Friday, April 28, 2017

New Zoning finally going into effect

Baltimore is no stranger to the possibility that a dozen years of work can come to nothing. We have seen it with the Baltimore Red Line and with the State Center project.
Laurie Feinberg, Assistant Dir. at the Planning Department
explains the new zoning code at Open Works (photo: Philipsen)

Few know that the new Baltimore zoning code almost met the same fate when it still had not been adopted by City Council in the beginning of December 2016, a full eight years after work had begun on it in earnest, and more than 16 years after after reform of the 1971 zoning code was discussed as a serious need. Failure this time would not have been forced on Baltimore from the outside but would have been self inflicted.

Alas, calamity was averted.

A month after the last election with a new council ready to convene in January, the old council, with the new code in their hands since 2013 with on and off deliberations since then, found itself forced to vote the code in or lose all their work. The new council would have to begin from scratch with a first reader. Patient developers, residents and observers of the tortuous path the reform had taken since 2008, found themselves losing track in those last months of deliberations. Amendments were made and stricken in rapid order and code and maps went through a quick succession of hearings. The final bill was passed  in the last minute.
New designations in the new zoning code (Source: Planning)
The speed and chaos had some concerned that things weren't done properly. Some opponents to change woke up late and lobbed all kinds of smoke bombs. A bit of clean-up to the text portion of the bill is actually needed after the big rush, an amendment bill is currently in the works. Many rumors float around those amendments as well.

As Laurie Feinberg, Assistant Director of the Department of Planning ("Our Mission:  To build Baltimore as a diverse, sustainable and thriving city of neighborhoods and as the economic and cultural driver for the region"). explained Wednesday in a presentation organized by AIA and APA, these "amendments" were nothing but an effort to scan through all votes of the last council and put them on a solid footing. No substantive changes to the content of the bill are allowed or included in those amendments at this time.

Anybody who doesn't design or fund developments in the city or wants to build an addition or roof-deck may wonder what all the fuss is about. Zoning? Just as exciting as going to the dentist, some may think, necessary but nothing you want to talk or read about.

To which one has to say that America is pretty much shaped by zoning, especially in all the areas which were developed after about 1920, when zoning was first introduced. Zoning even became a nefarious tool to cement racial divides. In general, original old style zoning was all about segregation keeping everything in its proper place: Shopping here, living there, offices somewhere else and industry where nobody can see it, all in the name of health and welfare. But now in our post-industrial world its all about diversity, proximity, access and equity. Clearly, to accommodate such shifts in thinking requires new rules.
How the code was mapped (Source: Planning)

Of course, much of Baltimore predates zoning and was all along more mixed-up than the suburbs that were built upon those segregating zoning blueprints. Still, anytime a project deviated from the prescribed use categories, a trip to the BMZA (board of zoning appeals) was in order, a costly affair, especially if neighbors objected. Every time a larger development couldn't be fit into the zoning envelopes, a "planned unit development" had to be devised, a detour allowing more flexibility. In the end more of Baltimore development happened in the bypass and detour mode than in conformance with the old code, a strong reason to try a fix, if for nothing else than for less bureaucracy, more transparency and easier economic development.

Some younger cities like Denver and Miami, which have to recast themselves because of massive growth, have drafted modern zoning codes that don't look at all like the voluminous legal chapters of traditional code books that are so hard to decipher because they always refer the reader to fifteen other sections. Baltimore didn't manage such a drastic break from the past (The text part alone is still 482 pages) but yet-to-be prepared electronic copies will at least have clickable embedded links that make the jumping around easier. Additionally, the Baltimore code has in the back summary tables that show all the major controls such as allowed uses, height, minimum lot area and required setbacks. The whole code book is meaningless, though, without a map that shows where which zone falls and where the boundaries are. The maps were, therefore, adopted as part of the code by City Council.

