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 

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