Friday, September 28, 2018

How the State gets to spend $1.1 billion on I-95 toll lanes

How is it possible that the Republican Governor can spend billions on road widening in a State with a Democratic majority in both chambers of the State House, chambers which had voted for gas tax increases to fund transit?
Traffic Relief through more lanes: MDOT website

This question has vexed residents of the Baltimore metro area ever since the Governor nixed the $2.9 billion Red Line rail transit line and has since spent money for added transportation capacity only on roads. (Except for the small State portion for the Washington area Purple Line).

While Maryland has a strong Governor in terms of how the balance of power is assigned, federal transportation and state smart growth laws put many hurdles in the way of just one person deciding how transportation should be done. Shouldn't those prevent such lopsided outcomes?

For example ISTEA: Under George Bush senior the federal government enacted the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, in essence an authorization bill for federal transportation money, as there have been many before and after. However, ISTEA as it became known, was a landmark bill in that it recognized that prudent transportation policy has to look at all modes of moving goods and people in an integrated way, across a regional area and with land use, air quality and effectiveness of expenditures in mind. Transportation experts were jubilant, because they had long demanded that these topics come out of their silos and the question no longer be only, how to make cars move faster, but how to move goods and people in the most efficient and most healthy and sustainable way.
BRTB meeting at BMC: Suburban and rural jurisdictions have the majority
(photo: Philipsen)

To investigate the complicated process how money finds its way to actual transportation projects, I attended the recent meeting of the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board (BRTB), when its main agenda item was the $1.1 billion  toll lane expansion north of MD 43, the current endpoint of the already existing toll lanes. More precisely, the BRTB had to decide whether this project should be added to the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a necessary step before a major transportation investment can occur using federal funds.
...federal regulations require that all transportation-related projects must be listed in a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) with accurate funding schedules in order to be eligible for federal funding. Also, the TIP consists of projects included in, and in support of, the region's long-range transportation plan and ongoing short-range planning efforts (From BRTB resolution 19-5)
Most people probably have never heard of the BRTB or of TIP, or any of the other many acronyms floating around in transportation politics like storm-debris on the Chesapeake Bay. Many of those terms go back to ISTEA, It mandated regional transportation planning organizations such as the BRTB and required analysis to precede construction of facilities.
The Baltimore Regional Transportation Board (BRTB) is the designated metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the Baltimore region, encompassing the Baltimore Urbanized Area, and includes official representatives of the cities of Annapolis and Baltimore, the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard, and Queen Anne’s, as well as representatives of the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Maryland Department of Planning, the Maryland Transit Administration, and Harford Transit; (from BRTP Res 19-9)
There is a long version to explain all of this and a short one. Here the short answer why, 27 years after ISTEA, a Governor can still return to the stone age transportation policy of just making cars go faster: 

Every entity that was supposed to guarantee that transportation money is spent wisely has learned to jump through all the regulatory hoops and still pursue exactly what had always been done before. Thus, long-term transportation improvement plans, regional coordination, clean air and major investment studies get produced to prove that the proposed road widening  improves the air, is good for the region, for air quality, the environment, safety and the best way to achieve mobility. In other words: We now spend more time and more money to get the exactly same results as 1991 and before.
CAC member Eric Norton reports on CAC opposition
to the I-95 widening 

Governor Hogan's highway agenda was on display in September 2017, when he and his MDOT Secretary announced a $9 billion highway widening bonanza dubbed the Traffic Relief Plan. It addressed the Washington Beltway, the Baltimore Beltway, the BW Parkway. This was followed by a more Baltimore centered traffic relief plan announced in December. It also included exclusively road widening, including $210 million for toll lane extension to Bel Air. In June the Governor added $890 million  for the extra lanes on I-95 to get faster to Harford County, an extraorinary increase.  Former Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann expressed her gratitude this way:
“Maryland and Harford County have a great friend in Governor Larry Hogan. During the governor’s tenure, the county has received vital support from his administration, including an innovative plan to widen highways in Harford County to provide much-needed congestion relief." (Hogan website)
The BRTB session was instructive in showing how the complicated regulatory parcours can be conquered:

  • First with breakneck speed: The time from announcement to the planned completion in 2022 is only five years. (By comparison, the $2.9 billion Red line was planned and designed for 13 years, not including construction).  That the project wasn't  included in the Transporation Improvement Plan (TIP) even though that plan had just been approved in July of 2018 was a flaw that the recent meeting was to rectify with resolution 19-5. It is notable that the TIP totals $3.198 billion for a three year period.ending in 2022.  The amendment adds a about a third to the expenditures of the entire region, a bit less if one allows that the lane project may still draw money in 2023. The one third "amendment" to the TIP had its own public meeting, short public comment period and determination that the plan was in compliance with the Air Quality requirements of the Clean Air Act. references to accidents and congestion as the main drivers for the investment remained unsubstantiated and unchallenged. 
  • Second with a largely uncritical BRTB. Although its citizen advisory committee (CAC) rejected the amendment with a split vote, the members representing the various regional transportation agencies had little to discuss. There was a brief question about how the I-95 improvement projects were selected and a another one about how well the completed portion of the toll lanes perform and a question about how the improvements for Port Covington are funded. That was all the scrutiny the board could muster. The response to the performance of the existing toll road section that "the segment outperforms expectations" and that up to 44,000 vehicles  use the four additional lanes per day satisfied everybody, even though this volume is below capacity by a factor of 2 or 4 (the four lane I-97 has an ADT of 160,000) and no dollar figures regarding revenue or "return on investment" (ROI) were provided.
  • Third, with the State stacking the deck in favor of the single occupant automobile: In response to a BRTB question how the toll lanes were identified as the most appropriate way to solve regional transportation bottlenecks, the response was that the Maryland Toll Authority (MdTA) can only spend its funds on its own toll roads. This eliminates pretty much everything else except the Bay Bridge (which has its own expansion study). The toll revenue in 2017 was a whopping $670,760,000 in 2017, an increase of $26 million over 2016. When asked why high occupancy vehicles and vanpools couldn't drive free on the new lanes like in Virginia, BRTB members were told that Virginia reimburses its private operator for those tolls and that such use of revenues isn't allowed in Maryland. No word, though, that the I-95 toll lanes would be operated privately.
  • Fourth: Circular logic: Maybe the most telling moment came, when the Harford County representative rebutted the CAC critique of the project as solely auto oriented  with the observation that transit was way too limited to divert any significant amount of traffic. The board member compared 450 train passengers with the 44,000 cars on the current toll lanes. He has a point, but with that logic transit will continue to starve and roads will remain to be king.
  • Fifth: Cavalier Methods: Congestion mitigation through increased road capacity is routinely counted as an improvement to air quality, even though it promotes the expanded use of  motor vehicles, one of the largest contributors of air pollution.  This is all the BRTB got to hear about how the I-95 widening improves air quality:
The Interagency Consultation Group (ICG) has determined that implementation of the projects will not worsen the region’s air quality or delay the timely attainment of air quality standards or interfere with implementation of any transportation control measures (TCMs), consistent with the Conformity Rule (40 CFR Parts 51 and 93); (From BRTB resolution 19-5)

Express Toll Lanes (ETL) north of MD 43 (MDOT presentation boards Jan 2018)
The discussion about air quality was, indeed, another instructive element of the BRTB session when it came to its own agenda item and the CMAQ resolution. Again, federal regulations determine what the BRTB has to do in theory. In practice, there is little meaning left of the original intent of  giving residents in the metro area of Baltimore better air. Ever since the metrics of the Clean Air Act were applied, our metro area was classified as a non-attainment area. This is what the BRTB resolution says:
The Baltimore region is classified as marginal non-attainment for the 2015 Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) and moderate non-attainment for the 2008 Ozone NAAQS, and must work to ensure the region maintains conformity with the state's air quality plan; The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program was created to provide funding for transportation programs and projects that reduce air pollution and mitigate congestion from the transportation system, and this funding is provided to state and local governments to assist them in reaching federal air quality requirements established by the Clean Air Act.
The BRTB didn't need much time to adopt CMAQ Performance Plan 2018, even though confusion about how those improvement targets were calculated was obvious from some of the questions and even from the response. It went something like this:  Congestion reduction is calculated via formulas as emission reduction. Since the multitude of  measures planned in the TIP has not been individually modeled for each case, the sum total of all planned benefits is simply extrapolated from the past calculated improvement. No specific projects to improve air quality such as higher transit mode shares, active modes, or transportation electrification measures were mentioned.

A frequent complaint regarding the Baltimore Metropolitan Council is the dominance of suburban and rural jurisdictions which can out-vote the two municipalities on the BRTB any time. The lone voice against the I-95 widening concept came from the representative of Annapolis, Sally Nash. The representative of Baltimore City is DOT Director Michele Pourciau. This year it is her turn to chair the meetings. According to the parliamentarian rules, the chair doesn't vote except as a tie breaker. The I-95 measure passed the BRTB 12-1. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Thursday, September 27, 2018

MTA goes mobile

After the Maryland Transit Administration's collaboration with the mobile app "Transit" MTA's which allows riders to see the location of their bus in real time, MTA has now taken the next step into the 21st century with CharmPass, a mobile transit pass app that makes it faster, and easier for transit riders statewide to purchase fares for all of MTA's services, including MARC, Commuter Bus as well MTA bus, Light Rail and Metro Subway.
MTA announcement of CharmPass today (Photo: Sean Winkler)

The biggest innovation is that with CharmPass riders get a free 90 minute transfer without extra charge.  The app is available for download and can be used starting today.

The MTA announced the innovation Thursday at 11 am in front of Penn Station. “This new mobile ticketing app is another way we’re working to improve our customers’ experience on transit,” said MDOT MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn. “CharmPass is an innovative tool that will eliminate the need for people to fumble with cash, which will help speed the boarding process and improve reliability.” He was flanked by MDOT's Ricky Smith, Tradepoint Atlantic's Aaron Tomarchio and Robin Budish of Transit Choices.
Depending on the city where you live, paying for a ride on public transit can be complicated. A single morning's commute can involve a confounding mishmash of cash, paper tickets and electronic swipe cards. And different parts of a transit system -- buses, subways, commuter trains -- can sometimes be independent from each other, frustrating riders who have to juggle multiple fare cards and different methods of payment. (Governing)
With the help of the new app transit riders can purchase tickets right from their smartphones for one-way, 1-day, 7-day and 31-day passes; Tickets can be paid using a credit or debit card or PayPal. Transit riders can split charges between two credit or debit cards.  The MTA says that reduced fare tickets  for senior and students, for example can be purchased this way. The app streamlines repeat purchases and makes tickets available immediately to the user.

Mobile tickets are activated by the CharmPass app and must be shown to the operator, conductor or at Metro to the station attendant. Tickets that are activated become animated and contain multiple security features including security codes that change daily. Operators may instruct transit riders to tap the screen to verify that the ticket is valid. When tapped, the screen changes color. Expired tickets turn gray. Since tickets are stored on the phone, they can also be activated where the phone is not connected to the Internet.
CharmPass  welcome screen

The introduction of mobile ticketing is the latest round of reducing one of transit's persistent access hurdles, the ticket purchase. This hurdle is especially high for the occasional rider who is not familar with the complicated fare boxes, the fare structure or the types of tickets which are sold and loath to face all these complications while in line to board a bus. Additionally, cash transactions in front of the bus driver slow the bus down for extended periods of time, especially when dollar bills are repeatedly rejected by the fare collection machines.
Passengers on the Metra commuter rail in the Chicago region, which only started accepting credit cards in 2009, can now buy tickets and passes on a mobile app called Ventra. The app, which has been downloaded more than 2 million times, can also be used on Chicago’s subway system and on the suburban bus network. Passengers have bought more than $250 million worth of tickets on it in the two years since it launched. (Governing)
The MTA is one of several transit agencies utilizing smart phones for tickets. However, Washington's WMATA abandoned its plans for mobile ticketing last year, Paul Wiedefeld, a past Administrator of the MTA said, that the market wasn't there yet. At the MTA, for now the option to pay by cash, have paper passes or use the electronic CharmCard remains as well, a panoply of options that is in itself confusing, especially for operators.  Transit experts recommend that agencies would go cash-less as a simple way to accelerate bus service. One day a single mobile app will replace all other fare purchase options.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Star architect Renzo Piano in Baltimore

Hopkins University President Ron Daniels knew perfectly well that the invited architect wouldn't be  the enfant terrible which he was at 34 when he won the Centre Beaubourg in Paris design competition together with Richard Rogers in 1971, but a now internationally celebrated superstar who, at age  81, is  less likely to rock the Hopkins boat. Yet, in a discussion with Renzo Piano, on short notice arranged on the Hopkins Campus on Monday and titled "The Role of Architecture in Civil Society", Daniels, who is 59 but looks like 44, tried several times  to elicit the reverberations of the disruption the industrial looking Beaubourg had provoked in Paris and beyond. The most provocative thing the star architect finally said: "So it looks like a refinery? Yeah, why not?"
Ron Daniels and Renzo Piano at Hopkins on Monday
(Photo: Philipsen)

Renzo Piano is spry, witty and very well mannered, a perfectly fine dinner guest. His native tongue is Italian, he lives in Paris and builds all over the world. He had no trouble producing any number of print-ready English statements about architecture and the role of architects. ("Life is not what you have done but what is still to be done").

Recently Daniels had dinner with Piano in Athens since the Piano designed cultural center there is named for and funded by the same Stavros Niarchos Foundation which will also fund the envisioned Hopkins Agora project. (The Foundation also funded a large portion of the Parkway theater renovation on North Avenue). The Athens Center has already advanced to second most visited attraction in Athens after the Acropolis. Clearly, Hopkins is trying to direct some of the architect's glow to Baltimore by announcing last week that it had tapped the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) as their architect.  Daniels grabbed Piano's  elbow so often and looked at him with such adoration, that in a different constellation, it could have constituted harassment. Having the indefatigable man's fame rub off on the Hopkins institution is clearly the goal, even though the university's small 35,000 square foot interdisciplinary center, dedicated to the idea of strengthening democracy through civic engagement and discourse worldwide is tiny compared to the $800 million, 1.28 million square foot Greek project. In Greece the architect moved a mountain, what can he move in Baltimore?
Back of the Centre Beaubourg: Refinery architecture  shock in 1977

Students and MICA President "Sammy" Hoi got to ask the master some questions. All centered around how Piano can unite a divided Baltimore, or more modestly, how the programmatically themed "agora" building could unite people.

Piano noted that as an architect one has to understand shifts in society "as a builder" and "you need to be  bit a poet". "It’s a constant struggle", he said, "it looks obvious but it isn’t. Listen to the people is at the center."  He also allowed, a bit more to the point, that it is "important to understand the relationship between the city and the university".  He mentioned his Palais de Justice on the northeast edge of Paris, the "banlieue",a giant project that somehow is supposed to provide healing between the healthy core city and its ailing edges.

Under the gray and rainy skies of Monday's Baltimore Pritzker Prize winner Piano who currently is the star of a retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, had walked the Homewood Campus this way and that way to see what it would tell him. Piano and his American born partner Mark Carroll, apparently impressed be the dripping lushness of the Hopkins terrain, came away with the notion that "nature would definitely be part" of what defines the new building. Other than that they demurred and didn't say much about what they may have in mind. This isn't surprising, since the university still has to find a suitable site for the new center.
Stavros-Niarchos-Foundation Cultural Centre, Athens (Photo: Michel Denance)

First rumblings that the best location for a new statement may be the Mattin Center surfaced already in 2015 and caused some consternation  among Hopkins and in the architectural community. The arts center was Hopkins' last attempt of harnessing architectural starpower when they commissioned internationally known New York studio of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to design it. As the below description taken from the architect's website indicates, many of the very same objectives now on the table for Renzo Piano to crack were also part of the Mattin Center which isn't even 15 years old.
The Mattin Center at Johns Hopkins University is a place to nurture the creative arts in a school where the primary focus has always been science and engineering. Students come here in their free time to take non-accredited classes in dance, theater and the visual arts. In many ways, it functions as an impromptu student union.
The center is composed of three buildings housing visual art and computer rooms, a dance studio, student offices, a black box theater, individual and group music practice rooms, and a café. Art studios open directly onto terraces. Large windows permit views into ground level dance studios. A brilliant green ceiling reflects light from a hidden skylight to a café below. Clerestory windows bring natural light to the student offices. The three structures are containers of life and light, and the triangulated plan sites the buildings close to each other, so people see other people working, creating a visual community.
The buildings are cut into the existing slope of the site and act as retaining walls to create a sunken, sheltered courtyard. This is the heart of the project and serves as a place of passage, gathering, study, and meeting. The roofs of the buildings that form the courtyard are accessible terraces. A series of ramps and stairways connect the plaza and terrace levels as well as the Center to the Hopkins campus beyond.  By cutting the buildings into the ground, the strong presence of the wooded knoll and the character of the existing Neo-Georgian architecture are retained. 
Hopkins campus: Where is the gateway?
The new envisioned SNF Agora Institute is a 2017 initiative based on a $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. As the BBJ described it "It is intended to be both an academic space and public forum that will bring together experts from diverse fields including political science, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, sociology and history. It will facilitate scholarly research and experiments on improving civic engagement." The local architect partner for the prestigious project was announced on Monday as well: It is Ayers Saint Gross (ASG) of Baltimore, a firm nationally and internally known for its campus plans and architecture.  According to Adam Gross of ASG, his firm has previously collaborated with RPBW on the Harvard Allston masterplan and on the Whittle School in DC. Added principal Stephen Wright: "the relationship with Renzo Piano is collaborative and isn't one where we are told what to do".
Mattin Center: Are its days numbered?

Asked whether there was room on the Hopkins campus for a new project without tearing significant buildings down, Hopkins President Daniels answered answered with a clear "yes".

Right after the one hour discussion in Baltimore, Mr. Piano headed off to take the train to New York where his firm is together with SOM behind the masterplan for Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus in Harlem, slated for completion by 2030. Star architects are not allowed to get tired. Here, too, diversity, access and overcoming divisions will play a key role and the Italian is supposed to make the miracle happen.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Monday, September 24, 2018

"Night Market" brings Westside dead-zone to life

Amidst re-investment all around the perimeter, the former "Superblock" area on West Lexington Street in Baltimore's Westside, the former heart of retail in the city remains a large dead-zone day and night. Until last Saturday. Baltimore's first ever "Night Market" put together by the Chinatown Collective changed everything, at least for one night.
West Lexington Street, a former pedestrian shopping street
was teaming with life, once again. In the background
the many forms of downtown living (Photo Philipsen)
Coinciding with the Lunar Mid-Autumn Festival, the first-ever Charm City Night Market will host musical acts, artists, food vendors, storytellers, and cultural ambassadors - all converging on an historic block of Baltimore’s Chinatown.
This epic outdoor block party will connect Lexington Market to Park Avenue, spanning the city’s intertwined communities of color. Bounce between fun, insightful performances, dope food from local vendors, and a soju/sake/beer garden while learning something, meeting someone new, and envisioning a future where we all party together late into the night. (Event announcement)

For one evening the Westside was teaming with thousands of young people who came to find out about the night market and what Asian culture has to offer. This wasn't just another ethnic festival, the location and the theme hit a spot and brought out a new set of people to an area in which they would normally never set foot. Phil Han, the 32-year-old Korean-American owner of the Mount Vernon restaurant Dooby’s gave the Baltimore SUN an entire theory why this festival was just the right thing at the right time, and she seemed to have it exactly right.
"Some of the country’s most celebrated fine dining restaurants are Asian, and consumers of all backgrounds are more willing to engage with ethnic foods and drinks, such as the soju-based cocktail he’ll serve at the Night Market. [...] If you tried to do this five or 10 years ago, it wouldn’t be so easily accepted. [...]“But I think now you have this younger, millennial audience that’s maybe traveled, or gotten more exposure to the world … and I think it’s great they’re certainly more curious about things than ever before. Factor in the smash success of the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” this summer, and it feels like the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community is having a moment. U.S. citizens increasingly embrace their cultural identities, there couldn’t be a better time for this wide-ranging community to come together"
Announcement poster
Luckily the Downtown Partnership and other established organizations such as the Market Center merchants saw the potential and supported the new group that had formed around the Chinatown Collective (see the details in the SUN article linked below).

Night markets go back to a long standing Chinese tradition and also exist in several North American cities with a large Asian population or "Chinatown" such as San Francisco. The Milwaukee Social Architecture firm NEwaukee brought the concept of a market at late hours to its hometown as a method of reviving downtown.

In Baltimore, downtown revival, the Chinese tradition, and Baltimore's historic Chinatown, now a single ailing block on Park Avenue flanked by another even more ailing block to the north and south, were tied together, an inspiration of the Chinatown Collective. Many of the longstanding urban activists such as Laurie Feinberg from the Planning Department, Dan Sparaco, Assistant Deputy Mayor under Stephanie Rawlings Blake's, Ridgely's Delight activist Bill Reuter, former Charles Street bookstore and coffeeshop owner Jimmy Rouse and many others were on hand to witness the miracle, with sparkling eyes recalling the City Fair as an early attempt of bringing people back to the city through a party. Most folks in the streets were not yet born when City Fair was a Baltimore attraction.

The large crowds formed such long lines for Asian themed food stands that many sought their luck in the businesses further north on Park Avenue. For example in the Ethiopian restaurant that sits directly in the block that could still count as Baltimore's Chinatown. Many more ventured even further north, where abandoned sagging Westside blocks meet Mount Vernon. At the seam recently new apartments sprung up along Franklin Street and a while back, on the ground level of a converted Hochschild Kohn warehouse, which now houses also higher end apartments, the Mount Vernon Market.  It was full to capacity from the overflow crowds, they could find Asian food here as well. The Trinacria restaurant right across the street from the market, was packed with those who rather stuck with Italian selections.
Dance performance on a stage across Lexington
Street in front of the former Read store.

Meanwhile, the grassy lot that replaced a whole ensemble of historic stores on Lexington and Park was ground zero for the night market with booths lining the edges and a large stage presenting juggling, paper tigers and circus tricks. This lot is as empty as the "superblock" is vacant, because the Weinberg Foundation which owns it, is still waiting for the City owned block to the south to take off. The Baltimore Development Corporation has thankfully given up on the original full-block-all-in-one renewal idea. BDC indicates that several properties including the stately Barger Gutman building, will soon see re-use.

New life in the old retail core of Baltimore is something that shouldn't last for only one night. The hunger of so many people to inject life into this particular part of town should reinvigorate everybody who has already despaired or manages the Westside in business as usual mode.

(see more pictures below)
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore Magazine: Asian-American Community Celebrates Past and Present With New Festival
Baltimore SUN: In Baltimore's forgotten Chinatown, a new festival will celebrate Asian-American history and culture

On the Community Architect sister blog:

Williamsburg in Downtown Frankfurt, Germany?

Dragon mural on the wall of a abandoned Chinatown building (DPoB image)

Throngs of people on Lexington Street in front of vacant buildings

Night markets are a Chines tradition

the grassy lot at Park and Lexington became a festival plaza

The Mount Vernon Market got the overflow crowd

The last time West Lexington Street  was so busy  was in 1947 (SUN archive)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Time to reverse the traffic slaughter

About a dozen pedestrians are killed each year on Baltimore’s streets with another 900 or so being seriously injured, data of the city’s Department of Transportation reveal. Transportation fatalities are never displayed as prominently as crime numbers while reducing them should be much easier. To some a 12 pedestrian fatalities may not sound much. But Baltimore doesn't compare well with other cities. Allstate Insurance ranked it recently dead last out of 200 cities based on accident claims. Compare the local fatality number to the global fatalities of commercial air traffic all over the world in 2017 (59 people died in air crashes)! While last year was the safest year on record for air travel, it was another year in a trend of rising traffic fatalities in Baltimore and pretty much everywhere in the US.
An entire small town dies each year in traffic

557 people died in traffic accidents in all of Maryland, but to pick up on a comparison of the Houston Gazette, if three almost full Southwest airplanes would crash each year at BWI, killing everyone on board, the airport would have long been closed down.

There were an estimated 40,100 motor vehicle deaths last year according to the National Safety Council. (By the way, that is more than twice the US murder rate). If  US air traffic would kill 40,000 people annually (that would be 291 fully loaded Southwest Boeing 737s, the entire air traffic system would have been shut down long ago).  So why are those traffic deaths accepted as part of doing business and all efforts of doing something about them (speed limits, drunk driving checkpoints, radar controls, safe and better modes of getting around?) are seen as cumbersome intrusions into the freedom of drivers? It isn't that other countries have made much more progress.
Traffic fatalities 2012: The US on the high end between Lithuania and Korea

While air travel has become safer,  US road traffic lately has turned into the wrong direction. More and faster driving in bigger and faster vehicles. Time to reverse the deadly trends.
traffic safety in the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction. Overall traffic fatalities are on the rise, pedestrian deaths are up about 25 percent over the last four years, and increasingly, drivers are striking people and leaving them for dead, according to a new study from the AAA Foundation. The 2,049 hit-and-run deaths nationwide in 2016 were the most since record-keeping began. And nearly two-thirds of the victims were walking or biking.(Streetsblog)
A new bill by councilmen Ryan Dorsey co-sponsored by 9 other council members (out of 16 total) wants to limit speed limits on Baltimore's streets to generally 25mph and in narrow residential side streets to 20mph. The two council members have previously gone on record for a new age in Baltimore's mobility by supporting "complete streets", "protected" bike lanes and better monitoring of dedicated transit lanes. All these are efforts that would make Baltimore safer.
Whereas, a 2014 report by the Maryland Highway Safety Office shows that Baltimore City’s crash rate is 370% the rate of the rest of Maryland;
Whereas, a 2018 Allstate Insurance report on driver behavior established that Baltimore ranks 200 out of 200 for Worst Drivers in the U.S., dropping in ranking from 199 in 2017; 
[...] the Director must post maximum speed limit signs as follows:
 (1)                     for a street meeting the criteria for an Arterial road or a Major Collector, as defined by the Federal Highway Administration, 25 miles per hour;
 (2)                     for a street meeting the criteria for a Minor Collector or a Local road, as defined by the Federal Highway Administration, 20 miles per hour;
 (3)                     for an alley, 15 miles per hour.  
(From Council Bill 18-286)
Speed kills: This is especially true inside cities and towns .
But enforcement happens on Interstates

This isn't a "war on cars" but a war on the frequently fatal abuse of cars on our streets. To make Baltimore a safer and more attractive place before autonomous vehicles will likely reduce crashes should be everybody's goal even if a diffuse SUN editorial casts some doubt..

The risk of dying in a crash with a car grows exponentially with the speed of the car and its mass which in combination provide the deadly kinetic energy which gets unleashed on somebody who either also sits in a car, or is walking or biking in or near where a fast heavy vehicle is getting out of control, for whatever reasons. The vehicles in which people move around to do their daily commuting or errands have become faster, heavier and more powerful year after year after the last fuel price spike and energy crisis which had temporarily put a dent into that trend. Driving a car has become deadlier for everybody, even for the drivers of those heavy, fast monster machines, especially if they collide with an even faster or heavier one. Those who drive a tank in the assumption it adds safety for themselves, forget that once a heavier vehicles slides, slips or gets off the road, the much larger kinetic energy also works against the occupant. It is harder to control and on impact the reactive forces are larger.
SUVs kill pedestrians more often (Detroit Free Press)

The cost of the car-centric transportation model is astronomic, not only in terms of lives and maimed bodies but also economically. There is lots of agony about why Baltimore has been in population and fiscal decline, why we have food and transit deserts and why so many are cut off from opportunity. Many of the causes are complicated and complex. But one single area sticks out as being responsible for many of those deficiencies: Transportation. With a drastic and courageous reversal of our failed transportation policies we can become quickly a model for livability and reduce cost in the process. Just think off that ill conceived $15 million dollar 4-lane bridge off HarborPoint which traffic engineers foisted on the City budget for no good reason.

The Transportation Director likes to talk about finding a balance between the various users of streets. Things are so far out of balance in favor of cars, that to get balance a dramatic shift is needed. It can't come soon enough. A good test case would be the citywide new design speed not to exceed 25 mph which is proposed in the City Council. Or "North Avenue Rising" the current reconfiguration design of the 5 mile corridor from Hilton to Milton funded by a federal grant and MDOT money. The typical waffling and "congestion" arguments jeopardize even the most modest expectations. Not yet too late, to make the $27 million expenditure useful. (Public meetings will be held 9/26 and 9/27).

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Bill would set new max speed limits (Baltimore Fishbowl)
Council member seeks to slash Baltimore speed limits to save pedestrians

Monday, September 17, 2018

A black culture district on Pennsylvania Avenue?

Slowly the recognition emerges that a city with a nearly 64% black population cannot be turned around by the not even 30% white minority, nor should it be. White "saviors" coming in, often with the best of intentions, to revitalize the large neighborhoods in the vast disinvested neighborhoods that make up the so called black butterfly are no longer received with open arms. Artists often used to turn ailing communities around as progressive "urban pioneers"  are no exception.
Lady Brion at the Baltimore Women's March Jan 2018 (Elvert Barnes)

It seems like a natural thing that Baltimore would have an arts and entertainment district that is devoted to black culture,  especially considering that there are three such districts designated in the city. But none of those are focused on African American art and culture. According to Brion Gilla poet and African American art activist known as Lady Brion, Baltimore would truly be a leader if it did rectify this situation: According to her, there is not a single state-designated black A&E district in the entire country. Not all arts districts are state designated as in Maryland, but a quick search did not yield any specifically African American or black culture district, not even in New Orleans; truly astounding, if true. Maybe this issues takes some crowd sourcing.
Historically, Pennsylvania Avenue was a hub for premiere Black arts and entertainment. The great Royal Theatre (originally the Douglass Theatre) welcomed legends like Ethal Waters, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Etta James. Black owned enterprise thrived on Pennsylvania Avenue like the first Black-owed movie house, Metropolitan Theatre, and the oldest continuously running Black male-social club, Arch Social cub. 
The riots of 1968 after the death of MLK Jr. and the riots of 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray along with a history of disinvestment have negatively impacted Pennsylvania Avenue. Its rich history is unknown to most people today. But Cultural Curator Lady Brion and other local artists and organizers are working to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue and establish a state recognized arts and entertainment district.(From the Petition)
Pnnsylvania Avenue: American Main Street (Photo: Philipsen)
Black art is making headway in mainstream museums and Grammy awards lately as a Baltimore Magazine tally shows in an article this month. Brion Gill has found her quest for an African American Arts district on Pennsylvania Avenue echoed in Baltimore Magazine, the Afro and the Real News network. Her online petition has garnered over 1,100 supporters but a formal application has not yet been submitted to the Maryland State Arts Council. Gill is working with the for profit group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle  (LBS) to lay the groundwork for such an application which is planned to be submitted early in 2019.
LBS’ work is predicated on the fundamental belief that Black people are the solution to our own problems. So often we have been framed as a problem to be fixed by others, usually white people, which serve to further expand the idea of white supremacy. (website)
In a kick off event titled The Art of Activism: Building the Penn Avenue Black Arts District at Jubilee Art on the Avenue participants could listen to a panel discussion, live could and hip-hop performances or take part in workshops.
An intentional Black arts district could rebuild the social fabric torn apart by gentrification and develop an arts/cultural rites of passage for upcoming artists and business owners. The district could be a central point for work that is already happening in the city and further community engagement. A Black arts district could aggregate financial resources to provide affordable housing and offer support to the community organizations and local businesses.
However, even with the Black experience, Black people’s social, economic and political needs must be the core motivation. Otherwise, economic interests will immediately outweigh social progression if we are not accountable to community. It is not enough to be owned and led by Black people. The black arts district needs to be unapologetically for Black people.
(Nakia Brown, the Afro)
Remnants of the Royal Theater: Baker Hamlin
Lady Brion served on Baltimore City Mayor Pugh’s Safe Arts Task Force in 2017-2018 formed to  increase access to safe art spaces and activities in the Greater Baltimore area. Of the many recommendations submitted to the City of Baltimore, Lady Brion recommended that a Black Arts and Entertainment District designation be established along the Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gill emphasizes a broad approach which takes art and links it firmly with economic development and with existing organizations which are active in the corridor such as the Upton Planning Council, the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, the Pennsylvania Avenue Main Street organization and Baltimore Public Markets. The partnership also include the University of Baltimore, Fight Blight Baltimore, The Arch Social Club, Jubilee Arts, the Avenue Bakery and its owner's initiative to revive The Royal Theatre and the recently renovated Shake and Bake. The area of the district would  include the northern portion Fulton Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue with approximately a block east and west respectively.

Programming events would be a large part of creating appeal, says Lady Brion in a conversation for this article. She mentions as an example the Cadillac Parade, part of a cherished tradition of having parades on the Avenue. The Cadillac parades dates back to the 1950s and was carried forth for about 20 years with attempts of revival in 1997, 2007, 2010 and 2011. (There may have been others).
“Some of the most important work being made right now—abstract and figurative—is by black Americans,” (Christopher Bedford, Director BMA)
Gill is careful to define art and entertainment broadly enough to include sports such as boxing in the Upton Boxing facility. The group promoting the formation of an African American A&E district enlisted also the help of the Neighborhood Design Center which organized  "Design Conversation" 92 about tactical urbanism employed for a better streetscape design on the Avenue.
Arch Social Club at Penn & North (Philipsen)

The presence of strong cultural forces and the observation that equity would demand a black A&E district alone won't make the creation of one a success. A quick comparison on how the other three districts "tick" makes unique challenges visible:

  • The Highlandtown A&E district thrived on the presence of the Cultural Alliance as an organized artistic anchor and has been buoyed by the influx of immigrants reducing vacant structures and adding economic heft. 
  • The Station North A&E district is organizationally propped up by the Central Baltimore Partnership with its strong anchor institutions working in tandem with well coordinated neighborhood associations. MICA, Hopkins, and the Deutsch Foundation stand out as having pushed this area forward.  
  • The Bromo district hasn't quite proven yet that it will work, but it has strong traditional art institutions such as the Hippdrome and the Everyman, has the support of the Downtown Partnership and is supported by an ongoing influx of downtown residents. 
The creation of the Bromo District was not beyond dispute and the idea of an African American District was around before the Bromo was created as this text from a student's analysis shows:
The concept of a third arts district, however, is not universally supported. Critics argue that two districts are sufficient and that this effort would dilute an already struggling arts market and distract much needed attention and resources from the existing arts districts. Dissenters also argue that, rather than designate the West Side as an arts district, there is a need to recognize the African-American arts scene in Baltimore. Pennsylvania Avenue, once home to a range of black arts and entertainment institutions, might be a better beneficiary of such a designation. (Examining the Establishment of an Arts District on Baltimore’s West Side)

The Martin Luther King Parade could go down Pennsylvania Avenue
(Photo: Philipsen)
A Pennsylvania Avenue corridor district would need to create stronger coordination of the various community CDCs and organizations working from a larger framework plan than their own individual neighborhood plans. The Upton area sees the most development interest, and has the most developed masterplan, but Upton is rather peripheral to the suggested A&E district or where it would likely have its center of gravity, probably somewhere between Triangle Park (Jubilee Arts) and Penn/North (Arch Social Club).

Well know institutions of  African American culture such as the Lewis Museum, the Eubie Blake Museum, and Blacks in Wax should ideally locate in the district where they could give each other support and synergy. Morgan University should have a branch teaching facility here, maybe in collaboration with Coppin University.
More than anything else, Lady Brion's aspirations indicate that she envisions the arts as an economic engine and a tool of social empowerment. In many ways, this is quite different from the original world famous SoHo (NYC) approach in which artists were pioneering bridge heads for some type of "colonization". Station North with its Deutsch funded Open Works makerspace and its two artist live-work units developed by Jubilee give a hint what a economically oriented approach could look like. The vision of the West Baltimore Innovation Village points into a similar direction, a possible partnership that has not yet been formed.

Baltimore's divisions and its segregation could be mitigated better if black culture would be better known and understood, especially by other cultures but also by African Americans themselves. The A&E district could be a great start for such a cultural exchange.

The Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue (Photo: Philipsen)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles elsewhere:

The Real News 7/3/0/18: What Would A Black Arts and Entertainment District Mean for Baltimore?

Afro 10/5/2016: We need an arts and entertainment district centered on the socioeconomic growth of Black people instead of solely utilizing their talents for entertainment.

Pennsylvania A&E District Petition 

The Color Line, Baltimore Magazine 9/18

Design Conversation #92; Pennsylvania Ave. Main Street:
Tactical urbanism to pave the way for Baltimore’s new Black Arts and Entertainment District

See also the latest article on my sister blog:

With so many vacant houses, why is there still a housing crisis?

Friday, September 14, 2018

High-flyers, Icarus and why rich men won't save cities

Hollywood, politics and capitalism all were run by rich white men for too long. While the former two have added some diversity, big business is still firmly in the same hands. The high-flying icons of America's tech economy are all white men. Their names are Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Michael Bloomberg and more locally, Kevin Plank.
Jeff Bezos in DC: 1500 pairs of ears waiting for wisdom (Wong/Getty image)

In a time when  government abdicates more and more of its responsibilities and emasculates itself not through gender equity but through de-funding itself via popular tax cuts, the role of those industry icons moves into focus. As "impact investors" or "social entrepreneurs" they become even more powerful by playing outside the traditional lanes.

In the age of cities with more than half of the global population living in metro areas with mayors seen as the ones who can save the world from national leaders running amok, cities have become also the arena for the very rich to try their social skills. How much of that is happening in Baltimore?

The spectacle of Amazon's Jeff Bezos playing cities with his HQ2 game is an obscene example for traditional industry power play. But Bezos' offering up $2 billion to address homelessness is much harder to gauge. How much he attracts public attention was on display when King Amazon came to Washington this week. Almost as big a deal as a visit from the Pope. 1,400 business leaders packed ballrooms at the Washington Hilton to hear what the richest man on earth would have to say. The BBJ writes "There were enough ambassadors to hash out a global trade deal with dignitaries from Australia, the United Kingdom, Greece, South Africa, Panama, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Singapore and many more" and that "there were enough developers and real estate captains to fund and build a second nation's capital alongside the first one".  DC's Mayor Bowser said "We are eager for any announcements he might have.” Well, he didn't have an encyclica, nor any announcements regarding HQ2.

Bloomberg in Baltimore with Goldman Sachs graduates (Photo: BBJ)
A smaller affair was Michael Bloomberg's visit to Baltimore earlier this summer. The wealthy man has shown the world how to run a city as mayor, but he also has a lot of resources. No doubt, Baltimore could be glad if the city would be run nearly as smoothly as New York. With 12 times as many residents, New York City has a lower number of murders than charm city. Bloomberg is strongly tied to Baltimore through his alma mater, Johns Hopkins and has selected Baltimore as one of his Bloomberg cities. Baltimore is  receiving technical and monetary assistance through the Bloomberg Philanthropies. In September Bloomberg announced the recipients of a $43 million Arts, Innovation and Management program. 49 arts organizations received money, the bulk in Denver, the others here. Baltimore is the recipient of a $5 million Bloomberg Innovation Grant. The philanthropy has also sent Innovation Teams here to assist with running a more efficient government and a better police department. The team tried to help with the selection of a leader for the then vacant position of DOT Director, however, Mayor Pugh eventually selected her own find.

In August Bloomberg toured a bit of the City and had breakfast with graduates of a Goldman Sachs business program at the SoBo Cafe in Federal Hill. He told the BBJ nice things about our Mayor: "she is doing everything she can to improve [Baltimore]" he reportedly said and that Pugh "got guts".
With the police department in disarray and without a permanent Commissioner and now the highly successful health department  also with out a leader, the question of picking the right appointments is again before the Mayor, this time with even bigger urgency.
Bloomberg and Mayor Pugh (SUN photo)

Baltimore knows already that Bezos won't kiss the frog with selecting it for his $5 billion HQ2, and has to make do with the crums falling off Amazon's huge distribution centers in City and County. Baltimore is also a recipient of significant funds from George Soros through the Open Society Institute. The City still also puts big hopes into one of its own business leaders, Kevin Plank, and his envisioned new HQ as part of an entire new-town planned for the Port Covington former coal transfer railyard.

Like Tesla's Elon Musk, or Uber's first CEO, Plank seemed to be on a trajectory of never ending success. But as with Musk, or the former Uber CEO, public darlings can easily encounter strong public headwinds.  Icarus comes to mind, the mythical Greek high flyer who got too close to the sun and crashed when his melting wax-tied feather wings didn't carry him any longer. While Musk's  hyperloop tunnels are praised as the next big thing by Maryland Secretary Rahn as the latest transportation innovation, Plank has stopped to say much about Port Covington where Hyperloop would likely end. Plank is busy placating his shareholders who are upset about sinking ticker prices.
"Chapter 1" rendering (source: Weller Development)

Sagamore Development is now Weller Development (although the delineation isn't entirely clear if one studies those two websites) and it isn't clear either, whether Plank is still personally vested in either of those endeavors, or whether today money just comes from Goldman Sachs.

Nothing is known about when work on the planned Under Armour Headquarter would begin, originally scheduled to begin in 2017. There has been no further mention of the planned light rail extension into the property. Funding for it had been rejected by the federal government last year and one would have expected another run this year.

Weller must have felt that the guessing game became a liability, so he gathered the media this week to announce "Chapter 1" of Port Covington, a sizable 3 million square feet of development (Larger than the full build-out of HarborPoint) to get underway in 2019 with opening dates planned for 2020 or 2021. Chapter 1 sounds similar to Chapter 11, even if the message is the opposite. However,the announcement didn't provide names of any developers or tenants. Adjusting for the fact that the Baltimore SUN facility in the middle of Port Covington seems to not go anywhere anytime soon, Chapter 1 does not replace the SUN printing facility with the tallest skyscrapers as in the original plan but works with the SUN in place.

When the Port Covington project was initially proposed, Sagamore had stressed that they would not develop the new town themselves but look for developers to buy development-ready parcels. The Chapter 1 concepts went to the City's design review this week, more specifically, the infrastructure portion and streetscape design was reviewed. Weller Development will tap into the large tax increment financing (TIF) package to pay for infrastructure in Chapter 1, but the specifics for that are also still being negotiated with BDC.  The price for the TIF is a historically large community benefits agreement. Those funds will flow to the "SB 7" community only at the rate as the TIF will be used.
Chapter 1 area (Weller Development)

Whether rich Seattle, San Francisco or poor Baltimore, cities should not rely on the big money guys as their saviors. Too fast, too risky is the world of big business, too volatile public opinion.  While it is laudable, necessary and welcome that rich men consider social impact, invest in legacy cities, especially if they are their home community, Mayors should not roll over or defer their responsibility to the corporate giants and philanthropists. Instead they need hedge against changing trade winds, against dangerous dependencies and against the believe that there can be the one savior who can turn things around.

History has already amply proven the risks of economic mono-cultures (ever heard of Bethlehem, the steel town or of Mo-town?), but present time represents even higher risks thanks to hyper accelerated business cycles.

True recovery of the deeply wounded legacy cities, still reeling from decades of de-industrialization and a history of institutional racism, can only come from being positioned in a truly diverse and inclusive manner. A solution cannot be imposed by whatever rich guy savior may be out there, the impetus for change, growth and innovation must come from within. This insight doesn't make corporate investment unwelcome, it doesn't condemn private-public partnerships, it doesn't turn social entrepreneurs into the bad guys, it just recognizes the reality, that a resilient, sustainable and just urban future requires the social foundations of a community to be made up by a sound social infrastructure. In that sense, not having HQ2 and a maybe slower development of Port Covington provides an opportunity and not a curse.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also the latest article on my sister blog:

With so many vacant houses, why is there still a housing crisis?