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