Friday, July 20, 2018

BIRD mania hits Baltimore - is it viable transportation?

Bikes are so yesterday, today its BIRDS, those little electric scooters one can find all over town. Talk about disruption! While many interested in clean, "alternative" ways of getting around in downtown Baltimore, still worry about the fate of Baltimore's troubled Bikeshare (see here), Bird, a company founded by former Lyft COO and Uber VP Travis VanderZanden raised $100 million in venture capital two months ago, began raising another $150 million in June and is now engaging in raising another $200 million according to Fortune Magazine.  The company is already valued at $2 billion. That is fast, even by start-up measures, given that the LA based company started operations only in September 2017. Maybe even more surprising, Baltimore is part of the 22 cities in which Bird is operating as of July 9, 2018. The secret for being part of the avantgarde: The City wasn't involved at all. The scooters just showed up. 
Suffragette Florence Norman on her motorized
scooter  in London 1916 (Mashable)

On the heels of Bird is the competitor Lime which first flooded cities with dockless bikes until Lime  became unwelcome in many places for all the clutter they created.

The scooter, known to most as a kid's  mobility tool between the tricycle and the bicycle, has popped up out of nowhere. As it is now common among startups, nobody knows how serious the innovation is. Adults riding around on scooters, is this really the next big thing that will undo bikeshare? Uber and Lyft, the car share disrupters, just this year decided to invest in bikeshare, are they already betting on  the wrong horse?

If Baltimore is any indication, the same folks which were called the Millennials,  until the term became an insult of sorts, and which were all excited about Baltimore's late entry into docked bike-share, are now gaga over the scooters. The hipness of a workplace, apartment building or event can now be measured by the number of scooters lined up in front. I am glad to report that my own office building, tucked away in the not soi hip westside has scooters out front at times (not because of me), Data Day at the University of Baltimore, of course, had them. even the venerable law firm of Ballard Spahr attracted two scooter riders to their breakfast meeting. Little Havana, just as many other locals around the Harbor are regular Bird ports. Transportation keynote speaker Robert Puentes (not a Millennial anymore) claimed to have used a Bird to get from Penn Station to his talk at the Federal Reserve.
Actresse and model Charlotte McKinney
on a Bird Scooter 2017

So what's the deal with those things? Are they really useful? Should they be regulated or banned like in Denver and San Francisco? Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, an avid promoter of alternative transportation allowed the scooters in her city as long as they don't ride on sidewalks. As common for disruptive technology, there isn't really any applicable regulation unless city councils pass them in a hurry.

As an avid former child  kick-scooter user (not electric, of course, but with nice big inflated tires and two brakes) I had to try it out. My first instinct is to use the Bird on the sidewalk, especially in Baltimore where most sidewalks are deserted while the roadways are clogged. But a label on the stepping board says, "no riding on sidewalks". Going into traffic with the thing seems ballsy, even with the required helmet (I haven't seen scooter users wearing a helmet), except where protected bike lanes are in place. The Bird is peppy and lots of fun!

The scooter gets located with the Bird app on the smart phone (it has GPS), than activated via OCR code on the handlebar. Pay via Apple Pay (or credit-card, Paypal etc.) and then "unlock" the scooter. (If not unlocked the Bird moves but makes unhappy tweet noises and doesn't activate the electric motor). Once unlocked a couple of foot pushes ("kicks") are needed and then the handlebar switch can be used to accelerate with battery power. The ride tops out at 15mph which can be fast on our not so smooth streets and walks. There is nothing to riding this vehicle, anybody who can stand straight and hold on to a bar can do it. A left mounted hand-break stops the scooter quick and without toppling the rider over the handlebar as some bikes are prone to do. Of course, before stopping one foot has to come off the board to not fall over. (The Internet is full of horrible pictures showing the scooters mangled under cars).
German kids with kick-scooters in Bonn, 1955

The first minute costs $1.00, additional minutes $0.15. A short 3-5 minute ride will cover a few city blocks and sets you back about $1.75 or so, with taxes. This is much cheaper than bikeshare which in most cities requires a membership or a daypass that costs as much as $15 in New York.  Lime has already introduced the $1 ride on its dockless bikes as well. Much cheaper than Uber or Lyft and probably faster.

Of course, just as in the case of the bicycle, its not the vehicle itself that causes the disruption but the method of deployment. Scooters have been around for about 100 years, predominantly as kids toys but there were early attempts of motorizing them or using them for mail delivery. Kids scooters are still common in Europe and even though, Razor has recently changed the popular design towards those tiny wheels adopted from skateboards.  Electric Razor scooters can be bought for just north of 100 bucks online. Affordability and mechanical simplicity are certainly attractive to Bird and Lime and explain the ease with which these companies penetrated entire cities with a fleet of  scooters.
Segways on a nature tour

Time will tell if the suit and tie crowd or people running out for an errand will really take to scooters beyond the craze that comes with anything new. Segway, the inventor of the self-balancing two wheel electric stand-up vehicle certainly erred in thinking their innovation would become the mode of choice. At  $5k or more, price  was the prime obstacle along with the counter-intuitive balancing act.

But Segway also makes an electric scooter. It looks just like  the Bird and goes 15 miles on a single charge of its Lithium Ion battery. It cost $500. The Bird scooter is made by the Chines company Xiaomi which also owns Segway.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Bird scooter map and cost summary after checking out a ride
(Photo: Philipsen)

detail of wheel (Photo: Philipsen)

Bell left, accelerator to the right, OCR code in the middle
(Photo: Philipsen)

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What's this "Big Jump" all about?

Space for people on a highway bridge: Big Jump (Photo: Bikemore)
On the surface the Baltimore Big Jump is a "pop-up installation" of a temporary walk and bike facility across the JFX on one of the most car-friendly freeway-style connections we have in Baltimore.

The bridge on 28th Street which, in tandem with 29th Street brings cars from the east and west to the I-83 Interstate and connects Remington and Old Goucher with Reservoir Hill is part of a necklace of traffic chokers strangling Druid Hill Park. Until now 28th Street was not a connection that was useful for walkers or bicyclists and severely limited access to Druid Park from the east.
the dotted lines show improvements associated with the "big jump"

The most remarkable aspects of  the "Big Jump" are not so much the additional pieces of "active transportation" infrastructure but that 
  • it is funded by a national organization as a transformative element.
  • it is fully supported by Baltimore's DOT
  • it is an example "tactical urbanism" which is quicker and cheaper than permanent construction requiring a full engineering and environmental study.
  • the project will have hands on artist engagement
The idea of taking a lane away from Druid Lake Park Drive and 28th Street in favor of a protected and comfortable two-way walk/bike connection was realized due to persistent advocacy from Bikemore, the leadership of Councilman Leon Pinkett, and the commitment from BCDOT Director Michelle Pourciau, dedicated and creative staff like Graham Young, and the Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Commission. The master is getting national attention

Unlike any of the previous bicycle accommodations, this one addresses head-on one of the roadways designed to move suburban commuters in and out of the City, a policy which resulted in maiming many city neighborhoods. 

In the case of Reservoir Hill and Auchentoroly Terrace, the added divided multi-lane roadways (Swann Drive and Druid Lake Park Drive) separated fine neighborhoods from the park they were designed to front.
The street Auchentoroly Terrace consists of nine rows of housing, two mansion houses and two duplexes that all face the west side of Druid Hill Park. Built between 1876 (when the Orem and West mansions were built) and the mid 1920s, Auchentoroly Terrace represents an unusually impressive collection of architecture. Built at the height of Victorian sensibility, these rows exemplify grand rowhouse design and a lively, diverse array of architectural details. Framing the western boundary of Druid Hill Park, the buildings eloquently contrast with the park’s open space, a synergistic composition of neighborhood and park. (CHAP Ordinance).
Councilman Pinkett in an editorial that appeared in the Afro and in similar form als in the SUN expressed his strong support for the Big Jump not so much as a bicycle facility but as a space given back to local residents.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, over the protests of the local NAACP and neighborhood associations, City-led, car-oriented planning robbed local residents of Druid Hill Park’s public health benefits. Literally paving the way for White flight, highway projects cut off the predominantly working class Jewish and African American neighborhoods from the park in exchange for faster commute times for mostly White suburban county residents. Construction of the 1948 Druid Hill Expressway and 1963 Jones Falls Expressway resulted in the widening of Auchentoroly Terrace and Druid Park Lake Drive from two lane, park-front residential streets into a roaring five-to-nine-lane-wide highways equipped with only a handful of routinely ignored crosswalks...Giving back space to people, and creating a balance to how much of our space we give up to traffic is transformative. All of Baltimore’s neighborhoods deserve this consideration, and I hope that over the course of this project we will receive your consideration and support.

The history of the Druid Hill Expressway was brought to light again last year in an article by Daniel Hindman in the SUN under the title "Right a past wrong by opening access to Druid Hill Park". Hindman explains how the Druid Hill Expressway was built in 1947/8 without input from the Jewish and African American communities. writes:
As a community member and physician, I find the historical narrative of Baltimore City’s decisions pertaining to the communities surrounding Druid Hill Park deeply disappointing. While many know of the racism of the park’s past — the segregated swimming pools, tennis courts and playgrounds — many do not know the politics and history behind the construction of the Druid Hill Expressway. The story of the expressway’s construction is a narrative of racism and corruption, that, like an arrow shot from the past, inflicts damage on our most vulnerable populations today. ...The impact of this history is evidenced today in the 2017 Neighborhood Health Profiles, which demonstrate that Reservoir Hill and Penn North, communities that border one of the largest urban parks in the country, have some of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the city.
Before Hindman architect Davin Hong had looked at Druid Hill Park, possibly in the context of his work on the Green Network Plan. Hong, also in the SUN wrote:
Facilitating travel away from the city center reduced urban populations and promoted suburban sprawl. The results are barren border territories that are unfriendly to people and draining to neighborhoods. The damage done from that era of city planning was so severe that American cities like Baltimore have yet to fully recover.
Former Baltimore traffic planner Gerry Neily wrote about in the Brew and Jeff LaNoue in GGW in 2014. Pinkett, Hindman and Hong all refer to the large scale construction currently underway in Druid Lake as the opportunity to finally rectify past sins. The good news is that the City's new DOT Director Pourciau is on board, at least with the pop-up installation which one has to describe as the camels nose in the tent. 

A big community celebration of the Big Jump is planned for 8/26/2018. An artistic treatment of the white water filled Jersey barriers and an array of ideas for place-making and community activities will be developed in the weeks until then.

Baltimore's 2.6 star (out of 5) for being bicycle friendly is not a place to rest on. Worse, its ranking in how segregated the city is. If the Big Jump can create connectivity between segregated neighborhoods as well, it would be a great success.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Convention Center: is bigger really better?

As regular as the noise of  locust in the summer is the clamor of Baltimore's  power elite for a bigger convention center, a new arena and more convention hotels, regardless of whatever else might ail this city.
Dull on every side: Baltimore Convention Center with Sheraton Hotel in
background (Photo: Philipsen)

Just as predictable are the doubters who ask whether a convention center is really sound economic development, whether dollars on expansion are just more good money wasted, and just another example of misguided priorities. The answers those questions are supposed to come from studies commissioned by the promoters of expansion. In that 2018 is just like 2012 or 2008 (when the city owned Hilton opened) or 1997 (when the original center dating to 1979 was expanded the first time).

The late Willard Hackerman, owner the Sheraton next to the convention center and the construction company Whiting Turner had suggested to combine an expansion of all three components, convention center, hotel and arena with his hotel as the lynchpin. This proposal was studied in 2012 in a feasibility study which assumed a $325 million new arena, a $175 million hotel and a $400 million convention center expansion of about 300,000 additional square feet. Hackerman lured with a private public partnership with the arena and the hotel privately financed. In spite of offering a chunk of his fortune, not enough takers lifted the project off the ground, even though then Governor O'Malley was on board and requesting $2.5 million state funds as design money. Mayor Rawlings Blake gushed at the time:
Dreaming big: Hackerman hybrid with hotel and arena. (ASG)
"building a new, world-class convention center in the heart of Baltimore's Inner Harbor will strengthen our tourism industry and spark new growth throughout the city."
Back then the use of the descriptor "world class" didn't yet raise a red flag.  The idea died with Hackermann in 2014. Surprisingly, though, already in 2016 Governor Hogan brought the topic back up, with support from the city convention bureau. The convention center expansion seems to be the only project which Governor Hogan inherited from O'Malley and which he didn't set out to kill. He even commissioned the very same consultants who had done the feasibility analysis for Hackermann's idea.  The charge was to look "at the earlier proposal for the hybrid project and test it against market conditions today" (MSA senior vice president Gary McGuigan). The stadium authority approved a plan to spend $1 million for the first phase of a “program design and engineering study” that could eventually cost the same $2.5 million which O'Malley had already requested in 2012.  Towards the first $1 million, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore gave $60,000 the State paid $626,667 and the city $313,333. (Ed Gunts, 8/2/2016).
Pittsburgh tensile convention center, designed by Rafael Vinoly: a monument
on the Allegheny River
Studies repeat the same positive findings verbatim from one city to another and fail to account for contradictory data. These market and feasibility studies thus offer no real basis for public investment and serve to bias public decision making and choice.” Convention Myths and Markets: A Critical Review of Convention Center Feasibility Studies” Economic Development Quarterly, 2002
This month the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) released the updated report in three parts: design, construction and market analysis. The study was to look at alternative scenarios for expansion and recommend whether the expansion should include a new arena and hotel or not. It should not include an arena, the consultant team says now, with Hackerman no longer able to object. The study considers a 565,000-square-foot arena with at least 13,000 seats. Since the 1962 Royal Farms Arena seats 12,000 to 14,000 people today, the hybrid convention/arena model would not offer a bigger event space. The hotel under consideration replaces the 337-room Sheraton with a 500-room hotel that would be connected to the convention center. The 2008 completed city-owned Hilton convention center hotel has 756 rooms.
Full build-out massing model of the east wing with hotel and arena
(Clark Construction report)

The State's MSA has long since expanded its arm into Baltimore from stadium projects not only to the convention center but also to school construction and the future of Pimlico. 
Established by the State General Assembly in 1986, the Maryland Stadium Authority’s (MSA) mission is to plan, finance, build and manage sports and entertainment facilities in Maryland; provide enjoyment, enrichment, education, and business opportunities for citizens; and develop partnerships with local governments, universities, private enterprise and the community. The Baltimore Convention Center (BCC) is owned and operated by the City of Baltimore (City) and is one of the projects with which MSA is involved. (Introduction, Crossroads Consulting)
The expansion ideas are usually embedded into a chorus of voices pointing to shiny new convention centers in neighboring cities and lamenting the conventions Baltimore lost or couldn't get because of its size or age. A popular exhibit especially Otakon, an offbeat anime convention which started in 1994 in Charm City and which Baltimore lost to DC because Baltimore's Center is presumably too small for the ever growing assembly. There is some irony in the stiff Baltimore business phalanx led by GBC CEO Donald Fry and his chair Tiburzi as Otakon protagonists.
Inflated "fiscal impacts" based on conventioneers' spending: Otakon

The always questionable calculations of secondary economic benefits appear especially doubtful when it comes to conventions like the anime festival in which the colorful participants who are practically themselves the attraction hardly match the standard profile of conventioneers.

That large conventions don't fit entirely into one center isn't unusual. A case in point was the National architect convention of AIA last month which took place in New York's Javits Convention Center, also dating to 1979. The center has been expanded several times with the most recent round just completed. It has now 1.8 million square feet gross area and was still too small to accommodate all events for the 28,000 architects convening in New York. As a result the participants shuttled in tour buses to the New School on 5th Avenue for some classes and seminars and to Radio City Hall for plenary sessions with simulcasts in the largest Javits event hall. (Baltimore's Center has 1.2 million square feet). One could argue that spreading conventioneers for very large events across several facilities is actually a good thing, both for the city and for the conventioneers who get to get out of the same space sometimes.

But Baltimore's Mayor sounded just like her predecessor and all those on the bandwagon of a bigger convention center. 
“Achieving the much-needed upgrades to Pimlico and the Convention Center remain among my top priorities and I’m committed to ensuring that these important city venues are fully able to accommodate the increased demand for high quality sporting, leisure and business experiences. Baltimore needs to stay competitive and investing in these anchor facilities will undoubtedly prove an investment in our future. We’ll continue to work with the Maryland Stadium Authority and other key stakeholders as we determine the best approach to accomplish these objectives.” (Mayor Pugh statement according to the BBJ)
Ayers Saint Gross (Design) and Crossroads consulting (economics) who got to study the project already for a second time once again compare Baltimore's Convention Center with its peers on  metrics (ballrooms, function spaces) in which it doesn't compare favorably with the select group of comps.
Consistently low ranking among peers: Graphic Crossroads Consulting
But the selection of the peers is interesting in itself. Including the convention centers of Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, three cities were selected which are hardly comparable to Baltimore, no matter what metric, even if we wished it weren't so.

Consistently low ranking among peers: Graphic Crossroads Consulting
But then there is also the Gaylord Resort Convention Center on the list which recently opened as part of National Harbor, waterfront development including offices, shops, restaurants, apartments and a gigantic casino  in Prince George's County on the banks of the Potomac across from Alexandra, Va. That center is much smaller than Baltimore's but was never conceived to compete with the DC Convention Center across the river. This modern facility is proof that there is a healthy market for secondary facilities which compete on a different level than the flagship centers. It isn't clear why Baltimore's Center sitting near the Inner Harbor and the casino could easily be a very attractive location for smaller conventions instead of trying to compete with first tier cities with which we won't be able to compete for some time for any number of reasons.

The economic report doesn't compare the attendance rates or economic performance of the peer centers but jumps straight into a fiscal impact analysis, measuring in several ways how much an expansion would increase direct, indirect and "induced" spending. A proprietary software named  IMPLAN adds it all up to the "total economic impact". The result is neither entirely voodoo nor entirely scientific just as most modeling software that works with a big set of data but also a great number of assumptions.
Size comparison: Crossroads Consulting

The consultant introduces its economic analysis with an admission that many convention centers operate with deficits. The 2012 study showed the three year average deficit for the Baltimore Convention Center as $8.1 million, $2.72 million paid by the City and $5.44 million by the state, a loss that was then projected to grow through expansion to around $10 million. The annual operating deficit in the new report is given as $7.2 million for the five year average. (57% of the expenses covered by income). The "fiscal impact" of the current center just for the City is estimated to be $17.4 million, less than what the City expects to take in from its traffic cameras alone in FY '19.
With respect to financial performance, many similar convention centers realize an operating deficit. However, one of the primary reasons for developing these types of facilities is the economic activity that they can generate in terms of spending, employment, earnings, as well as tax revenues to local and state governments. These facilities typically attract events that draw patrons from outside the immediate market area who spend money on hotels, restaurants and other related services. In many instances, the economic activity can outweigh the operating costs. Consequently, when evaluating the merits of these types of projects, it is important to consider all aspects of the costs and benefits including operating requirements, debt service and economic/fiscal impacts.(Crossroads Consulting pg. 45)
Pretty but dull: Walking alongside the new wing of the Convention Center
on Conway Street (Photo Philipsen)
The updated study does not contain a new projection of the operating deficit of an expanded center, instead, the fiscal impact analysis are repeated for the Arena. It is interesting to see that the much smaller Arena has a three year average attendance of 526,000 which is higher than the three year attendance of 494,973 for all public events in the Convention Center. The existing exhibit space was only 60% of the time occupied in 2016, the ballroom space only 51%. Hardly convincing numbers for an expansion of space. But the consultant sees this differently pointing to "lost business":
the most frequent reason an event was not booked at the facility was availability which encompasses lack of date availability at the BCC, inadequate space at the BCC, and hotel availability (e.g., preferred hotel package, number of hotel rooms, preferred dates, etc.). In aggregate, the lack of availability accounted for approximately 1.9 million lost hotel room nights for the profiled five-year period, approximately 1.5 million (or 79%) of which were attributable to lack of date availability or  inadequate space at the BCC.
Too bad, the consultant doesn't isolate the space argument from the calendar reason, the latter would persist, no matter how big the center would be, unless it would be large enough to house two concurrent events.
San Francsico: Expanding across the Street

Lastly, there is urban design. The Baltimore Center had from its first day on a deadening effect on all the streets it faces, namely Convay, Pratt, Charles and Howard Streets. It, along with the treatment of Conway Street as the end of a freeway, cut off the redeveloped Otterbein from downtown. The connections via Charles, Sharp and Howard Street are just too awful to walk. In fact, the block between the backs of the Harbor facing hotels and the bunker like convention center is the dullest stretch of Charles Street in the entire City. Pratt Street  fares better, not for the center's architecture but because of the wide sidewalks and planting areas, which are not exactly interesting but show at least some respect for the pedestrian. Of course, Pratt Street is also where both the east and the west centers have their entrances, putting some life on the street during events. The architects assume that the original largely submerged east portion of the convention center would be demolished and entirely rebuilt on a larger footprint which would include the Sheraton Hotel.
Washington Convention Center in DC 

In some cities convention centers, in spite of their challange to look attractive, manage to be architectural attractions in their own right. An example is  Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center designed by star architect Rafael Viñoly. The center doesn't block downtown from the waterfront but opened up new ways to experience it for local residents and conventioneers alike.

In Philadelphia the Convention Center partly hides behind the re-purposed historic Reading station building and otherwise continues the somewhat unfortunate pattern of bridging streets that several shopping complexes had already started. In Boston the convention center is the landmark of the innovation district emerging in a large scale industrial setting. Some centers like San Francisco's Moscone Center sit near downtown and battle similar issues as Baltimore's center, but Moscone, with its green courtyard and a stand alone expansion building across the street, creates nevertheless a pretty pedestrian friendly and convincing composition.

Moscone Center, San Francisco

Ayers Saint Gross Architects (ASG) have studied the harbor, Pratt Street, the Arena and the Convention Center enough to be fully aware of the effect that the center along with the Federal Building and other not so successful urban renewal efforts have on continuity and connectivity in Baltimore. In working on the latest report for MSA they did not really submit architecture but programming alternatives and layouts.

Yet, none of the before described approaches of the noted other cities become apparent in any of the scenarios. Obviously not a successful integration with history (such as Phialdelphia or Camden Yards), simply for lack of history.The small historic Otterbein church is already dwarfed by the existing center and clearly not suitable for integration. Also no concept promises to be a landmark solitaire which would be an attraction for its architecture alone in the way the suspension tent of the David L Lawrence Center in Pittsburgh is an attraction. Nor does any scenario entail a spatial composition around an open space as in the case of the Moscone Center in San Francisco. An expansion outside the already occupied blocks is not considered. It also becomes evident, that the much maligned Hilton Hotel on the west end of the Convention Center blocks now any expansion in that direction. The best remaining "across the street" expansion option would be the northeast corner of Pratt and Eutaw Streets.
Convention Center and Sheraton, current conditions (Clark Construction)

The best hope for the two re-imagining Baltimore convention center blocks, would be an architectural design as for the built from scratch Walter E. Washington Center, completed in 2003, which attempts to look like surrounding modern offices buildings in spite of its location on Mount Vernon Place and in the Shaw historic District and in spite of the gigantic expanse of the complex. But even that award winning facility with public streets running right through its footprint is already up for a redesign, aiming to make it through retail kiosks and art more attractive on the pedestrian level.

ASG developed a full array of program scenarios (with and without hotel and arena) with many suboptions, but none of them reveal the bones of a really inspiring design approach. Any big idea would need to be so fundamentally anchored in the DNA of a concept that it would show even on the most abstract level. Given that ASG counts on taking space along Charles and Pratt (which the firm considers currently underutilized) to achieve the basic expansion of the center, there is once again no room for wrapping the usually dull exhibit halls with restaurants, retail or anything else that would break the relentless scale of a convention center. As a result ASG give the best street-life grades to the most mixed programs, i.e. the scenarios with an arena and a hotel, simply because these scenarios have the highest probability of sending people into the streets during events. Outside events, all scenarios can be expected to have a street life that is as dull as today.
Charles between Conway and Pratt: Worst stretch
in Baltimore (Google Streetview)

It is probably the constructability analysis of Clark Construction which ultimately let the team recommend to drop the arena from the program to simply phasing and impacts during construction. Leaving the arena out eliminates the potentially innovative synergies that could evolve between a convention center and an arena. It also eliminates the hope that the place would be lively during the many days without active conventions.

No other realistic alternative arena locations have emerged, yet First Mariner makes money year after year. It is living proof that an old facility often described as obsolete,  can still achieve profits and solid bookings, precisely because it is not the biggest and shiniest, but because it is affordable and competes on a different level. This would suggest that a technical and architectural upgrade of the convention center without a huge expansion should be an option that should be considered as seriously as all the others. A much costly option would also be much more palatable in a City scratching for dollars to pay its police, its rec centers and the various funds aiming for more equity in a deeply segregated city.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN about the report

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Does Baltimore Need a bigger Convention Center?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Is North Avenue rising or sinking?

North Avenue is a bellwether for Baltimore. The east-west corridor is 5 miles long, goes from "black butterfly" wing (west Baltimore) to "black butterfly" wing (East Baltimore) and traverses the "White L" at Charles Street. North Avenue has been a central locale of the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the 2015 uprising was centered at Penn and North. Once the City's northern border, it is today a central, but troubled artery.
North Avenue Market in the Station North area of
North Ave (Photo: Philipsen)

Given this history, and all the good intentions that came after the unrest in 1968 and then again nearly fifty years later, there has been astoundingly little effort made towards reversing fortunes by heavily investing in this particular corridor. Most would say that overall North Avenue today looks worse than it did in 1968.

Yes, there have been improvements, some pretty big: New affordable housing in the far west section (the Gateway projects by Woda Development with 130 units), the redevelopment of the former Walbrook Lumber site under construction now, new buildings at Coppin University, a MICA dorm east of Eutaw Place and the demolished "murder mall" public housing to be replaced by the Madison Park North redevelopment (Up to 500 units, currently still in a conceptual stage).  On the east side there are bits and pieces of the Barclay area redevelopment which reach North Avenue, there is the streetscape project from Asquith to Harford Road, big plans by the Blacks in Wax Museum. In the center of the corridor there is the much heralded Station North Arts and Entertainment District with the rehabbed Parkway Theater, the Motor House, the Centre Theatre and MICA's Lazarus Center.

But on the scale of a 5 mile urban artery, these investments remain fragmented and fail to add up to a convincing new prospect for North Avenue, an artery on which the world had set millions of eyes as the nexus to Freddie Gray and everything that had gone wrong in Baltimore. In this light the committed investments can hardly be described as the big lift that would be needed in this symbolic corridor to turn the sad narrative and the reality around. Especially missing: a large coalition of stakeholders coming together across all the boundaries and absolutely necessary to enact lasting change in the corridor.

Refurbished Center Theatre on North Avenue
(Photo: Philipsen)
How little resolve towards a big and comprehensive effort there is, came to light with a project that has the right name: "North Avenue Rising", a project described before here . Initiated by MTA in collaboration with City DOT as an application for a TIGER grant, the idea was to look at this corridor from end to end. But based on TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery)

the project remained simply a transportation project, limited to a total investment of $28 million, not enough to do much more than striping a bus lane, adding a few bus shelters, a few benches and trees and a couple of altered curb radii at intersections such as Penn and North. The City has only $1 million in the project and most of that is road maintenance. Absent from the project is anything outside the public right of way, anything that has to do with land use, vacant storefronts, empty buildings or with economic development which a TIGER project is supposed to generate. Experience with Baltimore's Howard Street, redesigned numerous times, has amply illustrated that transit and streetscaping alone cannot spur revitalization of a street that has fallen on hard times.

North and Penn in 1922

Even the central area of North Avenue, the blocks east and west of Charles Street known as Station North, is not immune to setbacks, even though it boasts the most comprehensive and strategic approach towards renovation of buildings and new uses. The transformation was aided by MICA's Lazarus Center which became another important anchor on North Avenue. While the non-profit center of the Motor House, the Parkway movie theater, the Impact Hub and MICA's Social Design school have doubtless infused new life into the area, many other spaces remain vacant or struggle for survival.

Cafe BAMF, right around the corner from North Avenue on Charles Street, announced its closing earlier this month. Red Emma's, a clear magnet for art and culture, has closed its doors in anticipation of its move from North Avenue to the Cultural Center across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Especially the departure of Red Emma's is a blow.  Red Emma's expressed the aspirations of the Arts and Entertainment District in many ways, the departure of this iconic fixture cannot be simply written off as normal change. As a cooperatively owned left leaning bookshop Red Emma's had tried for years to balance the needs of addicts and homeless gathering at its doors every day with its programs of lectures, book-readings and music. No single institution or business, no matter how well meaning, can solve these large protracted problems alone or at its doorsteps.
Better bus transit on North Avenue: Near Metro at Penn and North
(Photo: Philipsen)
“We have absolutely loved being on North Avenue these past five years—we couldn’t imagine a better neighborhood to grow and develop our worker cooperative. While we’ve managed to achieve some of our goals as a project since moving, we’ve struggled to recapture the cozy community feel of our original location, and, at the same time, have outgrown the capabilities of the cafe space we designed back in 2013.” (Kate Khatib, Red Emma's co-founder in Baltimore Magazine)
It isn't clear whether the departure of the bookstore is only driven by a need for more space or whether the stress from the needy in front of its doors or economic constraints contributed.  Mike Shecter of Guppy Development, who owns the cavernous old North Avenue Market, and who has been a vital force in the revitalization of Station North, acknowledges that being open and inviting can be difficult on a corridor with so many social ills on display. "The area is not dying" he says. Quite to the contrary, he is hopeful that the old market will receive some new tenants this year which people "will be really excited about" which he doesn't want to disclose yet so to "not jinx it". Red Emma's at the prominent corner was so far the biggest tenant and Shecter says he has many prospects that would run the place as a restaurant. "I hope to have it up and running in a few months". Other existing tenants include the also iconic and gritty Wind-Up Space gallery and event-space run by Station North pioneer Russel De Ocampo, a print shop, a gallery and what used to be Liam Flynn's Irish bar. More extensive use of the former market with its large floor plate combined with some exterior upgrades would be an enormous boost for the area.

Charlie Duff of Jubilee Baltimore, who brought the Centre Theatre back to life as the Impact Hub with, among other things, a Hopkins film studio in the building, is "not worried" regarding the future of North Avenue. He and Ellen Janes from the Central Baltimore Partnership hinted that good news for North Avenue would be right around the corner.

Emma's bookstore presentation (Photo: Philipsen)
Even where progress has been made,  backsliding is an everyday danger which must be stemmed off through vigilance and ongoing initiatives; In the Station North segment of North Avenue the Central Baltimore Partnership along with risk takers such as Shecter, Duff and BARCO guarantee vigilance and strategy, the Arts and Entertainment District provides the programming. East and West North Avenue are not so lucky. Developers such as Woda and institutions such as Coppin University are still largely isolated islands without an area-wide coordinated effort.

Stakeholders and public officials are currently trying to unite forces for a coordinated effort and strategic investment in the two wings of the corridor for much bigger action than individuals and individual community organizations have been able to pull off to date.Councilman Leon Pinkett, in whose district some western portions of North Avenue fall, has emerged as a leader and has held had a number of stakeholder gatherings, initially geared towards a more comprehensive MTA project.

Constrained by TIGER deadlines and funding conditions, MTA's "North Avenue Rising" project will moved towards realization with its limited scope. Some work could begin as early as the end of this year. Pinkett's group now must try to get private, institutional, non-profit partners and the Mayor to realize that North Avenue Rising needs much more than better bus service and some cosmetic changes.
Arch Social Club at Penn and North (Photo: Philipsen)

While it is easy to forget North Avenue when sipping a drink on Sandlot at HarborPoint, shopping at Harris Teeter on McHenry Row, gazing at the luxury apartment tower at 404 Light Street or the Anthem House from the comfort of the waterfront promenade, North Avenue cannot be forgotten for long. Residents in flourishing communities may not see North Avenue as a bellwether for the entire city, but there are good reasons to believe that Baltimore won't thrive unless, what was once a wonderful avenue, gets back on its feet.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated for requested quote deletion

Related articles on this blog:

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

North Avenue, Charles Street and Baltimore's equity question

Monday, August 1, 2016

North Avenue Rising From Hilton to Milton

North Avenue, from Hilton to Milton (MTA Graphic)

Monday, July 9, 2018

How MTA succeeded in building a landmark bus transit center in a disadvantaged community

This blog about urban matters, architecture, and transportation covers a broad spectrum of topics but it practically never touts the work of my own architecture and urban design firm. I am assuming this would turn readers off who are interested in a critical, factual non-commercial discussion. Here is an exception: A transit project, completed at the end of 2016:  So many stars aligned for this monument to public transportation that it is worth an article, even though my firm was the architect of record.
Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center (Photo: Wilson T. Ballard)

Interesting aspects of the project are, in part, surprising, innovative or should be part of daily practice on any transportation project:
  • how a Baltimore centered transit agency comes to build a transit center where none of its services operate
  • how agencies within the Sate DOT can collaborate
  • how federal funding is important for good infrastructure
  • how transit design can promote equity
  • how design and engineering can complement each other
I will address each separately.

How a Baltimore centered transit agency comes to build a transit center where non of its services operate

Maybe the most baffling aspect of the Langley Park transit center is that the MTA built it, even though not a single MTA bus will likely ever run through it. Users are Washington's transit agency WMATA, Montgomery County's Ride-On, Prince George's The Bus and UM shuttles.  (Metrobus C2, C4, F8, J4, K6 and K9; Montgomery County’s Ride On 15, 16, 17, 18, and 25; and Prince George’s County TheBus No. 18).
Scattered bus stops consolidated: Transit Center at black dot

What many Marylanders don't know: As a statewide transit agency, MTA, through its Office of Local Transit Support, provides support services for locally operated transit systems all around the entire State. In other words, MTA earns the M in its name not only because it provides commuter train service from Perryville in the north to New Brunswick in the south, but because of its coordination with local transit providers. As such it facilities and sometimes funds and designs facilities outside its service area. Eaxamples include the Metro/bus Paul Sarbanes Silver Spring transit center, the Purple Line and the Corridor City Transitway.  The justification for the Langley Park Transit Center in MTA's construction program read this way:
This area is the busiest transit transfer point, outside a rail station in the region,
with 11 Metrobus, Ride On, The Bus and shuttle van routes. The project will also address pedestrian safety issues. The project will accommodate a future station and connection to the Purple Line. 
The initial cost estimate was $12.31 million with funds coming from Montgomery County, Prince George's County, WMATA and Maryland Transportation Infrastructure Investment Funding. The Silver Spring Transit Center is operated by WMATA. This was originally also planned for the Langley Transit Center but the changed to MTA operating it as a more cost effective solution.
A landmark in a sea of cars and asphalt (Photo: Philipsen)

How two large state agencies can collaborate

At the root of the idea for a transit center was the fact that Langley Park at the confluence of University Boulevard (MD 193) and New Hampshire Avenue (MD 650), was the locale of a very high rate of pedestrian crashes.
At least 138 pedestrians have been struck by vehicles in the past eight years on a lethal 2-mile stretch of state highway that runs through this low-income immigrant community. Eight have died. (Washigton's Top News, May 2017)
The area provided a perfect storm for those crashes with two very wide and extremely busy suburban arteries bisecting in a community  with a very high rate of immigrants from South America. Langley Park residents use transit at a much higher rate than more affluent populations. Langley Park today is a working class community of about 19,000. Three quarters of its residents are Hispanic, 65 percent are foreign-born, many from Central America. In 2000, 68 percent of households had either one or no car, and more than 20 percent used public transportation. The path from the area apartments to the many bus lines operating along the arteries included almost always crossing one or even both of the busy roadways.
25,000 square feet of glass with 44PV panels: (Photo Kyro systems)

The MTA transit center was adopted into the official Montgomery County 2012 Sector Plan.

The high crash rates eventually had SHA make improvements near the area where the two State routes intersect:  A slew of changes were made including $191,000 for fencing on the medians, a new pedestrian signal, reduced  pedestrian wait times at signals, a lower speed limit of 25 mph in this area and increased use of speed cameras. No pedestrians have died since then.

A key safety feature, though dealt with transit: A center where all bus stops would be concentrated on a part of an older 1960s style shopping center would reduce the need to dart across the street to transfer from one bus to another and aggregate all road crossings at two signal protected crosswalks leading to the center. The transit center would be planned by SHA's sister agency MTA.
Langley Park Transit Center: Room for 11 bus bays (Photo: Philipsen)

35,000 bus riders a day transfer among 11 bus routes. They brave the congested terrain, walking as far as a quarter mile through a dangerous gantlet to their next bus. A Takoma/Langley transit center would consolidate the bus stops, creating a safer environment and bringing more consumer foot traffic to local businesses. (Maryland Newsline, April 2010)

CAD model rendering with future Purple Line (Image: ArchPlan)
The collaboration between MTA and SHA didn't end with designing for pedestrian safety but had to be extended to negotiations with the owner of the shopping center when the company was unwilling to accept two State offers to purchase the tip of the shopping center where a Taco Bell franchise sat and where the transit center was supposed to go. Only SHA has the ability to negotiate such deals and, should they be unsuccessful, condemn property via "quick-take". An eventual deal could only be reached after the owner had been offered a sales price far higher than the assessed value of the land as determined by various independent appraisers and after the transit center design at been peer reviewed by high powered consultants of the shopping center owner's choosing for its impacts on the remaining center.

How important federal funding is for good infrastructure

With the high cost of the land, the transit center would have become unaffordable if it were limited to the funds originally set aside for the project. The project was eventually saved by a federal TIGER grant of $13.9 million. The final cost came to $34.86 million, proving once more that infrastructure projects take a long time, face unforeseen hurdles, and usually far exceed original cost estimates.
“It’s a landmark,” It’s an area, a crossroads that’s always been sort of unremarkable." Takoma Park Council Member Fred Schultz
The federal money injection kept intact the intent of the center to become a landmark in the area signifying the importance of transit in a suburb heavily marked by the automobile. The basic functionality could have been achieved by simply arranging curbs and gutters the right way and by placing some standard bus stop shelters on some islands.
How transit design can promote equity and create value in a big engineering team 
No car parking but bike racks (Photo: Philipsen)

Designing for transit in the US typically serves a population which has an income below the median, less access to cars, consists more frequently of renters and belongs to a minority. All this applies even more when a transit facility is located in the heart of a highly segregated community such as Langley Park where 17 of all residents live under the poverty line (2000 data). When my firm ArchPlan was asked to join a team of engineers to work on a future transit center in Langley Park, equity wasn't foremost on our mind. Like most architects, we were glad to be able to assist in designing something.

However, it became quickly clear, that the project required much more than minimal functionality. It had to truly elevate transit in a sea of asphalt, cars, shopping center parking and bloated suburban intersections. That wasn't as easy as it sounds, even if sufficient funding is available. In the design of a transit center, the architect is a subconsultant to engineers, not the team leader as on building projects. The first challenge is the basic layout of the center, i.e. how the buses get in an out and how the various stops are placed, something which is typically worked out by
Ticket sale office, bathrooms,  transit police office: Facility building
(Photo: Brough Schamp)
transportation engineers, especially when it is as complicated as accommodating some 11 different bus lines on a tiny spot that previously only served a Taco Bell. The engineers think of turning radii, articulated buses, saw-tooth bus bays which make it easier to pull a bus tightly to the curb, and stacking lanes where buses can line up at the signal without blocking buses coming in trying to pull into their bays.

Naturally, the initial layout did not consider how a large roof could pull it all together and give the transit center a visual presence in the car centric setting. Luckily, collaboratively we were able to modify the layout so that it wasn't only functional but also compact enough to allow two large glass roofs. Steel trusses holding up the glass span up to 120' and arch to 42'. Two roof "shells" ride over top of each other and cover all the bays with an architectural gesture that stands out and gives transit and its users the signature structure that now defines the crossroads.

The project isn't just a proud center, it also features many green solutions: Rainwater is harvested from the large roofs and cleaned in an underground storage tank which also serves as an irrigation source for watering the plants. Small rains are collected in bio swales where plants filter it. The 25,000 squarefoot roof allows hot air to vent trough an opening placed above an area where no bus riders wait. An array of 44 solar panels around the vent opening provide electric energy that can offset a good portion of the energy needs of the 1,100 squarefoot facility building which is heated and cooled with environmentally friendly variable speed ductless ceiling units.
Under the roof the facility building (Photo Brough Schamp)

Without the rail service of the Purple Line, which will be constructed adjacent, the transit center is still smaller than the one in Silver Spring, but it already serves more bus riders than any other non-rail transit center in the State.  As far as I could find out, riders, people working in the center (there is an attendant selling tickets and a small transit police room) and bus operators have no particular complaints about the center. That may sound like a low bar, but in the real world that is about as good as it gets. The local politicians who made it possible find it beautiful. 
“Por fin!. This is going to be so much better. There’s more space. It is also looking very nice.” Zulma Berrios, bus rider
The project won a 2017 American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Quality of Life/Community Development Award and a 2017 AIA Good Design is Good Business Honorable mention.
Installation of glass panels. They are "fritted' with
 white dots to reflect heat (Photo Kyro Systems)

There is much talk about changing bus technology and new operation models (related article here) The need, though, for the bus to interface with its riders in a safe and convenient way will not go away. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Client: MTA. Lead engineer: The Wilson T. Ballard Company (WTB); architect: ArchPlan, Inc., mechanical/ electrical engineers: AECOM, Inc., traffic engineers: Sabra, Wang & Assoc., Inc. and RJM, Inc., landscape architect: AB Consultants, Inc. Contractor: Costello Construction.

Greater Greater Washington Washington: Langley Park’s new transit center opened on Thursday!