGO won the 2017 Nobel Prize). An article about the bicycle made it on rank 10 of the most popular articles.
The ten most popular daily Blog articles are all from this year, except one. The most clicked article was about tearing down Eddies in Mount Vernon with 7,600 clicks. CHAP agreed to the demolition of the ensemble of buildings in spite of the high interest. Articles on rank #2 and #3 also deal with loss, a pervasive Baltimore narrative, the one about the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain and the other about Governor Hogan saying No to the State Center Redevelopment.

How many people read an article depends on the time when it first gets published, how the title line is phrased and, of course, how relevant the topic is. The click numbers say little about how useful these articles are and whether they make a difference. All I can say with certainty, is that they are useful for me, the writer. They force me to stay informed, gather information and keep learning. The idea of being well informed vanishes each time another article has to be written that is more than just opinion and includes, facts and sources and creates a larger context. 

To what standard should these blog articles adhere? Although I freelanced in journalism while I was in highschool and later as a student, I cannot claim to have been trained in journalism. I have worked with journalists, starting when I was school president, and journalists from the two local papers began writing articles about what was going on at our highschool. That was during the years that culminated in 1968, a year history now short-hands for a time of international revolt and unrest. It continued when I was a Borough Council and spokesperson for my social democratic party caucus. I always admired journalists, and in some ways, I maybe wanted to be one all my life.

I realized early on that many people hated journalists and that many of my colleagues in politics, let alone architecture, thought that they were forever misquoted. As someone who was still writing articles at the time and also was editor and publisher of a local party newsletter, I never felt that way. Today when the left and the right seem united in their bashing journalists and the media I still don't feel that most if the criticism is fair or factual. Journalists still belong to the group of best informed people in Baltimore.

Whenever I got in trouble because of a newspaper article in which I was quoted, I knew it was my own fault because I had not articulated myself clearly enough. In an interview, each sentence has to be able to stand on its own. If one makes an inflammatory statement in one sentence and takes it back in the next, it isn't a surprise what will get printed or broadcast in the end. 
A real journalist tries to tell the objective truth, reports facts fairly, strives for balance, and discloses bias. Technology hasn’t changed the fundamentals.
Real journalists have opinions. Editorial writers and columnists are also journalists, not just reporters. But if it’s real journalism, opinions are framed as opinions, declared openly, and not masked as facts.
So I say lots of bloggers are journalists. And a lot of people writing for or appearing on mainstream news media are not. 
Tim Berry
The article How to Tell a Journalist from a Blogger conveys a few truths but also perpetuates the fiction about the journalist as being neutral and factual. This can be an aspiration, at best, but nobody can be truly neutral. Personally I have been heavily influenced by the German Weekly DER SPIEGEL. It is modeled after TIME but has advanced beyond TIME in terms of its scope and influence. As a weekly, it takes the news and puts them into context but also writes from a certain liberal perspective. It presents itself as factual but not as neutral. Germans either hate or love the magazine, it has been copied and maligned and gone through many shifts and facelifts. Still, its style presents a unique style of journalism that is well informed, thorough and fun to read at the same time. Its articles about America are always a revelation, particular for an American living here who happens to be able to read German.
“You can’t just sit on your computer all day. You need to get off your butt, go out there and interview sources, investigate the issue yourself and then write what you’ve learned.” David S. Broder, Washington Post White House Correspondent
Of course, DER SPIEGEL has only first rate writers like the New Yorker or the New York Times and like those it has an excellent network of resources. A blogger can't match that, no matter how hard one tries and how much one is "out there" trying to get the stories straight. As a blogger one doesn't even get the press releases sent except upon special request. 
Journalism in the movies: Spotlight

Baltimore has only one diminished daily newspaper that keeps being bought and sold and keeps shedding journalists. But it still has great devoted journalists. I still read it as a print edition over breakfast, even though the most important articles I had already seen online the evening before. Those journalists that left the SUN and now the City Paper provide the basis for other media such as WYPR, the Baltimore Business Journal, and the Daily Record. There is excellent online content such as the Brew, the new Baltimore Beat, the Baltimore Fishbowl, the South Baltimore News or the Maryland Reporter and many other regular online media, none of which want to be called blogs. My articles are a tiny puzzle piece that don't quite fit in with the old categories which are crumbling in front of our eyes.
“What we don’t need is for journalists to claim that they are the only useful… (writers) to be found. Yes, people do want the hard facts. And yes, they do want to know what they mean. That is where blogging comes in, we provide perspective along with the facts.” Alex Wilhelm TNW (The Next Web)
There will be a break in my writing due to travelling with Morgan Architecture students to India for a three week study abroad trip. But then, I think that in spite of still being a practicing architect, I will try again to keep up with the flood of events by writing about a "small" segment of them, those that deal with the built environment and what it has to do with people. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Why Tufaro has it backwards

In an op-ed in the post-Christmas edition of the Sun former mayoral candidate and developer David Tufaro toes some popular sentiments about current City policies that he calls "suicidal".
On first blush the column by the Yale-trained historian with a Penn doctorate in urban planning seems to make sense when he enumerates Baltimore's well-known pathologies and notes conditions that anybody who knows Baltimore, has to concede are accurate: poor school performance, high taxes combined with low property values and high crime.
Confusing cause and effect

But his reasoning is hairy throughout. In a view usually limited to politicians, he vastly overestimates the effects of policies. He doesn't criticize the weakness of the current administration's policies  to effectively counter-steer the larger context. Instead, he identifies current local policies as the causes of the problems even if they are based on evidence that the previous old style policies (which Tufaro seems to prefer) were ineffective.

Right in the first paragraph about schools and education his logic becomes astounding. After the well worn old hats of "top heavy" bureaucracy and "protecting ineffective teachers" he concludes that the best teacher talent is kept out by "cumbersome state teacher certification" requirements. Aside that this is outside the City's control, since when does careful certification keep talent out? Then he goes on to list that "projects" are often allowed to substitute "required exams". Isn't that what pedagogians have always demanded: Problem based learning instead of mindless exams? He also complains that the system is trying to reduce the high number of suspensions. This, too, is a policy educators have asked for when for years they warned that excluding record numbers of students from school is not furthering education but delivers students straight into the street system of crime. To top it off, Tufaro blames poor school performance on "squandering $1 billion on new and renovated schools" and their green building requirements. This after decades of complaints that city school buildings are in such bad shape that buckets have to catch rain water and drinking fountains had to be shut off because of lead in the water. Educators and experts have shown that if children are sent into such poor physical learning environments, they are told from the onset that not only do they not count as real people, but that learning isn't considered worth anything in the society they live. As for the green standards: They tell students to be good stewards of the environment and they save operating cost in the long run when the city has to maintain these buildings. Hard to see what should be wrong with this.

That is not to say that anyone interested in the $1 billion school construction program shouldn't take a good hard look at how the program is run by the Stadium Authority and why its scope has been reduced several times because of cost overruns.
Mayoral candidate 1999
When Tufaro talks about the property values and the associated taxes, he really gets it backwards all the way; The taxes are so high because the property values are so depressed, not the other way round as he maintains. And those property values are low because as a former industrial city Baltimore lost a lot of its economic base. Additionally, post war federal policies have fostered sprawl, urban flight, and the depletion of cities. Those policies were initially based on overt racial discrimination by redlining whole sections of the city, walling them effectively off from investment, a bad policy that still reverberates today. As a developer, Tufaro should speak about what investment strategies elevate property values instead of toeing the tired Republican line that Democrats just like high taxes.

Tufaro's column then goes straight on to plastic bags and the minimum wage, both local bills that have been unfortunately defeated so far, but he blames them for Baltimore's ills anyway.

Finally, he blames crime on the "revolving door" for criminal juveniles and complains that the public is focusing on violence committed by police instead on the violence in the streets. He apparently fails to see the connection between the two issues. Violence in the streets is sky-high because trust in police is at a record low, with good reason as one can read in the paper on a daily base. This isn't because of lenient criminal justice, but because the police has proven to be far more rotten than many wanted to believe. That problem cannot be overcome with simply jailing more people.
Whitehall Mill

Tufaro concludes that " even winning the Amazon  HQ2 would not make these problems disappear." Finally one has to agree with him. But this final score doesn't make his earlier diagnosis any more correct.

It looks like it is a good thing that Tufaro didn't become Mayor back in 1999 and instead continued to do his successful development projects such as Waterloo Place in Mt Vernon, the Montgomery Ward redevelopment on Washington Boulevard, Mill #1, and Whitehall Mill, both on Falls Road. Those projects have helped to make Baltimore a better place. His creative (and green) adaptive reuse projects are also evidence of a time when Baltimore had thriving industries that no longer exist.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Updated for typos

Due to the holidays and extended travel Community Architect Daily will be less regular in the next four weeks

Friday, December 22, 2017

Design team selected for new Camden Station

The space frame sheltering MARC and Light Rail riders who  want to by tickets after a game at Camden Yards or leave on the Camden commuter rail line after a day of work proved the old adage that nothing lasts longer than a temporary solution. Quickly conceived as a flexible structure which could weave together a modular ticket trailer, various vending machines, information signs and an electrical equipment pad and would be low-cost and not block the views of the historic Camden warehouse, the frame lasted for 25 years. MTA discovered it as an advertising carrier eliminating the desire to be light, ephemeral and not to obstruct views. 

the current temporary structure adorned with garish adverstisement
The end of the temporary solution is in sight because MTA obtained a $6 million federal grant, matched by $1.2 million State funds. The project, located so close to the Stadium Authority's masterpiece, was handed to MSA to be administered. MSA issued first a request for information folowed by a request for proposals earlier this year. The procurement mill churned through letters of interest, a shortlist and selection of finalist. AECOM was recently announced as the winning design team that will charged with devising a new and permanent station that serves MTA's transit functions and fits into the surroundings of Oriole Park.
It is anticipated that the construction will consist of an approximately 1,000 square foot building which houses MARC train operations. Selected architect will be given a rendering of an approved concept and will be asked to develop a full design.
A/E will be expected to work closely with MSA and MTA throughout the design process to design a building that falls within the budget and fulfills all MTA programming needs. A/E will provide full design services as well as Construction Administration throughout the entire duration of construction. (From the MSA Bid Solicitation of 6/22/17)
MTA non binding concept sketch issued before the RFP (MTA/MSA)
Nothing is known yet about how AECOM's architects will approach the actual new design. The electric equipment currently surrounded by the space frame will likely remain in place and force the new building to accommodate it as well.

MTA had developed a non-binding concept sketch that had been provided as an exhibit to the RFP and showed where MTA and MSA think the journey should go: A retro design, half market shed, half old-fashioned train platform shelter. The rendering also showed a tower which incongruously stands on the side, too close to the tracks, not big enough to compete with the cupola on top of the historic train station and not small enough to really blend in.
Retro feel at Camden Yards (MTA/MSA)

It is unlikely that AECOM will follow this lead, at least not judging from the clean modern design the design team had proposed for Baltimore's Red Line stations. On the other hand, it is the retro design of Camden Yards that made it so successful and it is tempting to extend this language into the transit facility as well.

MSA pursues an aggressive schedule and one can assume that AECOM's design concepts will be made public early next year with groundbreaking anticipated for fall 2018.

MARC trains leaving from Camden Station head for Washington Union Station via Jessup and Laurel sharing a freight track with CSX. The tracks for the Howard Street tunnel run under the Camden Station area just to the side of I-395. Light Rail trains leave the station for the Hamburg Street Station which serves Sharp Leadenhall and the Ravens Stadium and continues across the Middle Branch towards Westport, Linthicum, BWI or Cromwell Station. Both the Camden and the Hamburg Street station have relatively low weekday boardings but enormous "crush-loads" at game times. The anticipated development of Port Covington has brought renewed interest in the LRT line and a possible spur serving the development.
Historic Camden Station after restoration 

Camden Station once was one of Baltimore's prominent passenger rail stations. Oriole Park and the egress for the parking lots required that the current train operations were relocated south of Conway Street allowing cars to cross the tracks without being blocked by waiting trains.  This move made it impossible to have transit or train functions accommodated in the historic Station since it is now too removed. The MSA  has been struggling to find an appropriate use for the historic building.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The writer designed the original temporary structure when with Cho, Wilks and Benn Architects and was an adviser for a shortlisted team that was not selected.

Due to the holidays and subsequent travel Community Architect articles will be less regular during the next four weeks.

MSA qualifications Bid 

Related articles on this blog:

Camden Station should be a train station again! (2016) 

Pop Up Instead of Permanence (2012)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What the Republican tax bill does to cities

The Republican tax bill landed under the Christmas tree with a thud. Only 33% of Americans believe that it gives relief to the middle class. Indeed, experts calculated that between 60-80% of the benefits go to the top 1% of income earners. The package is tightly wrapped and it will take some time to  untangle since it was pushed through with so much speed and volatility that hardly anybody fully knows on what they just voted. However, it looks like the worst impacts on cities have been averted in the final negotiations.

It isn't surprising that southern, rural red state politicians who have the majority in the Senate would put a bill together that knocks big cities in the liberal northeast or in California.  The 12 Republican House members who voted against the bill all come from the metropolitan areas in the northeast and mid-Atlantic. Initially the bill eliminated all major tax credits that make the harder investments in big cities work. The deductions and credits were proposed to be eliminated in order to pay for the corporate tax cuts, the elimination of the alternative income tax, and other cuts.

New Market Tax credits (NMTC), low income housing tax credits (LIHTC), historic preservation tax credits (HTPTC), municipal bond tax deductions, and private activity bonds exemptions (PAB), are the most prominent tools to make difficult urban projects work, especially in legacy cities such as Baltimore . All of them were initially on the chopping block.
Lillian Jones affordable housing in Greenmount West (Photo: Philipsen)

There likely  still will be  negative impacts on cities resulting from the kind of unintended consequences which accompany almost any complex bill. For example, the mortgage deductions cap:  It makes a lot of sense to finally cap the mortgage deductions since they disproportionately benefit wealthier owners and generally favor owners over renters. The share of renters has lately increased along with more people living in cities. However, the cap is applied uniformly across the US, regardless of cost of living and housing prices, thus it will hit not only the very wealthy but also regular middle class people in high-cost cities. Even Maryland's Republican Governor warned of higher taxes for regular Marylanders and announced a State package he wants to sponsor to protect them.

The following is a quick overview of tax credits relevant to urban planning, affordable housing and preservation:.

Historic Tax Credit:

The federal historic tax credit program has been key in the revitalization of Baltimore and has brought almost all of this city's larger adaptive re-use projects over the finish line. There are federal, state and local credits and incentives. The federal tax credit will remain at 20% thanks to massive horsetrading and a big push of the Louisiana Congressional delegation and the advocacy group Preserve Louisiana. However, developers can no longer take the entire credit as an up-front cash infusion (by syndicating it with an investor) but the credit has now to be taken over five years.  The 10 percent pre-1936 non-historic “old building” credit has been eliminated by the tax bill.
Adaptive reuse through historic tax credits: Humanim
in East Baltimore (Cho Benn Holback)

Initially introduced without a historic tax credit the bill had caused the National Historic Trust for Preservation to make this observation:
“More than 30 years ago, former President Ronald Reagan spoke eloquently about the historic tax credit program he signed into law to preserve America’s historic buildings, calling it ‘economic good sense’. Today, led by Reagan’s own party, Congress introduced a tax reform bill that would halt this proven program despite its remarkable track record of success. (NHT on Nov 2, 2017)
After the bill had been reconciled between Senate and House,  NHT was carefully optimistic that favorable refinements may still be possible in the future:
At some point in the New Year, it is widely anticipated Congress will need to pass a “technical corrections” bill to amend certain aspects of the tax legislation. This may present an opportunity to encourage favorable changes to the HTC provisions that the National Trust, along with our partners at National Trust Community Investment Corporation and the Historic Tax Credit Coalition, will be working toward. (NHT on Dec 19,2017)

Low Income Housing:

Low income housing tax credits are a major tool for private developers to even consider affordable housing in the middle of a national shortage of such units, especially in larger cities. The conference committee rejected proposals to eliminate the existing exemption for artist housing, as well as new provisions for rural housing. The PABs were also maintained, leaving the effectiveness of LIHTC largely in place. However, negative effects may still come from the overall context of the bill. The private accounting form Novogradac analyzed the effects of the tax bill shortly before the final votes on Tuesday and concluded:
Gateway affordable housing on west North Avenue (Photo: Philipsen)
the final version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, tax reform legislation approved by the House-Senate conference committee on Dec. 15 and likely to pass Congress this week would reduce the future supply of affordable rental housing by nearly 235,000 homes over 10 years. 
The effect stems less from the tax credit itself which survived but from the reduced corporate tax rate which would reduce the tax loss benefits of LIHTC investments, since the value of depreciation expense deductions would be reduced and from adjustments how inflation is calculated resulting in decreased inflation adjustments.

New Market Tax Credits:

The final bill maintains NMTC for 2018 and 2019 with annual $3.5 billion allocations. New Market tax credits are an important tool of investment in areas that have no or weak markets and was created in 2000 as a bipartisan effort to stimulate investment and economic growth in low-income urban neighborhoods and rural communities. It has been used in many Baltimore projects.
NMTC is an essential tool for community revitalization. Between 2003 and 2015, $42 billion in NMTC investments leveraged over $80 billion in total investments to businesses and revitalization projects in low-income rural and urban communities, generating some 750,000 jobs. The cost to the federal government was less than $20,000 per job. Further, 72 percent of NMTC activity was in the most distressed communities in America, with unemployment rates 1.5 times the national average, poverty rates of at least 30 percent, or median income at or below 60 percent of area median.  (Letter of  2100 businesses calling for maintaining the tax credit program)
New Markets Tax Credit Coalition
The federal tax bill actually added another similar provision that is supposed to aid investment in low income communities, the so-called Opportunity Zones. Defined by similar criteria as the NMTC the provision allows states to establish these zones and is based on the Investment in Opportunity Act introduced in February of this year.  The Denver Post opined that the Opportunity Zones could be easily abused.

  General impacts on large cities

As noted, impacts on large cities are still likely, whether through the lower mortgage cap or fewer doantions to non-profits which play a big role in providing services to vulnerable populations. The cap on mortgage interest deductions for first and second homes will be reduced from $1 million to $750,000.
Equally, the deduction for state and local taxes hits especially those in high tax urban areas: It is capped at $10,000 and can include property, sales, or income taxes. Changes to the standard deduction and corporate rates could also reduce incentives for individuals to itemize or business to seek certain credits. The bill also eliminates tax incentives for private employers to subsidize employee transit, parking, and bicycle commuting expenses.
Non-profits expect massiv losses in donations because the doubled standard deduction will sharply reduce the number of people who can benefit from itemized deductions for charitable giving.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for Opportunity Zones provision

Most Planning, Development Tools Survive in Tax Reform Compromise
Affordable Housing Survives GOP Tax Bill’s Final Edit
The Tax Bill Provision That Could Hit Cities Where It Hurts (CityLab)

Hogan's transportation: Full steam backwards

"This level of road construction is historic and unprecedented" (Governor Hogan)

When Governor Hogan brought Pete Rahn from New Mexico to become his transportation secretary, the word was that Rahn was a highway man. It turns out that was an massive understatement. Since in office the duo Hogan/Rahn cancelled the Baltimore Red Line, cut the state share on the Purple Line project from $700 million to $168 million, put the Corridor Cities Transitway on the back burner and unleashed a barrage of road and bridge projects. 
Hogan and Rahn announce the cancellation of the Red Line
Instead of a $2.9 billion rail transit project, Baltimore got a $135 million lump of coal in its stocking in the shape of a yet to be loved bus overhaul. But for those who want to stick with the transportation policies of the last century it has been Christmas all the time:

First Maryland's bridge and tunnel tolls were reduced, then a new Nice Bridge bridge and a third span across the Bay announced, then it was new toll lanes on Washington's Beltway. Just when one thought there simply wouldn't be any more roads to build or widen, Hogan stepped up to the microphone Tuesday with another big Christmas present for the concrete and asphalt lobby: How big? $461 million big. And what is in Santa's bag this time?
  • $151 million "for innovative congestion relief" (press release) on both inner and outer loops of I-695 from I-70 to MD 43, turning the inside shoulder into a new available lane of traffic. Adaptive ramp metering also will be employed throughout the 19 miles of that project.
  • $100 million for the design and construction of a new configuration of the I-695 and I-70 interchange, often referred to as the “triple bridges.” This will bring significant traffic relief to the entire Baltimore area and directly addresses six of the top 15 congested road segments in the state.
  • $210 million to extend the northbound I-95 Express Toll Lanes (ETL) for 7.75 miles from north of MD 43 in Baltimore County to MD 24 in Harford County. (MDOT press release)
Poor grades for regional transit (CMTA)
"This level of road construction is historic and unprecedented"
"We are finally using the Transportation Trust Fund for what is meant to be used for" (Governor Hogan at his announcement).
The Governor emphasized that all projects are paid for without additional debt. That is possible because gas tax increases installed under Governor O'Malley and initially intended to pay for the State's ambitious transit investments are still in effect and that money keeps coming in.

To call the pavement projects "innovative" takes a lot of chutzpah, of which Maryland's Governor has no shortage. Opening left shoulders for traffic is an old trick which congested metro areas use as a last resort in which they trade safety for capacity and force drivers to travel hard against median concrete barriers or cross at least four lanes to find a safe spot on the right shoulder should they experience a break-down. 

Whenever Hogan adds up all his transportation investments ($7 billion by his own counting) he includes projects which got underway long before he came into office, such as the procurement of Baltimore subway cars. This allows him to claim that he channeled $1.7 billion investments to MTA for transit. But even by that accounting, transit expenses represent only 25% of the total highway money, a true expression of a suburban Governor and the highway man on his side who believe that the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund is meant to be a highway fund. Under that logic it was time for balance by widening the Baltimore Beltway after appeasing his Washington area suburban base  with the recently announced additional ("Lexus") toll lanes on the Washington Beltway. 

With his extraordinary highway expansion plans Hogan clearly attempts to build himself out of congestion, a method of dealing with mobility issues that has been widely discredited and called impossible. Even traditionally highway oriented places such as Los Angeles, Phoenix or Houston, turned their back on a past of similarly lopsided investments and pivoted to a truly multi-modal  transportation policy that also includes better land use and demand management.  Nationwide the biggest infrastructure investments are made for rail, ports and airports.

In the top notable infrastructure list, only two projects are roads, the Alaskan Viaduct in Seattle, a project not so much about added capacity but about connecting downtown to the waterfront of Puget Sound and the Tappan Zee bridge reconstruction in New York State. However, there are other large US highway projects including the Gordie Howe International Bridge between Detroit and Canada ($2.1 billion), the Puget Sound Gateway project ($2.8 billion), the I-70 Mountain Corridor ($3.5 billion). 
Never a highway they didn't like
Hogan's announcements are red meat for his suburban and rural base who are suspicious of transit as a toy of urban elites and believe they benefit from wider roadways, even if only to feel the satisfaction of money being thrown their way including for projects such as the route 404 widening on the Eastern Shore which have no real transportation purpose (Because the road has its real choke points in Delaware).

When I had five kids in public schools they were acutely aware of the the never ending string of construction on the Baltimore Beltway and its always tip-top pavement while money for books, trips, supplies or window repairs seemed to be eternally missing at their schools. 20 years later, Hogan keeps that good old tradition alive for my grandchildren. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Due to the holidays and extended travel the Daily and bi-weekly blogs will be a bit less regular  in the coming weeks.
Hogan/Rahn announce the latest highway projects (ABC News)

Gov. Larry Hogan announces $461 million for congestion relief on the Beltway

Related articles on this blog regarding this topic:

The biggest threat to the Eastern Shore isn't water

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Too many apartments in Baltimore?

In 2008 when the economy tanked as a consequence of the financial crash and the burst of the various bubbles it produced, people in Baltimore and many other cities took a hit. So did the real estate market which often is seen as a proxy of the economy. For a while the only apartment projects were affordable tax credit deals and to some extent those projects took place in dis-invested areas such as the Gateway homes on North Avenue (a second phase is underway) and the Lillian Jones apartments on Greenmount Avenue. Today the real estate market seems to be humming along with market rate and luxury housing. Since household income is still lagging in what has become the typical inequity of the US economy the supply addresses more and more a narrow segment of affluent population while waiting lists for affordable units continue to grow, a formula that is neither fair nor economically sustainable.
Fewer owners, more renters drive up demand (HUD)

Is there another bubble brewing with all those apartments going up in Baltimore? The Baltimore Business Journal asked the question already in February of 2016 and has asked it again this month when it reported that the hot apartment market cools in spite of a positive report analyzing demand up to 2022 commissioned by the Downtown Partnership. The numbers are rather startling considering that the City overall has failed to grow and is even said to have shrunk slightly (The Census Bureau estimated a loss of 6,700 residents for 2016). However, population isn't the whole story, because demand is also driven by a shift from ownership to rental.
  • 12,500 new apartments have been built between 2001 and now
  • 3,500 units have been added in the last five years
  • Monthly absorption rates for "class A" apartments have slowed to a crawl of 4-5 a month

Some of the biggest projects with over 2 000 class A more units are still under construction or still on the drawing board including:
  • Nearly 400 luxury units  at 414 Light Street (McCormick site)
  • The  Liberty at Harbor East with over 300 apartments and condos
  • about 350 apartments at 22 N. Calvert 
  • about 280 units at One Light Street across from the Bank of America Tower
  • over 100 units at the Nelson Kohl building on Lanvale Street in Station North
  • 380 units are planned in Little Italy where the Della Notte once stood
Adding in all smaller residential projects over 5,600 units were under construction in April of this year as the Planning Department reported.
Stronger and weaker markets based on housing value appreciation (HUD) 

At the recent 21st Century Cities Symposium organised by Hopkins one speaker concerned about the lack of equity in investments across cities ("Household and Neighborhood inequality") said:
When some areas grow much faster than population growth then we cannibalize older areas. Paul Jargowsky, Rutgers
While this view is a bit static and sounds like nobody moves to Baltimore from the outside, it is true that Baltimore's essentially stagnant population means that for each person coming in another one leaves. People are moving into the trendy areas and they are leaving from the large swaths of Baltimore which haven't seen much new investment in decades. A not legitimate short-cut conclusion is that if no new people would move to downtown, Remington, Locust Point or Hampden, fewer people would move out of traditional neighborhoods. That is likely only true to the extent that public infrastructure investment is unduly concentrated in trendy areas.
Nelson Kohl  apartments Lanvale Street

With over 2000 units still in the pipeline the new projects are beginning to cannibalize each other and like also the older apartments even in the trendy areas such as Mt Vernon. If the reported 5 units per month absorption for class A apartments is only nearly true, it would take 33 years to absorb them all.

The large supply will dampen rents, for sure, but they can only go so far down until the rents don't cover the cost of construction, the point where a  market begins to crash. It is safe to say that Baltimore has now an apartment bubble, unless the city finds a way to finally grow its population for real and shifts construction to where the demand is, i.e. more affordable units.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ: Baltimore's hot apartment market cools, experts say, but will be fine long term
HUD: Comprehensive Housing Market Analysis Baltimore-Towson
BBJ about real estate report Sept 17
Flood of new apartments in Baltimore raises question ... - Baltimore Sun