Monday, April 2, 2018

How Baltimore City and County could collaborate and both be stronger

Only geeks used to care whether Baltimore was only one of two cities in the US that wasn't part of a county or merged with its surrounding county. (The other is St Louis).  The urban studies scholar  David Rusk wrote his book "Baltimore Unbound" in 1995, it was funded by the Abell Foundation. Rusk explained at length why an "inelastic city" couldn't prosper.
City Hall in Towson?

At the time a Minnesota legislator, Myron Orfield also made the rounds with prognostications for the "inner ring suburbs" which he predicted to share the same fate as inner city neighborhoods lest there is some regional "tax base sharing". The Baltimore SUN printed angry letters to the editor which were brimming with  more or less veiled racism of the same kind as it has recently become officially accepted in the White House.
What Messrs. Rusk and Orfield propose is an infusion of people who are not used to working, who do not share this one defining ethic found in the greater community. A working community like Lansdowne will not ''absorb'' families with little or no work ethic; such families will only slick the community like oil on water, and it will be the water that will suffer. (Letter to the editor)
 Last week on occasion of the latest census estimate showing further population loss, the SUN wrote an editorial in which it posed the question of a merger between Baltimore City and County anew and once again, especially County folk, responded with spite. What is new is that the race question is now also put forth by those who want to debate the rigid Baltimore City boundaries which have become invariable by law in 1948 as one of the more recent racial planning and zoning policies that ensured that black people stay within their confines. This time there were supportive letters as well. One stated succinctly:
Maybe it’s time to consider merging Baltimore City and County into one again. Maryland does not need 24 political jurisdictions, namely “23 counties and Baltimore City.” It may not happen politically, but we can help make it happen in spirit. (letter to the SUN)
County thriving Main Streets: Catonsville
Another letter was even more direct under the headline: "The truth nobody wants to hear: Baltimore city and county must merge (and City Hall should probably be in Towson)".
It is past time, by decades, to merge Baltimore City and Baltimore County. This is what the rest of the nation did with its major cities generations ago, leaving Baltimore largely alone (with St. Louis) as a city left to support itself while a wealthy surrounding county benefits from its resources without paying for them. Consolidating the jurisdictions is the only path down which Baltimore can tread without heading inevitably into bankruptcy — a ruinous prospect for the entire region. (letter to the SUN)
The likelihood that Baltimore's boundaries may change any time soon is on same same scale as winning the jackpot in the lottery; yet, the discussion is useful nevertheless, especially if it opens more people's eyes to the fact that less division between City and County would not be a win-lose proposition as the angry County letter writers suggest.  A look at all the other cities operating under the model of city within county shows that it is a win-win. In most comparable cities large parts of Baltimore County would long be part of the core city. Just consider Denver, which owns one of the world's largest airports (by land area) 30 miles away and makes lots of money from it. By comparison, Baltimore City which also owned Friendship Airport in Anne Arundel County gave its ownership up with the State now being the beneficiary of whatever proceeds are coming from there.
Hampden, the Avenue, "main street"

Those who think that everything in the County is great and everything in the City doesn't work have some learning to do. It could begin with some visits to a city that many County residents haven't set foot in for years except to go to ballgames. 

The first step of regional collaboration instead of  parochialism is to give up on insisting on myopic boundaries, at least mentally.  These borders are arbitrary and didn't originally exist (when city and county where one and the same). Systems such as wind, watersheds, green-spaces, water distribution, roads, rails, transit, gas, electricity and cable traverse these boundaries with impunity or they wouldn't work at all.
From the beginning City and County have existed under a common drinking water system and it worked fine until the 100 year old pipes recently began giving up in great numbers and, unrelated,  the City billing system turned into a big embarrassment. But when created, the system was very advanced, and possessed enough foresight to provide healthy clean water to a population that by now far exceeds what anybody imagined in 1910.
City Hall Baltimore at gun control rally

It is a great sport among die-hard County residents to point to failures in the city, whether it is, criminal police, a high crime rate, poorly performing schools, high taxes or the fact that the City is now significantly smaller than the County. Not that the County beats the City in all those categories, but County residents would be well advised to not only not overlook the splinters in their own eyes but also see where the City is far more advanced than the County.

As far as the County's own weaknesses: Poverty rates in some "inner ring suburbs" are not only high, they are increasing. School performance in many districts is decreasing. Baltimore City's Polytechnic Institute has been pumping out top math and science students for more than a century. The elite city high school has the highest pass rate of any in the region on the state's tough new Algebra I exam. The Baltimore School for the Arts or the Baltimore Design School can compete with any County school.
Baltimore Design School

Green spaces in the County are so scarce that organizations such the Green Towson Alliance fight big battles over how new development should create and fund them and when it comes to corruption the County historically offers the bigger names. Yes, crime is drastically lower but County policing is still "old school", the kind that got the City police force into trouble with the Justice Department. The County is also no stranger to scandals or corruption. It is the former County school superintendent who faces prison, not the city superintendent. Debates about TIFs or how politicians are in the pocket of mighty developers are also not limited to the City as the recent fights over as possible gas station on the land of a former County fire-house on York Road prove.

Transit doesn't stop at borders: MTA bus in Catonsville\
heading to downtown Baltimore
Regarding the many points where the City has the advantage, from a quality of life or memorable place perspective, the County has no attraction on par with the City's Zoo, museums, concert halls or the Inner Harbor. By most accounts there is not a single new development in Baltimore County one would want to put on the cover of an urban design, planning or architecture magazine, or show a visiting friend as exceptional. Unless one wants to call the big Wegman's stores a trail blazing development. Nothing old in Towson (except maybe the old Court House) can hold the candle to Baltimore's historic downtown and nothing new is as shiny as Harbor East. Catonsville, Pikesville and Reisterstown may be having a "main street" renaissance and a nascent restaurant scene, they are still a far cry from  Hampden, Fells Point, Canton or Federal Hill when it comes to eating out, quirky stores and life in the streets. Holding agencies accountable with CitiStat was a City invention (it still exists), City departments have regular inter-agency meetings, Baltimore Planning has widely recognize sustainability, resilience and food production plans, the City produces farm to table healthy produce for school cafeterias,  and is about to finish a strategic green network plan. The City has created a rudimentary bike network with bikeshare, there are designated bus lanes, nothing like it exists in the County. The City has created a free bus Circulator and has water taxis, again, nothing like that in the County. The City has long been a leader in new ways of providing public housing including the current Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD) which uses public private partnerships to fix or create affordable housing. True, Port Covington in the City exists only on paper while Tradepoint Atlantic in the County already boasts 3,000 new jobs,  but the city development has a masterplan that is brimming with innovation, including a record community benefits agreement while the former Sparrows Point plan is mostly warehouses devoid of any public access to water or any community benefits agreements. 
White Marsh neighborhood

None of these examples are meant to perpetuate the fruitless finger-pointing that has gone on between the two jurisdictions for far too long. It is just necessary to show that neither jurisdiction is perfect and neither is a rudderless mess. In fact, both are in the same boat in many ways, both have strengths and weaknesses and throwing their lot together would benefit both, as unlikely as it is to happen.

But it doesn't have to be a full blown merger! There are many ways how the two jurisdiction can slowly begin to make their boundaries more porous. Current County contributions to Baltimore's Zoo and some museums are just a small beginning. The County Executive's more frequent sightings in the City are also a good sign, even though they may be in part be attributable to his running for the Governor's office. Maybe the Mayor could reciprocate even without running for a higher office. The joint senatorial district (44) which encompasses large swaths of West Baltimore and the southwest of the County, could serve as a model (even though it is terribly gerrymandered). Current office holder, Senator Shirley Nathan Pulliam (a nurse), created an inter-jurisdictional panel for "Social Determinants of Health", a topic equally relevant in City and County. The panel is part of current bills (SB 0444) and headed for approval. A great model. Greenway plans, bike accommodation and resiliency
plans should all be regional.
Bolton Hill  neighborhood

The City should take a hard look at its residency requirements which suggest that the City not hire key staff unless they reside in the City. As the SUN observed, although this is an understandable requirement, it ultimately unduly limits the talent pool, especially since the City limits are so tight and essentially the ones from 1918.  A more equitable approach to car insurance premiums would be another step. Insurance rates are much higher in the City which makes little sense since most City and County residents drive in both jurisdictions.

Other areas where the two could work together are the creation of affordable housing and the creation of a community trust fund as promoted by Mayor Pugh. Developers inside and outside the City should fund the trust with set-asides that allow the construction of quality affordable housing in both jurisdictions along the lines that were clearly laid out in the report of the regional Opportunity Collaborative.
Wegmans: Two stores in the County, Foundry Row and Hunt Valley

A more radical step with implications for funding formulas, but still far from a true merger, would be creating school choice between County and City. Counter to public perception, there are several City schools performing as high or higher than some County schools. Both jurisdictions spend billions on fixing aging school buildings. Giving students a broader choice could be beneficial not only to students but even to the school systems. Another matter is transit: Already run by the State, transit is set up in a truly regional fashion but neither City or County have much say in it which could easily be changed by creating a bi-jurisdictional oversight board. Such an approach may help in making both successful in the quest of getting the Red Line back, a train that went from the County into the City and was planned to eventually go back into the County on the east side.
Baltimore Inner Harbor

Looked at as one planning area, City and County would have the weight of their combined near 1.5 million residents and much more flexibility to allocate state offices, new businesses, retail  and residential development in a sensible way. Now, that would be a "smart city"!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

1 comment:

  1. A few months ago my wife and I made a trip to Miami for a friend's wedding. For whatever reason, I was under the assumption that Miami-Dade County operated as a fully consolidated jurisdiction.

    I was surprised to learn that they instead operate under a unique, two-tier "federal" system where municipalities like Miami, Miami Beach, and Coral Gables retain many of their local powers (planning/zoning, police/fire departments, municipal services, etc.) as the "lower tier" of government. The "upper tier" county government manages services with a broader metropolitan impact, like schools, transportation, mass transit, and countywide planning coordination. It also acts as the lower tier government service provider for unincorporated portions of the county.

    Countywide taxes are charged at an equitable base rate for all portions of the jurisdiction, and fund the "metropolitan" services. Municipal taxes are set by the municipalities themselves, remain at that level,and afford the incorporated areas a substantial level of self-determination. Unincorporated areas receiving urban services (government solid waste collection, sewer/water, etc.) pay additional tax above the county base rate for the services provided.

    The net result is a county with coordinated metropolitan services, and municipalities with a still-strong sense of identity and self-determination.

    Granted, there are some major differences between Baltimore City and County and Miami-Dade: for instance, there aren't any incorporated areas within Baltimore county, while Miami-Dade has 34 besides its namesake county seat and largest city. Miami's regional airport is owned and operated by the county as a metro service, while this region's airport is entirely outside of city or county jurisdiction and - as you mentioned - operated by the state. Similarly our regional transportation system is almost entirely under state control, while Miami-Dade retains transit independence.

    Those differences aside the Miami-Dade governmental model might still work well for our region in terms of base services and jurisdictional responsibilities, the city and the county communities would remain largely distinct. Both however, and perhaps particularly the city, would benefit from coordinated provision of services that impact the entire region. Perhaps improved coordination would allow both Baltimores to regain control of critical regional services currently controlled by the state, and under a two-tiered system unincorporated communities with strong identities like Dundalk, Towson and Catonsville might seek incorporation to assert their unique identities within a more unified Baltimore.

    Al of this is speculative, but it's worth considering.