Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Who cares about Pimlico?

Annually the debate about the future of Pimlico shifts into high gear when the first race horses arrive in Baltimore. Every year the prospects seem to become more dire. This has been going on since at least 1958 when interest in moving the event to Laurel was first recorded. There is even a State law to prohibit such a move. Everybody has an opinion about Pimlico and most provide lip service to history and tradition by saying they don't want the race of the Triple Crown to leave Baltimore.

But few want to back this desire up with the dollars it would take to do so. Governor Hogan hinted Tuesday that there may be State money, in what seemed destined as a move to keep the matter on the table. Ultimately State funds require enough votes and they are hard to come by when it comes to Pimlico.
Pimlico on the northeastern edge of Park Heights. Areas of strength are labeled. (2011, Park Heights Renaissance)

First, because Maryland would still keep the coveted race even if race course owner Stronach would be permitted to move it to suburban Laurel where just about everything seems to be easier. Legislators from outside Baltimore could easily see that as a no-brainer option. Second, and more importantly, Baltimore has failed to make a compelling case why the race should stay in the City and how that could be done. In other words: There is no City plan, no common platform and no consensus strategy.
Pimlico from the air (SUN photo)

Stronach doesn't mince their words: They don't like that the race course is surrounded by disinvested communities characterized by abandonment, liquor stores and a high crime rate. "When it gets too dark, we are getting everybody out of there" they are quoted in the SUN. On the other side many community activists shrug their shoulders about the race-course. It hasn't helped Park Heights before, why would it now?
Photo of a suggested tree lined linear park and trail around
the whole facility (MSA Report)

Activists and the City have attempted to improve Park Heights for years. Otis Rolley as planning director made it his top priority. But to date there is only a smattering of investments, in part fueled by casino revenue money devoted to the community, an overall concept and implementation strategy isn't obvious. So far improvements seem to be opportunity-driven and not following a strategy of consistently building from existing assets such as the race course, the metro stations or Druid Park,  even though Park Heights Renaissance under the leadership of Cheo Hurley is trying to change that.

In perfect timing Stronach upped the ante the other day right before the races: They added a cool $200 million to an estimate by the Maryland Stadium Authority released in February of up to $321 million needed to bring the facility up to standard. The City did not take a position on the menu of choices provided by MSA in their fairly comprehensive study that also includes considerations of community improvements. The City also take a clear stand relative to the race course owners.

A 2008 City masterplanfor Park Heights avoided a clear position as well and shows an option with and without a racecourse. Baltimore's new Mayor has  even toyed with relocation herself as the SUN reported in April, although she meant inside Baltimore without saying where to.
Berlin's abandoned Tempelhof airport became a giant
community playground. Would it work in Park Heights?

With so much uncertainty and ambiguity, the prescribed default would be that the race will eventually wind up in Laurel. That wouldn't be a problem per-se, if the City had a clear concept how the 140 acres in Park Heights could be used better, but no such plan is in sight and it isn't likely to emerge. Space is the last thing that is lacking in Park Heights. Even now Housing is desperately looking for someone to develop 49 acres of land they helped clear for redevelopment for which there is no demand.
65 acres in the heart of Park Heights in search of redevelopment

Clearly, a different, innovative and a decisive new approach is needed that addresses community needs and race needs at the same time in a win-win manner with community, City, State and race owners at the same table.

The same size Churchill Downs in Louisville may provide some hints what can be done: Although their facility dates back to 1875 and Kentucky is a much poorer State than Maryland, Churchill Downs was upgraded starting as far back as 1984 culminating in a 2001-2005 program that cost $121 million. In 2016 Churchill Downs introduced a new technology platform and mobile app. Most of the improvements over the years seem to have been funded by the corporate owners themselves. There are attractions such as a museum and an IMAX theater which are open year-round and help brand the city and the State around horses as a theme.

With Maryland's strong history on horse breeding, horse farms and races, there is no reason why Pimlico with added uses couldn't be a year-round attraction that can draw visitors to stray beyond the Inner Harbor even on non-race days as a destination for concerts, festivals, dining, shopping, public events and other activities. (A facility of that sort is envisioned for Atlanta). There is no reason why Pimlico couldn't be an urban horse park that isn't fenced off but provides a soft and open edge, similar to what the MSA report suggests with its hiking, biking walking greenway all around the property.
Atlanta vision (Georgia Horse Racing, Populous)
The Greenspring Valley horse farms are not far away after all and could be part of a program. There is no reason why the excessive empty surface parking deserts couldn't be converted into active and greener spaces with shuttle services provided for the one day a year when 135,000 visitors arrive. There isn't a reason why the State and the City couldn't demand that Stronach plans more events throughout the year in return for the money that the private corporation gets from casino revenues. There is no reason why much needed services and sit-down restaurants couldn't be located around the race-course, serve the community and provide venues for visitors to plan a day of activities there and spend more money in a way that benefits the community.

No one entity can afford the full cost of fixing Pimlico or Park Heights. But considering how much the interests of community, stakeholders, race owners, City and State actually overlap, it is time to come together around a bold, integrated and innovative 10 year plan that makes Pimlico part of Park Heights and Park Heights part of Pimlico.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Previous articles about Pimlico and Park Heights on this blog:

Is Pimlico worth saving?
Park Heights: 64 vacant acres still waiting


The book, Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City is my take on the post industrial American city and Baltimore after the unrest. 
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