To spruce this dry stuff up a bit and bringer it closer to the expectation of a city which fosters design excellence, the new zoning code will be accompanied by three design manuals that show designers and owners what is expected for buildings, landscaping and site design. The natural desire of showing pictures of good examples had become a matter of considerable debate. Especially architects were worried that their clients would simply point to the generic pictures of the code and say "build it like that and we will have the least trouble", leading to a cookie cutter approach that would, once again, be colored by current taste and preferences. In a compromise, the design manuals were removed from the code and became standards under the review of the Planning Commission which will enact them and can also modify them more easily than the full council could.
An image from the Design Guidelines (Source: Manual)

Discussing zoning brings a minefield of conflicts. For example, once the Hopkins School of Public Health received a grant to look at zoning from a health outcome perspective, they immediately zoomed in on the many non-conforming liquor stores in the city that dot the corners especially residential sections in poor neighborhoods. The new code will force over 70 stores to be phased out over a two year period after the code goes into effect.

A perennial topic of dispute is parking. The Planning department and the Planning Commission recommended that (new) surface parking lots should no longer be allowed downtown. downtown, a provision in keeping with good urban design practices across the nation. But developers put pressure on the council to allow them this cheap way of meeting parking requirements and, voila, the Council gave itself the right to allow them as a conditional use by ordinance.

The Council also bowed to community pressure and didn't allow the conversion of large (row) houses into multiple units by right, instead requiring a conditional use permit. Large beautiful houses in areas such as Harlem Park stand empty because they are too costly and large for single family use.
An example from the landcsape guidelines (Source: Manual)

The new code is scheduled to go into effect on June 5. Before then the City Council needs to approve the clean-up amendment and the Planning Commission needs to adopt the three design manuals. Step by step the City wants to retire or let expire the old Urban Renewal Plans which had been used as one of the detours around the outdated old zoning code but as had made development even more complicated.

Then the new Council can begin to reform the new code.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Text of the new code in the preliminary PDF version
Maps on City View

Design Guidelines Manual,
Landscape Manual
Site Plan Review Manual 

see also on this blog: Baltimore's New Zoning - Pass or Fail?

My book, Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City is my take on the post industrial American city and Baltimore after the unrest. 
The book is now for sale and can currently be ordered online directly from the publisher with free shipping. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Baltimore CBH Architects bought by Quinn Evans, DC

In today's fast moving business environment an architecture firm that set up shop in Baltimore in 1979 is a legacy firm. I am talking about the studio that had its shingle out on 316 N. Charles Street when I first spotted it in 1986. In a storefront window it had a poster-board that said "Concerned Architecture". Its name then was Cho, Wilks & Benn, the abbreviation CWB conveniently identical to its earlier configuration as Cho, Wilks & Burns. As David Benn recalls it, Barbara Wilks, Diane Cho and he were all Cornell graduates who were attracted to Baltimore as the place where innovative and interesting urban stuff happened. The same motive  brought Bill Struever and his brother Fred were who settled here around the same time and would become CWB's first big client.
Diane Cho, Tim Duke Barbara Wilks and David Benn (right)
in a a picture of early  1980's

The principals at CWB were my age and their office was the one I liked most among those with which I had interviews before I came to the US back then. At the time CWB  was about to complete the Tindeco apartments in Canton, had done Grindall's Yard in Federal Hill and the shops at Charles Plaza.  I joined them for almost 7 years.
We are not just about making beautiful buildings. We believe in the power of design to transform our city, our neighborhood, our campus, our environment.(CBH website)
My first project was to work on the conversion of the former tin company next to the Tindeco apartments,  dubbed Canton Cove, both conversions were Struever projects, and both an innovative reuse of industrial buildings, new for Baltimore, and innovative even on a national scale. Those conversions still look good today, although what was once a daring outpost in an industrial wilderness, is now safely embedded in the comfortable setting of a gentrified Canton from which the rabble-rousers have long disappeared. Little reminds of the times when a swath of land had been cleared for a freeway here that then was famously defeated by those activists who fought the early urban struggles against displacement and destruction. In those days a railroad was still clunking down Boston Street, Baltimore was still largely a working class city and Ed Hale was still the owner of a trucking business on Clinton Street and not the banker and developer of the First Mariner tower that he would become later.
Canton Cove around 1989 

CWB diversified from Struever projects into other fields and clients: I worked on the design of Baltimore's one and only light rail line, a conversion of a defunct school (#148) into affordable housing just off North Avenue, the downtown Annapolis Sector Plan, and the Planned Unit Development for the Allied Signal site, enough to keep me busy; all projects which proved that CWB was, indeed, "concerned" and made a mark as creative architects and urban designers not only in Baltimore but across Maryland.

