For all the talk how inner ring suburbs are destined to take on the urban characteristics of the core city they abut, the election results of the 2018 midterms show significant differences. Looking at the the votes for Governor the results between Baltimore City and Baltimore County are almost opposite, in spite of the close embrace of the two jurisdictions. (Some would say the County sits like a vice around the City).
|City County comparison (Data USA)|
But this voting pattern did not hold true for the County Executive, where the County Democrat John Olszewski beat his Republican competitor Alan Redmer by more than 15%, nor was it true for the election of the US Senator where the Democrat beat the Republican by 28 points. The seemingly contradictory voting results reflect a checkered history, geography and a complex relation between the two jurisdictions. From being a rural hinterland around a flourishing city, Baltimore County has morphed to becoming a jurisdiction which is larger than the city, offers many jobs and even a few almost urban centers such as Towson, Pikesville and Catonsville. But none of these places are incorporated. Thus they don't have their own zoning authority, mayors or police. All is controlled by County government in Towson all the way around the beltway, a situation that leads to frequent complaints of constituents far away from the County seat.
|More money in the County but less than the State average (Data USA)|
Baltimore County owes much of its growth to the deeply racial housing policies of the past, including redlining and blockbusting, two practices which drove whites into the suburbs and contributed to the imbalances we see today. To top it off, in 1948 the State passed a law that forbade Baltimore City to annex any additional land after the last annexation when the city expanded north from North Avenue to its current boundaries. That was around 1918. Much has been discussed about the problems that such "inelasticity" (Rusk) brings, even though history has shown that cities can overcome a geographic choke-hold if proper regional collaboration wins over rivalry and unfair competition. Collaboration is helped by the fact that even further afar counties such as Howard, Harford and Anne Arundel have in turn become competitors for Baltimore County, siphoning off the most educated and upward mobile segments of the population just as the County had done for the City.
|City and County: Tight embrace or vice grip?|
Just as the City itself is far from homogeneous in terms of prosperity, the County shows stark divisions as well. While older neighborhoods near the city line and inside the beltway begin to look more similar to city neighborhoods in terms of racial mix and income, the County which is has now a population about 30% larger than the City overall has less than half of the City's poverty rate and property values are on average 160% of those in the City. Sometimes those numbers are used to show how superior the County is. However, if Baltimore County is compared to its peers such as Howard, Montgomery or Anne Arundel County, it fares much less well and trails those counties in almost all metrics.
In terms of race the figures between County and City are almost upside down mirror images (around 60% black in the City and 60% white in the County with about 30% white in the City and 30% black in the County). Several County districts such as Woodlawn and Randallstown now have a racial mix very close to that in the City.
It stands to reason that a core city and its immediate surrounding county need to have close relations and plan their future together. Progressive planning a hundred years ago created a common water district and the electric infrastructure is also fully integrated. MTA transit service also knits both jurisdictions together under a united service network. But those examples are the exception. Generally regional collaboration is tepid and frequently limited to what the law requires of mandated the metropolitan planning organization which is established within the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. The late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz became the most ardent City advocate after he had decided to run for Governor. Initially only luke warm about the Red Line, he began to describe the project which Governor Hogan cancelled as a lifeline for the region and its transportation woes. Kamenetz also saw the need for the County to be more accepting of its growing racial diversity. He movingly spoke about this as a mandate and as an opportunity four years ago at his inauguration speech.
|Housing values: County values are higher than City but lower than State |
average (Data USA)
From everything that Johnny Olszewki has said on the campaign trail and since his election, one can expect that the newly elected executive will embrace diversity, be socially conscious and actively work on the fair and affordable housing strategies laid out in the federal consent decree which his opponent in the campaign rejected, even though they are legally binding. Olszewski hasn't been shy about appearing in the City and join events there. He has promised collaboration with Mayor Pugh on numerous occasions. City Council President Jack Young and City Council member Eric Costello appeared on stage at Johhny O' election night victory party, symbols for the understanding that the future of both, City and County depend on each other.
Interim executive Don Mohler had struck the right tone when some County politicians suggested to cut off evening bus transit to a County mall in White Marsh presumably to keep poor City youth out, County interim Executive Don Mohler (68) said, this isn't the 50's and rejected the idea forcefully. Mohler in his short period of governance had to face severe weather, crime and a slew of other issues such as the request from Tradepoint Atlantic for a $150 million TIF. He managed each of this challenges gracefully and in a way that allows the new exec to stand on a good foundation. The favorable starting points include some increased transparency in the Tradepoint Atlantic deal that is ultimately more creatively financed than a straight up TIF and costs the County less but is waiting for final approval under the next administration. Tradepoint Atlantic is an example of the inter-jurisdictional economy in that the Port of Baltimore is using space on the County peninsula for some of its operations.
|Race and diversity, inverse relations between City and County (Data USA)|
While the County had steered a course of fiscal austerity with property taxes which are about half of those in the City, creativity and rapid adaptation to innovation were not the official hallmark of County policies, nor was transparency. Just about any advocacy group complained about a lack of openness and too many deals struck behind the curtain. The austerity also led to a conservative posture where proactive initiatives would have been preferable. For example, for the Red Line. Arlington County in Virginia, for example, developed one attractive urban center after the other around the WMATA metro stops. For this zoning, masterplans and leadership in dealing with developers were instrumental. Baltimore County would have had the opportunity to do the same at White Marsh or Security Square Mall, two areas which were initially designated growth areas (the Security Mall area was later dropped as town center) but both remained auto oriented non walkable retail mono cultures defying all principles of modern urban design.
One can generally say that while Baltimore County was a leader in environmental protection when it legislated the Urban Rural Demarcation Line as early as the seventies and thus protected large swaths of rural lands in the "North County" to this day, it had a much less lucky hand in designing and regulating attractive settlements and communities. There is hardly any development of the last 40 or so years one would like to show as a model for how development should be done. The quality of the historic settlements of Stonely, Edmondson Heights or Old Catonsville have never been met again, not through imitation (New Urbanism) nor through innovative concepts such as the City's Coldspring new town or the Village of Cross Keys. Creative adaptive re-use projects such as the American Can or Clipper Mill cannot be found in the County.
|Transit Oriented development at Owings Mills|
The lack of good place making development includes Owings Mills, the designated growth center with Metro connection in spite of a major project there to create a mixed use center and actual transit oriented development. Too much of that effort is undercut by competing mega developments on the nearby former Solo Cup site and on the even closer former Owings Mills Mall site. The recent promising renaissance of main street areas such as Frederick Road in Catonsville are much more the result of private initiatives, especially of restaurants, than the outcome of government having a good plan. Even now, the administration was still toying with demolishing one of the largest historic structures on Frederick Road, the 1910 former elementary school, not recognizing how adaptive reuse of such a structure could become a huge magnet for the area.
The Counties center Towson with the biggest potential for being attractive to millenials looking for urban amenities is far from being "cool". One large redevelopment with the potential of turning Towson around, has stalled for years and was too eagerly green-lighted, without all the necessary vetting. Meanwhile all Towson community groups have been in some type of war over missing green spaces, a mega gas station on York Road (now modified) and almost any other planned development because a convincing, consensus based cohesive overall strategy for Towson is still missing while, for example, Columbia moves steadily towards a much discussed vision plan and even much less attractive Tysons Corner is rapidly transforming into a planned more pedestrian friendly urban setting.
|Higher education in City and County (Data USA)|
In his campaign the new executive has stressed education as his main focus. There is still much to do, in spite of a one billion dollar investment program into school buildings and a very controversial program to give every pupil a laptop. The dynamic young school superintendent had to leave among improper dealings with education material vendors and the building program still left an open flank for Hogan-Franchot attacks on missing air conditioners, no matter how inappropriate those were.
It is time for Baltimore County to embrace the new century. Being "not the city" is no longer enough to thrive. It was always a poor way to be defined, but now it has become entirely untenable. There will be much to do for Johnny O., but whatever he will do, there is a good chance it will be done in a spirit of collaboration with the city and not by looking down his nose. Because of recent demographic trends core cities have the upper hand compared to older inner ring suburbs, the before mentioned indicators and Baltimore's severe struggles not withstanding. It is time that both jurisdictions see that there future lies in working together and not against each other. The boundary is just too arbitrary and odd when it comes to good planning.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA