Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is Amazon's slight the fault of City Hall?

In the great round of Baltimore introspection and navelgazing after Amazon kicked charm city off its shortlist while keeping smaller burgs such as Nashville, Pittsburgh and Columbus and Raleigh  on, Baltimore Brew writer Gerald Neily had probably the most astute observation in his article "Kevin Plank’s vision wasn’t big enough for Amazon". One town may not be big enough for Bezos and Plank he quipped, explaining that Bezos' ego wouldn't settle with a vision already fleshed out by Kevin Plan's ego.
Does the Amazon debate cover up Baltimore's real problems
or does it shed a light on them? (BBJ illustration)
Unfortunately, he didn't leave it with this creative explanation but used the occasion to fire off an entire battery of jibes including deriding the fact that Baltimore even tried to enter the race. He mocks the Mayor and the head of BMC for first being "giddy" about applying and then stating the application wasn't their idea, the SUN for saying that Port Covington's shovel-ready development was unique in America, Under Armour itself for having shed so much of its stock value, and the very idea of promoting a particular site at all. His juxtaposition of Amazon's innovation ("Neily: Amazon is a brand of revolutionary ideas and soaring expectations") with Baltimore's having become a city where last year’s “game changer” is always being crowded out by this year’s sure-fire “winner” is clever. It is  fun, how Neily contrasts Amazon's online shopping approach with former mayors' failed idea of big box retail on the Port Covington site. But Neily doesn't leave the topic before landing his coup de grace, a knock of "City Hall" as the core reason why Amazon eliminated Baltimore.
For several decades, the problem has been how to slice a pie that’s been squeezed into a shapeless bun by the constricted view of City Hall and its backers.
To ensure that even the dimmest reader would get the point, Neily adds for good measure:
There is, in fact, plenty of room for everyone to pursue their own vision. But that will only happen if local leaders encourage residents and newcomers alike to spread their wings instead of letting backroom deal-making determine who’s to be the top sheriff in town. 
With this, the original question why Amazon didn't pick Baltimore has given way to Neilly's and Baltimore's favorite game, bashing City Hall, the City's leaders, and anybody who puts any stock in them.

To make "City Hall" responsible for all of Baltimore's ills is as unhistoric and illogical as making "North Avenue" responsible for all the school's woes, or "Washington" responsible for what's wrong with America.  This type of leadership fixated thinking is precisely what stands in the way of real solutions. Systemic problems cannot be solved with competent leaders alone, and certainly not with changing out heads in rapid fire.
Are g"giddy" elected leaders responsible for Amazon not shortlisting
Baltimore? (Proposal signing ceremony at Port Covington)

The game of bashing the elected leaders is one of which this city never seems to get tired and which  online media have elevated to new heights. Whether the mayor is named Dixon, Rawlings Blake or Pugh, snarkiness reigns. In fact, one gets the impression that those three African American women have each have drawn more spite, derision and accusations than their male predecessors Schaefer, Schmoke and O'Malley combined, at least, when they were in office. The game of electing leaders only to cut them down afterwards has reached  new heights and is unsettling, because it aims at the roots of a democratic system.

When as a young council member I derided the very chamber in which I served as a chatter box (Quasselbude) Germans who fought in the resistance under Nazis painfully reminded me of the fact that those Nazis had used the same term to ridicule the national parliament. Germans have learned the hard way what happens when democratic leaders and institutions get systematically ridiculed until the people begin to believe that voting is not only superfluous but an illusion, that all elected leaders are crooks and that government is just an obstacle in the way efficiency and a strong leader. Germans have also learned the hard way that belittling the press and the media as Luegenpresse (Press of lies) has consequences for democracy.  The current bashers of local government unload their scorn equally on local media and don't seem to notice that by doing so they promote the same narrative as the man in Washington, that they employ the same destructive strategy of undercutting our system of governance.

Introspection can be quite fruitful, but the stones thrown at the elected leaders may easily land on our own feet. It is time to ask what can we do ourselves instead of only bemoaning what those do who have selected public service as their profession.
CityLab 1-31/18 : HQ2 Hunger Games

The argument here isn't that elected officials should be beyond critique or that leaership doesn't matter. The argument isn't that voters should fall asleep once the elections are over. The argument isn't that corruption and undue influence don't exist. Nor is it that there is never incompetence or greed among politicians.

Instead, the argument is that we get the government we elect and to some extent, the one we deserve. The argument is that Baltimore's systemic problems lie deeper than incompetence. The argument is that leaders act within an economic system that prioritizes personal benefit over communal benefit, a system that curtails public impact.

As long as too many voters believe in the free lunch theory (no taxes but excellent government services) there will be only marginal progress. As long as we give those who exploit this current system to the maximum (and that includes Amazon) a free pass, while deriding local leaders for how they deal with the cards handed to them,  we have it precisely backwards. Fixation on Amazon (or Under Armour) as the salvation of all our problems is just as naive as fixation on the police commissioner (or the Attorney General) as the key to the crime problem or the Mayor as the key to Baltimore's overall standing.
for years nothing but scorn and derision for Baltimore's mayors (SUN photo)

As Catherine Pugh correctly stated, we may never know why Amazon skipped Baltimore; but in all the blame searching efforts underway now, one can certainly conclude one thing: As long as Baltimoreans continue to try to conquer difficult circumstances by pinning blame on everyone elected to represent this city, whether as legislator, as council person, as Mayor or as jurisprudence, Baltimore's problem will just get bigger. Denigrating the very leaders which we just elected and turning them into scapegoats for every shortcoming in this town as soon as they take office, is comparable to the President denigrating his own department heads. And as with that man, the issue is frequently not the original denigration but what it unleashes. The problem with  Neily's  witty Brew article isn't the article itself but the torrent of government bashing that is unleashed with it as its justification.
I wonder if the argument can be made that Baltimore’s citizens are held hostage by their own government.  (online comment)
I've predicted (in writing) for 5+ years that the City is looking like a jurisdiction that is ready for a state and/or federal takeover.   (online comment)
Council members, Mayor; they're just interested in photo ops and sound bites, not in governing. Governing is hard.  (online comment)
It should be obvious that the effectiveness of a team that stands together to solve complex problems is greatly bigger than one that is driven by divisiveness and spite. Locally, we can take the Baltimore Red Line as an example. All the way to the gubernatorial election the project was subjected to spite and ridicule, by Gerald Neily for one, but also by regional Democratic politicians and community leaders who not only provided fodder to a Governor whose stated intent was to kill the project, but actively contributed to a number of delays. Only now, after the project is off the agenda, is there something like a unified front of  those same people when some attribute Amazon's decision to the lack of proper transit (refreshingly, that doesn't include Neily).

We may have a system that constitutionally provides for a strong mayor but it isn't a system where the mayor is at fault for everything that goes wrong. We have a system with an executive, a legislator and a jurisprudence providing checks and balances. But none of these branches can operate effectively if each branch is derided and ridiculed by its citizenry or when the three branches undo each other.

What exactly have "City Hall and its backers" done to prevent the people of Baltimore to "spread their wings"? What "backroom dealing" would have motivated Amazon to turn Baltimore down?  Time to get back to the real work.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, January 29, 2018

Crisis - what crisis?

Jeff Salkin from MPT who was moderating the GBC Legislative Forum almost delivered the highlight of the morning by offering "a special good morning to the newly minted tax entities”attending the event held in the Renaissance Hotel, a few flights down from GBC's offices.If Republican Delegate Kathy Szeliga wouldn't have bested him with by saying with a straight face: “we have a no- politician leading our state” and “We see great things going on on the federal level”.
GBC CEO Don Fry opens the legislative forum

Seriously, urgency didn't exactly emanate from any of the panelists, even though this is an election year. Except for Bill Ferguson, who repeatedly pointed out that, while the entire nation sits at the top of an economic cycle, not only Baltimore but all of Maryland was sliding backwards. He used transportation and education as examples for the slide. Ferguson wasn't mincing words or glossing over anything. He began his prepared remarks with:
"I represent the 46th District. I have the Second highest median and lowest median income in my district separated by a bridge. That is the story of Baltimore."
It was Ferguson who mentioned that the Governor had stolen the Red Line from Baltimore and is now also stealing State Center, both multi billion economic development opportunities. He didn't offer any remedy, though. Generally the representatives sitting on the podium were sanguine, even the often fiery Maggie Mackintosh seemed not too excited about the legislative agenda ahead. 
"The Budget looks much like last year. Three areas of focus: health care, education, public safety. 
Macintosh coolly observed. She then caught the attention of the room when she singled out St. Louis and Baltimore as the two cities in the US with the highest crime rate and being the only ones not having a county of which they are part. (In reality there are 41 "independent cities in the US but 38 are in Virginia which has it constitutionally set up that way, outside St Louis and Baltimore there is only Carson City in Nevada). But this curious fact certainly isn't on any legislative agenda. 
Governor Hogan: 71% approval rating and a $9 million campaign war chest

By setting up the perfect balance between Republicans and Democrats on the dais, the organizers had set up for a kumbayah, and they got it, starting with Keiffer Mitchell who works for the Governor and marveled that neither Macintosh nor Ferguson had yet thrown him out of office when he showed up and ending with Senator Jennings, who made several pretty good attempts of stand-up comedy but the ran out of steam on substance. He noted that in Annapolis one can work "across the aisle" and finally wondered "How to get young people with a record a job? How to get a hold of the 11 year olds before they get in the wrong hands?" without offering any answers to these momentous questions. Governor, Comptroller and legislators agree on the goal of holding Maryland taxpayers harmless and not allowing that they have to foot the bill for the federal tax overhaul. Mitchell rattled down a list of legislation the Governor pushes including a crime initiative with a partnership with US Marshall and 200 probation officers,  a “truth in sentencing” effort targeting repeat violent offenders and revisiting the paid sick leave act in which the legislators overrode his veto. There is also an extension of a jobs initiative, and a small business tax relief initiative.

4000 bills have been introduced in Annapolis this year, about a quarter has been cross-read (between House and Senate) so far. Lobbyists and those who like to hang out in Annapolis during the legislative session are impressed. The rest of us will shrug our shoulders and move on to their daily routines like most who attended the GBC breakfast, half amused and half bewildered by the rituals of law making. If there weren't the nagging little nugget that Senator Ferguson had put into everybody's mind: State and City are slipping in the middle of a boom. 

How bad will it be when that boom will come to an end?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Crisis, what crisis was a LP by Supertramp with one of the best LP covers ever.

Friday, January 26, 2018

McKeldin Square: Ideas for what could be next

There may have been only a few people who really loved the b├ęton brut concrete fountain at McKeldin Square, but there was no doubt that its complex sculpture of walls, penetrating bridges and pathways was the defining element of the triangle which is, not quite accurately, known as a square. Love for the new McKeldin Plaza in its current state may be even scarcer. Aside from the Downtown Partnership and an adjacent property developer who instigated the expensive demolition, I haven't found anybody yet who finds the current provisional space an improvement.
Virtual model of McKeldin fountain (Nonument01)

That is not surprising, since the new status quo presents in many ways the worst of all worlds: The fountain demolished, no idea what should replace it, let alone money that is available for a substitute. Meanwhile the traffic is still flowing unabated on all sides of the triangle, more noticable than before because no further is it visually or acoustically shielded by anything, since the new space is flat and bare.

This is a repeat of  a Baltimore saga that has played out dozens of times: Demo first, design and fund later. Sometimes never. Just think of the News American site on Pratt Street or the Morris Mechanic theater site that sits as a field of rubble. Somehow we keep getting bamboozled and sweetalked by those who want to get rid of something for a future that is completely uncertain. To be fair: The Downtown Partnership had commissioned a design, however neither the official Design Review Panel (UDARP) nor anybody else was overly impressed. Thus the design was ditched even before demolition began when there was still time to reconsider.
barrier free flatness: McKeldin Square today

The Urban Design Committee of the local chapter of  AIA (which I used to chair) wants to make 2018 the year of McKeldin Square as its adopted design focus. Instead of aiming for a grand scheme coming out of a design competition or a super big idea, the group wants use a more modest and careful approach, including analysis and deduction of current people behavior in the space.
Deducing principles for future design from current activities and testing out design approaches via temporary pop-up installations are techniques that have become known as tactical urbanism and have been made popular by the Danish architect Jan Gehl. He filmed how cool Danes chilled in the pedestrian zones of his hometown Copenhagen and has taking this approach to problem solving and design of public spaces around the globe.

Recently the Baltimore Neighborhood Design center received a grant to use Gehl's techniques at the Y-Not lot in Station North.
In the summer of 2017, with support from Gehl Institute’s Open Call: Proposals for Public Life initiative, NDC undertook a study of the Ynot Lot: a privately-owned vacant lot in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District. The research served a dual function. First, we wanted to asses the impact of programming on social mixing in Baltimore’s public spaces, and second, we were interested in learning how to use Gehl Institute’s research tools for studying public spaces. Gehl Institute’s larger questions—”How can designers, planners, and community activists tell better stories about their work in public space? What research methods help us understand the state of public life in our cities?”—were deeply relevant to the work of NDC. (Gehl website)
Y-Not lot in Station North: Gehl research with NDC
With the Gehl training at Station North under their belt, NDC is willing to collaborate with the young architects of AIA to apply the same techniques to McKeldin Sqaure. The space has a reputation as a meeting space for protest, free speech and demonstrations. Just last week, the Women's March ended there, the Occupy movement had its tents there and when the fountain still stood, it had been an object during Baltimore's first Light City event that literally highlighted that Black Lives Matter. 

Another initiative with a focus on McKeldin Square comes from artist James Mayhew and is called "Nonument01": In it Mayhew has collected imagery from the time when the fountain was working and active that can be watched in 3-D, reinstating a virtual reality of the now demised fountain. That project is still in progress but some beta testing showed promising results.
McKeldin demolition: Lots of money for destruction

Unlike Harborplace which is controlled by the pavilion owners and managers (now Ashkenazi), McKeldin Square is a true public space, even though it is maintained and programmed by the non-profit Waterfront Partnership  while the Downtown Partnership initiated the Harbor 2.0 design and masterplan efforts.

The Urban Design Committee of AIA got already hold of a camera that can film what is playing out at McKeldin Square with time lapse features. An ambitious goal would be to convince traffic folks to allow a temporary closure of the lanes separating Harborplace from McKeldin Square, one of the original suggestions of the Harbor 2.0 masterplan which led up to the demolition of the fountain. Such a pop-up closure would not be unlike what then New York traffic commissioner Sadik Khan did when she tested the closure of Times Square which was recently made final.

McKedlin Fountain: Once a walkable object
Pop-up traffic modifications could test in real time what happens and replace lengthy and costly traffic modeling efforts. Equally, Gehl's observation techniques of what real people do in actual life avoids costly designs that look cool on paper but neglect actual human behavior. 

It will remain to be seen whether BOPA and Baltimore's new Transportation Director can muster the courage to do a closure of the traffic lanes as part of Light City Baltimore, at least for a few hours. What better way to demonstrate that Baltimore can be exceptional in a positive way?

Giving people more space to roam in Baltimore's premier tourist space and making Baltimore's best known free speech plaza safer and more accessible would be an excellent way of proving that in Baltimore people count more than cars.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

NDC video presented at the Placemaking Week in Amsterdam, Oct 2017
2015 Baltimore Brew special report about McKeldin Fountain

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Baltimore at the cross-roads

Traveling for three weeks in India gave me so much distance that, for once I didn't even regularly followed the daily local news. But when I did, I saw a city doubting and seeing itself at the crossroads once again. The cold snap, the unrelenting murders, the firing of the police commissioner all in the first days of 2018 did it. Again.
Rowhouse City (Midtown)

For all the 32 years I have lived here, Baltimore City has been at the crossroads and most of the time it followed Yogi Berra's advice: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it".  This way the City barreled down one way and then another. Every time it looked like things would come together the right way, it all came apart again.

Baltimore is a proud place but with a bruised ego. Vulnerable, and like every narcissist, focused on the own belly button.  Which can make a city provincial, no matter the international port. The supposedly high number of people born here and never having moved away limits the view. A statistic, I once read but can't find anymore, had New Orleans as #1 in the category of "homeboys", but then came Katrina and now many of those folks live in Houston. Baltimore then was #2, it may be #1 now.

Baltimore's Katrina is yet to come, a sense of foreboding is palpable, but then, that was so in all the years here. As a newcomer I adopted this city as my home and I have taken on many of the local attitudes, including the schizophrenic oscillation between euphoria and depression, the pride one day and the self loathing the other, the tendency to attribute some type of exceptionalism to this place. Which is, of course, also a provincial way of thinking.

Embedded in state politics, the national economy and and global trends, Baltimore is not this island on her own as the prevailing thinking has it. Those guns and drugs come up or down I-95, for example, the port thrives because of the widened Panama canal gets choked the restrictive Howard Street tunnel. Hardly Mayor Pugh's fault.
Rowhouse City: Sandtown

I had barely set foot here, when the first national recession hit and downtown got the blues as residents fled the burg in droves. Mayor Schmoke became nationally known for his stands on legalizing drugs and Ivy League credentials, but the City languished anyway. When O'Malley became Mayor it looked for a moment as if a version of the beloved William Don had returned, combined with the charisma of a young technology wonk. CitiStat became famous enough to yield an invitation from the Mayor of London. For a bit it appeared that the Irish dude could align the magnets until it turned out that a white Mayor in a majority black city is going to be a problem; especially when in tandem with an aggressive but corrupt police commissioner, such as Ed Norris who became a convicted felon and then morphed to being a darling of Fox News.

Plenty of home-made  debacles, such as Sheila Dixon's obsession with shoes from New York brought another conviction. Ever since the Schaefer days stability is elusive. Mayors, police commissioners and school super superintendents come and go, each departure burying another dream, each arrival stirring new unjustified hope.

This cold winter things look especially grim again. The murder rate at a national record, the earnest police commissioner fired as a scapegoat, a lady expelled from a flagship emergency room clad in only a thin hospital gown, students huddling in schools with burst pipes, more burst pipes flooding the streets which are sagging above the failing infrastructure. Presiding over all this a Mayor who works her dream job from pre-dawn to long after dusk but in spite of her best efforts doesn't seem to get a handle on the mess. The online forums are drowning in spite.
Local anger, suburban police

So what crossroad this time?

The longest economic recovery in recent US history must be the time when Baltimore breaks out of its doldrums and participates in the benefits of a growing prosperous region. Squandering this chance may well result in the doomsday scenario which the urbanist David Rusk once termed "beyond the point of no return". The nation's A cities have reached overheated saturation, foreign investors are now scouting out B-cities. Baltimore's opportunity. But the investors are gun-shy now. Literally. It isn't that foreign investors are our salvation anyway but we do need the capital.

As always when fear and timidity reigns, the notion of solving every problem from within becomes popular; another parochial tendency that inadvertently mirrors national isolationism. Yes, it is necessary to unlock Baltimore's native talents but it can't happen without the outside world. Starting with population growth which is absolutely needed to shore up the tax base and reduce the current burden. The city sighs in relief that Amazon isn't coming here (as if anybody ever thought it would). True, salvation isn't coming from a shiny warrior riding into town. It does have to come from getting the house in order within. A sound, healthy and resilient city can't be standing on one leg as Detroit as amply demonstrated. Neither can Baltimore simply flourish from the crumbs that fall off the table in DC. Baltimore needs to define itself  as modern, desirable and open city with many underpinnings, from medicine to the arts and from making to inventing.
The largest employer: from steel to health care

What makes Baltimore so exciting is that almost all the right things are happening here. Innovation from giants like Hopkins to innovation from small start-ups. The arts have high caliber venues and also a fertile underground existence. Local schools carry forth all kinds of experiments and some are excellent. Creative adaptive reuse architecture dots the urban landscape, Camden Yards became  an international model.

What is missing is that the stew of the many initiatives begins to add up to a bigger picture the way it did in Pittsburgh, Chattanooga or Nashville. It is always problematic to transpose human psychology to an ultimately artificial political entity such as Baltimore which in its essence is really an abstractum.  Yet, O'Malley's Believe campaign, silly as it was, had a correct aim: If the citizenry doesn't believe that their home city can make progress, if they don't trust their leaders and if snide and cynicism prevail over a can-do attitude, the artificial boundaries can become prison walls and strangleholds on the spirit. Those artificial boundaries invisible in real life still mean a lot: They are the limits of Baltimore's laws, zoning and school districts and confine the reach of Mayor, Council and police. No tax dollars can be collected beyond. For those boundaries to become less limiting, the city must engage with its region and make every effort to blend in and become part of a bigger family. Naturally, that would be a lot easier if the State would elect a Governor who would understand cities better and doesn't yank the most promising projects out of pure spite.
Planning the future of Baltimore

On a sunny wintery morning hundreds of thousands of employees fulfill their duties right here in Baltimore, over 700 buses ply the streets (not nevessarily on time, but still!), trains and subways run, cranes erect new buildings, bridges get repaired, police helicopters circle, the local radio comes on and soup kitchens will hand out food. This city won't collapse, not today, not tomorrow and probably never. But the chances that another resident will be killed today, the risk that another young man doesn't go to school, that another mother overdoses, that another dream goes unfulfilled are unacceptably high. There can be no rest and no peace until Baltimore can figure out why this city is so  exceptional on all those negatives.  I wished after 32 years I knew the answer.

The road to be taken is not to become like everybody else but to become exceptional in desirable things.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The smoke bombs of State Center and where to go next

Lawmakers had no time to read Hogan’s “fresh look” study because he released it only 3 hours before the joint committee hearing took place on Tuesday afternoon. So they couldn’t find out how flimsy the study is or look at the map to discover where State Center is actually located. Thus delegates were all over the map and sometimes not on any map at all, at least not one of Baltimore City.
State Center Rendering

The logic that emerged from the "smoke" filled hearing and seemed to prevail was something like this: “The project may have been good at some time but it wasn’t built in 15 years and now it’s time is up because everything is different now." To prove how different, one delegate fantasized about Amazon and how it eviscerates retail everywhere. As if retail was ever the Nadir of the project.
"There comes a time when you say this is a long time. There is no shovel in the ground. We're done." Del. (D) Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George's County 
There was also an alternative, albeit conflicting, theory at hand, namely that the proposed deal was bad from the beginning. For those following that second narrative (chief promoter: Governor Hogan) it doesn’t matter that the deal was originally hatched by Republican Governor Ehrlich or that it entails the public-private model typically much beloved among Republicans nor did it matter that the GSA had validated the lease-back approach as the most cost effective scenario or that no one has yet proposed a better way to provide the over 3,000  State employees with up-to-date work space. 

Hogan and the lawmakers who want to see this project dead would rather deal with stuffed teddy bear than with Caroline Moore, no matter how eloquently she presented her side of the story. Moore’s problem: She stepped in when William Struever left the deal, a guy despised by Republicans as a liberal crony of Democrats, a once powerful developer who had stranded his development and construction business during the turmoil of the financial crisis. Fueling the "kill this project, come hell or high water" posture is the belief that the State Center project had not been properly awarded, regardless that Maryland’s highest court had settled this issue already as unsubstantiated. This legend had once been launched by Peter Angelos who had financed a protracted court battle against the presumed competitor of his downtown holdings until the Court of Appeals finally rebuffed him.

That O'Malley then didn't force the deal through in the remaining four months he had in office after the court ruling, but left it to his predecessor to deal with, is one of two major failings of Democrats who were blind to the possibility that the anointed man, Anthony Brown could not become Governor. (The other blunder, of course, was to not begin the Red Line construction earlier).  The latest State Center related legend is that the developer sued the State for $200 million, money that "could be used in Sandtown". Well, this has it backwards, because it was the State who filed suit against the developer, alleging non-performance as a tool to get out of the contract. The developer then filed a counter suit as a defense. The matter is still in litigation.
State Center development blocks 

So why then not do what was suggested in Annapolis: drop this hot potato and move on? Aren’t there many other pressing things to tend to? Surely there must be other ways to give the State employees a decent place to work, what with all the vacant office space, for example in the defunct nearby Social Security West complex? The rents the State would have to pay in that white elephant may be much lower than the ones in the contract for State Center. It is possible that such thinking is already on someone's mind.

Naturally, for the State Center project to be dropped, the State would have to first withdraw its suit; without the suit, though, the State would be in a binding contract and would have to settle an exit. That would certainly cost money. So, dropping the project like a hot potato may be a dream for some, but it wouldn't even be expedient, not to mention that it wouldn’t be in Baltimore’s interest at all. Especially not, since it would be the second multi-billion dollar project that the Governor would yank from Baltimore without giving any plausible alternative, or even a plausible reason.
State Center development plan

A State that turns turns a cold shoulder on a team of private businesses which laid out $25 million private dollars for design fees and approvals over the last 15 years not only sends a message to investors that one can’t rely on this State government to hold its word or treat investors fairly but also would also be a slap in the face of the hundreds of people who worked so hard on making the State Center proposal a broadly supported and City approved "Planned Unit Development Plan".

A plan that was slated to do so much more than give State workers a new place of work. The plan healed a big gaping wound in midtown Baltimore currently separating Bolton Hill and Mt Vernon and isolating the public housing along MLK. The plan brought new use to existing transit and missing services to areas in need of stores and open spaces.
 "We've seen what Harborplace did for the waterfront in Baltimore and a redevelopment of the old Can Company did for Canton. State Center would be the catalyst for similar development in our area," Steva Komeh,resident of Marble Hill at hearing Tuesday.
Moore, for example, described how Harris Teeter had selected the armory as a space for a large scale signature grocery store in the Mid Atlantic. "Show us your signed leases",  one of the delegates intoned, stating his credentials as a real estate negotiator. Naturally, without the final green light from the State Board of Public Works that O'Malley didn't provide when he was still Governor and which Hogan was all along set to stall out, no developer in the world could have signed a lease.

But more than any of these objections counts the fact that the Governor hasn't produced as much as a glimmer of an alternative. Talk about an arena is just as much baloney as the study that was released yesterday. Not even the most ardent Hogan fan can maintain that the Governor has shown any viable path forward that would yield results without going through another decade of planning.
Where to go from here? The Governor says he is committed to developing the site.
"The governor wants to move forward with a sensible redevelopment of State Center," Ellington Churchill, Secretary of the State Department of General Services at Tuesday's hearing
Fine, but if he doesn't build on the plans that have been developed in a democratic and fair participatory process with over 50 signators subscribing to it, then he won't be long enough in office to see anything happen. He doesn't have to buy the current deal lock, stock and barrel. If he doesn't like any of the specifics, particularly the lease-back agreement for the State, he should say what he wants changed, instead of hurling Marxist sounding insults about the developer wanting to "line her pockets". What business-friendly governor talks like that, especially when the party in question is $25 million in the red?  Presumably Hogan could even demand that the developer team which includes nationally known entities such as McCormack Baron Salazar, appoint a spokesperson that is not Caroline Moore. 

It is time that all sides come down from the gun turrets and out of the trenches and figure out how to move forward with all the key planning and urban ingredients that the original plan entails. The Governor had enough time to come up with a plausible alternative. The one-year study revealed yesterday was a chance to develop a new concept, but it was squandered. Nobody who understands planning, urban design, transportation or economic development can call the "study" revealed yesterday a useful document. It is entirely void of any useful idea, let alone a doable implementation path. Any urban design or planning student presenting it would get a failing grade. Luckily that is not a big problem, since an award winning consensus plan already exists.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related article on this blog about the Hogan study revealed Tuesday



Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New State Center study adds insult to injury

The replacement of a plan which had evolved from 15 years of charrettes, community workshops, work of high caliber design firms and planning by actual masterdevelopers with a study stitched together by a Tampa consulting firm ("Exceptional Service, Proven Results") with a hot needle for $79,000 to provide a fig-leaf for a Governor who is intent on undoing whatever his predecessor had done, is doomed to fail, no matter how you look at it. The new study was released Tuesday ahead of a hearing about State Center in Annapolis and is supposed to be "a fresh look" without consideration of anything done before. 
Graphics that accompany the new State Center study
"This study has reinforced our long-held position that the State Center site has an enormous amount of potential for redevelopment” (Hogan)
The odds that a study produced on command could trump a process carried out by a team of many after a lot of give and take is almost zero, even before one takes a look at the new study. A quick glance through the study confirms, that imported consultants can't in a few months become smarter than the people who put their own skin into years of work, even if one forgives sentences such as:
The land area bounded by MLK Jr. Blvd. on the south, Howard Street to the east,
W Preston Street to the north and Eutaw Street on the west, occupied by the
Maryland Department of Health and the Comptroller of Maryland (among others)
is the most ideal (sic!) location for potential commercial and mixed-use alternatives.
Even if one forgives the suggestion of pedestrian bridges to cross traffic arteries in a city that, just a few months ago, tore down yet another one of those pedestrian overpasses which have long obtained a status of being dinosaurs of transportation planning.
The State Center Site is somewhat of an island of land surrounded by multiple
mixed land uses primarily bounded by busy Howard Street and MLK Jr. Blvd. The option of pedestrian bridge access from surrounding neighborhood districts would provide a much-needed linkage and connectivity of the subject State Center Site to a large population and commercial/residential base to the east of Howard Street and to the south over MLK Jr. Blvd.
 A lot of the previous planning concerned itself with overcoming the isolation of State Center which is the result of misguided superblock-thinking of the past which generated ped bridges in the first place and thus exacerbated the isolation instead of creating greater permeability throughout.  The study authors seem to be unsure that Baltimoreans can even properly imagine pedestrian bridges and helpfully list various "precedents" and even add really bad pictures to boot. Examples of pedestrian footbridge crossings are summarized in the table below. How very helpful!
1 John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, Nashville, TN
2 Gateway Trail Iron Bridge, Minneapolis, MN
3 W 84th Street at Normandale Lake, Bloomington, MN
4 Freight House Pedestrian Footbridge, Kansas City, MO
5 Pedestrian Footbridge at Steinbrenner Field, Tampa, FL
6 Pedestrian Footbridge at Disney Village Orlando, FL
Google streetview photos of the proposed
ped bridges 
The proposals continue to be offered on the most mundane level possible, including streetscape improvements suggesting to continue a wide green median for Eutaw Street. Wow, who would have come up with that audacity! Naturally, the study has to quickly admit that it is "cursory" and would benefit from additional next steps. Here is the complete list:
  • Performing additional due diligence and conducting a detailed real estate market analysis that incorporates direct market research to further assess gaps and feasible types of development to meet unmet demand taking into consideration DGS’ objectives for the State Center Site (e.g., creating/increasing jobs and economic activity to the area).
  • Completing a facilities assessment that evaluates the current buildings and related infrastructure in terms of useful life of existing structures.
  • Conducting a detailed transportation/traffic impact analysis.
  • Conducting meetings/focus groups with area stakeholders and community groups such as neighborhood associations that could be impacted by future development of the State Center Site regarding their perspectives on the strengths, challenges, and opportunities associated with the current and potential future uses.
  • Obtaining direct input from the outside development community which could be accomplished by testing potential market opportunities with the private sector through a formalized process such as issuing a Request for Information (RFI) that outlines DGS’ objectives including types of land uses and targeted economic/return on investment goals.
  • Identifying a solid, sustainable redevelopment strategy including opportunities for public private partnerships as well as a realistic timeline for implementation. 
Yeah! Anyone who followed the State Center project over the years will recognize these steps, all of them have long been taken and the results are known to anyone who wants to look. 
Original preferred State Center development concept

It is hard to read this study and keep a straight face, bad English, poor graphics, sad ideas throughout including "peer city" examples that are in part taken from Google Streetview and occupy many pages without shedding much light on why they would be suitable or what is to be learned from them. No better way to illustrate the malady of this study than another direct quote:
In the analysis of potential land uses for the State Center Site, the matrix that follows provides a summary of inventory within a 1 and 3-mile radii of the State Center Site. The purpose of this analysis is to recognize density of use and potential gaps of uses within the market area. The study of land use components in the 1 and 3-mile radii from the State Center Site is important because this represents immediate walking and/or short drive-time distance for potential user base. The population base within a 1-mile radius of the State Center Site is 52,278. The population increases to 302,982 people within a 3-mile radius equating to a 480% increase in population, all of which place varying demands on land use alternatives, summarized in the foregoing inventory matrix. There are several use categories that overlap from the 1-mile radius through the 3-mile radius.
The various land uses are similar to the Peer City land use components previously discussed. 
With such uninspired thinking it is then not surprising that the matrix of proposed uses marked as "highly likely" (whatever that means) includes a convenience store/gas station, the very abomination  which the good people of Towson recently fought successfully to be built on York Road. Other likely uses include a strip retail center and "university influence". These folks really love Baltimore!

As all bad studies, this one jumps straight from a non-convincing "analysis" to even less convincing "solutions" and use proposals without ever drawing any substantial conclusions from the analysis, summarizing deficiencies, or developing guiding principles or goals.

The study even leaves the most important questions out, which one has to surmise were the reason why Hogan dislikes the Ekistics plans so much:

  • What to do with the State owned buildings? 
  • Can they be rehabbed? 
  • If so, what should they be used for? 
  • Where should the State put its offices? 
  • If not here then where else? 
  • If here, how could rehab or new construction be funded? 
Anybody who would investigate these questions in earnest would eventually come to a solution that would look quite similar to what Ekistics proposed: A public-private partnership in which the State as the largest land-owner and user would leverage its assets to stitch together an entire new neighborhood to heal a big  gaping hole in Baltimore's heart. That wouldn't be the cheapest way for the State to get some updated office space, but it would be a responsible way for the State to be a property owner that is serious about economic development.
“Unfortunately, our repeated efforts to get this project off of the ground have been delayed by a group of developers who have sought to force the state to pay outrageous sums for leases that weren’t executed and who have failed in their commitments to the state, and more importantly, the citizens of Baltimore City. We remain fully committed to working with Mayor Pugh and community stakeholders to bring the full potential of this project to fruition.” (Hoagn Press release Tuesday)
The same Hogan who is willing to throw 5 billion dollars at Amazon is finding the leases suggested in the original State Center plan too expensive! Go figure!

Mercifully, the study has only 116 pages and never advances beyond the level of aerial photography with red circles marked for various use districts. It is easy to conclude that it contributes nothing to the discussion about State Center, except the insight that the Governor's professed love of Baltimore is very, very shallow. Instead of a diamond and ruby he gave us a trinket from a bubblegum machine for Valentines. In the current White House language: Sad. At least there is no serious talk about an arena in this location.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

see also Wednesday's follow-up article on this blog

Baltimore SUN State Center article
BBJ article
Access the full study here.
Access podcast of the joint session here (listen to past lead developer testimony around minute 52)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Expanded rental inspections are a good thing

In cities across America the number of renters and the percentage of homeowners is dropping. In cities across America renters are strangled by rising rents which eat up way more than the recommended 30% of their income. At the same time there is an alarming lack of affordable housing because more and more housing agencies divest themselves of their public housing stock while the construction of new affordable units are not nearly making up for the losses.
Health impacts of  poorly maintained hosuing

In this context it is important to realize that about 50% of Baltimore's renters live in small buildings with one or two units leased directly from small time homeowners who are not always versed in what it takes to be a landlord and manage a quality rental unit. Some of these apartments or dwelling units are offered by slumlords who make their living from a glaring loophole in Baltimore's housing inspections which exempts properties from rental inspections if they have fewer than three units.

The Center For Community Progress, a national non-profit devoted to reduce urban blight caused from vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties, has identified the loophole in a report commissioned by the City which was published in March of last year. The Center has long discovered that code enforcement cannot only be complaint driven, reactive or limited to vacant houses, situations were collapse is imminent or where violations are so blatant that they can be seen from the outside, the conditions on which Baltimore's inspections are centered to date.
Blight is not limited to vacant properties. As a number of respondents noted, in many neighborhoods the problem of substandard rental properties and exploitative landlords is as or more serious than the vacant property problem. An effective blight elimination strategy calls for effective rental regulationstrategies. Such strategies are also likely to have a direct positive effect on the lives of many lower income Baltimore residents.
Center for Community Progress Report Cover
Now on Monday Councilman Bill Henry is introducing a bill aiming to improve the quality of small scale rental housing by responding to key recommendations included in the Community Progress report. Key recommendations included in the report and tracked in the bill include:
  • Amend local law to require licensing and regular inspection of 1 and 2 family rental properties. 
  • Develop a performance-based approach to rental licensing to incentivize responsible landlords, and focus City enforcement on problem landlords. The city should revise its licensing program to provide for performance measurement of landlords, similar to programs in Minneapolis and other cities, in order to both incentivize responsible landlord behavior and enable the city to focus enforcement resources on the minority of serious problem landlords.
  • Establish a dedicated rental housing compliance unit in the Department of Housing & Community Development.  
  • Create a database of city landlords to use to track performance, including code compliance, nuisance and criminal complaints, and tax compliance.
  • Work with local landlord associations, non-profits, and others to build a landlord support system, including training and technical assistance, and increased access to capital for improvements and upgrading. 
The proposed legislation gleans some of its components from Minneapolis, a city with a much stricter enforcement of housing codes including small rental structures. Taken from Minneapolis is an approach with carrots and sticks, i.e. penalties and incentives. A compliant landlord can advance from the basic bi-annual inspection to a three year cycle. A non-compliant landlord can slip into a annual inspection cycle. Persistently badly performing landlords can lose their rental license altogether, a step that Baltimore has hardly ever taken.
Municipal Inspections: Carrot and stick

One doesn't have to so far to see effective inspection of single unit and other small rental property. A nearby example is the City of Bowie which for years maintains an accurate database of all rental units within Bowie's limits and requires annual inspections of every unit. The inspector is a municipal employee and is not used for any other code enforcement activities. An initial inspection is as detailed as a home inspection conducted for a home purchase and ensures that all components of a property perform as required by codes or for offering all functions needed to provide a livable unit. Inspections discover non compliant smoke detectors, non functioning stove burners or leaky CO on furnaces as well as disconnected downspouts.

It is obvious, that government oversight over the basic qualities of the rental housing stock will reduce strive between landlords and tenants. No longer would tenants have to resort to withholding their rent payment as a weapon to achieve repairs of defective units, a strategy that often backfired when the landlords takes the tenant to rent-court, even though the law allows such withholding where a unit doesn't serve its intended purpose. Landlords who argue that a rigorous inspection system would reduce the amount of rental housing on the market are simply employing a scare tactic that is about as plausible as arguing that rigorous inspections of cars would reduce the number of cars for sale. Both, car and rental housing inspections result in a win-win by ensuring that basic safety and quality is maintained. It is only a question why it took so long before Baltimore even considers a rigorous inspection system.

The cost of the inspections should be covered by modest rental licensing fees and possibly, like in Bowie, modest annual inspection fees. While those fees will, no doubt, be rolled into rents, they are well worth the benefit of safer, less blighted housing.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN about the Bill Henry bill introduction
Baltimore SUN about rental inspections in Minneapolis 
Center for Community Progress: "Blight in Baltimore"