Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Charm City Circulator remains in the headlines for all the wrong reasons

In 2010 when the City Circulator bus shuttle rolled out, it was to great fanfare and a series of success stories following the launch. The service was praised for its spanking new innovative electric buses, reliable operations, it’s real-time online app, well marked stops, a diverse, rapidly growing ridership and the fact that it wasn’t MTA. The service had a secure funding source and clearly defined logical routes. Downtown Partnership's CEO Kirby Fowler called it "the gateway drug to transit".
Circulator with "limousine bus" as a patch (Photo: Sweeney)

In 2019 the luster has worn off. The Circulator has long become a troubled child with years of making headlines for all the wrong reasons. (2014: Former head of Charm City Circulator pleads guilty to bribery).

In 2019 there are not enough buses, the vehicles themselves are aged. and often in worse shape than those of the MTA. The previous real time app is defunct, and the operator is inexperienced. The service racks up a deficit every year, it’s routes are confusing and far longer than the revenues can sustain. To top it all off, the City is engaged in a law suit with the previous provider, a global company with deep pockets that is unlikely to easily concede. The system operates under an "emergency contract".

The reasons for this change of fortunes don’t reside only with one entity and they have many roots.
  • For example the buses: the innovative electric bus turned out to be a dud. It’s manufacturer went bankrupt and the fleet had to be retired and replaced long before it’s time. Unfortunately, bus replacement hadn’t been in the budget, creating one of the key reasons for the deficit. 
  • The routes: the Charm City Circulator became subject of the accusation that everything was done for the “white L” and nothing for the “black butterfly”. Even though, that had never been entirely true for the Circulator, the City twisted the Green Line to meet Equity goals. The result is a unconvincing and unpopular alignment. 
  • Finally, the operator. Understanding that the City DOT was ill equipped to be a bus company, operations and maintenance was shopped out to Veolia (which later became TransDev), a juggernaut that runs transit around the world. An arrangement that required strong oversight.
For whatever reason, the City took a hands-off approach which allowed lax maintenance and reimbursement patterns that are now subject of the lawsuit. While the new DOT Director wanted to clean house and use the end of Transdev’s contract to provide a new beginning, Transdev told me at the the time, that six months after the new director had been in office, they had yet to meet face to face.
Tortured routes in the name of equity (Green Route)

By the time a new contract for the Circulator was supposed to go into effect, the old agreement with Transdev was simply extended. Finally, when the bids were on the table, only Transdev and RMA had submitted a proposal. Only one had the necessary buses and a maintenance facility: Velia/Transdev.  But it couldn’t be a contender any longer  after the City had filed suit against the company on September 15 of last year. That left one single bidder which had the future in its hands. A bidder with scarcely any experience in running transit except for a tiny shuttle in Bethesda, MD.
At the time I wrote in this blog:
It doesn't take much to imagine the train wrecks that are possible once the Veolia extension expires on October 11:
  • A new company gets the contract without funding for the required Banner Route (where already old Diesel fumes spewing bus are run to save cost), low ridership on the Orange Route,  a route that defies any transit planning logic, and the flagship Purple Route bleeding money since it has been extended to Hopkins University). A company that would have to procure buses and grab a maintenance facility in mere weeks 
  •  Additionally, further State support for the Circulator on which the City came to rely, could be in jeopardy if no viable operation of the City system is in sight, especially since the State already saw their support of bikeshare evaporate into nothing.
 Many were still hoping that a new contract would create a clear new beginning, especially ending the annual deficits and a solution for the problem with the bus replacement cost. Hope, in spite of the way how the pre-Pourciau RFP had been written, leaving little room for creative innovation. The new contract puts the vendor in a straight jacket, forcing him to run exactly the same expanded routes that had contributed to the deficit with a specified number of buses. An attempt by MTA to suggest a simpler, shorter and sustainable route system that would not duplicate MTA service was probably too drastic to be taken seriously. In the RFP the City had to admit it had no maintenance facility and the RFP didn't pay attention to what had been recommended in the Transition Report for Mayor Pugh.
It is incumbent upon the Department of Transportation, under the guidance of the Pugh Administration, to reinvigorate the system so that it performs optimally. The first step in this process is to articulate a clear and bounded mission for the service, defining it as a supplement to MTA service in dense, walkable neighborhoods. The service must then seek to maintain the nexus with the parking tax by limiting service to areas where the tax is collected. It should only provide the amount of service that can be covered by the existing parking tax and state support it receives. (Mayor Pugh Transition Report)
When the extension date expired, Veolia was in no mood to continue a day longer, and RMA wasn’t ready. No buses, no operators, no shop and no experience with fixed route urban transit. Still, after severe initial hick-ups, no complete melt-down occurred and Charm City buses were seen plying Baltimore's streets, given the impression that somehow things were working.
RMA shuttle in Bethesda (RMA)

But last weekend the SUN came out with another damaging headline: "Charm City Circulator's new operator has not trained all drivers, faces persistent bus shortage". Both the Mayor and BC-DOT Director Pourciau sure could have used some good news, both are battling issues on many fronts, issues that continue to bury the progress that is being made. (For example, Pugh's new Police Commissioner, or Pourciau's successful completion of a baseline assessment of previous transit plans).

As the SUN article from last weekend shows, RMA is still struggling to get its bearing. This isn't surprising since all legacy issues continue to be a drag on the system:
  • the insufficient number of buses, 
  • the irregular headways,  
  • the inefficient Green Line route, 
  • the unfunded Banner Route and extended Purple Route, 
  • the overlap with MTA’s service, 
  • the lack of real integration with the also City-subcontracted water Shuttle Harbor Connector 
  • or the fact that the Circulator doesn’t show up on the now popular Transit App for lack of a published GTFS feed. 
When I am in Fed Hill/Locust Point and need to get home, I am more likely to take a scooter or walk versus using the Harbor Connector. I don't want to have to look up a schedule every time I want to use it. Its probably faster for me to just hoof it. (Brian Seel, a want to be Circulator rider who became famous when he posted his torturous commute to work in a Howard County TOD)
Recycled transit buses 
At the time of the RFP, I had written that "Instead of ordaining how many buses to run and asking what it would cost, the RFP would have been more innovative by stating: This is my budget, how much service can you give me for that?". This would still be a good question to ask. In the meantime, RMA learns fixed route transit operations by providing them. Maintenance of the buses is still a problem and there simply aren't enough since Veolia had taken several of their own buses back when their contract expired and RMA had not enough transit suitable vehicles, only "executive limousine coaches" which are not accessible and not made for transit. So instead of a shiny fleet that shows MTA how transit needs to be run, the Circulator fleet is a ragtag fleet, cobbled together from various places, including old retired transit buses spewing fumes worse than any current MTA bus. Meanwhile, MTA has revamped its bus operation under the banner LINK and introduced its own colored CityLink routes, adding confusion. Still, at this time MTA's buses operate more professionally and predictably than those of the Circulator. Quite a reversal of fortune. The Circulator still has a chance to become a premier service again. For that it needs to be seriously reformed.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

From this blog:

2015: Free Downtown Bus Transit - Community Asset or Yuppie Shuttle?
2018: The Circulator hanging in the balance
2018: City sues Transdev. Circulator on course to crash and burn
2018: Circulator service severely disrupted - totally down on two routes

Friday, March 15, 2019

A brand-new retro Lexington Market is supposedly right around the corner

The big news at the design review panel yesterday wasn't that the new Lexington Market would be designed as a traditional market shed and not as the previously proposed glass box. The big news was that years of uncertainty about the future of the market are supposed to finally come to an end. "It is real", Seawall representative Jon Constable said. Seawall is the design build partner of the City in the endeavour.

That's a big deal. For years customers and merchants of Baltimore's largest public market knew only one thing: the powers to be didn't love the old market and wanted to build something new instead of investing in the old. The only certainty in this vague future  was that there would be no money to fix what wasn't working in the ever more decrepit old hall. As a result, shoppers stayed away, stalls remained vacant, then even less customers showed up, and so on. This death spiral is still in full force. But now it should end in 2021 when the brand-new market is scheduled to open.
Rendering of the upper level market hall (BCT Architects)

Here is what Jon Constable of Seawall Development said about the project: "It is under a very tight timeline". Construction is slated to begin a year from now, Seawall is part of a design-build contract with the City, has hired a new architect and has no equity stake in the project. It will withdraw after completion of the new market building. This means Lexington Market will remain owned and managed by the City as public market just like now.
Baltimore’s Lexington Market is the oldest market in America. Founded in 1782 at the site where it stands today, Lexington has served Baltimore and surrounding communities for more than nine generations. It’s as old as America itself. (Market website)
Baltimore's historic market shed
The concept of rebuilding the market on the south parking lot on Eutaw Street while merchants continue to sell in the old building isn't new. It was first presented in 2016 with an anticipated construction begin for 2018, a price tag of $30-$40 million, and a construction time of three years. This 2016 proposal followed earlier plans to rehab the old market for $27 million. However, as Robert Thomas of Baltimore City Markets stated upon request, that $27 million cost "was not confirmed by a professional cost estimator". The apparently most economical solution was never carried forth and eventually dropped by Baltimore Public Markets. The exact reasons remain somewhat mysterious, because the old market could have been renovated relatively easily once one would accept the sloping floor which was a pretty elegant solution allowing equal access from two streets that are on different levels by some 13'.

Two big problems immediately surfaced after the 2016 glass box design was unveiled: Nobody liked Murphy Dittenhafer's design and the cost estimate began rising. There wasn't nearly enough money for new construction, demolition and plaza design as cost estimates "ballooned to 60 million", according to Robert Thomas. After a poor reception at an initial UDAAP presentation, the concept languished and finally died without fanfare.

Eventually Seawall was hired to cut cost and restart the design with the help of BCT Architects, the firm that already had designed the last face-lift that the market had received, the one visible today. The new approach presented to UDAAP on Thursday saves the demolition cost of the East Market Building by leaving it standing, although, so far, without a designated purpose. It also reduces the cost for landscape construction through a much smaller plaza and it created with a traditional market shed a much more economical building with far less glass. Nevertheless, the cost is still estimated with $40 million, and there continues to be a $13 million funding gap.
Eutaw Street elevation (BCT Architects)

