Friday, May 18, 2018

Rained out in Baltimore: Gloomy thoughts on Bike to Work Day

Germans, well known for their "cheerfulness", have many ways to express gloom, failure, wash-outs and something falling victim to circumstance. One expression is: "it fell into the water". Well, that's what happened to Bike to Work Day in Baltimore Friday, the weather forecast was so bad that event planners postponed the national annual bike celebration day rather than having it rained out (new date: June 1). It seems, though, as if lately a lot more has been postponed than just Bike to Work Day.

I took my bike out during a brief break in the drizzle to go to a meeting anyway and encountered:
  • two other bicyclists
  • a car parked in the bike-lane with its flashers on
  • an oncoming car making an illegal left turn across light rail tracks and cutting me off
  • a pedestrian walking into the bike lane while distractedly talking to someone else
  • a SUV squeezing by me while a bus came the other direction without enough space for all three of us (no bike lane)
All this in a space of about 20 minutes. None of this was particularly life threatening, all of it was somewhat predictable, and all of it was perfectly normal for any Baltimore bike ride, any day, rain or shine. None of this has deterred me from riding the bike to meetings or doing errands on it and enjoying the speed, efficiency and generally convenient manner of getting to places.  The best way to see your city, by far.


Walking fairs not much better when it comes to conflict. On my daily short walks frightening encounters with cars are just as frequent. Even downtown some cars are zipping inches from the curb in excess of 50mph, vehicles blocking crosswalks because they squeezed into intersections without being able to clear them are the most common infractions, followed by turning drivers who pay no heed to pedestrians in the crosswalk having the right of way. Earlier this week, when I raised my umbrella in a motion of despair on one of those who proceeded in spite of me being clearly in his path, the guy yelled out of his open window "get the f** out of the street". Still, I like to walk, but it sure could be more enjoyable.

A bus doesn't provide protection or peace either. Bus drivers get attacked by irate riders, sometimes a crazy boards and accosts passengers. Cars block bus stops or drive on red bus lanes with impunity, many downtown bus shelters are filthy encampments for those who use it as their hangouts all day, especially in the rain. In spite of some improvements and the contact with fellow riders, taking the bus still takes an extra strong commitment, especially for those who have other choices.

These experiences in aggregate sure can make anyone gloomy about where Baltimore stands with its bike network, its pedestrian safety, its street culture and where the City could go from here. Is it really "moving forward"? The Danish author Colville-Andersen uses bicycling as an urban litmus test because he gives this mode of transportation special place in urban planning because of its low speed and human scale. For him bicycling is not a matter of a small minority but sits right at the center of human centered city design. In that line of thinking Baltimore would needs a really big push:
We have been living together in cities for more than 7,000 years. By and large, we used those seven millennia to hammer out some serious best-practices about cohabitation and transport in the urban theater and the importance of social fabric. Mikael Colville-Andersen, Copenhagenize, Bicycle Urbanism by Design 
With such a broad sweep, it is tempting to zoom even further out and ask: where do we stand as a country? In many ways the street and the embattled bicyclist on it is only a microcosm in the new tribal thinking. All kinds of minorities are seen as crazy or as suspicious by those who think they represent the "silent majority" of people sticking with what they see as the traditional US values of cars, steel, coal and guns.  In that view a guy like Colville Andersen is just proof, how far astray liberals have taken cities, in a horrible social agenda about which they couldn't care less.

The other national tradition of cherishing diversity seems to have "fallen into the water", too, in favor of nationalism and turf battles. Never in history has "everybody just gotten along" per that famous plea after Los Angeles riots, but rarely before has not tolerating and accepting those who are different been seen as a virtue. None of this has yet discouraged me entirely or made me regret that I have picked the US as my country.
New York City 1970: Mayor Lindsay in front.
But the impression that everybody is at war with everybody else takes a toll. Gun rights people against gun control advocates, rednecks against elitists, rural against urban residents, nationalists versus globalists and white supremacists against people of color. The others are always the enemy, on Facebook, on NextDoor, in community meetings or in the street.  Fences and walls instead of a welcome. 

I am probably not the only one reminded of the big struggles of the seventies which had spread from the US to many other western countries. I frequently stood at my local town square distributing leaflets for progressive causes. It never took too long until some older person would look me up and down (I had long hair) and finally spit out "under Hitler they would have gassed you". I never expected to hear anything like this in the US, and so far, I haven't. But will it last?
Motorists walk out of a house and into a garage to get into a car for a drive to work. They park and enter an office. There is little interaction with other citizens in such a vacuum-packed life. Cycling through a city, however, you are closely connected with the urban landscape, using all of your sensesMikael Colville-Andersen
Bicycling in Copenhagen is not just a fair weather activity. (Andersen)
Drivers against bicyclists is just a tiny puzzle piece of this daily culture war that has raised national stress levels to heights we haven't seen since the Vietnam War and the struggle for Civil Rights. In that climate peace cannot be engineered, no matter how well designed a space may be. If the mere presence of the "other" makes one's blood boil, the next battle is never further way than the next corner. Of course, bad engineering and design continues to be a problem.
The most surprising thing about traffic engineering is that it is largely unchanged in the decades since the 1950s. In our modern society we would be absolutely outraged if one vital profession lagged so far behind. Imagine if medical care were still using the same techniques and science as it did in the 1950s. Or education. Or parenting. That would be bizarre and unacceptable. And yet we accept that traffic engineering has failed to modernize. Or perhaps just failed. Mikael Colville-Andersen
Tour dem Parks, Baltimore

In Baltimore where kids and grandmothers get gunned down in broad daylight simply for being at the right place at the wrong moment, where people get shot simply for the color of their skin, the issue of safely riding bicycles seems oddly irrelevant. Yet, if we can't even accept that people get around by different means, how can bigger differences such as religion, cultural values, races or educational backgrounds be reconciled? It seems to me that just a few years back we were in a very different place as a society. The conversations were about "a bridge to the 21st century", a "peace dividend" a world of "livable communities" without hunger and borders, a welcome culture and about hope. 
Bikescore rankings: Top ten rated cities, happy places?

May should be the month when we celebrate life and the beauty of spring, enjoy the warmer outdoors together with our brothers and sisters. Not a month for gloom, for sure. Maybe there is just too much rain this week, maybe winter lasted too long around here, blossoms got ripped off by storms too early. 

Unfortunately, though, it looks like that something much bigger is afoot. Something else has been ripped apart too early as well, and Baltimore is right in the middle of it, a reflection of the nation at large. Something of a scale bicycling won't cure.

yet, chnage often comes from small things. For convivial fun, getting to know others and enjoying the beauty of our many green oasis in Baltimore, "Tour dem Parks, Hon!" through Baltimore City's park system will take place Sunday, June 10.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
the article was re-worked to eliminate some ambiguous or poor phrasing

CityLab: Don't Get Too Excited About Bike to Work Day
Next City: Bicycle Urbanism by Design


Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Uplift Baltimore" - What to make of the Baker Plan?

It shouldn't be overly surprising that a candidate running for Governor of Maryland would spend a few thoughts on Maryland's largest city, which by many accounts, is still the anchor of its economy. Even the current Governor, who seeks his voter base more in rural Maryland than in urban Baltimore, has confessed many times how much he likes the city and wants to support it.
Democratic contenders for Governor Hogan's job (Image WP)

With current Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker the first contender running against Governor Hogan has produced a document solely dealing with Baltimore. Its title, "Uplift Baltimore", already suggests, that the gubernatorial hopeful doesn't see the city with rosy glasses. But Baker doesn't promote charity, instead his plan states:
A stronger Baltimore means less stress on the infrastructure of the
surrounding counties. A stronger Baltimore will improve the state’s ability to compete for job-creating and growth-focused industries. A stronger Baltimore can save the state millions while improving our environmental, public health, education, criminal justice, housing, and all quality-of-life rankings. Every Marylander should be rooting for Baltimore’s success because her success benefits all of us. 
Indeed, an insight one would like to see more frequently expressed. The 7-page plan enumerates a number of cash infusions the city received between 2003 and 2013 (not clear why these years instead of more recent data) tallying $2.4 billion federal "aid", $1.8 billion stimulus money and another $1.8 billion in State "aid". Without knowing how those numbers were calculated or how they compare with Baker's own county for the same period, they certainly further cement the notion that Baltimore City is a net receiver, a view widely held in Maryland.  This view stands in contrast to the idea that the Baltimore region is still Maryland's economic powerhouse, most recently proffered again by GBC's annual "state of the region" document.

Baker's plan for the region's center city minces no words:
Baltimore region education levels and peer comparison
(GBC regional report)
...the Baker Administration will undertake a financial impact and efficiency assessment of federal, state, local, and non-profit dollars spent to remedy specific maladies such as homelessness, crime, housing, and education issues with specific focuses on neighborhoods hit hardest by crime, health, housing, and employment challenges. The study(ies) will examine best practices for achieving outcomes, avoiding duplication of effort, eschewing administrative inefficiencies, and provide guidance on how the state, city, and interested nonprofits can better achieve goals by improving collaboration but also assure zero waste of either city or state dollars. The taxpayers must be confident every penny spent will be aimed at the goals and not lost to bad policy, poor planning, duplication of effort, or bureaucratic inefficiency.
Clearly, anyone running for statewide office talking about Baltimore needs to first make clear that it isn't the intention to throw money down a rabbit hole. Yet the above quote isn't very subtle in suggesting that waste is or has been present in Baltimore. Baker whose obvious goal is to woe Baltimore voters has to walk a fine line between being supportive and condescending. Just in case, his paper has a few nice words for Baltimore's mayor as well:
Baltimore Mayor Pugh’s recent designation of a dozen neighborhoods as target areas for the federal government's Opportunity Zones tax overhaul program along with her plan to raise a billion dollars in bonds to support investment in struggling neighborhoods bodes well for a partnership with the Baker Administration.
Baker's PG tested Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative (TNI) has resulted in his departments and agencies paying more attention to vulnerable communities, such as Langley Park. However, his administration was subsequently accused of having dropped that community from the program, a charge Baker denies.
Regional homeownership has dropped between 1998 and 2017
(GBC regional report)

The plan also proposes additional pathways to homeownership tying homes to financial apprenticeship programs and life skills and homeownership training programs, suggestions that have been tried in Baltimore before.  It includes lease to own models in which renters become owners after seven years. The pathways involving public funds, non-profits and training are aiming to protect renters and homeowners against displacement.
The Baker Administration simply wants to protect current residents from the ills of major demographic shifts which often results when only private developers participate in housing rehabilitation and rents rise resulting in mass displacement. 
Baltimore has long had first-time homebuyer incentive programs that effectively provided homes for low income residents. But from Sandtown to Park Heights there have never been enough funds to provide sufficiently many affordable quality homes to really reduce the affordable housing crisis or to shift the paradigm in disinvested neighborhoods. Subsidy program have especially struggled to transition from expensive write downs to market driven investments on a scale that is needed to make a true dent on the stock of vacant houses. Real economically sustainable transformation requires rents or home prices that pay back the cost of rehabilitation or new construction.
The Baltimore region  is fourth last among 25 peers  in population
growth (GBC report)

Addressing the conundrum of attracting young new residents when city schools perform poorly, Baker points to the fact that there are now more childless households than with children and seems to suggest that Baltimore should focus on those demographics:
Hidden in the statistics regarding young people and childless rate among the college educated is a targeted opportunity for reversing the city’s population loss without significantly stressing her resources.
To attract the childless young, the Baker plan includes a list of incentives from sales tax holidays in targeted Enterprise Zones to relocation incentives given to folks that come here from high price markets such as New York and San Francisco. Influx of "millenials" seems to be working already, what isn't working is to retain residents to stem the ongoing flight out of the city.

The plan emphasizes over and over that it would vet and discuss all the suggestions and doesn't intend to impose anything. Overall the plan is detailed enough to include practical proposals, although the most convincing elements seem to come from the era in which cities mostly courted the Creative Class, a strategy that its own inventor, Richard Florida, has recently disavowed thanks to the effects it had on existing vulnerable populations. Still, the goal of population growth remains worthy since the City will hardly be able to bootstrap itself out of the downward spiral of sinking resources that come from a sinking population.
Baltimore area transportation troubles: Sinking transit ridership,
rising congestion (GBC regional report) 

The most memorable sentence in the paper comes towards the end:
Not since Robert Irsay snuck the Colts out of town in the thick of night has one individual done more to betray Baltimore then when Governor Hogan killed both the much-needed Red Line Light Rail funding and the State Center redevelopment projects.
 Baker promises nothing less than that with him as Governor "Baltimore's Red Line will be revived" and that he "will work with the Mayor, Comptroller, the Community and stakeholders to revisit and reignite" also the State Center project. He doesn't mention how the $900 million federal funds that Hogan rejected would find their way back to Baltimore.

At a minimum, Baker's Baltimore plan will force the other candidates to comes up with ideas for Baltimore as well, a welcome outcome given the tendency in some quarters to write Maryland's largest city off as a basket case. The plan proves that the candidate with the help of his Baltimore running mate Elizabeth Embry has a good grasp on some of Baltimore's issues and can provide a good foundation for discussion. Unfortunately, Baker didn't bother to discuss his ideas with the Mayor before making them public.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN: With Baltimore votes up for grabs, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Baker issues plan for city

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Arugula instead of steel - the next level of innovation?

Is a $9 million 100,000 sf industrial warehouse built and designated for hydroponic farming just another case where big capital hijacks community engagement, workforce development and food insecurity from grassroots efforts and community organizers? Will those patches of urban green with their plastic sheathed “hoop houses” where inner city kids can earn a dollar by selling tomatoes and lettuce soon be "toast", because the big boys are playing now? It certainly has some irony that arugula will soon be planted where once blast furnaces sprouted, especially if this latest new use once again would be a job killer. But it could also be a different story altogether.
Hydroponic space age greens

Gotham Greens, the Sparrows Point “farmer” talks about “reconnecting with the community through food”, but what community is he talking about? Dundalk’s nearby Turner Station? Sellers Point? Wagner’s Point, Fairfield? Not likely. More likely, the farm will grow arugula and other salads for Baltimore area restaurants and grocery stores, or, pure speculation, be merely a front for a time when Maryland will legalize marijuana all the way and large scale grow houses will be sought after cash cows, a development that is already reality in Denver.
Gotham Greens’ boxed lettuces have been popping up on the shelves of high-end grocers in New York and the Upper Midwest since 2009, and with names like “Windy City Crunch,” “Queens Crisp,” and “Blooming Brooklyn Iceberg,” it’s clear the company is selling a story as much as it is selling salad. (Amy Crawford, CityLab, 2/15/2018)
Urban gardens as a way of reconnecting to nature
In reality it isn't likely that the latest addition to the redevelopment that is now known as Tradepoint Atlantic would jeopardize any of the urban green patches cultivated in Baltimore City and County;  nor is it likely that it would soon morph into a hashish farm. Gotham Greens is on a different mission:
Gotham Greens’ pesticide-free produce is grown using ecologically sustainable methods in technologically-sophisticated, 100% clean energy powered, climate-controlled urban rooftop greenhouses. (Company website)
The fascinating part of this new urban farming is its potential to finally get us us closer to the vision of local food, sustainable production and safe intense farming.
Grown in hydroponic greenhouses on the rooftops of buildings in New York and Chicago, the greens are shipped to nearby stores and restaurants within hours of being harvested. That means a fresher product, less spoilage, and lower transportation emissions than a similar rural operation might have—plus, for the customer, the warm feeling of participating in a local food web. (Amy Crawford)
For all the talk about growing food near population centers where it is consumed, there has been woefully little evidence that food can actually grown in urban areas in the quantities that are needed to really make a dent in past trends that brought food from ever further away places to the ever larger metro areas. Green roofs, green community gardens, green walls, green facades or even greenhouses on roofs, none of it has become large or frequent enough to be anything but the tiniest drop in the big bucket of urban food needs.
“The real benefits of urban farming are engaging communities and revitalizing neighborhoods. We can make a big impact on a small number of people but urban agriculture is not going to end hunger. It’s not intuitive at all.” (Tyson Gersh, co-founder and farm manager at the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative in Detroit)
The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future supports this notion in a report published in May of last year. 
Johns Hopkins graphic about peri-agriculture
While difficult to tangibly measure, the preponderance of evidence suggests that urban agriculture’s most significant benefits center around its ability to increase social capital, community well-being, and civic engagement with the food system. The majority of literature in this area comes from studies of community gardens, but many urban farms have also established themselves as social enterprises dedicated more to social missions than to profits (Hopkins report)
It looks like Gotham Greens on Sparrows Point and community gardens operate in two different universes. Both are important responses to urbanization. The one provides a better notion of nature in the urban asphalt jungle while the other, in fact, moves food even further from nature than traditional agriculture has done already. Hydroponic food production in fully controlled environments is still in its infancy. Even basic research what artificial environment would be most conducive is still in its initial stages.
Urban farming for more equity, food access and workforce development
(Hoop farm Sandtown)
In the coming decades, it is expected that humanity will need to double the quantity of food, fiber, and fuel produced to meet global demands. However, growing seasons are predicted to become more volatile, and arable land (80% is already being used) is expected to significantly decrease, due to global warming [1]. Concurrently, public and private institutions are starting to take an increasing interest in producingspecific compounds and Urban Farming - A passing Fashion or a viable Solution?chemical elements using innovative agricultural platforms (MIT)
Rooftop greenhouses
Fully controlled environments in metro areas can produce higher yields than traditional farms which grow things on fields and are depending on seasons and weather. What temperature, light, moisture and air would grow which produce the best is still a field of intense exploration.
"Farmers know a lot about the conditions in their own environment, but not even the best farmer knows how to grow the plants optimally when you can control all these environmental factors at will," Risto Miikkulainen, vice president of research at Sentient (CityLab)
With its 100,000 square-feet in one space and its fully controlled environment Gotham Green's salad plant moves from Brooklyn's and Chicago's roof tops (video) to yet another scale and becomes maybe more space age innovation than snide arugula versus steel comments would suggest.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Gotham Green Press Release about its planned Sparrows Point location
Urban Farms Bring Us Together, but Can They Feed Enough of Us?

This article is part of a series of article on urban farming 

Urban Farming - A passing Fashion or a viable Solution?
Baltimore's urban green becomes famous for more than carrots and sticks
Green space for urban regeneration



Monday, May 14, 2018

Let's get the Quickbus back!

In MTA's many attempts of making the bus system more attractive, effective and reliable one particular idea stood out: The Quickbus. The name was coined by then deputy administrator Brown but the idea came from Bob Flannigan, Republican Governor Ehrlich's Secretary of Transportation.

When Flannigan and Ehrlich inherited the Red Line project and made it very clear that they were really more interested in a bus solution than light rail they did not kill the Red Line but let the New Starts project take its course and just made sure that a number of Rapid Bus alternatives were included in the analysis.
Quickbus 40 and special sign pylon at Greene Street

But MDOT's Flannigan also want to test some elements of a rapid bus on the heavily traveled east west corridor for which the Red Line was planned. Whether it was to give riders improvements faster than the Red Line would be realized or whether it was an attempt of reducing the need for the Red Line was hard to tell then and may never be known.  Fact is, he charged the MTA and consultants to study how a faster bus service could be overlaid over the existing #23 bus which went from Catonsville to Essex. On the western end the Secretary's deviated from the local bus route and followed the proposed Red Line alignment to Social Security and CMS. On th east side, he kept the local bus route and did not terminate the faster bus at Bayview where the Red Line would have ended but let the QB extend all the way to Essex.

Thus the QB 40 was born which soon became quite popular. It got its extra speed from skipping many lower level stops in favor of stops with high ridership or connections to other buses. The bus stops got some extra shelters and some were even equipped with new stop signs and next bus real time arrival signs. After the success of the Quickbus 40 three other Quickbus lines were introduced, some ran all day, some only in peak hours, some were completely congruent with a local service, some deviated a bit like the QB 40 did but all shared the distinction that they were an additional service in which nobody lost a bus stop and nobody lost a local service.

It is surprising, that the next Republican Governor who also preferred buses to the point that he killed the Red Line rail project then proceeded to also eliminate the Quickbus as part of the biggest bus overhaul in MTA's history.
WMATA buses in DC: Rapid and local 

The logic for taking out the Quickbus service was that the new Link system itself had a two tier service system, City Link and Local Link. The color coded City Link buses were supposed to be faster than the numbered Local Link service and the stops would be spaced a bit further apart. But the distinction between the two service types eluded most anyone from the get-go. It wasn't what WMATA or the Los Angeles MTA have, a set of local buses as the regular work-horses and a set of Rapid Buses taking riders on the main routes quicker to their destinations. Instead, City and Local Link represented more of a hierarchical differentiation in the system based on frequency of service, but even that distinction didn't hold the water if one studied headways for City and Local Link which were frequently the same.

The reality is, that in spite of more dedicated bus lanes, signal priority for buses on some signals (TSP) and shorter routes, the much touted distinction between City and Local Link service is lost on almost all riders. Faster service took a back-seat to more reliable or more frequent service. Today the MTA itself has given up on branding the fleet individually and, instead, mixes the buses up, no matter what the color scheme.
RapidRide, Seattle: Limited stops, faster service

The color coded buses are by no means as fast as the Quickbuses were, no matter that there is now some TSP and some dedicated bus lanes. Buses stop too often and are frequently too crowded. Thus, for example, the CityLink Blue which essentially runs on the western half of the old QB40 route is much more like the old #23 than the old QB 40.
Rapid buses in LA

There wouldn't be any more obvious improvement to the whole Link system than bringing the rapid overlay option back for the most heavily traveled routes such as Gold and Blue. It would follow a practice that has been successful in many other US cities, including Seattle, one of only two US cities where bus ridership actually increased. Rapid routes could also be the pilots for additional bus acceleration methods which MTA plans to introduce, such as all door boarding and cashless payment.

Sure, this will cost some extra money, especially if the service would not take substantially away from existing service already on the ground. But if Governor Hogan and his Secretary Rahn are really serious about giving Baltimore a modern, more customer friendly and faster bus, i.e. the best bus service possible, bringing the Quick Bus back would go along way.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related:
Transit After The Red Line: First Steps after the Blow

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Three year after the Red Line was killed the city is still reeling from the blow

Its coming up to the third anniversary of the memorable day when Maryland's Governor declared the largest ever infrastructure project of the State of Maryland a boondoggle and scuttled not only 13 years of engineering, design and community work but took billions of dollars away from the future of Maryland's largest city.
Baltimore's last hope? Better not. Uber plans flying txis

Are three years enough to consider this watershed in the larger framework of the history of this city instead of the ground-level dust of the many NIMBY debates that ofte obscured the view as they do on every large transportation project? An editorial in Thursday's SUN isn't promising. It continues to litigate some details of the approved Red Line design and posits the Right Rail's "alternative" as something that one should still think about. The writer essentially concedes that Hogan had a point when he railed against the downtown tunnel and then adds a perplexing new twist by identifying as the Red Line's flaw that it didn't exclusively serve those who are transit dependent.
While the Red Line would have served several impoverished black neighborhoods in West Baltimore, the eastern leg of the line would have primarily served affluent white areas along the waterfront.
There is overwhelming evidence that car-owning residents of affluent areas in Baltimore generally shun mass transit. Critics who have pilloried Governor Hogan for his decision on the Red Line do not appear to have considered whether it is sound transportation planning to spend an enormous sum of taxpayer money on a tunnel in order to provide transit to an area where ridership would likely be weak. These critics have likewise failed to present a convincing rationale as to why publicly funded economic development, along with years of disruption, should be directed to sections of the city where private development is strong.  (Op-ed by Christopher Muldor)
It takes a good bit of chutzpah to justify Hogan's robbery under the guise of equity! As if equity means to connect vulnerable communities of poor people without a car to other poor people without a car and not to connect vulnerable people to jobs, services and opportunities. Muldor, the op-ed writer, also misses entirely what it takes to tee up a major transportation project when he nonchalantly maintains that "Rejection of the Red Line does not mean that the only alternative is no new light rail line".
Capitol Hill Station: Seattle's new light rail tunnels

Contrary to what he says, that is exactly what it means! The last three years should have been enough to prove it. To yank a plan that had 13 years of design, vetting, community input, environmental and federal approvals worth almost a quarter billion dollars means to set the region back not only by those years but also all the additional time it took to develop a consensus in the shape of the 2000 regional rail plan. So with anything on a similar scale but different we are talking about almost 20 years before a shovel could go into the ground. This City can't afford to wait that long, whether one looks at job access, equity, congestion, crash rates or air pollution or the general lack of competitiveness that results from lacking good transportation.

Notice it took the region until this year to awake from its shock and arrive at a consensus in Annapolis that a new regional transit plan is needed. The city delegation was able to hitch a small funding request to the huge needs that the DC region had meticulously documented. So there is some money for a multimodal regional plan now, but anybody can imagine how tired people will be when they are asked once again to convene to develop a new transit plan vison!

Meanwhile where has this city gone in the last three years? Notice how Baltimore's path diverges in almost every respect from what most larger American cities are doing:  We are one of only two large US cities where population is going down, in spite of the much touted bus reform our bus ridership decline is in the top tier, we are the only one of a very few cities where crime is up, pedestrian crashes are up as well but the number of restaurants is down. Cynicism is way up.
Remaining a dream: Baltimore light rail tunnel

Some people will certainly object to any notion that these dire trends are caused by the Governor killing the Red Line. Sure, there isn't just one single cause, but what is to be expected if a city desperately in need of a shot in the arm gets robbed of three billion dollars that don't any longer flow into the local or regional economy but go for far-flung highways instead? The economic and the psychological toll of the governor's transit decision cannot be overestimated. A glance at the Purple Line, the sister project that Hogan let survive, albeit barely and on a a very strict financial diet, is enough to prove that even a hobbled project can leverage optimism, economic development and an entirely new perspective. Baltimore Avenue in College Park alone is proof that the promise of the Purple Line has tipped the long ailing corridor towards progress.

It is nice that the competing Democratic candidates for the governor's office all state that the Red Line is still needed but their chances to have to put their words into action are small in a State that in some kind of masochism likes to bash its own central city without which the State would barely be more than a suburb of DC.

Sure, Baltimore needs to preserve the already designed Red Line option and the associated right of way for the case that inside 20 years a new political constellation on the state and federal level would allow the project to re-emerge like a phoenix from the ashes. Baltimore, meanwhile, should move forward with community and economic development around some of the transportation nodes already considered as part of the Red Line station planning such as the West Baltimore Ice House, the Metro West office complex, and the Crown Cork and Seal complex in Highlandtown, all of which would make such a rail investment more viable.

Sure, the region needs to update its regional transit plan, not only to be more intermodal (not just rail) but also to be more prepared for new technologies which will inevitable revolutionize the transit industry, even if it won't be flying taxis one can hope. It may well be that eventually a new alternative of transit emerges which can move the region forward in as big a way as the Red Line would have done it. Repainted buses and additional beltway lanes sure ain't it. They don't give Baltimore the transportation lift it needs. And a re-opening the quibbles about the Red Line won't do it either.

A better understanding about how Maryland's economy really works and what role Baltimore plays in it would be a good start. So would be a serious resolve to truly address the lack of equity.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA



Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Will a Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund turn Baltimore around?

"We are not a second rate city, we just act like one" 
(Ryan Dorsey, Councilman on Twitter)

What a difference a few years make: Mayor Martin O'Malley used "building from strength"  as his blueprint based on Paul Brophy's paper, Great Neighborhoods-Great Cities published in 2009 by Goldsecker. Brophy and many others propagated investment in "Middle Neighborhoods" and "triage strategies".  Building from strength remained a lauded strategy until recently. Even in 2016 Brophy still published "on the Edge", a small book about "America's Middle Neighborhoods. The strategy suggests that cities need to spend their scarce money wisely, i.e. not where the needs are the highest but in those "Middle Neighborhoods" where fewer dollars can create a "tipping point", and prevent a stable neighborhood from sliding. In that line of thinking even public dollars need to create a noticeable return on investment (ROI) and should go where they have the biggest effect.
Build from market strength wherever it can be found. The long-standing governmental intervention strategy to try to improve the most distressed city neighborhoods has been challenging for populationlosing cities.5 What’s been missing is an understanding of neighborhoods in their market context. Increasingly, city planners and neighborhood improvement specialists are reporting that neighborhood improvement approaches that build from market strength are more likely to be successful than when that market strength is absent. (Paul Brophy, Goldsecker series Great Neighborhoods, Great Cities)
The building from strength strategy was in many ways a response to Jim Rouse's attempt of fixing Sandtown which he considered as a worst case scenario (if you can fix Sandtown, you can fix anything). As we know, over a $100 million spent on Sandtown disappeared like the famous drop in the bucket without resulting in a convincing turn-around.
The persistent concentration of vacant structures in Baltimore

Still, after the unrest of 2015 which ironically originated in Sandtown, the tide has turned again and the new focus is equity. In 2017 Baltimore's Planning Department analyses the Baltimore cities public budget and finds (in the words of the Baltimore SUN):
Over the past five years, the budget allocated an average of $15 million for projects in Baltimore neighborhoods where more than 75 percent of residents are white. In areas where more than 75 percent of people are minorities, the figure was $8 million.
It was rightly observed that such a lopsided spending of public dollars widens the already wide gulf of discrepancies and increases the inequity that those numbers not only prove but have caused through history. The equity lens moves away from economic terms and puts the focus back on needs.

So what strategy is right? Should the public dollars not be spent as investments that yield a return but as equity payments designed to eliminate the vast imbalances between neighborhoods? That is certainly what Morgan Professor Lawrence Brown suggests in an interview with the SUN:
“Equity means investing the most where people have the least, or in communities that have the least to help address historical injustices or imbalances. When you’re giving more to those who have more, it really begs the question: Where is the focus on equity?”
No city ever demolished itself to prosperity (or equity)
The building from strength strategy juxtaposed with the equity lens matches a number of other binary narratives, such as downtown versus neighborhoods, white L versus black butterfly, rich investors versus the people, all "alternatives which are all too familiar to anybody interested in the question how Baltimore should move forward . But are these true alternatives, describe these poles describe the choices accurately? Is the choice between Venezuela and Dubai, to use two countries that stand for similar extremes? Sure, the choice of Venezuela as an example is loaded, the explanation that Hugo Chavez' attempt of spreading the wealth has bankrupted the country isn't shared by all. But it is instructional for a discussion about how to reconcile justice with economic viability. Lately an idea tested in other cities has surfaced in Baltimore, the community investment fund.
Mayor Catherine Pugh on Wednesday said she was taking steps to create an investment fund to help lure development to Baltimore’s most troubled neighborhoods. The Democratic mayor said she planned to raise $55 million by leasing several city-owned parking garages and use the money to establish what she calls the Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund. (Luke Broadwater, Baltimore SUN)
This gets us back to Baltimore and the Mayor's idea of a neighborhood impact investment fund fueled by money from lucrative city garages (through sale or lease) and some of the other competing ideas for an affordable housing fund or for an equity fund: All those ideas are focused on the source of money and based on the desire to spend it in areas where "the market" wouldn't do it. At least not without a kick-start.
But how and where should such money be spent? Where it leverages other investments and brings a return (for example an increased tax base) or where the needs are the biggest?  While these funds are debated and introduced as bills, the question of how and where the money should be spent hasn't been asked with any kind of urgency, the blatantly obvious needs being so overwhelming that the answer seems obvious.
The fund will be designed to focus on the city’s historically-neglected neighborhoods that the federal government defines as “severely distressed” — a swath of the city that includes much of East and West Baltimore. SUN
This looks like it leads right back to Jim Rouse's Sandtown conundrum. There must be a new way of looking at this. Maybe it is unproductive to juxtapose economy and ethics in a binary manner, maybe those alternatives do nothing but poison the public debate. The pairing isn't even logical because comparing an economic approach with a moral approach is mixing apples and oranges. As if no economically sensible approach could be moral or as if no moral approach could ever be economically feasible.
Cincinnati: Preservation and investment fund  in Over the Rhine. (
Photo: Philipsen)

The criteria that the private reinvestment fund established for the renaissance of Barclay/Greenmount West and Oliver are instructive. They were applied in vulnerable communities, not in affluent white communities, and not even in "middle" communities, but in communities of color with a history of severe disinvestment, abandonment and crime (just remember the arson to kill the Dawson family for snitching in Oliver). They combine socially responsible investment, equity and economic development. That fund did not just sprinkle money around, but invested strategically until enough properties were rehabilitated so that a market emerged that allowed homes to be priced at least at the cost of construction and development.  In other words, the fund owners saw their investment appreciate and begin to show a return.
 
From Reinvestment Fund website:
  • Scarce public subsidies alone cannot create a market where none exists;
  • Public subsidy must leverage or clear the path for private investment;
  • Public subsidy in distressed markets should build from local nodes of strength, (i.e. transportation hubs, parks, public amenities, and anchor institutions);
  • Decisions about places must be informed by empirical data; and
  • All city residents are consumers who expect quality services.
The strategy worked because the communities where the private reinvestment fund operated where not islands in a sea of misery and they were not vast areas themselves. Instead they bordered areas of relative strength or areas that were clear geographic boundaries and back-stops, such as the Greenmount cemetery, a railroad or the Charles Street corridor. The reinvestment in Oliver did rely on the presence of the vast public/private investment of EBDI in spite of all the social and political baggage this renewal program carries. The fact is, without the massive interventions and investments in EBDI, by the non-profit,  the private and the public sector, East Baltimore wouldn't see the Food Hub, Hunanim, the Gay Street corridor revitalization or the rebirth of Oliver. There wouldn't be a investment team interested in Oldtown, Somerset and Perkins Homes.

The believers in the old binary have already lined up to denounce all of these investemnts as gentrification and essentially insinuating  that Baltimore would be better off if these projects would have never happened. Surely, in one way or another all these projects challenged the status quo, and mean change for the existing residents, even where they were protected as in Barclay and Oliver. But there are big differences in the projects and how they were conceived and executed. While EBDI barged in with massive relocation and displacement, Oliver and Barclay kept every household that wanted to stay in place. because  the status quo just is so terribly unacceptable, any path forward will have to change it by definition, including dislodging the entrenched poverty not through displacement but through empowerment.  If better housing, access to transportation, better access to jobs and services are truly baked into the revitalization of neighborhoods, then those investments can have a return for investors and for residents who are finally enabled to participate in the urban economy.
At Reinvestment Fund, our mission is to build wealth and opportunity for low-wealth people and places through the promotion of socially and environmentally responsible development.(website)
Investments funds that will do that, would unlock the biggest treasure Baltimore has to offer: Its large population of people who have been locked away without hope, access and opportunity. Baltimore has barely moved the needle on its poverty rate in 50 years. It won't change a thing, though, if reinvestment money (whether it is private or public) is simply thrown at the biggest issues without a very clear strategy on how those public dollars eventually leverage private investment and create lasting value which in turn must be shared.
Barclay: Investment on Greenmount Avenue (Photo: Philipsen)

There is plenty of private money sloshing around the globe and there are plenty of investors eyeing second tier cities such as Baltimore for an opportunity to put their money to work. It is up to the community and their political representatives to ensure that those investment combine economical sustainability with moral values. As the Mayor rightly observed, successful investment funds have been created in many other cities. Community Architect reported in some detail about Cincinnati's investments in the two neighborhoods which define Over the Rhine, an instructive example in which the private sector resolved to take charge in a socially responsible manner and as an answer to social unrest in their city.
Equity is not just about fairness and social justice. Equity drives economic growth—smart and sustainable growth. Equity is about working together, honestly and openly, to create a new, single snapshot of a city where everyone has a spot to fill and an active role to play. (All in Cincinnati)
Targeted investment in this manner is a far cry from Baltimore's prevailing practice of the past where it is open doors to "anything goes" coated with give-aways of hard earned public funds. This was the way how development of any kind was long welcomed here. Eeven in Vacants to values investors were not screened enough so that a revolving door emerged in which incapable or irresponsible investors failed and brought many vacants right back into the pool the city manages.

But if public dollars are strategically placed as part of a clear masterplan and game-plan which is transparent and predictable the outcomes can produce a heavy lift. Transparency and predictability are two things both the investors and the public really like to see. If Baltimore would overlay a concise growth strategy with clear ethical values and equity goals it could live up to its promise of becoming a first rate city again. Vigilance is needed. People with lots of money won't always voluntarily do the right thing. By harnessing greed with an economic development strategy that combines equity with ROI Baltimore will finally be able to address its vast needs.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on this blog or from this author:
Disparities in Capital Funding
The secrets of comeback neighborhoods (Smart Cities Dive)
On the Edge, America's Middle Neighborhoods

Study finds deep racial disparities in way Baltimore allocates public construction dollars

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Open heart surgery in Baltimore's downtown?

Public buildings often accurately reflect the beliefs, priorities, and aspirations of a people. … For much of our history, the courthouse has served not just as a local center of the law and government but as a meeting ground, cultural hub, and social gathering place. -- Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (US Supreme Court, 1972–1987)

It has become cheap fare to talk about the inevitability of change, to even embrace disruption but rarely comes a disruptive move along so stealthily and at the same time with so much advance notice as the one hidden in a brief article in Baltimore's edition of the BBJ this week. Its headline:
Metro West complex eyed for new Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse. Everybody has heard this before, the existing courthouse is not up to snuff, the mater has been studied for years, so what's the big deal? In one more move the Maryland Stadium Authority, a State agency which now routinely determines the future of all kinds of things in Baltimore (schools, arenas, had issued a request for expressions of interest by MSA in December of 2016. It must have taken a long time to evaluate the seven responses or maybe it just took a long time until someone remembered to ask what had been proposed as the BBJ did. As a result the journal now holds the results in its hands as the one who engaged in the weeks of wrangling it takes to succeed in a public information request. 
The Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse and the Battle Monument

The finding is pretty explosive. While previous studies contemplated rehabilitation or new construction in the immediate vicinity, this time MSA declared the most cost effective idea to be the one which moves the court house to the Metro West complex on Mulberry and Franklin Street in Baltimore's Westside at the western fringe of downtown, a 1.1 million square foot suburban urban renewal style development which the Social Security Administration left vacant when the administration moved their functions to a brand-new building at the Reisterstown Plaza Metro station. MSA figures that it would cost a cool $400 million to modify what Social Security abandoned so the complex would suit the needs of the Circuit Court. The complex is now in the hands of a private developer and as it has become current  practice, hope to find the big chunk of money needed for the suggested solution resides with a private public partnership of sorts in which the City could lease the space from the developer and thus pay  for the renovation over time. The 2016 request for expressions of interest searching for "firms" can only be understood if one subscribes to this new belief that the public is best served when the private sector finances what used to be built from public funds or municipal bonds:
The Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) is seeking Expressions of Interest (EOI) from qualified firms to address the renovation and/or replacement of the existing Circuit Courthouse Complex in Baltimore City (the “Complex”).
The Complex is comprised of the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse (opened in 1900) and Courthouse East (opened in 1932). The age and design of the Complex are negatively impacting the operation of the facilities. MSA and the Circuit Court for Baltimore City (the “Court”) are seeking options to address this issue. Options to be considered include, but are not limited to, one, or a combination of, the following.
1. Housing all or most of the Circuit Courthouse Complex in a new or renovated building at a suitable location in the City of Baltimore other than the current Circuit Courthouse Complex;
2. Construction of a new criminal courthouse “adjacent” to the existing Circuit Courthouse Complex to provide a modern and secure criminal court facility, together with whatever other improvements to the current Circuit Courthouse Complex are feasible;
3. New use options for either or both of the existing courthouse buildings if the courthouse function moves from the current Circuit Courthouse Complex to another location; and
4. Financing alternatives for the options listed above, including, but not limited to, long term leases and public/private partnerships. (MSA ROI)
It is easy to list all the shortcomings of historic buildings from building systems to exit and security conditions and it is equally easy to imagine that a larger, more modern structure facilitates the remedy of those issues. That much was already established in a detailed report completed in 2011.
The old post office, the Courthouse East
In the early 21st  century, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City struggles with dire existing building conditions, including spaces that are unsafe, dysfunctional, and lacking in necessary features that would allow for the respectful and dignified dispensing
of justice. (AECOM report)
But the issue goes way beyond codes and systems, nothing less than the health of Baltimore's historic civic is at stake. If the removal of the Social Security functions from the already ailing Westside was traumatic, the removal of those two courthouses from Baltimore's historic downtown core is like open heart surgery.  What makes up the civic heart of a city cannot be reduced to engineering questions, and it shouldn't be simply a matter of the trickiest financing, since it involves an entire eco-system of court related offices and services and plazas and spaces which are iconic public speech areas and represent the civic identity of an entire city.

Unlike the move of the SSA from MetroWest in which the future of the abandoned hulk was apparently never a serious consideration, the scope of the MSA request includes under #3 the item "new use options for the old buildings". Apparently those options didn't catch the attention of the BBJ, since the article didn't mention those suggested uses. Whatever they may be, if they exist at all, they won't have the civic importance of a court house which has been the quintessential center of American cities and towns for centuries, especially in the northeast.
In 1885, Baltimore City set out to build the most beautiful Courthouse in the country. Fifteen years, and $2.2 million later ($56 million adjusted for inflation), that goal was realized. On January 6, 1900, the Baltimore Sun reported that the City of Baltimore had built a “temple of justice, second to no other in the world.” The building, which is a magnificent exemplification of Renaissance Revival architecture, continues to stand as a monument to the progress of the great city of Baltimore, and to the importance of the rule of law. 
Historic image of the old Courthouse
In spite of Baltimore's rich architectural heritage, there are few buildings that ever set out to set such a high standard, namely to be the most beautiful in the country. That the result was a "temple of justice second to no other in the world" may have been local hyperbole by a reporter going a bit far just like that O'Malley slogan on Baltimore's park benches ("Baltimore the greatest city in America") but even and worn as the buildings are from heavy use over their 133 years of life, they still offer that same magnificence.
Today, this main building in the Baltimore City Circuit Court complex is referred to as the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse in honor of the local lawyer and nationally respected civil rights leader. Most of the original splendor of this massive building can still be enjoyed, including the granite foundation, marble facades, huge brass doors, mosaic tiled floors, mahogany paneling, two of the world’s most beautiful courtrooms, domed art skylights, gigantic marble columns, and beautifully painted murals. In addition, the Courthouse is home to one of the oldest private law libraries in the country, and to the Museum of Baltimore Legal History.(Baltimore Heritage)
Emphasizing the historic splendor of the buildings doesn't mean to deny that the role of court buildings in society has changed or that the grand old buildings are entirely beyond reproach when it comes to adjusting them to current societal needs. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has written a very cogent piece titled "Reinventing the Courthouse"  in which those changing needs are openly addressed. But the article by PPS is advocating for more civic integration and openness, not for less as in vacating civic icons in favor of a concrete fortress located at the edge of a downtown bypass and the terminus of an ill conceived highway to nowhere. There is hardly a city office complex that is so little engaged with the surrounding city as Metro Center West. This is not what PPS advocates in its piece about the future of courthouses:
We need a new way of looking at community institutions. Public buildings – including courts, as well as schools, government buildings, cultural institutions, theaters, hospitals, and many others – have become isolated, rather than integrated. Design, rather than place, has become the focus. We must explore how to help these institutions collaboratively become community anchors.
The Metro West complex at the terminus of the "highway to nowhere"
The thing is, Baltimore's two historic courthouses facing each other across Calvert Street and the Battle Monument Square are excellent examples of "place making". Or as Baltimore's historic landmark list puts it:
The courthouse and old post office echo one another’s scale and form a well-proportioned setting for the Battle Monument, by Maximilien Godefroy.
It doesn't matter much that the Courthouse East, the younger of the two was originally a post office and a federal court, both functions were removed in 1932 and reside today in 1970s structures that are universally considered as pretty awful. Nor does it matter that the Mitchell Courthouse of 1885 was the third courthouse in this location, showing that change has been permanent throughout the centuries.  It doesn't matter, because those historic upheavals prove that this area of the city has been the nexus of civic functions for a very long time. By no means does the volatile past justify to deplete the area of its civic heart altogether.

The 2011 report had reduced the number of redevelopment options of a 2003 study and had wisely assumed that a new building would be erected that was connected to the existing Courthouse East and include the continued use of the historic buildings. Thus the courthouse complex would have been enhanced and not dismantled.

The good news is, that even the most fabulous P3 will not easily come up with $400 million. What the BBJ brought to light has not been publicly vetted and apparently not even brought up to the attention of our Mayor. Since the article states that the State has no intention of funding the project and expects the City to come up with a solution for the cost, it can be predicted that the courts won't move in a hurry. Maybe they shouldn't move for good at all, and the currently empty MetroWest would be simply a temporary place where certain functions could be relocated while the historic buildings get fixed up, resolving the vexing problem of how comprehensive work could be performed inside an already crowded facility while it remains in full operation. Or one would go back to the thoughts of the 2011 study.
Metro West as seen from the southeast (Saratoga Street in foreground left)

Suggesting that Baltimore's main court complex should move for good is like the Catholic church relocating its headquarters from the Vatican to a newer, more modern part of Rome. Or housing the President in a new private residence with a lease-back option because the White House was built without HVAC and hard to adjust to the modern building codes and security concerns.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

A vision is needed for Metro West