Thursday, October 5, 2017

Reimagining the Gay Street Corridor

"Rebuilding a few CVS Pharmacies and corner stores will not do; we must rebuild human beings and communities that will be doomed to a worse fate if we don't act responsibly now to fix what was wrong long before a young man's death sparked dark days and fiery nights in our city." Donte' L. Hickman, pastor of the Southern Baptist Church, in a Sun editorial in May of 2015.
Words of resolve were aplenty after the unrest of 2015 and some resulted in action. One example: JHU President Ron Daniels read the pastor's op-ed in the SUN of May 22 and followed up by asking the Baltimore architecture firm of Ayers Saint Gross (ASG) to assist the Southern Baptist church with a masterplan for the areas around their east Baltimore church. ASG works for Hopkins in a number of capacities including Homewood campus planning and Bayview landscape plans. The church is located in what one could aptly describe as a large hole in the doughnut of the many plans and devlopment activities in East Baltimore from EBDI to Oliver. Gay street, the only diagonal street in the orthogonal grid of east Baltimore is one of the most disinvested areas in Baltimore, a journey along its length a lesson on what went wrong with this city. ASG is also a consultant for the redevelopment plans for Old Town Mall on the southwestern end of the Gay Street corridor.
Gay and Chester Street corridor opportunities (ASG)

This week ASG presented the product of its labor in church with the help of a voice-over slideshow showcasing architectural and urban design that is the result of several community meetings and a design charrette and includes the program elements that disinvested communities across Baltimore like to see: Quality affordable housing, community gardens and urban agriculture to address food insecurity, a health and wellness center, a job center and green network improvements that turn grey zones of abandoned brick, concrete and pavement into green lush connectors between parks. The backbone of the plan is the idea of connecting the new EBDI Eager Park with the historic Clifton Park via Gay and Chester Streets. One slide suggests that this connection could be the first leg in a northern connection between JHU's medical and its Homewood campus. Proposed buildings and uses are shown on vacant lots and clusters of vacancy to avoid direct displacement and complement isolated recent developments such as the Hunanim facility in the restored American Brewery Building or the Mary Harvin Transformation Center that had been rebuilt in record time after its nearly completed shell was consumed by fire during the night of unrest in 2015.
East Baltimore and the diagonal Gay Street corridor (ASG)

Enlargement of the Hunanim area (ASG)

It isn't entirely clear if such a vision of bricks, mortar and trees is what the pastor had in mind when he stated that "we must rebuild human beings and communities and fix what is wrong." Architects brought up on the notion that the rise and fall of cities depends on grand projects and always quote the much overused Daniel Burnham exclamation that one "shall make no small plans" see their profession naturally as one that designs buildings. For an architect most problems can be solved by building stuff. Deprived of essential services and facilities and full of vacant lots and houses, disenfranchised communities easily follow that brick and mortar logic. Nothing appears to be more obvious than to draw up a vision plan that includes everything that is missing and eliminates blight at the same time. Doesn't the clarion call for more equity that could be heard all across Baltimore after the unrest in 2015 clearly demand that vulnerable communities have the same banks, coffee shops, libraries, gyms and health care facilities as everybody else?

The problem is that drawing those things into a vision plan following state of the art urban design, place-making and streetscape standards doesn't make these things happen. It doesn't even make them any more likely unless the root cause is addressed: The lack of investment, or better: The lack of people and institutions willing to put their business along Gay Street or place major investments there. It is a great start that a well connected nationally and internationally known firm which has been successful on urban design, landscape, campus plans from Harvard to Duke and from California to Saudi Arabia applies its considerable talent to the vulnerable communities of East Baltimore. Realization will be a more mundane problem. ASG principal Adam Gross is well aware of that and points to a number of specific involvements of his firm with with a hydroponic farm for Civic Works, housing projects, a health care facility and a new police station as examples of what may be in the works.
New  and renovated buildings and uses in the corridor (ASG)

Wherever dis-invested communities such as Barclay, Oliver or Remington saw real systemic change, the key to the turnaround was an investment strategy in which strategically placed initial investments created a platform which became the jumping board for the next investor. In such a step-ladder approach the initial projects must be carefully chosen so they can act as catalysts. They probably have to be subsidized, but then market-based initiatives have to take over. That means the first projects can't be only social services projects which can't be scaled up unless they lift property values in general. A market-based approach raises the specter of displacement and gentrification. Therefore backstops to maintain affordability for renters and homeowners must be baked into the strategy and responsible capital which cares about the long-term sustainability of the community have to be carefully selected. Community has to be part of selection and planning at each step of the way and ideally become a development partner so that gains feed back into the community as workforce development, profits and capacity building. The crux is that in a profit oriented society any attempt of creating large-scale change without following market rules is doomed to fail. It was the market in conjunction with discriminatory policies and lending practices which created the outrageously bad current conditions in the first place. Since no non-profit or church has enough money to push against the market over a long period, the market minus the discriminatory practices has to the fix broken communities, whether one likes it or not. How hard the necessary balance is show 25 years of attempts of turning Sandtown Winchester around.
Gay Street today  (ASG)

Gay Street envisioned  (ASG)

When it comes to the Gay Street area and the projects depicted in the plan, there is a good possibility for creating such a stepladder strategy, especially where initial investments have already been identified and projects are near areas where other investments such as the new Food Hub or EBDI are already underway. A long-term vision plan is certainly a good thing to have to ensure investments come together as a desirable ensemble. The real challenge will be finding the necessary capital. The renderings look too pretty; they risk the impression that everything has been already been figured out.

ASG knows how hard it is to get things done in Baltimore. They made this experience even in much better off areas such as Pratt Street, the Inner Harbor and the area around Penn Station, in all cases ASG had developed big ideas, but only a few have been implemented. Most of ASG's clients can realize the architectural visions to an amazing degree as one can see at HarborPoint. The five churches of East Baltimore working together on this plan, are no such deep pocketed clients. It will be their task to develop the implementation strategies and to ensure that the people in the corridor will be better protected than those that used to live where there is now Eager Park.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Narrated Presentation by Amber Wendland, Ayers Saint Gross
Pastor Hickmann's editorial of 2015 in the Baltimore SUN

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