CWB became CBH when partner George Holback's H replaced Barbara Wilks' W which she took to New York City where she opened he own office W-Architecture in 1999.

Today's landmark projects include Clipper Mill, the Everyman, the Shakespeare Theater, the Humanim Building (American Brewery) and the School for the Arts expansion as examples of CBH's trademark rehabilitation and adaptive reuse design and also trailblazing new construction such as the affordable housing projects of the  Lillian Jones Apartments on Greenmount Avenue and the Gateway Apartments on North Avenue, or innovation projects such as Open Werks, a maker space. The Madison Park North project in Reservoir Hill just started construction, it will accommodate the West Baltimore Innovation Village facility in a large complex of new buildings replacing defunct housing known as murder mall.
A rendering of the the 1992 Allied Signal PUD

Tuesday's Business Journal reported that the architecture firm, which today resides with about 30 people at One Charles Center, will be acquired by the DC firm of Quinn Evans Architects (slogan: "We see a better world, where others see limits, we see possibilities". This is another acquisition in a long string of buy-outs, mergers and busts that began in earnest when Baltimore's flagship architecture legacy firm, RTKL, was sold to a Dutch company and followed by the 2009 shut-down of the 62 year old legacy firm CS&D.

CBH is #9 on BBJ's 2016 list of the 10 largest Baltimore Architecture firms based on local billings of $.8.9 million in 2015. The two first places are held by Hord Coplan Macht with $36.22 million and Ayers Saint Gross with $41.8 million of local billings. Both firms have branch offices elsewhere. Last fall the #10 firm on the list, Brown Craig and Turner bought out the slightly smaller but failing Development Design Group which had filed for bankruptcy.

Light Rail maintenance shop (Photo CWB)

QEA's purchase is not seen as a failure of the healthy and prosperous CWH but as a logical next step in a competitive market in which small and mid-size firm have an increasingly hard time with keeping up and maintaining all the resources necessary to run a modern firm. QEA has a similar repertoire as CBH, much preservation (DC's Eastern Market) and modern inserts such as the Ben Franklin Museum in Philly and also some theater work.

QEA, founded in 1984, is younger than CWB but much bigger. It had already expanded beyond its native DC before with branch offices in Ann Arbor, Detroit and Madison.
The Everyman Theater on Fayette Street (Photo: CBH)

With its 100 employees and based on billing the firm made the top 500 list of A&E firms in the US for the first time in 2016 (Rank #480). Larry Barr, the President and Principal said about his acquisition in an official statement on the company website:
“Cho Benn Holback is an ideal fit for Quinn Evans Architects in terms of staff, expertise, and portfolio. I have long admired the thoughtful and creative approach reflected in their
American Brewery renovation (Photo: CBH)
work—the caliber of design is consistently visionary and transformative. Projects like the Lillian Jones Apartments; the National Postal Museum; and Open Works, the state-of-the-art new maker space in Baltimore, are stand-outs for me. Our strengths, our studio cultures, and our aspirations as design firms are remarkably aligned.”
David Benn, his partners and the entire design team will remain in place in their current location. The Baltimore firm will operate under the expanded name Cho Benn Holback, a Quinn Evans Co.
Lillian Jones apartments (CBH)

Meanwhile, other cities best Baltimore in terms of a location quotient for architects with which Creative Class author Richard Florida came up with in 2014.

The highest concentration of architects occurs in Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Washington DC, Boston, Raleigh, Portland and St Louis. But before we despair, on that list even NYC sits only on rank 10. It would be nice if a new generation of creative founders like Cho, Wilks and Benn would once again set up shop in
Eastern Market, DC (photo: Quinn-Evans Architects)
Baltimore because this is the place where it happens. There are some modest signs that this is happening in the arts, graphic and industrial design and IT.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore: In the middle field for density of architects  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Speaking out for design review

Baltimore City has the audacity to require design review of all major building projects and development plans. The design review consists of a site plan review with staff of the Planning Department and an architectural and urban design review that in smaller projects can also be performed by staff or for larger ones will have to be presented in front of an expert panel of architects, urban designers and landscape architects (UDARP).
Designers (left) being quizzed by panel (right). Photo: Daily Record
The Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel’s goal is to achieve the highest quality for the planned and built environment of Baltimore City by providing the Planning Commission and the Department of Planning with design review expertise in the areas of urban design, architecture, and landscape design for all proposed master planning efforts and significant development projects. The Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel advises the Department of Planning, the Planning Commission and other City agencies on matters of urban design, architecture and landscape architecture and are professional staff of the Department of Planning. (UDARP website)
For some this level of scrutiny is too much. Bad enough, some developers think, that we have to hire a licensed  architect and engineer to obtain a construction permit, we now also have to pay for an elaborate presentation to this design review panel, and as a result, we may have to pay to revise the design and pay for enhancements to the project as well. Indeed, UDARP can become expensive, especially if a project doesn't pass for poor design.

Developers who tell their architects to "cut out the frills" or who hire cut-rate architects which are unqualified or not paid enough to produce good design, are the most likely ones to be sent back to the drawing board by the review panel.  Rumor has it that those run-of the mill developers with little design ambition apparently complain directly to the Mayor about the process. They may be especially hopeful when there is a new administration that wants to make it easier to develop and invest in Baltimore. A layperson may even feel sympathy for a developer who complains about this cost, after all, taste (or design) is in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it?

But this isn't just about taste. It is about public interest. Non-designers often don't understand that even in art there are criteria that help to judge whether something is a good or bad. That is true for movies, theater productions, books, sculptures or paintings. But for architecture and development it is even more so because they occur in the public domain and there are additionally functional considerations in play, especially as they relate to the exterior and the relationship to the public space.
The Panel is comprised of six individuals who bring expertise in various aspects of architectural, urban, and landscape design. Members are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the Director of Planning. (UDARP website)
I have attended UDARP meetings as a presenter and as audience and must say that design review in Baltimore has never been better than it is now. A very qualified review panel now rarely pontificates or spouts personal opinion and, instead, performs a very valuable service to the public in scrutinizing how a proposed building or development will perform in the public space in which it will sit (most urban buildings are placed along public streets).
UDRAP had much to sau about 1 Light Street (Photo: BBJ)

Some UDARP members are uncertain about how the new administration will see their future. In trying to read the tea leaves, folks in the development community, the design profession and on UDARP itself are speculating whether the Mayor's inclination for art would prevail or her assumed developer friendliness. Whether her perceived high expectations will rather ratchet design standards higher or whether her desire to grow and invest in Baltimore would lower the bar. In volatile times small things like a cancelled UDARP meeting (this week) can stir rumors and fear. Tom Stosur, the Planning Director and in charge of UDARP, is not aware of any change that may be afoot. "No one has approached me about any imminent changes, so as far as I know we will continue as usual" he responded upon inquiry.

The Mayor is said to be fairly intolerant when it comes to incompetence or mediocrity and to have high expectations of herself and others. This city needs high expectations for itself and for others who want do business here. A race to the bottom always ensues a vicious cycle, just as an expectation of excellence will begin a virtuous cycle. Architectural design is no exception.

In January of 2015 I wrote about Design Review - Hurdle, Safeguard or a Step towards Excellence?Back then I wrote: "It seems that criteria and metrics can work especially well in the realm of urban design where criteria can be derived seamlessly from regulations, guidelines and masterplans that address setbacks, massing, orientation, uses, parking and the like. Criteria should be performance-based so they are not a template for design and still avoid undesirable outcomes such as blocked views, an uninspiring public realm, overpowering scale clashes, poor place making or lack of landscaping, etc."

Baltimore's design review has been in place in one form or another since 1964, originally under what is now the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and since 1997 under Planning.

Not all cities have a thorough design review such as Baltimore's, but some type of review is common, especially for larger projects. I was a design reviewer for Baltimore County for ten years where projects were smaller and the review more technical. Either way, projects become better through review, in part, because the expectation of a peer review will heighten the effort from the start, in part because a constructive dialogue about the best solutions often stimulates creativity and inspiration. At the review of large projects such as Sagamore's Port Covington, with its internationally known architects, the panel was not intimidated but created a constructive back and forth in which high level design and public interest was pushed further without designers becoming defensive.
The Public Design Commission is New York City’s design review agency, with jurisdiction over permanent structures, parks and open spaces, streetscapes, signage, and art proposed on or over City-owned property.
The Commission is an advocate for excellence and innovation in the public realm, ensuring the viability and quality of public programs and services throughout the city for years to come.(website)
As for the owners and developers who have to foot the bill: Better solutions create value and better projects will ensure a quality setting which makes a better city. In other words, everybody will be better off by not taking the path of least resistance or of the smallest common denominator, but instead aim for the best possible solution. Design is one form of problem solving. 

UDARP could get a catchier different name and it could benefit from a staff prepared framework documentation given to the reviewers in advance. Otherwise, Mayor Pugh better leave the current review process intact. The next budget year begins July 1. UDARP members should hear soon about their re-appointment. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related article on this blog:
Baltimore Design Review Rocks (2015)

Philadelphia Design Review
Finding the right path through design review (Better Towns and Cities)

Current UDARP members:

Gary A. Bowden, FAIA
Architect Emeritus, Retired from Maryland firm, Retired Professor/Critic from University of Maryland- School of Architecture

Richard Burns, AIA
Registered Architect, Practicing architect in Maryland

David Haresign, FAIA
Registered Architect, Partner in District of Columbia firm

David A. Rubin, ASLA, FAAR
Registered Landscape Architect, Principal in Philadelphia Landscape design firm

Pavlina Ilieva, AIA
Registered Architect, Program Director/Lecturer at Morgan State University - School of Architecture and Planning, Principal in Baltimore Architecture firm .

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Brandnew - up in flames. Are tall wood buildings a folly?

Sometimes reality catches up with marketing in an unfortunate way, as in the case of the project dubbed Fuse 47 which kept 200 firefighters busy all day yesterday after it went up in flames in a five alarm fire only weeks from the final completion day scheduled for June.
Tons of water being poured on a brand-new apartment complex

I am not familiar with the details of this particular project, but from what fire chief Ben Barksdale of Prince George's County said yesterday, he is afraid of collapse due to the heavy load from 650 gallons of water per minute placed on the building. There was talk that the building "was currently only supported by wood" and could pancake floor by floor.

It is likely that the construction of this apartment building is five over one, the construction type that allows up to five stories of wood framed construction over a concrete podium, which in the case of the Fuse 47 structure would be a two-level podium. This type of construction is relatively new and only permissible after the International Building Code increased the height of allowable wood construction for apartment buildings. Once sprinkler systems are in place and all fire separations are complete, such a building is deemed as safe as a building made of non combustible building materials. However, building codes don't concern themselves with the period during construction when a building is deemed unoccupied. In that stage OSHA controls the safety of construction workers which doesn't include teh fire safety of the building itself, even though construction in itself can present a major fire hazard. The fire started around 9am, so construction activity was likely going on in the building in the race to open it on time.
A marketing rendering of the Fuse 47 complex 

During construction the sprinkler system, the fire alarms, and many fire separation devices such as fire rated gypsum board that can create fire-walls, fire doors, firestops in shafts, hydrants and foire-lanes etc. may not be in place, depending of the state of construction. The fire department confirmed that the Fuse 47 sprinkler system was not active at the time.

Baltimore has its own experience with a fire of an unfinished large wood framed building: On the day of the 2015 unrest a multifamily apartment complex,  the Mary Harvin Transformation Center on North Chester Street in East Baltimore went up in flames after it had been topped out to full height. It was  then largely a wood structure without wall paneling, a veritable tinderbox. All four floors were devoured by flames in a brief period of time with only the block walls of the stairways and some steel frames over a partial podium still standing the next day.

The almost complete Fuse 47 complex was much further along than the Harvin Center when it burnt. The fire appears to have started on the fourth floor and spread to the fifth and penetrated the roof in places. The complex forms a courtyard and has a front and rear portion. According to the fire department the fire was stronger in the rear but couldn't be battled from there because there is no street in the rear and whatever fire-lanes there may be planned were apparently not accessible. One fire engine was stuck in the mud in the back and had to be towed out.
Destruction and flames before the paint was dry

Even if an evaluation would show that the fire was contained on the top two floors and consumed only parts of those floors, damage would extend to the entire structure due to the vast amounts of water that were poured onto it over the full length for at least 12 hours with hot spot dousing for another 12 hours. The water would have destroyed all gypsum board used on walls and ceilings on all levels and, if the wall studs are indeed, wood, potentially also the structure itself. Naturally, water would also have destroyed all finishes and built ins such as kitchens, appliances and the like. Even portions of the building that may have stayed dry through some miracle would likely be damaged by the heavy smoke that emanated from the fire. and was wafting everywhere Smoke blankets everything in soot.

According to marketing literature of the Fuse 47 developer, Wood Partners, the 270 apartment complex featured many amenities:
Fuse 47 offers a resort-style pool, outdoor grilling stations, a bocce court, a state-of-the-art fitness center with the latest CrossFit®-inspired equipment and more. The community includes 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom market rate apartments in a variety of floor plans that provide residents with the option to choose layouts based upon their preferences. All units are equipped with luxury conveniences and finishes.
Problems with fire access from the rear
The five over one building type has spread like a wildfire across North America as soon as it was permitted and has become the building type of choice not only in suburban town-center settings such as in the area around Columbia Mall but also in the downtowns of many cities.
Wood-frame construction is a cost-effective option for mid-rise structures because it allows high density (five stories for many residential occupancy groups, six for office) at relatively low cost, while providing other benefits such as construction speed, structural performance, design versatility and a sustainable, low-carbon footprint. (Wood Products Council)
The fast growing areas of Denver, Austin, San Diego and Seattle have whole neighborhoods with block after block built from the currently popular mixed use formula which has retail and amenities below the concrete deck (the podium) and apartments or condos over top. Several spectacular fires that have  ensued during construction might make fire officials look at this popular construction type again. At a minimum it should make owners and developer consider catastrophic loss during construction. One month ago a massive eight alarm fire reduced a wood structure in the Overland Park area of Kansas City dubbed CityPlace to rubble while construction work went on in it. In February, a luxury apartment building under construction in Maplewood, N.J., was consumed by fire. In downtown Raleigh, N.C., firefighters scrambled to douse a raging apartment fire there March 17 that put surrounding properties at risk.

Read more here:
Last Monday, a half-constructed wood-framed apartment building at CityPlace in Overland Park was set on fire accidentally by a welding torch. The blaze rapidly turned into an inferno, flattening the building and spreading burning cinders onto the roofs of nearby homes.
“It’s almost a building with toothpicks — that’s what it is,” said Kevin Flory, president of the Kansas State Firefighters Association, about the multifamily wooden structures. “It’s a lot of fire load in there.”
The Overland Park fire was the third huge under-construction apartment blaze around the country since February. (Kansas City Star)

Read more here:
The damage at Fuse 47 is currently estimated to reach $40 million, the costliest fire Prince George's County ever had. This type of construction, known in the trade as IIB is not allowed in the Baltimore downtown  fire district that was created after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. However, new mixed use apartment buildings near downtown such as on Charles and Preston, Light Street or in Sharp Leadenhall have employed this construction type.
Southpark LA, , five stories of wood on a two story podium.

Fuse 47 is part of a major rebirth of College Park with a new Whole Foods market, two new major hotels and a new Amazon bookstore on the University of Maryland campus which itself has grown by leaps and bounds during the last decade.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also a more extensive article about One Plus Five on my Blog Community Architect

Monday, April 24, 2017

Why Baltimore's Light Rail underperforms

On occasion of Baltimorelight rail's 25th anniversary the Sun wrote a really good story titled "Light Rail's potential remains unfulfilled". As one who worked on the project from beginning to end, I have have to say the article is thorough and correct. Yet, it doesn't really answer the underlying question: Why does the line under-perform beyond the suggestion that a single line in itself cannot really succeed?
Light Rail on Howard Street in the 1990s (Photo: Kittelson)

True, a rail lines becomes exponentially better the more it is connected to other lines and the more it is part of a system; but there are several light rail lines in America that operate equally isolated with sometimes less miles and do that with decidedly more riders than the Central Light Rail Line (CRL) which carries a measly 22,800 riders a day over its total 33 miles of track. This is nearly 10,000 riders less than originally estimated, in spite of extensions and in spite of operating now also on weekends.

With 691 boardings per mile that is only a bit more than 1/5th of Minneapolis/St Paul's  3,334 riders per mile on 22.8 miles of track, three times worse than new Orleans' vintage streetcars on their 22.3 miles and also fewer riders than Pittsburgh has on its 26.2 miles of rail. Minneapolis is aggressively expanding its system, but at the moment of comparison, Baltimore's line is by far not the smallest, especially if one considers that there is also a 22 miles Metro system which those other cities don't have and that Baltimore's single line has two spurs, one to Penn Station and one to BWI.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul LRT
What can one do if additional rail that would transform a single line into a system is politically not an option? The answer is to put more stuff where the line is, specifically, transit oriented development (TOD). If one can't build more rail to more destinations one can still put more destinations where the rail already is. The LRT to stadium link was exactly the right beginning. But the reason that Baltimore's system does so much less than its peers lies in less intensive land use in the rail corridor.

When the CRL was built in breakneck speed so it could be completed together with Oriole Park as the SUN correctly reports, it had to be built where it was the easiest: On an existing rail right of way. Which happened to be the old  Northern Central Railway, Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad and Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railway railbeds. That wouldn't have been a problem if those old tracks would have gone where new development was planned, possible, or wanted. But that was not the case. Development in the old and narrow Jones Falls Valley north of Penn Station seemed almost impossible, economically and spatially. The same was true for large stretches on the south end around Westport, Baltimore Highlands and Linthicum. In other stretches, such as Ruxton, transit was not really wanted. The bright lights that justified the alignment were the job centers near the airport and in Hunt Valley, but the rush to build the system through three jurisdictions completely failed to engage the respective planning and zoning departments to redirect development, up-zone land along the tracks and designate TOD wherever possible. The Hunt Valley and the Cromwell Station areas remained as suburban car-centric as they have always been.
TOD at Mt Royal Station 

The trains end in a sea of parking at Dorsey Road (Cromwell Station) and at Hunt Valley. No change to the suburban development zoning was made on either end and also not in the middle. Not on the lands of an old quarry near Linthicum, not for the underutilized Timonium Fairgrounds, not on the giant satellite parking lots the train traverses near the airport and not for the already then ailing Hunt Valley Mall. Only two projects ever attempted to even use the moniker TOD: One was Symphony Center, a large apartment complex erected on the site of an asbestos laden insurance building. From the train Symphony Center's most visible structure is a giant State financed parking garage, ostensibly not a symbol of good TOD. "Our marketing showed that people wanted Class A
space in the city with great accessibility but without the problems of finding downtown parking," (Arthur Adler, then partner in the venture). The other was the near 400 apartment / mixed-use complex of CenterPoint on Howard Street, it, too was equipped with a giant garage.

Whatever development eventually sprung up near the light rail line was not the result of orchestrated transit oriented development planning but the result of the whimsies of a real estate market that increasingly cherished the presence of trains, notably Clipper Mill in Woodberry and the Fitzgerald at the Mount Royal stop.
LRT in the Jones Falls Valley: No space

To this day there is no coordinated effort of maximizing development in the CRL corridor, not in Baltimore County, not in Baltimore City and not in Anne Arundel County either. The City's new zoning code includes a TOD designation, but it is very subtle and timid and there is little incentive for a developer to build inside a TOD overlay instead of outside of it. Even though the State created some enabling laws that made TOD a transit purpose and created a good inventory of properties near transit, a systematic joint review of development potential in the corridor that brought together local land use planners and the transit agency never happened. At least not with the expressive goal of optimizing the rail investment over the entire 33 mile length of the CRL. There were some anecdotal efforts on behalf of MDOT, I recall a Sunday walk with then Secretary Flanagan to inspect sites along the downtown Metro stops that resulted in an executive order of Governor Ehrlich.  There also was a MDOT study showing development opportunities along Howard Street which BDC chose to ignore, but to this day there is no strategic plan for the entire LRT corridor that could readily to be implemented.

Denver LRT: Extending train length to accommodate riders

Of course, the current Governor made it clear that he prefers roads over rail. He decided to kill not only the additional rail line that would finally make a system and is still the appropriate way to do it but also the mother of all TODs, the State Center redevelopment, which would benefit light rail and Metro at the same time. MTA Administrator Comfort told the SUN that it is his aim to make transit work that is already on the ground, a good goal. But is shouldn't be forgotten, to optimally utilize the assets that are on the ground, land use is, at least, half the story! Instead of the holes in the doughnut that characterize so many station areas on LRT and Metro, the region would need to concentrate all possible development there. MDOT once calculated, that all of Maryland's expected growth could easily fit into such TOD areas.

It isn't too late. To direct the real estate demand where it can be most useful: Not at Maryland's remaining forests and farms but near existing rail stations is hard where the real estate market is weak, for example at several Metro stops. But the CRL runs through areas with much better potential, the Jones Falls Valley has recently become a hot commodity. With an all hands on deck effort, it shouldn't be too hard to boost the sagging ridership of the CRL with the same tools Minneapolis-Saint Paul has done it or Denver is doing it. For it to happen, a true regional partnership would be needed between the three local governments and MDOT. With tight public resources nothing less is what voters should expect from their elected officials.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

List of United States light rail systems by ridership:

Largest city
Avg. dly
Q4 2016
Avg dly
per mile
Q4 2016
26 miles (42 km)[2]
98.5 miles (158.5 km)[4]
35.7 miles (57.5 km)[8]
60 miles (97 km)
68.4 miles (110.1 km)[16][17]
58.5 miles (94.1 km)[18]
21.8 miles (35.1 km)[21][22]
46.8 miles (75.3 km)[23][24]
20.4 miles (32.8 km)[28]
23.8 miles (38.3 km)[30][31]
26.3 miles (42.3 km)[33]
17 miles (27 km)[38]
46 miles (74 km)[40]
42.9 miles (69.0 km)[44]
42.2 miles (67.9 km)[45]
22.3 miles (35.9 km)[46][47]
26.2 miles (42.2 km)[48]
5.2 miles (8.4 km)
33 miles (53 km)[51]
6.2 miles (10.0 km)[38]
11.1 miles (17.9 km)[52]
2017 (planned)
6.4 miles (10.3 km)
7.35 miles (11.83 km)[57]
34 miles (55 km)[38]
22 miles (35 km)[62]
15.3 miles (24.6 km)[63]
7.4 miles (11.9 km)[65]
1.6 miles (2.6 km)[28]
Washington, D.C. Streetcar
2.4 miles (3.9 km)
3.8 miles (6.1 km)
3.9 miles (6.3 km)[69]
2.7 miles (4.3 km)
2.7 miles (4.3 km)[70]
6.3 miles (10.1 km)
2.2 miles (3.5 km)
2.45 miles (3.94 km)
3.6 mi (5.8 km)[76]