Friday, February 16, 2018

What exactly was behind the Metro shut-down?

Friday morning in Annapolis Baltimore County Delegate Charles Sydnor had the opportunity to ask the Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn the same question that tens of thousands of MTA Metro riders have been asking for a week since Metro had been shut down in its entirety: " couldn't you wait for another day or two so riders could prepare?".
Rail wear illustration 

Rahn had just elaborated on what caused him to decide that Metro couldn't run from one day to another. At one point he said "unfortunately the engineers were off" referring to a 2015 estimate how long the existing rails would last. He than talked about the "rail slope" (technical speak: Gauge Face Angle (GFA) which is supposed to not be over 26 degrees.

Secretary Rahn flanked by administrator Quinn reported first to the County and then the City delegations. He stated that the wear had been regularly measured and visually observed, but apparently Metro doesn't have the right wear measurement tools such as "the Mini-Prof instrument and software" to get results. Rahn noted that over the observation period the angle values went up but that "some went down" explaining this with "This isn't an exact science".

In the end MTA relied on a consultant doing additional rail observations between January 23 and 29. The results are summarized in a report from the engineering firm HNTB which was made public this week and which indicates Gauge Face Angles in curves as high as 28.7, i.e 2.7 degrees above what is considered a conservative safety limit. Deviations are also measured in inches of top and side wear, anything over a 3/4" is considered beyond the safety standard. The one or the other condtion was observed in most curves above and below ground. The 26 degree metric is not universal, some systems use higher numbers.
Secretary Pete Rahn in Annapolis on Friday

In response to the Delegate's question Rahn emphasized: “Once we are informed that something isn’t safe we act”. He didn't say that this was more a matter of liability than one of an actual threat to life and limb, especially since trains already ran at reduced speeds of 20-25mph across the worn sections of rail. It is probably true that no train would actually have derailed in the next two days or even two weeks, but the truth is that no lawyer would absolve the MTA from the full liability should it have continued to run trains even after it had received explicit knowledge of the safety standard deviation. "We couldn't wait until summer", Rahn explained, presumably the time when a full rail replacement had been planned anyway. The bummer: Rahn explained that the current repairs won't replace the summer shutdown. That remains on the schedule.

The matter was deemed urgent enough that even colleagues from WMATA were dispatched on Monday,  WMATA being a system that has experienced a 29 hour emergency shutdown of a much larger system in 2016. WMATA's General Manager Paul Wiedefeld served as MTA's administrator from 2007-09.
Steel wheels need to be calibrated and "trued"

The Washington Post observed that
"the shutdown announcement elevated Baltimore’s three-decade-old subway to poster-child status in the conversation about the nation’s decaying infrastructure on the day the Trump administration announced its long-awaited infrastructure plan". (WP)
Robert Puentes, a national transportation expert noted that an abrupt one month shutdown of an urban rail system was unprcedented in the US. There are, of course, troubling circumstances around this shut-down, including: 
  • why the extensive single tracking of the last few months done precisely for track repair wasn't used to eliminate the most egregious wear points within the inconvenience that the single tracking already caused riders.
  • why there was no contingency plan ready to be implemented in the case of a shutdown that would organize a functional bus bridge and the signage and personnel needed to guide riders to the buses. (Instead Governor Hogan needed the weekend to find $2 million of emergency funds that allowed leasing of 21 intercity coaches from the private bus company Dillon).
  • why excessive wear continued after unusual track wear had already been observed. Track wear can be reduced through vehicle "wheel truing" and rail lubrication
  • the  publish wear measurements do not look alarmingly worse than those of 2016
Governor Hogan may be motivated by the entire episode to further support magnetically propulsed and levitated trains which have no known rail wear of this kind because they don't touch the guideway, except in stations. But the general public would probably prefer that the MTA pays more attention to the everyday needs of its riders instead of chasing pipe dreams such as the Hyperloop and a 330 mph maglev shuttle from DC to Baltimore. To which Secretary Rahn responds: "We are making significant investments in transit right now", referring to planned rail investments on Metro and light rail and the new Metro cars as well as the mid-life overhaul of the light rail vehicles currently underway. Problem is, all those investments were already planned and funded under the previous Governor, including Purple and Red Lines, which are now either limping forward (Purple Line) or canned altogether (Red Line). Rahn explained happily where the money is going now, rattling down an entire litany of multi-billion dollar beltway and Interstate expansion projects.
Diagram explaining stresses on rail in curves

In the mundane world of conventional rail technology steel wheel trains race with 200-300 miles per hour over conventional tracks every single day. In the mundane world of subways, legacy system in  Phildelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago, London and Paris have been in service for over a hundred years and never experienced an extended full system shutdown.

Rail wear happens on any of those systems, the faster, the more wear. Baltomore's Metro top speed is 60mph, not earth shattering, but in tight curves it can still create the friction that one can often hear as wheel squealing.
For railed vehicles rounding a bend, dynamic behavior modifies a combination of centrifugal and tread steering forces determined by speed, track radius, track cant and vehicle wheelbase. Forces opposing movement include air resistance, bearing friction and rolling resistance.
Engineers state that vehicle primary performance and steering force occurs in a tiny interface area between the coned wheel tread and the transversely-radiused railhead, known as the contact patch. (Understanding the wheel/rail interface)
Baltimore's anemic subway of a single line at its peak transported  50,000 riders every day. Current ridership levels (before the shutdown and single tracking) were provided as 40,000 daily riders. That is about the entire population of a city such as York Pennsylvania. Too many people to leave stranded at locked gates without access to any type of transit that would travel on the same route. Of course, the MTA realized that as well, and only the about 17,000 weekend riders were really left high and dry until the so called "bus-bridge" had been installed. The first day of the bus bridge was an unmitigated mess, but by now it works pretty well according to MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn.
Min-Prof tool for measuring rail

A full shut-down is also planned for Light Rail in order to fix the rails on Howard Street which are in such poor condition that a layperson can see the degradation and misalignment with the naked eye. What the agency doesn't seem to understand is that jaded riders may never come back to ride the rails once they have been shut out. MTA already shut down light rail once before when it installed a second track under Governor Glendening. The system never recovered from the disruption, ridership levels that had been around the 30,000 a day projection is hovering ever since in the mid and lower 20k range.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Update: see bus route information below

Measurements of rail in different loactions (ML) 2016 and 2018 comparison








Thursday, February 15, 2018

Rejuvenating an old engineering firm in a historic building

Architects and engineers typically collaborate on just about any project and the usual fault line is where architects emphasize form and creative innovation engineers emphasize function and experience.  Engineering offices used to show that emphasis on taking the safe route, architects would deride them as stuffy.

But lately this has changed and traditional stalwart engineering firms have moved into the hip zone, locationally and in their interior design. Whitman Requart moved from Old Goucher to the waterfront on Caroline Street, MCCormick Taylor has a trendy office in the Bagby Building and now RK&K has moved from their old headquarter on Mosher Street near MICA into the Candler Building on Pratt Street. The interior design is anything but stuffy.
modern graphics, colors and shapes
(Photo: Philipsen)

Will design influence the company culture as well? Maybe, this is asking the question backwards since no office could look as cool as RK&K's if the partners wouldn't agree to it. As Mat Hayek who managed the construction tells it, partner Tom Mohler played a mayor role in casting the concepts that Judith James from Arris Design Studio translated into detailed designs. There are the obvious references to RK&K's work: gabions (rock cages), steel panels, rebar (steel rods used for reinforcement of concrete), core drilling samples, concrete and wood. Then there are the subtler innovations such as bringing the civil and the transportation engineers into closer contact allowing collaboration. Three separate city offices are now united under one roof and on two connected floors encompassing a total of 116,000 sf of contiguous space subdivided only by low movable partitions placed in a honeycomb web on the open floors and the perimeter glass enclosed offices for directors, principals and meetings.

"We have no cost centers", says Henry Kay, Director of Transit & Rail at RK&K, "we don't have groups competing with each other". The company has five partners who are all equals and who are  all actively involved in the goings of the daily work. In spite of the companies growth, the company has branch offices in Pennsylvania, Delaware, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina,  Florida and Texas and employs about 450 people in its headquarters, the company has not gone on a merger or acquisition spree "in order to maintain the company culture", Kay says.  The construction cost of the tenant fit out in the Candler building which was purchased in 2017 by American Real Estate partners, wasn't disclosed, but Hayek says that the design was also reviewed and influenced by the employees in focus groups. RK&K has a storied tradition in Baltimore going back to 1936 when Ed Rummel joined  Sandlass Wieman Consulting Engineers firm and eventually turned it into Rummel, Klepper and Kahl.
rebar in the office reception area (Photo: Philipsen)

No longer is it a company of slide-rule wizards with pocket protectors but a company in which young professionals cherishing urbanity and hipness almost as much as employees in a start-up.

Not quite a start-up, though: The new offices don't have ping-pong tables, nobody runs a skateboard through the office and the fashionable long hightop in the kitchen sits deserted instead of being used for plan review over cappucino. Apparently considering the raw concrete columns as too un-cozy one employee wrapped the one at her cubicle with photo-realistic wallpaper depicting a roaring fireplace, a director has placed the old lawyer-style former desk of a principal in his office. The open floor is eerily quiet, not only thanks to the carpeted floor, but also because of ceiling disks which emit a barely audible swooshing voice-canceling background noise.

The offices also don't break sustainability barriers in spite of energy efficient LED lighting, Energy Star appliances and an occasional VRV heating-cooling unit, since the majority of the space depends on the building's traditional HVAC system with overhead exposed ducts, vast central
Core drill samples for  the Red Line (Photo: Philipsen)
air handlers and cooling towers on the roof.

The Candler building at Pratt and Market Place has an even longer history than its most recent user and goes back to 1912. The building was not designed for or by one owner but as a speculative facility for a number of possible manufacturing tenants. Over time it housed the Coca Cola Company and from 1936 until 1960 the headquarters of the Social Security Administration, before it went to Woodlawn. The spaces which the engineering firm now leases were last occupied by BGE-Constellation-Exelon before that company moved to HarborPoint. The National Register application for the Candler building includes this information:
The building is the earliest Baltimore example of an "industrial building" which was constructed in order to offer smaller manufacturers office and work spaces for their products. One of the first tenants in the building was the Coca Cola
Company, since Mr. Asa Candler, who invented the soft drink, constructed the building. It is a twelve-story red brick building an eight-story rear portion. [..]
..a railroad siding occupies three full bays and runs from North to South the
length of the structure . The sidings, platforms, and ten fre i ght
elevators give the building outstanding conveniences as a manufacutring
site with the extensive handling of material that it
entails . Heavy concrete cloors throughout the upper floors and
a flexible floorplan add to its usefulness as a manufacturing
facility. ...
In its early days of the 1920's, the loft building was part of a busy wharf area , with shipping lines across Pratt Street on Pier 4 and 5 . The large "Coca Cola sign" on the roof was a landmark for seamen up and down the East Coast. The railroad ran to the building and streetcars ran up and down Pratt and Lombard.
The history of the Candler Building
The freight elevators, the old railway bays, the ventilation cores, all of that helps to give RK&K's offices character and and a layout that no modern building can easily duplicate. Here is a dual concrete column with pieces of a broken brick veneer indicating the spot where the older 2012 building and the later addition meet. There are some original wire-glass wood windows revealing the shape of an of the old exit stairways placed along the exterior wall which allows some filtered daylight to penetrate all the way to the office.

The Candler is part of the great game of musical chairs of Baltimore office buildings in which owners and tenants move the center of activity towards the waterfront. The Candler's first major renovation occurred in the first half of the 1980's. The new owner is currently fixing up the brick and concrete facade in a $1.2 million restoration effort and plans to rip out all the relatively new marble in the lobby to return it to the industrial look. Not the one the first floor had when Coca Cola was bottled and shipped here but the one that is currently chic and on display in the engineering offices on the fifth and sixth floor.

unexpected twists and views (Photo: Philipsen)
Meanwhile MICA bought RK&K's old headquarters, the 50,000 squarefoot building on Mosher Street, where the engineers had been since 1987. Reportedly the College bought the building not for their own use but as space for incubators and start-ups expected to sprout in the college's orbit.

The Mosher Street building, located hard against the JFX, has a lot in common with the Candler: It was built in the same decade (1910), it too served an internationally known company (International Harvester) and it, too, was served by a railroad spur with a bay set aside for the train inside the building.

The Harvester building, the Coca Cola building, MICA and RK&K, Social Security and BGE mirror the story of Baltimore, a story in which the city's internationally known manufacturing companies get replaced by service companies which sometimes get absorbed by out of town conglomerations such as Exelon, or leave town for the burbs, such as Social Security.

RK&K, by contrast, remains firmly in local hands. Around half of the company's employees live in the city. Their vote for the Candler is proof that urbanity and authenticity matter to architects, engineers and investors alike; two metrics in which Baltimore has much to offer.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about RRK's digs.

The marble lobby will soon be a thing of the past (Photo: Philipsen)

raw columns, exposed ducts and glass wall office enclosures (Photo: Philipsen)

traditional work cubicles in non traditional angles

glimpses of the past: Original stairway windows

possibilities of hip brainstorming: The kitchen high-top (Photo: Philipsen)

work spaces for guests and visiting staff: Ready for hook-up (Photo: Philipsen)

two levels connected by an open stair (Photo: Philipsen)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

How Ken Ulman turned a stunning loss into a big win

College Park bears the fact that it has a big anchor institution in its name, but the anchor sometimes felt like a drag on the town when drunk college students set trash cans on fire in the town center. In a national hitlist of memorable college towns College Park would land in the lower half somewhere below Tempe and Chapel Hill when the metrics are hipness, amenities or character. Too close to DC, too much a suburb, too much a string along development along highway one.
The University campus in College Park 

All that has changed with Governor Hogan's victory in the Maryland gubernatorial election in 2014. Not so much because of what the Governor did (except allowing the Purple Line transit project to survive on shoe-string budget) but because of what losing Democratic lieutenant governor candidate,  former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, did. He quickly found a new job as a consultant advising the University of Maryland at College Park.
“I have often said the future of this university is tied to the future of the surrounding community, and we must make investments that spark economic development in College Park and across Maryland. We are pleased Ken is bringing his expertise from smart economic growth in Howard County here to our university and community.” UMD President Wallace D. Loh when announcing Ulman's appointment
Ulman came onboard at the right moment. UM had a new President since 2010 who understood that flagship universities have to care about the community where they reside, the University's Foundation was willing to leverage its assets and College Park was about to have a new mayor who was willing to bury the war hatchet that had been out between the university and the town when UM had a different president. Ulman's task was formidable: Diversify revenue streams, foster investment by businesses, philanthropies and venture capital firms in start-ups, incubators and programs at the University, create jobs, spark growth and bring investment to the university research park while furthering the Route 1 corridor as a vibrant college and commercial community.
The Discovery District creating a link between Metro station and campus

Of course, the economy was humming along  as well. As a result of this splendid constellation of forces Ulman today can look back at those last three years and see a fundamentally altered place.
  • US 1 is no longer a seedy strip but well on its way of becoming a main street named Baltimore Street (Ulman makes a point of not calling it any longer "US 1", he says "Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase isn't called MD 185  either"). There is a $170 million posh four star hotel on the north end and a mixed use development with a Whole Foods on the south, with smaller interventions such as a Milk Boy Art House in between.
  • the campus has a new face towards Baltimore Street with the 215,000 sf Iribe Center, a computer science and innovation center design by HDR, a multinational firm with locations in Baltimore and Washington
  • there is a new Discovery District (aka Innovation District) which is designed to straddle Baltimore Street near the hotel and Iribe Center
  • there will be five anticipated Purple Line  stations on campus with a campus fare free zone
  • a TOD and research district near the Metro Station is taking shape which will be connected to the main campus via a new bridge
    how it all fits together: Campus, innovation district and research park
Ulman, whose intellectual prowess hides behind the physique of a jock, set out to embed the previously isolated campus in the community. This gave the town a stronger identity and the university a new district for expansion and the accommodation of start-ups. Most universities now pride themselves of keeping young entrepreneurs around who like to not cut the umbilical chord to their alma mater entirely yet and prefer to hang out in incubator and co-working spaces benefiting form the glow of the academic setting. A typical win-win.

The fuel and glue for much of the action came from the university's Foundation which was willing and able to throw real estate assets and liquidity into the game to leverage pivotal properties change agents, such as the Milk Boy art house.

Ulman tells the story of a WMATA development site next to its College Park Metro station: The transit agency's real estate arm couldn't find a taker in spite of three rounds of requests for proposals. When they prepared for a fourth RFP, Ulman recounts, that he told them to wait until a joint developers conference showcasing the entire concept would be organized. The event took place in 2015 with a show-and-tell presented by UM and WMATA to which developers flocked to learn about the big masterplan for the college, the town and the innovation district. The event culminated in a bus tour with a stop at the Metro Station and the development site. In the bigger context the site didn't look quite so bleak and forlorn any longer. As Ulman tells it, WMATA's next RFP received eight proposals. Since then Gilbane has since been selected as the developer to build some 440 apartments next to the station.
The UM campus as everybody knows it (Photo: Philipsen)

Ulman delivers the anecdotes and stories in rapid fire, accompanied by a series of slides showing in diagrams, renderings and photos the dreams, the projected future, the pathways to it, and already realized plans. (Some of the images illustrate this article).  For example when he says he insisted on keeping the first floor of the giant garage between the new hotel reserved for an active pedestrian friendly use. It is now a University co-working space. A utilitarian space behind the garage will be transformed in a gathering space with outdoor seating setting the area up to be more inviting for the discovery park to jump across Route 1. Those small interventions can be catalytic and they never happen on their own. They require someone who follows a bigger vision and can see which smaller action could leverage a bigger one, setting off the virtuous cycles or positive feedback loops which I keep writing about.

One can't help but believing that a convincing narrative produced by a person strategically placed in a net of power (in Ulman's case with direct access to the UM President, the town Mayor, the financial resources of a Foundation that trusts his instincts) and equipped with connections from the past (in Ulman's case his time as county exec) is the secret sauce to get things going. That such a person is needed even when the stars are perfectly aligned.

The Iribe Center in its final stages of completion (Photo: Philipsen)


Coming from Baltimore, one can't help but wish that someone could put the Baltimore story together in such an infectious manner. I am in awe about the sheer level of optimism that Ulman exudes.  How could his vision not come to pass with the exploding District so close by, a flagship university, the succesful Hyattsville arts district, with a Metro station just waiting for being kissed awake and a light rail line which is already under construction?

When I joked, "you seem to have achieved what you had set out to do, there may be other things waiting for you next", he gave me a look as if this had occurred to him as well. Then turned to rush to his next appointment.

People from Baltimore know that all kinds of things can go wrong. Even wunderkind and Ulman class mate Kevin Plank and his "rocky year 2017" is proof of it. Yet, Baltimore has all the ingredients of College Park, and more. So many anchors, only so few who really have given it a go here as well.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

"downtown" College Park: Cleaned up and more street life (Photo: Philipsen)
NOAA is one of the tenants of the research park
The Purple Line as economic development driver with five campus stations
TOD vision at intermodal College Park Metro station

The luxury hotel on Baltimore Street: Hillman's last large project (Photo: Philipsen)













Whole Foods and mixed use: A new lifestyle center: Riverdale Park (Photo: Philipsen)


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Why the Baltimore-Washington Parkway needs to be protected

There are drivers who prefer the  Baltimore Washington Parkway as their route to DC to avoid the trucks, the four-lane 80mph frenzy of I-95 and being calmed by the lush greenery that gives the route its name. One can call this "mindfulness", attributing a value to the journey itself and not just to the time of arrival.

The Parkway is still a reprieve, even though it has been blemished by big scars at BWI Arundel Mills, and route 32 where a third lanes has already been added and interchanges were rebuilt and although the two cities at its ends never paid much attention to receiving the grand old dame with any dignity at their respective gateways.
BW-Parkway today (NPS photo)

Maryland's Governor has little sense for such considerations when he proposes to take the Parkway over from the National Park Service, get rid of the remaining aesthetic restrictions and add a lane in each direction. The added lanes would wipe clear whatever skinny landscape buffers are left of the once bucolic route and would make the scenic route just another pavement nightmare framed by concrete sound barriers.

Now another threat has emerged for the Parkway: An elevated high speed train-line to be erected in its right of way or hugging it closely. As was reported this week, the environmental studies underway for Maglev have picked the Parkway for two remaining alignment alternatives.  The Governor has emerged as a friend of Maglev, presumably because the Japanese  Consortium not only invited him to a test ride ints 350mph train, but also because the corporation promises to bring a significant down-payment to the first leg of the super train which would end somewhere in Baltimore's Westport. Adding the proposed takeover of the Parkway from the National Park Service and the preferred rail route together one can easily imagine where the journey is supposed to go. And it ain't a pretty picture.
I-95: four lanes, trucks and no green median (SUN photo)

One would think that in anticipation of autonomous vehicles the aesthetics of a trip would once again come into focus since  when all riders in a car would become passengers with the leisure to look left and right and take in what a journey has to offer. That same consideration should also hold true for future train passengers. The proposed Maglev running on stilts along the Parkway and in a tunnel for 75% of its trip doesn't promise much in terms of scenic views, quite in contrast to the current Amtrak and MARC line. Today's trains surprise travelers between DC and Baltimore with unexpected expansive swaths of green landscapes swooping by the windows. Even the entry into Baltimore with long views over the cityscape is quite impressive, provided one looks in the right direction (east) and can take the eyes off the decay and trash immediately along the tracks.
BW Parkway tomorrow: Widened and with Maglev? (MTA image)

Historic preservation has become a widely recognized element in planning, architecture and urban design. It is time that transportation joins in with not only protecting scenic travel but making beauty once again an element of consideration.

It is not hard to imagine a near future where we look at our transportation arteries and see them with the same disdain which we developed for the time when urban-renewal and ugly pseudo-functional architecture replaced the patina of what had grown over time. One only needs to take a look at those recently widened Beltway sections, the ride on I-95 north of Baltimore, or the expanded NJ Turnpike between Philly and NYC, to see what easily could cause such disdain.

Already we see cities as places where quality of life should happen, where experiences are made and where streets need to be "complete", i.e. where they need to be much more than places for cars to travel. Why should the routes between cities be exempted from those same considerations?

Mindfulness means that we take a step back from the rat-race that our daily life has become so we can see trees, the sky, clouds and cows on green pastures. Scientists tell us that this makes us happy, lowers cortisol and adrenaline, and gives us the space to think creatively. It is time to rally against the destruction of the Parkway as a remaining "scenic" route and see it as an asset that connects two cities which through true collaboration could be global leaders in quality of metropolitan life.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


Monday, February 12, 2018

Community organizing can drop crime

In the midst of a record streak of murder-free days in Baltimore comes a front page article in Baltimore's SUN's print edition that has been online for a while: How "Baltimore mayor seeds grassroots network to aid violence reduction".
Pugh’s violence-reduction plan emphasizes community engagement, both to restore trust in police and to provide social support such as free tuition at Baltimore City Community College. At one recent meeting, the groups devised ways to promote programs that help families and students complete college financial aid applications.
The SUN duly notes that critics of a community based "soft" approach on crime, including Governor Hogan, have little patience for strategies which don't create an immediate drop in crime and don't use policing to attack crime.
Mayor Pugh's grassroots cabinet (SUN photo)

The split between crime-fighters and community reformers is as old as society. It follows roughly the political camps of progressives and conservatives. The conservatives want  enforcement of law and order, the progressives want to abolish poverty as a root cause for crime. Both sides can't quite explain, why crime rises and why it drops, as the New Yorker explained at length in a recent article about "The right lessons from the fall in urban violence" on occasion of a review of Patrick Sharkey's book “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence”  published by Norton.
New Yorker graphic (Eiko Ojala)

"Big events go by unseen while we sweat the smaller stuff; things happen underground while we watch the boulevard parades", Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker begins his review and concludes it by saying:
"The story of the crime decline is about the wisdom of single steps and small sanities. We have curbed crime without knowing how we did it, perhaps simply by doing it in many ways at once. It is possible to see this as a kind of humanist miracle, a lesson about the self-organizing and, sometimes, self-healing capacities of human communities that’s as humbling, in its way, as any mystery that faith can offer". Adam Gopnik, The Great Crime Decline, The New Yorker 
 Gopnik's article describes a phenomenon we certainly don't currently see in Baltimore, the dramatic decline of violent crime in US cities. In New York, the murder rate fell from over 2,000 a year to 290 last year, a number as we well know, which is below that of Baltimore, even though New York has a population of 8.5 million, i.e. about 13.5 times the population of Baltimore.  In that Baltimore's current rate of homicides is about 2.3 times that of New Yor's worst days. New York's 2017 homicide rate was its lowest in over 70 years, while Baltimore's was higher than ever.

But that is not the point here. The question is, what made New York's rate fall that much? The typical binary discussion between progressives and conservatives attributes the decline to aggressive policing or to gentrification and displacement, depending on whom ones asks. Baltimore's Mayor O'Malley  brought New York style policing to Baltimore through an application of the famous "broken window theory", which, as Gopnik explains, was neither a proper theory nor is it usually properly understood. The resulting "stop and frisk policing" and the ensuing mass arrests are totally discredited today, here and in New York. The Black Lives Matter movement isn't limited to high crime areas such as St Louis and Baltimore, it has swept across the nation and was followed by a critical review of the concept of the warrior police which is experienced by the community to be part of an occupying army.
Broken window theory: Misunderstood?

Gopnik points out that New York saw neither a noticeable closure of the gap between rich and poor, nor significant displacement. He maintains that while New York as a whole has become wealthier and more expensive, it has added economic diversity and not simply displaced the poor.
Even more importantly, Gopnik follows Sharkey's argument that a reduction of crime benefits the poor communities, where violent crime is rampant, the most. He quotes Sharkey: “Local violence does not make children less intelligent, rather, it occupies their minds.” He then elaborates further:
Thinking about a threat leaves you less room to think about anything else. The social cost of street crime, therefore, is far higher than the price of lives lost and bodies maimed; it can maim minds, too. Conversely, in places where violence has declined the most, kids do much better at school, and minority kids lag least. Anyone who says that the decline in crime is a white person’s prerogative and pleasure hasn’t been following the facts.
Gopnik traces Sharkey's sociological arguments back to the original meaning of the broken windows theory: Self policing. He then expands on what he finds insufficient explanations in the book he reviews and offers his own, one that involves feed-back loops, virtual cycles and essentially, phase transitions. Even though the New Yorker article doesn't use this physics  term,  anyone who has read my blogs over the last years will realize that feedback loops and vicious or virtuous cycles are one of my favorite topics. Just as in phase transitions, it doesn't take a lot of energy to move a phase from one state to another (32 degree water to ice, for example). Gopnik sees it this way:
With the crime wave, it would seem, small measures that pushed the numbers down by some noticeable amount engendered a virtuous circle that brought the numbers further and further down. You didn’t have to change the incidence of crime a lot to make people worry less about it. What ended violent crime, in this scenario, was not an edict but a feedback system—created when less crime brought more eyes onto the streets and subways, which in turn reduced crime, leading to people feeling safer, which in turn brought more eyes out. The self-organized response of society to crime was, in effect, to outnumber the muggers on the street before they mugged someone. One has only to get on the New York City subway at 3 a.m., and recall what 3 a.m. on the New York City subway was like thirty years ago, to sense the presence of this circle.
We all know that Baltimore has fallen into too many vicious loops. The crime spike of 2017 is one of them, regardless whether one sees it as cause or effect of other vicious feedback cycles such as poverty. The current break from murder doesn't yet reverse the loop or create a new one. Yet, Gopnik's article tells us that the Mayor's efforts of community-based action and self-policing is on the right track. That its multi-faceted attack on what is going wrong in the community, from lack of coordination between citizen organizations, to lack of communication with City departments, from lack of opportunities for the young, to lack of chances for those coming out of prison, is exactly what is needed. If the Mayor's community cabinet  can be paired with a fundamental reform of the BPD, even this very tangled vicious loop of poverty and crime can be untangled and reverted.
Baltimore, vicious feeback loops

The effort led by the Mayor together with all the community leaders which participate should not be belittled and besmirched. It toes a pragmatic path between conservative law and order and progressive comprehensive reform which, if the sociologist Patrick Sharkey and the journalist Adam Gopnik are only half right, deserves not only a chance but active participation and support.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, February 9, 2018

Why circling the wagons is probably not what the City needs

That the City's last big annexation occurred exactly a century ago and that the resulting boundaries were made immutable by a  not so secretly racist referendum in 1948 is an often cited reality which has served to explain Baltimore's particular problems.
 “It’s hard to think, looking back, of any single public decision that’s proved to be more important to Baltimore City than that question in the 1948 election. It was a very shortsighted decision.” (Bob Embry)
Indeed, aside from Virginia's cities, which under provisions of the Dillon rule are constitutionally separated from their counties, and the District of Columbia, which is an all around anomaly,  only St Louis and Baltimore are "independent cities", i.e. cities that are not part of a county but separate entities from it, which usually means they can't expand. In a region of over 2 million people, Baltimore is a geographically small entity which is choked by the ever growing surrounding  Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties. This isn't so much a problem because the city doesn't have enough space, but it is a fiscal problem, because too people preferred living further out with more nature, areas the City couldn't annex. As a result, Baltimore County has now a larger population than Baltimore City and charges only half the property tax. Of course, Baltimore County hasn't been the latest frontier for some time, losing its more upwardly mobile people to Harford and Howard Counties. Neither a smart nor a sustainable pattern. To manage such "dumb growth" where one jurisdiction simply cannibalizes the next one, there is a State Department of Planning and even an Office for Smart Growth, but the Republican Governor isn't one who wants to interfere with "home rule" and local zoning. So he shelved O'Malley's "Plan Maryland", an attempt to better coordinate what each jurisdiction is doing.  A new State plan  is underway because it is mandated by law, but there isn't a clear agenda for it, certainly not one that could be called "smart growth".

Because of Baltimore's geographic insularity, plenty of people working in Baltimore don't live in the city, not even those who are employed by City government.

 "Do you live in the City" has become the litmus test that City residents like to apply with ever more fervor, the more a sense of crisis spreads. Many blame the corruption and poor services of the police on the fact that so many officers don't live "in the community" and the Mayor makes city residency a requirement for any new senior staff she hires.

Ryan Dorsey did some data analysis which he published in his most recent newsletter. It shows that almost one half of City employees have their home outside the City lines and that a majority of those with higher salaries live outside the City.
Graphic from Dorsey's Newsletter
Only 53% of City employees are City residents, but they take home less money than the 47% of City employees who are not. Employees who work in the City but live outside the City don’t pay income taxes here and don't spend their paychecks - funded by your property taxes - here.(Dorsey Newsletter)
Does the argument that the City would be better off if more of its own employees would live where they work? On the face of it, it makes plenty of sense. Surely it would be preferable that those who receive a paycheck out City coffers would pay their taxes back into those same coffers instead of enhancing the fiscal health of a neighboring jurisdiction; that they would buy their groceries and goods in the city and support local retail, vote in local elections and generally care more about their community.

On the other hand, the tendency to circle the wagons in crisis is not always a good instinct since casting the net wider may yield more solutions. Suspecting everybody as unreliable who wasn't born or raised  in a place or otherwise has bona fide citizenship credentials is already a national past-time, should we really repeat it locally? Would police born and raised in West Baltimore be any better in policing the disinvested communities there? One can easily argue that nepotism, corruption and unbecoming networks would be even more pervasive in that case.
Graphic from Dorsey's Newsletter
Transportation continues to be a huge driver of economic inequality and our policy priorities remain misplaced, having a real cost in money and lives. Consider that even though the vehicle non-access rate is 30% in the City, it is as high as 80% in Baltimore’s historically red-lined communities.(Dorsey Newsletter) 
Would a Baltimore based transit agency like the old Baltimore Bus Company provide better transit than the State run MTA? Many believe so. A transit agency that would respond to the Mayor and Council seems like an appropriate response when the State prefers rural highways over urban transit. Even aside from the cost question, would it really make sense in a time where systems need to integrate over a large space with a common fare-card and coordinated schedules and hubs?

A modern metropolitan area functions on a much bigger scale typically across several jurisdictions, Baltimore is not alone in this. Transit, water, energy, all those systems operate across City boundaries. No private company would ever consider limiting its talent pool to a small segment based on geography.

Baltimore City is still Maryland's economic engine, in spite of all the blood letting. Peripheral jurisdictions shouldn't get the idea that they are propping up the City, a narrative that the the Governor often feeds more or less subtly. Certain school fund transfers or token payments for Baltimore's cultural institutions notwithstanding, the region does not support the city in a manner that would be appropriate if one sees the entire metro area as an organic unit. Part of the lack of support consists in suburban locals not pulling their weight: The suburbs don't provide enough affordable housing, do little for the homeless or the addicted and generally happily let the City carry the many burdens of concentrated poverty. The maps and statistics of the Opportunity Collaborative tell the story and provide the data for what is needed.
Minneapolis area tax base sharing (MinnPost 2011)

“If Baltimore City and Baltimore County had consolidated—obviously, that’s something that’s not really possible any more, but if it had been possible and if it had happened—Baltimore would be the fifth largest city in America in population. It would have all kinds of different resources and tools and flexibility to deal with the urban problems.” (David Rusk as quoted in Baltimore Magazine)
What is really necessary, then, is not that each jurisdiction circles the wagons, but that regional collaboration increases and that a true cost sharing system is implemented. Tax base or revenue sharing between counties and cities is usually seen as deeply un-American and something that couldn't happen in our metro region, even though it is reality in several regions of the US, most famously in the Minneapolis region where such a compact exists since 1971.
The Fiscal Disparities Act, which took effect in 1975 after being upheld by the courts, requires all communities in seven-county area to share 40 percent of the annual growth in their commercial-industrial tax base. The tax base is redistributed to communities under a formula based on their fiscal capacity to provide urban services.The idea was to reduce the disparities between the "haves" and the "have-nots" — communities with a lot of commercial-industrial property and those lacking in such development.(Source)
In spite of the deep crisis of Baltimore police it would also be unpopular to hand city police entirely to the State where it structurally already resides in part. My birth-city of Stuttgart did just that a few years back. Not because their police was under federal investigation for corruption and rights violations, but because the City of Stuttgart found it too expensive to maintain its own force and City and State were in conservative hands. Nobody seems to mind that the cops changed their uniforms, even now when Mayor and Governor hail from the Green Party. In the US a growing number of mostly smaller cities ditched their own police as well in favor of control by the county, a solution that the "independent city" status of Baltimore clearly precludes.

The Baltimore crisis requires unorthodox responses and upending some of the long-held believes of the City, the counties and the State alike. The upcoming elections for Governor and Baltimore County Executive present excellent opportunities to move the needle in the right direction.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA





Thursday, February 8, 2018

Smart Growth Includes Equity

From Sacramento to New Orleans to Kansas, Detroit and Baltimore cities are trying to be smart, innovative, resilient, sustainable and lately also: equitable. While those buzzwords are flying around at conferences and online webinars, developers, city planners and mayors are trying to figure out what all this could mean on the ground in their own actual city.
UN sustainability goals, copied by many cities, all the way down
to the graphics

For the most part the debates and buzzwords fall into three buckets: Environmental ("sustainability, resilience"), technological ("smart") and social ('equity"). However, a look at the definition of sustainability shows that real sustainability all along included the three legs of environmental, economic and social concerns. The term sustainability is, therefore probably more encompassing than all the others which have crowded it out. Baltimore has done pretty well in addressing sustainability in an office that was created inside the Planning Department and which has produced an astounding array of plans, reports and initiatives.

No city can be truly resilient without being sustainable on all three sustainability legs, neither can it be truly smart without those three legs. Which leaves the term innovative. Indeed, lately "creative" and "innovative" have become suspicious when seen under the lens of equity. The father of the term "creative class", Richard Florida, who could never get enough of "innovation" has recently called off his innovation troops and has begun to bemoan how everything has gone so terribly wrong. Now he says that the creative class and rampant technological change have increased inequality and inequity.  Never shy when it comes to coining terms, Florida called the unwanted side effects of innovation a "winner takes all" game in which a few clean up and the masses are left behind.
Sustainability issue: Equity and poverty

I suppose we in Baltimore would agree.  Baltimore's Office of Sustainability is in the process of updating its original Sustainability Plan of 2005 and has already expanded its goals to include equity.  From the initial hop on the bandwagon of sustainability the office has greatly expanded and prepared not only the original Sustainability Plan but also a Climate Action Plan, a Disaster Preparedness Plan and a Homegrown Baltimore Plan which deals with food.

Based on citizen suggestions the new Sustainability plan includes eight core themes, Cleanliness, Pollution Prevention, Resource Conservation, Greening, Transportation, Environmental Education and Awareness, Green Economy. If this isn't enough, there will be 29 priority goals under these themes and somewhere is also the Baltimore Green Network Plan which has the full attention of the Planning Director.

Like any city in America that wants to be something Baltimore also has an Innovation District. But Baltimore's district  which is dubbed "West Baltimore Innovation Village" is special: It has the "equity lens" baked into its creation. College Park with a more typical innovation district recently decided to ditch the ubiquitous "innovation" moniker and to rename it "Discovery District" instead. Of course, with the University of Maryland as the engine, the Discovery District there already has some real anchors whereas the West Baltimore Innovation Village is still more an aspiration than a physical presence.  The Mayor is also intent to remain innovative and recently hired an Innovation Director. She also works with Bloomberg Philanthropies who began work here last year advising an innovation team. Their first task: tackling recruitment and retention of police officers.

This assignment leads right in the middle of the latest mess in which Baltimore finds itself, the stories emerging from the court house where indicted corrupt police officers are on trial and unpacking years of dirty laundry which exceeds the wildest imagination. While the innovation team expedited the recruitment of new hires, it couldn't do much about the fact that highly qualified applicants are hard to come by and that several of the recruits initially couldn't pass a simple test. 
Money assigned to Sacramento innovation grants under their
Creative Economy program

How hard it is to make sense of the rapid succession of hot topics cities have to address becomes clear when one looks at the term "narrative". Whatever the popular goal, Baltimore has addressed it in some way. I listened to a podcast of Meeting of the Minds which  touted "Sacramento's Urban Innovation Agenda". 

Every last item the Sacramento innovation officer mentioned had a corresponding activity in Baltimore. Workforce development?- check, grant programs for incubators? - check, maker spaces? - check, hubs in art and culture? - check. Demonstration Partnerships? - check. The only area where Baltimore couldn't match Sacramento was an autonomous vehicle initiative. 

But the problem with the darn term "narrative" remains. The Mayor says Baltimore needs a new narrative. It is true, whatever Baltimore "narrative" is currently gelling in people's mind nationwide, it isn't the narrative a Mayor would like to see or create. It has been forever "the Wire" which we couldn't shake, now it is worse, because the new narrative is dealing with the reality of police and crime. 

Even Detroit is faring better. Somehow that city, which is far worse off when it comes to economic indicators or abandonment, has managed to associate itself with the term come-back city.  Somehow, the mayor, the planning director, Quicken tycoon Gilbert and the local academics managed to to spin a story where it shines as a place which  is slowly getting a handle on its decline. 
Branding Baltimore

With all our promising initiatives from workforce development and sustainability to innovation and "made in Baltimore", don't we deserve to be in that space? Reality is a hard nut to crack and even harder to spin.  If only we didn't have all those killings, if only our police could be trusted! If  only our poverty wasn't so pervasive. Still, we could probably also do better with aligning all the good initiatives to put forth a clear strategy for the future. 

Its time we take a hard look at all those buzzwords and put one of them front and center: Equity. There is no being smart or sustainable without it. The Mayor of Detroit says "Every neighborhood will have a future". Given the size of Detroit, that is hard to believe. But in Baltimore, the slogan is much more realistic. Why not just adopt it? 

Of course, a slogan is just smoke and mirrors, as long as there is no action behind it. We don't need so much a new slogan as a different reality. But to get there we need a simple and convincing strategy. Every neighborhood has a future is a worthy goal that encompasses resilience, sustainability and equity. What is the innovative economic development strategy that would make it happen? This isn't just a question to ask the mayor, its a question we all have to ask ourselves as well. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA