Thursday, February 2, 2017

Baltimore Public Markets are in danger

One of the most obvious, but perhaps least understood, methods of enhancing social integration in public spaces and encouraging upward mobility are public markets. Increasingly, community leaders and local government see public markets as a means of addressing some of the more vexing problems of our cities: the need to bring people of different ethnic groups and incomes together; the need to make inviting and safe public spaces; the need to reinvigorate low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and to support small-scale economic activity; the need to provide fresh, high-quality produce to inner-city residents; and the need to protect open space and preserve farming around cities. (Project For Public Spaces, Public Markets as a Vehicle for Social Integration and Upward Mobility report)
The public market: A place to gather, eat, buy food and run a local business
(photo: Philipsen)
Baltimore is in the envious position of having six public markets that until recently were all managed by the Baltimore Public Markets Corporation (BPMC). But as of this month Baltimore is en route of rapidly losing public control over those markets or losing several of the altogether.

"BPMC was established in 1995 as a non-profit organization, to operate the public markets in a manner beneficial to the City of Baltimore and it's citizens....Baltimore’s Public Markets are the oldest continuously operating public market system in the United States. In operation before the city’s health department and even the mayor’s office, the markets continue to maintain a tradition for which Baltimore is famous" (website). Or as current Market Director Robert Thomas puts it in a statement for this article:
Citizens of this city are .. presented with an underestimated jewel in that Baltimore enjoys multiple public markets unlike any other American city of which we are aware.
The first market was funded with the proceeds from a public lottery in 1763. . Then and now the public markets were a major source of (fresh) food. 
Given the role of markets as integrators in a divided city and a source of healthy food in neighborhoods that often are still food deserts, it should be pretty alarming to residents that almost all of the six remaining public markets are in peril of losing the very characteristics that made them special throughout their long history. 
The Cross Street Market is already in the hands of a private developer and is slated for demolition and reconstruction.
Cross Street Market
The Broadway North Market has been shuttered for a long time and both market sites are currently being offered up to developers with no restriction to maintain the use as a public market. The Request for Proposals (RFP) describes the City goals without any mention of the word market:
A. Stabilize and enhance the property values adjacent to the site;
B. Reactivate the parcels as commercial or mixed-use developments;
C. Improve pedestrian circulation within and around the site;
D. Provide an urban infill program/land use that serves as a resource to the surrounding communities to the east, west, north and south of the Site;
E. Redevelop the parcels in a manner that responds to and is compatible with the existing character of the Fells Point historic district;
F. Project design that compliments, enhances, and further activates the streetscape along the Broadway Street commercial corridor;
G. Incorporate green building practices into the design and construction process; and
H. Preserve the historic integrity of the properties on the site where possible
The Hollins market is also up for redevelopment through lease or purchase by a private developer but it is required to stay a market.
Hollins Market
The Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue has been ailing for decades and has seen several attempts of revitalization. It sits in the middle of a food desert and should probably most of all Baltimore markets fulfill the original function as a public gathering spaces and source of healthy food.
Broadway Market
The 1885 Northeast Market adjacent to Hopkins Hospital has recently been rehabilitated and is still operated by the Baltimore Markets Corp.
The mothership of all Markets, the Lexington Market is proposed for complete demolition and rebuild in an adjacent location. A concept plan for this was recently made public but how exactly the project would be realized or funded is still uncertain. Whether the new market can still have any Baltimore authenticity remains a question as well. (See also BBJ's column today Keep Lexington Market's History Intact).
The discussions around the rehabilitation of the Cross Street Market shows that the course for Baltimore's markets isn't clear or that there is little consensus on what it should be. Robert Thomas states:
I consider the Cross Street disposition an important and informative episode in the history of Baltimore’s public markets. Lessons learned, and being learned, from this experience will inform outcomes of the next two RFPs, along with other factors not totally under control of the Markets corporation. (Robert Thomas)
The 1763 link between lottery proceeds and Baltimore's first market is especially interesting if one considers that the formerly public market is now in the hands of the private developer Caves Valley as part of a public private partnership (see here). Caves Valley is also a partner in the nearby Horseshoe Casino. Once again Baltimore is collecting money not only from the lottery but especially from the local casino. Federal Hill, the neighborhood of the Cross Street Market, is located inside the especially created Casino Benefits District. Caves Valley has taken the market only last month but has already taken a pretty tough stand with existing merchants which have to vacate the facility during the demolition and renovation. The local vendors are in danger of being eradicated since no arrangements for them to survive during construction seem to be made. The reconstruction and the plans for the future which include a Starbucks are already the topic of lively meetings in South Baltimore. National chains are certainly not what PPS considers a hallmark of public markets:
What people like about markets (PPS)
Finally, public markets are made up of locally owned, independent businesses operated by their owners, unlike the ubiquitous franchises that dominate retailing today. This helps account for the local flavor of public markets and the uniqueness of the shopping experience. Public markets consciously seek out local entrepreneurs and businesses and therefore offer an alternative to common retail practices. (Project For Public Spaces report)
During the 254 years of public markets in Baltimore the designs, functions and wares of the markets have changed many times. Today several of the markets have a hard time attracting customers and are far from thriving. Action is needed to stem the bleeding. Successful public markets all across America show, that public markets can be an integral and flourishing part of a modern city. In Baltimore it looks like the era of public markets in Baltimore is at a great risk of coming to an end. Baltimore still needs public markets as a safeguard for food security, as public spaces and as integrators between classes and races. Maybe more than ever. Baltimore Markets Director Thomas seems to agree:
Preserving this uniqueness, while remaining relevant enough to effectively serve the communities where our markets are located, is the upcoming challenge. We intend to remain true to our mission of supporting communities with affordable food and with small business opportunities as we navigate changes: some predictable; some not. Market management and Board are developing and implementing strategies that should help the Markets improve our support of Baltimore’s communities, even though there are almost as many opinions about how to do that as there are people to talk to about it. (Robert Thomas)
Markets need collaboration (PPS)
Baltimore should tighten the controls in whatever deals it does for the remaining markets. If the markets are run privately, the City should maintain ownership.  Public Markets should not become trendy food halls that may prove to be a temporary fad. They need to remain what they have been for 254 years, public anchors under public oversight that provide decent, affordable healthy food, provide an accessible public domain and give local vendors a chance to create a start-up business. 
Thomas is pointing out where the ultimate decision making power resides:
Ultimately, even though the Markets Board will be heard, the property is titled to Mayor and City Council of Baltimore. That fact must be respected, but also encourages citizen support and input. (Robert Thomas).
Residents of Baltimore who care about their markets should make their voices known. The proposals for the Broadway and Hollins Markets are due February 12.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA