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

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