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