The new design approach did not question the decision of not using the old market building, leaving a big blank spot in the proposed solution. No longer slated for demolition,  its future appearance or use was "off the table" for now, as Jon Constable put it. Nobody from Baltimore Public Markets spoke. This leaves a fairly large question mark since the success of a new Lexington Market will largely depend on how that entire ensemble of City owned parking garages, office buildings and market sheds will be handled. There is no way that the new market can  succeed without sprucing up the area which shows many signs of neglect. Another big question mark is the future of the West Market and its adjacent historic multistory office building and garage which is subject to a separate request for proposals by BDC for which no selection has been made yet. 
Paca Street elevation (BCT Architects)

The proposed shed design is a vast improvement over the previous design and solves the height difference between Eutaw and Paca Streets far more successfully than the glass box, with its terrible interior circulation. The proposed shed remains a "two slab" design, though, i.e. two stories face Eutaw Street and one story faces Paca Street. This necessarily leads to a divided market: A smaller fresh foods market area on the lower level at Eutaw Street and a larger mix of fresh and prepared foods "food hall" type design for the upper level. The upper level at Eutaw Street is occupied by an "event space". A grand stair roughly at the 1/3 point of the building towards the west sits at an opening that connects the two floors for visual connections. Unlike the glass box design, which had put circulation along the edges to allow for a glass wall, the new design places the prepared food vendors along the north and south perimeter of the long shed. They sit below the lower portion of the shed roof below the "clear-story" window band, allowing accommodation of the venting equipment needed above kitchen and cooking areas of the prepared food vendors.
Aerial view of the proposed market seen from Eutaw Street (BCT Architects)

UDAAP members observed that the arrangement created a largely "impervious" north wall facing the "plaza", the opacity clearly in conflict with the traditional market concept of the historic 1803 historic market buildings which burnt down in 1949. As seen on old photos, those sheds had a lot of exterior market stalls all around the core building and its large roof overhangs and awnings expanding the roofs further out.

The new design struggles with balancing the desire to have a large open court in the center of the shed with open view lines and lots of daylight with the wish of also having a flexible and open side which opens up to the plaza, allows outdoor seating and outdoor market stalls in good weather.
The previous design by Murphy Dittenhafer

There are other competing notions: Especially the conflict between circulation and place-making, i.e. between being in a space versus moving through. This conflict affects the so called plaza extending Lexington Street towards Paca Street. The space was presented on the one hand as a major corridor through which people move to and from transit, a task the current "Arcade" with its doors didn't quite fulfill. Bike advocates hope for a "low stress" connection as well. But the plaza was also presented as a plaza suited for sitting down, eating prepared foods outdoors or for events and farmers markets. It is difficult to reconcile those two functions. and UDAAP comments questioned especially how inviting the provided spaces are for rest, eating or people watching.

The strong east-west flow across the substantial grade difference presents a major design problem for the building as well, especially in the age of barrier free access. The building aims for a free and easy east-west flow but the two story design requires elevators and a fairly substantial set of stairs, elements that tend to block open views. The proposed design solves these issues generally with elegance, but some issues remain as UDAAP observed in their comments.

One aspect escaped UDAAP's critique: The pretty low and  compressed entrance from Eutaw Street, probably the most frequented point of entry. The placement of a second story event space right above the Eutaw Street entrance makes the experience more like the entry into a subway than into a market hall. A fairly obvious remedy would be to delete the event space in favor of a grander two story entry. Giving up on the event space should hardly pose a hardship, given that the old market building eventually standing vacant is crying out for a use. It could easily be used, among other things, as an event space.

For years everybody agreed that Lexington Market is hugely important for the future of the historic Market Center, Baltimore's old retail core. Lately, far from being a pull, the market has even become a drag. The Seawall solution, after a few more tweaks, promises that the market can finally be the regional draw again it once was, and that its sister markets in Seattle, Philadelphia and elsewhere are to this day.  One can only hope that this time, its actually "real".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The arrangement of current market buildings (BCT Architects)

Upper level (BCT Architects)

Lower level at Eutaw Street side (BCT Architects)

Section showing interior stair area between upper and lower level (BCT Architects)

Section showing the shed, clearstory and the area with prepared meal kitchens (BCT Architects)

Existing market Atrium addition on the Lexington Street right of way (BCT Architects)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What if trash clean-up would be on par with snow removal?

All winter hundreds of trucks, plows and all kinds of pieces of machinery stand at the ready to be deployed at a moments notice should the dreaded flakes fall.

When winter is over, after the last speck of snow has melted, and the sun stands higher on the sky, the full load of accumulated trash comes into bright focus.  Plowed to the side,  emerged from the snow piles, blown into fences by winter storms, the trash stands in stark contrast to the pristine beauty of freshly fallen snow. Yet, it attracts a lot less attention by officials.
The better Baltimore is discredited by all the trash collecting around
the sign at Uplands Parkway (Photo: Philipsen)

This begs the question, why not pursue the trash with the same fervor as the much more innocent snow? Specifically, why can't the full army of equipment and personnel be employed one more time at the end of the season to clean up? Load the trash on the salt trucks, use the loaders, sweepers and crews for picking up the bags, cans, bottles and bags?

Using the snow removal budget once more, wouldn't the sheer size of the fleet that stands at the disposal of local and State governments, be able to make a big dent into the trash that is flying around on and along the regions public streets?

A coordinated cleanup effort of this kind with participation of all that deal with snow removal, i.e. City, counties, State Highway, MTA and public and private ground-keepers, would set the stage for a cleaner, healthier and happier entry into spring and instill civic pride, a commodity that is badly bruised.

This type of clean-up would be especially useful and fill a big gap, since the mobilization of the spring and summer armies of groundskeepers who mow the medians and shoulders is still weeks away. A thorough late winter clean-up would also make the work of the groundskeepers and mowers much easier! So cost-wise, it could be a wash, but from an environmental health point it would be a huge advantage.
The trash wheel family -- Mr. Trash Wheel, Professor Trash Wheel and Captain Trash Wheel -- has collected more than 1 million Styrofoam containers since the first wheel launched in 2014. Baltimore Waterfront Partnership's Healthy Harbor Initiative 
Trash at Edmondson Highschool
 (Photo: Philipsen)
As we can't build our way out of the transportation mess with more roads, as we can't simply police our way out of crime, so we can't simply clean our way out of the trash avalanche. That is understood.

Trash clean up and trash reduction strategies must go hand in hand.

So it is fitting to talk about trash on the morning after the styrofoam ban passed in Annapolis, a bill which  Baltimore Delegate Brooke Lierman had introduced. An important step forward! Trash also made its entry also on Instagram.


Also urgent is a statewide ban on the flimsy plastic bags that hang in all the bushes and trees and a mandatory bottle and can deposit, both regulation that is common in other states.

Most of all, though, what is needed is a sense of community in which everybody has enough pride and satisfaction with his or her community as to not willfully trash it just out spite or anger.
"It may feel like a small step to take this one form of really insidious plastic Styrofoam and start with that just here in the state of Maryland, but it is a big step because (Maryland) will be the first state to ban a major form of plastic in America," Brooke Lierman.
A spring clean-up by the salt and plow crews alone would not be able to do restore civic pride, but employing the redirected full force of the people and the equipment would be a great beginning, especially if the private snow removal teams would chime in as well. Where there is less trash there is also less littering.
Trash in the fence of the ball-field at Edmondson High  (Photo: Philipsen)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Why the big tower proposed in middle of Druid Park is a sad capitulation

Druid Park, with 746 acres, a national historic treasure and the third largest urban park in the country is suffering from traffic strangulation and lately also from a misguided and gone array lake and reservoir reconfiguration, is in for a new treat. The new idea is explained in a letter to Baltimore's Historic District Commission (CHAP) for consideration in their upcoming meeting: A 180' tall communication tower placed at a high point inside the Baltimore Zoo, which is part of the historic park. No, it isn't suggested because it would make the park better, nor because the location is optimal the "Stealth Tower Telecommunications Project Haymaker – “DCYH060" (optimal is the nearby TV hill) but because it saves the City money.
From the proposed options for Druid Park (AEC)
The proposed tower facility will allow the City to move their public safety infrastructure onto a city-owned structure, which will save approximately $1,000,000 in rent by within three years, and almost $3,500,000 by 2033. Incentivized by the need to reduce the City’s expenses when possible; the above-referenced location was selected. (From the application letter  to CHAP written by Advantage Environmental Consultants on behalf of Baltimore City, dated 2/15/19)
Who wouldn't want to save money, even if it is only $269,000 per year, especially if that money would be used to keep the park up to snuff. A tower in a park isn't a new or necessarily bad idea either; many parks are crowned by observation towers, pagodas and other architectural landmarks providing a unique marker. Baltimore's 60' pagoda in Patterson Park is a case in point.
Proposed location in historic Druid Park (AEC, from application)

But the application doesn't think in those terms, it talks about communication and safety for the City and for the zoo. It talks about antennas, WSPs, repeaters, creating a fenced "compound" for four equipment shelters and a 200' access road. Battle hardened from fights about the esthetics of those ubiquitous cellphone towers nationwide, the application  comes armed with four options for design taken from the grab bag of past tower fights: A 180-foot monopine (Option 1); a 180-foot marquee tower (Option 2); a 130-foot monopine, with a 50-foot slimline mirror extension (Option 3); and a 180-foot traditional monopole (Option 4).
The fake tree tower From the proposed options for Druid Park (AEC)

Yes, "pine" means pine, as in tree. A monopine is, indeed, a 180' tower disguised as a pine! And a mirror pole is, indeed, clad in mirror foils. And the "traditional" monopole? Don't ask!

The applicant happily calls the first three options "stealthing techniques". Making a 180 poles with an assortment of antennas invisible is the ultimate capitulation of design and technology. Kind of the opposite from the course that Apple took.

As if design challenged architects would appear in front of the City's design review committee and argue that their bad building design would hardly be visible because it is "stealth". Here is the surrender language that goes with this approach, taken from the application letter:
The single antenna at the top of the tower would have a simple 6-foot standoff bracket. All components would be wrapped in the mirror film. The four, 3-foot antennas would be placed within the slimline tower RFtransparent canisters, and the four, 14-foot City antenna would be mounted off the side of the tower (also wrapped in the mirror film). The mirror film would reflect the sky around the
tower. On clear blue days and overcast cloudy days, the tower would be difficult to distinguish from the sky without closely looking for it. On days where the sky’s color is less uniform (stormy and partly-cloudy days), the visibility of the tower would vary as the clouds and sky change around it. However, the overall scale of the tower would be minimized against the horizon based on the type of structure (slimline tower).
Fake tree details
Making ugly stuff "stealth" is an approach with almost unlimited applications, given the ubiquity of ugliness in the man-made environment. Alas, the magic has its limits. In the applicant's prose:
A slimline tower will not work for WSP use. Current site designs require three to four sectors with approximately three antennas per sector. A slimline tower would require each future WSP to have its antennas stacked on top of one another, resulting in much lower rad centers or fewer potential WSPs using the structure. Therefore, because the lower 130 feet of the tower would still be visible above the tree line, this portion of the tower would be stealthed as a monopine.
Confused? One can only assume that confusion is part of the stealth strategy. But do not despair, where it matters, the application is crystal clear:
The City’s engineering team (Motorola) has definitively determined that the proposed design meets the radio frequency (RF) objectives to deliver reliable public safety communication coverage and capacity service to this area.
Stuttgart TV tower, 750'
The application is the reflection of the usual current day configuration in which a consulting firm (AEC)writes the application on the City's behalf and the reference is written by another private company which stands to make a profit (Motorola). The poor historic district commission (CHAP) remains as the only safeguard for the public interest. The commission has to bite itself through this technical stuff because Druid Hill Park happens to be a significant historic asset over which the Commission has jurisdiction. (However, the commission isn't overly strong, if one considers that CHAP is only advisory to the Planning Director, and ultimately, the Mayor). Besides, it has no jurisdiction on anything but the impact on a historic asset.

Of course, the application assures that the proposed location is the only workable one. 
An examination of the area surrounding Druid Hill Park was conducted in an effort to identify other locations which may be viable for a new tower. However, the proposed location is the only location which meets the necessary elevation requirement, the structure limitation (keeping the height below 200 feet), and the location requirement (sited in a location with a receptive land owner).
The engineering firm which wrote application letter quotes extensively from the CHAP Design Guidelines and from the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, established as part of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, relating them helpfully to their proposed design options.
This is as if the zoo was getting suggestions about animal husbandry from a butcher. Or a chef his recipes from Jiffy Lube. Naturally, proving that these "designs" comply with the standards can only go astray. Putting a 180' artificial tree among natural trees of maybe 50' height is the opposite of what the historic preservation standards recommend, except that the guidelines don't mention trees. The  spirit of historic guidelines is this: If you build a modern highrise, don't put it among three story Victorians and don't make it look Victorian.
Czech observation tower: 180'

Those small misunderstandings aside, the design help section of the tower application ends with a hopeful and optimistic summary which, once again has to be quoted verbatim, because one couldn't make this stuff up:
The definition of “Structure” is “any creation of humans or nature,” and thus captures the land within Druid Hill Park on which the tower is proposed. However, the proposed tower can in no way be considered a detriment to the function of the park for municipal functions, as the proposed tower will not impact any existing space accessible to the public. To the contrary, the proposed tower will enhance the ability of Druid Hill Park to serve as a location for municipal functions through the enhanced wireless coverage (for public safety, cellular coverage, and the Zoo’s safety communications) and will encourage an increase in community use and safety. [..]While the City understands that the proposed installation adds a new, non-historic feature to Druid Hill Park, we believe that the proposed design solutions effectively demonstrate that such a proposal is able to meet CHAP’s Design Guidelines.
Clearly, CHAP wouldn't need to convene at all, AEC Consultants have it all figured out. (" AEC is able to provide value-oriented solutions to the diverse environmental issues faced by its clients, which include real estate developers, commercial lenders, property managers, and industrial and commercial enterprises throughout the United States and Canada")  
Stuttgart park tower: 144' but no antennas

One has to wonder why there aren't any community meetings planned around this project. Even putting aside crackpot arguments about how 5G power on the pole could cook nearby residents or how the power would be just another tool of community surveillance, surrounding communities should have a say in the tower issue.

For example, the design question: Wouldn't it be an interesting task to create a landmark tower which expresses this century's civic pride in Baltimore's famous park and solves the  communications tasks at the same time? 
If the radiation emitted from the tower is as safe as the companies always assure, a communications tower that also serves as a observation tower shouldn't pose an insurmountable problem. Some of the world's most recognizable towers have certainly done that. 

For example the Eiffel Tower: It "held the very first radiographic experiments in France and in 1898 the very first telegraph link went from the Pantheon to the Eiffel Tower covering a distance of 4km". (source). Or the Stuttgart and Moscow TV towers which have observation towers on top and like Seattle's Space Needle (520'), are icons of modern engineering ingenuity. Of course, these examples are of a much bigger scale, the Stuttgart TV tower is 717' tall. But there is also a tower near Prague with three observation platforms (190') and, of course our own Washington Monument which is with 178.5' just shy of the 180' height of the proposed tower in Druid Park.

Wouldn't it be lovely to see how today's architects would design a monument  of this size, with observation deck? A quite modern structural extravagance of 132' sits on the highest point of Stuttgart's most popular park. Problem: It is so slender and transparent, it doesn't have any antennas. What is needed here is public input and the courage to face a design challenge instead of design capitulation.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

And now this: What's happening in B'more this month?

And now this is a new format trying to occasionally place a wider range of short notices with less in depth content. Let me know if this is useful.  

Grand Central sold:

Mount Vernon sees big changes in the 1000 block with Grand Central closing, Eddies slated for demo, the Hippo turned into CVS and a few carriage structures at Morton Street proposed to be half demolished ( that proposal was nixed by CHAP). According to Ed Gunt's article in the Fishbowl the building will be converted to offices and a restaurant. It is part of the Mount Vernon local historic district. The closure is an indication on the former hub of gay gathering places is transforming after the Baltimore Pride festival has been relocated and after the LGBT communities have found wider acceptance across town.
Fishbowl
Grand Central (Photo: Ed Gunts, Fishbowl)


Trinacria Ristorante Bar closes

The Trinacria Ristorante/Bar which Deli owner Vince Favia had opened in 2014 and re-styled in 2016 is closed indefinitely. From a lengthy online discussion on the Facebook page Baltimore Voters one can glean that the closing is related to a private matter and not necessarily an indication that business wasn't good. Apparently the closure and its circumstances were discussed in detail at a recent meeting of the Mount Vernon Improvement Association.

Fishbowl reported first about the closing.
Trinacria's across from Mt Vernon Market

Schematics for new Port Covington buildings reviewed by UDAAP

Anyone who doubted whether Port Covington's new town was still alive and happening could see that plans are still moving forward when the Urban Design Advisory Panel UDAAP reviewed designs for a set of buildings to house apartments, offices and a food hall under the name Rye Street Market. ("Chapter One" also dubbed "Cyber Town USA".The designs are prepared by Hord Coplan Macht and MGMA Design and Hoerr Schaudt for landscape and site design.

BBJ- Port Covington's European-influenced Rye Street Market goes before city design panel
Port Covington: Chapter One massing in the context of the Distillery
(Foreground) (From UDAAP presentation)

Cross Street Market will open soon

The on and off Cross Street Market $8.4 million renovation undertaken by Caves Valley is now going into the final stretch for its first phase. The two phase approach was chosen after merchants who wanted to remain in the market made it clear that they could not survive a full closure.

BBJ First pase of Cross Street Market almost ready to open, Southbaltimore.com
Cross Street Market (Rendering Caves Valley Partners)

Re-applied for Howard Street tunnel refurbishment project 

Another on and off project is the freight tunnel under Howard Street which is too small to allow double stacked container freight cars to pass through and thus creates a bottleneck for freight movement from the Port of Baltimore and the entire East Coast. CSX, the owner of the tunnel had withdrawn from the project and the federal government had denied an initial application for funding. Now CSX is back and would commit $91 million with a matching amount by the State. The request to the feds is now being re-submitted for $238 million of the $466 million project. Jim Foote, the new CEO of CSX is in agreement regarding the importance: "This critical infrastructure project would position Baltimore, the state of Maryland, the mid-Atlantic and the entire nation for long-term, sustainable economic growth, reduced highway congestion and a cleaner environment," Foote wrote in a letter of support of the application addressed to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

SUN Maryland, CSX apply again for federal funding for Howard Street Tunnel expansion in Baltimore , BBJ Maryland increases commitment for Howard Street Tunnel by $56M

Monument Brewing Company tap-room now open in Highlandtown on what could be a local Highline

Breweries with integrated taprooms are all the rage. One of the newest examples is the Monument Brewing Company and their new digs at Haven Street in Highlandtown. The venue was recently the place to kick off  volunteers working on the Rail to Trails loop prominently feature in the City's Green Network Plan.  The Loop would pass right behind the Brewery where some outdoor seating already suggests the potential for a beer garden. Chris Ryer, Executive Director of the Highlandtown CDC and now Planning Director called the rail alignment and potential trail "Highlandtown's new Highline".
Currently, Monument City Brewing has two core beers — 51 Rye IPA and American Brown Ale. With the new brewery, that lineup will double with the Battle IPA being upgraded from a seasonal beer to a core product while Praay said they will also begin making a pilsner year round.
On the Grid
Monument City Brewing Co. (Photo: On the Grid)

Monument City Brewing Co. (Photo: Monument)


AIA will begin their waterfront lecture series this month

AIA Baltimore will put its traditional Spring Lecture series under the title of "Edge" this year, meaning the edge between land and water. AIA writes in their press release:
Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative has set a goal of a swimmable and fishable Inner Harbor. What could this look like? The 41st annual AIA Baltimore and BAF Spring Lecture Series invites local practitioners and globally recognized designers and scholars to address “the edge”—where the land meets the water—from a variety of perspectives: health and ecology, resiliency in the face of climate change, and social equity.

The lectures will serve as inspiration for a local design competition. Multi-disciplinary teams of architects, landscape architects, and planners are encouraged to submit designs for a project that engages the water’s edge of a future swimmable and fishable Inner Harbor. Projects will be featured in the Baltimore architectural journal T3XTURE and in an exhibit sponsored by AIA Baltimore and the BAF this fall.  
 The Spring Lecture Series is free to the public. Lectures will be held at Falvey Hall in the MICA Brown Center (1301 W Mt Royal Ave). 
AIA Spring Lecture series

March 20: Edge of Edge
Edward S. Casey, PhD, Professor, Stony Brook University
Travis Price, FAIA, Travis Price Architects/Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design, Inc.
Carmera Thomas, Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Moderator: Julio Bermudez, PhD, Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, The Catholic University of America

March 27: Engaging the Edge
Kent Bloomer, Bloomer Studio, Yale University
Misha Semenov, Yale University
Christopher Streb, Biohabitats

April 24: The Intentional and Unintentional Edge
Daniel Campo, Morgan State University
Barbara Wilks, FAIA, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture LLC

May 1: The Edge of Experience
Roger Tyrrell, CHORA, University of Portsmouth
Katie O’Meara, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)

AIA website:

Monday, March 4, 2019

What Baltimore and Rochester NY can learn from each other

On first blush Rochester and Baltimore don't seem to be in the same league. Rochester, NY with about 200,000 residents is only slightly more than a third of Baltimore's size, while its poverty rate is with over 30% a whopping third higher. But my two day immersion with stakeholders last week also showed me a lot of similarities.
Filling in a freeway: Inner Loop, Rochester NY

Both cities are industrial legacy cities hit hard by the demise of their key industries (Kodak and Bethlehem Steel, respectively), both try a recovery driven by knowledge and universities (Rochester Institute of Technology, Hopkins) and rely on the power of the waterfront  as a driver for quality of life (The Genesee River and its famous falls, Inner Harbor). Both cities are highly segregated by race, class and income and in both Caucasians are a minority.
Both have their very own civic unrests (Rochester in 1964, Baltimore in 2015).

Both cities once had a thriving downtown retail district, both were hit hard by suburbanization and urban renewal. Both are now plagued by the many vacant structures as a testament of drastic population loss. It made some sense, then, that the Community Design Center of Rochester (CDCR), a non-profit, invited me to talk as part of their lecture series Reshaping Rochester, now in its 14th year. Past speakers included many better known urban advocates, such as  Paul Goldberger, former architecture critic of the New York Times, Earl Blumenauer, Congressman from Portland, Chris Leinberger from Brookings, Dr Richard Jackson of UCLA and John Norquist, former Mayor and president of the Congress for New Urbanism.
Downtown Rochester buildings which were demolished for a convention center
Some online research and a two day immersion with stakeholders (plus a visit last year) don't qualify me to do more than superficial observations. Nevertheless, it is always interesting to see how similar the issues facing legacy cities are, and how eager each set of city boosters is to learn the latest tricks and best practices someone else may have found.

The first thing we can learn from Rochester is the format of the lecture series itself. The CDCR invites the speakers to talk at a really cool place, the auditorium inside the factory of Gleason Works, a still flourishing part of manufacturing legacy industry which makes gears of all kinds. Walking from the entry of the historic factory to the lecture hall exposes one to the smells and sights of a place where actual things are made to this day! Not relying on the movers and shakers of Rochester willingness to show up for the evening lecture, the organizers precede the event with a lunch workshop, where stakeholders and officials can quiz the guest in a smaller setting.
Povertry concentrations in both cities 

Even after the lecture, the organizers are not done. Once the speaker has left town, the CDCR is inviting for a follow up discussion sorting through suggestions and ideas that were part of the presentation and which could be applied in town.

This type of "wrap around" isn't just making best use of the effort of bringing outside speakers to Rochester, it also makes the visit much more worthwhile for the speaker. It is very clear that the City of Rochester has greatly benefited from 14 years of lectures and keynote addresses around various themes and topics compiling the best practices of urban planning around the nation.
Some comparative figures Baltimore/Rochester. (Data USA)

My topic was housing as a tool to achieve equity and health in a divided city. Shortly after landing at the airport I already toured an excellent already partly completed example of a progressive housing project in Rochester:  Charlotte on the Loop. It is a mixed-income, mixed-use project with contemporary architecture with extremely low income housing units and transitional housing units right next to market rate, 60-80% area median income (AMI) and condos. This alone is courageous and quite rare, even in a time where mixed income housing is generally promoted. But the kicker is this: The project sits in part on top of one of the past injustices of urban renewal: It sits on the filled in portion of what used to be Rochester's Inner Loop, a depressed freeway of the kind we call the highway to nowhere in Baltimore.
The Inner Loop East Transformation Project converted a sunken section of expressway to the east of Downtown to an at-grade "complete street," that will include bicycle and walking paths. (City of Rochester website)
Charlotte on the Loop rendering (Home Leasing)
The Inner Loop encircles downtown like a moat, and it was designed not only as a failed transportation solution but also as a barrier against the low income areas to the north of the city center. Based on a plan that was initially devised some 20 years ago, Rochester managed to receive a $16.7 million federal TIGER grant for the$21 million project to fill the first 5 blocks of the freeway and redirect the traffic onto a newly created urban boulevard. By contrast, Baltimore's TIGER grant demolished only the very end of the "highway to nowhere" and created simply MTA parking with just an option of future development. Rochester's Charlotte on the Loop project is spearheaded by Home Leasing, a development and construction company headquartered in Rochester but with work across New York State. The company is also the main sponsor of the CDCR lecture series.
Erie Harbor: New mixed income housing on the foundation of
"a project". 

A similarly innovative mixed income project is Erie Harbor, a mixed income development on the shore of the Genesee which re-used foundations and first floor walls of a public housing project to save the cost of new foundations on the poor soils of the shore area and build an up to date mixed income community. The colorful new upper stories are now attractive riverfront apartments, an affordable highrise tower received the same color treatment but remained low income housing.

Of interest for Rochester could be the two Baltimore models of specialized affordable housing for artists and teachers employed by Jubilee and Seawall respectively, in the artist case with new construction and for the teachers with adaptive reuse at Miller's Court in Remington and the former Union Mill in Hampden.

Rochester is also a good example of innovative and socially just adaptive re-use. The best example maybe the conversion of Cunningham Carriage factory which was converted to  seventy-one affordable and special needs apartments by DePaul, a private, not-for-profit organization founded in 1958 that provides services in Addiction Prevention and Support Services, Affordable Housing, Mental Health ResidentialSenior Living Communities, Support Programs and Vocational Programs. The building is located directly next to the thriving Susan B. Anthony historic district but is part of a collection of similar still vacant warehouses awaiting to be used.
DePaul Carriage Factory conversion to low income and service housing
(Photo: DePaul)
Not all is good in Rochester. In spite of a 2010 masterplan, prepared by the renowned planning form Sasaki, downtown consistsof parking lots and parking garages  to an extent that far exceeds anything Baltimore has ever seen and is more akin to what Houston used to look like. In 2015 the city gained the dubious Golden Crater Award from Streetsblog, "Rochester prevailed over some of the most asphalt-scarred cities in America, muscling out Miami, Detroit and Kansas City before pummeling Jacksonville, Fla., in the final round", the Democrat and Chronicle wrote at the time and notes that there are 26,306 parking spaces across the 70 blocks that make up downtown.
Downtown: Wide streets, pedestrians on bridges, historic churches and
modernist towers make for a not very pedestrian friendly setting
(photo: Philipsen)

There is an impressive influx of housing into downtown, including the conversion of the 1972 modernist Lincoln Tower (later Chase Tower) into mixed use  with 11 floors of office space, 7 floors of market rate apartments, and 4 floors of condominiums. In Baltimore no urban renewal type office towers such as the ones at Charles Center have yet been converted to apartments, possibly because of a stronger office market.

According to the Rochester City Newspaper, a total of 822 new units have been completed downtown since 2010, and 22 new projects with nearly 1900 units are planned(Baltimore reports 8,800 new and planned downtown units).Still, Rochester's city center is still far from featuring a contiguous urban fabric. The demolition of a large indoor mall complex was the right idea, but so far the carved out development parcels sit unused and the community is split about future uses, especially for the so-called parcel 5.
Downtown Rochester in its hey-days
A key piece of the former Midtown Plaza property, Parcel 5 is one of the most important development sites in the city. It's in the heart of downtown, and it fronts on Main Street, and whatever goes there could have a major impact on the city's center for generations. It's also at the center of a major controversy involving City Hall, developers, leaders of performing arts organizations, and public-space activists....City officials have been trying to figure out what to do with the Midtown Plaza site literally for decades. The Plaza, which occupied 8.6 acres, was once a bustling retail center paired with an office tower. As suburban development and consumers' shopping habits changed, Midtown Plaza slowly emptied out. And city officials looked for new uses.(City Newspaper 7/2018)
A big boost for downtown could come from using the secret weapon which put Baltimore's renewal on the map: Waterfront revitalization. Reclaiming the downtown section of  the Genesee River, though, is mostly still an idea on paper for downtown where the 24 miles trail system still needs to be completed.
Genesee Falls, the local attraction

Just like in Baltimore, several neighborhoods near downtown are experiencing a renaissance, in part driven by breweries. In 2012 CityLab attested Rochester a unique place among "rustbelt" revival cities. Just as in Baltimore, some neighborhoods have always been great and remained that way. Strong City once mentioned three, especially the Park Avenue neighborhood on the East end of town. The north side of town with its many two story walk up public housing units is very different. Except for a few historic churches all the historic urban fabric is gone in favor of low density vinyl siding housing sitting on barren lawns. While Baltimore's disinvested neighborhoods are located in once thriving communities, Rochester's poor live in areas that were designed for poverty making a recovery even more difficult.
Park Avenue, an intact historic neighborhoods with popular restaurants
at its commercial nodes (Photo: Philipsen)

Rochester's planning director is fully vested in the "middle neighborhoods" strategy which Baltimore had also embraced under Martin O'Malley and Planning Director Otis Rolley. It is based on the "building from strength" "triage strategy" that states that it is cheaper and more effective to invest in a middle neighborhood and keep it from sliding than investing in an area that has no market at all, such as Sandtown. After Freddy Gray which made Sandtown nationally known, the "middle neighborhood" strategy has become untenable because it had been recognized as perpetuating inequity and disproportionally spending capital funds in white areas. For 2019 Baltimore ramped up its capital investments in African American communities.

The equity coordinator in Planning, the Green Network Plan with its emphasis on equity and green spaces in disinvested communities, Baltimore's reinvestment fund, Opportunity Zone designations, the community benefits agreements and the brand-new Baltimore Sustainability Plan, are all items which Rochester could use as best practices gleaned from Baltimore.
The power of a peaceful snow covered historic
neighborhood  (Photo: Philipsen)

One piece of resilience and sustainability, of course, Baltimoreans can learn from folks in Rochester: How to deal with snow. My lecture took place when it snowed all day. By evening all roads were covered in white, plowing and salting not withstanding. The lecture was not cancelled and the auditorium filled at least two thirds, even though everybody had to get the snow off their cars afterwards in temperatures in the teens. The next morning I noticed that side streets remained not salted, and cars were gliding by in the kind of silence only a snow covered road provides. The idea of saving money and protect trees and groundwater from salt pollution is one we should adopt.

Klaus Philpsen, FAIA