Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Governor from Baltimore?

With the current Governor sitting pretty firm in the saddle and the next election still far away, candidates that would run against Hogan are still "under cover" quietly gauging their opportunities in a growing field of possible candidates. Comptroller Franchot and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz have openly been traded as candidates and their school air conditioner feuds are seen as fueled by their interest in the office. Then Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker made programmatic remarks about transit and that as Governor he would build the Red Line. Those words registered particularly in Baltimore and may force Kamenetz to follow his transit friendly words up with action.

Governor Hogan in conversation with
Police Commissioner Davis (photo: Philipsen)
Others named as possible candidates are U.S. Rep. John Delaney, former state Attorney General Doug Gansler, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh and Montgomery County Senator Richard Madaleno. Added to the impressive list is now a surprise outside candidate: Alec Ross. Tom Hall managed Wednesday on his Midday show, where he had Ross as a guest to speak about his book "Industries of the Future", to elicit a public remark from Baltimore's whiz kid and Johns Hopkins Fellow that he is seriously considering a run. Ross has been touring the world recently for talks about his bestseller that describes him touring the world under Hillary Clinton as her Innovation Adviser and checking out global innovation for her. The book has already been translated into many languages and made Ross a known entity in many countries. Ross speaks Italian quite well and had plenty interviews with Italian media outlets such as RAI and a talk . Just a few weeks ago he spoke as Teknologiekspert to about 1,000 Danish mayors in Alborg, Denmark.
On a big screen in a small country: Ross in Denmark

For months Ross had dropped hints about "big plans" on his Facebook page without really indicating what he was talking about. Yet word was circulating. The blog-site Maryland Matters reported earlier this month about Ross' aspirations. Josh Kurtz reported there that Senator Ferguson had confirmed to him about Ross undertaking a serious exploration of a potential run for Governor.

When Hall started the Midday radio interview by joking about "more than one little bird telling him" that Ross may run for the office, Ross admitted on the air that he was "seriously considering" it and that a decision would be made "in a month or so". He then went on to say that he is fairly disgusted about the degree to which "Hogan is refusing to dial back Trump's reach into Maryland." His attacks on the Republicans already caused Reds Maryland, a Republican outlet to add Ross to their line-up of "Seven Domocratic Dwarfs".
Red Maryland graphic with a possible Democratic line-up

It is interesting that Ross who speaks around the world has had only little amplication here at his home base. He had a book talk at the Pratt shortly after his book was published but has certainly not had the same media splash here that he had elsewhere.

Anybody who never heard of Ross can check him out as one of the featured speakers at Light City's EduLab at the Columbus Center, at the Inner Harbor. He and Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, will be appearing together on Wednesday April 5 and speak about “A Path to the Future” for young people.. Sessions begin at 9am.

Ross was recently featured on CSPAN speaking about his book and a wide range of ideas including education. Ross, who is originally from Charleston, WV lives and works in Baltimore. He met his wife, a teacher when teaching at Booker T Washington Middle School in Baltimore many years before he was appointed to be special adviser to the Secretary of State.
Ross speaking at the Pratt Library March 2016

The prospect of at least two gubernatorial candidates from Baltimore City and one from  Baltimore County is good news for Baltimore which has seen its political representation in Annapolis and Washington waning under the Republican wins. None of the challengers are intellectual or political dwarfs.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Alec Ross has written the preface to a book about Baltimore the author of this blog will publish in May

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How inclusive is downtown?

Downtown demographics (Economic Impact Report 2016)
For decades the discussion about Baltimore's future pitted "downtown" against "the neighborhoods", equating downtown with where the money is and the neighborhoods where it isn't.
 Downtown Pipeline: The redevelopment of the former
Mechanic Theater has still to start
Site (photo: Philipsen)

Downtown chief promoter Kirby Fowler of the Downtown Partnership and his board chair, University President Dr Jay Perman paint a different picture. With their 1 mile around Pratt and Light definition of downtown their downtown has 42,000 residents and is a real mixed use neighborhood. numbers are difficult to compare.

Their downtown area encompasses good parts of Mount Vernon, Federal Hill, Seton Hill, Otterbein, Sharp Leadenhall and Pigtown as well as Little Italy. Only less than a quarter are really residents in what was once the core business district, but their number is growing. 3500 new residential units were completed in the last five years and many more are to come.

The racial mix is pretty even (46.1% white, 39% black, 14.9% other), and as Fowler pointed out, 38% of downtown housing has income restrictions, i.e. is classified as affordable. That the area is the fastest growing area in Baltimore, is not something that happened all by itself. It hasn't been very long ago when most spoke of a dying downtown because offices moved to the Pratt Street corridor or to Harbor East leaving behind what real estate folks call class B or C office space. Much of it sat fallow and seemed to lack what it needed for future use. I recall the discussion revolving around how the building code put roadblocks into "adaptive re-use", the rededication of old industrial or office buildings to new uses, an art in which downtown became a leader. It started with the old Sailcloth  factory in Ridgely's Delight in the mid eighties even before adaptive re-use became the game-plan for Canton and Fells Point. The latest adaptive re-use addition in downtown is the conversion of the old First National Bank Building into 400 unit plus apartments. Fowler claims that 80% of the tenants there come from outside Maryland. That, too is a diversity factor that is sorely needed in Baltimore, people coming from outside Baltimore.
Downtown Partnership definition of downtown: 1 mile radius

When Charles Center was conceived, it was intended to stave off a decline of Baltimore's downtown that was already in the offing and recognizable as early as the 60s. But the remedy then were shiny new glass towers with class A office space (One Charles Center). Today the remedy is a mix of retail, housing, hotels, offices and start-ups. A mix of old and new and a walkable community with restuarnts, fitness places and even two dog-parks.

Not all is great, progress is tenuous. retail took a dip last year, as did retail across the nation, the public markets are still in trouble and lately safety has taken enough of a hit with car jackings, robberies and murders on the southwest side that DPoB will  
Explaining downtown: Kirby Fowler on Wednesday

Downtown as it is promoted (photo: Philipsen)
pay Baltimore Police to patrol the area with additional foot-patrols "on overtime", as Fowler explained.

With several residential towers still coming out of the ground and new hotels springing up left and right, many express also concern whether the market can continue to absorb all that. So far vacancy rates are not stellar but ok with 8.7% residential vacancy (6.9% national), 16% office vacancy rate (national: 12.2%), and a 32.4% hotel vacancy rate (national: 34.5%).

To spread the good word, four residents, young, diverse, and all ardent city lovers, spoke as witnesses and panelists for urban living at DPoB's State of Downtown breakfast on Wednesday. They spoke about life without a car  Delali Dzirasa, life in a condo, Delali Dzirasa and Darah Okeke and life with children Elizabeth Degi Mount.

They are all on DPoB's Board, but their stories rang authentic and were more than simple downtown boosterism. Their examples showed that the simple narrative about downtown versus the neighborhoods is too simple, even though Darah Okeke said she wished "more people [in downtown] would look like her".

Since the City overall has been stable at best or losing population per the latest census, a growing downtown must mean that other areas lose residents. Which brings us back to whether neighborhoods suffer because of downtown. The Mayor, in a short introductory remark, pointed out that much development occurs far away from downtown deep in various neighborhoods. The school deficit is much on her mind, she announced that next year would see an effort like her "fish out of water" initiative some 10 years ago, this time with birds. "Raising money for Baltimore schools" she explained. Unlikely that will do it.

While 33% of the city's employment occurs in downtown with 122,200 employees, with of 3000 jobs added in 2016 (after a 2015  decline of 5,000), it remains a reality that 54% of city residents leave the city to find work, a result of job sprawl and the fact that many of the lower paying jobs have moved out of the City.

No city can ignore its downtown, or as Perman, the UM President put it: "What happens downtown is important for people all across our city". The new thinking shouldn't be any longer downtown or the neighborhoods but downtown as a neighborhood.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Downtown Report in full
Economic Impact Report

Downtown in comparison to 20 other cities (Population: #10, HH Income: #16, Employment #14

Economic impact of downtown (Impact Report)

New apartments: Time Group at Franklin and Park (Photo: Philipsen)

New apartments and offices: One Light Street 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A vision is needed for Metro West

There are many positive signs of life on the Westside, Baltimore's ailing old retail district. One of them is that a developer has bought the hulking empty 1.1 million square foot office complex that the Social Security Administration left behind when it traded downtown for Reisterstown Plaza in 2014.
Not a happy gateway into downtown: Metro West at the end of the Highway
to nowhere

What the powerful and influential developer, Caves Valley, wants to do with the complex is everyone's guess, including the possibility CV wants to position it as an alternative to State Center (see my previous article). Except one thing is known: The first act is supposed to be a mammoth 2,200 car garage.
Proposed garage on MLK: Boxing downtown off (Design Collective)

The eight years between 2009 when the move was first announced and now have passed without the City developing a masterplan or concept of any kind for the redevelopment of Metro West nor where any any particular goals or outcomes described that need to be achieved in the context of the Westside, the Lexington Terrace redevelopment or the University of Maryland campus plan. Presumably because City agencies feel that they have no control over the matter which is more true now after the public property is in private hands. Should that mean that no attempt should be made to use the large complex as a vehicle to leverage the best possible outcomes? Several well established Baltimore planning goals converge here, namely:
  • Mitigate and reduce the impact of the failed "Highway to Nowhere", 
  • Mitigate the impact of Martin Luther King Boulevard which should be an urban boulevard but is little more than a traffic bypass 
  • Further reduce the barrier between downtown and the residential areas of West Baltimore which had begun with the demolition of the high-rise public housing complexes of Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes.
When the masterplanner for Murphy Homes, Urban Design Associates, were in town to envision a future without the Murphy Home towers, they thought they had to address the Highway to Nowhere and suggested various options including filling the ditch. Eventually they were told to let go of the matter and focus at the HOPE VI project at hand, Heritage Crossing. A development, incidentally, which in the end turned its back to the freeway and MLK with berms.
A freeway environment instead of an urban intersection: Space wasted
(Photo Philipsen)

When the world renowned transit planner and urban design firm ZGF worked on the Red Line team they also thought they had to address the ditch in a more creative way than simply placing the rail line in it and thus perpetuating the monstrosity. They, too, were told to forget turning the ditch into a tunnel or development land while turning Mulberry and Franklin Street into real urban boulevards and instead focus on running the Red Line in the median of the expressway. Now with the Red Line but a distant dream, the vast spaces of the Expressway and its associated off ramps at MKL remain mostly unused and are currently fenced off to hold hapless homeless at bay that like to camp out there.

When Obama's Transportation Secretary in his final year very publicly renounced the destruction of misguided urban freeways once favored by his federal agency, which almost always destroyed communities of color, he also came to Baltimore. He stood on the Fulton Avenue bridge where the ditch is extra deep. He indicated that DOT would see to it that mitigation would be initiated. I heard from folks who attended the event that Foxx mentioned the desirability of  taking down the overpasses at MLK which are useless because the expressways dies off a few hundred feet to the east at a signal at Greene Street.
An alternative vision: an urban boulevard without overpasses. A massing
model what could happen at MLK and Mulberry/Franklin (top)
(Design: ArchPlan Inc.)

But here we are and everything is still as it always was. Caves Valley wants to continue the tradition of giant garages forming the edge of downtown by building their giant parking garage at the corner of MLK and Mulberry Street, a currently vacant former surface parking lot, a strategic parcel in the redevelopment of Metro West. By creating another bulky barrier that isn't even a good fit for the current setting and opportunity is lost for a catalytic element towards change and a better future for this intersection. Walking to downtown from Heritage Crossing or from the Terraces, currently an evil experience, would not become any easier, more desirable or feasible but it would become even worse and more dreadful.

The Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel (UDARP) had to review the garage and was horrified. But they have no tools in their hands to say something else should happen here, that is beyond their role. The Planning Director, who also sits on the review panel, throws his hands up in defeat as well, because the last years have not been used to create a framework for a future here that would establish what would be expected, even though the property was initially in public hands (the federal government), a new zoning code was in the making, a downtown open space plan had been created, Foxx had given his nudge, and everybody was struggling with how to best respond to the unrest of 2015.
Suburban conditions right next to downtown: The MLK intersection seen
from Heritage Crossing (Photo: Philipsen)

Now Baltimore has a new Mayor who believes in public private partnership and collaboration, another perfect opportunity. Time to sit down with Caves Valley and negotiate with the developer about a process on how to redevelop the Metro West complex so that it is used as an opportunity for making a better place. True, the the developer can do a lot "by right" within the new zoning code. Yet, this mega project should not be a one way street where the developer calls all the shots and the City just delivers. Especially if Metro Center would eventually ask for favors, possibly in the context of trying to take on the role that State Center is barred to play.  The Governor refuses to move that project forward in spite of a decade of planning and broad stakeholder and community consensus.

Both, the old State Center and Metro Center are relics of a bad time in urban planning. Both act as bulwarks instead of connectors between downtown and neighborhoods. Both need to become connectors and places where something happens and that are pleasant to traverse. State Center was the result of collaborative planning, something that yet has to begin for Metro West.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Metro West Garage rejected by UDARP (BBJ)
Baltimore Brew: Reviving the Westside and reducing MLK (2014)
2009 announcement that SSA will leave Metro West

Monday, March 27, 2017

New voices in transportation advocacy

There were the days when Baltimore's transit advocates could be counted on one hand: the legendary Ed Cohen of the Baltimore Transit Ridership Action Council (TRAC),  Bob Reuter, (Light Rail Now) transit expert and advocate for accessibility issues who's presence was indicated by his hippie painted VW micro bus with a canoe atop and Art Cohen of Bmore Mobile, a veteran of the Baltimore freeway struggles.
New group, new logo
Baltimore's transit Einstein: Ed Cohen

Those were the stalwarts who would show up for any hearing on planned transit, the advocates would always be the same, as in an old family re-union, and they were all white old men. They would be feared by the transit agency for their tireless presence and their expertise on all details of transit, but never gained much political clout.

Sure, acting on the insight that transportation policy change would require a larger field of operation the GBC had a transportation committee that eventually became the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, the 1000 Friends of Maryland spoke out for transit as part of their smart growth strategies and there was the Transit Union ATU. The biggest success was the Baltimore Rail Plan of 2002 in large part a result of GBC's intervention. After the Baltimore Red Line had been in the works for about a decade, there was even a Red Line Now group that got some traction. But it became clear that all the advocacy was still so weak that the Governor could simply toss the crown jewel of the transit plan, the $3 billion Red Line aside like an old sock. The need for new approach became obvious.
Coalition building

The first fresh approach to transit advocacy came form Transit Choices, a group led by developer Jim Rouse's son Jimmy Rouse which emerged from his original push for streetcars on Charles Street, an effort that also found an inglorious end when the Mayor declared that she had zero interest in augmenting the free City bus shuttle with streetcars, no matter where.  Rouse realized that to get Baltimore out of its transportation complacency, a broader coalition was needed. His group Transit Choices began to address all modes at once, including bicycles and water taxis and connect the question of transportation with the questions of equity and economic development. How could Baltimore attract the sought after young creatives, new employers or bring Sandtown out of poverty, if advocacy was mode specific or focused singularly on technical issues? With a system consisting of workgroups, interesting public presentations and meetings with transit officials Rouse attracted a more diverse group that included innovators such as Jill Sorensen and equity advocates such as Glenn Smith and many younger folks interested in less stodgy transit. Transit Choices continues to successfully bring together transit providers, users, employers and community representatives and has become a voice heard by the MTA, City Hall and even the Governor's office. But it hadn't had the power to prevent the demise of Baltimore's largest public works project ever, in part since the large coalition was not uniformly convince about the project. So it came that the Governor himself pointed out that advocacy for the Washington area Purple Line had been much better than for the Red Line. That project is still alive while the Red Line is either dead or at least deep frozen.

The demise of the Red Line brought the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition (BTEC) to life which formed to challenge MDOT on the grounds that taking the project off the table constitutes a social justice violation under Title VI of the civil rights laws. The group is guided by social justice advocate Samuel Jordan and Reverend Glenn Smith and also includes civil rights advocate and veteran transit advocate Bob Reuter.

The challenge to ramp up Baltimore's advocacy remained, especially for the larger region. Although GBC's now independent CMTA was all along oriented on the regional context, it had to ask how it could survive and could become more effective after Hogan's move had proven that he didn't have to be afraid of Baltimore transit advocates, even where it included non-profits and the business community.  As a result CMTA reached out to revive some regional ties that weren't exactly brand-new, For example the 2013 "Get Maryland Moving" group which had fallen dormant and was a subset of the Coalition for Smarter Growth which includes Maryland, DC and Northern Virginia. On the regional scene is also the still active Action Committee for Transit. The advocacy scene changes and in some ways remains the same (see also my earlier article).

The new Get Maryland Moving coalition added new powerhouses such as Sagamore and Tradepoint Atlantic and equity oriented partners such as BTEC and the Coppin State University CDC. CMTA, 1KF signed on as established transit advocates. In this new formation the group took it as its first assignment to advocate for the repeal of a Maryland law that requires that 35% of MTA's operating cost must be recovered by revenues from the "farebox". A repeal bill originally submitted in 2016 had failed in Annapolis. The MTA hasn't met this requirement in years but the number prevents the agency from serious investments which would create an even larger gap, even if it were only temporarily.

The result of a new and broader push for the repeal is promising. The bill sponsored by Delegate Lierman and Senator Madaleno passed HB271 made it out of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and passed second reader on the Senate floor Friday.  the third reader providing a fully passed bill heading to the Governor’s desk will occur either Monday or Tuesday tomorrow morning. It is unclear whether the Governor would veto the repeal.

The Get Maryland Moving coalition will soon convene to discuss on how to build on the success and further advocate for better transportation in the region. A look at transportation in the Northern Virginia/DC/Baltimore mega-region is urgently needed as the area is pretty close to becoming North America's most congested region, certainly not a recipe for success.
Farebox revenues: repeal of a mandate

Transit advocacy which addresses the issues of many diverse groups of constituents in innovative and largely non ideological manners brings unlikely bedfellows.  The reality of transportation in the region affects the working and unemployed poor, millenials, businesses and innovators in many different ways, but there is a common base on which all can agree: Better transit is the gateway to prosperity and opportunity and poor transportation holds the region back.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Several inaccuracies were corrected. The Farebox repeal bill has since passed the Senate in third reader and the House in second .The author is a transit planner and member of the 1000 Friends of MD, Transit Choices and of Get Maryland Moving.

ATU letter to the SUN on Farebox recovery

Friday, March 24, 2017

What it takes to do real community reinvestment

Regardless whether Baltimore's 6,700 resident population loss reported by the census bureau for 2016 turns out to be erroneous, as Baltimore's data queen, Dr. Seema Iyer of the Baltimore Neighborhoods Indicators Alliance (BNIA) believes, or if its turns out to be actually true, the City finds itself once again in a tight squeeze.
Greenmount West progress: Not only on the waterfront. (TRF)

The cranes all over downtown, on the waterfront and even  in Remington, Hamden, Poppleton and the upper Westside that give the usual Baltimore observer so much hope are nothing but the light from stars that was emitted years back, when the initial investor spark set the energy in motion. Those projects were set in motion at a time before the Baltimore unrest, before the uptick in crime, before the uncertainty about the school budget and definitely before Washington became set to turn off many of the funds that have kept Baltimore afloat to date.

On the occasion of a 40 year anniversary training course about the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) held at the Federal Reserve on Sharp Street,  Seema Iyer showed that neither crime nor schools are as much a barrier for newcomers to move in than vacant houses. Once a neighborhood exceeds 4% vacancy, nobody wants to move in anymore her data show. Nobody doubts that it is one of Baltimore's biggest challenges to fill the many vacant houses again. To that end, community reinvestment is certainly key and at the CRA event bankers from BB&T, M&T, PNC and TD (Toronto Dominion) were on hand (Harbor Bank was invited but had a conflict) to explain how they respond to the challenges of the CRA on the one hand and the ongoing community disinvestment on the other.
The infamous red line map of 1937

Comparing the infamous Homeowner's Loan Corporation redlining map of 1937 with today's vacant houses map it would be easy to conclude that the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act was a failure. After all, it had specifically been enacted and made law to avoid such redlining in the future and force banks to provide loans without discrimination.

In fact, there was considerable rumbling from community leaders in the room about the lending rates of the two major banks in the Baltimore area when Diane Bell McKoy, CEO of the Associated Black Charities noted that Bank of America provided only 6% of its loans to African Americans in 2016, the second largest bank in Baltimore is M&T which fared slightly better. The two largest banks control about 70% of the Baltimore market. Wells Fargo and PNC rank #4 and #5 in size respectively, in total 27 banks are represented in the Baltimore area market.

The vacancy map (BNIA)
How much some banks are engaged in community investment came to light when a panel of bankers and doers told the audience about case studies and their specific alliances.
For example how the TRF Development Partners and Sean Closkey collaborated with TD and other banks to rebuild Barclay and Oliver, two of Baltimore's shining examples of strategic investment and fund pooling.

Or when Healthy Neighborhoods loan officer Rahn Barnes spoke about his collaboration with PNC and the effort of creating a $10 million investment fund. PNC's Christopher Rockey admitted that communities currently have a hard time to work through the thicket of information and groups that can provide access to capital. "we need a point of entry for capital" and "need to market as a community and not as banks" he said, exactly what Healthy Neighborhoods is trying to do with their fund. Healthy Neighborhoods President  Mark Sissman was in the audience.

Where Closkey's success in Barkley and Oliver meets Baltimore's conundrum of population stagnation or loss is the issue of strategy. Too much money in Baltimore is wasted on initiatives and development that is not strategically placed, is not creating value and is not coordinated in a larger context. An example was last year's Baltimore Housing RFP  for the redevelopment 40 acres in the middle of Park Heights. Not associated with a point of strength, not connected to stable areas and not based on any type of market or even the creation of a market. Closkey says investment has to create a ladder. Development needs back-stops and it needs anchors. "It isn't about the number of units built it is about what community is left behind", he says. He pointed to the Patterson Park CDC. Yes, he admits, the CDC failed in the end, but what Ed Rutkowski left behind is a stable and healthy community, a lasting value. BNIA's 4% finding sets a target. Lowering vacancy from 50% to 40% is a huge effort with little tangible result especially in a large area. Lowering vacancy from 7% to 4% is much more doable and may set an area on a course to success.
The bankers table: From right: Sean Clauskey (TRF), Donna Grigsby (TD),
Janice Wiliams (BB&T), Joseph Jones (Center for Urban Families), Christopher Rockey (PNC),
Rahn Barnes (Healthy Neighborhoods)

If Baltimore" community development corporations, neighborhood activists and government agencies would finally align themselves around those ladder-of-value-creation strategies  that result in self sustaining outcomes, then Baltimore's banks and financial institutions may actually be willing to pool enough capital to get those  projects started that begin "re-winding the clock" as Closkey puts it. That the regional influx of new residents has slowed to a trickle and may completely subside thanks to unwise and immoral immigration policies is not helpful but will make strategic collaboration even more important.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Correlations of crime, schools (low) and transportation  and vacancies (high) and population change (BNIA)

BNIA data

Thursday, March 23, 2017

MTA's bus D-Day drawing near

With only 100 days to go the Baltimore Link Bus reform continues to keep MTA planners and consultants up at night to ensure timely implementation on June 18 of this year, a date etched in stone ever since Governor Hogan announced the project with great fanfare in October 2015. With MDOT Secretary Rahn on his side nothing less than a complete overhaul of all 70 plus bus lines was promised including new bus colors for 700 plus buses, new bus signs for 5000 plus bus stops, new transit hubs, new names for all routes, new maps and new schedules and, most importantly, faster and more frequent rides through fewer stops, dedicated bus lanes and signal priority. In short promised was an all around better service.
New bus colors (Local Link)
The project name was developed to emphasize how the redesigned network will provide a better connection between origins and destinations and between modes of transportation. To achieve MTA’s overarching mission of providing safe, efficient and reliable transit across Maryland with world-class customer service, the BaltimoreLink Plan has five major goals:
1. Improve service quality and reliability;
2. Maximize access to high-frequency transit;
3. Strengthen connections between MTA’s bus and rail routes;
4. Align the network with existing and emerging job centers; and
5. Engage riders, employees, communities, and elected officials in the planning    process. (website)
Ever since, riders, transit advocates and politicians have wondered if the MTA can and will deliver on this complex undertaking.  The roll-out of the first draft was not exactly greeted with great enthusiasm. With its emphasis on a high-frequency grid and new cross-town bus lines the system looked to transit geeks but too many actual users saw their familiar lines disappear, be moved further away, or shortened to the effect that the expected rides would be more cumbersome and possibly even slower thanks to additional walk time to the stop or wait time at a transfer point. Others didn't want a new bus stop where it was envisioned. Meanwhile, City and MTA began a great partnership on bus lanes and traffic signals. For the buses to "speak" to the signals and get priority, both, the buses and the signals needed new hardware that had to be ordered, installed and tested.
bagged new sign temporary showing the old lines

The concept plans have been run through several iterations and three rounds of public comments with a total of 1,132 registered comments. Each time, the MTA planners went back to the drawing board and tweaked the routes. Planning Director Quinn said that they "spread the peanut butter a different way", i.e. distributing a set amount of resources (buses and drivers) in different ways. The initial focus on the high frequency network gave way to increased sensibility to geographic coverage and the outcry from communities in Waverly, Dundalk and elsewhere who feared that their connections would disappear altogether. As a result many bus routes now closely resemble the old ones, even though they have new names. High frequency routes (bus comes every 15 minutes or better) will be color coded, local routes will get new numbers.

The last and final version of the route map, City-Link 3.0, will be rolled out shortly and will reflect the most recent comment period which ended on February 21.  The result should make many doubters happy. There will be continued service on 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue, Turner Station will be served and so will Brightwood College near the Cromwell Bridge Park and Ride. Very long routes will still be shorter and they will be simplified and no longer come in three or four variations (like he #10, 15 or 23 used to have), each running just a tad different so that an unsuspecting #23 user could find that he had to get off at Wildwood (the exception) instead of reaching Rolling Road (the rule).
Proposed dedicated bus lanes

306 bus stops (6%) have already been eliminated in the most recent schedule update on February 6. About 2,500 bus stops already received a temporary "bag" (with another 200 added every week) that shows the old route while covering up the new sign underneath. (In the night of June 17 hundreds of MTA folks will spread out to take 5,000 covers off) to reveal the redesigned signs which will carry much more information than the old ones. Red bus only lanes have already been marked on Pratt and Lombard Street, additional ones including on Baltimore and Fayette Street will be added soon. Where buses will run on new routes $10,000 a piece concrete bus pads will be added because regular blacktop isn't strong enough to support the heavy buses on hot summer days. About half of the bus fleet has already the new Link Colors, one set for Local Link and the other for City Link. 250 City Link bus already have received their signal communication hardware. 36 signalized City intersections as well, testing to optimize the communication will begin shortly. New automated vehicle locator hardware has been procured and will eventually allow accurate bus count down clocks at select stops and on smart phones which tell in minutes when the bus will actually arrive.
New schedule color coded like the bus lines

The new bus world will still come to a shock to many riders who haven't been paying attention to the 18 months of preparation and discussion.  To reduce the surprise, a info bus equipped with maps, boards, schedules and MTA staff will shortly begin to run on the existing routes and will provide free rides with information specifically geared to changes on that particular route. Of course, there will be flyers, fully redesigned maps and schedules at libraries, schools and shops and online information. Anybody who wants to schedule a presentation in their community or business can request a presentation.

It can be expected that June 19 won't be entirely flawless, no matter how much work MTA has put into the preparations. There will be adjustments and tweaking, just like there was in Houston which completed a similar operation with success and added ridership. Now, after the most recent public comments have been incorporated, it is time for Baltimore to take a positive and constructive attitude which is key for a successful implementation.  The enthusiasm and the energy that MTA exhibited day for day during the last 15 months speaks for success. Baltimore sure could use it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Yes to raising the minimum wage

Chiefly, the Baltimore minimum wage bill is about aspiration. It establishes a higher bar and it expresses that Baltimore City isn't in a race to the bottom. The full implementation of the $15 rate in 2022 is a long way out and for small businesses even longer. Wages have been rising already, there is inflation and all kinds of things we don't know will happen in the next five years. For the next two years the bill won't make any difference, because it is completely aligned with the State bill.
Fight for 15 demonstration at Baltimore City Hall
[..]nearly 80 years later, economists still aren’t sure how a higher minimum wage actually affects companies and their customers.(LA Times Jan. 2017)
How can Baltimore dare to establish itself  on par with DC, San Francisco or Seattle? The audacity! Well, that is precisely the point.: To have the audacity of pronouncing a new paradigm. That is precisely what this city needs. It is well known in education that low expectations lead to low outcomes. Baltimore has suffered for too long from an inferiority complex and has too long compared itself only with low achievers. Mayor Pugh is someone with only accepts high personal expectations. She should not act any different when it comes to the city to which she is now married, according to her own words.

Of course, the matter is not entirely psychological, it has real economic implications and those are often in dispute with opposite arguments made on both sides, each underpinned with case studies. A popular argument (made also by BDC) is that 60% of Baltimore's workforce comes from outside the City and that higher wages for all employees here will increase the competition for positions and squeeze city residents out while  the additional money will be spent outside the City.

Given the confusion on the facts, it helps to take a longer view. Anybody who will look at the history of the labor movement can see that progress was always made by taking a risk. Whether new wage rates, safety rules, work-hour regulations or benefits, progress began by a few taking action and winning a battle without looking around whether everybody else was doing it, too. And each time the employer side saw the sky falling with the exact same arguments that are made now. (We have to close, to leave, let go of staff etc.). And always they have been wrong. Without the risk takers who dared to jump to the front of the line we would still have the terrible working conditions of the 19th century. Whoever doesn't believe that strengthening labor has good outcomes for the entire economy should look at the companies or countries that have the highest labor costs, best benefits and treat their workers with the most respect. They will find that precisely those companies and countries are the most profitable, have the highest productivity and are most competitive in spite of the higher labor cost. The saying that the employees are the most precious asset a company has was never any more true than today. One doesn't have to be an economist to see that to have success the human asset needs to be cultivated and not squeezed to extremes. If too many workers don't enough money to sustain themselves and their family, an economy can't be thriving.
a truth long recognized by economists: working longer hours doesn't necessarily result in increased productivity. Mexico—the least productive of the 38 countries listed in 2015 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—has the world's longest average work week at 41.2 hours (including full-time and part-time workers). At the other end of the spectrum, Luxembourg, the most productive country, has an average workweek of just 29 hours.
The United States ranks fifth, according to the OECD, contributing $68.30 to the country's GDP per hour worked, countering claims that Americans are the most productive workers in the world. America put in more hours—33.6 per week on average—than all four of the European countries with higher productivity rankings.(TIME Magazine Jan 4, 2017)
Council Pres Jack Young supports Mary Pat Clarke's bill (BBJ)
 It is one of the failings of the US economy that it, on average, does not respect its workforce sufficiently. Paid sick leave, decent vacations, workforce training and participation in a company's decision-making are standard practice in many industrialized countries around the world with workers being well organized in unions.
a large and growing body of research on positive organizational psychology demonstrates that not only is a cut-throat environment harmful to productivity over time, but that a positive environment will lead to dramatic benefits for employers, employees, and the bottom line.(Harvard Business Review, Dec 2015)
During the last recession when many US companies simply fired their excess staff, many European companies organized shorter work hours for everybody to spread the reduced work on more shoulders. When demand increased, they didn't need to re-hire and re-train and could work instead with a loyal work force.
29 states and Washington, DC have set minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. As of July 1, 2016, the highest is Washington, DC, at $11.50 an hour, followed by California and Massachusetts at $10 an hour.(minimum-wage.procon)
True, systemic progress can't be made on the city level alone. On the other hand, with states and nations increasingly mired in inaction and incompetent wrangling, cities have to be the beacons of light, whether it is climate change, transportation, education or workers' rights. To be a beacon cannot end with a higher wage rate. It requires also lifting as many people as possible from the entry level with a minimum wage to better jobs through better training and better education. It requires urban policies that emphasize job creation, production through support for existing businesses and attraction of future industries. Baltimore has promising pilots in all of these areas.

Mayor Pugh should not veto the $15 hr minimum wage bill. With the bill the City Council adopted the sky won't be falling and there won't be a mass exodus of employers. Instead the bill will signal that Baltimore has, indeed, aspirations and that this is a city which cares about its people. Much is expected of Mayor Pugh, she can't blink now, but must stand by her own standard of raising the bar and expecting more.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Atlantic's CityLab published an article about Baltimore's wage law today shortly after this article appeared.

Study of Baltimore's 2015 Minimum Wage Bill
Studies look at what happened when cities raised minimum wage. Seattle Times March 2014

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The recreated Rec Pier in Fells Point

Of the many pier and wharf buildings in Fells Point, the red-brick, Georgian Revival-style City Recreation Pier building at 1715 Thames Street, built in 1914, is the grandest. Its features include an elegant second-floor colonnade and a wide-arched passageway connecting Thames Street with the pier behind it. Nearly a century ago, Fells Point residents gathered on the pier for swimming and sunbathing, and in the ballroom behind the colonnade for evening dances. (Trust for Architectural Easements 2009)
The Rec Pier on the ribbon cutting day for the Pendry Hotel (Photo: Philipsen)
When developer Bill Struever converted the old soap factory into the tech hub of Tide Point, the one frill he allowed himself was "the largest mister north of Orlando" installed on the front porch of the compound along the water. One could see it change colors from Fells Point. When Kevin Plank bought Tide Point he looked the other direction and he didn't like the decrepit Recreation Pier marring the otherwise picture perfect view across the water.

In the 30 years I have lived in the area, I have never seen the Recreation Pier in Baltimore do anything other than being a film location, receive a plaque for it, get  new light bulbs to once again spell out its name across the water and be the locale of much grousing over developer Joe Clarke's various design concepts and team configurations, none ever got off the ground.
Baltimore developer J. Joseph Clarke needs state and federal historic tax credits to transform the Fells Point Recreation Pier into a swanky, European-style, boutique hotel. BBJ  1995.
The Fells Point Recreation Pier is one of the state's most endangered sites. (Preservation Maryland 2010)
Clarke and equity partner H&S Properties Development Corp. have a deal in place to build an Aloft brand hotel with about 125 rooms. BBJ 2012
A development group backed by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank could breathe new life into a stalled plan to transform the landmark and long-vacant Recreation Pier in Fells Point into a luxury hotel. (Baltimore SUN 2014)
Large equipment drives new piles in July 2015 (photo: Philipsen)
Plank made it happen. In record time a very complicated project that once floated on rotting piles got completed and the press release for the event comes from Orange County, Ca., home of the new aspiring group of Montage hotels.

Designed by Beatty Harvey Coco (exterior) and Patrick Sutton (interior), the development team of Sagamore and Montage International took Joseph Clarke's 1995 idea of a swanky hotel and turned into reality with almost the same number of rooms. The similarity isn't too surprising, given that Beatty Harvey was once associated with Fillat architects, who prepared the first concepts for the Pier. Neither Clarke nor Fillat remained as the current development and design team. Patrick Sutton is also the architect for Plank's 35,000sqft Baltimore County home and he pulled off a really astonishing job in making this hotel shine, from the first floor restaurant and whiskey bar all the way to the bedrooms overlooking water on all sides.
"We tell stories for a living — we tell great stories and we build products to support those stories. When [visitors] come here, I want them to have a proper hotel to stay at. When they come and visit, I want them to see a proper campus. I want them to see unique things we have like the distillery. I just want to be involved in projects that are great and build things that have people go 'wow.' One of my passions in life is I love blowing people's minds." (Kevin Plank as quoted in the BBJ in March 2015)
When the ribbon was cut on Tuesday, though, Kevin Plank was a no-show and left it to his brother Scott, with his development company Warhorse also a partner, to the Governor, the Mayor and half her cabinet to celebrate. Scott Plank echoed his brother Kevin's sentiments when he said that one often hears this is the best in Baltimore or the best in Maryland but that he thinks it "should be the best period".  Scott Plank explained his brother's absence with "he is more of a working guy" when asked about his whereabouts.
Views from the hotel rooms looking back at Thames Street (photo: Philipsen)

Having an active hotel in Fells Point is surely better than a ruin that is slowly sinking into the Patapsco. It employs 200 people and the Governor stressed that "75% come from Baltimore". There will be certainly those who who worry about gentrification or are uneasy and the growing corporate power of Under Armour which will also own the water taxi service connecting the Pendry Hotel and the UA headquarters.

Far from being posh, the Recreation Pier was once a public facility, the public could walk through the wide arch and cars and trucks could drive out on the pier. The swimming pool there then was open to the public not reserved for hotel guests who pay a minimum of $350 a night. The pier and ballroom were a modest reference to famous British seaside towns and their public piers and event spaces in Brighton and Bournemouth. Being Baltimore, the Pier was functional, in spite of a over 4,565 square foot ballroom to which Sutton added murals depicting the war of 1812 and the British bombardment of Fort McHenry on the outside wall. Even as late as this century the pier was the berth for the pilot tugboats guiding large vessels up to the Port of Baltimore. During the heydays of immigration it served as a point of entry to mostly European immigrants with a ferry connecting the Locust Point Dock (from where immigrants could take a train to travel on) and the Fells Point Pier. The vacant Rec Pier was a property of the Mayor and City Council and had been offered through requests for proposals.
Ribbon cutting with Governor and Mayor
(photo: Philipsen)

The architects remained very conscious of the past, in part because they used a $17 million historic tax credit on the $60 million project. "We spent $11 million to get it", quipped Patrick Sutton when I talked with him including in his calculation the cost for the pile replacement. The rooms are supposed to convey the feeling of being on the bridge of a ship and the nautical feel is certainly strong in whiskey bar with its low arched wood slat ceiling. Closing the arched entry to the pier by making it a window for the restaurant brought initially objections from preservationists. The architects responded by setting the facade a full bay back leaving a sense of openness. The raised restaurant floor now sitting above the street level requires a somewhat awkward sideways approach to the reception and restaurant through a sloped hallway which makes the arrival on the first floor where it opens up and reveals the cast iron gallery especially impressive. Montage CEO Alan Fuerstman said the "building belongs to the community". Scott Plank pointed out that over 30 events had been already booked for the ballroom. The projects has no parking on its own, a revolutionary aspect for Baltimore where everybody always talks about parking first.

The hotel with its "floating" guestrooms and its unique history and design sets a new standard for hospitality architecture, not only for Baltimore or Maryland, but globally. Not an easy feat in the age of boutique hotels outdoing each other in search of the authenticity that international travel has otherwise long left behind.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

For more details and explanations by Patrick Sutton see this SUN article

Picture gallery (All photos: Klaus Philipsen)

Hotel rooms form a courtyard 

Precedent: English sea-bath piers
Living like a king: bathroom in the suite (photo: Philipsen)
Room with a view

Pool in back

Courtyard with sclupture

One of the cannons found under the piers when new piles were set

Poolhouse and new construction at HarborPoint in the background

The new Chop House restaurant 

Whiskey bar cannon Room serving Sagamore rye whiskey
The view of Thames Street from the restaurant (photo: Philipsen)