Monday, March 12, 2018

Baltimore, enlightenment and optimism

“To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” (Bertrand Russell)
To anyone following the news the world seems to be a miserable place with Baltimore having a special place in misery.
Mayor Catherine Pugh begs to differ. Her view is optimistic and she sees Baltimore as “a city on the rise”.  She could have taken a hefty slice from the way how Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker sees the world. His book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is currently making the rounds through the international media world for all its optimism.
Steven Pinker collage in The Nation
“Everything is amazing! And none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.” (Pinker)
Based on enlightenment, data and science the Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author sees progress everywhere, even if it doesn't look like it. He points to global health, global hunger and a number of standard metrics to make his point. Even when it comes to global warming, the international downer du jour he sees reason for hope when he looks at past universal challenges such as the ozone hole, acid rain or polluted cities. In all of those areas, he says, mankind has made much quicker progress than initially thought possible. Pinker explains the bleak outlook so many have, and that is so prevalent in our culture as an error, the product of cognitive biases based on the limited ability of the brain to digest large amounts of data. In that error, people are, therefore, forming judgement based on what is the most recent news or nearby experience, not data. In the case of Baltimore, such rush judgement is based on an incessant stream of calamities circulated on the evening news and in social media, what Mayor Pugh calls the false narrative.But does a deep dive into data help the Baltimore narrative? We will get back to that.
Psychology without philosophy: Pinker book

Reviews of Pinker's book are not uniformly positive. The business magazine The Economist truly loves the book and the New York Times gave it a good review, too. But under the headline "The Powerpoint Philosophe" Princeton professor Bell, the reviewer for The Nation has this to day:
“There really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” he writes. Almost entirely absent from the 576 pages of Enlightenment Now are the social movements that for centuries fought for equal rights, an end to slavery, improved working conditions, a minimum wage, the right to organize, basic social protections, a cleaner environment, and a host of other progressive causes. The arc bending toward justice is no mystery: It bends because people force it to bend. (The Nation)
So far Baltimore's WYPR Midday talk show host Tom Hall has not yet been able to bring Pinker into his studio one on Charles Street, but it would be interesting to apply Pinker's thinking here and see if one could become an optimist in and about Baltimore as well. Pinker points out that people are more likely to acknowledge a problem when they think it’s solvable than when they are frozen by fear is definitely a great starting strategy for approaching our hometown. But counting?
 “How can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.” (Pinker)
Pinker's argument is not philosophical. His argument that the human brain likes to extrapolate immediate and limited experience, or for lack of experience, the immediate surrogates of experience, the newspaper, the Facebook feed,  the gossip of co-workers or the evening news, is the explanation of a psychologist. Furthermore, Pinker explains, the human brain doesn't like to leave data unconnected but instead likes to create a narrative arc in which everything happens for a reason. Naturally, those two tendencies combined easily lead to a bleak view of things where everything seems to go to hell in a hand basket, whether it is locally or globally. Sometimes they even lead to conspiracy theories.  The use of psychology to explain society has frequently led astray
Enlightenment and the French revolution: Painting the Marseillaise
(Gustave Dore)

Pinker thinks that defeatism is irrational and that an enlightened soul needs to do no more than check the facts on a broader scale to cheer up. The German weekly DER SPIEGEL carries for the last year or so a column titled: "Everything used to be worse". In each column the magazine offers ample statistical evidence that things are on an upward trajectory and that there was never a better time in the past, no matter what statistic the author uses, whether life expectancy, car crashes, polluted waters or education.  Pinker fills his book with such statistics as well and it isn't a surprise that the SPIEGEL journalist of the "everything used to be worse" column was the one who interviewed Pinker for his magazine and liked the book as well

When it comes to Baltimore, quantitative data hardly provide a straight path for optimism. The decline in population, the rise in murders, the staggering number of vacant buildings, the high tax rate, the poor school graduation rates, the incarceration rates,the deaths from drug overdose, the vast gulf in life expectancy rates, those statistics are precisely what depresses Baltimoreans way beyond the evening news. The bleak facts are the problem, not so much the "narrative". But there is always comfort in the trend. "We are going in the right direction" the Mayor says, and indeed, if teh direction is right progress must follow. A widely held belief assumes that from a certain point in the valley it can only go up.
Smiling in the face of disasters: NYT Illustration
(Gabriel Alcala)

One has to reach a bit to find the "good" numbers: Reduction in teen pregnancy,  for example. A decrease in urban flight. An increasing tax base, an increase in neighborhoods showing a good diversity index, an increase in recycling participation, recently, indeed, a reduction in crime.

But more than any deep dig in numbers, the question which the SPIEGEL journalist asks, in which decade would have life in Baltimore  been better is actually a good indicator of teh general direction the city moves. No matter that black communities haven't made all that much progress in 50 years, would anyone really want to go back to a time when Morgan students had to stage sit ins at a lunch counter on Howard Street because "Negroes" weren't allowed? No matter how pretty the Christmas displays at the Stewarts department store were, would we want to go back to a time when blacks couldn't use the changing rooms in that same store? No matter that lead paint is still a problem in many Baltimore homes and rental units, would anyone want to go back to a time when each car spewed unfiltered leaded exhaust and the air was barely breathable? No matter that HarborPoint  looks like an enclave for the wealthy, does anyone want the Allied Signal plant back which leached hundreds of pounds of chromium into the harbor on a daily base?

The times when Baltimore's stoops were scrubbed weekly by women who stayed home to cook and when abandoned rowhouses were a rarity may be seen by some as the "good old days", but certainly the younger generation wouldn't want to live a single week in those times when cleanliness trumped gender parity, the summer heat was stifling with no AC in sight, and the knowledge horizon went often no further than the neighborhood barbershop. Even those many streetcars that everybody is no nostalgic about, were in reality pretty rickety, slow,  and rumbled on tracks even more worn and poorly maintained than Metro. Young people were expected to fight one war after the other, drafted to the Civil War, World Wars One and Two, the Korean War and Vietnam.

Pinker may be naive about the permanence of enlightenment and reason, or even about the believe that rational decision making will continue to pave a path towards progress, but he is probably right that in general, most people have it better today than previous generations before them. Including the residents of Baltimore. That is not to say that Baltimore doesn't have a long way to go before anybody can rest and say, "well done". In fact the Baltimore deficiencies makes this city an almost perfect place to devise solutions for them.

As The Nation book reviewer points out, intellectuals, journalists (and I would add social activists) have as "one of their prime responsibilities[..] to identify problems, abuses, and threats, to help the public and policy-makers understand them, and to search for solutions". Right. Therefore blaming the media for the bad news makes little sense. Articles in this space will continue to be critical.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Guardian review of Pinker book
The Nation review of the book

Baltimore's plastic legislation and worldwide plastic trash

 Baltimore is sometimes a bit insular and often not exactly ahead of the curve, but after many failed attempts legislation to curb plastic bags and styrofoam containers the latter finally seems to have a chance to succeed. One can see this as a result of the tenacity of a renewed local council, but the legislation also coincides with a global shift regarding plastic garbage that may make laws reducing the use of throw away plastic a worldwide necessity.
Plastic scraps in China (Photo: NYT)

China has been for a long time the world's largest recipient of plastic garbage which it turns into pellets and the kind of plastic products it can't make from petroleum since the country doesn't have much of that commodity.  7.3 million tons of paper, metals and used plastic went to China in 2016, according to recent industry data. The U.S. exports about one-third of its recycling, and nearly half goes to China.

But January 2018 China banned 24 types of garbage imports, including pretty much all recycled plastic. This is, in part, also a result of a Baltimore legislation, which the City enacted after almost everybody else did it already: single stream recycling. The idea to throw all recyclables into one bin jacked up the city's recycling rates but this method now used almost anywhere in the US also helped to contaminate the recycled materials to a degree that China felt compelled to first enact first the policy of the "green fence" (increased controls of imported recyclables regarding contamination) and then the "national sword", the total ban on certain recyclables. 

It isn't entirely clear how the trash producing countries will react to the import stop. Avoidance of plastic for throw away items would certainly be the right answer. But it may come differently. Countries like Malaysia, India or Thailand are already ramping up plastic imports, the producing countries could also install more of the facilities that turn waste into new items. Or China could open its doors again if the exporters could guarantee less contaminated waste. For Baltimore and other cities it could mean the end of single stream recycling.

However global politics will play out, Baltimore's decision to ban plastic containers fits into the picture, even though neither styrofoam nor plastic bags recycle well at all. The Baltimore styrofoam ban isn't just good for local landfills, the Bay and the Oceans but the right step in the global attempt of becoming more sustainable.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Recycling Chaos In U.S. As China Bans 'Foreign Waste', NPR

Friday, March 9, 2018

The best Baltimore we ever had

In the current US political climate the binary thinking is the currency of discourse, no matter that problems are increasingly multidimensional, whether in foreign relations, trade or urban planning.
Waterfront glitz (Photo Philipsen)

In the binary world of thinking the game is always zero-sum and the results are either-or. Conflicts are either won or lost and the loser is who blinks first.

Depending on the political perspective, in the binary view real estate moguls are either heroes who take action where others only talk, who save cities and risk their money in the process or they are bullies who throw their weight around to get what they want through bravado and testosterone fueled machismo. This latter perspective gave the industry a standing only slightly above used car salesman. The current occupant of the White House has done little to elevate that image and even Maryland's generally popular Governor acts occasionally like a bully. Of course both are real estate moguls. At State Center Hogan had the audacity to accuse his colleague of just wanting to "line her pockets", language usually used by radical activists.

With that he advanced the frequent Baltimore narrative that, when it comes to real estate, developers buy their politicians, that they care only about profit, that what is good for downtown must be bad for the neighborhoods or as Hogan's State Center logic goes, what is good for the neighborhood must be bad for downtown (or the State). That binary assumes that development is like musical chairs, that there is a set number of players and a set number of chairs and that the clear loser is the one left without a chair. Baltimore's favorite musical chair "theory" goes something like this: Harbor East is nothing but another player stealing tenants from downtown. State Center would steal even more business from downtown. HarborPoint steels from Harbor East and downtown and Canton Crossing finally steals from everybody. Which would make it the biggest villain of all these players which combined suck all the resources and energy out of the neighborhoods not located near the water. Interestingly, this view is shared by the left and the right.
Reinvestment in East Baltimore (Photo Philipsen)

None of this describes a complicated reality correctly, though. The simplistic binary thinking and especially the zero-sum musical chair "theory" has a number of problems: Chiefly, it is static but a city and real estate is dynamic. Second, it is just about quantity, never about quality.

Overlooking "quality" is a big problem in a time when quality increasingly beats quantity. Just take the age of cities. No longer is a river, a port or a strong manufacturing base a sufficient driver for prosperity. Today's people are attracted to cities for the quality of experiences and interactions they can have there. Whether it is where they live, where they work or where they spend their spare time, quality matters most. Just ask real estate developers!

Employers come to cities not for the sheer quantity of  the available workforce but for the quality of skilled labor. Real estate developers are acting on this. Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT), traditionally a developer of spec offices in distant suburbs, has moved its own offices to Canton Crossing to stick their toe into the waters of this new quality based urbanity. So far, it is still open whether Canton Crossing will ever really achieve urbanity, but it may.
State Center redevelopment rendering (Mithun Architects)

The office, retail and housing developers are in a full-on race to create the experiences the highly mobile younger generation is looking for. The incessive chatter about millenials and creatives has already begun to discredit the focus on these new urban trends, but a closer look at Baltimore's assumed game of musical chairs shows, that quality, indeed, matters.

Offices on Pratt Street fare better than those in the old financial district, and those on Harbor East and Harborpoint better yet.  Offices,  retail spaces and even apartments change over time in many ways. "Better" isn't just "location, location", but is is also what exactly it is that makes a space "class A"  in 2018 versus what classification meant in 1990 or 1970. While in the past a luxurious but isolated building was enough, a better offic today not only means more daylight, better views, more flexible spaces, more amenities inside a building but more to do when one steps outside.  Walkability, good access to transit and nearby restaurants and shops as well as a high quality public realm matter just as much as a creative building.

This is why the once hugely successful Research Triangle in North Carolina is engaged in a huge effort to become denser, more urban and transit accessible. Closer to home, Columbia is fanning a building boom with the sole objective of making its downtown dense enough to be urban, the same is true for Owings Mills in Baltimore County, the Odenton town center, or Parole in Anne Arundel County.
Downtown and at the water: New apartment towers
(Photo: Philipsen)

One can easily see that Baltimore City with its cultural institutions, authentic historic districts and its waterfront should have a leg up in the urbanity game. But to capture the new interest in quality, the city must offer brand-new class A spaces in a well designed setting. Through upgrades of tired buildings combined with improvements of the public spaces particulalry promoted by the Dowtown Partnership, Pandora and Lupin came to Baltimore, COPT moved from Howard County into the City, or Medifast relocated from Owings Mills, This is not musical chairs, at least not within Baltimore.

The BBJ writes this Thursday that 750 East Pratt Street, long known as "the Constellation Building" is fully leased again after Constellation Energy became Exelon and vacated half of the building to move to its new tower on HarborPoint. After BGE had become Constellation Energy it had vacated its old headquarters on Liberty Street, and with Constellation becoming Exelon, a building that was finished as recently as 2002 seemed doomed a mere 15 years later. What could be better proof for the musical chairs theory? What really happened, though, is not at all like musical chairs.

The old historic headquarters filled with new apartments,  and the latest move to HarborPoint  opened up an entire new urban quarter on a site that once was a polluting chemical plant and then an empty capped brownfield. The owners of the half vacated 750 building didn't throw up their hands in despair or sued the State for allowing the Constellation merger (a suit that may have had merit outside of real estate issues). Instead they set about refilling the place with a clear goal, a strategy, and tenacity utilizing the skills of the globally known firm Wakeman Cushfield and they succeeded in record time.

Of course, the musical chair theorists will quickly point out that one of the new tenants, KGPM, an accounting firm, moved only down the street from 1 East Pratt, leaving a vacancy there, a building which coincidentally just changed hands. But vacancy isn't the story of Pratt Street. Many new tenants  have not just vacated another building but were attracted to Baltimore because it could offer excellent new class A spaces in a setting that could easily beat what most suburbs offer.  750 East Pratt wasn't just refilled by the moving accounting firm, it also has new Hopkins offices, pointing to another dynamic factor beyond attracting businesses from the outside. Growing enterprises on the inside: Maryland's largest employer is doing well and needs expansion space.

Sure enough, there are victims of the run towards better and better spaces. Peter Angelos who filed a lawsuit against the State Center redevelopment argued that another new office complex would make his life even harder. He already had to upgrade the 1970s Mies van der Rohe building known as One Charles Center, from Baltimore's first round of reinventing itself through high quality class A downtown office space. The retail space there is still empty after years of vacancy, and so is the adjacent former Hamburgers clothing store building after the Hopkins school of real estate moved into the glitzy Legg Mason tower at Harbor East. Angelos law suit against State Center may stem from those frustrations, but this defensive move is much less successful than the aggressive  campaign to fill the space leveraged by Wallace Campbell with the help of real estate giant Cushman Wakefield to refill the Constellation building.
Urban playground open to all: Sandlot on HarborPoint (Photo: Philipsen)

The point of this story is not to prove that the musical chair effect doesn't exist at all, nor that there are no victims of office moves within the old Baltimore downtown. Not everyone can manage upgrades or a conversion to apartments or condos. The point is neither to deny that real estate operations are often ruthless or to defend the disproportionate amount of resources that went to the newest and fanciest places along the waterfront.

Instead, the point is to show that urban development is not static, not binary and not zero-sum. The new emphasis on quality and the creation of public places that had never existed quite like that before, benefits everybody and is a matter of survival for a city.  The "fathers" of Charles Center had a similar insight when, in the 60s they brought Baltimore out of an era of stagnation and made it an attractive location for a good number of new employers. 50 years later it still holds true that a city has to offer the right "product", as real estate people describe buildings. Right however, means something quite different today. Much more Jane Jacobs and much less Robert Moses. Much less pollution and much more culture. This is something to celebrate.

Critics of this view would object that in spite of all the new development, Baltimore has not been able to gain population and that all this change has not helped to make dis-invested neighborhoods any better. Both is largely true (There are some substantial private and public investments in neighborhoods as well and where it happens the zero sum thinkers quickly cry "gentrification"); but even conceding this point, it begs the question, would the city have grown  or would the neighborhoods any better without all the new development along Baltimore's waterfront?
Investment in Baltimore Food Hub East Baltimore. The first tenant is
already operating.  (Photo Stephen Babcock)

The answer to the first question is certainly: No. An analysis of zip codes and migration clearly shows that Baltimore has gained population in downtown, on the waterfront and in a few areas such as Highlandtown and Greektown. It also shows that the city is continuing to lose population in many well established older neighborhoods. But those losses are not caused by residents moving from old neighborhoods to the waterfront (musical chairs) but by residents moving to the suburbs or to other cities. In other words, would those new "products" not exist, Baltimore wouldn't be holding its overall population relatively stable, but would continue to bleed like it did in the 1990s. There would also be fewer jobs in Baltimore, because the new companies wouldn't have come without the refurbished or new class A buildings, without the investments in the public roam.

The answer to the second question is harder and more speculative since a city isn't a petri-dish where one can run experiments over and over until one has eliminated extra variables and identified the correct cause and effect relations. It is clear that the city continues to distribute funds in a lopsided manner which largely coincides with racial lines. However, before black Mayors get blamed for being racist, one has to realize that it isn't particularly surprising to see dollars go where development happens, this is a function of markets. Still, innovation, creativity and investment have been redirected to a surprising extent and are no longer just happening along the waterfront.
Constellation Building (Photo: 24, website)

Further change of the distribution patterns of public funds is still needed, no doubt about it. However, it is quite doubtful that neighborhoods would have seen any more market based demand, i.e. less vacancy and abandonment in neighborhoods, if the waterfront areas would have seen fewer public and private dollars. It is far more likely that a more rapidly shrinking city would have had an even further diminished tax base and even more trouble keeping services in the disinvested neighborhoods. This isn't to promote a trickle-down theory, it is just observing that public investments alone usually can't create a market and that investments have to come from prosperous residents and businesses.

There may be some who would prefer the Baltimore from whatever past decade when it had more residents, more streetcars, a flourishing Pennsylvania Avenue, or more fortune 500 companies and less crime. But considering dynamics, innovation and quality, there are many more arguments to conclude that the best Baltimore there ever was, is the one we have today, no matter how extremely far it is from being a perfect city. It has never been perfect and very few places will ever be.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Due to travel the articles on this blog will be less regular in the coming week or so.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Why Musk's cars in tunnels project doesn't solve anything

“I would put what Mr. Musk is saying today in the bullshit category,” Thom Neff, infrastructure consultant
The man has successfully launched the world's largest rocket into space, has made  established car companies like BMW gasp for air, is in the process of completing the world's largest building and largest battery factory and has sold 450,000 electric cars in one year, more than anyone else, who can tell him that something won't work?
Musk explaining his Tesla on a sled

Julianne Tveten for one. She wrote in Capital and Main that
"The Tesla CEO’s proposal to bore a high-speed commute tunnel under the Westside of Los Angeles may amplify many of the county’s most deeply entrenched disparities." 
The equity argument is frequently used against new technologies, sometimes correctly so, sometimes not. But she doesn't leave it there. Her other argument aims straight at the heart of Musk's project itself, the car, or in the case of the tunnel, transporting a car in rapid speed not on top of a rocket but on top of a palette. Before we go there, though here fisrt what Musk imagines as a solution to urban congestion:  In their January edition Wired described Musk's tunnel transportation ideas this way:
Musk came up with the Boring Company in late 2016 while stuck in LA traffic. He could destroy the scourge of congestion, he figured, by building layers upon layers of underground tunnels, each just wide enough for a personal car or a multi-passenger pod. Those vehicles would ride on electric skates that would zoom everyone along at triple-digit speeds.(Wired)
In Musk's Boring Company's own words the tunneling project sounds just as easy as Trump winning trade wars:
To solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic, roads must go 3D, which means either flying cars or tunnels. Unlike flying cars, tunnels are weatherproof, out of sight and won't fall on your head. A large network of tunnels many levels deep would fix congestion in any city, no matter how large it grew (just keep adding levels).  

Musk's Boring company has some plausible ideas on how to make tunnel boring cheaper by re-inventing the tunnel boring machine, currently an instrument that is slow and manufactured only by a very few companies.

But the crux of the matter doesn't reside with those machines:  Tveten uses Streetsblog LA editor Joe Linton's quotes to drive a deep spear into the weakest part of Musk's tunnel dreams:
“In the ’50s, highway builders, car infrastructure folks [said], ‘If we can build more capacity, if we can widen another freeway, build another freeway, congestion is going to get better.’ What we’ve seen is the opposite. The more capacity you have, the more congestion you get." Joe Linton 
Exactly! In order to deal with transportation problems one has to understand the intricate relationships between supply and demand and the even trickier ones of land use and transportation. Both are dynamic and dialectic relations, far from being liner or zero-sum.  Dreaming of shooting cars through tunnels is just as silly as adding toll lanes on freeways or building even more freeways around, across or under our cities. To make it extra clear Tveten adds:
Like freeways, the Boring Company’s proposal misses a fundamental principle in reducing traffic: limiting the number of cars on the road. (Tveten)
 Musk, like most start-up entrepreneurs is fixated on technology, and loses sight of the problem that needs to be solved: The problem of sprawl causing a need to cover great distances to get anything done, the root cause for all the traffic and cars. No matter what technology one uses, in growing high population metropolitan areas such as LA or Washington/Baltimore sprawl can only be made more efficient by scooting things closer together on the land use side until densities are achieved which allow effective transit.

But Musk is not kidding. He is already boring his test tunnels both in LA and in Maryland which makes the matter much less theoretical for us than one would think.
A Tesla on a sled gets transported into the tunnel: One at a time,
every minute one less car on the road. Wow!

In light of the complexities of transportation, the idea that  small palettes with one or two cars could solve a metropolitan traffic congestion problem is so naive that it boggles the mind. Anyone who has seen I-5 feeding into LA and imagines how any sizable portion of vehicles would be transferred to palettes, dropped into a tunnel and shot across LA to continue their journey on the other side can imagine the sheer size of the problem: At volumes north of 300,000 vehicles a day whatever Musk tunnel could make only the smallest dent, even if there were many of them. Managing those floods of cars with what amounts to a straw would create enormous lines at the entry points to those tunnels, congestion which would dwarf the largest congestion anyone has ever seen at either side of the Lincoln Tunnel where waits of 30-60 minutes are common before one can enter the four lane tunnel which still has a far higher capacity than Musk's sleds. It wouldn't be Musk's company if the Boring Company wouldn't offer an answer for the congestion at entries problem as well:
How will you avoid major congestion at entry/exit points? Unlike a subway, there is no practical upper limit to the number of stations that can be built along the tunnel route, as stations can be as small as a single parking space. Each station will consist of a bank of elevators and the number of elevators is only limited to the available land area. The electric skates will descend into a "spur" or tunnel offshoot before quickly merging into the tunnel network. Since stations require such a small footprint, they can be easily integrated in busy city-centers, residential communities, or any location along the tunnel route that can accommodate a single parking space. The high density of stations will help reduce congestion by distributing traffic across many access points. (FAQ)
Waiting time counts double

This is where the project veers completely into vodoo. A huge number of "stations" solving the capacity problem in the manner of  the new destination dispatch elevators? Just saying so doesn't make it so. There isn't a shred of documentation on how the high number of small stations would not create congestion at the station or in the tube and how so many stations and car lifts wouldn't drive the cost into the stratosphere and make the system extremely vulnerable. Ever witnessed how often the WMATA lifts at stations are defect?

Just as Musk is good at figuring out how to get to Mars, but is much less convincing in explaining what one should do there and why one would want to go there, he is also weak on explaining how "stations" at his tunnels would work, whether it is the car sled tunnel (with speeds just above 100mph) or the "hyperloop" system of pods shot through tunnels at speeds of just below the sound barrier.
Loop and Hyperloop are similar, with the major difference being that Hyperloop draws a vacuum inside the tube to eliminate air friction. Loop is used for shorter routes, when there is no technical need to eliminate air friction. (FAQ)
As any transit planner knows, trip times on a transit vehicle are one thing, but the time to get there or the wait to get into one is another, in fact those time aren't treated equal at all. Why?  Because transit riders don't count wait time and travel time in the same way. Once they comfortably sit in a bus or train, riders are much less impatient than during the wait in rain or heat when they have to stand still while the transit vehicle isn't yet in sight.  If one would take the psychology of travel into account, one would realize that the speed of the vehicle after departure is far less important than the door to door trip time. Which is why more people use Amtrak to go from DC to NYC than fly. The train moves much slower than the plane, but it is still comparable door to door thanks to the unpleasant waits that come with security, sitting at the gate and cramming passengers and luggage into the tight  planes. And that is even though most airports these days are fairly pleasant facilities with lots of offerings to kill time. By contrast, Musk hasn't shown how his "stations" would look and how they would fit into any urban context. His video shows just a hole opening up in the ground into which a single car disappears, a perrty unwelcome prospect. Its the idle waits that make people hate plane travel and they would precisely be  what they would also hate about those sleds in tunnels, especially if stations are no better than a hole in the ground.

Most people hate their local transit agencies. Riding transit isn't cool, Musk made disparaging remarks about it. Ironically the man himself makes almost all his Tesla 3 buyers wait much longer to for their vehicle than Musk had promised.
“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time. It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it.” (Musk)
Actual Musk test tunnel (Photo: The Boring Company)
In a time when those in power are admirers of the ultra elitist libertarian Ayn Rand ("The Atlas Shrugged") some may be tempted to believe that heroic men like Musk can in the manner of Rand's Howard Roark ("Fountainhead") solve all the problems that "the swamp" couldn't.

History, though, is rife with examples which prove that those magic shortcuts don't exist. To our Governor one wants to say: It would be far better to make the icky transit better, than hoping for the Hyperloop.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

 Musk's FAQ paper about his tunnel projects
Tunnel video showing how a mini station is supposed to work (Red Tesla 3 required)

Monday, March 5, 2018

The choke-holds on Baltimore transportation

Just when it became clear to every transportation expert that metro areas can't build themselves out of congestion, just when it became globally obvious that we live in the age of metro areas and just when transportation had been identified as a key indicator for equity and social justice the forces of the current administration in Washington have aligned themselves to deliver a big blow to public transportation across the nation.  In Baltimore the blow is augmented on the State and local level:
  • The US President talks about infrastructure but proposes massive cuts to his Department of Transportation and to transit in particular
  • The State of Maryland doubles down on its blatantly lopsided highways-first anti-transit policies
  • The City of Baltimore fails to provide the transportation leadership necessary to counter the hostile external policies
    cars, cars, cars
Let's parse these choke-holds out, one by one:

The Federal Government: 

In the President's budget proposal TIGER grants, a major discretionary transit funding program is proposed to be eliminated. The competitive grants have funded 421 community based road, transit and active transportation efforts with $5.1 billion since its inception in 2009. Baltimore received TIGER funds for North Avenue Rising, an ongoing corridor improvement project,
The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program, provides a unique opportunity for the DOT to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve national objectives. Since 2009, Congress has dedicated nearly $5.1 billion for eight rounds of TIGER to fund projects that have a significant impact on the Nation, a region or a metropolitan area. (US DOT website)
Baltimore's transit advocacy group Transit Choices collected 175 signatures supporting the TIGER program and delivered them Maryland's legislators in Washington.
Baltimore's Red Line, aborted in the last minute

Further it is proposed to “wind down” a major source of transit funding, the Capital Investment Grants program, eliminating all projects that don't already have funding agreements in place. Instead, the transit projects are supposed to fund themselves through "value capture", a measure that is hampered by the fact that transit agencies typically have zero control over land use which typically is the roam of the "added value" to be "captured".

The grandiose announcement of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan is a paper tiger if one considers that only $200 billion over ten years was proposed as actual federal spending. The rest of the money would have to come from private sources through the Public Private Partnerships (P3) which are often proposed to reduce up front capital engagement by the government. What is usually forgotten is that those private  moneys come with a hefty price tag and that they are essentially mortgages and have to be paid back either by users of the project through user fees such as fares or tolls or by the taxpayer in general or in some combination of the two. Congress and the federal government continue to refuse to adjust the federal fuel tax to inflation. Keeping the federal tax constant has meant that actual funds in today's dollars have become less every year since 1994 when the fuel tax was last adjusted. A truly non sustainable situation.

The State of Maryland:

Based on gasoline tax increases and indexing enacted under the previous Governor money influx into the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund has grown. However, the Governor and his Secretary of Transportation have refused to maintain the transit funding levels to which his predecessor had committed.
Baltimore's light rail: No expansion in 25 years

As a result the State funds for the Purple Line were slashed to less than a quarter what they had been,  the Red Line was cancelled, the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) was put on hold, no money was put aside to implement the MARC masterplan. The money is getting spent on roadways instead, including additional beltway toll lanes. The city of Baltimore had to trade the $2.9 billion Red Line for a $135 million over 5 year investment into the existing bus system.  The Governor's assertion that he is spending plenty of money on transit for new railcars on Metro, track repairs and the midlife overhaul for light tail overlooks the fact that these expenditures were all planned and funded before Hogan came into office.
Baltimore bikeshare program: On and off

Whatever transit funds MDOT will muster, they will likely go to DC to meet WMATA's insatiable needs for repair and maintenance. Baltimore remains ill positioned to throw its own weight for better balance.

The City of Baltimore

Chronically suffering from a shrinking tax base from a shrinking population Baltimore City had a fairly small piece of skin in the Red Line and contributes little to current TIGER projects such as North Avenue Rising. When Baltimore created the Circulator in 2010 and shortly thereafter began funding free commuter water taxi service, it had started its own self supporting transit  service which was an instant hit. However, service was soon expanded beyond what the main funding source, a special parking tax, could support. Since 2015 the City is promising to reform the Circulator and water taxi so they would remain  viable transit options without needing life support from the general fund. To this day, no convincing  reform has been worked out. The services are much less polished than they used to be and continue to drain the general fund.
Protected bike lanes: Lacking the will to actually build them

The highly touted overhaul of the first bike masterplan, which for the first time produced a complete bike network plan and implementation strategy, was reduced to not much more than ideas on paper when the implementation was halted amidst concerns about fire access which other cities have already successfully resolved.

Councilman Dorsey's complete streets legislation was hung up as well, it has no support from City DOT.

The new director of DOT in office since June 2017 first forgot to send  Baltimore's transportation priority letter to the State and then sent a most unconvincing document that showed that Baltimore doesn't really have clear transportation priorities. While the letter may have been a minor issue, the continued absence of a strong Baltimore position in Annapolis when it comes to fighting or compensating for Hogan's lopsided transportation is certainly more than unfortunate, especially at a time when the MTA shut down Metro because the system had fallen into such disrepair that it was apparently unsafe to run or when Baltimore should step up to make North Avenue Rising truly a project addressing transit access, economic development, equity and social justice. Neither the complete streets approach nor the accommodation of active transportation (pedestrian and bicycle) can wait until the new director completes her two laudable main goals, an "asset inventory" and a "comprehensive transportation plan".
"We have a lot of growth and we've got to do better. It's a real opportunity for the state to invest in Baltimore. State money spent on Baltimore now will make money for the state down the road. It's an opportunity we have to become a top-notch place and it's going to take a concerted effort in infrastructure and transportation." (Tom Prevas, member of the Planning Commission).
Baltimore is also a major bottleneck in East Coast freight and passenger service thanks to the ancient Howard Street tunnel preventing efficient doublestack container trains moving north from the Port of Baltimore, and the 150 year old B&P tunnel forcing trains on four tracks to merge onto two tracks crawling at 30mph. CSX withdraw from rebuilding the Howard Street tunnel and the B&P tunnel has a preferred option but no design and construction money.
Everywhere except in Baltimore


Even though the bus-only lanes and some signal modifications to give the bus more green time are nice,  they cannot suffice as Baltimore's transit future. Baltimore needs to forcefully invest in "complete streets", bicycle and pedestrian facilities, a better Circulator and water commuter system and demand additional investment into the bus system, especially to reinstate faster bus route overlays such as the popular Quick buses used to be.  Even more Baltimore needs a transportation concept for the future which includes rail expansion for Metro, Light rail and MARC, policies for the deployment of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), progressive parking policies and an aggressive strategy towards pedestrian and bicycle safety.
Baltimore Circulator: Popular but in need of a sustainable future plan

None of this would make Baltimore a leader in transportation. It would only allow the city to catch up with others. Or as Jed Weeks of Baltimore's Bikemore tweeted: "Seattle does in one year what takes us 10 and counting".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated for Howard Street and B&P tunnels.

Transit at top of wish list as city planners meet with State 

Friday, March 2, 2018

No progress for black America

If black residents of Baltimore feel that there hasn't been any progress in the mostly African American communities, they are not alone. An update of the 1968 Kerner study shows that 50 years later, blacks all across America are worse off or stagnant in three important categories: homeownership, unemployment & incarceration.
Fifty years after the historic Kerner Commission identified "white racism" as the key cause of "pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing," there has been no progress in how African-Americans fare in comparison to whites when it comes to homeownership, unemployment and incarceration, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute released Monday. (Washington Post)

Unemployment got worse with 7.5 percent of African-Americans unemployed in 2017, compared to 6.7 percent in 1968, overall about double the unemployment rate of whites.

Homeownership is stagnant at 40% which is at least 20% below that of whites.

Worst of all, the number of African Americans in jail has tripled since 1968 and so has the wealth gap between black an white! Poverty rates of blacks have dropped from about 33% to about 20%, still African Americans are 2.5 as likely to live in poverty than whites.
Black butterfly, white L: The image of a divided Baltimore

This devastating news coming out at the end of Black History Month has not quite found the resonance in the media it deserves. The SUN only reprinted the WP article and so did the Chicago Tribune.

The Kerner report was frequently quoted in the media after the Baltimore and Ferguson unrests in 2015 and is also referred to every ten years when another round birthday of the initial report about race in America comes up. Each time the sad conclusion is that the country has made little progress when it comes to race.

In Baltimore everything is even worse. The number of African Americans has remained relatively stable in the city while the overall population numbers sagged. The result is that the share of blacks steadily increased, that communities further segregated and the rates of poverty, unemployment and incarceration either remained as bad as they were in 1968 or got worse. Only recently have Baltimore incarceration rates taken a drastic turn for the better.

Jobs, incarceration and homeownership rates are all important to turn around the ongoing racial divide in America. All three ultimately are direct or indirect causes for the disparities in wealth and the persistent poverty.

Baltimore's poverty rate (21.8%) is more than double that of the State (10%). Poverty among African Americans is about twice that of white residents, the poverty rate of blacks has barely budged between 1968 and 2018, hovering around almost 30%. From 1970 to 2000, Baltimore’s total population declined nearly 30%. The renaissance of cities which has brought an influx of new residents to most larger cities, has barely made a dent in Baltimore. Since 1993 Baltimore’s black population has slightly declined annually, while the white population has slightly increased. The increased diversity of income and race in previously majority black cities like DC, which is barely happening here, is seen as unwanted gentrification by many. The issue needs additional scrutiny.
Black household income: Almost half of that of whites

Since most social determinants of health cycle back to income and poverty, it is imperative to find out what causes the high rates of poverty among blacks, even after education attainment has become more equal between black and white since 1968. Statistics give only an indirect answer, but it isn't too far fetched to find the reasons for the entrenched poverty levels linked to real estate and housing values.
Income funds daily expenses, but it’s wealth (or, the difference between someone’s assets—cash savings, a home, a business—and their debts) that offers long-term financial security. It’s protection against crises, unexpected expenses or dips in income, and it can transform the economic prospects of a family, both day-to-day and generation-to-generation.Homeownership has long been a central part of this equation. In 2015, the average net worth of a homeowner in was $195,400, compared to just $5,400 for a renter, according to the Federal Reserve. The significance is even more staggering for people of color. Wealth from equity in a home constitutes 51% of total wealth of the average white household, but 71% for black households. (Huffington Post)

The depressing fact is, that black homeowners could not participate equally in wealth creation through real estate, even if they managed to own instead of rent, because redlining and other  discriminatory policies have deprived African Americans  systematically of the biggest source of wealth creation in America, rising real estate values. In Baltimore this particular fact is especially obvious when one compares redline maps with maps indicating housing values today: The same areas which were redlined still suffer from depressed property values. The depressed values prevent homeowners from leaving distressed neighborhoods until a point where they just abandon their properties, a key reason for the many vacant properties and a vicious cycle of particular viciousness.
Though Baltimore bills itself as a city of the future, the economic plight of many
of its residents suggest a struggle to break free of the past. Indeed, historical
policies designed to “quarantine blacks,” as Baltimore’s mayor put it in 1911,
have contributed to a city in which one’s race is a dominant determinant of one’s
overall life outcomes. (
The Racial Wealth Divide in Baltimore)
Reinvestment strategies must be seen in this context. Adding value to home-prices is next to job creation one of the best strategies of creating wealth among communities of color. It cannot easily happen in highly segregated communities with very high poverty rates where it is nearly impossible to generate market demand. Less segregated neighborhoods are, therefore, desirable from a wealth creation through real estate point of view.
20 years difference in life expectancy 

Among the African American community rising property values are frequently not seen as  desirable and are often decried as "gentrification" which causes displacement. Indeed, wealth creation through higher property values tends to leave behind renters and people on fixed incomes who not only don't benefit from rising property values but are priced out by higher rents.  How difficult the issue is became obvious in a recent community meeting in South Chicago in which former President Obama had to defend the possible gentrification arising from his presidential library project being constructed there.
But here’s the thing I will say, I think a lot of times people get nervous about gentrification, and understandably so. ... It is not my experience ... that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced…(Barack Obama in a townhall meeting in South Chicago)
In Baltimore gentrification is certainly not happening in Sandtown, Harlem Park, or Druid Heights, where, as in South Chicago, the absence of development is a far greater concern. Even where economic development is obvious, there is little actual evidence that the sinking share of blacks in DC or NYC means that the black population was displaced, at least not from the jurisdiction overall. (The share of blacks has gone from over 65% to below 50% but the absolute number of African Americans has stayed relatively stable at about 350,000). The shrinking share is more an expression of the influx of a mostly non-black population.
In 1980, Shaw was 78 percent black. In 2010, the black population in the neighborhood had dropped to 44 percent. (NPR)
No doubt, there is a housing affordability problem in DC, in NYC and in many US cities, including even Baltimore. There are no simple answers on how the wealth gap can be closed while the poor are also protected. It is certain, though, that the large swaths of Baltimore's totally depressed housing values deprive homeowners of color from participation in wealth creation and cements the conditions created in the Jim Crow era.

De-segregation of neighborhoods is one of of the most promising strategies against the complicated web of systemic racial and economic racism. Without wealth creation the 75th anniversary of the Kerner Commission's report will just yield more of the same in 2043.

Incarceration rates bending down recently
The fact that wealth creation is so to coupled to real estate is problematic, though. It would be better, especially in a time when more and more young people have decided that homeownership is not for them and urban living has become the prevalent form of existence, if not owning a home would not mean poverty.

Co-ops, community trusts, decent public housing, and other forms of providing housing outside the profit motive should be strengthened, especially in light of gentrification. Other tools of wealth creation, such as the stock market and investment funds should be truly open to all; best of all, well-being, health and housing should altogether be less a commodity and less dependent on money and wealth.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for language and clarity

50 years after the Kerner Commission, Economic Policy Institute
Oregon Public Broadcasting news on Kerner study update
Trump's EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real, CityLab
Baltimore City Planning: Statistical overview
The ever growing gap. Institute for Policy Studies
Racial Wealth Divide in Baltimore, CFED, Jan 2017
Gentrification, Displacement andthe Role of Public Investment, Community Investment Center 2015

Related article on this blog: The racial wealth divide in Baltimore

Poverty slightly declining in Baltimore

Change in wealth: Smaller increases for people of color

Segregated neighborhoods remain the same in the central areas but they have spread in periphery

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Is the third time the charm for the Mayfair?

The battered 1904 Mayfair Theater on Howard Street reflects the status of  the middle section of Howard Street: Dwindled glory. Vacant since 1986 and originally flanked by the Delphy Hotel, it is now only a facade that is left standing next to a vacant site. Across the street is a surface parking lot where a row of vibrant business buildings once stood, a shuttered diner heading off an entire block of vacant buildings of various styles (only one building is in use as the Current Gallery).
1919 when the area of North Howard Street was a theater and performance  district  (Mayfair: the 3rd building on the right as seen from the center)

But there are also many signs that the turnaround for which the Baltimore Development Corporation(BDC)  and Westside stakeholders have been waiting for decades, may finally be here:  The most notable signals of a new era are the renovated  Hochschild Kohn distribution warehouse which is now 520 Park Avenue, the bustling Mount Vernon Marketplace, the sleek Cafe Ceremony and the brandnew 171 compendium apartments of 500 Park Avenue also by the Time Group in front of the old warehouse.
The Kernan hotel was restored, but the old Delphy is coming down in 2015
(Photo: Philipsen)

Other change is still mostly invisible, but the vacant group of buildings at the southeast corner of Howard and Franklin is supposed to be renovated as a mixed use project with 38 apartments by the AZ Group (Aziz Housseini), a beer garden is planned and the rest of the 400 block (eastside) is slated to be redeveloped by the Poverni Sheikh Group as five renovated storefronts with 39 apartments above. The developer had been awarded that block in May 2017 and has reportedly begun some clean-up work.

The same developer recently fixed up the former Planned Parenthood building north of the Mayfair as an urban self-storage unit complex with a smattering of retail on the first floor facing the Centre Street light rail station. The group also owns an office building a block west of the Mayfair on Franklin Street. At Centre street a popular dog park brings additional eyes to the once derelict section of  an area in which the only shining light were the Chesapeake Commons, one of the earliest adaptive reuse projects in Baltimore in which the old City College complex was converted into apartments.

In the 400 block on Howard Street's westside the southwest corner building (St. James Place) has changed hands recently. The buyer, allegedly is planning to fill a vacant lot adjacent to the property facing Howard Street. Also in that block work is well progressed on the Le Mondo Theatre project.
Le Mondo now joins a growing hive of arts activity downtown alongside organizations such as Current Gallery, EMP Collective, Eubie Blake Cultural Center, DCAC, MAP, Everyman Theatre, 14K Cabaret,  Springsteen Gallery, Gallery 4, Muse 360, Annex Theater, Arena Players, Open Space, and several other artist-run spaces who call the neighborhood home. (Mondo website)
More established institutions in the area include  the Hippodrome Theatre, Lexington Market, the currently renovated Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Peabody Institute of Music, the Walters Art Museum, the Indigo Hotel, the movie famed young women leadership school, Mount Vernon Square and the Basilica of the Assumption.
Le Mondo project on the westside of the 400 block of N. Howard St
(photo: Le Mondo)

After a fire in the long vacant Delphy hotel building in 2014 spread into the Mayfair that had lost its roof years ago, BDC decided to demolish not only the former Delphy corner building but also the entire back of the Mayfair theater, giving up on a previous notion of a new apartment building that could be erected inside the shell of the old Mayfair in a similar way as the apartments inside a Clipper Mill foundry building.

The investments in the area and the clearing of much of the site in the offering have given BDC hope that they could give the 0.4 acre Mayfair properties another run. They issued an RFP for the third time this week with a return deadline for proposals by April 30. The developer faces a number of restrictions and incentives listed in the RFP:

  • The Site is within the Market Center National Register Historic District (“Historic District”) 
  • the Mayfair Theatre is designated as a Baltimore City Landmark by the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP). 
  • The Site is located in a C-5-HS, “Howard Street Mixed-Use Sub-district” zone a transition zone between downtown, Mt Vernon and Seton Hill.
  • The Property is located within the Market Center Urban Renewal Plan area with its own controls
  • The Site is located within an Enterprise Zone (EZ).
  • The site "may qualify" for brownfield clean-up incentives
Not much is left of  the Mayfair (SUN photo)
The demolition may have made things somewhat simpler, but redevelopment is still not easy, especially with the requirement to incorporate the old facade. Access and orientation will be the largest challenges, especially for apartments. Interested parties can review the site any time, but there will be a pre-proposal conference on the site on Friday, March 16th at 10:00 AM.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles:
Facad-ectomy at the Mayfair

Housing in the Westside: resored Kernan hotel (left), 520 Park and 500 Park (center), St James Place, (right).

Mayfair during demolition work (Photo: Philipsen)

The Mayfair as a movie theater when it still had another theater, the Stanley  as its neighbor to the north

The current look from Howard Street (SUN photo)