Sunday, June 17, 2018

State Center stunts can't replace action

The State Center complex is an interesting case study in urban planning. 

Conceived as far back as 1954, State Center falls into a period in which Baltimore had resolved to do "slum clearing" under the "Baltimore Plan" mostly through rehabilitation. This was later followed by "urban renewal" in which entire sections of the city were wiped out in a series of attempts to make traffic move better, remove "slum and blight" and make the city more modern.
Hogan at State Centre in 2017 (Daily Record)

Today those large-scale urban renewal plans are generally seen as colossal failures, in part because of the motives behind them, in part because of the outcomes, and in the case of the State Center area, because the clearance was disruptive and to this day the site  remains way underutilized in a strategic location: Disconnecting neighborhoods instead of connecting them.

While it was a great idea to concentrate State office functions in Baltimore, the State's largest City, and provide State workers with modern light filled office built to the latest standards of that time, the thinking of the time created so many of the problems Baltimore has today.
The State Center area 1869, long before urban renewal

For one thing, massive amounts of housing had to be removed for the new vision, destroying history, human and physical connections and displacing many people from then stable communities. State Center reflects the economic reality of 1954, namely that the City needed to have more and better office space than the historic downtown could offer, an insight that also fueled the Charles Center urban renewal. It also reflects the suburban mindset of the area with its focus on the automobile and how suburbanites can quickly get in and out of the city. State Center as an urban renewal concept is hinged to the idea of the urban freeways that was hatched in those days as well, only partly realized in Baltimore, but the Jones Falls Expressway, the East West Expressway, in which Robert Moses had a hand as well and which later became the disastrous "Highway to Nowhere", the downtown bypass (Martin Luther King Boulevard) as well as the abundance of parking were all signature ingredients of the essentially suburban office campus.

But  it became clear as early as the 1970's and even before the first oil crisis that the automobile could be a bane for cities if not accompanied by great transit. President Johnson's Great Society plans gave Washington its Metro, San Francisco its BART system and eventually also Baltimore and Atlanta their respective skeletal Metro systems. State Center got its own subway Station which opened in 1983. Then as today a period of reform ended in a phase of reactionary policies with Richard Nixon in Washington and Spiro Agnew first in Annapolis and later with Nixon. 
The mid-20th century modern buildings of the State Center office complex, give few hints to the long and rich history of the diverse neighborhoods that surround the site. Just looking at a present day map gives clues to the unusual character of the area – where the north-south street grid of old Downtown Baltimore meets the diagonal street grid of the later residential neighborhoods. For this reason, State Center is situated at a unique historic and cultural crossroad. It is here that older early 19th century neighborhoods of Mount Vernon and Seton Hill and the younger late 19th century residential communities of Bolton Hill, Upton-Marble Arch and Madison Park eventually grew together. (PB Planning study 2005)
This strategic location matters. Today other assets count: The area is considered to be Baltimore's cultural center thanks to the Meyerhoff symphony hall, the Lyric and the proximity of the Maryland College of Art. Bolton Hill is a stable community showing the beauty of Baltimore's historic architecture in the best light. Mount Vernon is thriving and Murphy Homes public housing towers have been redeveloped into  a smaller scale mixed income community called Heritage Crossing. Only State Center remains as if time had stood still. The suburban office park is even dead in the suburbs, it is intolerable in the heart of city neighborhoods.
Martin Luther King in Baltimore, 1964

This has been recognized for quite some time. Comprehensive studies have been conducted since 2004 under a variety of governors and mayors. Citizens were involved, consultants hired, paid and released until a consensus plan emerged. A plan with private and public uses, new office for State office workers and plenty of new residential and commercial spaces to fund the endeavor. Connectivity would be restored, the subway station would get better use and the adjoining neighborhoods would have a vibrant neighbor with a rich mix of uses instead of the dull single use assembly of today. But just as Spiro Agnew as Governor in 1968 never understood the Baltimore uprising that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, suburban Governor Larry Hogan doesn't understand the real reasons for Baltimore's unrest of 2015 nor does he really care for what a big city tick these days. He hasn't even taken the lessons of the oil shock of 1972 to heart and still promotes the transportation policies of the 1950 with the automobile uber alles. Just like Agnew easily dismissed the new black majority in Baltimore and actively catered to the fears and aspirations of suburban and rural Maryland, Hogan's electorate doesn't sit in Baltimore City and he can easily yank the two largest investments the City had aspired to under Governor O'Malley: The Red Line and State Center. The bus reform for 4.6% of the Red Line budget and the much touted project CORE for demolition of empty rowhouses can't disguise the fact, that Baltimore just isn't this governor's priority.

When he last week assembled State workers around himself in front of their outdated offices at State Center and proclaimed that he would do something about the sad state of affairs, it sure sounded like good news.:
“After more than 15 years of inaction and failure I am pleased to announce that we are finally able to move forward on the redevelopment of State Center,”
Except the pronouncement was wrong in both halfs of the sentence. Neither was there "inaction" during the last fifteen years, nor was there any way to move forward. He, the Governor himself had created the roadblocks that ultimately lead to inaction of years of planning and consensus building. Inaction is what best describes his years in office, not the 11 preceding years.
Slum removal, the 1950's (Martin Millspaugh, "The Human Side of Urban Renewal", 1960)

Hogan's request that the development team that had been selected by his predecessor and successfully battled two lawsuits from Peter Angelos who didn't like competition to his downtown real estate holdings, simply pack up and leave, no matter their investments and their efforts over the years is as unrealistic as it is unreasonable. How hung up he is to clean the slate is obvious from this blunt statement last week: “We put a very generous offer on the table just to get rid of these guys.”

As a real estate professional himself Hogan knows very well that years of planning and creating entitlements (A Planned Unit Development plan has been adopted by Baltimore City) is not nothing. In today's world of very slow planning the past 14 years or so are very valuable and can't be simply tossed away, neither by him nor by those who made the investments that enabled the process. Naturally, the lawyer representing the development team that had been working on the project since 2009, immediately denied that there has been any kind of breakthrough. Given that the team doesn't just consist of Struever Brothers successor Ekistics but of nationally well know entities such as McCormick Baron Salazar and reputable local minority firms should give a governor pause who proclaims that Maryland is "open for business". His "just to get rid of these guys" phrasing is insulting to companies that want to invest in Baltimore and sounds much more like the US President than Hogan should like who usually likes to keep his distance from that man. But his assertion that the State Center deal is terrible and "illegal" sounds just like Trump talking about the Iran deal that the rest of the world would like to save.

Hogan who likes to show up in Baltimore to confess his love for the City proves incapable of comprehending that the State Center deal he has tossed out by suing the development team in 2016 is not about some specific people he apparently doesn't like (but never sat down with to negotiate) but about the blood. sweat and tears that this site represents: First as an example of bad urban renewal carried out on the backs of the displaced residents and businesses and then as a place of hope bringing about an all-out effort by hundreds of people to forge a consensus plan for the future.

Stunts like his media spectacle on Thursday of last week will do little to move forward. The key to getting out of the stalemate is entirely in the Governor's hands. Instead of his overblown rhetoric about how bad a deal the State Center project is, he should employ his skill of looking somehow bipartisan, eat his pride and engage in a real serious negotiation with the development team.  If Hogan doesn't like the deal, he should sit down and improve it in a fair negotiation that doesn't begin with insults. Exactly, what one would expect from a Governor who wants to be elected for another four years. The last thing anyone affected by the bad current conditions, neighborhood leaders or State office workers, want to do, is to start from scratch. Especially not studies and investigations that are as useless as what the Governor had ordered last year and received early this year "as a new State Center Plan", a quickly thrown set of unbaked ideas which nobody took serious as useful blueprint.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN about O'Malley punting on the project in the last minute.

Related on this blog:

New State Center study adds insult to injury 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

When it rains it pours: Development in Woodberry

When it rains it pours, the saying goes, and residents of historic Woodberry, a small "village" in the valley of the Jones Falls think that is certainly true for the development raining into their community. They even mean it literally when they darkly refer to historic Ellicott City, a place that, some say, has been drowning not only from too much rain but too much run-off caused from too much development.
Screenshot of PI.KL Studio section

It isn't particularly new that existing residents don't like additional development. While rain and stormwater run-off may be a fairly novel argument in the arsenal, traffic flow has long been a staple to fend off new development. Then there is the concern of gentrification, school overcrowding, the state of infrastructure, the loss of historic structures, authenticity and history, and the eternal question where everybody will park.

Increasingly, developers go to battle armed with studies and a vocabulary designed to squash the litany of complaints from progressively minded citizens on their own terms.

This was on full display today when Chris Mfume, youngest son of the iconic Baltimorean  Kweisi Mfume, had his architects present his apartment project in Woodberry to UDAAP, Baltimore's recently revamped design review panel. Residents will get to see the presentation on Monday June 19 as well. Battle experience was also on display when Caroline Paff and her team presented early masterplan concepts to the Woodberry community last Tuesday, a presentation that landed on the front page of the SUN paper above the fold. Paff had been baptized by fire when she worked for Sagamore Development and its many highly contentious public presentations.
Clipper Mill area with the Tractor Building in the center (Sun photo)

The focus on Woodberry brought Baltimore's attention back to a segment that has become known  as the "White L", the parts of Baltimore where most development happens and where communities are predominantly white. Recently, several proposals for community reinvestment and social impact funds had directed attention to the "black butterfly" sections of townfor a while, to places where development is way too infrequent, but where it is seen with even more suspicion with concerns around displacement and gentrification trumping everything else.

The presentation for a new 80 unit studio apartment building wedged between light rail tracks and narrow Clipper Road had generated a disproportionately big swirl of media postings thanks to two very old stone buildings standing on the swath of land which Mfume had acquired. Those buildings are part of a quite intact assembly of some 32 historic worker housing units associated with the historic industries and mills clustering in the river valley.  Those old mills and their related architecture had long been neglected and lain fallow in the shadow of the elevated JFX, barely noticeable from the cars zipping by on the expressway, but in plain view from the light rail line which shuttled suburban riders through here since 1992.
Chris Mfume of CLD Development presenting

The  mills seemed to be doomed for good when London Fog move out of town and the head building of the Clipper Mill industrial park was consumed by a gigantic fire which killed a young Baltimore fireman when the front wall collapsed on him in September of 1995.

Much has changed since then. Nearby Hampden has turned from a quirky, and often considered racist, white, working class community, into a sought-after, diverse neighborhood with a bustling "main street". Union Mill on Union Avenue has become teacher housing and its power plant has become a rustic coffee shop. London Fog is now Meadow Mill with a fancy restaurant, an athletic club, performance spaces, consultant offices and a bakery, the result of  an investment by Developer Sam Himmelrich. He and his former partner Tufaro have been especially creative in re-purposing the old Jones Falls Valley Mills with Himmelrich converting one such complex to Baltimore's first Whole Foods further upstream, and Tufaro more recently completing  Mills # and #2 along Falls Road as housing and mixed use conversions. Local brews are crafted and consumed in the area,  Union Brewery is slated for a grand opening of their new facility in the near future.
The two stone houses before additions were demolished
(Clipper Road looking north)

Sleepy Woodberry had already become a destination when Bill Struever  brought back the burnt Clipper Mill complex with a condo building roughly in the shape of the destruoyed main mill building and a range of very cool adaptations of historic industrial buildings into such destinations as Guiterrez metal studios, Woodberry Kitchen, and apartments inserted into an industrial hall without a roof in which a huge overhead crane still hovers over top. (The Assembly Building). A sunken pool on its side exudes the cool ruin-chique that since has become even more fashionable.
Screenshot of PI.KL Studio rendering looking north

This is a long introduction to what was presented by the two partners of PI.KL Studio,  Pavlina Ilieva and Kuopao Lian on Wednesday morning.  But it explains why start-up developer and investor Chris Mfume had his eyes set on the non-descript parcels. It also describes the trajectory that many of the historic structures took before: Forlorn and forgotten until an investor came along.  The circuitous history also explains why Mfume, young and maybe not as versed in the mill history as Himmelrich and Tufaro, apparently underestimated how explosive it could become to simply raze the 160 year old mill houses, even if early on the community was reportedly unconcerned. The context also explains why the the words "transit oriented development" (or TOD), bicyle storage, walk access to the light rail station,  compatibility and "urban code" as well as community permeated the presentation to UDAAP. There was also an empahsis on details such as noting that the old houses had their back turned to the street, that the residences across the street where actually 7-8' elevated above the street level and how far the new building was sunk into the ground.
Development context: TOD zone (Screenshot of PI.KL slide)

"We are now studying up [on the history]" Mfume told me after the UDAAP meeting today. Its hard to blame the man, because unlike the neatly kept houses north of Clipper Road, the buildings south of it have long been non-residential in their use and where both nearly swallowed up by additions.

The outcry and the rude accusations that came with it also bruised architect Pavlina Illieva. But  the push-back already caused a shift in the team's approach. From simply re-using the recovered stone blocks in the facade, the team pivoted to integrating the two houses, at least in part, into the 60' tall contemporary apartment building. The result is a stark contrast between modern and 160 years old, between low houses on the north and a tall slender building on the south of narrow Clipper Road, a design approach that Americans still need to get used to, but which is common in Europe, where old stuff is frequently juxtaposed with ultramodern interventions even in historic districts.

The new UDAAP review team was initially a bit shell-shocked by having to evaluate the design of their own (recused) chair. The reviewers were generally positive and it sounded as if out of conviction and not out of reverence. Payam Ostovar, a landscape architect from DC said he was "excited" and that how the old structures were pulled into the building was "really fantastic". He, part of the demographic of young urbanites for which these apartments are obviously designed, suggested that there should be a rooftop amenity for the new residents to orient themselves. Osborne Anthony, an architect at AECOM in Baltimore, was more careful in his judgement, calling the stone houses important "sentinels" of the past, worth protecting and keeping around. He made several suggestions about the facade detailing and window rhythm and placement which the two design architects welcomed with head nodding. Planning Director Stosur noted how the preserved facades looked stunted compared to the residences across the street and suggested the use of porch elements to make a reference to the residences. More nodding.
Is it preservation? Historic walls included

In an e-mail to councilman Pinkett and community members, Stosur clarified on Wednesday that his hands are tied when it comes to demanding preservation:
Currently, there are no protections on these buildings preventing them from being demolished. Such protection comes only with designation as a local historic landmark or local historic district.  Our department recognizes the historic significance of the mill village in Woodberry and did engage with the Woodberry community in the early 2000s in an attempt to establish a local historic district.  However, at that time, the community was not prepared to move forward with the designation process, which requires an extensive outreach and education effort, as well as adoption of a City Council Ordinance. Our preservation staff remains available to engage again with the community to explore the local designation option. (Planning Director Stosur)
Existing and potential new with heights (ValStone Development)
Meanwhile, ValStone development got caught in the refreshed  community sensibilities when they presented their ideas for the much larger development of the remaining parcels inside the Clipper Mill planned unit development (PUD) on Tuesday.  Those parcels were left behind when Bill Struever ran out of steam in the wake of the financial crisis. Caroline Paff says that the new buildings have no designs yet. For the old Clipper Mill PUD, community concerns center less on historic preservation and on the old stand-bys of traffic and parking instead.  Anyone who has tried to find a parking space to eat at Woodberry kitchen or attend an event knows that parking is already difficult, and easily could become more so, especially if the old "Tractor Building" (which currently serves as a makeshift parking garage) would be redeveloped. The fully executed additional development could add up to 350 units in various phases. The Tractor Building would be part of the initial phase. Conservatively calculated the new units could add as many as 140 trips during the afternoon "peak time", however it is expected that there would be a 25% transit "TOD decrease" by virtue of the nearby light rail line. Depending on the build-out, calculated parking demand would exceed the supply by 20 or 12 spaces. Not included in the analysis is that parking needs will most likely be drastically reduced by an increase in fleet based ride sharing in urban areas.
Added development on the Clipper Mill PUD (ValStone Development)

Unlike the past carefully grafted insertion of  apartments into the Assembly Building building to the east of the Tractor Building, the developer apparently plans to add several levels on top of the Tractor Building, significantly altering the appearance of the industrial hall with its shed skylights. A preservation discussion may be in the offing for this proposal.

42 slides address concerns about how much development, how much traffic, and how much stormwater were assembled by the consultant team of Colbert, Matz and Rosenfelt (civil engineering), Green Street Environmental, Marren Architects and Lenhart Traffic. 

There will be limited space for surface water treatment and about 50% of "new" stormwater will probably have to be managed with an underground facility which will replace an existing storage facility which was placed before the new, stricter regulations which require management of 2, 10 and 100 year storms.

Flooding is certainly an issue in the Jones Falls Valley, but that the proposed developments would help to wash the old mills away any time soon is not likely. They will, however will give more people a chance to enjoy urban living, transit and enjoy the wonderful Jones Falls trail and the beautiful Druid Park. If the historic character of Woodberry can be properly preserved in the process, one could call it a success story.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Woodberry: New development incompatible with preservation?

After about 25 years of mostly talk the Jones Falls valley has finally become a hotbed for development. With it come the difficulties.
While all the development is good for Baltimore's under-performing light rail line and could be called transit oriented development not everyone already living in Woodberry is thrilled. The community was on pins and needles when Valstone Partners, a development and private equity investment firm with offices in Michigan and Baltimore proposed a masterplan for 17.4 acres they control in the Clipper Mill area planning for mixed use redevelopment. Discussions about the project got off  on the wrong foot with "some initial missteps in engaging the community" , as councilman Pinkett put it. When he pushed the reset button in a packed April 2 community meeting anxiety in the community was already heightened as Ethan McLeod reported in the Baltimore Fishbowl.
3508 Clipper Mill duplex as listed on Zillow

Another proposal brought tension to a fever pitch but only after it was amplified in the headlines of Baltimore's online alternative media which tend up to pick news ahead of the SUN by checking Facebook posts. This time it was the possible demolition of two historic stone-houses at 3511 and 3523 Clipper Mill Road proposed by CLD Partners. This development start-up headed by Chris Mfume had acquired the duplex buildings in March of this year for $440,000, a price that indicates that the structures are in good condition. 
CLD PARTNERS was founded with the intent to acquire and develop quality properties throughout Baltimore City and surrounding areas, taking advantage of unique opportunities while realizing the highest risk adjusted return performance for our investors. Through innovation and discipline, our goal is to offer a full-service product, adding value and expertise in all aspects including development, design and strategy. The foundations of our work stems from a deep understanding of the market as well as the communities in which we invest. We enjoy collaborating with neighborhood stakeholders to deliver a thoughtful product that meets both community and investment goals (CLD website)
Woodberry LRT station: TOD?
There is no question that those stone-house duplexes are the signature architecture of Woodberry and that they have strong historic significance. Constructed after 1840 of "semi-coursed gneiss stone" (National Register of Historic Places documentation) they form an ensemble of similar structures that is rare even in history rich Baltimore.
3511/23 Clipper Rd with City inspectors (SUN)

But someone " taking advantage of unique opportunities while realizing the highest risk adjusted return performance for our investors" will find that the about 160 years old structures have no protection whatsoever, even if even the developer's architect would admit that "absolutely are the ey worth to be preserved".  But Woodberry residents refused to declare the area a local historic district under CHAP, the only way (other than individual landmark designation) to provide historic protection. Woodberry is listed on the National Register  of historic places, but many fail to see that this listing provides only carrots (tax credits if so desired) but no sticks (unless one wants to use the incentives).

Instead of the two houses the developer wants to erect an apartment building with 60-80 micro-units, according to the SUN. There is some confusion whether demolition is or even was a foregone conclusion. "Absolutely not", says the architect, Pavilina Ilieva but stating at the same time that "every study indicated that demolition was the most practical and cost effective" way to proceed with apartments. Whatever the exact cause, the houses have now a reprieve. The project will be reviewed by Baltimore's Design Review Panel (UDAAP) this Thursday and the developer postponed further action until after a community meeting on June 19.
Clipper Rd, with London Fog tower in background (Brew)

An interesting twist in the matter comes from the fact that the architect for the new apartments is PI.KL Studio headed by the same Pavlina Ilieva who was recently appointed as new chair of UDAAP.  Past incarnations of the City design review panel tried to avoid such conflicts by appointing retired design professionals or those from other places who had no work here. Ms Ilieva assured me that her firm has Baltimore and the community at heart. Indeed, her past action on UDARPcan give the community some assurance that her firm wouldn't proffer some rogue design and in one way or another Woodberry's prevailing historic architecture would be reflected and not entirely negated or overlooked.

Ms Ilieva told me forthis article that "the design is very much in the beginning". She recalled that the initial meeting with community members did not indicate any concern regarding the possibility of demolition announced by the developer. Instead of concerns about preservation the developer was asked to address blight, Ms Ilieva remembered. She complained about "misinformation" and attributed it to social media and incorrect reporting such as demolition without a permit (apparently the only items that were demolished were covered by a limited demo permit). Ms. Ilieva was not at liberty to describe any of the designs that will be presented to UDAAP or the community meeting scheduled for June 19 but allowed that there are "alternatives" to a complete demolition and that "complete demolition was not a done deal".
Rescued structures blended into redevelopment: Clipper Mill (CBH Architects)

The stark contrast by what any urban designer or historian would typically consider the right course and what can be done "by right" points once again to a number of systemic problems which surface time and again in Baltimore:
  • Historic structures have no protection at all unless they are in a designated local historic CHAP district which controls exterior, interior and a lot of details in between accroding to the strict standards of the Secretary of the Interior.
  • The official system of planning and regulations based on zoning, comprehensive plans, small area plans and various types of masterplans is slow, often outdated, too course and frequently overrun by the pace of development even in a shrinking city such as Baltimore. This gives developers a pretty wide berth for "development by right". As a result a large burden is placed on the few stop-gaps the community perceives to have, regardless whether those bodies were designed for that purpose or not. Affected are chiefly CHAP and UDAAP whereby the latter is soley advisory.
  • Community participation is now overlaid by community chatter and rumors on social media which can quickly move projects into adversarial trenches even before a constructive dialogue has begun. This, in turn can potentially poison the dialogue even in cases when the developers may be well meaning  and highly qualified or where investment is desirable.
The stone houses are no dumps: Listing photo for 3508 Clipper
The next two weeks with the UDAAP review this Thursday and the upcoming community meeting next week will show if constructive dialogue about this historic duplex is still be possible. Whether  the divisions and contradictions between development and historic preservation can be overcome. The successful redevelopment of the original Clipper Mill area could be a model. It is widely considered a good blend between the old and the new and credited with transforming Woodberry from a sleepy village inside the city into a desirable destination in Baltimore. A journey which makes the light rail stop much more meaningful but is certainly not welcomed by everyone.

Even better: If  the repeated evidence that history is not truly protected in Baltimore could lead to a middle path between no protection at all and full CHAP protection in which each window mullion is subject to review.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Valstone masterplan

Baltimore Brew: For at least two weeks, stone houses in Woodberry are saved from the wrecking ball

Baltimore Brew: In Woodberry, will historic stone houses come down for "hipster flats"?

Baltimore Fishbowl: Redevelopment plans for Clipper Mill sow angst in Woodberry

National Register District registration

Union Mill, now teacher housing

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Baltimore - two worlds, two narratives

“Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal” (Kerner Report 1968)

In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes the personal story told from another perspective has the power to cut through the clutter by striking at heart and mind at the same time. This happened to many when Dr Sharon Sutton, FAIA addressed a packed house in the plenary keynote of the national Association for Community Design (ACD) at its annual conference which was organized this year  by the Baltimore Neighborhood Design Center on occasion of its 50th anniversary under the title Reverberations.
Destiny Watford explaining Curtis Bay 

Sutton (77) went over the familiar territory of the civil rights movement, the 1968 racial uprisings, Whitney Young's speech in front of the 1968 AIA convention in which he famously spoke about the "thunderous silence" of the design profession in the civil rights struggle but she did it from her own life's story as only the 12th African American woman to be licensed in Architecture and the first to be promoted to be a full professor. Her story is powerful without a raised voice, without anger and without hate.

The creation of community design non-profits all across America,  most coming out of local chapters of AIA, including NDC in Baltimore  followed Whitney Young's speech (84 organizations in three years) is part of an often recounted lore, described as the design profession finally waking up.

But Sutton painted this differently. AIA saw a market in the American ghettos, she said and had the quotes to prove that a good part of the community design movement was "self serving" as she put it. Under the title "Racism and Resistance in American Cities" she spoke as an eye witness and a scholar, as a black woman and a teacher to a mostly young audience of community designers from all over the country. The gathering was more diverse than any other design oriented event usually still is. Sutton dissected the actions, inactions and history of the design profession in a calm and professional manner, yet with the passion of someone who has lived through the indignities that come with being a woman of color in the US.

As someone who became a community activist and advocate in the same period when community design began to flourish in the US, I had taken the spirit of emancipation and liberation that fueled many western countries during that time as universal, not racial. In other countries the fight for a better and more just society was seen mostly as a class struggle.Yet Sutton and a discussion panel that followed her told the audience that this didn't mean the "white saviors" would not to be complicit in systemic racism which reaches deep into the "liberal" camp. That "black people's history of building, designing and planning this country has been erased, a crime that persists today" that "for every injustice in the world, there is an architecture designed to facilitate and perpetuate it" are insights that are still hard to digest for many in the design profession. But Sutton's presentation and the following discussion of five young designers, four women, one man, four people of color, made them abundantly clear. Of course, the arch of history is currently not bending in the right direction. Sutton didn't mince words:
As the nation careens toward moral and emotional bankruptcy, toward a loss of integrity, I implore you to be courageous in reimagining community planning and design for these heartbroken but hopeful times.” 
Sharon Sutton (FAIA): Keynote presenter
(Photo: Parsons School of Design)
It has become common to talk about equity or to speak about the two Baltimores or the two Americas in which our divided city resides like a nested Russian doll. But using these terms and understanding what they mean are two very different things, especially in a highly segregated nation in which, in spite of all the resolutions to the contrary, societal silos become more fortified instead of being ripped apart.

What is often not considered is that the isolated two Baltimores or two Americas have each have developed their own history, their own narrative and their own truth. No longer can the gap be bridged or the wall be torn down by simply pointing to the “real facts” because one and the same thing can look very different, if it is seen through two entirely different lenses.

The Reverberations conference proved helpful in negotiating this divide, beginning with an on-the-ground demonstration of these dual worlds and their narratives: The community of Curtis Bay served as the perfect place to investigate a reality with two faces. For most in Baltimore Curtis Bay is as much out of mind as it is out of sight. The place, where the other stuff happens. Where medical waste is getting incinerated, where coal is dumped out of freight cars rolling from Appalachia to be reloaded into water vessels, where the petroleum and chemical tank farms are that fuel our modern life and where the imported cars which fuel our negative trade balance get staged after they have been unloaded in the Port of Baltimore. The prevailing narrative is that any city has an "armpit" like that, a place where the stuff goes that even in the postindustrial age is not compatible with residential use. In the case of Curtis Bay, this goes a long time back when sick immigrants where quarantined after they came into the Port of Baltimore. And yet: Curtis Bay is also a community where people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds have found a home and have lived for many decades, regardless that Curtis Bay is Maryland's most polluted community.
tank-farms and tanker trucks dominate Curtis Bay

Curtis Bay was dragged from the shadows into the spotlight when some three years ago it became the battleground for a new trash incinerator to replace the aging and polluting Resco incinerator currently operating much closer to downtown and producing about a third of the city's overall air pollution. In the prevailing metro-wide narrative, the new incinerator would be a "greener" solution with less pollutants than the current one, solve the problem where to put the ever larger flood of trash and be a better "waste to energy" co-generation facility in which the heat from the incineration is used to heat Baltimore's schools, offices and major institutions and museums. Mayor Rawlings Blake was a strong supporter until she eventually cancelled the City's energy contracts since the private company didn't seem to be able to produce the plant. In this narrative, the people of Curtis Bay who fought the plant are NIMBYs standing in the way of progress. In 2016 the project finally failed.
Displaced by fire: A resident talks about how the post fire
response is as bad as the fire response itself was

The NDC field trip provided  the other perspective. Young resident and then highschool student Destiny Watford (video) provided it to a busload of conference participants standing on the side of a road surrounded by oil tanks, a surface sewage line, her voice overpowered by the roar of a steady stream of tanker trucks. Watford is now a known environmentalist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. She proves that environmental concerns and social justice are joint issues. Tim Wheeler, who was the SUN's environmental reporter for 32 years had chronicled the incinerator fight, and who became a victim of the SUN's steady shrinkage stands in the group listening to Watford's story. He now is a writer for the environmental Bay Journal.

For Ms Watford and for the diverse working class community of Curtis Bay the energy deals that the private plant developer had struck, the union support for the $1 billion project, and Governor O'Malley recognizing waste energy as a "green" tier 1 renewable energy, was all part of an overwhelming web of pre-ordained facts that seemed impossible to penetrate. But Destiny and her group Free Your Voice did never give up. Instead they employed creative and unorthodox approaches along with strategic coalitions: They teamed with local activist Greg Sawtell of United Workers (a local labor support group) and eventually with global players such as GAIA, "a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration" (mission).  Eventually the incinerator developer Energy Answers tripped over permitting issues which the activists from Curtis Bay had illuminated to Marylands Department of the Environment (MDE)  including by singing the anthem free your voice specifically composed for this purpose.
The fire-house (front) and the coal piers in the back

But even without the new incinerator, Curtis Bay is far from environmental justice. A simple event such as a rowhouse fire can become sinister when it takes the Curtis Bay fire department 23 minutes to respond, even though the fire station is located on the same square as the burning house, as one displaced resident tells the group of visitors. The resident recalls that the firefighters from neighboring Anne Arundel County had arrived first and that all the nearby fire hydrants were shut off "from a test a few days earlier". As a result the fire spread across almost the entire block. The 23 partially or fully burnt houses stood untouched for almost a year until a city crew showed up just a few days before the conference bus would arrive. "Miraculously", the affected resident observed. The Housing Department, meanwhile, told residents that they condemn or take into receivership only homes in areas where there is a potential market. A community spokesperson described this as another form of redlining. The Housing Department planners call it building from strength.

Curtis Bay's doesn't always get the shaft. The narrative isn't entirely binary, a matter of black and white or good and evil. The City of Baltimore is providing the community through the Adopt a Lot program the land for an impressive community garden. Garden volunteer Edith Gerald  showed us the Filbert Street Garden with pride. The garden has chicken, ducks, honey bees, composting bins for food scraps, a hoop house and a lovely picnic area. But she and Greg Sawtell from the United Workers group which supports the community since the incinerator fight don't trust the city because the land is not offered to the community for good. Baltimore's water works cite the possibility that the water tank next door would potentially need expansion one day.
Filbert Street garden volunteer Edith Gerald  

Ms Gerald suspects that the City would want to wait until the land appreciates and then sell the high ground to a developer. Gentrification doesn't seem entirely impossible, even in this remote enclave far from downtown or any prosperous neighborhood, after Under Armour announced plans to move its headquarters to Port Covington and wants to have an entire new town built around it. Curtis Bay is one of the SB7 communities included in a community benefits agreement which Sagamore signed in return for a record $665 million tax increment financing deal. Although the community can determine how to use benefits money, Sawtell doesn't believe that the developer would have the interest of the community at heart.

Some community benefits accrued from a complicated arrangement around the creation of an environmental education center at Masonville Cove, now a facility in a green idyll designed by Harris Kupfer Architects, a firm in downtown Baltimore owned by an African American couple. The observation deck of the nature centers faces the Curtis Bay where a tributary flows into it.  A large cruise ship docks in full view across the water, behind it Baltimore's skyline. The City may not see Curtis Bay, but it can see the city.
Smokestacks remain always in view: Community garden

The nature sanctuary is deceiving, though. In part it sits on encapsulated toxic waste and was only possible after removing derelict vessels from the water and hauling off over 14,000 tons of wood and assorted debris since 2007, the restoration of the cove is an effort that is still ongoing and a partnership between the Port Administration and a community advisory panel, the Army Corps of Engineers, Living Classrooms, the National Aquarium, the US Fish & Wildlife Fund and after the Obama administration declared this to be first urban wildlife refuge in the
Curtis Bay: Housing values far below average

After the conference excursion and after the bus returned to Baltimore's Station North area I headed to a second event that I had booked for the same day, a boat tour of the development along Baltimore's Inner Harbor organized by the local council of the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

On board of the ship the members of the design and development community were mostly white, as usual. There were drinks and networking and a good time were foremost on the minds of those signing up along with getting in the process an update on all the development that recently had gone up around the harbor. Development was explained by the deputy director of the Baltimore Development Corporation, Kimberly Clark.  Once the boat had left the Inner Harbor and was further out near the Key Bridge, Clark pointed to the horizon and mentioned Fairfield in the distance, once an African American Community that was entirely bought out by the City. Fairfield is located right next to Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, and it was where the bigger new incinerator would have been built. The day had come full circle. The two Baltimores couldn't have been made more obvious than with these two back to back events, the community design conference field trip and the ULI harbor tour. As a first generation immigrant I felt like a guest at both events, in spite of the 32 years I spent here.
In 1996 residents of Fairfield and Wagner’s Point formed the Fairfield/Wagner’s Point Neighborhood Coalition and signed a retainer with the University of Maryland School of Law. In the words of Brenda Blom, University of Maryland law professor and member of the legal counsel for residents, the neighborhoods were “engulfed” by industry.[iv] Working with their lawyers, a majority of residents decided that relocation was their best option to achieve some sense of justice. Blom succinctly describes the success of the relocation effort as based in the residents “unwillingness to remain invisible,” which shows that a new way to see urban industrial space is essential to achieving justice.[v] However, Many Fairfield residents, like Jennie Fischer, the President of the Fairfield Improvement Association, did not want to leave.[vi]By the end of 1998, the Neighborhood Coalition finally received a commitment from the city for relocation, and, in early 1999, the deal was struck for Wagner’s Point residents and then Condea Vista and FMC (chemical companies) put together a proposal to match a city offer for relocation in Fairfield. The hard-won relocation package provided residents of the industrial peninsula with the hope of living free of industrial pollution and the fear of a cataclysmic accident. However, the moment was bittersweet because residents had formed a tight sense of community out on the peninsula and it was the only life many people knew.
Some holdouts clung to their territory on the peninsula well into the 21st century. Baltimore City moved out the last two residents in March of 2011, and the last Fairfield home was demolished a month later. Nicole King (Source)
In the still prevailing "white" narrative places like Fairfield are only a sidebar. But the other narrative is getting increasingly louder thanks to groups like Free Your Voice and, maybe, also because of an increasing awareness among the design community of their complicity in the current segregation .
The Fours Seasons condos at the Inner Harbor
as seen from a boat

Cruising the waters of the Patapsco on a warm late spring evening felt like being on vacation as a tourist in your own city. But Curtis Bay, the industrial enclave, reminded me of how I grew up: In an apartment only a few hundred feet from factory halls which emitted noise, odors and fumes at all hours of the day and the night. There was no big body of water but the local river river was colored by the chemicals of a textile plant that had been established there because it needed the river. The dust that coated everything was sometimes black like the coal of the nearby foundry and sometimes white from a cement factory, depending on how the wind blew. It was my place, though and I was proud of it.

In an attempt to clear my lungs my parents sent me every year to North Germany, the farms of my uncles and the sea breeze that wafted over those lands. I liked that, too.

Neither of those two worlds provides the lens to fully understand how race, class and social and environmental justice are intertwined here, but they made the powerful narratives of this particular day in Baltimore resonate with me.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
all photos by author. Use only with permission.

Related on this Blog:
Forgotten in Baltimore

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

GBC's new chair Tiburzi: Expand the Convention Center and rebuild Pimlico

Baltimore's top lawyers have always shaped the face of this city, from Peter Angeles to Jim Shea, past chairman of Venable and candidate for governor.
Meanwhile, his colleague Paul Tiburzi of DLA Piper has been selected chairman of the board of the Greater Baltimore Committee last December, an organization that goes back to 1954 when Baltimore business men banded together to move Baltimore forward. It would take another year before Tiburzi was born in 1955, but in 2018 in his Baltimore SUN he expresses much the same view that the founding fathers had in 1954: Let's build something big.

This diminishes the hope that GBC would pivot to a view of the city that is more informed by its people than by its buildings and more informed by what benefits residents than visitors, a pivot that many hoped the Mayor, the City Council, and Baltimore's business leaders would have taken after the 2015 unrest.
the 2018 mud-fest brought back the question if Pimlico really helps

In fact, several Baltimore business leaders and developers have turned towards people and neighborhood oriented "social impact investments". Kevin Plank's brother has invested money in upgrading the Western Police precinct station to become a more community friendly station. He also invests in Southwest Baltimore around the Hollins Market. Seawall development has long embraced investment in neighborhoods. La Cite's Dan Bythewood is building hundreds of apartments in Poppleton, Ernst Valery is combining project and workforce training in Pigtown.

The popular term social impact investment is also suggested as a tool by the Mayor with her proposal for a Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund which would be fueled by leasing city garages and by private investors flocking to it. As discussions around other articles on this blog show, even social impact investment has its detractors.  Tiburzi's idea, though, that Baltimore should focus on Pimlico and the Convention Center and otherwise dress up its damaged image, though, is a copy from a playbook of a distant past and Mayor Donald Schaefer's big projects. Indeed, Tiburzi refers to Schaefer himself:
I recall Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s campaign in the 1980s: “Baltimore is best, Baltimore’s best.” He willed Baltimore to be thought of as a greater city — both by our citizens and by the rest of the country. And it worked. We need to follow his example today. Mayor Catherine Pugh, like me, worked for Mayor Schaefer and learned from him. She is very much like him in her vision and leadership and her love for Baltimore. She is passionate about our city — as all of us should be. (SUN editorial)
Baltimore's Convention Center: Twice expanded, still too small?
Many people in Baltimore still think that Schaefer was the best mayor ever, what could be wrong with being like him? Aren't projects he oversaw or initiated successes to this day? Wasn't he the one who "put Baltimore on the map" and turned the declining backwater city into a place that visitors would actually visit? Certainly, he was a fearless leader, even in social policy aspects, having appointed the first African American police chief. With his dollar-houses he brought urban pioneers back to the City. He remained modest and grounded, even when he consorted with the powerful, for example when he famously cajoled reluctant mega baker Paterakis into becoming a developer and making strategic investments in what is now Harbor East.
The GBC is and always has been about accomplishing big things — from the Charles Center redevelopment to the Inner Harbor and Harborplace to the original Baltimore Convention Center and Oriole Park and M&T Bank Stadium. We will continue this tradition by working on two important capital projects. First, we will address the future of the Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown and Baltimore’s version of the Super Bowl. The Preakness belongs in Baltimore. Second, we will tackle an expanded Baltimore Convention Center, the state of Maryland’s largest convention venue. (SUN editorial)
The notion that urban progress means building big things has been a widely adopted mantra all across America. Mayors like ribbon cutting, "build it and they will come" still is too frequently the slogan. But is it good economic development? Already in 2003 Altshuler and Luberoff had their doubts when they wrote their book "Mega Projects - The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment" (Brookings).  
[Cities] physical and economic development has been driven overwhelmingly, however, by private for-profit investment. In many respects, as a result, local politics has always been an aspect of business—a way of bringing government power to bear in support of private investment opportunities. American cities are conspicuous for the emphasis they place on growth and in the intensity with which they compete with one another for it. 
Demographic change in Baltimore since 1998 (GBC Report)
Especially convention centers have become so big and so numerous that there is way more supply than demand. Even very popular and modern facilities in highly attractive cities such as Washington DC or Boston are net money losers until often inflated external effects are considered, such as hotel taxes. However, this can be tricky, too, as Baltimore has learned from its City-owned convention center hotel which remains without net profit to this day.

Times change and the exclusive focus on big brick and mortar projects has run its course. Baltimore has first class sports venues which never really became economic development as some economists maintain, it has an under-visited convention center and a world-famous Inner Harbor with empty stores. Baltimore's biggest problem isn't that all of those big projects have lost their luster and can't hold the candle to the latest and greatest attractions elsewhere. As Altshuler and Luberoff put it:
Since the only actors who seriously care about benefit cost analysis are some professional bureaucrats, such analysis are mostly window dressing. They are routinely structured, moreover, to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs- in effect to provide a veneer for politically selected projects. "Mega Projects - The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment" .  
Most would agree that Baltimore's biggest problem today is, that whatever renaissance the city experienced, it forgot to include large parts of the population and let entire neighborhoods sink into disrepair and crime without decent services, without safety, decent stores and most importantly, without schools that educate. The notion that the bright developments at the Harbor would rub off on the darker corners of Baltimore has proven false, the trickle down did not happen. Instead, two starkly different Baltimore's developed and it becomes increasingly clear, that the forgotten Baltimore will not stay forgotten; while the shiny Baltimore was not able to lift the poor parts, the poor parts certainly prove able to drag down the shiny parts.
Income disparities between State and City and black and white (Census 2013)

To simply go back to the mega projects of the 1970's is not an option in 2018. To wish that Donald Schaefer would come back or, for that matter, Robert Kennedy would be President, does not solve today's problems. Tiburzi acknowledges the problem in three short sentences, although he points to crime and not to the social ills that cause it, as the issue, thus "solving the problem" will remain elusive.
Of course, violent crime must be reduced, and the perception of the city as a dangerous place must be changed. Progress on this difficult issue has been made, but more must be done. The GBC will continue to work with Mayor Pugh and the community to solve this problem.
On Tuesday, Tiburzi doubled down on his points on WBAL radio. Tiburzi's focus on Pimlico and the Convention Center does not address the structural regional issues which the recent 20th GBC report included and which  Donald Fry, GBC's , President and CEO of GBC addressed at the unveiling of the report:
“The region’s strong shift to technology, medicine and the digital economy is particularly promising and shows the innovation and drive of our business community and major educational institutions. [...]Some findings in the report remind us that the GBC and private sector must continue to explore how we can continue to work with elected officials and others to ensure that the increased wealth and education that some segments of society have experienced helps lift those struggling with rising costs of living and the skill demands of the modern labor market.” (SUN) 
Having no  safety net of savings or fixed assets
Here is at least a recognition that there are systemic the non brick and mortar elements that drive the chasm between the two Baltimores. This is a lot more promising than the old focus on grand projects.

Attracting visitors and creating more quality of life for existing residents are not mutually exclusive. They can be done in parallel and should be done, wherever they increase the tax base that is needed for more equity and investment in quality of life. However, the focus of the op-ed piece on the Convention Center and Pimlico addresses two projects which would neither directly, nor indirectly improve equity or quality of life, because they would not even pay for themselves and become community loss leaders.

Just like in Cincinnatti after their unrest in 2001, Baltimore's business leaders need to finally band together and address Baltimore's systemic inequities.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The candidates for Governor and Baltimore's transportation woes

There are quite a few indications that Baltimore's self professed transportation woes won't go away anytime soon:
  • Rail Plan: Consternation reigns ever since Governor Hogan took the Red Line off the table. No productive thinking about how to break out of the stand-still has emerged
  • Baltimore Link: Neither residents nor riders nor the MTA itself can quite decide whether the biggest bus overhaul in recent history was a success, a failure or just lipstick on a pig
  • Governor: No candidate for governor runs with an idea for Baltimore's transportation that is easy to remember. Hogan's additional Beltway HOT lanes almost look creative in that context
  • Baltimore City's DOT: The agency which would need to fill the void seems to lack transportation strategy as well. It can't even describe the purpose of its own Circulator bus correctly as the latest transportation priority letter proves
Baltimore transportation: Always a mess? 1960s
The only recent bright spots in the ongoing saga of the region's transportation woes were a coordinated push of Baltimore's legislators during the last legislative session for more money for MTA for a better state of repair and the legislated requirement for a new regional transportation plan. And, yes, the recent BC DOT breakthrough on the downtown bicycle network plan which had been on ice for years.

How desolate is the system really?  A look at APTA's annual transit handbook, in which systems are compared nationally, shows that the sheer amount of transit the Baltimore region has on the ground or the number of transit users across all modes makes Baltimore look good by comparison. While the City is #27 in size it ranks far higher in the in almost all transit metrics.
The 2017 APTA Transportation Fact Book shows:
  • MTA MD on rank 13 of the 50 largest Transit agencies in the country measured by "unlinked passenger miles", i.e. a fair metric showing how many people havve been moved how far without counting transfers. (with Baltimore City being somewhere on rank 27 of the 50 largest US cities). 
  • Baltimore on rank 11 for total unlinked trips and also by number of transit riders per capita. 
  • The MTA also has the 11th largest bus service (measured by passenger miles) 
  • the 5th largest commuter bus service 
  • the 7th largest mobility service in the country. 
  • The MTA's commuter rail service is #9 in the US. 
  • Only light rail sits in a low rank at #1
These quantitative facts obscure how well the service operates in terms of reliability, on time performance, length of trips or travel speeds. A report card compiled in 2017 by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance CMTA) gives the area's transportation a mark for 12 metrics in which the best is a C+ for walkability and the worst is an F for disconnected communities, air pollution and job access by transit. The study states that 100% of the region's jobs can be accessed by car in one hour, but only 9% by transit. Those numbers did not yet reflect the reformed bus system and there were questions about CMTA's methodology.
Baltimore is #3 in this chart

Transit advocates and politicians alike give the region poor marks, for sure. However, frequently there is far more judgement than actual knowledge feeding into the complicated topic. There is practically no city in which residents love their transit agency. Even in Seattle, which recently has become a transit darling among experts, scorn and mockery had been heaped on the city for its transportation policies which appeared to pour resources in all kinds of modes at the same time.  Just remember Bertha the boring machine stuck in the mud? Yes, that was for a road project, but critics complained about how the city dug tunnels for cars and trains at the same time. How it had started with bus tunnels and then converted them to mixed bus-rail tunnel, how it had a lone streetcar line going nowhere, plus a lone monorail, plus a new LRT line that ran to the airport and had no development around its stops.  The litany of complaints was endless.  All this seems forgotten today thanks to Settle as a region getting its act together and implementing a transit first transportation policy that is praised in article after article
Baltimore transportation: Always a mess?(1940s)

How bad the local image of regional transit is was on full display during the gubernatorial issue forum on transportation last week organized by the Central Baltimore Transportation Alliance (CMTA), 1000 Friends of Maryland, Transit Choices, the Transportation Equity Coalition, Bikemore, CPHA and others. The incumbent governor and two of the leading contenders, Rushern Baker and Ben Jealous didn't even show up, nor did Valerie Ervin who stepped in for the late Kevin Kamenetz. That the Democratic challengers didn't seize the opportunity was surprising, given that transportation represents a major Achilles heel for the incumbent. Even Hogan supporters would concede that the Governors single minded focus on additional highway lanes looks too much like a playbook of the 1950s. On the other hand, State Democrats discovered their love for the Baltimore Red Line mostly after the line had become Hogan's victim.
Governor Hogan continues to focus on delivering much-needed transportation improvements by committing nearly $15 billion to the state’s Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). This includes over $8 billion dedicated towards fixing roads and bridges. Additionally, more than 8,000 lane-miles - or more than one-third of the state’s highways - have been repaved. There are currently nearly 1,000 projects under construction across the state, totaling $9 billion. (Hogan website)
The transportation forum, moderated by local TV anchor Jayne Miller of WBAL-TV, had depth, propagated sound transportation principles and, unsurprisingly, was deeply critical of  Hogan's policies; but it lacked compelling ideas and did little to differentiate the candidates from each other. Everyone wants to bring the Red Line back, a position first taken by Rushern Baker, but unsupported by any specifics about how this could be achieved. There were plenty of slogans instead. 
An advanced society isn't where the poor drive cars but where the rich ride transit (Janette Sadik Khan, former NYC Transportation Commissioner, quoted by Eric Ross) 
Rich Madaleno, who out-talked everyone else on the podium, spoke eloquently about the Purple Line being "paid via credit card" by letting a private consortium design, build, operate and maintain the Washington area light rail project to be paid back by tax dollars "with a premium". Which sounded like he was critical about it, but then Madaleno allowed that the P3 approach "forces us to pay for maintenance" and that appeared to be a good thing for him. He didn't explain whether he would use the P3 model for a Red Line rebirth or not. Jim Shea, as a former board chair of CMTA probably the most versed in Baltimore transportation details, constantly referred to the need of "a statewide plan" and pointed repeatedly to his 30-page website plan, yet it remains unclear what the major element of his plan would be even after reading the 30 pages.

All panelists considered Hogan's transportation approach a failure and all could describe the problems well. But none had any specifics for actual solutions.  Rushern Baker's website which lists five short paragraphs under "infrastructure" states
We need 21st-century solutions to our transit problems that will not only connect more people to jobs and take more cars off the road but projects that will spur economic development in the communities they serve. (Baker website)  
That about sums it up in terms of vagueness. I suppose not even Larry Hogan would disagree. One couldn't be sure that any of the candidates at the forum had recently used transit, except if one accepts Jim Shea's trip of 2017 as recent, in which he tested Baltimore Link with a ride from Sandtown to the Amazon distribution center. Alec Ross talked about his years of taking the MARC train every day to DC when he worked for Hillary Clinton and about how hard it is for his son's classmates, to reach Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute Highschool from across town. Krish Vignarajah had to resort to her father as a transit user to express her authentic relation to transit.  Her website, though, shows a family photo with a very young Krish standing on the rear bumper of a mighty station wagon. Fringe candidate Ralph Jaffe admitted that he had no clue about transportation ("my focus is on education") but still had to throw in the unfounded assertion that buses are not safe and that they each needed a safety officer to ride along.

All talked about better connecting people with jobs, also the express purpose of MTA's Link bus reform. When perennial transit gadfly Ed Cohen who has an encyclopedic knowledge of transit asked the candidates what specifically they would suggest to be different for Link bus if they had control over the MTA bus system, the faces of the candidates expressed panic. No-one seemed to have any real knowledge about the Link system, having this in common with many who condemn the MTA bus service wholesale but never use it. Jim Shea as the former board chair of CMTA recovered first, remembering how the organization had peer-reviewed and modeled  a draft version of Link Bus and found that on average it didn't improve trip times to jobs. But those models are extremely complex and MTA had taken issue with how CMTA's model worked and CMTA has since taken issue with MTA's claims of how much better the system performs compared to its predecessor. The confusion leads to the impasse in which nobody dares to call the reform a success, but nobody wants to call it a failure just yet, either.

It isn't clear if any of the candidates had ever sat down with MTA administrator Kevin Quinn or with MTA Director of Service Development Tom Hewitt to gain additional insights. Since MTA is not only a Baltimore transit company but responsible for transit around the State, such a conversation would seem highly pertinent for anyone who wants to be governor.

Mr. Ross proclaimed that someone's budget reflects someone's values and pointed to Hogan's lopsided roadway expenditures as proof. He would just flip those priorities and give the majority of the money to transit. Krish Vignarajah spoke eloquently about the land use and transportation nexus and the need to stop moving jobs further and further out. Jane Miller brought the issue of land use to the point when she asked if any of the candidates would block a job development that wasn't planned near existing transit. This question, too brought some fear to the faces of the contestants, given that local land use control is a sacred cow and one of the major sticks that Republicans use to beat up Democrats who supposedly are out to undermine that local privilege.  Only Ms. Vignarajah said she would do so, Mr Madaleno clearly refused such an intervention, Mrs Shea and Ross had some conditional answers that noted incentives and Mr Jaffe mumbled something about volunteerism.

An audience member complained about the many bus shuttles running parallel to MTA's bus routes and Jayne Miller converted this to another pointed question: As Governor, would the candidates ask the institutions to stop those services? Another opportunity for the candidates to differentiate themselves, but again they shied away from looking fierce. Ross recovered by declaring that the many shuttles are a sign of government's failure to provide good transit. A point that is debatable, especially along Baltimore's Charles Street where MTA and Circulator run all the way up to the Johns Hopkins campus. More likely,  the real root for the proliferation of those services is elitism and the fear of parents that their offspring could sit in a bus with regular people. Ms. Vignarajah observed,
How any jobs of the region (large circle) can be reached within
60 minutes (small circle)
based on her studies in biology, that such alternatives "make the original system atrophy". In many ways she seemed to be the most fearless except at one point when Alec Ross became extremely clear and poignant. "I have heard many dumb ideas [in my campaign around the State], but the dumbest idea of all I heard from Baltimore's City Council President Jack Young", he said while the audience hushed. "He suggested that one should pay for bicycle parking. My friends around the country ask me, what is wrong with your city"? Indeed, in a hearing about leasing out two city garages, Young uttered such words at the very end of the hearing.

The near future of autonomous cars wasn't a topic at all, no candidate brought it up and no audience member asked about it. Madaleno made some attempts of describing a more nimble transit system of the future that should be more responsive "like Uber and Lyft"; to which Ross responded that he sees the problem in too much privatization of services that belong to the "commons", such as transit.

Success, failure or much to do about nothing?
Mr Madaleno mentioned several times that Baltimore is the only city in Maryland which has to take care of all the roads including State Roads and Interstates which are kept up by the State outside the city limits. Of course, the State provides payments for upkeep under a complicated formula which obviously doesn't allow for the type of maintenance necessary. This years's City priority letter once again asks for restoring the full Highway User Fee payments. There was some laughter among the gubernatorial candidates and the audience when someone mentioned that the Mayor could ask for those roads to be deeded back to the State. It wasn't clear if, as governor, they would accept such an overture.

All candidates agreed that not only Maryland's economic future is in jeopardy when transportation remains a stepchild and congestion on record levels, they also agreed with Ms Vignarajah contention that transportation is a major equity issue.  In the candidates' campaign programs, though, transportation only gets a few general statements and even Mr. Shea's 30 page program is big on describing the problems and thin on solutions.

Here a few simple ideas for the candidates to pick from:

  • a single ticket for all systems and modes in the entire region
  • no more cash payments on buses and multi-door boarding
  • an all out effort of putting intense land use around every single rail station in Maryland
  • an all out effort making Baltimore's Metro and Light Rail first class transit services
  • fully funding the MARC commuter rail plan which MDOT has on the books but which is languishing
  • bringing the Quickbus back to Baltimore's bus system as a quicker alternative on the most traveled routes
  • realizing the community development plans created as part of the Red Line planning process
  • creating an urban pilot policy for autonomous vehicles
  • creating a test for driverless potentially demand-based buses in a small Maryland City such as Salisbury
  • declaring Maglev and Hyperloop as the gimmicks that they are
  • agree on a few mandated simple transportation metrics which are made public each day and show congestion levels, mode split, air pollution, transit on-time performance, transit ridership and speeds compared to reasonable target metrics based on metro areas we envy. 
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

(The forum was recorded by the Real News Network and can be watched on  here).