Friday, May 12, 2017

Why Cold Spring New Town never took off

On the 50th birthday of the Habitat "hill-housing" in Montreal designed for the World Expo of 1967 it is time to recall that Moshe Safdie, the architect who designed  Habitat at age 23, also made a mark in Baltimore with his widely unknown Coldspring New Town. Conceived only about 10 years later, Baltimore's project had all the ingredients to become even more known than Habitat.
The Coldspring deck house concept (Moshe Safdie)

Coldspring New Town was Baltimore's first big response to the beginning population loss. It was also a response to the 1968 unrest and an attempt to find a solution to a global housing crisis, an attempt of economic and racial integration, not unlike Jim Rouse's Columbia. albeit from the perspective of a young and ambitious architect. The "new town" was supposed to be not only racially and economically diverse, but was intended to be mixed-use, walkable and to include beautiful parks. The whole project was conceived to "put Baltimore on the map". What happened?


The reasons why Cold Spring didn't realize the full vision has several reasons: The architecture itself, national political shifts and lack of broad support in Baltimore.

As far as the architecture: Even in 1978 the Washington Post called both Safdie housing experiments "beautiful, but a stunt". Like concept cars that never see production. Today, while having some detractors, the new town of Columbia is seen by most as a success. Coldspring? Not so much! In 1994 the SUN titled a story about the project "Coldspring - a dream goes unfulfilled".

Not that the Coldspring experiment was small: it was planned on 370 acres of lush and rolling land right inside the City lines, Like suburban Columbia it was to include lakes, parks and trails. It was conceived for 12,400 residents. Coldspring had local supporters as well. In fact, it had been conceived by then Housing Commissioner Bob Embry who had brought Safdie to Baltimore. Embry believes to this day that Baltimore is lacking architectural courage. Jay Brodie, an architect,  who followed Embry in being Housing Commissioner and much later would lead BDC, would even move to Coldspring. But the concept was nevertheless pretty much a "top down" exercise, mostly loved by architects. (The second batch of 60 houses had six architects move in, according to the WP).

The concept was really good. Coldspring was supposed to be Baltimore's answer to the draw of the suburbs, with 25 units per acre even the initial "deckhouses" (townhouses on a parking deck and covered access road)  was much denser than single family or even townhouse developments. A 20 story highrise was planned for the bottom of a steep embankment leaning against the rock and concealing its height. The young architect, like many others in that time, believed that concrete was an excellent material for construction and that modular production could be brought to scale and would result in the economy of scale that would
Legend to the masterplan: Mixed use and parks
make units affordable to build. This belief has vanquished. Today public sentiment usually abhors concrete (especially if it remains exposed as in Coldspring and Habitat) and whatever economy of scale modular construction would yield is mostly used for "trailer homes". It was possibly this flawed idea of the module as the building block for the new town that did it in. The buildings turned out to be difficult to construct for trades not used to residential concrete construction, costly, and fraught with some problems in the execution. (Leaks brought a widely published $2million settlement with Safdie). Columbia, by contrast, while using modern California style architecture, was constructed in a more conventional manner.
Moshe Safdie's Coldspring in Baltimore is a fresh - a refreshingly fresh - approach to better housing at lower cost in economically, racially and ecologically balanced communities. (Washington Post, July 29, 1978)
That only 252 units get actually built with a few foundations for phase two that remained ruins and that Coldspring never reached enough size to truly stand the test of time was also the result of the high cost of the modules being paired with a paradigm shift in federal policies. Federal largesse towards cities subsided when  "Operation Breakthrough" which was to bring cheaper, mass-produced housing stopped, Nixon declared a moratorium on housing subsidies and the federal "New Communities Program" went bankrupt. Without the big bucks from Washington and without a driver like Jim Rouse that would push the project through in spite of difficulties it just died off.
Cold Spring deck houses (Photo: Mid-Century MD)

The Coldspring dream officially came to an end in 1994 when the City Council revised the Coldspring Urban Renewal Plan and Moshdie's  lakes, stores, offices, conference center and a health care center were scrapped for good. Today traditional townhomes abut the modern Safdie homes, there is the Waldorf School and a new apartment building is rising south of Coldpring Lane. But the grand promise of the original vision, indeed, remains unfulfilled.
Cold Spring deck houses (Photo: Mid-Century MD)
To get first-hand background on the project I asked Baltimore architect Ed Hord, who at the time had worked for Safdie about his recollections and take on the project: 

CA:  Coldspring New Town, an architectural gem hidden away and unknown to many Baltimoreans was also an early attempt of putting the suburbs into Baltimore. The "village" did never got fully built out as originally envisioned and later additions don't have the creative approach of the Safdie design. How do you evaluate the project looking back from now
a. as a tool to attract residents? 
b. as a creative form of architecture that Baltimore had never seen before or since 
c. The attempt of attracting residents via a suburban pattern continues to this day with developments like the Uplands or Orchard Ridge. 

What do you think about those and what would Safdie do? 

Coldspring was envisioned as a relatively dense mixed-use community located on steeply sloping, wooded land between I83 and Greenspring Ave. and between Coldspring Lane and the Cylburn Arboretum.  Housing types included “Deck Houses”, “Cluster Houses” and high-rises.  Development was focused on the less steeply sloping areas of the site, with the Deck Houses on the flatter areas and the Cluster Houses on the steeper areas.  High Rises were planned for the ridges and within the cliffs surrounding the abandoned quarry. Very steep areas, which make up over half of the site, were deemed too difficult to develop and were left as open space.  The plan integrated schools, offices and retail components in order to make it a much denser version of the Village of Cross Keys across the Jones Fall Expressway.  The community was seen as pedestrian friendly with pedestrian ways that connected the entire site and that were separated from vehicles.
Cold Spring Deckhouses

The Deck Houses are basically town houses and stacked town houses surrounding Pedestrian Decks with a few homes that spanned over the Decks (Bridge Houses).  These Decks cover parking which is located at the lower door of the houses. Openings in the Decks provided light and ventilation for the parking below. One end of each of the Decks provided vehicular access to the parking areas.  The other end of the Deck was flush with grade to provide pedestrian access to other decks and the pedestrian network.  Bridges provided pedestrian access across streets to other Decks forming a pedestrian network that interconnected the entire complex.  Cluster Houses were pairs of walk-up apartment buildings designed to take advantage of the steeper slopes. Each Cluster House stepped down the slope to provide for views from the upper building over the lower building and still connect the buildings. 

Every house or apartment had a private exterior private space.  Moshe did a book a few years after the first phases of Coldspring was completed called “For Everyone a Garden” which elaborated on his premise that all houses and apartments should have a garden or private outside space – like Habitat
Moshdie Habitat development

One of the main issues with the plan was that it relied on a large subsidy in order to make the houses affordable and attractive to potential residents.  Basically the city paid for the Decks over the parking and between the Deck houses and the resident only had to pay for the houses themselves. A city losing tax base, as Baltimore was at the time, had a hard time justifying subsidizing middle class families even if it did attract a number of tax paying middle class families back to Baltimore. 

I would not call Coldspring, as originally designed, suburban in the traditional sense.  Yes, there is a lot of unbuildable, open, steeply sloping, green spaces, but the areas that are built are much denser than one would see in a normal town house or apartment community such as the Uplands.  There is almost no surface parking which ups the density greatly. That structured parking came at a cost which, in the end, kept it from being completed.

2.You worked for Safdie at the time when he worked on Coldspring. Tell us how you came to Safdie's office? 
When I was in school at Washington University in St. Louis, Safdie gave a lecture at our school.  Afterwards we talked and discussed a tensile membrane roof structure project that a group of us students had designed for the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC (later built in 1972) for an exhibit of Frei Otto’s work. We also discussed my master’s thesis project at the time which was a high-rise, three dimensional cable network building system for a large tract in Clayton, MO.  After I graduated I kept in touch with him and three years later, 1973,he offered me a job in Montreal.  At the time His office comprised about 15 people including 3 model makers.  Moshe has always been very interested in 3-D manipulation of objects in space which requires models to properly study, understand and communicate the intent of the design to clients and the public.   In 1976 after three years and two baby girls we moved back to Baltimore to observe the Coldspring construction for Safdie on a part time basis and started an office which later combined with Lee Coplan and Carol Macht in 1977 to form Hord Coplan Macht. 
C.A.:The Coldspring townhomes with their covered parking and pedestrian walkways have a very European touch. Did you work with Safdie on similar housing elsewhere in the US? Is there any connection to the Habitat homes?
Cold Spring deck houses
(Photo: Mid-Century MD)

Since the early 2000’s (30 years later) HCM has been doing a lot of housing that puts retail and parking below a concrete “podium” with 4 to 5-stories of wood framed apartments above the podium. This is known as “podium construction in the housing world. Although not the same as a Moshe’s Deck Houses, it is a new take on the 4 to 5-story wood frame apartment. Tucking the parking under the apartments rather than using lots of land for surface parking, brings the potential of a much higher density to a site much as Moshe’s Deck Houses brought a much higher density to a site by not using land for surface parking. 
Yes there is a connection to Habitat.  Balconies were always on the unit below or on the ground – they never projected from the building.  This gives a larger “garden” or outside space and one that feels grounded and more part of the building – a similar concept that was one of the drivers of the design of Habitat. “For Everyone a Garden”
C.A.: How was it to work with Safdie? What were his thoughts about Baltimore at the time? If you are still in contact, what are they now?  

Working for Safdie was a very exciting time.  At the time the office was around 15 people.  Many of his associates had worked on Habitat 6 years before and were a very dedicated and talented group.  Moshe spent a good deal of time traveling around the globe and brought back projects from such places as Iran, Israel and Senegal.  On one trip, returning from Israel, Moshe left his briefcase with his sketch books that he used on flights in the departure lounge.  Upon arriving in Montreal, he called Israel to find that his briefcase had been destroyed due to the fact that it was an untended bag.    
Cold Spring phase 1 houses

He was very excited to be working with Baltimore.  Bob Embry brought him to Baltimore for the master planning of the Coldspring project and he continued to work with Jay Brodie for the implementation of the first phases.  We have stayed in touch over the years.  A few years ago we teamed with Moshe’s office for the design competition for the U of B law school.  Several years ago I talked to him and his family after receiving the Gold Medal at the AIA convention.

Safdie's Baltimore townhomes have many critics that keep talking about leaky roofs. What can you say about how those homes performed and held up over time?
Yes the buildings initially had water intrusion issues.  But it wasn’t roofing that was the culprit.  It turned out that the window sill flashings were installed improperly and that fact contributed to a majority of the leak issues.  After the initial issues were addressed the buildings performed well.  Over time the buildings have held up well.  The community looks great. The trees and landscape have matured and have been well-maintained. The striated block has weathered well.  The community is 40 years old and many components are past their expected life. Flat roofing is generally good for 20 years. Heating and air conditioning systems are good for 15 or so years.  Insulated glass has a life expectancy.  So maintenance has been required over the years.
Is your work at the helm of Baltimore's largest architecture firm still informed in any way by Safdie and if so, how? 
Creativity and design remain an important driver of our firm along with a desire to maintain a family-friendly organization that values the balance of the demands of work and family. We care deeply about our projects, our associates, our clients and our community.  We want to bring a feeling of delight to them all.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

NYT: Growing up in a Concrete Masterpiece
Coldspring New Town 1978: Washington Post
Coldspring New Town: Moshe Safdie

The newly published 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. 

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