Thursday, December 13, 2018

How Dollar stores are targeting struggling Baltimore neighborhoods

By all accounts, Upton is one of Baltimore's most disinvested inner city neighborhoods: 73% population loss, a poverty rate of 56%, only 10% homeowners, 26% unemployment, only 29.5 % of residents have a college degree, Upton also has the second highest vacancy rate in Baltimore. The community is representative of too many similar neighborhoods in Baltimore. Except for the struggling public Avenue Market the area is also a classic food desert. But Upton is governed by a feisty group of community activists set to change the conditions. They secured funds from Wells Fargo and produced a masterplan and are determined to take fate into their own hands.
Dollar stores outselling Whole Foods

And then there is Family Dollar, an outfit that owns discount stores and is a subsidiary of Dollar Tree which bought it in 2015. The sad truth of the divided Baltimore is that this category of store is flourishing in many poorer neighborhoods like a parasite. So it is  everywhere in America. More Americans buy their groceries now from dollar stores than from Whole Food Markets, according to a newly published report.
There’s growing evidence that these stores are not merely a byproduct of economic distress. They’re a cause of it. (Report)
Grocery sales at the two biggest dollar brands, Dollar Tree and Dollar General, approached $24 billion this year, compared with roughly $15 billion at Whole Foods, according to private market data from the research firm Chain Store Guide. There are now more dollar stores in America than Walmart and McDonalds locations combined.
"From our data, a high proportion of Family Dollar's shopper base goes there out of necessity rather than because they particularly want to. There is nothing wrong with this position, but it does mean that as financial conditions improve, or people feel they can afford something better, they are more likely to migrate away." Neil Saunders, Business analyst, GlobalData retail.
To illustrate the story of a struggling community and a national chain store taking advantage of it, let's check in at a recent meeting of Upton's community leaders in which developers presented their projects for comment.
an invasive species: The Dollar store

Mary Blackwell, the Main Street coordinator had just finished speaking about the aspirations and hopes for Pennsylvania Avenue and the programs scheduled for the holiday season and announced that the Arch Social Club had received a $118,000 grant for the restoration of a marquee and installation of facade lights.
A standard edition Family Dollar offers nothing to a lively streetscape
Thank you to all who voted for the Arch Social club to receive funds from the 2018 Main Streets Campaign.  We were very excited to learn that The Arch Social Club in Baltimore made it to the winners circle. Founded in 1905, The Arch Social Club is one of the oldest continuously operating African American men's social clubs in the U.S. This project will restore the historic marquee and install exterior lighting to help launch a new arts and entertainment district. (website)
Masterplan Cover
The activists of Upton Planning Committee had convened for their monthly development meeting in the former Murray's grocery store inside the Avenue Market, particular busy on this morning. The sounds of the market coming freely in through the wide roll gate nearly drowned out the more timid voices, but timidity isn't the hallmark of the Upton activists who had just last year finished their Historic Upton Neighborhood Framework Masterplan with a planning horizon of 2026.

Mary Blackwell is an elegant fighter, softspoken, eloquent and firm she explained how an Arts and Entertainment District, facade improvement programs and various strategic interventions could turn Pennsylvania Avenue around. Upton has engaged the Neighborhood Design center and obtained concepts for three "development nodes" along the Avenue, one at Penn and North Avenues, one at Fremont and Penn (Triangle Park) and one at the Avenue public market.

And then the young representative of  Twin Rivers Capital LLC, hailing from South Carolina and apparently not too familiar with Baltimore ("TRC provides national retailers with a comprehensive solution for growing their business by developing new locations.") stood up to present his project located just adjacent to the Triangle Park node: A Family Dollar store. At this meeting he was like a fish out of water.
Though there is a multitude of vacant storefronts scattered throughout the Upton neighborhood, active commercial businesses are concentrated primarily along a two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue centered on Upton Station at Laurens Street--Upton’s most active intersection characterized by a constant flow of foot traffic. However, 28% of community survey participants rated Upton’s “Variety of goods and services available for purchase in the community” “Poor” or “Very poor,” ranking this aspect of the community the second lowest among ten aspects. (from the Upton Plan)

The site just south of Triangle Park is currently a meadow
Twin Rivers wants to obtain a vacant site at 1401 Fremont Avenue, a lot that also faces Pennsylvania Avenue and a connecting road (Waltermeyer Ct). The site is currently owned by the City and Twin Rivers must first to obtain a certain level of support from the community before the Baltimore Development Corporation would entertain disposition of the site. The site is located in an Opportunity Zone and in a Food Retail Incentive Innovation Area.
In Food Retail Incentive Innovation Areas, according to the Baltimore Department of Planning, “BFPI will support and provide technical assistance to organizations exploring innovative models such as non-profit stores, cooperatives, mobile markets, ride sharing services and delivery platforms.
 The young representative sent north by corporate headquarters fired up the projector and showed a typical Family Dollar box jammed into the corner of the lot with the remainder of the site paved over for parking and no less than three driveways connecting parking to all three surrounding streets. While the images spoke a decidedly different language, the young man inexplicably compared the 8000 sf store discount retailer which sells groceries but no fresh produce to Harris Teeter, a high end full service grocery store with stores of about 60,000 sf. Apparently he didn't realize that everybody in Baltimore knows Family Dollar stores which are the usual fare of retail for poor neighborhoods
Retail node near Avenue Market (Photo: Philipsen)
alongside the identical twins, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree, all of the sad inward looking facilities about which community members complain for the poor quality of goods and the lack of healthy quality food choices.
the dollar stores’ ruthlessly efficient business model doesn’t waste much time with the kind of healthy, perishable items that need to be thrown out a lot, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. (Huffington Post)
A community member at the table asked if Twin Rivers was aware of the proximity of a Dollar General store. "Yes, said the dude, "that is why we want to be here, competition increases business.  That is why you always see CVS and Rite Aid next to each other". Well, we know how well that worked (After Walgreens purchased Rite Aid over 600 stores closed, many in Baltimore. The saturation madness is diabolical. In the already noted study about dollar store sales an analyst observes:
“And their strategy of saturating communities with multiple outlets is making it impossible for new grocers and other local businesses to take root and grow.” 
Existing uses where the ground floor has active uses
In short, the Family Dollar store is precisely what an aspiring Main Street like Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't need. It certainly doesn't belong into a Food Retail Incentive Innovation Area.  It would set a terrible precedent for what is imagined as new investment on "the Avenue" by essentially saying "more of the same" and "that is all you deserve here". Here some of the strategies included in the Upton Plan:
  • Establish programs that foster entrepreneurship and provide workforce development opportunities on Pennsylvania Avenue.

  • Establish pop up shops in the Avenue Market to support entrepreneurs
  • Promote small business incubation opportunities for local small business owners 
  • Explore the development of a west-side deconstruction business in Upton
  • Implement development standards that require developers to use local workers.
  • Establish a pipeline that connects local construction trade workers with local development projects in Upton
  • Maintain and monitor Upton Developer’s adherence to their stated local hiring goals shared in their development plans
There is little doubt that the development subcommittee of the Upton Planning Committee will let BDC and Twin Rivers know what they think about the project. Meanwhile one has to wonder how long the national chains will need before they learn that not only more affluent America but everybody else is tired of their ignorant, cookie-cutter suburban solutions to urban retail sites that serves no other purpose than milking profits from poor communities and channel them into the accounts of far away headquarters without providing any new benefit to the communities.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Dollar General in Edmondson Village 

Dollar Stores Are Targeting Struggling Urban Neighborhoods and Small Towns. One Community Is Showing How to Fight Back

“Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America,” Garrick Brown, a researcher with the commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, told Bloomberg last year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

MDOT "proves" again that the Red Line can't be built

In the context of the 2019 budget the Maryland General Assembly requested that MDOT  "prepare a report on the feasibility of either re-starting the Red Line Light Rail project or developing alternatives to address east-west transit options in Baltimore City.".
A dream for now: A Red Line subway station under downtown

The request gave the Secretary of Transportation, by his actions a fan of roads and a foe of transit, another opportunity to reiterate why he and the Governor he reports to canned the Red Line. Rahn was long rumored to go back to New Mexico after the mid-term election and now appears to be staying on after all.

It isn't entirely clear what the General Assembly expected but last month it got what it had asked for. All the reasons why an east west rail transit project can't be done.

It's like asking your kid why it shouldn't go to school today, he or she will come up with plenty of reasons. The report fits a broader pattern. Here in Baltimore we have perfected explanations why something can't be done. Less frequent: The can-do attitude of success which asks: "What would it take to get it done?" Here in Baltimore we have been trained to "not raise expectations", even though pedagogy shows that nothing stultifies performance more than low expectations and conversely, nothing is more motivating, than high expectations.
November 2018 MDOT Report about the
Red Line

On 25 pages the report correctly identifies the federal funding hurdle that comes from sending $955 million of promised federal New Starts funds back to Washington and from taking the allocated State and local funds and re-purpose them to road construction.
The FTA rescinded and reallocated these highly-competitive funds to other projects following the cancellation of the Red Line project. (page 2) 
There are currently 22 projects in one of three phases of the New Starts program (Project Development, Engineering, and Full Funding Grant Agreement).4 The eight projects currently under Full Funding Grant Agreements, including the Purple Line, require $7.3 billion. Funding for the remaining 14 projects requires $15.8 billion. (page 8) 
According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), there are approximately 50 additional projects in some stage of development but have not yet entered the FTA program. (Page 10)
 The report also estimates that construction cost since 2014 (the last cost estimate and originally assumed bid date) would have risen by $500 million due to inflation. That appears to be a vastly inflated number, assuming more than 15% inflation in four years. Regardless, it is obvious that putting a project on the shelf doesn't make it any cheaper.

The paper also notes the two MARC investments at West Baltimore and Bayview which are in the MARC improvement plan and which the Red Line project assumed as happening to make the Red Line more viable. Especially the accessibility improvements at the West Baltimore MARC station have not lost any of their importance, but MDOT decided to not put any money into the future transportation program (CTP), even though the much touted LINK bus system now operates a bus hub right there. The Bayview station may be less important without the Red Line, but Johns Hopkins would still like to have it given that Bayview has close ties to NIH in the Washington area. A new MARC station at Broadway (EBDI) would be even more important, it could link MARC to the Metro subway and open up entirely new connectivity. But the current MDOT did not take the route of funding other rail investments after defunding the Red Line.
The preferred alternative scored highest and had broad support

Back to the report, why the Red Line can't be built: There is much lament about sinking revenue from the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) due to fuel efficient cars etc. No remedy is suggested. It is a  national challenge for any transportation agency that transportation needs to find new funding sources in the age when fossil fuel is replaced through renewable sources and gasoline tax revenues shrink accordingly. The report simply proves that the MDOT has no funding perspective:
The decline in revenue projections and unfunded needs make it highly unlikely MDOT would be able to restore the State portion of funding needed for constructing any major east-west transit project. Also, MDOT MTA would not be able to comply with FTA’s requirement that project sponsors demonstrate that state of good repair needs are fully funded. (pg 14)
The report talks a lot about project delivery and "design-bid-build" versus "public-private-partnerships". The original Red Line project was planned as a hybrid model, the Purple Line is a full P3. The report does not include any discussion about innovative new funding methods which are employed elsewhere to fund rail transit in spite of declining revenues and grants. No word about value-capture, transit-TIFs, transit benefit districts or sales tax referenda.
MDOT program funding: A bump from O'Malley fuel tax increases and
then a decline (Source: Report)

The report even suggests that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) would have to be redone, because "Modification of the Locally Preferred Alternative
would likely be desired or required for a variety of reasons: changes in political or policy goals,
changes in the physical environment, public or stakeholder comments, or budget considerations." This is a bold assertion.

The FEIS, a time consuming step, is precisely the reason why the preferred project alternative for which the FEIS was approved, should not be modified. Without any proof that these changes are substantial, the report simply states "there have been changes to the existing conditions. These changes include physical changes such as land use, new construction, or transportation infrastructure, but also changes in demographics and the natural environment".

If it would only be true that so much has changed in Baltimore City! In areas where new development occurred (Fells Point, Canton, Harbor East), those projects had been anticipated and been an integral part of the Red Line plans. The report gleefully mentions one apparent exception: Oldham Crossing out near I-895, a project where the report assures that new street and utilities are in conflict with Red Line plans. If true, it should be a lesson for Baltimore City and County to preserve the Red Line right of way.

Finally, the report gets back to the old bromide of the chromium findings near the eastern tunnel portal on Boston Street and considers it a "large cost risk" that was not included in the original cost estimate. Hogan has always called the tunnel as a reason to object to the Red Line, as if tunnel construction for light rail would be an out of this world concept (it is not) or tunnels in Baltimore an exorbitant risk (they are not).

The charge of the legislature to address an alternative method of upgrading East-West transit gets short shrift and is only addressed on the third last page of the report. Cavalierly passing over the question why MDOT and MTA did not study any alternative to the Red Line in the last four years, MDOT points to the Central Maryland Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) for ideas for alternatives.
Bus Rapid Transit on the surface through downtown remains a
cheap alternative proffered by people who  think Baltimore doesn't need
efficient subway tunnels (Image: Daily Record)

This especially gutsy, given that the TRP is another document that the Assembly had to force MDOT to undertake. This process has just begun and it remain to be seen with how much enthusiams MDOT will provide the process with the necessary resources and support. Lamely the report also offers the option of revisiting the alternatives that had been studied before the preferred alternative had been selected. It is well known, that Republican Governor Ehrlich took the Red Line planning process on a long detour towards bus rapid transit which ultimately proved more costly and less efficient than light rail. Who would want to repeat this?

In the Summary the report has the gull to refer to "the variety of unresolved technical and financial issues present at the time the project was cancelled", none of which the report cared to mention in any specificity. The last paragraph of the summary on the last page of the report again puts all hope in the mandated RTP, clearly not a love child of MDOT and MTA.

In all, the report is a waste of money and resources. It only tries to prove what the Governor said all along: Baltimore doesn't deserve such a big transit investment.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author was for 13 years a consultant to MTA for the Red Line project

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The curious case of the recent Howard Street sinkhole

Baltimore's Howard Street is an extreme case of divided responsibilities: There is a CSX owned tunnel a few feet below the street, and above the tunnel but below the pavement a BGE gas line. Electricity runs in City owned conduits under the sidewalks but is filled with BGE cables. Howard Street also covers powerful underground data lines feeding a big switching facility in the old Murdock building at Lexington Street. MTA owns rail tracks embedded on the surface for the light rail trains. The City owns the street and also the water and sewer below it.
New sgements of track are welded into place where
sinkhole work had been performed at Howard and
Lexington (Photo: Philipsen)

In such a situation it is quite disruptive if somebody discovers that in some sections there is no base and no soil holding up the pavement and that the pavement itself is all that's holding up the street.

This is exactly what a MTA  track maintenance crew discovered last Sunday when they investigated a dip in the road running there between the tracks that had them concerned. They peered into a cavity several feet large with an exposed water and gas line visible in the glow of the flashlight. With heavy buses and trains running over the street, the discovery had immediate repercussions for transit riders. The road was closed and trains and buses stopped.  A bus bridge was established to ferry riders between Camden Station and Mt Royal Avenue on a parallel route. 
Fortunately, CSX determined that the tunnel wasn't affected and kept its trains running.

Of course, the MTA discovery also brought out the City transportation folks, BGE and DPW to see what was going on.

A few drillings and a subsurface camera revealed only what was already known, considerable cavities but little insight regarding the cause. Often leaky water or sewer lines are the culprits which wash out soil and fill under roadways, but no defect utility lines were detected. "It must have been the heavy rains" city engineers determined and proceeded cleaning out stormdrains for good measure.
As frequently the case on these emergency repairs, a few workers work and
many others watch. (Photo: Philipsen)
And like any dentist, they began filling the cavities. Instead of amalgam they used a gravel concrete slurry. The method of building up a base underneath existing pavement doesn't represent the usual  industry standard, but it may well do the trick and wont easily wash away again. At this point only work on the concrete encased "embedded" track is left to do before the roadway can be opened again. MTA contractors discovered poor track embedment on the other end of the block as well and busted it up for a new fill as well, making best use of the order of concrete that is needed anyway. A pretty clear dip on the southbound track just south of Saratoga, though, will remain for the time being. And, in a rare case of prudent coordination, BGE is also on site doing maintenance on the conduits, using the street closure as an opportunity.

With all the activity, the originally anticipated re-opening date of Tuesday came and went. Maybe now it will be Friday until the bi trains rumble down Howard Street again.
This dip will stay in place (Photo: Philipsen)

 MTA identified the same section of Howard Street as the target for a comprehensive fix next year. The MTA wants to rip the worn tracks out and realign them so that they don't swerve as from running  with traffic on the side to traffic running in between. The work is part of a comprehensive track upgrade on the aging system and may give Howard Street once again a traffic free pedestrian area between Saratoga and Lexington Street. However, this is depending on a new TIGER grant which had not yet been awarded and isn't certain. Details would still be worked out if the grant is sure. Even if there is no grant, after nearly 30 years in service, the MTA will have to replace Howard Street tracks to get them into a state of good repair.

On July 18, 2001 at 3:07 pm a spectacular tunnel fire in the CSX tunnel under Howard Street brought all of downtown to a standstill and resulted in a special FEMA report about the incident. City and CSX argued for a long time about the question whether a 40in water main above the tunnel had leaked into the tunnel, causing the tanker derailment or whether the line damage was caused by the derailed tanker burning at very high temperatures. In 2005 NTSB finally blamed CSX for likely causing the accident that cost a total of $12 million. City and CSX were blamed for poor records of the location of utilities and the previous track repairs.

If the current fix holds, the vigilance of the MTA track inspectors prevented another debacle which could have easily arisen from the sinkhole.
Still busting up unrelated track embedment on
Thursday (Photo: Philipsen)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BGE work on electric lines using the
opportunity for maintenance
(Photo: Philipsen)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Baltimore's air requires action

The Baltimore metro area ranks #6 worst in the US when it comes to number of days with elevated air pollution in 2016 (114 days with "code yellow"), significant parts of the metro area have been for years ozone non-attainment areas under the Clean Air Act. Live Strong placed Baltimore as the #5 worst city for air quality in 2017 (albeit, without providing sources). States submit their air quality
No large point source polluters are left in the former smokestack city of Baltimore
The incinerator is one of the few left
implementation plans (SIP) for certain pollutants at certain deadlines and cross their fingers that those plans get accepted, even though the target levels remain elusive. In the eyes of citizens, the matter of clean air has become complicated, cumbersome and obtuse with less pollution in plain sight. Consequently, if code yellow or code red are called out in the summer, hardly anybody bats an eye.  Hardly anybody knows what it means and nobody really changes their way of life or leaves the car in the driveway.
Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in this country. Ozone, also known as smog, can irritate your respiratory system, causing coughing, irritation in your throat or a burning sensation in your airways. It can reduce lung function, so that you may have feelings of chest tightness, wheezing, or shortness of breath. Ozone can aggravate asthma and trigger asthma attacks. People at greater risk from ground-level ozone are people with lung diseases, such as asthma, older adults and children and adults who are active outdoors.
Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter, is composed of microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems. When exposed to these small particles, people with heart or lung diseases and older adults are more at risk of hospital and emergency room visits or, in some cases, even death from heart or lung disease. Even if you are healthy, you may experience temporary symptoms from exposure to elevated levels of particles. Symptoms may include: irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; coughing; phlegm; chest tightness; and shortness of breath. At greatest risk from particle pollution are people with heart or lung disease, older adults (possibly because they may have undiagnosed heart or lung disease), and children. (Air Now)
Such tranquility can be deceiving. Germany this year was stirred into a frenzy by court ordered Diesel-Fahrverbot  (Diesel vehicle prohibitions) in many larger cities. The country is in uproar because entire classes of diesel cars (except the very latest models with the latest class of technology) may not be able to enter large parts of most polluted areas in many German metro areas. In the German rustbelt city of Essen, even the Autobahn 40, a lifeline of the entire region is included in the ban.
German news channel announcing installation
diesel prohibition signs in German cities (Photo: Philipsen)
If truly implemented (nobody has a clear strategy how to enforce the restrictions for which all those cities busily install traffic signs) the mobility and economy of entire regions would collapse. The dire situation came suddenly, in part caused by a test by the University of West Virginia which uncovered first the ever wider criminal methods with which the German car industry cheated consumers. Restitution was paid out mostly in the US, German car buyers went empty handed. Then came the courts stirred by one particular activist clean air organization.

Before that, cities and regions ignored the pollution limits established by law  year after year, just as here. But unlike the US, German cities and States don't have mandatory mitigation plans. Meanwhile, the measurements for particle and NOx pollution  aren't hard to find there. Frequently they are displayed in real time on large electronic displays right where the pollution is worst. Eventually activist J├╝rgen Resch, of the Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) began to sue one city after the other and each time their organization won, forcing cities to take action against the worst contributors, the diesel vehicles. This was certainly facilitated by the diesel scandal around NOx emissions for which some top auto managers already sit in prison.
Hazardous air pollutants: These are either deadly or have severe health risks even in small amounts. Almost 200 are regulated by law; some of the most common are mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene. “These are also most often emitted during gas or coal combustion, incinerating, or in the case of benzene, found in gasoline,” Walke says. Benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the EPA, can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders in the long term. Dioxins, more typically found in food but also present in small amounts in the air, can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions. Lead in large amounts can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even in small amounts it can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn. Mercury affects the central nervous system.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are toxic components of traffic exhaust and wildfire smoke. In large amounts, they have been linked to eye and lung irritation, blood and liver issues, and even cancer. In one recent study, the children of mothers who’d had higher PAH exposure during pregnancy had slower brain processing speeds and worse symptoms of ADHD. (
The Natural Resources Defense Council)
There are, however, some key differences between Baltimore and say, Stuttgart, the City with Germany's worst air quality in terms of particle and NOx emissions.
Air quality index colors, code green to purple 

The Weather Channel rates Stuttgart's air today as "unhealthy for sensitive groups". Baltimore's rating for this fall day is "good". Stuttgart is on two of three pollutants: particles and NOx . For the Air Qulaity Index (AQI), the third metric is ozone, Baltimore's chief culprit.

With those three measures Germany's AQI becomes problematic in the winter and Baltimore's in the summer. The critical component in Baltimore is ozone and the critical component in Stuttgart is NOx and particles. Stuttgart's sun is hardly ever strong enough to truly cook the dirty air in the same way as Baltimore's heat can do it, while Germany's dominance of diesel vehicles (more passenger cars have diesel engines than gas engines) brings up the particle count, especially in the winter when engines often run in cold mode and the airflow isn't cleaning out the air in Stuttgart's bowl shaped center as it does in the summer with warm days and cool nights.

Both countries have made great strides in overall air quality. For example sulfur from burning oil has gone way down,  lead free gasoline has practically eliminated lead from the air and catalytic converters have drastically cleaned most pollutants from cars.
In spite of growth, pollution is down (Pink, purple lines)
This may explain the long lasting apathy against the remaining violations. With Trump in control of the EPA and Hogan in Annapolis, there is little risk that politicians would all of a sudden clamp down on the non attainment, especially since oversight resides with the federal EPA. But the German government wasn't eager to disturb the cheating auto industry either. But as the recent German situation shows, law-suits can upset the apple cart in short order and leave politicians scrambling for compliance.  In spite of all the panic overseas, it is unlikely that it will come to actually closing down entire central cities to most vehicles on the road. Those yellow jackets in France just proved how quickly drastic environmental measures can run into a wall of popular unrest when large portions of the population are hit hard. Yellow vests have already been sighted in German cities as well.
Sources of NOx pollution: Transportation leads with over 60%

Meanwhile, Baltimore's air is worst in the poorest neighborhoods, and unlike in Stuttgart, Baltimore's pollution isn't mostly caused by diesel cars but comes out of state.
The Maryland Department of the Environment estimates that 70 percent of the ozone pollution that often makes the Baltimore and Washington regions’ air unhealthy to breathe blows in from outside the state, according to MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles. The lawsuit seeks to require 36 generating units at 19 plants in upwind states to install the same scrubbers and other air-cleaning technology that Maryland requires plants within its borders to install. (SUN)
Because we happen to sit downwind from coal fired power plants in other states, Maryland's legal action has come from the State itself. Maryland's Attorney General has sued the EPA over those polluters under the "good neighbor" principle, an approach that has worked in the past. But not to be mistaken, there are plenty local sources as well, some are "low hanging fruit" for elimination: Chiefly Baltimore's incinerator, the single largest source of local emissions for certain pollutants. "The facility processes more than 700,000 tons of trash each year just as many tons of CO2. It releases about 120 pounds of lead, 60 pounds of mercury, 99 tons of hydrochloric acid and 2 tons of formaldehyde, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment" (SUN). But because it also generates energy from waste, it is still classified as green energy.
US map of days with elevated ozone layers: Dirty coasts

Transportation still is a significant source of pollution in our metro area. Not for the few diesel passenger cars, but for ships, train engines, trucks and buses, all large contributors of the transportation based air pollution and all propelled by various forms of diesel. Ships burn cheap heavy oil and are huge polluters not covered by the low sulfure diesel regulations placed by EPA for trucks and cars using diesel. Train engines can also emit a lot of NOx and particulates, especially when they are older switching engines which do not use the hybrid diesel electric propulsion of heavy freight engines. Washington DC, for example, had identified switching engines as their primary polluters after they gauged emission sources to find a good use of the Volkswagen diesel fraud penalty money which has been distributed to all states which had sued Volkswagen.

Air pollution can not only be faught by eliminating sources, it can also be mitigated. In Stuttgart experimental particle absorbers have been installed at the dirtiest intersections. In Baltimore as in many other cities trees have been identified as great air scrubbers. They collect particles, dust and CO2 and cool the air while emitting oxygen. A big effort is underway to plant more trees all over the city. In that context, the Mayor's order to place a large Norwegian spruce tree, cut from Druid Park, as a Christmas tree in front of City Hall caused much consternation. But the much bigger problem is that most Baltimore street trees are planted with so little thought about what a tree needs to grow and thrive, that most never grow tall before they die from lack of water or appropriate soil and barely contribute as scrubbers and the cherished "tree canopy".
Baltimore area heat map: The urban heat island

Mitigation on a bigger scale could come form air flow that can dislodge dirty air from neighborhoods or downtown. The natural feature, is hardly studied in the US, though.

Not so in Stuttgart. Thanks to the already noted shape cup shape of downtown at the bottom of a large bowl surrounded by hills, stagnant air was a huge problem there, because foul hot air was trapped inside the cup. This has made geography and topography an object of intense studies since the seventies. What was found is that air flows downhill at night, when it cools down, especially in green areas which are not subject to the urban heat island effect. The air flow of colder, fresher air into the cup would push the dirty air out if access to the valleys is kept open and unobstructed. Initially the researchers found that many buildings were blocking and plugging up the air flow. Eventually the masterplans and urban design rules were modified so that buildings in the main air flow channels were either prohibited, limited in size or regulated to stand in the direction of the lowest resistance and  parks were enhanced to become a "green lung" for the city. Having seen the infrared photography for Stuttgart and the resulting planning steps in their early phases when I was a member of a local borough council, I suggest to study air flow here as well. It could very well be at work in Baltimore as well and that ignoring its doings would result in unintended blockages and untapped green resources here as well.

The air is cooler over Leakin Park, the Jones Falls Valley, Druid Park and Cylburn Arboretum than downtown. Thus these parks could act as a "green lung" here as well and the Jones Falls valley would be a natural air flow conduit with the terrain sloping towards the harbor.  Except that the JFX and a number of structures placed in the valley act as barriers and additional pollution sources. However, aside from "heat sink" imagery, no thermal flow analysis was ever done here to me knowledge, at least not with the purpose of studying air flow, air exchanges and the City's natural ability to "breathe".
An environmental walk in Curtis Bay
(Photo Philipsen)

With all the talk about sources and mitigation measures, one should not forget that people continue to suffer from Baltimore's poor air quality. To make matters worse, air quality is the worst in the poorest neighborhoods thanks to a longstanding urban planning practice of putting polluting and undesirable uses where the poor people are supposed to live.

Poor neighborhoods typically also have the lowest tree canopy, the lowest number of public green and parks and the busiest streets with heavy truck usage. No wonder then, that residents suffer from asthma and other air pollution related ailments, impacts that significantly contribute to the huge health disparities between neighborhoods in Baltimore which can be as large as 20 years. Baltimore's recent Green Network Plan begins to address those inequities and could be augmented to consider "green urban lungs".

It is time that Baltimore awakens to the reality that its air is far from what it should be, especially since the air usually doesn't blow from the Bay or the Atlantic. The need for local activism is especially high when the federal government is relaxing standards on clean air. Baltimore needs to attack air pollution as what it is, a significant health hazard and an another building block in the region's large disparities and inequities.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA