Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why the region needs a new transit plan

All eyes are on BaltimoreLink, the total overhaul of the metropolitan bus system, a courageous approach high on promises and low on funding. Come Monday June 19 the entire region will watch with bated breath how the system will perform when people need to get to work. The MTA Administrator has bet his future on success and employees, employers and politicians want the project to succeed. But it alone isn't enough.

To sooth passengers' potential wrath, they will get two weeks of free bus rides in June. This may well be needed, given that change is hard and that transit agencies are about as well liked as cable companies, no matter where in the country. BaltimoreLink's promise of doing more with essentially the same resources is alluring, who would not want to root for that? Success or failure will have far reaching implications:
A recent study by Harvard economists found that the single strongest factor affecting the odds of a child escaping poverty is not the test scores of his or her local schools or the crime in the community; it is the percent of workers in his or her neighborhood who have long commutes. And among the nation's 100 largest cities, the one where children face the worst odds of escaping poverty is Baltimore City. (Donald Fry, Thomas Wilcox editorial)
New Baltimore transit system map
Baltimore moves comparably many people on buses, about 220,000 per day according to latest counts. That puts this region on rank 10 in a national score of passenger miles on transit per 100,000 people while we are on rank #29 in population size. There certainly are other US metro areas that are worse off in terms of transit. But this consolation shouldn't make complacent. Successful metro areas can't compete with the bottom half, they have to compete with the top places, nationally and internationally, especially since Baltimore has to overcome major inequalities. And in such an arena, better functioning buses will not suffice.

BaltimoreLink does a piece of [jobs access], but by no means is it the significant investment (mass) transportation really needs in the region and the state,” Dru Schmidt-Perkins,CEO 1,000 Friends of Maryland in today's Daily Record
The Baltimore Rail Plan that wasn't
Baltimore regional transit is disappointing from many angles. This doesn't bode well for the future in which only regions with good, equitable and sustainable mobility options will perform well. Instead of being on a trajectory towards a better future, the Baltimore region is lagging further and further behind even if Link would be a stunning success.

Residents of the greater Baltimore region are used to bad transit news. The cancellation of the nearly $3 billion Baltimore Red line after 12 years and a quarter billion dollars of planning and design expenses is just the most egregious case which called attention nationwide.

Bad transit news are numerous even in the DC area which Baltimore used to envy for its marvelous subway system. It is now so overloaded that emergency repairs and outages are testing rider's patience on a daily basis. Our own single line Metro and Light Rail also need major track and system repairs, and like the DC system, new or overhauled train cars. Falling light rail, Metro and bus ridership here and in DC due to continuing low gas prices doesn't help.

Now Maryland's second large rail transit project, the 2.5 billion Purple Line, hangs in the balance because of a court case. This is not too far away to bother, because economically and in terms of mobility Baltimore is part of the mega region that includes DC and Wilmington as well. That is easily how far commute-sheds reach nowadays.
Denver FasTrack map: Many lines are now running

People hate the comparison with Europe where gas is very expensive, development more compact and transit wonderful by comparison. But access of a region from the outside is also an important aspect, and the less that access is dependent on air travel, the more sustainable it is. My former hometown of Stuttgart (population 623,000) has 15 train tracks for long distance and regional trains alone with dozens of trains arriving and leaving every hour of the day with so many travelers per day that the station reaches Baltimore's Penn Station annual passenger volume every 4.5 days. From there one can reach Paris, London and Vienna, and Berlin all in no more than 6.5 hours at speeds of 155 mph.

Baltimoreans can get to New York and DC in a reasonable time, but Boston already takes too long and Chicago is a veritable joke with 19 hrs on Amtrak (11hrs by car). Arriving at Stuttgart's main line station lower levels eight light rail and commuter tracks allow access to the entire metro region on the same ticket often with head-ways as low as six minutes. Arriving in even far-flung stations, buses will wait to take riders even further into the hinterlands. Stuutgart is not unique. Strasbourg (pop. 456,000), Manchester (pop. 530,000) or Zurich (pop. 396,000) would offer similar transit options. Even Union Station in DC, a wonderful local transit hub has a hard time to hold up in such a comparison because of the fare-card chaos in which there no uniform multi-modeal regional ticket exists because each of the dozens of local transit systems at the outer terminal stops has its own fare system, no matter how limited the service.

We don't need to compare ourselves with Europe or the big cities of New York, Chicago or Philadelphia to get transit-envy. A trip to Charlotte, NC, Seattle WA, Minneapolis MI or San Diego, CA would suffice to show how cities with much less transit conducive DNA, i.e. lower density and lacking any meaningful Amtrak service, can sport a fledgling but growing light rail network as the fruit of plans conceived at the same time as the Baltimore area rail plan of 2002.
Charlotte, NC

The comparison of transportation systems is not a meaningless exercise of transit geeks but a matter of social justice, equity, health and economic development at its core. It is estimated that there are some 60,000 poor people in the Baltimore region who cannot access the jobs via transit and without a car, people who have no chance of leaving poverty because of the missing mobility. Low "opportunity" areas have routinely the longest commute times to well paying lower skill jobs. Employers can't get employees and employees cant get jobs, not a trivial matter but severely curtailing what the region and its people.
Every time a metro area added about 4 seats to rails and buses per 1,000 residents, the central city ended up with 320 more employees per square mile — an increase of 19 percent. Adding 85 rail miles delivered a 7 percent increase. A 10 percent expansion in transit service (by adding either rail and bus seats or rail miles) produced a wage increase between $53 and $194 per worker per year in the city center. (Chatman study, 2013)
Transportation is seen more and more as a matter of social justice. Poor transit  is another of the many ways how Baltimore has become so segregated. Transportation is a major cost factor especially for the poor. The answer isn't only access to well paying jobs; reduction of transportation cost itself puts more money into the pockets of the poor. There are many reasons beyond race and poverty to promote more and better transit: A growing number of disabilities prevent an ever larger number of people from driving; a growing cohort of aging baby-boomers will be less and less able to rely on the car as the only way of getting around; the large cohort of Millennials is hobbled by college debts, stagnant wages and, in general, has long become famous for looking how to avoid the big expenditure of an individually owned car.
San Diego: Trains and TOD

What the Baltimore region needs isn't just an update of the well reasoned 2002 rail plan which showed 66 new rail miles in addition to the 43 existing rail miles of Metro and Light Rail, none of which were built. As much as the region needs such a new plan, it has to do more than showing new rail lines on a map, each costing billions of dollars and taking decades to realize.  A comprehensive mobility vision for the region has to

  • include DC and the Wilmington region as well as Annapolis and Frederick, 
  • integrate all transit systems in those regions into a seamless system regardless of mode. 
  • work across all modes including cars, water transit. bicycles and walking
  • provide a comprehensive approach to the "last mile" problem
  • provide better equity and connect opportunity areas with low opportunity area
  • include land use and real estate
In that seamless system it needs to be possible to travel without a car (parked at a station) across several modes with one and the same ticket and with coordinated schedules. Instead of giant parking lots, Owings Mills, Hunt Valley and Cromwell Station need to have local buses that accept the original ticket and wait for the arriving trains to get riders closer to their destination. At all stops there need to be transit coordinated "last mile" options that include old technologies such as taxis, bike-share stations and good sidewalks but also new technologies.

New technologies will blur the line between transit and taxi with demand-based van shuttles or fleet vehicles operating similar to Uber. Tampa Bay Transit and other agencies are experimenting with their own such service for a fixed extra fee. A new regional plan has to anticipate autonomous cars, vans, buses and trains. Those will completely reshuffle the current cost structure of existing transit which is highly driven by the fixed cost of the operator.
The entire network with one ticket: Stuttgart regional transit compact

A new regional transportation plan cannot chase the remotest jobs in places where transit will never work with whatever technology. Instead, such a plan needs to show ways to put more uses where the existing transit assets are. Stations sit all too often in areas that are best described as holes in the doughnut. The current Secretary of Transportation doesn't want to deal with the real estate side of transportation and doesn't consider it part of his job. Without it, though, ridership on existing facilities will continue to drop, jobs will remain out of reach and poverty will continue to fester around many current station areas.

The goal of making what we have work better as expressed in BaltimoreLink is a basic and necessary step. But without additional resources for better connectivity, more choices and much better integration efforts of doing more with the same are destined to fail. There is no way around the fact that a true regional mobility system will require significant investments. If any of our competing metro regions are any indication, the return on those investments would be high.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Move over Paris Plages, here comes Sandlot!

Ever since Paris adorned the shores of the Seine with beaches (plages) during the summer month, cities around the world have come up with their own urban sandbox. Baltimore's next hit for hipsters will be a sandbox of a special kind, placed on HarborPoint's "100% corner" with full view of the Inner Harbor and the downtown skyline as a backdrop.
Baltimore's beach: Imagine bikinis, speedos and deckchairs

What makes Sandlot super-cool is not so much its movie reference but that it is all pop-up, i.e. temporary, made from the architecture modules de jour: Shipping containers, a Jetstream trailer, and wooden shipping pallets. The menu of hipness is topped off by starchef Spike Gjerde,  the same who runs Parts and Labor and Woodberry Kitchen and who sees it as his mission to feed Baltimore quality food. He and Corey Polyoka, founded Foodshed, a family of restaurants which will also manage the beachfront eatery. Baltimore's other sandlot, Rash Field, popular with beach volley ball enthusiasts will have stiff competition.

HarborPoint, you will recall, sits on what used to be a mega polluted industrial lot, the Allied
Baltimore Sandlot: Boxed trees
Site, inaccessible to all but the plant workers acquiring lung ailments there. When the plant came down the Fells Point community rallied around the idea to convert the entire 26 acres peninsula into a park after a clean up had achieved EPA's seal of approval.
Bocce courts

An airstream trailer and shipping containers will house
the eating facilities
 Alas, it turned out one can cap off a chromium lot and surround it with slurry walls and one can build on it. So, eventually happened what nobody really believed in 1992, when the first planned unit development plan (PUD) was approved for the peninsula  and the site was slated to become Baltimore's latest downtown extension.
In the background the Morgan Stanely building (off the
remediation cap) and the new Point Street apartment building
under construction on the cap.

The current edge of the deck atop the capped pensinsula. The deck
acts as a parking garage and accommodates also the utilities.
In the background the Point Street apartment tower
The peninsula is now open to the public with the Exelon tower being the first active building on the cap itself with retail and a restaurant at the base. Through all the years since the first plans the southwest corner, the 100% corner, was set aside as a 4.5 acre open space or, alternatively, for a signature building akin to the Sidney's Opera. On three sides the peninsula is made public for the mandatory waterfront promenade for which the peninsula is an important link.

The corner was briefly considered for the replacement of the Mechanic Theater and as a Lacrosse Museum. The latest masterplans show the site simply as a park that would be completed when the adjoining edge buildings would be developed. This provides the window for the pop-up park, alias the Sand Lot, a joint project of Beatty Development and Gjerde's Foodshed. Beatty Development expects the temporary use to be around for about 4-5 years when the final park will be constructed as part of the final phase of development. The next building on HarborPoint will be the Wills Wharf with construction expected to begin late this year according to Chris Seiler, manager of communications at Beatty Development.

The Sandlot design comes from Beatty Harvey Coco (BHC) Architects and Mahan Rykiel; BHC was most recently in the news as the architect of record for Sagamore's  new Pendry Hotel on the nearby Recreation Pier in Fells Point and has also designed the Four Seasons Tower, the Exelon Tower and the Point Street apartments under construction. The firm has its Baltimore office on HarborPoint. Mahan Rykiel is also designing the new Rash Field.

The HarborPoint site needs to be "discovered" by the public which has to take ownership to make retail and restaurants there successful.

Baltimore plages, aka Sandlot on a location that Bill Struever used to call the best "on the entire eastern seaboard" will be a good step to do this. Struever was part of the original development team.

Unfortunately, when Sandlot opens next weekend it will be totally cut off from Harbor East because of construction of the new bridge which will provide future access as an extension of Central Avenue. This activity currently closes Lancaster Street not only for cars but also pedestrians because the area on Lancaster Street not only receives the abutment of the bridge but will also be elevated to avoid flooding.

As a result, anybody walking on the Promenade has to do a lengthy detour first, heading north to Aliceanna Street to then access the peninsula and its temporary promenade from Caroline Street. It would be nice if a temporary pedestrian bridge could create a direct connection from Lancaster Street.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ Sandlot article
Fishbowl article about Sandlot
Final touches on another structure made from wood pallets 

Sand, grass and the temporary promenade 

A promenade bench found already the first sunbather 

In the background the yellow shipping containers and a
food terrace made from pallets

the terrace is even accessible via a pallet ramp

Who doesn't like the sand can lounge on pallets.

The completed and occupied Exelon Tower

Paris Plages

Friday, May 26, 2017

Why downtown traffic is such a mess

Sometimes all of downtown seems to be locked up and it is no go in all directions. What's the matter Baltimore? Griping about traffic is a common urban past-time, not only in Baltimore. But if the city wants to grow it has to do better. The solutions are often the opposite of what people think.

I observe gridlock mostly from my bike having given up to do any shorter trips by car because of the impossibility of gauging how long they would take and because driving downtown should be an exception anyway. Some days the mess is just indescribable and it doesn't even have to be a game day. The mess is frustrating not just for drivers.
Downtown gridlock has been around for a long time

The main cause is, of course, too many cars, which in part is a transportation planning problem resulting from too many parking garages, too little transit, unattractive or disconnected sidewalks, too few bike lanes, and chaotic disorganized deliveries.

The other part is poor traffic management. Increasing capacity for cars is not the answer, better management, can be, offering other options than driving certainly is.

Bad management starts with a complete lack of parking guidance. No indication where the garages are, let alone where open spaces are. Guiding drivers to available parking can reduce traffic volume by 30%. Lack of guidance also requires to provide more spaces to meet the haphazard demand, an added inefficiency.
Dynamic parking guide systems have
been around in Europe for decades

Incentives to park at the periphery of downtown with information how to catch a Circulator ride from there are sorely needed. Nowhere is there any such information. Instead everybody is guided from I-95 straight to the destinations where parking can't be always had. The worst chaos ensues when suburbanites afraid of downtown driving come to a popular Arena event and received absolutely no guidance where to park or even how to get there. No stranger can know that going up MLK and park in one of the garages on the Westside could alleviate the nerve-wrecking trip down Pratt Street to get to the waterfront garage on Pier Six or to Harbor East. Pratt Street and Lombard Streets have become choked most hours of the day, providing unattractive barriers for visitors who wouldn't expect anything attractive north of that pair of streets.

Much downtown traffic is for parking
Then there are the signals. For the most part they work fine but once in a while they jump out of sync or sometimes they creep out of the "green wave" because they follow individual timers, I hear. Most of them have very long cycles in order to increase intersection capacity. But the long cycles also motivate drivers to go through on an early red or drive into a crosswalk or intersection when they can clear it. The frantically whistling downtown traffic helpers in their green vests dispatched by City DOT usually make things only worse. They are not empowered to write tickets to those blow-heads who always block the intersection or crosswalk or speed through red lights. Their constant whistling raises everybody's blood pressure without helping much at all. DOT should give these folks enforcement powers including moving violations.
Bus caught because of a blocked inter
section (Photo: Philipsen)

When taking the evening bus from work I can observe how terribly those intersection blockers affect the transit schedule. Creeping up Paca Street towards the intersection with Saratoga, some buses sit in the queue for more than three light cycles before they can pull up to the busy stop just north of the intersection. Apparently east-west traffic gets priority even in the evening rush-hour when northbound traffic on Paca is very strong. But there is never one of these traffic whistlers in sight where transit needs it, nor is MTA police available to aid the buses to get moving.

In spite of all the hurry to get nowhere fast, those phone wielding motorists who can never get enough screen time, miss precious seconds when they finally get green because they are not paying any attention to their surroundings. This significantly reduces the capacity of how many vehicles one green phase can clear. Then there are the morons who turn from the center-lanes instead of using the curb-lanes and this way cut off others. Those also tend to think that pedestrians have to yield to them and not the other way round. Although talking about police enforcement these days when the murder rate is sky-high seems frivolous, the total absence of obedience of traffic laws must have an overall impact adding to a general sense of lawlessness.

Did I mention that bicycling through the mess isn't the fun one would think it is if there are no bike lanes on most streets and the motorists (including bus operators) continue to think that blowing the horn is the best way to make their presence known behind a bicyclist, apparently blissfully unaware how startling and dangerous that can be. And then there are the equally disrespectful drivers who squeeze by in the same lane assuming that the three foot passing rule doesn't apply to them, or with their eyes on their phone, not even noticing the bicyclist at all.
Biking without protections remains typical in Baltimore

Sometimes the remedy to endless back-ups would be technical. For example, on southbound Eutaw Street traffic often backs up several blocks north of the Lexington Market because everyone wants to park on that small surface lot next to the market and waits in front of the closed gate until someone leaves and it opens again for one car. Meanwhile these cars block the single traffic lane and all the buses going south. To avoid this, the lot entrance on Eutaw should be closed and made an exit only with the entry from Paca Street.

But more often the solution has to do with policy. More bike and bus-lanes and more respect for pedestrians go counter to knee-jerk solutions to gridlock which always think of added capacity. But one cannot advocate for luring more cars to drive around downtown. To the contrary. DC's improvements in transit, bike-lanes and walk safety as well as tons of live-near-your-work development has resulted in a rapidly growing city with hardly increasing car traffic (Vehicle miles traveled or VMT).

Some solutions like shorter signal phases seem counter-intuitive but may be effective if they lead to better behavior. Allowing parking along most streets even during rush hour would reduce road speeds and protect pedestrians while helping retail to stay alive. Additional bus and bike lanes allow other and faster options for downtown travel. Maybe taxis with passengers should be allowed in the bus lanes as well.
Give these folks enforcement powers

As a city, Baltimore can't prosper if mobility is severely restricted for all modes of transport being stuck. That isn't fair, it is economically suicidal,  isn't good for transit, not good for deliveries, visitors and it can be life threatening when emergency vehicles are caught in the mess.

The Mayor is expected to announce a new DOT Director shortly. It is time that DOT gives mobility in downtown a new direction. Dusting off those speed and red-light cameras is a good start, but much more remains needed.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The 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, May 25, 2017

A $10 billion silver bullet for Baltimore?

Once in a while a developer comes to town and presents a silver bullet to solve all of Baltimore's woes. Says its easy, "bulletproof", that the City is a "blank canvas" or simply wonders why the hell nobody in this City hasn't figured it out yet.

The latest arrival is Virginia developer Kahan Dhillon who makes the rounds selling a plan that he dubbed "The Baltimore Renaissance", a moniker that had been taken by William Don in the 1980s, but I am not sure Dhillon has researched Baltimore that far back or he wouldn't call it a "blank canvas". This isn't the first time that real estate folks who are used to "the art of the deal" think that things are simple until they find out they are not.
Kahan Dhillon, (Linked-In)

When Virginia developer David Hillman (74) with his Southern Management came to town in 1994 and renovated Charles Tower and the Gallery Towers. he was so emboldened by the success that he mused aloud about Baltimore lacking enough confidence to see its own opportunities. In short order he went to buy and rehab also the old Hechts Department store, the old Standard Oil building on St Paul Street and the old BGE headquarters on Liberty Street.
"It's capitalism. People like me are driven by greed. If there's a profit in projects like this, then people like me will do it."  (David Hillman, SUN 5/2/2000)
Today Hillman is not so bullish on Baltimore anymore, maybe rather jaded thanks to the arduous journey of the Westside where his investments sit alongside stalled projects that make life tough for him and his tenants.
Unfair: Hillman letter to Rawlings Blake, May 2012
David Murdock in 2015

One of the neighbors at the Atrium (the former Hechts building) belonged until recently to Los Angeles real estate mogul and pineapple czar (Dole) David Murdock (94) who also once was very bullish on Baltimore and left a big footprint during the Schaefer Renaissance. He was also clear about a competitor. He told Forbes in 1997:
"I won't tell lies, I’m not Donald Trump. He says he’s got a billion dollars when he’s got two dollars.”
Murdock who converted an entire Hawaii island from pineapple plantation to tourism brought Baltimore the Harbor Court Hotel (which he sold in 2006) and spent money on the Lexington Market extension spanning over Lexington Street which is now slated for demolition. His One Market Center Office building was the result of an agreement between Murdock and the City's Market Center Development Corporation which committed him to more than $100 million worth of development over a decade: construction of apartments and offices, renovation of two department stores and creation of retail shops. The Washington Post quoted the  head of the Market Center Development Corporation gushing about the 1982 deal:
No other developer was willing to take on this massive project because it runs against the flow of Baltimore's economic resurgence, which is concentrated around the Inner Harbor area. Murdock stepped in because he "saw something nobody else wanted, and he could get it cheaply, We had maybe 150 prospective developers in here, but nobody wanted to do it because they thought the area would never come back. We were beating our brains out. Murdock is a man of vision. He saw what we see."  C. William Pacy, president of the city-sponsored Market Center Development Corp.
It isn't just cynicism to recall these earlier deals that went sour, it is rather a sober reminder that a big city (not to mention a big country) ticks differently than private company billionaires think.
1992 Brochure 1992:
"The Renaissance Continues"

Back to Mr. Dhillon and his big plans as reported in a recent BBJ article, outlined on his website and told to varies people in Baltimore he considers influential enough to help him to get attention. So far he hasn't reached the Mayor yet. 
"The plan creates a spring board that will catapult Baltimore into a 'Revitalization Spring' and produce historical record setting outcomes that will be felt in the city for many generations to come," The plan, along with its comprehensive, engaging community collaboration, its carefully crafted site and developmental financial plans, and assistance with the selection of development plans and their execution, will transform Baltimore into a national and international turnaround story of monumental historic proportions." (website)
 "This plan is bulletproof" the managing partner of the Virginia based Regent Co. LLC (a four-person real estate company without a website which Dhillon founded in 2013) told the BBJ. His statement is a sign of unmitigated hubris with which we have become all too familiar alongside the total lack of detail how the plan is supposed to work.

Dillhon envisions a $10 billion redevelopment with 70 redevelopment clusters ("feeder systems") throughout all council districts that eventually are supposed to grow together to form the big picture Dillhon envisions on the "blank canvas" ignoring two centuries of history and 620,000 residents.
This is not how real development projects work. Real developments are based upon specific sites, identified opportunities, and coherent business models. This is a fishing expedition.(Brad Rogers, Placemaking consultant in a comment on FB) 
Dhillon brags on his Linked-In site that his Baltimore plan will "for the 1st time in the modern History of Baltimore City, create a Historic Comprehensive Collaborative Consensus Based Citywide Revitalization plan". Dhillon holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and in political science from the catholic Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

His TBR organization says about itself: "The Baltimore Renaissance (TBR) is a Community Impact Organization committed to bringing parity to the disparity throughout the Greater Baltimore area, while advancing and enhancing the area as a whole. The Baltimore Renaissance focus areas of impact are, but not limited to, the following: Affordable/Workforce Housing, Economic Development, Education, Environment, Non-Profits, Public Policy, Public Safety, Revitalization, Transportation, and more."
"I met with the guy. He wants the city to essentially give him all of its publicly owned property and then other developers will develop it and he will take a fee. I did not believe the project to be credible although I think the gentleman means well" (Joshua Greenfeld, Vice President Government Affairs at Maryland Building Industry Association on FB) 
As I have stated many times in these columns, there is principally no reason why Baltimore shouldn't be able to capture between 10-20% of the region's growth and build the city back by filling its many vacant houses with the currently prevailing smaller households of singles or non traditional families. Much fewer residents can fill the city back up than the city lost in the last 50 years. It is also correct, that only fairly comprehensive approaches can accomplish that and that even large projects of the past were insufficiently shored up by such coordinated comprehensive strategies. But it is also blatantly obvious that a comprehensive strategy requires much more than bricks and mortar and entails more than real estate or "deal making", whether all private, public-private or fully public. Any large scale undertaking requires massive amounts of up-front capital. The Port Covington project recently demonstrated that even a well heeled and growing company cannot do this without public support. It doesn't appear that Dhillon has significant assets or income from his real estate company. Whatever he would want to start would immediately depend on others, public subsidies, tax increments, bonds or whatever resources he could garner.
Sean Closkey in Oliver (SUN photo, Kim Hairston

The Mayor is considering the creation of a reinvestment fund and agency that would pool grants, assets and resources that were previously deployed by Baltimore Housing and also by BDC.

What Baltimore needs is the strategic deployment of scarce capital in the manner which TRF has demonstrated in Oliver and in Barclay by investing "patient" capital, a strategy also used by the Philadelphia based Reinvestment Fund with an office in Baltimore. RF has helped fund the Parkway Theater and the Centre Theater renovation. TRF's investment strategy in blighted areas works from the edges to the center of an area that also needs a "backstop" in form of other investments or areas of stability (such as EBDI or the Hopkins campus). TRF's investments included rehabilitation, new construction, rental and homeownership and a mix of affordable and market rate housing. The idea of growing investements until they are seamless is essentially sound.

Baltimore seems to be, indeed, ripe for the deployment of "patient" capital. With enough resources such a strategy could be used in several areas at once and it is conceivable that the broad approach itself could create additional demand fueled by success (a virtuous cycle). The critical question regarding Dhillon's plan remains: Where do the initial investments come from? On that our man with the "bullet proof plan" has little to show so far, not even a proof of concept project, let alone a pineapple plantation or food company.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

An entertaining Facebook discussion trail about the Renaissance Plan can be found here

The 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. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How to make robots, drones and FedEx trucks part of Complete Streets

JJust as the military is always fighting the last war, complete street legislation tends to manage the past while the future is already here.

New councilman Ryan Dorsey recognizes that legislation is a slow affair, even in the City Council: committee deliberation, three readers in the full council, law department review, inscrutable language, the whole bit.

For his Complete Streets legislation Dorsey concluded that design guidelines shouldn't be part of the bill itself so adjustments could go through a simpler process. But the meat of any Complete Street policy is not in the bill but in the design manual.

It assigns certain design templates to a typology of streets which varies from city to city. Eastern legacy cities have much narrower cart-ways than their western peers. This, of course, makes the accommodation of everything that Complete Streets policies want to accommodate so much trickier in those denser conditions.

Every inch of space is already assigned to something: Curb and gutter, stormdrains, sidewalks with lightpoles, fire-hydrants, ADA required unobstructed passageways and curb ramps, outdoor seating, vending carts, tree-pits, bio-swales, parking kiosks are only the first layer. The space between the curbs is even more embattled: Next to the sidewalk parking lanes, bike lanes, loading zones, valet parking, taxi stands, Zip-Car parking, bike-sharing corrals, bus stops, food trucks, regular parking, handicap parking, bus lanes, turn-lanes compete for precious space. Finally, there are the through lanes, medians, safety islands, bollards and planters; all that before trash has to be collected, snow must be stored or a fire truck has to pass, an ambulance to load, a tow truck to tow or a utility line to be dug up.

USPS: More than letters
A new international street design guide published last week by NACTO tries to make sense of it all.

“Streets are the foundation of a city’s entire social structure—getting around, working, living, shopping, and playing. With the guide, cities have, for the first time, a universal resource for creating cities that operate for everyone who uses them.” – Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá.

But even that extensive litany is so yesterday: Add Uber pick-up zones, delivery robots, UPS and FedEx trolleys, drone landing areas and now mini-robots cruising along sidewalks to deliver pizza. None of that is futuristic, all of it happens already somewhere, chiefly in San Francisco.
Delivery by drone

Delivery by robotic sidewalk truck
While complete streets are an outflow of a rather romantic notion of the walkable city with street-cafes and beautiful storefront displays where people do their shopping on foot, an ever larger number of residents are clicking away on their sofas ordering everything from pizza to organic food, books, dresses, copy paper and furniture setting off an armada of trucks, vans and bikes  for lightning speed delivery. All this stuff gets driven through city streets before showing up at the door-step. The situations that ensue in the process are far from romantic.

Baltimore is in full distribution of road-space mode: Link adds more bus-lanes which are shared with bikes and turning traffic. Then there are the protected bike lanes which move parking away from the curb into the street and confuse traditional perceptions where what is, resulting in turning cars sometimes lining up behind parked cars confusing them for a traffic queue. Valet spaces are carved out and Zip-car corrals.

The specter of this new space assignment raises considerable concerns from the logistics folks who dispatch their fleets of all sizes from the 55' tractor trailer rigs to unload Frito-Lays for the local 7-11, to the funny looking postal trucks who preferably park in the end-zone of a bus stops, to the endless variety of white, yellow and brown vans that descend on every downtown from coast to coast like never ending locust. Needless to say, there just isn't the space for it all and so most of the loading and unloading happens outside the law and beyond what roadway designers and complete street manuals had in mind.
Delivery by cargo bike

If Baltimoreans haven't seen the robotic six-wheel beer coolers yet, it is because we are not as hip as DC or San Francisco where those innovations have already brought legislators into position ready to strike back.

The disrupters  have it all mapped out, the cool data-driven smart city in which convenience reigns supreme and any online order is only minutes away. The drone, the robotic mini-truck or the electric cargo bike are only the logical extensions and represent the current frontier. Next up: The self driving car circulating for potential passengers, for a parking space or on its way to deliver pizza may be next. The hipsters may jubilate about all the innovation, but one doesn't have to be a pessimist to get the sense that a veritable nightmare could be in the making compared to which the old car friendly city was outright quaint.

Contrary to what libertarians say, governmental oversight and regulation is what is needed, even if it is slow and tends to fight the wars from yesteryear. Some innovative ideas may have to be interspersed. Some may have to be invented: Demand-based bus lanes that give cars a chance to clear a bus lane 60 seconds ahead of a nearing bus, electronically booked and reserved delivery spaces, sidewalks with delivery lanes, for example, others exist already such as congestion tolls. Councilman Dorsey's complete street bill starts with step 1: higher fines for parking in bike lanes. It better addresses all the electrified high tech toys such as Hover Boards, Segways and robotic mini trucks before they make life in the walk-lane hell on wheels.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Message by robot

Fresh food by robotic delivery
Plenty of conflicts with the space assignment
UPS e-bike solution

trolley use by UPS: "Last 1/4 mile" issues

The 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. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Demolition going astray

Sometimes Reagan's infamous taunt about being from the government and here to help you as the most terrifying words you can hear rings true as in Sunday's demolition on Fort Avenue that resulted in a double calamity.
unplanned demolition in historic South Baltimore

Even without close inspection of the rowhouse under rehabilitation that the City condemned and demolished over the weekend because of  a bowing front wall, full demolition seems like an extreme measure to take even before one knows that the demolition destroyed the adjacent building as well. Bowing front walls are very common since they are not held by much else than the roof rafters. But that also means that they are not important for the support of the rowhouse floors which span from side to side. A bowing front wall can usually be tied back to the nearest floor joist with so-called star-bolts that one can frequently see on Baltimore rowhouses demarking the floor levels on the facade. Even a bowing side wall can be shored up from the outside with temporary bracing. Both 212 and 214 Fort Avenue were vacant buildings planned for or already under renovation. It isn't obvious how the vacant structure presented such an imminent danger to life and health of neighbors that even police was stationed there overnight.
The buildings before demolition

one floor is already down
The demolition mishap brings Baltimore's the demolition derby to a relatively affluent area in South Baltimore located between Federal Hill and Locust Point which is rapidly gentrifying. Fort Avenue is not a street with plenty of boarded up structures and it has a fairly solidly historic street front on both sides.
The moment when the the second house falls

Taking down the historic storefront corner building is a bad idea all around, taking down two buildings even more. It isn't clear how city inspectors assess risk in these cases. While they saw imminent danger on Fort Avenue, the much taller former nightclub on North Eutaw Street which was heavily damaged by an enormous fire earlier this year stood for weeks afterwards completely unprotected even though its entire cornice area was precariously un-braced after the roof and top floor had collapsed and various parts of the front could have easily have come crashing down on the busy sidewalk and street.

Demolition of vacant buildings has been going for decades. It was once before in high gear when Dan Henson was Housing Commissioner and HABC bought its own demolition equipment. The frenzy then received a damper when a weekend demo took accidentally down the dividing wall to the adjacent house as well exposing a unsuspecting residents sitting on his sofa in the living room. Nobody was injured.

Today, Housing contracts demolition out again and K&K Adams was the demolition contractor at work on Fort Avenue. But the eagerness to demolish has reached new heights with extra money coming from the State through project CORE.
[...] one of Baltimore’s best resources are these old row houses and tearing them down is a big opportunity cost that can never be replaced.  That’s why we have historic districts and why historic districts are valued today. (David Alpert, Greater, Greater Washington)
This building with a heavily damaged cornice
stands since January, initially even without a
The mishap on Fort Avenue is as unusual as demolition in gentrifying areas where the historic charm is a mayor factor in successful sales. However, as I stated in these columns many times before, even disinvested areas have a much better chance of being rehabilitated than of being rebuilt from scratch after massive demolition. In an area with a weak or absent market, nothing would sell bland low end new construction except huge subsidies. There will never be enough money do to that on a grand scale. Turning an area around aiming for market-based investment requires maintaining the historic and cultural character of the area.

Federal Hill, Fells Point, Ridgely's Delight, Highlandtown and Remington have become hugely successful even far away from the waterfront because they had a large contiguous stock of old rowhouses which, once rehabilitated can easily cater to modern lifestyles. Large scale demolition in a neighborhood is really akin to writing it off for good.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN article
Video of the demolition

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 a discount and free shipping.