Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"All Monuments Must Fall"

In 1980 Howard Zinn wrote The People's History of the United States. It was a seminal attempt of telling history from the perspective of the people and not from the prevailing perspective of the rulers and their wars. It was a radical departure from traditional history and it took a deep bite out of the official image of the US as an exceptional nation. According to Zinn American history is to a large extent the exploitation of the majority by an elite minority, something one could easily say about just any other nation as well (audio of Zinn). Still, in 2017 powerful forces are at work at a revisionist view to "restore" the "glory" and the old way of telling history. Confederate monuments and monuments in general have become a lightning rod for the different ways of seeing history. There seems to be little middle ground.
People  as heroes
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. (Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train)
Just when everybody thought that Baltimore had solved its monument crisis, rather late but elegantly, the debate came right back. First by people trying to expand the questions to Christopher Columbus statues and other monuments and then with a bang when the Maryland Historic Trust (MHT), a State agency, determined that Baltimore City didn't have the authority to remove the monuments in the first place (at least the Confederate ones). Can the perspective of a people's history preclude nuances? Does it allow the many views different regions, countries and cultures have been struggling with for some time, not necessarily with one simple "right" answer?

Is the MHT letter an ideologically charged curve-ball thrown the Republican Governor to the Democratic Mayor, or is there more to it?

The MHT is, indeed, the overseeing agency for historic preservation and has, at other times been a place of hope when local preservation was in the way of powerful developers.
Smashed Columbus Obelisque
text panel

Which gets us to point of "historic value": Things that are over 50 years old can qualify as historic and may deserve protection based on historic value, not necessarily meaning.  The distinction becomes immediately clear when one talks about historic buildings, especially if they are really old and by today's standards considered artful. For example, the "Monument Avenue" in Richmond, full of Confederate monuments (plus one fig-leaf African American sports hero) is also lined by splendid buildings erected by white supremacists and wealthy folks who, no doubt, earned their riches on the backs of slaves or black people in general. While some suggested that all those monuments should come down, denuding Richmond's most famous street, very few people would suggest tearing the buildings down. In reality the whole avenue is a national historic landmark  and per the U.S. Park Service "the nation's only grand residential boulevard with monuments of its scale surviving almost unaltered to present day."

Nobody really suggests tearing down the remainders of the Colosseum in Rome down, even though it was the place of terrible spectacles in which slaves and conquered suppressed people were subjected to horrifying games for no other purpose than demonstrating unmitigated power by the dictators in charge of the Roman empire.

These historic argument is also being made when it comes to the oldest US Columbus statue, the one that was partially smashed in Baltimore near Herring Run park. The obelisk is believed to be the first monument for the explorer in the country and was originally erected in 1792 by Frenchman Chevalier d’Anemours on his own estate located at what is now the intersection of Harford Road and North Avenue where the District Court building now stands. According to SUN records, the monument was moved to its current location  in 1963 and re-dedicated by then Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin. A monument that is 225 years old is pretty old by American standards and certainly deserves to be considered a historic artifact, no matter what opinions one might have about Columbus.

No doubt, the discussion about monuments, their meaning and their impact on today's people is a complex subject, and the historic value is only one aspect among many others. The insight that the prevailing view of history books, museums and monumental expressions in architecture and statues is largely one of white supremacy and western culture is not exactly new. But it has entered the roam of broader consciousness only very recently, especially in the US, which likes to cloak itself in its exceptionalism. Similar debates, though, are raging in other countries as well, even in those who went trough long stages of repentance and ruminations about their own terrible history, such as Germany. The almost complete new Stadt-Schloss in Berlin, a replica of what the East German communists blew up on purpose long after WWII was over, for example, is once again subject to dramatic debate. The exhibits are supposed to go into it next year when the much debated reconstruction is complete. Can artefacts looted in conjunction with imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy be shown in this symbol of "old power"?. That debate there is just as hot as the one here about Columbus, Confederate monuments or the Taney statue.
Waiting for a new use: Taney pedestal Washington Square

A very rich compendium of all possible aspects of these aspects has been crowd sourced and compiled by a Baltimore group including MICA professor George Ciscle. The extensive "syllabus" is titled "All Monuments Must Fall". It is grouped into discussion papers under the following sections (I note always only one representative title, but there are many more):
  • Monumental Theory ("Whose culture is it anyway?"), 
  • Monuments and Nationalism, (“Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form”), 
  • Confederate Monuments, (“Go ahead, topple the monuments. All of them,”), 
  • World Views and Parallels, ("Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong"), 
  • Indigenous Monuments and Memorials, (“Native American Students Fight to Remove Colonial Imagery from University of New Mexico,”), 
  • Queering the Monument, ("“The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution”), 
  • Rhodes​ ​Must​ ​Fall/​ ​Fees​ ​Must​ ​Fall/Decolonize​ ​the​ ​Curriculum:​ ​South​ ​Africa, (“The Fall of Rhodes: The Removal of a Sculpture from the University of Cape Town”),  
  • French​ ​Revolution, (“The Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde”), 
  • Situationism, (“Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography”), 
  • Monumental Histories, (“Lights, Camera, Iconoclasm: How Do Monuments Die and Live to Tell about It?”), ​
  • Monuments​ ​Fall​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Soviet​ ​Bloc, (“Public Monuments in Changing Societies”), 
  • African American Monuments, ("Slavery and Its Memory in Public Monuments"), ​
  • European​ ​and​ ​U.K.​ ​Contexts,  (London’s “Murder Mile” of imperialist statues"), 
  • Central/South​ ​Asian​ ​Contexts, (“The Abuse of History: A Study of the White Papers on Ayodhya,”), ​Middle​ ​Eastern​ ​/​ ​
  • North​ ​African​ ​/​ ​Iraqi​ ​Contexts, (“Egyptian Protesters Destroy Tahrir Square Monument Erected by Interim Government”), ​
  • Artist’s​ ​Projects,​ ​Ephemeral​ ​Memorials,​ ​and​ ​Anti-Memorials (“an ongoing series of contributory audioscapes where social movements started and changed history”).
The Baltimore D-center (D for design) will host a design conversation "Public Monuments - Can Public Monuments Be More Than Symbols of Power?" coming Tuesday at 6:30pm at the Wind-Up Space on North Avenue. Registration and details here
Toppled Lee in Durham

As the role, purpose, and value of public monuments continues to be subject of public dispute, D Center’s November conversation offers a public forum to consider the variety of forces that support or dismember civic monuments. 
Baltimore “monument”debates include memorializing the discovering of New America, representations of the South’s Civil War ambitions, and the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain.
There is a broad net of personal accounts, journalism, academic reports, and syllabi we can draw upon to help us frame this discussion on who are the caretakers of public spaces. 
As the role, purpose, and value of public monuments continues to be debated, D Center’s November conversation offers a public forum to consider the variety of infrastructures that support or dismember civic monuments. 
The monuments of the people: Pennsylvania Avenue
Baltimore “monument”debates include memorializing the discovering of New America, representations of the South’s Civil War ambitions, and the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain.

As food for thought in the monument debate and the current reflections about the role of the US in the world, here another quote by Howard Zinn in which he justified his one-sided view of a People's History   
My history... describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chávez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene V. Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain, who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism
 Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

"Public Monuments - Can Public Monuments Be More Than Symbols of Power?" coming Tuesday at 6:30pm at the Wind-Up Space on North Avenue. Registration and details here.

Monday, October 30, 2017

How can Baltimore become a smart city?

Every city wants to be a smart city but hardly anybody knows what it means. So everyone can create their own definition. There is much money to be made from selling cities something that presumably makes them smart. Local officials, non-profits and citizen activists find themselves between wanting to be smart and a barrage of sales pitches from manufacturers and IT companies that sell solutions before the right questions are asked. The below definition of smart city involves the main pillars: people and equity, access, information technology and sustainable use of resources.

city can be defined as 'smart' when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory action. Caragliu and Nijkamp 2009 (definitions)
Under these criteria few would describe Baltimore as a smart city, neither on the people empowerment, social capital, and equity side, nor on the governance side (effective use of resources). Not because the streetlights aren't controlled by motion sensors or because they don’t have WiFi. Those are simply possible solutions that have strong vendors (lighting manufacturers) who think that the maximum amount of data collected automatically equates smartness, without first asking whom do the data really serve? There is too much that doesn't work right in Baltimore, from schools to traffic signals and from bus transport to crime, health and potholes, for calling the city smart. So much is going wrong that even understanding what the smartest thing would be to do first is a challenge. I.e. which knob to turn with the smallest effort to create a positive feedback loop.
Imagine that Baltimore’s street lights automatically came on when they sensed someone was near, collected data about air quality and even alerted police at the sound of a gunshot. Such futuristic-sounding technology may not be so far off in Baltimore. (Sarah Gantz, Baltimore SUN)
As the earlier quoted definition shows, smart cities can't only focus on whether they are governed smartly, they also have to pay attention to how well citizens are organized, how good education is, how strong civil mindedness is (social capital) and whether citizens have a fair chance of participating in the all encompassing digital world. Looking at it that way, WiFi on street lamps could indeed be helpful.

Baltimore residents know that often there is no lack of data but a lack of knowing what to do with data. When the US-DOT issued a "smart city challenge" in 2015 Baltimore did the smart thing and sent an application. (see article  on this blog in March 2016). Baltimore was not one of the seven finalists selected by DOT. In September of 2016 the Obama administration expanded the challenge and the National Science Foundation issued another solicitation  "planning  money" under the title "Smart and Connected Cities" (S&CC). Baltimore applied in February this year. Now a $100,000 grant was awarded which will be administered by a group of academic institutions under the program officer Gerrit Knaap, head of UM's National Center for Smart Growth. Hopkins University, Morgan University, UB's Neighborhood Indicators Alliance and the West Baltimore Innovation Village are part of the team.
Successful S&CC projects are expected to pursue research and research capacity-building activities that integrate multiple disciplinary perspectives and undertake meaningful community engagement, and to include appropriate and robust evaluation plans for assessing activities and outcomes.(Solicitation)
The new planning grant represents an excellent opportunity of keeping the original coalition alive which worked on the large challenge grant application and which included five working groups with public and private partners and the encompassing topics such as energy, technology and transportation. In an upcoming meeting on Thursday the partnersfor the new grant should really discuss on what components of the original B'smart application they could build, just like some of the other cities did which didn't get the initial big challenge grant prize of $50 million. (It went to Columbus, OH).
Smart City Baltimore?
These Places Lost the Smart Cities Challenge. But They Say They Ended Up Ahead. (Governing)
Meanwhile Mayor Pugh is focusing on governance. She is betting on making Baltimore smart by paying top dollars for her Chief Information Officer Frank Johnson who started his job recently ($250,000) and by including Baltimore in the line-up of Bloomberg Cities. Pugh's emphasis on technology in the service of running an innovative city follows one of her predecessors, former Mayor O’Malley. He had also complained about how departments didn’t use up-to-date technology and data to properly assign their scarce resources. His data-driven efficiency in public governance through CitiStat became a hallmark of his time as Mayor. CitiStat still exists but lost a lot of its luster under the previous mayors. It will be interesting to see how Baltimore's local government will interact with the academic team around the small $100k seed grant.

Innovation Village West Baltimore has put its aim around making citizens tech savvy and using tech as leverage to empowerment and equity by bridging the digital divide. That also had been the main tenor of Baltimore's original smart city challenge grant application submitted under Rawlings Blake. Even though the application failed to win, its main tenet is still worth mentioning here:
The Baltimore Vision for Smart City (B’Smart) is a bold step forward that connects communities to opportunities, starting with historically underserved neighborhoods in West Baltimore that bore the brunt of displacement and disconnection through the construction of the “highway to nowhere” in the 1960’s and 1970’s. To transform Baltimore into a city of greater economic prosperity and social equity, it is vital to successfully demonstrate how smart city technologies can better connect low-income communities, often with limited access to Internet and smartphones, to economic opportunities, and how these technologies integrate with the existing infrastructure and create new prospects within these communities.(From the application)
The original Baltimore smart challenge application
The application focuses on the creation of technology hubs at transit hubs and makes the connection between equity and access, both physical as virtual access. meaning transportation and internet. The application states:A primary focus of B’Smart is to solve unique and often understudied issues regarding smart city technology deployment in low-income communities, such as low smartphone/internet market share, low car ownership, price sensitivity, citizen education and community security. In addition to meeting USDOT expectations on all 12 Vision Elements, Baltimore has designed andplans to implement smart city solutions that are especially valuable in low-income communities and highlighted with a “Ladders of Opportunity” symbol in the narratives below.
The issue of the digital divide has been further illuminated by a brandnew report form the Robert Deutsch Foundation titled Digital Access and Equity.
While many interviewees described promising programs or initiatives, they also noted a lack of cohesive strategy and collaboration across sectors in Baltimore. (Deutsch Report) 
Research suggests that Baltimore lags behind many cities when it comes to the number of households with home internet connections, with the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey ranking Baltimore 261 out of 296 cities surveyed. According to this same source, an estimated 74,116 households in Baltimore have no internet access. The national research indicating that lower-income and racial minority households are disproportionately disconnected from the internet could translate into particular concerns for Baltimore. (Deutsch Report) 

The ultimate step towards Baltimore's smartness will be how the many initiatives, including the new grant, will be fitted into a cohesive strategy which encompasses all the important pillars of a smart city,  from empowerment of people through transportation and digital access to more efficient governance through technology and data.

Baltimore's problem has never been a lack of initiatives or innovation. What is still lacking is coordination, communication, transparency and unified leadership, all preconditions for creating a virtuous cycle and a truly smart city.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Universities to study how to turn Baltimore into a Smart City (SUN)
Governing: These Places Lost the Smart Cities Challenge. But They Say They Ended Up Ahead.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Walbrook: Homes instead of jobs

The visuals and the talk were all about demolition: The Governor with a sledge-hammer in hand, the Governor in a giant back-hoe knocking down a wooden addition with such a gusto and persistence that it proved the sledgehammer an apt symbolic present. In his speech the Governor's stressed
how many blighted rowhouses the State's "Project CORE" has already knocked down (1,154).
The Governor with a sledge hammer presented
to him by Osprey Development
CEO Brian Lopez (Photo: Philipsen)

All this could easily conceal that Thursday's event at Walbrook Lumber was actually about building something: Five acres worth of new housing taking place on the abandoned site which stood vacant after the old Baltimore Baltimore staple for construction woods of all kind closed in 2013 and consolidated in a new location in Cockeysville.

While the 2016 Coppin University Facilities Masterplan envisioned the area to be used by Coppin University for parking and a conference center, the concept that broke ground on Thursday envisions the mixed-use Walbrook Mill development, in typical real estate tradition named for what used to be there not what will be. What will be are 140 units in all with some retail, office space and job training. The first phase to be realized comprises a 65 unit mixed income apartment building developed by Osprey Development in collaboration with the Copping Heights Community Development Corporation. The complex has been designed by Cho Benn, Holback Architects and passed through initial UDARP design reviews. The design concept even envisions preserving some of the old mill structures and retain some of the character of the lumber mill which was founded in 1918 by Isodore Zulver. The spaces will accommodate workforce development facilities.
Model of the 5 acres site (north Ave is left)

Project CORE funded the acquisition and the demolition started by the Governor with a $2 million grant. The residential development is expected to cost $17.8 million and will be funded with low income housing tax credits, CDA rental housing loans and the City's HOME program as well as private debt. The developer group hopes the CORE money will also flow for construction of the future phases.
North Avenue view of the new development (Cho Benn Holback)

Speakers described the project as part of the North Avenue Rising project which was kicked off last week in another ceremony with the Governor. Indeed, finally one can see activity all along the five-mile corridor. Other notable redevelopments on North Avenue are the Gateway affordable housing projects by Wolde Development further West on North Avenue and the Madison Park Housing development further east, both under construction.

As usual at ground-breaking or ribbon cutting events, everybody was jubilant about the development. But surveying the 5 acre former lumberyard and its extensive buildings, one can't help but wonder why it is that a business that is so sorely needed in West Baltimore is now located in Cockeysville.

Here in the heart of the community the company had offered precisely the type of jobs the young man  and women who are jobless so desperately need. Here was a locally owned business with a stellar reputation for the kind of milled materials that are hard to find at Lowes or Home Depot selling and making the kind of specialty products that one needs particularly when restoring the historic West Baltimore homes: Newel posts, stair banisters, wood windows, wooden medallions, all the authentic materials carefully crafted by a company that cares and which one can't find in the suburbs. All could be selected, bought or ordered right where the products are needed to turn the neighborhoods around. Why did the City economic development agency BDC let this business go? Why did the City let it happen that the remaining industrial uses in Sharp Leadenhall were all relocated to outside the City when Caves Valley built its new Stadium Square development? Why did Locke Insulator close its factory in the City after Under Armour began sprouting around it?
Walbrook Lumber site, active until 2013 (Photo: Philipsen)

Each of these recent cases has its own story, for sure, and each company owner may have had good reasons to move. Collectively, though, one gets the impression that the City does not do enough for business retention while it is too eager to welcome shiny new apartments. And that is odd, considering how much Baltimore needs jobs and how many locations there are to build new apartments.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Governor Hogan in a backhoe: Too much demolition with project CORE? (Photo Philipsen)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Maglev: "Boondoggle always in the back of my mind"

“The word boondoggle is always on the back of my mind” Brandon Bratcher, project representative of the Federal Railroad Administration about MagLev 
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) provides the $27.8 million necessary for engineers and planners to go through the many steps of an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for building a super conductor magnetically levitated train (SC Maglev) between Washington and Baltimore. But it was the FRA representative Brandon Bratcher who in brief remarks at Wednesday's Open House went out of his way to tell the public that this "feasibility study... may well be that in the end, no-built is the preferred alternative “ and that the project is promoted by a private consortium (BWRR) which issues statements that one should "take with a grain of salt".  

The lengthy EIS, conducted according to the rules of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), so far produced the creation, review and elimination of various alignment alternatives in the 40 mile corridor. (A video explaining  the process can be found here). To date, the longest piece of track with actual SC-MagLev trains running anywhere in the world is 22.5 miles long and located in Japan.
Governor Hogan: Roads and demolition
(Photo: Philipsen)

While the MTA has trouble getting their buses above a trip speed of 13 mph, the visionaries that see trains hurtle between Washington and Baltimore with eye popping speeds of 300 mph or more never cease to pop up like weeds in the spring.

Initially a German consortium proposed and planned magnetically levitated trains, now a Japanese consortium is following the same route with a second generation technology including super-conductivity achieved through cooling an electric conduit to near absolute zero temperatures. Both consortia promised that Washington to Baltimore was just the beginning and that New York and Boston would be the final destinations.

As if superconductors and levitation weren't futuristic enough,  Elon Musk of Tesla has gotten into the act with an even more "out there" technology, the Hyperloop. It also envisions magnetic levitation but its smaller pods are "shot" through subterranean vacuum tubes at even higher speeds.

Governor Hogan is Maryland's top cheerleader for both dream projects, even though he is otherwise stuck in the 20th century with unwavering commitment to more roads, more lanes and better signals for cars.

Hogan likes those futuristic technologies and their promoters because they say their projects won't cost the State anything. So the Governor can look progressive while redirecting tax dollars from the transportation trust fund earmarked for transit to his favorite road projects; a pretty neat trick, especially if one doesn't think further than the next election.
Pogress of the current environmental study phase

If one thinks about how the region can remain competitive by offering a practical, functional and reliable transportation system, those sci-fi eye poppers are not very helpful. I have written about the shortcomings of MegLev and the Hyperloop before and you can find those articles here and here.

Still, the Maglev dream- train keeps chugging along, a verb that adequately describes the speed of weaving one's way through the regulatory process, not the promised travel speed of the train itself.
The three alternative Baltimore station areas at Westport, the Inner Harbor and Port Covington (website)
While MagLev keeps holding those dreadful "Open House" public information events, Elon Musk starts tunneling with a utility permit of a type you would need to run a new water line through your backyard. For a test tunnel that not different than digging for utilities, if one can believe the Hogan Administration. One would think that those folks also need some environmental permits, but that would be another article.

The presentation boards of the current SC-Maglev Open Houses can be found here. So far some corridor and station areas have been eliminated from consideration. All remaining alternatives show the alignment to be mostly underground, especially in DC and Baltimore  with only a few segments in between above ground on an elevated structure.
Elevated or in a tunnel
While the alternative station areas in the DC area are based on access and intermodal connections, the Baltimore end seems to be much more driven by political considerations and Kevin Plank's presence on the SC-Maglev Board of Directors.

All three suggested station areas are located in South Baltimore and seem geared towards providing access to the future Port Covington. Entirely absent is any consideration on how the a high speed train station should serve the full metro area best, especially once there would be a future extension towards New York. Nor is thought given to how the phase 1 travelers would be able to transfer from MagLev to the Amtrak Acela trains if their destination is not Baltimore. Even how people would move on inside Baltimore appears to be an open question.

One can most certainly assume, that with such  considerations in mind, the Baltimore station should be closer to the existing rail train station, and definitely further north given that the only other station between Baltimore and DC is at BWI, i.e. south of the City. 

The Maglev study, in spite of its extensive environmental criteria, is yet another transportation study that doesn't consider land use, the future of our metro region, or the impact train stations have on urban form. How much these missing things matter in reality can be seen after high speed EuroStar trains connected France and England. An instructive example is EuraLille and how it prepared for a Europe connected by new generation trains and was shaped by it.
The new Euralille district, considered as the city of Lille’s 11th district, was born from a political desire to grasp an exceptional opportunity resulting from the construction of the Channel Tunnel: with a high speed (TGV) rail network and a substantial property market in its city centre, to make it an international showcase for the Lille metropolis.
Eurollie is located on old military lands, near of city center and, currently, it covers 110 hectares.
The Lille authorities decided to retain the terminus station, Gare de Flandres, and build a new through-station, Gare d’Europe, nearby. HSTs from Paris stop at Gare de Flandres, while Gare d’Europe, opened in 1994, is a stopping place for some of the Eurostar-trains running between Paris and London and between Brussels and London (others pass by without stopping at Lille). In the zone between the two stations, a former military terrain adjoining the inner city, which could be acquired at a comparatively low cost, a new multi-functional urban settlement was developed in direct consequence of the advent of the HST; this new urban area was given the name of Euralille.
The real question is how the entire East Coast can be woven together by a comprehensive network of high speed long distance, regional and local trains. SC MagLev as an incompatible technology that doesn't match up with any existing system in any way, seems to be a system that should better be tested in Texas where passenger trains are almost absent to begin with. Here, the focus should be on getting the North East Corridor (NEC) modernization done, another project in various stages of environmental review. The French TGV can also reach 300mph but runs on conventional track.

Given how feeble our infrastructure is and how tight our urban corridor is, DC, Maryland, PA, New Jersey and NYC all can ill afford having the NEC, SC-MagLev and a Hyperloop compete for attention, real estate and resources.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Who runs Baltimore's transportation?

That Baltimore is known for having a poor transportation network may be in part due to the confusing number of providers.
This is just a quick top of the head and likely incomplete run-down of options for getting around in this city:

  • the MTA bus, 
  • the City Circulator Bus run by BC-DOT 
  • UB, MICA, Hopkins and UM each running their university and college bus flags 
  • the Harbor East shuttle, promoted by the Waterfront Partnership
  • MTA's Mobility service, 
  • the MTA light rail, 
  • the MTA Metro, 
  • the MARC train,
  • MTA commuter buses 
  • Amtrak,  
  • a water taxi for tourists and a Harbor Connector for commuters run by Plank Industries 
  • there are 1,100 taxis rolling through Baltimore streets under a dozen or so brands, 
  • there is Uber, Lyft, 
  • Zip-car, 
  • bike-share run by the City through private company Bewegen
  • the Super Shuttle (for trips to the airport)
  • and finally an array of company provided employee shuttles (to Amazon, for example) or apartment and hotel limousines. 
An older image showing an early Circulator Bus with the Veolia name
More is obviously not always better. In an attempt of pinning the blame for the poor transit on somebody, a lot of current discussion revolves around the role of the State and whether it wouldn't be better for Baltimore to have its own transit company. 

But there is another angle that, instead, looks at the many pieces that make up Baltimore area transportation and are not controlled by the Maryland Transit Administration MTA.

It may surprise some that the jungle of mobility options becomes much simpler if one understands how many of these services are run by one and the same company: Veolia and their Transdev transportation division (Veolia divested from Transdev in 2016 but still owns 30% of the company). Transdev is the US largest private transportation provider operating services in 200 US cities and is the engine behind much what rolls through Baltimore's street: The company runs
  •  the Charm City Circulator for the City of Baltimore,
  • the Collegetown network for Baltimore's universities and colleges
  • MTA's mobility services
  • the Harbor East Shuttle
  • Some MTA Commuter services
  • and 650 cabs under three brands in Baltimore's taxi fleet  
Veolia Commuter Bus
No wonder that somebody asked at an event by Transit Choices, whether the company couldn't run the MTA buses as well. Transdev's Baltimore manager Mark Heishman responded affirmatively by pointing to other cities where Veolia-Transdev provides public transportation. But the fact that Veolia-Transdev have their hands on the wheel of som many transportation options doesn't make the matter more transparent. Quite the opposite.

Transdev North America's CEO is Baltimore's very own Mark Joseph who in 2001 sold his Baltimore taxi empire Yellow Cab to Connex which turned into Veolia-Transportation which turned into Transdev. 
Yellow and Checker: Transdev's taxi  brands

The French parent company Veolia is an expression of the privatization frenzy that had rolled across Europe a decade or so ago and which has, surprisingly washed ashore our continent, usually seen a bulwark of private enterprise, with years of delay. On both sides of the Atlantic there are strong feelings that privatization isn't always better, more efficient or beneficial to customers. 

The Veolia empire includes 48 nations and over 300,000 employees that provide services ranging from gas, water, sewer and electricity all the way to the already noted transportation services. In Baltimore Veolia operates district heating and cooling and is behind the repairs of the steam line that exploded on Eutaw Street early this summer.

But Transdev is frequently very hands off, even if the company driver firmly grips the steering wheel of a bus. Sometimes the company just provides the operators, sometimes the maintenance, sometimes the dispatch and logistics, sometimes the fleet (bus train or streetcar). In the case of the Circulator the city owns the system, decides the routes and owns some of the 30 buses. How hands-off Transdev really is can be exemplified by the fact that BC-DOT's new director has not yet met with the company that runs their bus system.
Veolia Collegetown Shuttle

The very many methods under which Transdev can be engaged (for example by running and maintaining the college buses under their different names with college own buses) make it hard to understand who decides what. In the case of the public transit Circulator, it is pretty hard to understand why the system keeps running a deficit and why the private company doesn't have a say in bringing budget and expenses into better alignment. A strategy that would have urban mobility in mind and not only the parochial concerns of the individual clients would certainly yield many cost saving possibilities that would make transportation in Baltimore also a lot more transparent.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Transdev AV shuttle: The driverless transit revolution is
just around the corner

Related articles on this blog:
Time to reset the Circulator bus
Another bus shuttle comes to downtown

Still no steam

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What developers suggest for cities

From time to time it is very instructive to sit with economists and developers to learn how they see the world. For example at events of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) on the local, regional or national level such as the annual Fall Conference in Los Angeles.  Usually real estate experts package their action paradigms into neat phrases that everyone can easily understand.
ULI Fall Conference: LA motto: "The Future is Alive in Los

One of those phrases used to be "build it and they will come". For sure, the financial crash and the subsequent crisis in real estate has brought that to an end, if it wasn't outmoded long before then. The new motto is "wait until they come and then build it". Occasionally that leaves some local development officers scratching their heads when powerful companies are interested in relocateion and want a "product" (real estate lingo for a building or development that fits certain specifications) ready to move in. In 2016 when Nestle wanted to move its headquarters from Glendale, Ca to a new location near the east coast it was that year's corporate relocation frenzy. Alexandria, VA had all the attributes Nestle liked, except an appropriately sized building. The mighty company subsequently moved to Arlington, VA which had just the right size office tower sitting around empty.

Real estate developers will also tell you that a 600,000 sf office building of the type they commonly were built in the 1970s and 80s is usually a white elephant. An example of which a developer described in the usual flowery language as a building "more appropriate for soviet era Bukarest". Such a building is in serious need of catching up to modern times. It is predicated on large tenants that want huge flexible floor plates. At the time it didn't matter that the core area was far away from windows and that energy usage was high.
Nestle headquarters in Rosslyn (Image: Nestle)

Catching up to current real estate terms describes "products" so much in keeping with eyes on the street and LEED design that one could suspect that Jane Jacobs and Al Gore had performed brain transplants on the real estate industry. A state of the art real estate product usually means mixed-use and in the current market most likely apartments and not offices. Of course, with a lively streetfront, preferably with retail on the first floor. Still, the rule of waiting until they come is mostly applicable to office buildings because for apartments this rarely is an option. Few apartment builders have found a way to market their next project in a manner of the Tesla X: Have it fully subscribed and halfway funded by early takers. In that way market rate apartment buildings are risk takers and have become the pioneers for urban revitalization, especially in neighborhoods that the developers would see as authentic and near strong institutional or business "anchors". Lately developers are even embracing the word equity. One program of the ULI fall conference is titled: "Equity and Inclusion: Creating Conditions That Benefit Everyone". It is described this way:
The widespread revitalization and growth of cities and neighborhoods has been giving rise to a new interest in equity and inclusion. As cities strive to attract new people by creating memorable and sustainable places–through reuse of historic places, new construction, and thoughtful urban design—many lower-income people are being left out of the boom.
It is instructive to hear from developers how far they have come in expanding their view and their strategies way beyond their own "assets". When some dozen years back the mantra was "lifestyle" projects (another of those terms that became popular) they were often still located in the suburbs and just imitated the city. Developers now have expanded their view to "making places". But that, too has become more sophisticated. In the rapidly changing real estate marketplace "Generic places with chain stores that could be anywhere in the US" are not successful any longer. New place-making can't be interchangeable and must be local. This even bigger context is described by a new term developers now scream from the rooftops: "community". As in "the nicest mixed use lifestyle project won't work if it isn't part of and connected to the community". As in "the best project won't work if it isn't accepted by the community". As in the example of a developer who wanted to make a quick buck and filled a complex with clubs until everyone in the surrounding communities hated the development and the developer had to sell. The next buyer spent millions in doing nothing else than brainstorming with the communities what they wanted to see and get a concept entitled that the community supported. He sold after that 2-year community planning process was complete with a tidy profit. The developer hadn't moved a single wall but had made the development more valuable simply by having a community supported concept.
With today’s expanding focus on impact investing, millennial developers’ desire to do well and do good, and subsidies like New Markets Tax Creditsbecoming ever more competitive, impact development may represent one of the most significant new shifts shaping the landscape of America’s cities. (Next City 2015)

What does all this mean for Baltimore?

Baltimore is "authenticity central" and certainly in need of more equity. We have seen the conversion of old industrial and office buildings to residential use for a long time. The largest case maybe the old Bank of America tower downtown (formerly Nationsbank) with over 400 units.  The Bank of America Tower has been completed in 2016 and has still a long road towards being filled up. In real estate critical mass is another frequently used goal; in true fashion the same developer who converted the historic tower is now erecting a new tower of comparable size right across Light Street. The company does so in the hope that these two buildings can really create the heft needed to give the old financial district east of Charles Street the residential neighborhood feel that a few smaller and older conversions such as the Munsey building never accomplished. Thus, in apartment construction and multi-family housing the build it and they will come mantra is still in effect. This makes many fear a bubble that may soon burst not only in Baltimore but across the nation where downtown apartment construction has been red hot for some time. Downtown LA now offers some apartments for a year rent free if a multi-year lease can be had.
Pratt Street building with "fanny pack"

The office market has been weak ever since the financial crash in 2008 and, resulted in new office towers only being built when a specific tenant or client is asking for it. This is how Legg Mason got a tower in Harbor East or Exelon on HarborPoint, both unfortunately vacating sizable chunks of real estate in the traditional downtown. Baltimore has shown in many cases how to take historic office buildings and convert them into attractive apartments but a conversion of one of those bland klutzes of the 70s that line Pratt Street is a feat not yet accomplished here. A lone example of a modern office conversion is the Brexton Building complex on North Charles Street across from Brewers Art which is nearing completion right now.

The conversion of those large floor plate buildings is considerably more difficult than the conversion of the more slender buildings of old which were built before air conditioning with daylight and ventilation in mind. The uninspiring 70s office buildings of which so many populate the areas south of our historic downtown and some spots of the Charles Center urban renewal were all built speculatively under the old motto of "build and they will come" and all with a focus on initial cost instead of operating cost. They are bland so that they can fit many molds and needs but nobody cared about the long-term. That has changed with the investor now often being the tenant as well. How stunning interior change can look is on display at the new Pandoras headquarters on Pratt Street. The exterior change is much harder. The recent advent of retail "fanny-packs" in the shape of shallow first floor additions on space that used to be occupied by extra wide sidewalks is a modest attempt to make those buildings more appealing. More comprehensive approaches are tried in Tysons Corner and other hotbeds of outmoded office towers.
Stovall Street, Alexandria VA
office building before conversion

Real estate, like almost anything in a "market economy", is driven by available capital. Unfortunately, the reasonable motto to wait until they come before one builds a large new structure is often cast in the wind by vagabonding capital in search of profit. Much of it is currently funneled into real estate because there are few other lucrative investment options. Baltimore as a class B or C market has  only recently been "discovered" by foreign investors since the class A markets have become overheated to a point that a return on investment is questionable due to inflated costs that outstrip what even those markets can bear. Thus speculation is still as strong element of the real estate market, even if the rules of engagement have become much more community friendly.
Rendering of the Stovall Street building converted into
over 500 apartments

It would be great if a good deal of this capital could be bundled into social investment funds that use the capital to rebuild our neighborhoods with equity. Doing well by doing good is not a new idea. In fact it was also Jimmy Rouse's motto and his Columbia is to this day a viable urban experiment. In Baltiore first Bill Struever and now Thibault Mannekin try to follow the same motto. The RF Reinvestment Fund that fueled a lot of the revitalization of Barclay is a social investment fund and and an example that "social impact development" potentially can be done responsibly. But don't hold your breath, even if touted as the latest, these new trends are still nascent and the world of real estate has also always been a world where dreams are sold as reality.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Next City: Connecting Real Estate Developers to Meaningful Social Change

Monday, October 23, 2017

Why Amazon in Old Goucher is a bad idea

It isn't surprising that the simple template of the two Baltimores should also be applied when it comes to the bid for landing Amazon's HQ2. The Amazon bug not only infected State and City leaders all across North America, with various States such as Maryland bidding on multiple sites, in Baltimore it has also spread to at lat one community leader creating a small buzz about competition inside the city.
Concentric circles around Old Goucher

The Amazon question immediately reignited the Baltimore debate about Sagamore’s Port Covington development. Would it be the right location for HQ2 on the remote possibility that the online giant would pick Baltimore in the first place?

Ironically, the same ones who criticized the $600 million Under Armour TIF deal and the idea of a corporate town inside the city applaud the notion of  a second gigantic corporate development as long as it is located in disinvested areas rather than merged into the Port Covington development as the official Baltimore bid would have it.

In a procedure that is even more top-down than the City’s official bid, Old Goucher resident and community association leader Kelly Cross launched a one-man bid for Amazon’s $5 billion investment. Cross is used to such forays into the world of power and money. He had already brought luminaire architects and foreign investors to town to hobnob with Governor Hogan regarding the future of the old prison in a media splash last year. (see my blog article here). While the City’s official bid brought at least a solid coalition of power brokers together in a fairly comprehensive and impressive show of unity, the idea of HQ2 in historic Old Goucher is one man’s idea with support from two like-minded fans and more a provocation than a plan. The "plan" is nowhere to be found on the community associations's website. Realizing that Old Goucher may be a bit small for the behemoth development, Cross expanded his idea in various directions including his favorite, the old Baltimore prison, the school headquarters on North Avenue, empty parking lots, vacant building sites and the State Center site in central Baltimore and gratuitously also the Madison North Park site.

Investment in central Baltimore is certainly a good idea and a discussion about the future of disinvested communities is absolutely necessary. It is also useful to imagine a new Amazon Headquarters spread around instead of as a new town, even if tat may not be the most efficient for the corporation. 

But aside from being not at all a grassroots demand, HQ2 in Old Goucher has so many systemic flaws that it isn’t even useful as provocation. Seeing a corporate giant as a savior of poor local neighborhoods is inherently flawed, as I have tried to reason in several earlier articles about Amazon specifically and company towns in general. The reasoning can be summed up with "if it isn't of the community, it is not for the community".  Furthermore, Cross doesn’t spend much time on the question what that corporation would be looking for, namely a setting that attracts high skilled, high paid employees.  Cross says they wouldn’t be looking for the suburbs, implying that Port Covington would be suburban.
“These guys aren’t looking for suburban locations. I don’t think they’ll wind up on a peninsula or in a place where they are reliant on commuter bus or a little light-rail spur built to connect them to the rest of the city.” (Kelly Cross)
Anybody who calls the Under Armour land on the Middle Branch suburban even though it is fitted on an old reailyard in between Federal Hill and Brooklyn needs to walk around South Baltimore or visit a few of Brooklyn’s factories or bars to get a sense of how Baltimore ticked before suburbs were even invented. And if one wants to define anything new as suburban, Harbor East and McHenry Row would be suburban and pretty much all of Seattle as well, certainly the area where Amazon's current HQ1 is located.
Mayor and Governor breaking ground at Madison Park North in early 2017

Cross' reference to the redevelopment potential of the Madison North apartment site as an opportunity for MICA student housing, leaving open why Amazon should care about it in the first place, proves how careless the “proposal” ignores what communities have planned for many years.. The future after the "murder mall" has not only long been planned and designed, it also has alreday broken ground. It will include, amidst mixed income housing, the innovation Village hub, an effort of empowering West Baltimore through entrepreneurship. Even the largest site in Cross’ Plan, State Center, has been the subject of decades of planning and community involvement with an approved masterplan that is much more sophisticated than just plopping in a new set of big office buildings. True, that fine community embraced plan looks dead right now but not because it is bad urban planning, but because the Governor, is intent to kill it.

In Cross’ own backyard, Old Goucher and Central Baltimore, a dozen or so communities have engaged for many years on a masterplan and strategy that is half way through realization and has already brought plenty of progress to Barclay, Remington, Old Goucher, Station North and Charles North. Why would all these communities and stakeholders throw their plans in the trash and let Amazon run roughshod over their historic neighborhoods?
Central Baltimore Partnership masterplan: Space for
8 million square feet?

The only value of Amazon's crazy idea of having cities outdo each other in who can be the most subservient, seems to be that in many cities stakeholders came together to consider their strengths and weaknesses and take a long hard view where their place could be heading. In effect, each city aiming for Amazon established established their own moonshot and their own pop-up “moonshot factory” in which they considered far-out answers to an essentially hypothetical question.

That a minority opinion would be submitted in Baltimore to provoke discussion could be a beautiful thing. But not if the alternative concept buys the same snake oil as the original and ignores the plans so many communities have worked on for years. That leaves it as mostly a public relations stunt in which clever answers replace the much harder task of asking the right questions.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Old Goucher bid in the SUN, the Brew  and technical.ly

Friday, October 20, 2017

Time to reset the Circulator bus

If You Stand Still, You Are Actually Going Backwards (business consultant slogan)
Six years after the system was inaugurated is it time to hit the reset button for the Charm City Circulator and come to terms wit the unresolved issues  Mayor Pugh inherited from her predecessor. It isn't clear where the Mayor stands her stand on the popular City run bus system and the various recommendations of her transition team to bring cost and resources into better alignment. Time to provide a concise answer how the system will be run in the future and an opportunity for the new Director of transportation to set a signal.
Faster on the new bus lanes

The system shows some signs of wear. It not only loses money but has also lost a lot of its initial appeal and glamour. Some stops look worn, some of the buses begin to wear, too; headways are borderline acceptable for a headway-based system that operates without a schedule. The online information looks dated and unnecessarily complicated. Some lines, especially the green line are completely unintuitive which bears out in low ridership. The Banner route is still limping along although the funding grant along with the 1812 anniversary have long gone.
This green route is worse than any MTA route ever was
The first part of the ride was great, waited 5 minutes,  the bus came and off we went.  Now stranded in little Italy, been waiting 30 minutes at a stop with the orange and green line and not one bus has come by.  Thinking of calling uber.  Finally, at 40 minutes....(Liz, Dearborn, MI)
The color coded route designations have become a cause of confusion after the MTA decided to use colors for their Link buses as well. Time for a fresh look how to make the Circulator once again the model for transit and the "entry drug to transit" that Downtown Partnership CEO Kirby Fowler once saw in it.

All major transit stops used by visitors and tourists should show real time arrival. Buses should not display only their route name but also their destination and major intermittent stops. The Orange line should be extended to serve as the the waterfront east-west connection from Broadway to Hollins Market with all major tourist destinations in between. The Green Route should be the second east-west connector with a much simplified route from Hopkins to Mount Vernon. The Banner Route should serve the south-side of the Harbor including Locust Point and Federal Hill running along Fort Avenue and meet the Purple Route at the visitors center or thereabouts shortening the Purple Route and making it more reliable. All routes should be renamed for where they mainly run or for some memorable destination such as Pratt Street Route (Hollins-Broadway), Fort Street Route (Fort McHenry-Inner Harbor), Charles Street Route (Inner Harbor-Hopkins) and Madison Route (Hopkins-Mt Vernon). Circulator Hubs with intermodal connections are at Hopkins, Broadway, Inner Harbor, Penn Station and Pratt Street.
One real complaint thought, I wish they'd fix the electronic update boards at the stops. Only a few of the stops have it, and it's really useful, but many (at least on the Purple route) seem to not be working.(Lauron, Baltimore)
The system should explore how demand data can be introduced into the dispatch systems so that the collective wait times are minimized. The buses and stop areas should offer wifi. As a step a bit further out, DOT should begin to think about testing small autonomous vehicle buses and what that technology would mean to the service.
The bus stop signs are better than MTA's but not
consistent throughout

The service needs to be developed around the available resources from parking (parking taxes should increase) and sponsors. All major commercial and institutional entities that directly benefit from the Circulator should pay a small assessment in support of the service. Where the Circulator service overlaps with College Town buses, the latter should be abandoned in favor of supporting the Circulator.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

related previous articles on this blog

What to do with the Circulator?
The future of Baltimore's Circulator
Why the Circulator should not use the City's general funds
Free Downtown Bus Transit - Community Asset or Yuppie Shuttle?