Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The racial wealth divide in Baltimore

In the currently evident great American divide between rural and urban America, it must not be overlooked how deeply divided American Cities remain as well, at least economically. How drastic the opportunity divide is in Baltimore becomes clear by a just released report by the Washington based non-profit Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED),  an "organization working at local, state and federal levels to create economic opportunity that alleviates poverty" that was founded in 1979.
CFED report

The findings are startling: The mean black household income is just about half of what the mean white household income is. Two thirds of African American households have no cash reserves in an emergency (versus a still frightening one third for white households) and twice as many black households have zero net worth than whites.

Baltimore isn't even an extreme outlier in these measures but quite close to the national average.
Baltimore's black poverty is close to the nation average.
The national trend of revitalized cities attracts a lot of wealth to cities, be it through investments in development, industry relocation or wealthy residents. Clearly, some cities such as Boston, DC, San Francisco or Austin benefit much more from that trend than rustbelt cities like Baltimore, Detroit or Cleveland.
The differences among cities: Austin and Detroit (Source: Prudential)

Adam Smith immortalized "The Wealth of Nations," but prosperity in today’s world increasingly depends on the wealth of cities. In the United States, the 25 largest metropolitan areas churn out more than 40% of all economic output; the top 65% account for 65%. (Investors Daily, Feb 5, 2016)
But the wealth bifurcation is evident even in flourishing cities because wealth is accumulating on a narrower and narrower base. An issue that cities cannot fix by themselves, no matter how many community benefit agreements or assessments.

Cities cannot redistribute wealth in a significant way nor can their initiatives in education, transportation, innovation or economic development compensate for the fact that so much money is made in the financial sector, through shares or through real estate, all fields mostly locked to the average citizen.
The top 10% of families -- those who had at least $942,000 -- held 76% of total wealth. The average amount of wealth in this group was $4 million.
Everyone else in the top 50% of the country accounted for 23% of total wealth, with an average of $316,000 per family.
That leaves just 1% of the total pie for the entire bottom half of the population.
CFED Report

The average held was $36,000 for families that fell in the 26th to 50th percentiles. But if they fell in the bottom quarter, they had zero wealth and in fact, were $13,000 in debt on average, CBO found. (CNN Money).
The concentration of wealth is half as accentuated in Europe and even less in Japan. That wealth distribution tracks race as closely as it does is prove how systemic racial discrimination in education, real estate, policing, business and many other fields has been over the decades locking blacks into poverty in harder to overcome ways than whites. That is not to say that there isn't white poverty, but it is much less accentuated in cities. Which gets us right back to the urban rural divide and why it is in large part also a racial one.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Racial Wealth Divide In Baltimore 2017
household in come distribution shows the shape of the "white L" CFED Report
CFED Report

Median Household Income of blacks is just a bit more than that of whites (CFED Report)

Black households are twice as likely not to have a cash reserve for three months (CFED Report)

Incarceration rates are far from the demographic base (62% versus 90%)
(CFED Report)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Protest at the Friendship Airport

That local protest can unfold inside an airport proponents of the presidential travel ban never tired of observing with wonder. "Why not arrest them all" or "with all the security how the hell did they get in" where frequent online comments scrolling under the live reporting of WBAL from BWI. One is tempted to assume that these comments came from people who never travel, for the ignorance about airport security and the willingness to curtail free travel in general.
Friendship Airport aka BWI  (Photo: Philipsen)

The spontaneous protest at the international arrival gate spread also to Baltimore on Sunday and it was powerful as my video shows which was now been seen over six-thousand times. Crowds arrived by light rail making a pro transit statement. A lady with a suitcase emerging from a packed train didn't mind, although her purpose was travel: "It was packed in a good way", she said.

The International arrival hall in Terminal E of the Thurgood Marshall International Airport is usually eerily empty. Not Sunday, though. Shouts and slogans rang out and everyone emerging from customs was jubilantly welcomed by a tightly packed crowd of what could have been well over a 1000 people. The demonstrators filled also the adjoining hallways and more and more folks with placards gave up their quiet Sunday afternoons to be at the airport, a place
The airport as the Commons? (Photo: Philipsen)
that has given up its function as a family Sunday destination sometime in the early sixties when planes were still a novelty and could be watched from viewing platforms with envied travelers strolling leisurely across the tarmac what was then called Friendship Airport and belonged to the City of Baltimore. Yesterday, the protesters turned the successful and growing airport into Friendship Airport once again. Of course, whether friendship should be extended to strangers is one of the questions that now divides the nation. The airport's namesake, Thurgood Marshall also provides good guidance:

In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute. 
Friendship Airport in the fifties.
This is the new America, the one we wake up to every morning, rubbing our eyes, wondering can it really be true. The smaller half feeling a jubilant jolt and the bigger half the kind of sorrowful peng that comes when an unwanted reality settles back in that sleep had mercifully obliterated.

Recently when I asked in this space where Baltimore's proper Commons would be, meaning a civic gathering space, I had not considered that US airports could become the commons of the day across an entire country, even if only for those who feel aggrieved by current policies.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friendship observation deck.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Less Trade - less Baltimore

The While cities can become bulwarks in resisting certain federal policies, they are in many ways directly dependent on what happens in Washington. A case in point is not so much the widely discussed threat of funding being cut off from "sanctuary cities" and Baltimore's dance around that term, but trade.
Port of Baltimore: Number #1 in the US. (Source: Automotive Logistics.
The chart says "2" because it counted North America and #1 in 2013
was Veracruz, Mexico)

Baltimore's port has always been at the heart of Baltimore's history and, to some extent, its economy. Baltimore was a designated port of entry for countless immigrants, some of which stayed in Baltimore and made the city grow and prosper. The Port of Baltimore is the nation's #1 port for car imports and exports, in other words: Trade.
Shippers imported 399,618 cars last year, up from 331,746 in 2014, the Maryland Port Administration announced Wednesday. Overall, 753,265 vehicles were moved through the port, the highest volume among U.S. ports for the fifth consecutive year.(SUN 3/9/16)
BMW's rolling ashore in Baltimore, it other largest Car exporter in Us
Should foreign importers have to pay high import tariffs making their vehicles prohibitively expenseive to sell in the US, Baltimore's port would be directly hit.

An analysis of the overall shipping numbers of auto vehicles shows that we are only #1 because of higher exports. Some may say, "the more we can export US cars, the better", so less imports won't affect us. That may be what the numbers suggest for a world without trade wars. But once importing countries are hit by US protective policies, one can be sure that those countries will fight back with the end result of less trade overall. In such a scenario the Port of Baltimore may well join the ranks of many ports around the nation with plenty empty space and hulking ruins attesting to better times in the past.
Fiats rolling off the boat in Baltimore

This just goes to show that nothing is ever simple and that is before one even discusses how automobiles are manufactured, which parts come from where or what a future of electric and automated cars may mean for the economy or the Port of Baltimore.

In the world of foreign policy, technology and trade, one better thinks three, four or five moves ahead before making the first strike.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Are streetcars viable transit?

America with its fantastic rail history still has a love affair with trains, be it high-speed HSR, Maglev, light rail, monorail or streetcar. Problem is: Most of it comes as a fashion, sweeps the country and then fades away, a victim of the American habit of short attention span, impatience, a desire for instant success and most of all the vilification of everything that government does.
New Orleans historic trolleys

In spite of all that, light rail has shown pretty good staying power and is now an integral part of the transportation system in many cities such as Portland, Denver, San Diego or Pittsburgh.

The streetcar is another story. After an incredible run many transportation planners today roll their eyes, when somebody suggest a streetcar. The streetcar seemed unstoppable after Portland's success with a streetcar that ran as a complement to the light rail system and famously brought the Pearl District a development bonanza; many cities lined up to build their streetcar line as well attracted by the promise of economic development in spite of the relatively lower price tag of streetcars compared to light rail, a convincing argument that worked across party lines. President Bush even added Small Starts to the funding portfolio of the Federal Transit Administration, specifically with streetcars in mind.

The lower cost also became the pitfall of streetcars. It is relatively easy to lay down some track somewhere and hope for the best. Poorly thought out individual, isolated streetcar lines like the one in Tacoma, Atlanta or Seattle began to give the streetcar a bad name.
Tampa Trolley (Photo: K Philipsen)

But a general conclusion isn't easy. A streetcar can still help to revitalize downtown as Kansas and Detroit have shown. A nascent system that begins with what one can only call a streetcar, can mature from there into a light rail system, as one can see in Houston. Success or failure is decided by how well a streetcar is embedded not only into an overall transportation system but also into urban comprehensive development plans. Next City in a 2014 article went as far as headlining in an article that streetcars aren't really about trannsit at all. Under the headline Why Streetcars aren't about Transit the article states:
This is the crux of the streetcar conundrum. It’s ostensibly a transit mode, and one that critics assail as a very expensive way of moving people around at low speeds. But at its essence, the streetcar is a city-building tool — and by most accounts a very successful one.
“Billions of dollars [of development] have been built adjacent to the streetcar,” [Portland Congressman] Blumenauer says. “It’s the hottest real estate market in the city. I’ve had developers tell me they would have actually invested more in the streetcar if they’d known how much money it would make them.”
Today I was guiding a streetcar tour in Tampa, Florida, another city which started with a single 2.7 mile "heritage" line, because there were some streetcar enthusiasts and a new mayor who gave them $5 million to get something started. In the end the line cost three times as much but that was still pretty cheap for a vintage trolley to begin clanking down streets along a disinvested industrial waterfront with an also pretty run down historic Ybor City as its destination. Many saw it simply as a party train of sorts making it easier to imbibe at the bars of Tampa's historic entertainment district.
Transit Oriented Development in Tampa's Channel District (Photo: K Philipsen)

But the so-called TECO streetcar, (named after Tampa's Electric Company which ran a 54 mile streetcar network until the end of WW II), is quite interesting for its many partners and funding sources which include an organization specifically created for the streetcar, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), and the City of Tampa.

Opened in 2002, this was one of the early lines that took a hint or two from New Orleans successful vintage streetcar by restoring car chassis obtain from Milan, Italy by a small US shop in Iowa. A short 0.3 mile extension to connect to a transit center (Transportation Plaza) was added in 2010. Now a feasibility study is underway to mature the line into something more than a tourist attraction.

As a transportation system the eight historic trolleys that run down the line every 20 minutes remain insignificant compared to what HART moves by bus. Below 1000 riders on the streetcar hardly make a dent on Tampa's rush hour traffic and even when all trolleys run behind each other after events at the arena, convention center or aquarium, their capacity is low. But just as in the case of Portland's Pearl District, laying tracks in the Channel District the City of Tampa sent a signal that the City is serious about the area. The tracks were followed by masterplans, the Riverfront Walk, the creation of Community Redevelopment Areas (CRA) in which incremental tax value increases are collected in a trust fund limited to investment in the area and benefits districts. In concert all these measures resulted in pretty dramatic new development on the former port sites north of the trolley tracks (south of them the port continues to operate). NextCity had it right, streetcars really aren't as much about transit as about sending an important signal. Their effect is largely psychological.
Transit Oriented Development in Tampa's Channel District
(Photo: K Philipsen)

Baltimore has dabbled with the idea of adding streetcars to the existing mix of transit modes several times. Transit Choices' chair and convener Jimmy Rouse was actively trying to get a line going up Charles Street. A feasibility study was completed that included a very nice video simulating a realistic view of a ride up Baltimore's premier mile. Arguments were made for and against running the trolley around the Washington Monument. Ultimately what did the project in was funding. Property owners and businesses along the route didn't quite warm to the idea of an additional benefits assessment and Stephanie Rawlings Blake was lukewarm about a streetcar. Today the Charm City Circulator covers the route.

The next place where the Baltimore streetcar discussion will likely arise is on North Avenue for which MTA and City received a "North Avenue Rising" grant to study and design how the right-of-way could be organized from Hilton to Milton so North Avenue would become a complete street allowing effective transit. The transit union has proposed a center running bus-way (in the median) allowing what they consider BRT (Bus Rapid Transit). The current MTA Link plans propose intermittent bus-only lanes along parked cars or the curb. But if the grant money still comes from the feds as promised, improvements after the Link Bus implementation could still be considered.

Curbside streetcars, especially where running along parked cars got a black eye in DC where the long delayed H Street streetcar is running so tightly against the parking lane that any inaccurately parked car is stopping service. 
Parking is a big part of the problem. Streetcars are rarely seriously delayed due to actual lawbreaking double parkers, but have to slow to a crawl frequently for drivers legally pulling into or out of parking spaces.Even when every car is parked correctly within its space and nobody seems to be coming or going, there’s so little room between tracks and the parking lane that streetcar drivers have to poke along, for fear of driving into an opening door or for scraping a slightly wayward mirror. If the tracks were better separated from the parking, streetcars could move faster.(Greater Washington blog)
Streetcar at North Avenue and Charles Street 
Of interest to those who care about looks in historic districts and don't like the catenary systems on modern streetcars that by and large replaced the old single trolley wire of the past (Not in Tampa, though), there is hope: Wireless trolleys that run on batteries. Technical convergence between bus and streetcar may  one day obliterate the entire debate whether a streetcar is better than a bus. But rail buffs will never make piece with rubber tires instead of steel wheels on rails, and that may remain, indeed, the last differentiation. And it may be the deciding one. To quote the NextCity article again:
What is it about streetcars that make them such an effective development tool? To advocates, all the factors that limit streetcars’ utility from a mass-transit perspective enhance their development-boosting capacity.
Take the tracks. They’re a streetcar’s shackles, confining it to a fixed route. What happens if someone double parks or breaks down in the streetcar lane, or if a delivery truck is too wide and juts into the route? A bus would simply maneuver around the obstruction, but a streetcar must wait. How about if emergency utility repairs need to be made on the road, or if a sinkhole opens up under it, as has happened several times recently in D.C.? A bus can take a detour, but a streetcar can’t.
Yet the rigidity of a streetcar route is exactly what makes it so valuable from a development perspective.
“You see in city after city that the streetcar is a signal to the public, to the property owners, to investors and developers, that something new is going to happen and it’s going to be there for a long time,” Blumenauer says. “Tucson’s new streetcar is not going to open for eight or nine months, and if you walk, bike or drive the streetcar line, you see already it’s shaping development patterns and people are making investments. Those tracks on H Street in D.C. are a signal to property owners that the line is going to be there for 50 years.” 
Ah, and there is the "gentrification" argument, the matter of class and race and all the other baggage that decades of insitutional racism in US housing and transportation policies have accumulated.  Congressman Blumenauer, the streetcar fan puts it bluntly:
“People who wouldn’t get on a bus at gunpoint will take the Metro. And the streetcar’s even friendlier because it’s above ground.”
The HART representative in Tampa sees this different. He sees the streetcar as an entry pathway to transit. Once people rode a streetcar, they will find it easier to also use a bus.  Baltimore's Kirby Fowler even called Baltimore's Charm City Circulator "an entry drug" to transit.
H Street streetcar in DC

Whatever way the pathway to transit, ultimately transit cannot remain a mode of last resort limited to people who can't afford any other way. For a metro region to be successful, transit has to attract additional riders. A larger constituency of riders should benefit everybody because against a larger number discrimination is harder. Putting a Baltimore streetcar on North Avenue instead of Charles Street would go a long way of ensuring that such an investment wouldn't be just for a yuppie toy. But North Avenue won't be rising from a streetcar alone without investment strategies that address community development on both sides of the urban artery.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

At the intersection of snack, art and life: The "New American" cafe

The French Companies have long played a big role on the Westside and across Baltimore as building managers, developers and landlords. They pioneered new housing on Mulberry Street in the early 1990s (Mulberry Court) and cultivated artists in the H&H building and rent space to a number of small galleries on Franklin Street, creating an important seed for what is now the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District.
The New American: Art and culture in the Bromo District
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

Attempts of establishing small retail on the first floor of their own buildings failed more often than not. The corner store at the bottom of the company's headquarters at the southeast corner of Franklin and Eutaw saw several small clothing stores pop up and close. The latest attempt of trying to make the space work involves an artsy food space dubbed New American. Two years in the works and after extensive investment into a full commercial kitchen, the space finally opened last Saturday for brunch. Fiona Sergeant, an artist turned restaurateur, oversaw every step of the renovation and who runs the operation. As can be expected, Fiona has a full theory for life and the restaurant is just a part of it. Below my interview with her:

Fiona, what made you open an eatery on Franklin and Eutaw, what drew you to the area?

I think the first time I was in the area was probably back in high school; I am from New Jersey, but I had a friend from Baltimore, and we would go to music shows in beautiful loft spaces in the H+H building. I continued to go to events around the area during and after college and had always admired the Charles Fish and Sons building. 
When I got serious about the idea of starting a restaurant I realized how many people were always moving through the area, but there weren’t that many good food options for sitting down and relaxing. The space also seemed perfect for the sort of project I wanted to put on. 
Owner Fiona Seargent in her open kitchen
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

How did you get from Art to eating, tell us a  bit about yourself. Are you still doing art or is art and food one and the same for you?

I think I probably started with eating and then art, but it is hard to say which came first. They are both such fundamental aspects of humanity. I think at the end of the day, most of my interests stem from a fundamental appreciation-of and curiosity-in the project of being human.   
Growing up I had always wanted to be some kind of scientist or designer; I wanted to participate in an understanding of the world. I would also spend much of my time experimenting in the kitchen because it was the workspace that was accessible to me. 
After graduating from high school, I attended MICA for interdisciplinary sculpture, a department that emphasizes exploration and critical thinking in relation to our built environments, both physical and psychological. 
To me, the restaurant is a really interesting and accessible form since everybody understands how to eat food, while Art can often seem more exclusive. I enjoy the title of artist for its expansive meaning, but I am not really interested in living through the gallery system. I have always been attracted to the crossover aspects of life + aesthetics; I am very interested in architecture + the design of furniture and functional ware. Restaurants seem like the functional-ware mirror of cinema. It is something whose aesthetic qualities are felt through corporal use rather than partially removed viewing. 
A touch of culture along the walls
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

Tell us about your theory of food, satisfaction and the rise of the snack

The Search for the Satisfying Snack in Contemporary America” is the title of an essay I wrote as my thesis paper associated with my undergrad degree. The essay did not have to be directly related to the sculpture work we showed for commencement, but was more of a chance to consider seriously anything we wanted to. 
At first I had wanted to write a paper that had to do with the American Identity, the concept of “the new,” America’s huge physical scale + its dependance on media as a way of viewing itself/ communicating within itself, etc… but when I went to talk to the librarian about how to research ‘the concept of the new’ he told me about a book by Daniel Boorstin (former librarian of congress) called The Image which had been written in 1962. (Seems especially important to read nowadays…). In any event; I felt that essay I had wanted to write had already been written to some extent, and by a bit of a heavy hitter at that. 
Then, for  whatever reason, I refocused my attention as America as the land of the snack, and the various relationships between the American identity and form and that of the snack; something that is free from strong historical ties or cultural restrictions to be whatever is relevant or delicious at the time. I was also interested in the fad of the-100-calorie-snack-pack as a limited quantity at an increased price on something that for so much of human history had been a scare and much sought-after resource, calories. The essay topic also led me to consider the ways in which the over-abundance of choice/ presence of global reality + global media leads people to engage in snacking behavior in most areas of life, not just food. People snack on information, relationships, TV shows, music, and even food. 
My friend Colin Alexander published an edit of the essay through his art + criticism journal Post-Office http://baltimore-art.com/ 
I really enjoy writing and would like to get into a better routine of it. I think it is a great way to suss out ideas and connections/theories that would be harder to do all in your head. 
The bar is part of the concept (Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

What is the concept for the restaurant, what is your niche?

The concept for the restaurant is an expanded view of ‘American food.’ It is also an ode to America and American food and American culture and the dream of America. It is an ode to diners and pie and coffee and cheesecake and immigrant cultures and Chinese take-out and pizza and frozen pizza and all-day breakfast and hot fresh donuts and biscuits and gravy and Patsy Cline and Erykah Badu. 
I want to create a place that is founded on good juju. I want it to be the place to go if you just don’t feel like being at home or it’s your day off or you want a place to spend time with people you enjoy. 
I don’t totally know what our niche will be yet, maybe our niche is a physical one on the corner of Eutaw and Franklin streets. I want New America to be a place of play + experimentation + appreciation + pleasure. 
Breakfast, Lunch, Bar + Brunch.

What will be your opening hours? 

We will be open Sat-Monday 10-3pm for Brunch  and  Wednesday-Friday from 9-3 Breakfast/Lunch

The Bar will be open from 5-10:30 on Wednesday and Thursday and from 5-midnight on Friday and Saturday. These hours might shift around a little as we figure out what makes sense. 

** Also important: we will be hosting two sweet little Valentines day events! 
There will be a singles mixer with drinks + music + snacks from 5:30-8:30pm on Feb 14th, and then there will be one dinner seating for couples and those in love at 8:45pm; reservations encouraged w/ extra seats at the bar. 
New American: The art of living
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

Is there an online menu to share

Here is a google drive folder of our current typed menus. Things will continue to evolve, but I hope people can come to rely on us for good taste. 

What was the biggest hurdle for opening a restaurant in the small former retail store?

The biggest hurdle was likely just the building of the kitchen + the creation of the restaurant as a functional + pleasurable space. I naturally enjoy designing spaces and situations, but it was definitely a relatively stressful process of continually learning new twists and turns of the reality of the situation and the process of assessing the trustworthiness of people + figuring out the ways of the system. I definitely understand why people get into opening many restaurants/ serial entrepreneurship since it is its own skill set/ knowledge base. 
Overall I am pleased with the way the space turned out, and I am excited to continue to tweak it and allow it to live. It definitely is exciting to see sketches become real and be able to sit within a project that I have been attempting to realize for so long now. I am just hungry for more….

Can you share the order of magnitude of investment that was needed before you were ready to serve your first meals?

All I can say right now is that I definitely didn’t know what I was in for, but I also knew how little I knew and am now thankfully on the other side. The project from concept to opening took about 2 years (much longer than hoped for) and a few times as much as financially expected, but now I know for next time. I am definitely much more in debt that I would have liked to be, but I am also extremely excited to finally be in business and feel that it is a risk worth taking. I love the space + the neighborhood + the opportunity to share delicious things I’ve been thinking about with others + to work with such an inspiring and good-natured team of people. 
I feel very strongly that now is a time to sew seeds and loose sleep. I am intersected in putting on large scale projects in my life, and I am also someone who learns best by doing. Although this project did have its set-backs and moments of anxiety + minor despair, I don’t really know what else I would be doing right now if not this (maybe I’d try to get into the wine industry…). I feel like I have been pushing myself to grow + train my reflexes over the past couple of years, and I am excited to the forward momentum as this endeavor finally moves on to a state of public operation.

What is Fiona Sergeant Industries? What are the other endeavors going on?

Fiona Sergeant Industries is what I decided to write as my place of employment on Facebook while I was still in art school because I realized that above all else, I wanted to be working in the service of my own enterprise. I have many interests and can be interested in almost anything, so it is important for me to always try to bring myself back to center and assess what it is that I am interested in doing. Fiona Sergeant Industries is a way of remembering that no matter what the job or task at hand, I am always working on a larger scale endeavor that is the project of my life. 
For the future I am interested in helping to establish a ceramic + fabrication studio in Baltimore, establishing a retail scenario to help promote small scale designers + thinkers, expanding to other cities + other continents, setting up a media publishing organization/press, and hopefully someday owning/taking part in a winery since I think the tradition of wine production + consumption is a wonderful aspect of humanity + our relations to the land, culture, and history. I am hoping that if I can even achieve half of my goals, I’ll have lived a worthwhile, or at least enjoyable, life. 

Savory lentils and roasted veggies on a rustic table
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

What is your favorite food? Will it be available at the diner?

Like most people I have many foods(+memories) that I love more so than any singular favorite, but a few of my favorites are apple pie, yeasted waffles, cereal and milk, pesto on pasta(and everything else), BLTs, hong kong style crispy noodles (coming soon…), and char siu baos (in R+D). 
I think a huge reason why I wanted to open the restaurant is to have a reason to think about what would be good to eat and then have a place to share it with other people. I think of the diner as a bit of a theater for ideal things to eat or at least some things to consider. I am also interested in hosting some events in order to give others a platform to call the sensory shots. 

New American is open Sat-Monday 10-3pm for Brunch and Wedn-Fri from 9-3pm Breakfast/Lunch
The Bar is open from 5-10:30 on Wednesday and Thursday and from 5-midnight on Friday and Saturday. These hours may still shift.
Valentines event: 2/14: A singles mixer with drinks + music + snacks from 5:30-8:30pm 

Location: 429 N Eutaw Street, (Southeast corner at Franklin Street) access through the lobby.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Fiona Sergeant: The Search for the Satisfying Snack
The New American still needs exterior signs
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why requiring a transit fare recovery rate is ineffective

Senator Richard Madaleno and Delegate Brooke Lierman introduced a bill in the House and Senate that would repeal the "Farebox Recovery" requirements which currently mandate that the MTA covers 35% of its operating cost with revenues from the fare-box.
The fare-box: A poor metric for success

On first glance the topic looks as if it would only concern transit geeks. In reality, though, requiring a transit agency to be profitable like any other company (even if the profitability margin is set low) is onerous and affects everyone in the region. There is hardly transit agency in the world that makes a profit, with a couple of exceptions such as Hongkong and Singapore where density and ridership is very high. For the rest of the world subsidies for transit are investments in economic development, access, equity social justice, and smart growth. For those investments the return does not accrue at the farebox but in the overall health of a city and its region.
“For years, the farebox recovery mandate has acted as an impediment to achieving a high-performing transit system. It’s time to repeal that mandate and replace it with meaningful performance goals and metrics so that Marylanders are experiencing high quality service from our state’s transit system.” Delegate Lierman
Ironically, transit systems that are starved for funds thanks to fare-box recovery mandates and their narrow definition of cost-benefit on the "company" level defeat their own goal. Agencies with such cost control perform worse on the fare-box recovery metric than those who invest, modernize and expand. Only investment can move a company out of a death spiral, that applies to transit agencies just as for private business.  Zurich, Switzerland, may be the poster child for a turn-around through solid investment. Zurich in the seventies had a run-down tired transit system with aging streetcars when it decided to invest and upgrade its fleet and services in a 10 year program and SFr 200 million annual investments. Today the Swiss city runs a very reliable and extensive light rail and bus system (32% mode share) and has a fair-box recovery of over 60%.

The narrow confines of a farebox recovery model that prohibits investments suggests that the most profitable agencies would be those that provide limited transit only where demand is high, during rush hours or on the most traveled routes and that agencies should charge high fares. Clearly, that model is not only in conflict with a social reality where shift workers work odd hours, where poor people, the elderly or those too young to drive don't have access to cars, (55% of MTA riders are dependent on transit) it is also in conflict with a denser metro area where transit is much more economical and feasible than a car.
The Baltimore Light Rail: Riders like it but it has a poor fare box recovery

To see the effects of the myopic cost-benefit model, one has to only go back in history to the time when the extensive streetcar systems of many US cities where abandoned as too expensive to maintain and operate.  The streetcars were replaced by the bus. The result typically was worse service and further decline of transit and revenues. By contrast, the few cities that kept their legacy streetcars and modernized them such as Boston, Pittsburgh, or San Francisco, today provide far better transit service than the "bus towns"and have better fare box recovery rates. Cities with anemic transit (usually no rail) have the worst fare-box recovery rates such as Austin with 9%, Miami 16.1% and Cleveland with 21.5% while the transit cities such as Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, all have a recovery rates over 50%. (2009 source).

States and transit agencies across the country have seen debates about the fare-box recovery metric. Colorado requires RTD to have a 30% recovery rate (RTD invetsed big in FasTrack thanks to dedicated regional sales tax increases), California requires 20% in urban areas, both lower mandates than in Maryland.

A bill to repeal the fare collection rate mandate had also been introduced in Annapolis last year. It was derailed and did not pass even though MDOT did not take a position on it and was neutral. The sponsors of the new bill have learned from the experience. They broadened the base in support of a repeal and included businesses. The supporters agree that transit should have performance metrics to ensure that the tax dollars supporting a system are spent wisely. The proposed bill suggests as such metrics:
o Reliability
o Efficiency of service provided to riders,
o Increased ridership,
o More connections to job centers, and
o Frequent service
The 2017 bill is not only supported by transit activists such as the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, Get Maryland Moving, the 1000 Friends of Maryland, Transit Choices of Baltimore, or the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, but also by unions such as SEIU and ATU and businesses and business groups such as Sagamore Development Corporation (Under Armour), Tradepoint Atlantic (Sparrows Point), and the BWI Partnership.
In the long run not enough to serve a large metro area: The bus

Maryland businesses increasingly find it difficult to attract talent to open positions that aren't located in the central business district and hard to reach by transit.

Cities find that the more city locations become attractive for development, investment and relocation, poor transportation appears as an obstacle for this otherwise desirable shift away from sprawl: There simply is no space to accommodate additional cars on the existing roadways, and often not even with buses, unless buses are allowed to have their own lanes, signal priority, offsite amenities at stops; in short real investments that require not to be stuck with a rigid fare-box requirement,
Source: MTA website

The MTA hasn't met the 35% requirement in years, in fact, the current recovery rate hovers around 28% on average, with MARC trains far exceeding the required 35% and LRT being the caboose with only 17% recovery, even though the trains are far more popular than buses. But that doesn't stop MTA representatives from using the fare-box requirement to block off additional expenses, The most recent example came during the City Council hearing about the use of student passes for after school activity related rides on MTA buses and trains. Even though there is hardly any actual cost for MTA, the agency spokesperson insisted that the fare box recovery would require MTA to ask the school system to pay the about $200,000 additional fares for those student trips.

As in private business, transit needs investment to be safe, to thrive and to meet the ever changing customer demand. The fare-box recovery requirement is a straitjacket preventing just that flexibility.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN Op-Ed article about fare-box recovery
BBJ article about the repeal bill

Monday, January 23, 2017

Where is Baltimore's commons?

A protest gathering where 33th Street meets Charles Street happens not on a place but on a streetcorner and can only occur when police block traffic. This makes my below thoughts about urban plazas and the commons relevant to Baltimore in particular. Therefore, I place my article that addresses the role of the public space and commons in the modern city in a slightly modified form also here on the local site.
The city is the site where people of all sorts and classes mingle, however reluctantly and agonistically, to produce a common if per­ petually changing and transitory life. The Creation of the Urban Commons, by David Harvey 2012
Aside from whatever political conclusions one can draw from millions of people gathering in over 600 US cities and around the globe from Toronto to Sidney and from Warsaw to Helsinki, from Nairobi to Durban and from Madrid to Tokyo, aside from what that means for the US, the President or the international world order, it certainly proves that people still take their real bodies to real places to real encounters for real causes in real cities. Facebook, Twitter and all the rest are not substitutes but enablers of such gatherings. What spaces do cities offer for such gatherings?
Boston Commons on 1/21/17

When times get tough people yearn for the comfort of company, for the support that comes from togetherness, the consolation from others who share a concern and an emotion. From those gatherings spring song, compassion and satisfaction in moments of great anxiety and uncertainty that lone tapping into social media doesn't provide. Does it matter where these meet-ups occur?
Commoning has to do with difference, not commonality, it should always be expanding those who can participate (Stavros Stavrides, Professor of Architecture Athens) 
Naturally those gatherings happen in cities, in places where density is high enough for people to get there on short notice and where transit is available to haul large crowds without the extra space needed to park 65 the square feet of sheet-metal that is the automobile.

Sociologists have long observed that cities provide anonymity and group comfort at once. Cities celebrate diversity and commonality. Stadiums, bars, playgrounds and golf courses are manifestations of places designed the individual to step out of the anonymity by showing the flag of a particular allegiance or interest in a space specifically designed for the purpose. If the purpose is wider  "the commons", a "flex space" for public interest in general is needed, a space that exists in the abstract as a concept and also in the concrete, as a physical urban space.
Baltimore protest, hemmed in at a street corner

In 1968 the biologist Garrett Harding was trying to slay the notion that the commons could work in an essay titled The Tragedy of the Commons in which he "proved" that the commons as a concept of the greater good are destined to fail where individuals act on their individual short term self interest. In 2000 Harvard Public Policy professor Robert Putnam reflected in his book  Bowling Alone on the  the decline of social capital during the height of suburbanization and attested America an increasing disconnectedness. That was 17 years ago, before the renaissance of cities, before Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize by proving how the commons can work, before the Sharing Economy became a term, before the Occupy Movement and before the inauguration of a controversial American President that caused the maybe largest collective gathering of humans around one cause on a single day in human history.
[..] the problem of the commons today is that we still tend to think of it as a common resource, whether it be oceans and rivers or fish stocks.This is a misunderstanding. Because we cannot have a common resource without a common strategy for managing it. Elinor Ostrom argued that the commons requires a set of rules. She won the Nobel prize in economics for proving that these resources need not succumb to the so-called “tragedy of the commons” (exploitation by someone taking more than their share) if a system of checks and balances prevails. And so, rather than a resource, the commons is a process, a set of social relations by which a group of people share responsibility for, yes, a garden or even the governance of their neighbourhood. (Guardian)
Cities today are emerging as key global players in a new world order where nation states are oscillating between dysfunction and a new nationalism. In crisis the idea of commons asserts itself. Urban spaces become the synonym for movements, whether through the protest movements on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Gezi Park in Istanbul or public spaces in Athens or the many spaces that the Occupy movement turned into temporary commons.
Florence, Italy, January 21, 2017

What does this mean for the spatial organization of cities? Should there be a new focus on the idea of the commons, both, as a value concept and as a space? Should  mayors, planners and urban designers be motivated to create urban spaces that facilitate gathering and the pursuit of community? Much of the recent discussion about a Commons has centered on self organization and how citizens themselves can create and maintain the spaces and refuges they need. But how about the traditional public plaza, the public space that, indeed is created and maintained by government?

Looking at the images of the protest around the world gives a snapshot of where people gather. In general one has to say cities fall short when it comes to gathering places for people that would be worthy of being called the commons. There are exceptions: Washington DC has the biggest commons of all in what is known as the Mall.
The Mall in DC on January 21, 2017
Boston has a space that literally is called The Commons, in Berlin events take place in front of the Brandenburg Tor, in Paris at the Eiffel Tower or the Place de la Bastille, in London on the Trafalgar Square, in Madrid at the Plaza Mayor. But the Austins, Denvers, San Diegos or Baltimores cannot point to a space that would be generally regognized as the heart of the city, as a central event space or as something that could be even remotely considered as the commons. Most cities still have given way too much space to the automobile to have anything left to offer for people to gather in large groups or have pedestrian oriented festivities, even though the popularity of gathering in public spaces has increased in recent years alongside the new popularity of cities.
Portland Pioneer Square during the World Cup

One of the new ways of experiencing a common space have been the remote broadcasts of el mundial de futbol (the soccer world cup) on jumbo-trons and large screens on urban plazas around the world. Often traffic has to be stopped and re-routed for those big events but wouldn't it be nice to have commons year round and all the time? Especially since Baltimore lost its "free-speech" area at the McKeldin Plaza.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Commons, Political Transformations and Cities, David Bollier
The Guardian about Urban Commons

Not a commons

Charles Street at Homewood: Not a commons

Friday, January 20, 2017

Does the Red Line still have a chance?

Recently on WYPR in a talk show about transportation the host, Tom Hall, asked me point blank if here in 2017 with Larry Hogan as Governor in Annapolis and a Republican President in Washington, I still see a chance that the Baltimore Red Line could be built.

I said something like, certainly not in the next few years but that I have been around the block enough times to know that when it comes to big projects, dead doesn't always mean dead. The Maryland Inter-County-Connector (ICC) comes to mind which had been declared dead by Governor Glendening, revived by Governor Ehrlich and built in the end under O'Malley. Or the New York Second Avenue Subway line which had been on the drawing boards since the 1920s, had even a groundbreaking in 1977 and was then dead again. It opened to the public on this New Years Day. MagLev between Baltimore and Washington has been dead and alive several times, even if only on paper.
The Baltimore Rail Plan of 2002: No similar vision has emerged since

It doesn't help that the Obama Federal Transit Administration apparently did not manage in its last weeks to formulate a response to the civil rights complaints brought forth  in response to the cancellation of the $3 billion transit project unless it is still caught in the mail. (Actually, it was, see link at the bottom). But it does help to remember what Obama said today on occasion of the change of power: “This isn't a period, it's a comma, in the continuing story that is America.” Transportation planning needs to take that longer view.
The Red Line demonstrates how the technology test is won. Moreover, there is no mass transit option on the horizon that will emerge in Baltimore in the near future that can demonstrate a technological superiority to light rail.  Not water taxis, maglev, or monorail.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has been hailed as a capable alternative to rail in Baltimore. Trials may be conducted, but BRT does not not challenge inequity in Baltimore. MTA has not indicated how limited BRT will attract new riders to the city's bus system.  Even with BRT's promised elimination of boarding and congestion delays, Baltimore's bus system will remain a poor person's transit option.(Samuel Jordan President Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition)
People who know of my dozen or so years of involvement with the project ask me, if I still think that the Red Line was a good project. My answer is yes, even though it wasn't a perfect project. During the many design stages the project had seen many compromises and some were not making it better. But all things considered, the project was and is still the one that meets a large gaping need for high capacity, rapid transit in the east west direction that ties in with and helps to connect the existing other rail systems of MARC, the Central Light Rail Line (CRL) and the Metro. This additional rail line would create a qualitative shift from three disparate rail lines to an actual rail system, especially with proper fare and signage integration. The Central Baltimore Transit Alliance did once a comparison on how many miles of rail and how many stations the District's WMATA system has compared to ours and the quantitative comparison showed that the Red Line would get us into quite comparable territory. (Before DC had the new Silver Line).
The DC Metro map

When asked about the long range perspective, MTA or  MDOT don't have any plans beyond the Metro train coach replacement, the CLR train car midlife overhaul and the Link bus reform, all projects already underway and complete around 2018. There are ideas about MARC MDOT is non-committal about their realization. Surely the greater Baltimore metro region needs transit plans beyond those on the books and the MTA is aware of it.

My prediction is that sooner or later local stakeholders and transportation planners will get out of the current political trenches and take a look of the transportation needs of the region and discover that to remain competitive this region needs to do more than fix the bus system and keep the current rail system safe.

No matter where one looks in the country, Republican or Democrat, North, South, East or West, light rail has emerged as a smart way of addressing urban transit; same around the globe, There are many reasons for that, from the fact that LRT can fit into existing streets and lanes where necessary, it can run on rail bridges and in regular subway tunnels and its operating mode can be adjusted anywhere in a continuum between slow low capacity streetcar and fast high capacity subway. The quarter billion dollars spent on planning the Red Line, the stacks of fully designed drawings, the wide community consensus and the fully completed Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) will sooner or later be too attractive as assets to not being dusted off again. They represent a huge head-start for the region once it is ready to look ahead for a period that extends beyond 18 months.
Station area development concept West Baltimore

There is little point in continually hitting Governor Hogan over the head with his decision of not moving forward with the project. He is not likely to change his mind.

In the meantime there are many things that the Mayor, the City Council and the State and Congressional Delegations can do to ensure the Red Line remains an option: On the most basic level, to not build anything that would preclude the project or require major EIS amendments and new engineering. But there are also less obvious steps that can be done now, and they have to do with what is called land use. Transit works best if there is a lot of dense use where the stations are supposed to be. Baltimore's track record with high intensity use around train stations isn't very good. There are a lot of reasons for that, many have to do with the overall ailments of disinvestment plaguing the City. But that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be focused attempts to create attractive high density mixed use developments around transit stations of the kind one can see going up at the Rotunda, in Butchers and in Brewers Hill. Those development would have the most connectivity impact in places were trains are already running and where the Red Line plans anticipate them to run one day.

Station area redevelopment concept Harlem Park
I was involved in years of station area planning with community action teams called SAACs. Each of the 18 or so station areas had a planning team consisting of residents, City planners and consultants that developed together plans depicting and describing how the communities envisioned their communities to develop around the planned train stops. A lot of energy, money and social capital went into that innovative community engagement effort.

Those plans are economic development concepts valid on many counts even without the trains being in place. Especially on the disinvested Westside which is crying out for transit and development equity. Areas like Edmondson Village, Rosemont, West Baltimore, Harlem Park and Poppleton are in dire need of the kind of actions the SAACs had worked out as their consensus plans. The cancellation of the Red Line by the Governor should not be used as an excuse to ignore these plans, especially since some of them also act as transit hubs for the reformed Baltimore bus system. Investment in the corridor that would bring services, jobs and development to these areas would be precisely what is needed for equity and to soften the blow that the cancellation of the Red Line represented for the communities along the line.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

On the economic benefits of transit see also my article on Community Architect
Baltimore SUN report of 1/24/17 about the Civil Rights Complaint