Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Convention Center's biggest problem is Baltimore

Baltimore leaders continue to peddle the notion that Baltimore could land all those big conventions if only the Convention Center were bigger and newer.

Even though there may be the one or the other event that has trouble fitting into the 1.2 million square feet we can offer, the fixation on the size of the center is grossly misleading. Everyone who ever went to a convention knows that most convention organizers aim for a geographic mix while looking for the really cool cities where everyone wants to go. An attractive city with a stellar image boosts attendance and is the root of the business model.
The Baltimore  Convention Center is bunker-like and
blocked off by too many lanes of traffic 

Is Baltimore the city everyone wants to go? It certainly could be, just as much as Pittsburgh, New Orleans or Detroit, but it isn't and hasn't been for a while.

Its not only the overall image of Baltimore that is an obstacle ("is it safe?", "are they competent there?") but also the setting of the center itself, the nearby hotels and what one sees when stepping out the Convention Center!

The times when conventioneers wanted to check into a hotel and walk from their bed straight into the nearest ballroom presentation, without ever stepping outside, are over. Today most people come for the urban experience. Many organizers complement their program with tours and programs in nearby facilities that allow participants to get a whiff of their host city. Baltimore's Convention Center opens up to Pratt, Conway, Charles and Sharp Streets. Each street is duller than the next, in part because of the bleak facades of the Center itself, but also because the other side of the street not only doesn't look much better but also is utterly unreachable because of all the traffic. As such, the Convention Center not only fails to attract enough visitors, it is also a drag on the city. Just consider, how wonderfully the westside of downtown could flow into Otterbein without it!

Baltimore cannot be expected to compete with nearby "class A" convention locations such as NYC, Philly or DC. Instead we need to corner a market that isn’t in direct competition with those neighbors. Maybe in the "B market" to which Baltimore should cater the 1.2 million area it has is just fine, considering that the larger the center, the larger the potential dead-zone in the city it creates. 1.2 million square feet, if spruced up, are a lot of space!
Walking along here provides little pleasure. But it would be easy to fix this
(photo: Philipsen)

Just take Nashville: Because its a hip city on every list noted as "up-and-coming", they also built a brand new convention center for nearly a a billion dollars.

But the center in Nashville is compact with its 1.2 million sf, the same size we currently have. It looks attractive from almost any perspective and it easily hooks up with other nearby attractions such as their arena and the Bridgestone Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame. It doesn't have any imposing port vehicle delivery areas, not in the front or the back.

The surrounding Nashville streets are lively most of the time and one can easily walk to Broadway and the various bars and restaurants. There is a lot of traffic in Nashville (they hardly have transit) but aside nothing roars directly by in the manner Pratt and Conway Streets where traffic has highest priority.  No street next to Nashville's center is as dull as that block of Charles Street between Conway and Pratt which makes it impossible to imagine that the Inner Harbor is only a stone-throw away.
Face of the Nashville Convention Center: Outdoor terrace

Of course, the Inner Harbor itself is tired. On the way to HarborPlace the recent added street level activity at the corner of Pratt and Light is welcome, but the devastated McKedlin Plaza and the back of the now marginal Light Street pavilion present only more barriers,  far from exuding any coolness. (When was the last time that "Ripley's Believe or not?" was cool)?

Adventurous souls who want to explore downtown are certainly not enticed to do so. Venturing north from the Convention Center is no fun, no matter which route one tries: Eutaw or Howard Street, Hopkins Plaza, Charles, Light or Calvert Street. In each case at least the initial block is dreadful, often a lot more. Chief among deadening elements: Parking garages and surface parking lots. Equally awful for the much touted "pedestrian experience" are hotel loading zones, the brutalist facade of a fire-station with trucks blocking the sidewalk and the general lack of street trees, sidewalk cafes or retail. 

Eying their options,  conventioneers will inevitably amble towards the water's edge and stay there like caged animals. If they are persistent enough to not being deterred by parking lots and garages even in this most prestigious waterfront zone, or by interesting but impenetrable buildings like the Columbus Center and the condos of Scarlett Place, they will eventually find Harbor East and its smaller and livelier streets and restaurants, even though there is no way-finding to guide them there. Nothing tells them that even further out, along the promenade there would be also historic Fells Point, an area far more interesting than any section of Nashville. Yet there is no real promenade signage and walk access to Fells Point has been blocked  by the Central Avenue bridge construction and the construction of the Whole Foods tower there for years. The walk route around HarborPoint is now possible thanks to the awful car-centric new bridge, but once again, there is no guidance and only insiders who know "Sandlot" would venture there.
Parking garage on the horizon: Why would one want
to go here? And this is one of the better pathways
north!

Back at HarborPlace and the Convention Center, the entire freeway-ersatz network of Key Highway, Light, Pratt, and President Streets ringing the harbor is a deterrent for pedestrians ensuring visitors won't venture into the old downtown.

With just 63 annual events per the latest report, the Convention Center is far from fully booked. What should be done?

Sure, a few upgrades inside and on the facades of facilities would be good. A outdoor seating area along Convay Street on top of the awful plinth with the big exhibit halls below would be easy to do and potentially an attraction for ballpark visitors and conventioneers. The idea of combining a new arena with the convention center is creative and nobdy will cry about the loss of the Sheraton Hotel for this purpose.

Yet, nothing will work, as long as Baltimore continues to project incompetency, corruption and crime. Eeventually, Baltimore will become interesting again, in the same way New Orleans and Detroit worked their way out of the swamp. In the meantime a lot could be done to bring the areas surrounding the Convention Center up to snuff.
The Sheraton facing Conway Street: As pedestrian
unfriendly as possible (Photo: Philipsen)

To be perfectly clear for all those who say: Who cares? All those collateral improvements would foremost benefit Baltimore's residents. The benefit to visitors, conventioneers and the resulting economic impacts would be secondary.

In that, the convention center is, just like Pimlico, another example, that Baltimore's future isn't either for tourists or for residents (the typical binary approach), but the two are inextricably intertwined. In other words, the center can only recover when Baltimore recovers.

Klaus Philipsen

Related on this blog:
Convention Center: 
is bigger really better?
Nashville 2018 Financial report 
Too much traffic, too many lanes and the pavilion as a
barrier: Access to HarborPlace from the west.
(Photo: Philipsen)

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Baltimore Jail - Historic but to be demolished anyway

One would think that solid, 120 year old  buildings constructed from solid granite should stand a chance to be preserved, especially if they are recognizable Baltimore City landmarks, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and undisputed historically "contributing" structures. Historic preservation can fine even a mayor $500 a day for having the wrong shingles on a house. The Maryland General Assembly didn't give the State any funds to replace the demolished structures. But nope, the jail is on course to go the way of the News American, the Redwood Towers, the Mechanic Theater and the McKeldin Fountain. There isn't even a stipulation to save the granite.
Entry to the Tower  (Photo Philipsen)

The buildings in question are owned by the State of Maryland.  By necessity the State had to run through the Section 106 process that is known from national environmental law and designed to protect historic or environmental assets. The State adopted the same provisions even where no federal funds are used. The Maryland Historical Trust Act’s “Section 106” sets out procedures that require engaging community members and other interested parties in a process that allows the parties to understand a state agency’s proposal and to evaluate alternatives and mitigation where historic buildings could be impacted or demolished. At least that is the idea.

In question here is the Maryland Penitentiary complex in central Baltimore City. It is a 7.4-acre area of correctional buildings constructed between 1811 and 1995. Or as the Maryland Historic Trust "eligibility form" describes it:
The Maryland Penitentiary complex is significant as a largely intact collection of architecturally distinctive prison structures dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is eligible for listing under National Register
Rendering of the Jail in 1900
Warden John F. Weyler, appointed in 1888, undertook an ambitious construction program at the penitentiary, drawing on the latest ideas in prison design. Weyler commissioned architect Jackson C. Gott to design the Administration Building and O’Brien House, West Wing, and Boiler House. Completed in 1899, these buildings demonstrate a uniform Romanesque Revival aesthetic rendered in local Maryland granite. The new penitentiary buildings were state of the art facilities at the time of their construction. Soon after their completion, two additional buildings were constructed. Building A, designed by Baltimore architect Hugh S. Magruder, was constructed in 1902 to serve as a brush factory. C-Block, built in 1907 as a new women’s cell block, was designed by architect Charles M. Anderson of Baltimore. 

Prison complex overview.  All tan structures are contributing
Architect Jackson C. Gott designed the MTC West Wing, completed in 1899, as a cell-block wing connected to the Administration Building. Originally, the overall design of the Penitentiary included a south wing as well, but it was demolished for the construction of D-Block (Building 009), in 1995. The Romanesque Revival West Wing features characteristic elements such as rough-faced stone masonry, paired windows, and towers. The wing extends along E. Eager Street, and measures approximately 350 feet in length by fifty-five feet in width. The linear-plan wing exhibits a pitched standing-seam metal roof, and terminates in a square-plan, pyramidal-roofed “keep” with corner towers. Structurally, the wing consists of an outer shell of coursed Port Deposit granite block and an interior free-standing, five-tier, steel cell block on a concrete foundation and sub-basement. The ground story is composed of larger granite blocks, while the upper portion of the exterior is constructed of smaller blocks. The sides and top of the interior cell block do not touch the outer shell, effectively creating a prison within a prison, as the building was frequently described historically.

Warden House (The Castle, building 102 on map)
It is important to note, that although one could reasonably argue for separating the historic and architectural value of the buildings from correctional practices and the need for reform for more social justice and equity.

The State of Maryland and its Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) in there argument fr demolition are playing these two aspects against each other when they try to substantiate why so many buildings in the complex need to be demolished. But historically, the buildings and justice reform have always been intertwined even if that may not be obvious today. Again quoting from the MHT documentation:
Prior to the American Revolution, Colonial prisons were largely associated with severe corporal punishment and public executions. By the late eighteenth century, reformers, such as John Howard of Great Britain, began to articulate a more progressive approach to incarceration. [...] 
Following grand jury investigations into conditions at the penitentiary, and Weyler’s persistence, the state appropriated $250,000 in 1890 for the construction of a new penitentiary. The appropriation was distributed in increments of $50,000 per year, and in 1894 the Jail Board had sufficient funds to acquire the property situated between Eager and Truxton Streets, to the north of the existing complex, and break ground on the new buildings.14
Weyler planned the layout of the complex. He studied the latest ideas in prison design, with an eye towards convenience, sanitation, security, and extensibility. In 1893, Weyler and architect Jackson C. Gott visited the state penitentiary at Allegheny City, Pennsylvania and the reformatory at Elmira, New York. Weyler was impressed with the prison at Allegheny City, particularly its ventilation and lighting systems and the arrangement of its workshops. In addition, Weyler took note of the emphasis placed on vocational and educational programs at Elmira, intended to reform the incarcerated and ease their transition back into society.
Building 109 on map with tower (Photo: Philipsen)
Now, there is no doubt that prisons in the United States today have little to do with "correction" and "rehabilitation" and that the historic City Jail does not comply with modern standards of justice. Anyone who has toured the D Block (with the steel cell block inside the building) will come away with the depressing feeling that these accommodations were less human than lion cages. In fact, the correctional system has been under a consent decree for a long time.

The question, therefore, is, how a modern jail can either coexist with historic preservation or be exercised in a new location. In violation of the spirit of Section 106 which seeks to minimize adverse impacts, the demolition plans by the Division of Corrections did NOT consider various options with a range of impact mitigation. In fact, the demolition is sought BEFORE any design for a new facility has been developed because no funds for design or construction of a new facility have been appropriated. The assumption that all buildings suggested for demolition need to go to allow a new facility to be constructed is based on nothing but a bubble diagram and a rough estimate of the needed program space. Not considered are options such as maintaining the front wall of the D block as a perimeter security wall that a new facility would still need. Not considered either is a hopefully shrinking prison population.

The 106 process which included three meetings with "consulting parties" representing the preservation interest brought  a small success in that a few building elements were removed from phase 1 demolition. This is documented in a Memorandum with MHT. It states:
DPSCS shall retain and preserve the Maryland Penitentiary’s Building 005/Administration Tower, and the Building 006/O’Brien House attached to the front of Building 005/Administration Tower, as well as seventy-two (72) feet length of the Maryland Penitentiary’s Building 109/West Wing to include the first set of turrets on the North and South side and two full arched windows, as shown in Exhibit D. [...]  
DPSCS has [also] removed the Building 102/Castle Building/Warden’s House at 300 East Madison Street from the State of Maryland’s demolition plan and the construction base bid package for the current Undertaking. Once the Therapeutic Treatment Center project is funded, DPSCS shall develop and consider alternatives for the treatment of the Building 102/Castle Building/Warden’s House. Such alternatives may include retention and rehabilitation, salvage, demolition, relocation, or other measures.
Demolition compromised (blue remains)
This "compromise" is better than the initially sought full demolition, but it ignores much of the findings of the State's own historic agency, namely the value of assembly as a whole. The  MHT eligibility document is quite clear about the value of the ensemble in its summary :
Considered as a whole, the Maryland Penitentiary complex maintains sufficient integrity of Location, Design, Setting, Materials, Workmanship, Feeling, and Association needed to convey significance within the context of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century incarceration and prison design. The six contributing structures all retain important character-defining exterior features. Integrity of Design, Materials, and Workmanship are retained through the presence of original stone masonry, arched window forms, towers and crenellation of rooflines, and elements, such as clustered columns, foliate capitals, and ornate moldings, that are specifically associated with the Romanesque Revival style and the architecture of the late Victorian period. Integrity of Design is further enhanced by the retention of much of the basic layout of the complex and the historic spatial relationships between the buildings.
The photo illustrates the massive scale of the construction
(Photo Philipsen)
Note that in the MOU DPSCS still maintains the option to demolish the landmarked Warden House ("Castle") in the future.

So, how is it possible that the Correctional folks can plow forward with demolition of history in spite of  all those findings? The answer is that local laws mean nothing to the State. Local historic district rules and local landmarks can safely be ignored by the State. National Register District eligibility has no teeth at all, it only allows for benefits such as historic tax credits. Thus, MHT had no choice but to agree "that the fulfillment of the terms of this MOA will satisfy the responsibilities of any Maryland state agency under the requirements of the Maryland Historical Trust Act of 1985".

The "consulting parties" included AIA Baltimore, Preservation Maryland, Baltimore Heritage and representatives from CHAP. All tell me that there is no legal recourse against what the State plans to do.

It is sad to see structures that stood for over a century disappear only because the current administration wants to see them go for the possible day when money for a new jail may be available. Those structures could stand another 100 years until Baltimore City has sorted itself out, the elevated JFX has been removed, the Jones Falls been day-lit again and the monumental jail structures could be part of a farmers market, a climbing gym or a maker space or something we just haven't imagined yet.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Water Taxi: Ridership down by 68%, so is service

Per their website the Baltimore Water Taxi system has only 36% of its landings open and runs its taxis at 1/2 hour schedules on weekends only. On a beautiful Wednesday afternoon with plenty of people strolling around, no vessel was in sight at the Harborplace stop or anywhere else. This wasn't how the service was run before Plank Industries owned it.
Waiting for Godot at HarborPlace: No water taxi
during the week in April (Photo: Philipsen)

Michael McDaniel, President and CEO of the Baltimore Water Taxi now owned by Plank Industries explains the reduced service this way:
The number of riders has significantly declined since 2015 from a high of 300,000+ to last year’s total of 96,000.  As you can imagine if any business lost 68% of their clientele it would directly affect their bottom line.  We are no exception and the impact of this has required us to scale things down. 
One has to wonder what is cause and effect. No doubt, Baltimore has been hit by its declining reputation and tourist numbers are down across the board. Still, its a catch 22. Once service becomes unreliable and unpredictable or inconvenient, ridership will drop further. Obviously, a decrease in service was not how the new partnership with Plank Industries  was envisioned. To the contrary, expectations were high when Under Armour's Sagamore was associated with the system and replaced the light and fragile vessels with  all new made-in-Baltimore boats for a significant cost.
Fancy no boats but no service

McDaniel explains the dramatic ridership loss with a whole litany of reasons. He wrote to me:

The decline in ridership for the Baltimore Water Taxi can be contributed to a lot of things:
  • Low tourism rates.  Number one question we are asked, "is that area safe?"
  • Low foot-traffic around Harbor Place and Fell's Point.
  • Competition with Uber, Lyft, Lime, Bird, Spin, and Jump as the "fun" and affordable way of getting around the water
  • Availability of affordable parking
One silver lining is an uptick in riders on the free commuter water shuttle Harbor Connector which is paid by the City and has maintained its schedule. McDaniel states that the service reduction on the tourist boats is based on an analysis under the following aspects:
"This Landing is Closed": Science Center
- System design (i.e., Harbor Connector vs. Baltimore Water Taxi)
- Historical ridership patterns/habits
- Current operating conditions
- Future ridership demands
- Financial
Scooters taking the butter off the bread for the Water Taxi?
He agrees that the drop in ridership and service is disheartening and says he wished 
"we can run the service 365 days a year from every location with direct routing and ample parking for zero dollars and zero cents.  However, that's not reality.  As stated we lost 68% of our ridership which means 68% of our revenue is gone.  I have to believe you understand what a loss like that does to a small business like ours. 
McDaniel considers the 2019 changes temporary as the company continues to evaluate routes and landings.  The Water Taxi operates under a license with the City of Baltimore which was renewed after Michelle Pourciau came on board as DOT Director, however under terms that were spelled out in a RFP that had been developed before her arrival and which, for example, spells out that the free Connector commuter shuttle service has to be operated under its own brand. McDaniel assures that

 of course, we are in close consultation with the City and in compliance with local, state, and federal regulations up to and including our contract.    
Plenty  of folks want to ride those boats on a Wednesday afternoon
An inquiry with DOT regarding requirements of the license agreement did not provide an immediate answer. Director Porciau stated that the department is looking into the matter. Trouble with the Water Taxi mirrors the calamities with another recently re-licensed transportation service, the Charm City Circulator. Here, too, was the RFP written in such a manner that optimal operations were made difficult. The previous operator, Veolia Transportation (Transdev) was sued by the City about services not performed but paid.  The current operator, RMA, has no experience with a fixed route transit system as large as the Charm City Circulator. After the departure of Transdev, Circulator service was severely curtailed because RMA didn't have enough buses or operators. It isn't clear if all those issues have since been resolved. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA





Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The short life of the West Covington Park

New fun zone "Southpoint" at West Covington: Much more barren
than "Sandlot" at Harborpoint  (Photo Philipsen)
Three years are a short time for a park with hundreds of trees and plants to take root. Three years are also a short time for a $4.7 million investment, especially if it involves public funds. Three years are not enough for nature to engage in the way envisioned by Ayers Saint Gross landscape architects when they designed the 12.2-acre brownfield as a conservation demonstration park for habitats for migratory birds and native insect populations.
The park opened to the public in 2015.

In 2018 much of the initial design has been removed in favor of an outdoor bar called "Southpoint" operating out of containers and trailers. Recently a large tent and a stormwater rock catch bassin were added. A large part of the most important elements for conservation and habitat restoration has been removed: The vegetation. The recreational pier, the gateway and some educational signage and trails are still in place.

What happened?

The City sold the contaminated brownfield to the Aquarium in 2007 for $250,000. The Aquarium wanted to build an aquatic life center here but eventually withdrew from the project after spending about $3 million for environmental clean-up of the polluted site and over $4 million for the park design including a federal grant and State money. They thus fulfilled the City's requirments set forth in the land disposition agreement. In December 2016 the Aquarium sold the land to Sagamore Development which is now called Weller Development for $4.63 million. Apparently Weller sees benefit in more active uses on the parkland.
Drinks instead of birds: West Covington Park
(Photo Philipsen)

In Baltimore where resources are always scarce, the partial undoing of a brand-new park is pretty unsettling for a number of reasons:
  • removal of hundreds of plants that had barely a chance to grow seems like a big waste
  • converting a habitat restoration on the fragile Middle Branch into ballfields and an "adult playground" is environmentally a step backwards
  • the removal of the waterfront vegetation seems counter to the goals set forth in the Port Covington Masterplan  which are supposedly grounded on ecological principles developed by Biohabitats, a consultant to Sagamore. The Port Covington Masterplan is quite specific: 
The Port Covington Master Plan embraces the goals of improving water quality, providing a natural environment for fish and waterfowl, and creating a public amenity in an urban setting. [...] Restore and enhance shoreline habitats that promote connectivity to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, and life throughout the Chesapeake Bay. [...]  Restore and maximize habitat for waterfowl, neo-tropical songbirds and indigenous resident birds and bats. Explore ecological function of parcels prior to development; create temporary landscape installations beneficial to wildlife and water management. Use biomimicry to design urban habitat and water features. (Masterplan)
The Port Covington masterplan mentions West Port Covington Park only in passing as a "privately owned publicly accessible park". No mention is made in regards to its future disposition, even though in renderings it was shown as a park with the original design.
The West Covington Park as originally designed
If folks were angry about that Christmas tree debacle they should be furious about this! (Facebook entry on a discussion about West Covington Park)
The use of parts of the park for an outdoor beer garden, exercise field and sandlot will certainly draw additional users to the site, similar to Sandlot on HarborPoint, a hugely popular pop-up bar and adult playground and Nick's Fish House just on the other side of the Hanover Street bridge and connected to the West Covington Park by a bike and hike trail. The question is,
  • how the modification complies with requirements for design in in Critical Areas (the zones along the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries 
  • how the removal of Critical Area vegetation is mitigated
  • and how the new design fits with the original goals which included habitats and wildlife. 
The Department of Planning is dealing with the Critical Areas and the necessary mitigation for the plants which were removed before approval was given. The development team is said to be fully cooperative in devising the mitigation plan.
Lawns do little to contain runoff or provide habitat: The park after
the removal of the plants and trees (Photo Philipsen)
The big question is how the restructuring of the development team affects progress, intent and design of Port Covington as it was originally presented. Given the fanfare with which this project had been introduced and the vehemence with which it had been discussed, there is very little known how Under Armour's headwinds and Plank's withdrawal from the development team may affect the project.

One has to assume that Weller Development is now more removed from Kevin Plank and the Under Armour corporation and that the development of Port Covington is less driven by a new Under Armour headquarters which originally was the driver. UA has reduced the number of employees at Tide Point, presumably making a move and a costly new campus less urgent and likely.
The original vegetation (ASG website)

While the urgency has changed, Weller Development maintains that things continue to move along as planned. "Chapter 1" development north of the Sagamore distillery was recently presented to the City's design review panel. The Weller team also has continues its contact with the SB7 group of communities which are engaged under the large community benefits agreement that was part of the $600 million plus TIF agreement. At this point, no TIF bonds have been issued and, accordingly, no TIF money has been drawn.

Sagamore sign on the site still espouses wild life
(Photo Philipsen)
It is plausible that the Weller team would change how it capitalizes on assets. Rumor had it that the group wanted to sell Westport which Sagamore had obtained in a foreclosure sale after developer Pat Turner failed to be able to refinance the deal. Such a sale apparently hasn't materialized to date.  Rumor also has it that Weller development is trying to have its partner Goldmann Sachs develop an Opportunity Fund in the order of $150 million which could be for investments in the Port Covington area. The Foundery in City Garage, the cluster of start-ups right next to the West Covington Park, recently left the garage without a clear future. Plank Industries had partnered with it and apparently dropped the partnership. The maker space plans to return to the building on Central Avenue it originally came from.

The changes on West Covington Park may not be a big deal in the context of the 250 acre Port Covington "new town". But it could be a sign for a less innovative approach. Beer drinking has always trumped bird watching.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Article on Community Architect Daily about the Park: Baltimore's newest park at West Covington
Baltimore Brew about the opening of the park
Baltimore Brew about the recent changes






Monday, April 22, 2019

How come Nashville is growing and Baltimore is shrinking?

After some years of stability and Mayor Rawlings Blake's goal of growing by 20,000 Households, Baltimore City is hemorrhaging again at a furious pace: Between July 2017 and 2018 the city lost 7,346 people, according to census figures published last week. That is 1.2% of the population in a single year, leaving the City precariously close to the 600,000 mark! (According to the census 25% of US cities lost population in 2017/18).
Population losses depicted in 2010. The red butterfly
areas loose population but overall black population
stays stable.

Meanwhile places that many consider flyover country, i.e. far away from the popular coasts, are outpacing Baltimore in population without having Johns Hopkins, a seaport, the vicinity to Washington or access to the nation's only high speed passenger rail , to name just a few of Baltimore's unique advantages. One such place is Nashville which is now at least 10% more populous than Baltimore! A city that was long considered a backwater, or as one of their own puts it:
“... for many years we had this hee-haw country reputation. Combine that with people’s stereotypes of the South, and there was a real reticence for people to come here. Ken Levitan, founder and CEO of Vector Management as quoted by Forbes
Could it be that popular culture is the driver in a time when even the presidency is modeled after a television sequel ("see what happens"). Nashville's artist manager, career consultant, entertainment lawyer, producer, publisher, and booking agent Levitan certainly thinks so:
Then that all changed. When Kings of Leon exploded in Europe, they talked up Nashville everywhere they went. When the Titans got the Super Bowl in 1999 that gave us worldwide exposure. The TV show ‘Nashville’ showed that we were really a modern city.” Ken Levitan.
Nashville cranes: 4th fastest growing city in the US (Photo: Philipsen)
Think about it: Baltimore had The Wire and Nashville had, well, Nashville. That Lavitan gives music, sport and TV as the drivers of Nashville's explosive growth may come with his territory, but what if he is right? One would wish the real answer to be deeper and more meaningful. (For a statistical analysis see here)

It isn't that Nashville is free from metrics which Baltimore typically uses to explain its stagnation:  Both cities have a history of systemic racism and racial segregation (redlining), both had bad urban renewal plans ransacking neighborhoods with urban freeways (actually, Nashville has more of them), both had recently a mayor falling from grace through scandal. Both cities had an exodus of once important industries and both are seen as having poor transit. Both lost a major plan to invest in transit and both cities have a state government that is at times outright hostile to their blue island cities initiatives.  Heck, Schermerhorn, where Baltimore has the BMA, Nasville has the Frist. In both instances, Baltimore has the older institution with wider recognition.  One area where Nashville is a clear winner is crime: With a murder rate of around 100 it is only 1/3 as deadly as Baltimore. In both cities the Police Department is accused of a police culture of “fear, violence, racism, and impunity”.
Odessa Kelly: Stand-up Nashville
Tennessee State government even banned Nashville from having bus lanes. The transit system has only 1/3 of Baltimore's number of buses and only 1/10 of Baltimore's transit ridership. In Nashville there is no subway, no light rail, there are no passenger trains at all! Baltimore's convention center is older, but it isn't any smaller than Nashville's brandnew and overbooked convention center, in fact, they are exactly the same size. Nashville doesn't have major league baseball and its NFL stadium sits separated from downtown on the other side of the Cumberland River.  Where Baltimore has the Meyerhoff Symphony, Nashville has the

Nashville (founded 1784) has now surpassed Baltimore (1729) in size with its 667,000 residents which includes the non urbanized areas of Davidson County with which Nashville is united as a metro area since 1963 when Nashville itself had a bit more than 170,000 residents. (Baltimore in 1963: 930,000 residents).
From BNIA report 2015
Even in 2010 Nashville was with 601,000 people still smaller then Baltimore is today.  Forbes has defined Nashville as the 4th fastest growing city in America while Baltimore is only one of a handful of cities that continues to shrink in spite of the global urban renaissance and an economy that is in the 11th year of growth. In spite of being a southern city, Nashville now also has a lower poverty rate (18%) than Baltimore (24%).
“Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows
where he’s going.” LeCorbusier, The City of Tomorrow (1924)
A station without trains: Nashville
(Photo: Philipsen)
There isn't consensus in Nashville that the growth and economic development is a good thing. Just as in Baltimore, there is a lot of concern about gentrification, about developers running the show and working people getting the shaft. Community activist Odessa Kelly of "Stand-up Nashville" speaks for many when she asks “For every crane that’s going in the air, you should ask, ‘Is this building a pathway out of poverty, or trapping somebody into debt?’" and organizes against further displacement of people that "look like her". She told recent ULI participants that "this monstrosity" [the convention center] was one example for displacement. Developers, on the other hand, can never see enough cranes in the sky:
“Ten years ago there were gangs and crack dealers hanging out under I-65, recalls. My friends thought I was crazy to invest there.” Jim Creason, CEO of Trust Development.
Creason’s company was one of the first to start re-developing North Nashville, which includes Germantown as early as 2005. At the time Germantown’s historic core with a good number of landmarked buildings was disinvested and neglected. Many homes were boarded up or in disrepair. Not even the streetlights worked properly.  Creason first bought four vacant in-fill lots that were overgrown with weeds and full of trash. Today north Nashville is an area full of development, in spite of its tendency to flood when the Cumberland River goes over its banks.
Not very numerous: Buses of the Nashville MTA
(Photo: Philipsen)

Still, folks in Tennessee seemed to be more agreeable. In a recent discussion among civil rights leaders even those decrying displacement agreed that the City and State had pretty good leaders, which is a remarkable finding, given the political differences. Mayor, Megan Barry who resigned in disgrace as part of a guilty plea after engaging in an affair with her security detail and directing public funds to support the tryst expressed the Nashville attitude:
“Nashville is a place where people say ‘Here’s what can I do for you’, instead of asking what you can do for me, and it shows,” Mayor Barry tells me. “We are the friendliest, warmest, and most welcoming city in America. We’re diverse. We’re progressive. But we’re also pro-business. We still have that small town feel with lots of small businesses that are bringing their creativity and passion here, and it creates this unique culture that you don’t find anywhere else in America.” (Former Mayor Megan Barry)
The red state nixing dedicated bus lanesinclusionary zoning and a city ban of single use plastic and collaborating with the Koch brothers to kill an ambitious $5.2 billion plan for transit in referendum have left little in terms of ill will or bad feelings. The transit referendum was flawed many reflect today.
Absent transit scooters are all the rage
(Photo: Philipsen)

Aside from music, sports and TV shows, Nashville also eked out a nice spot in the world of start-ups and innovation. With a reputation as a backwater, like Baltimore, it initially lacked an organized system for venture capital to attract start-ups and new industries. Like Charm City it had a reputation of being a backwater.

But the leaders did something about it. They created the Nashville Entrepreneur Center in 2010, as an organized network for local venture capital, mentorship and incubation of real estate, Launch Tennessee, is a public-private partnership fostering entrepreneurship across the state. The initiative grew out of the annual 36|86 Entrepreneurship and Technology Conference now in its seventh year. It brings together business leaders, investors, and entrepreneurs from across the country. AOL Co-founder Steve Case, nationwide promoting venture capital in regions that have little of it, was also in Baltimore to beat the drum. But in Nashville his pitch got so much traction that the city has gained a reputation as a magnet for start-ups.
Nashville Symphony  (Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore has its own share of music, sports and movie lore. Robert Altman's 1975 film about Nashville was nearly as dark as Randy Newman's 1977 song Baltimore. Barry Levinson's and John Water's Baltimore films laid a sound foundation for cultural iconography and branding.   and may have been on a trajectory where it could have cut free from its image as "mobtown" when the economy embarked on its longest stretch of growth in recent history. But it did not recover from the 2015 unrest, the loss of State funds for the Red Line and State Center and the most recent loss of trust in government. All this forms current reality and perception.

In an age of branding where reality shapes art and art shapes reality, Baltimore's current funk may well bear the seed of a shift that has yet to come. If there would be some consensus where to go, we may actually get there.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Nashville Past and Present.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

We got the bus lanes. Now we need to make them work!

In the age of incessant package delivery, Uber, Lyft, ZipCar, bikeshare and a gazillion private shuttle services the public street and especially its curb have become a hotly contested space. Nowhere does this become clear than on those 5 miles of red lanes the MTA claimed for their frequent bus service in Baltimore. (Lanes were only installed when there where at least 18 buses per hour or one every 3.3 minutes).
Red Bus Lane on Lombard Street (photo: Philipsen)

If the goal is to move people and not cars, the combined bus-bike lanes make a lot of sense, even if the bus comes only every few minutes. Some routes move 1,100 people per hour in buses and only about 500 per lane in cars, a clear case for a bus lane. It also makes sense to give transit riders the reward of moving a bit quicker and get to their stop without being stuck behind a long line of cars since their dwell time at stops slows them anyway compared to cars. Except....

Theory and practice are always two different things. When it comes to turf, the battle is taken up by constituencies which do not argue about lane capacity but privilege and rights. Since overall only less than 17% of trips in the City are taken by transit, many more people would take issue with losing space than appreciating the benefit, no matter that in the metropolitan context, the 5 miles of Baltimore bus lanes are negligible. As with bike lanes, people in cars will always see an unused but forbidden lane as a waste, no matter how many people are actually moved there.  To set the facts straight, the MTA did a real study about their bus lanes and compared travel time before and after their installation. The 16 page report was published in February.

The bus lanes are big progress in a city where streets are managed by City DOT and the buses are run by the State's MTA. Good transit needs a lot of cooperation between the folks who own the space and the folks who operate on it. The bus lanes were one of the first times where this split was approached in a cooperative way (except for the joint work on planning for the Red Line). The need for cooperation between many parties has been also recognized elsewhere. A bus lane study in the Washington DC region published in 2017 states:
The blue and red bars indicate violations under the
conditions on the left and on the right. Red lanes
are way more effective (San Francisco)
Case studies from across the country indicated that it is essential to have cooperation among state, regional, and local agencies, as well as traffic engineering and transit service planning officials, at all phases of  implementation.
Interagency cooperation is not just essential in the planning, design, and construction phases, but also in the operational phase of a project. The transit operating agency is rarely the agency responsible for maintaining lane markings, setting traffic signal timings, and other essential components of effective bus lanes (National Capital area buslane study)
The bus lanes are also a step towards seeing streets as more than conduits for cars. So how successful are the lanes in Baltimore? While the bus lanes were the result of some analysis in the planning stage for Baltimore Link, the public wasn't necessarily well prepared for the appearance of those red lanes. This has been a flaw as the DC report correctly observed:
Effective design, education and outreach strategies are critical during both the planning and post-implementation phases, and all play critical roles in achieving the potential benefits of bus lanes.(National Capital area buslane study)
Everyone who stood only for a short while on Pratt Street, Lombard, Baltimore or Fayette Street will have seen that the red lanes don't guarantee smooth sailing for buses or bikes (aside from the fact, that those two users present their own set of conflicts). People park in the lanes to get a soda at a CVS, the Brink money truck sits in the lane to load up cash, cars use the lane to get faster to the front and UPS and and FedEx unload their packages on the red lane. Ironically, the frequency in which vehicles block the bus lane is unprecedented high right in front of the MTA headquarters on St Paul Street, one has to surmise that the culprits are frequently MTA employees themselves.
Violation on Fayette Street: A quick pick up at CVS
(Photo: Philipsen)

Still, in spite of all the obstacles, on some routes the bus got faster by around 30% (which isn't lightening fast, mind you. It could mean the bus moves now 12mph instead of 9mph). The point of the lanes is less the absolute average gain in bus speed but the reduced variability. In other words, bus lanes prevent that a bus gets stuck in gridlock for extended periods, bringing the entire schedule down.
MTA bus lane study: Absolute time savings on 

In some cases the absolute time gain shown in the study is so small that riders would hardly notice. But again, its less a matter of averages than extremes: In the case of entirely congested roadways, bus riders will certainly appreciate that they are still moving while everyone else sits still.

The MTA study also looked to what extent average trip times in the remaining travel lanes changed because of the bus lane. Surprisingly, on average, the trip times in the general lanes hardly changed after the bus lanes were installed.

Of course, the more congestion, the more tempting is unauthorized use of the bus lanes which may appear empty. Drivers do not recognize that at signals and bus stops, even one or two cars can gum up the works. That would be espcially true at signals, where bus can call up a slightly early green signal.
Surely, without the infractions, the improvements would be much stronger. Which begs the question: What about enforcement? Why isn't there more enforcement, especially regarding illegal parking or stopping in those lanes? Asking this gets into many issues, from Baltimore police capacity to the legalities of enforcement methods.

Luckily, help is in sight. A bill introduced by Baltimore Delegate Robbyn Lewis passed in Annapolis this session. It stipulates that City DOT and MTA continue their collaboration to work out an enforcement scheme by the end of this year. In the lingo of this bill, this is what must be done:
The Maryland Transit Administration, jointly with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, shall:(1) study and analyze dedicated bus lane enforcement mechanisms used by peer transit agencies in the United States; and(2) develop a plan to enforce violations of dedicated bus lanes in Baltimore City.(g) (b) The study required under subsection (f)(1) (a)(1) of this section shall include:(1) an examination of best practices and technologies that have been effective in reducing violations of dedicated bus lanes by unauthorized users;HOUSE BILL 130 3(2) a review of potential capital and operating costs associated with dedicated bus lane enforcement mechanisms; and (3) an evaluation of the most effective methods for ensuring compliance with and enforcement of existing law, including the issuance of fines and exceptions from current prohibitions.
On or before December 31, 2019, the Workgroup Maryland Transit Administration and the Baltimore City Department of Transportation shall report its their findings, recommendations, and enforcement plan to the Governor and, in accordance with § 2–1246 of the State Government Article, the General Assembly. 
New York bus lanes are camera enforced
(Photo: WMATA report)
The Baltimore team can easily get a running start by looking at peer agencies that have already several more year of experience with dedicated bus lanes and enforcement strategies, including the already mentioned enforcement study for the DC area. For example, it addresses the issue of automated enforcement using the many cameras on the bus which are already part of a standard MTA bus. One of the cameras is forward looking and would see non-authorized vehicles in the lanes. However, pulling still photos with location coding from those cameras for enforcement would neither be easy without modifying the system, nor would it be immediately legal. As the DC report states:
New York and California are the only states in the U.S. with specific bus lane camera enforcement, and each required enabling legislation before implementing camera enforcement. Specific legislation enabled each state to begin camera-based bus lane enforcement as a pilot or a demonstration program, then extended and expanded their pilot programs as part of an iterative legislative process. (National Capital area buslane study).
Legislation to enable MTA to have on bus enforcement power was briefly considered in this legislative session but withdrawn because of the cost estimated to be $7.63 million for MTA in the first year and half a million thereafter. Another method of automated enforcement would be stationary cameras that could be installed as an extension of the existing red light and speed camera program operated under City DOT. Baltimore has already established an increased penalty of $250 for lane and bus stop violations. MTA's Administrator has instructed the MTA police force in assisting City police in enforcing lane and stop violations. Still citations per day remain low.
Bus lanes in Baltimore (MTA lane study)

Studies elsewhere have established something that is an almost universal truth: The initially  cheapest and easiest implementation strategies (in this case: white lane markings) are also the least effective and in the long run, they are not even cost effective. The 3x as expensive red bus lanes have a much higher compliance rate, and over ten years, automated enforcement will yield by far the highest returns, in spite of the initial high cost.

All the enforcement in the world won't solve the problem of a shortage of curb-space for all the services needed. The Cty-MTA team needs to assign space for deliveries and pick-ups as well for those vehicles to stay off the bus lanes for good. At times this will mean, that the bus lane may have to be installed alongside a parking lane as is planned for North Avenue. This increases the conflicts but, on the plus side, it provides a smoother ride than travel with two wheels in the gutter.

Relying heavily on buses for the region's transit, any way to speed up the bus is vital for transit to be effective. Cashless payment, signal priority and all door boarding are other methods, to accelerate the bus. MTA is studying all of it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Danielle Sweeney: Bill would require city and MTA to collaborate on bus lane enforcement
House Bill 130, 46th District Del. Robbyn Lewis
WMATA Bus enforcement Study 2017

Monday, April 8, 2019

Baltimore a tragedy? Time for better explanations

“A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (The Tragedy of MacBeth, William Shakespeare)

Baltimore a tragedy?

Is Baltimore a tragedy, as the New York Times headlined a story a few weeks back, or are Baltimore leaders tragic figures as in Shakespeare's MacBeth?

Either way, with tragedy as an explanation, bad outcomes are unavoidable by definition,  taking out the dimension of accountability and responsibility. If events unfold according to pre-ordained karma and actors are only cogs of a machinery which they don't control, then they can't be blamed either. Consciously or not, those who use this term put the causes for the bad outcomes into a sphere that is unreachable, whether they mean "fate", "the system" or "the culture".

On the other end,  those who attribute all the calamities to individuals because they are evil, greedy, incompetent, too ambitious or any combination thereof put all the blame in one place and hold the rest of society harmless.
Pugh with PG County Executive Angela
Alsobrooks in March of this year

Both, the higher-power and the bad-person explanation maintain that the institutions and people of Baltimore don't have to take any responsibility; finger-pointing is enough, possibly combined with feeling sorry for oneself for living in such a place. Potentially even feeling exceptional in a bad way, assuming that Baltimore has a special place in the Olympus of the gods. "We can never get a break, police scandals, riots, corruption, population loss, it never ends". Those who like to see themselves as victims sometimes also blame the media. Not for the bad results but for the bad news about them. "The false narrative" about Baltimore. Again, the fault resides with "others". (It were the media, by the way, that uncovered the current cases of self dealing at the UMMS board).

None of those explanations will set Baltimore's trajectory on a better path, because none are based on an analysis which  properly links cause and effect. Not having a good explanation condemns continued repeat of the same mistakes.

As someone who lived, voted and engaged for 18 years in a different political system and who has come here by choice and then engaged here for almost twice as long, I won't be able to do the necessary analysis in this space, but I will attempt to explore to what extent Baltimore is really special, has unique personalities, or represents a system that must produce these outcomes. Reason would suggest, that in the conclusion, there isn't one single explanation.

Its the system, stupid!

Those who blame "the system" either mean the "Baltimore system" or they talk about the political system at large. What speaks for an explanation that is bigger than Baltimore, is the simple fact that many other cities are gripped by scandals and political failures just as ours or bigger. Just think New Orleans, Detroit, Flint or Chicago. Those who tend to say that "the entire system is corrupt" can find the common denominator between those cities and use  a set of explanations such as de-industrialization, capitalism, racism etc. to craft their favorite pattern to see the world, develop a fitting ideology. Capitalism as the culprit, for example, receives much new fuel every day the current president remains in office and glorifies individual greed over common interest. Racism and white supremacy would be similar broad explanations, especially if combined with capitalism as a driver. A more targeted criticism would aim for campaign financing as the source of all evil. It, again, can be combined with both of the other explanations. Indeed, those three factors combined create a toxic brew with which the downfall of many cities and their politicians can be explained.
Harlem Park at US 40

There is a class of people in power which buys political influence to maximize profit and most power resides in the hands of older white man. The fact that Baltimore's most recent mayors were all black and female or that Associated Black Charities is involved in the current scandal as well, hardly slows those down, who know the true culprit. Those female mayors were simply "mascots of their political system" and ABC was  "collateral damage" (Dayvon Love). That is how it was explained by a guest on Monday's Midday radio show. That the exercise happy mayor had used a little African American girl to promote better family health through a figure that looked like her is not noteworthy in this broad brush approach to explain the bigger context, nor that the mayor's fundraisers were always thick with black entrepreneurs enjoying their access. While the systems theories are intellectually satisfying and even plausible, if the problem is that big and pervasive, a solution can't be found in Baltimore. Nothing less than a veritable national revolution would be needed, a prospect for which only very few have an appetite, even among the disenfranchised. So how actionable is this explanation?

Its the person, stupid!

A much less political explanation springs straight from the American obsession with public personas. In that narrative everything becomes gossip and the Internet is its holy grail. The three African American female mayors of Baltimore fare especially bad in this arena, each received a whole litany of adjectives that male politicians rarely ever attract.  Most of the condescending comments had to do with looks, fashion, hair, facial expressions and the like. It would be easy to dismiss those superficial ways of judging politicians, if the Internet wouldn't amplify these "explanations" on an almost inescapable scale. That is not to say that finding fault in the character of people is always slanderous or wrong. Sometimes the Internet provides a platform for thoughtful comments based on careful observation. For example, those of attorney Dan Sparaco, who served as Deputy Mayor under Stephanie Rawlings Blake and who also picked up on the question of tragedy and accountability.
Dialogue: Police Commissioner Davis with activists Devin Allen
and Kwame Rose
We’ve certainly had “tragic” figures in Baltimore, overcome by their own hubris or desire — like MacBeth, overcome by ambition, or Hamlet, overcome by indecision. Consider, for example, an elected official, with life-long dreams of becoming mayor, leveraging a position on the board of a very powerful institution, full of very powerful people, to profit from a book deal, then not fully disclosing it — only to become mayor, and then face losing it all, when the secret deal comes out.....There are a great many people served by this kind of thinking because it creates an unaccountable status quo. A status quo where results don’t matter. A status quo where leaders can get re-elected despite the state of our neighborhoods because nothing – not the problems, not the solutions – is their fault. This kind of no-accountability environment leads to corruption, and those who want to continue with “tragic thinking” should at least be honest about our “tragic flaw.” It’s not ambition. It’s not indecision. It’s not even greed. It’s the secret-keeping. It’s the denial.  Dan Sparaco March 22, 2019
 The overall effect of armchair commentators deliciously dissecting every move of every politician often before they are actually elected, is cynicism and contempt for public service. Every office holder is seen as a crook lining his or her pockets. This narrative conveniently overlooks that most politicians work very hard for little pay and that, if money were the objective, almost any other occupation would be more lucrative. When the system explanation is too broad, the individualistic character analysis is too narrow to lead to any actionable consequence other than better vetting at the time of "hire".

Its Baltimore, stupid!

The parochial inability to look beyond the hometown to see that other cities suffer from very similar experiences is instilling this particular feeling of helplessness common among residents: The idea that Baltimore is such a very special place, that it has its very own "culture" in which people behave in a specific way. Those behaviors attributed to one's peers is the expression of a collective inferiority complex, unless one believes to exist outside that "culture". The assumed Baltimore "culture" encompasses a lot of undesirable attributes. In Baltimore people somehow become especially prone to throwing trash in the street, driving like maniacs, killing other people, burning down their own neighborhood or electing corrupt officials. This too is a fatalistic explanation. It is easy to see that this particular way of seeing the hometown easily enables classicism and racism; still, this narrative is quite popular, no matter that even in  Smalltimore no longer everybody is necessarily born here. Not even the drinking water comes from only one source! An especially unproductive subset of Baltimore exceptionalism is the desire to fill every position with someone "from here" and the suspicion against folks moving into town from far away places, although Baltimore needs influx more than anything. Many hailing from other places just shrug their shoulders and do their thing, no matter how much Baltimoreans say it can't be done here, others actually stay away leading to the population stagnation. In short, the Baltimore exceptionalism isn't a rational explanation for anything and isn't far off from American Exceptionalism as a disastrous foreign doctrine relying on tariffs and walls.
New resources for disinvested neighborhoods: Barclay


Putting it all together

Obviously, any sound explanation for why Baltimore is one of the few cities that can't quite break out of the urban ills that have ransacked American cities for way too long, would need to go beyond those three simplistic, cartoonish narratives and allow some combination of all. Reality is typically not entirely black and white or binary as its called today, not even when it comes to race. Capitalism, racism and bad leadership provide a rich context for explanations for many problems that plague in one or the other form even very successful cities such as San Francisco, namely that poor people are left out, no matter how much money is sloshing around in corporate pockets.

Forces that produce bad urban outcomes can be observed way beyond the US: in the French "banlieue" as well as the slums of Bangalore and lately in the entire country of Venezuela. But they don't suffice to explain  the adventures of Healthy Holly in Baltimore. It is about time, to look at Baltimore's condition less in terms of what hand fate has dealt this place, and more in terms of what needs to be done to make this city and all its residents live up to their potential. This isn't a matter of a "narrative" or "branding", it is a matter of lifting an invisible lid that keeps the city from performing on par with its peers who operate under the same macro paradigms.
Mayor Schmoke at groundbreaking for
Hope III Sandtown initiative in 1992

One can't blame those who believe there must be something special going on in Baltimore that prevents success. If one reads the books of Finnish immigrant Antero Pietila "Not in my Neighborhood" and "The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins" one can see that a sense of inferiority and a tendency to self destruct has a long history here. But unlike a person, a city isn't defined by DNA and psychology can go only so far to explain it.

Nothing in the actual history and fabric of this city condemns it to perform below Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or Oakland. Or Detroit, for heaven's sake! The negativity with which residents view their city isn't unique, it also happens in all the other places with their own history of unrest, corruption, industrial decline, race tensions and large swaths of abandonment and poverty. And yet, some cities have broken through this and formed a consensus on how to progress.

Some of the necessary change has to do with leaders, some with policies, some with regulations and much with governance and how resources are applied. Baltimore in the orbit of Washington, located at the center of a prosperous, well educated and economically vital and growing region, blessed with ocean access, beautiful landscapes all around, rich architecture and most of all a diverse culturally rich population, has no real excuse not to  perform better. As far as I can tell, there is no need to start from the ground up again. Many of the right steps have been put in place in the last thirty years. Much progress has been made, even if it hasn't added up to a break-through yet.


Personal observations

Clearly, once one lived in the system and among its players, neither the people nor the system explanation is just dry theory. Instead real life provided juicy insights and experiences. I had been a small-potato borough council member for ten years in a Borough of Stuttgart, Germany where hobnobbing with the famous wasn't the way how things got done, because money didn't play this all important role in politics. In 10 years of being on the council I never attended any fundraisers, never received any other solicitation from the mayor or council members than to vote for them, nor did I ever ask for money. Instead, I edited a 40,000 copy monthly newsletter advertising our positions funded by some of our party member dues.

In my time here I got to know Donald Schaefer, Kurt Schmoke, Martin O’Malley, Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh as Mayors or Governors, sometimes one on one. Stephanie Rawlings Blake is missing in this line up, she was so elusive that I never had a real conversation with her.

What is somewhat "special" is that today none of these mayors seem to enjoy a high esteem among Baltimore residents, at least not across classes and races. Schaefer may enjoy the best reputation, but he is said to have been too focused on downtown. Schmoke is seen as ineffective, O'Malley as too ambitious and responsible for mass incarceration. Dixon as too corrupt, SRB as too quiet and reclusive, and now Pugh, as self dealing. This short-hand leaves few nuances and, indeed, suggests that Baltimore is special: incapable of electing a decent leader or incapable of nurturing one. This, in spite of a charter that gives the mayor plenty of power. Sure no single person can save an entire city,  even great leader needs a good team, and a great team still needs the support of the community. Greatness is not there at the start, it gets cultivated and grows on the job. Its like in a good marriage. It isn't the result of having found the perfect partner but of a long hard process of finding together. Baltimore's population seems to be too fractured to ever unite behind a team without tearing it down at the same time.
Sandtown in 2017

Shortly after I arrived in Baltimore I asked a well connected developer how I could become politically active here. His answer was: "If you can't make donations yourself, organize a fundraiser". I had wanted to know ways to introduce ideas and develop policies. When I asked the same developer why he wouldn't want to run for office, he said: "Too many skeletons in the closet". There in those two answers hid the entire malaise, the American political dilemma: The focus on money and the web of often improper connections. This is not unique to Baltimore, but thanks to the well cultivated parochialism, this toxic web is especially well dense here. The country of "open opportunity" displays in Baltimore a wall that is far from the border but was and remains hard to penetrate for any newcomer. But there is also this:  Power isn't beyond reproach. At least as many of the systemically advantaged developers tanked in my time here as politicians did. And in the American tradition of redemption, both, politicians and developers manage surprising come-backs even after they had been demolished or had imploded.

So I made my contacts through my work. As an urban design consultant on Baltimore's light rail and later for Port Deposit, I met Schaefer. When he had just become Governor with some magic move he had upended SHA's five year investment plan to add streetscaping in the historic Cecil County town. It was a kind of early Complete Streets move, so I liked it, but I was also stunned because it entirely circumvented the regular process.

Work also allowed me to meet Mayor Schmoke who, as the the Ivy League educated first elected black Mayor, who was for a while for Baltimore what Barack Obama later was for the country. His agenda was bold. Together with Jim Rouse, the Baltimore churches organized in BUILD and the Housing Department and their federal HOPE III funds he embarked on the attempt of turning Sandtown around. My firm designed vacant houses for rehabilitation. In 2015 after the Freddie Gray unrest, the world would get to know the Sandtown project as a big failure, in spite of $100 million that had been spent there.

O’Malley, who as council man had once been challenged by then Housing Commissionioner Dan Henson “to meet him in the alley”, had out-maneuvered the black candidates, was meaner than Schmoke, and went on to invent CitiStat and embrace a strategy of "building from strength", notably two biotechnology parks.  O'Malley's occasional  Rambo behavior interlaced with lyricism brought him many enemies which blamed him for the mass incarceration wave, which was then rolling through the entire nation. O'Malley's EBDI project started out with racist displacement. But by now it brought huge investments into a heavily disinvested area and spawned the revitalization of Oliver, Greenmount West and Barclay, more than ever happened in Sandtown.

Later, as a member of the first Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Council I participated in bike rides with Sheila Dixon. and spoke with her at some length during holiday party table conversations. She seemed less educated but more authentic than O’Malley. Most of all, she listened to her advisers. Her downfall came sudden and swiftly. The cool and possibly more intellectual SRB who followed seemed a welcome antidote. But she ran aground in the rough waters of the uprising.

This line of experiences should have taught me to keep my distance from mayors. But I had met Pugh already when she was still on the council, and like me, a member of a State Task Force on Transit Oriented Development. I was fascinated to discover how she leveraged folks in power, whether they were community or business leaders from this most local level of political work, the council.  Her interest in art set her apart, manifest in her initiative Fish out of Water, a way of bringing in money which I had never heard of before. Then the marathon, which she not only brought to Baltimore but also ran herself , finishing with a glass splinter in her foot. Finally, the creative way how she forced Baltimore’s first new school in ages into existence by coercing the president of MICA, an ambitious architect and Seawall to do the design construction and capital funding. She announced a big act on Artscape’s main stage with aplomb. She wasn’t a local inbred, her experience in other big US cities, as past as TV anchor and Dean of Baltimore's Strayer University made her look much more world savvy than Schaefer or Dixon. Of course, in hindsight, her uncanny ability to collect money foreshadowed her eventual downfall.

Back then Pugh was an accessible and incessantly working city council person. I knew that being mayor had been a long dream of hers, and given her tenacity and versatility I expected she would excel in the job. Hopes were high in her transition team in which I participated. When she engaged Bloomberg and sat one day arm in arm with Zadik Khan, the former New York traffic commissioner who pedestrianized Times Square, I expected that she would begin a transportation revolution right here in Baltimore, not undo bike lanes. Her courage to show up in the midst of the unrest to face the upset young people at Penn and North was still fresh  in people's mind, an act that back then set her apart from SRB who seemed to be unable to decide what to do. Pugh's first cabinet meeting in a bus to Sandtown was a refreshing start.

But just as with Mayor Schmoke, the high expectations were met with early disappointments such as her veto against the minimum wage bill, her repeated missteps with several police commissioners and some department heads. Her entanglement with the powers to be always had a dark side, for example when she was chummy with a convicted Maryland lobbyist. A somewhat inebriated developer who wrestled my I-phone from me at her victory party to delete a photo I had taken of him with her was outright alarming. So yes, the flaws of the system shapes the leaders and enlarges their own weaknesses.

But the future of Baltimore cannot be fixated on personalities. Residents cannot forever reject their leaders like adolescents who realize with disgust that their parents aren't perfect. Nor can the future forever be blinded by race and all that has been done wrong to the majority of this city. That is not to say that politics should be "race blind" (there is no such thing), affirmative action and maybe even reparations have their legitimate place. Certainly re-investment, equity and affordable housing funds.

But it is time to acknowledge that many of these steps have already been taken. More equity: community benefits agreements, equity and affordable housing funds and a better balance of capital improvements have yielded first results. Progress should not be buried under the simplistic mantra that "all politicians are crooks" or that the poor never get a thing or that we have to start over from scratch. If there is tragedy in this recent scandal, it is the idea no progress has been made, the perpetuation of helplessness and the reinforcement of the seemingly unshakable truth that the poor never get a thing.
“There seems to be two basic groups in town, the power people and the everyday people. The power people — the people with money, the establishment — they work together very well. People find ways to get influence and connections, and people who don’t have those connections, they don’t get anything, or maybe a few crumbs. “While they’re being ignored, the power people are taking care of themselves.”Community activist Ralph Moore
From Schaefer to Pugh we have seen mayors who each learned from the past and have created an ever smarter system of responses to the inequities in our city, from recreation centers to social "wrap around services" to the way how vacant houses are handled or equity has been worked into the sustainability plan. There is hardly any "best practice" which hasn't been tried in Baltimore. What is missing is consistent implementation and persistence. It isn't the time to throw the school superintendent or the housing commissioner or the new health or police commissioner under the bus, even if they won't be able to perform miracles but only incremental progress. Baltimore is far from having only incompetent department heads, no matter how easy it is to diagnose incompetence on Facebook.
CitiStat and Mayor O'Malley

Many of those good initiatives may be set back through yet another scandal just when national policies make it harder and harder for cities to cater to ever growing needs, thus further nurturing a sense of hopelessness.

Baltimore's City Council has become bolder, younger and more diverse. Monday's resolution signed by all but the acting mayor is a sign of new confidence that now needs to be mined for a path forward with confidence.
"Baltimore will continue to have a cloud over its head while the investigations into Mayor Pugh's business dealings go on. These issues are extremely severe and prohibit the Mayor from focusing on the business of Baltimore. Today I join my colleagues in asking for the Mayor's resignation. Baltimore deserves a Mayor who can focus on reducing crime, improving our schools and restoring trust in our government." Statement from Councilman Brandon Scott 4-8-19)
It isn't clear yet, how this chapter will end. It is clear, though, that without a better way to analyze Baltimore's problems, progress will remain spotty and slow, in the manner of two small steps forward and one big one back. A better future isn't just a matter of hope or optimism but of an entire city putting in the hard work to build consensus and follow through on thorough analysis.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated for language and clarity