Friday, April 21, 2017

Chaos around Baltimore's Public Markets

Rarely has the future of Baltimore's public markets been so uncertain as now and rarely have they been more important.

public markets are popular and important
Five of six Baltimore markets are in play for a major change without that there is a comprehensive clear strategy for them or an articulated program for what they should and could do.

The volatile situation around the markets is exacerbated by the delays and the chaos around Cross Street Market, which could be seen as a guinea pig for a new approach including the private sector. But whatever that approach was supposed to prove, it certainly hasn't been convincing.

Still, the Public Market non-profit and its board is charging full steam ahead and has put four (!) more markets on the line for additional experiments. At times the Executive Director of the market non-profit, Robert Thomas seems to be as surprised by the next move as the public, for example when the previous Mayor announced that the Lexington Market would be fully demolished.  One has to ask who is really calling the shots. Confusion may have started with conception of the non-profit market corporation in 1995 through a set of easily conflicting but very general goals. According to Executive Director Robert Thomas "the Market Corporation was formed for the purpose of leasing and managing the Markets, to fulfill community/customer/merchant needs, and to assist the City with its community development efforts”.
 
Although the various requests for proposals were staggered and vary in the anticipated project delivery, right now they are all up for consideration at the same time. Two new requests are on the street right now without any of the previous requests having come to a satisfactory conclusion. This should be of concern to everybody, especially the new Mayor who is sliding into this situation without having had a chance to define the path forward.
Refurbished Northeast Market

The only  seemingly stable market is now the North-East Market on East Monument Street which has been renovated in 2013, and seemed rather marginal before. It is still under the control of Baltimore Public Markets and is enjoying increased interest and support from the adjacent Johns Hopkins hospital and the reconstructed EBDI area.
Broadway Market

Broadway Market in Fells Point, located in the heart of one of Baltimore's finest historic areas and tourist attractions, appears to be doomed as a market. It was offered for private development of any kind with no stipulation that it needs to continue as a market, private or public. Agonizing over the future of the markets has gone on for years. Fells Point development has gone through the roof, but the markets inexplicably languished.

The City is currently undertaking a complete reconstruction of the public space in the center of Broadway near the water. Two Broadway public market buildings sit north of that plaza. Both define the southern end of the Broadway corridor and the character of Fells Point. There is no plausible scenario in which the center island of an urban boulevard should be used for anything other than a public purpose. No decision has been made about the future of these parcels, whatever proposals were submitted is not public knowledge. The City should not be permitted to hand those parcels to the private sector for any use that is not public and serves the public interest.

In 2012 Project for Public Spaces had been commissioned to look at Lexington Market. In its report PPS observed a renaissance of public markets around the country and described their importance in a way which is worth a verbatim quote because it applies to all of Baltimore's public markets:
The reasons for the renaissance of public markets, one of the oldest and most universal forms of retail trade, are diverse. Cities looking to bring consistent activity to their public spaces are using regularly scheduled markets to transform streets, plazas, and parking lots into bustling “people places,” alive with vitality and commerce.
Public markets are valued because they create common ground in the community, where people feel comfortable to mix, mingle, and enjoy the serendipitous pleasures of strolling, socializing, people-watching, and shopping in a special environment.
Others see public markets as an effective way to support local economic development and small businesses in their city. As a means for the distribution of needed goods and services, market merchants and vendors provide farm fresh fruits and vegetables, ethnic foods, crafts, and personal services that are often unavailable elsewhere at the same level of quality, variety, and price.
People are rediscovering that public markets, with their emphasis on locally grown, locally made, and locally owned businesses, accentuate the qualities that make their community special. (PPS Report)
Hollins Market
The Hollins Market RFP has been issued along with the one for Broadway, but here it is stipulated that it must remain a public market, even though it could be privately designed and operated.

The proposals for Hollins Market and Broadway Market were due in February, but no selection has been made to date. The process for the two markets is still at the beginning of discussions with respondents to determine if there can be a deal or how to get there for each Market. Scott Plank of Warhorse LLC has publicly stated that he submitted a proposal for the Hollins Market. He was initially also interested in the Cross Street Market but had dropped out of his partnership with Caves Valley.

The two public markets most recently offered up "on the market" are Lexington Market and the Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue each with a very different model of "project delivery".
Lexington Market  (Photo: Philipsen)

Lexington Market is supposed to be privately developed in a "fee for service" model in which a development company would act like a construction manager for a turn-key project. The kicker: The project is already partly designed by Murphy and Dittenhafer Architects as part of earlier assignments. The current RFP asks the developer to work with the existing design team. Baltimore Public Markets would then manage and operate the new market after completion. The design foresees a modern two story glass structure to be erected on the current parking lot south of the existing Market which can be constructed while the current market remains in operation.

The Avenue Market is envisioned to be privately designed and operated just like the Hollins and the Cross Street markets. (This is the design-build delivery model). Even on the surface, one can see from the different demographics in which the three markets are located (two of them in food deserts), that developers would take on different responsibilities in each case. The Avenue Market RFP is largely boiler-plate language and seems to include no explicit lessons from the experience of the Cross Street Market, where the developer initially envisioned to clear out the entire market for rehabilitation without offering existing vendors a way to survive or a guarantee to come back. The RFP is specific about the location of antennas and satellite dishes but has no requirements for the merchandise mix, the inclusion of local businesses, the retention and protection of existing merchants or the avoidance of non-food merchants that sell cell phones and the like.
The Avenue Market (Photo: Philipsen)

Proposals for the Avenue Market and Lexington Market are due on May 16. Interest to date has been moderate based on representation at the pre-proposal meetings with only one team being represented for the Avenue Market and three for Lexington Market and some additional online interest.

Meanwhile, the Cross Street Market is still in turmoil. It was awarded to Caves Valley until the developer publicly withdrew from the deal but then came back to the table so now the contract with the City is still in effect. Opponents and supporters of Caves Valley can be found among residents and merchants. Nobody seems to know for certain what is going on with the redevelopment, although there seems to be an assumption now that the work will be phased and that some merchants can operate during construction. An originally envisioned Starbucks chain coffee shop is now going to be a local Ceremony coffee shop.
The private developer/operator model at the Cross Street Market has certainly not gone smoothly. From taking a very long time to hash out an agreement to shortly thereafter going up in flames with competing petitions circulating in the community, upset merchants, and surprise merchant lease terminations that then were reversed.  Given that rocky performance, one has to wonder why the City is so eager to offer another two markets under the same model.
A long shuttered public market: North Avenue
Market  (Photo: Philipsen)

In fact, one has to wonder if the City isn't biting off too much at once with five markets all in various stages of decision making without any viable proof of concept.

As I reported here in various articles, other cities have very successful markets, notably Philadelphia with the Reading Market, Seattle with Pike's Place Market and Cincinnati with Findlays Market. All three cities run their markets through non profit organizations that were created with the sole purpose of running, operating and maintaining one public market under strict stipulations and controls.
Seattle's Pike's Place Market

It is quite amazing that Baltimore would want to abandon the model of running markets with a publicly controlled non-profit instead of fine-tuning it. Times have never been better to run a market, which is why the private sector is creating their own (R-House, Belvedere and Mount Vernon markets). It isn't obvious at all, the the City should sell its public markets so that they become like those private markets.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

see also the previous article about the Baltimore Markets on this blog