Wednesday, May 29, 2019

How not to erase history, one building at a time

The two pre-Civil War stone mill-worker houses which were recently  leveled in Woodberry, in spite of promises to preserve them, seem to be an especially brazen case wiping out history through deceit, but they are far from being an exception.
Almost nothing can reverse this 2hr act act of vandalism (Photo: Philipsen)
In response to the startling demolitions of two historic stone homes from the 1840s in Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood on May 21, 2019, Preservation Maryland issued the following statement:
As the statewide historic preservation advocacy organization, Preservation Maryland feels compelled to denounce the recent demolition of 3511 and 3525 Clipper Road, two historic stone buildings in Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood, and voice our concern over the precedent this type of demolition presents. [....] 
Preservation Maryland recognizes not every building can be saved. This situation, however, sets a troubling precedent where public concern is disregarded, assurances are ignored, and demolition occurs without basic safety precautions. The loss of these buildings also underscores the need to take a hard look at the demolition review process in Baltimore City and to address the challenges citizens face to guide development in their own neighborhoods. Baltimore’s history deserves much better than the bulldozer’s blade. (Preservation Maryland)
In fact, Baltimore, a city with a rich and long history and one of the largest set of earmarked historic structures in the US, can look back on a whole series of legal or illegal demolitions that often lead to surface parking lots or even sites covered in rubble and no prospect of construction. At times courts intervened, injunctions were issued and yet, in the end the buildings were gone.
Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue ca 1930 (Theater Talks)

Some of those demolitions go far back: the Calvert Building on St Paul and Fayettte (demolished 1971), the News American Building at South and Pratt Streets, the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue (1971), The McCormick Spice Company (1989) the Southern Hotel at Light Street (1993), the Sun Life building on Redwood Street (2001) and the Rochembeau on Charles Street (2006) are just a few examples.
Some demolitions are more recent and even involve modern buildings or structures such as the Mechanic Theater (demolished in 2014), the McKeldin Fountain (2016), the St. Vincent's Infant Asylum on Division Street (2015) and the Freedom House on Druid Hill Avenue (2015). Large scale demolition can be expected for the Baltimore Jail later this year.
Baltimore Jail (rendering)

Sometimes the demolition-happy parties were developers who overestimated their ability to build new, sometimes a company that saw a brighter future elsewhere, sometimes it was the City and its inspectors, or an agency set on urban renewal. In one case it was the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore that wanted a better view of its famous Basilica, in another Bethel AME demolishing instead of repairing. Sometimes developers even get the official blessing of CHAP to demolish historic assets through a very large loophole in preservation: Economic hardship. (Example: Eddie's in Mount Vernon).
A token marquis, the Royal today
(Photo: Philipsen)

Not that preservation in Baltimore didn't have a lot of successes as well. In fact the City is brimming with excellent examples of preservation and adaptive reuse, too numerous to list, from the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in West Baltimore (reconstructed now) to the American Brewery in East Baltimore and many more in between.

But if an owner or developer is intent on destruction, there is currently little leverage to really prevent it, no matter if a structure is in a local historic CHAP district (which has legal protections) or just in a National Register District (which has only carrots but no sticks). A developer who breaks the law may get stopped and fined, by which time the deed is usually done. At times the developer even walks away, leaving behind a pile of rubble without any prospect for anything. This seems to be the case in Clipper Mill and it certainly has been the case in Marble Hill. Outside of CHAP Districts one can rarely find hard reasons to deny a demolition permit. One exception may be the historic Gombrecht Building at 320 N. Eutaw Street which is outside the Market Center CHAP district. The applicable urban renewal plan there stipulates that demo can only occur with new funded development plans in place. A demo application is currently under review.
McCormick Spice Company demolition on Light Street
So what could be done to prevent those who, against better knowledge, are set on a slow continued destruction of Baltimore's history?

For example, what could really protect Martick's former restaurant, initially a thorn in the side of the developer doing the block at Park and Mulberry? The developer agreed on keeping the front part after a push by the preservation community. But with the demo permit for the rear portion of the property in his pocket, what would prevent the developer to push it all down in the span of maybe an hour?

The case of those Woodberry stone houses, where the deed of demolition was done in the span of a morning should be used as an instructive lesson.

  • The $3,000 fine the contractor has to pay is about lack of notice, missing fencing and lack of dust control. The fine is nothing in the context of the overall project cost. 
  • The the project had been presented to the design review panel (UDAAP) showing the historic houses preserved and integrated into the project. But it meant nothing. 
  • The preservation charade was the result of a massive public outcry, but as Pavlina Ilieva, UDAAP chair and partner of the the firm Pi.Kl which was the architect of the project stated: "You can't just rely on advocacy by the community".  
  • Woodberry is a historic district on the National Register of historic places, but tat distinction means nothing for enforcement, it just entitles developers to incentives.
  • The Department of Community Developmnt which handles permits issued a demolition permit but knew nothing about the UDAAP review and vice versa. ""There is no alignment of policy or process" (Iliaeva). 
As a result of the deceit, the project lost one of the development partners and also its architects. Most of all, though public trust was lost. It is entirely unclear at this point, what will happen with the two piles of rubble marring Woodberry, a well kept community for which those two houses were so architecturally representative.
Demolition of the Sun Life building on Redwood Street (Sun

Learning from this case, a revision of the tools available to prevent the all too frequent demolitions could include these steps:
  • change the zoning code so that contributing buildings in the National Register District have some level of protection even if they are not individually listed as individual landmarks. 
  • Do not allow demolition anywhere without approved long-term plans and financing in place
  • Increase the fines for violations significantly so they become a true deterrent
  • A much tighter definition of "economic hardship"
  • State and federal historic tax credit programs need to be better funded and be linked to reinvestment and social impact funds
  • If a project had been approved by UDAAP for a certain design, no significantly deviant construction permit should be issued, no matter what and when.
    What's left of the St Vincent Infant Asylum building in Marble Hill
    (Photo: Philipsen)
When asked what measures she would consider effective in preventing further debacles like the one in Woodberry, Ilieva aslo suggested clearly defined memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the developer and the community or even between UDAAP/Planning and te Owner.

For those who doubt that more preservation is worth any trouble or may even think that we have too much historic stuff already: There is a growing body of evidence that historic preservation returns more value than the extra cost it sometimes causes compared to new construction.

Baltimore offers the evidence: The areas with lots of preservation (Fells Point, Federal Hill, Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon) are faring far better than those with demolition and plenty of urban renewal. Areas of large scale demolition such as State Center, the Highway to Nowhere, Jonestown Mall or where the highrise projects used to stand did far worse, economically, socially and in terms of urban design. Their historic character is what sets cities apart, especially in a time when historic value isn't just counted as exceptional brick and mortar, but also in terms of social history. The Reid's Drugstore on Howard Street, for example., is not remarkable for its architecture but for the Morgan student sit-ins that happened there long before the Civil Rights movement really unfolded.
St Vincent Infant Asylum building in Marble Hill before demo
(Baltimore Heritage)
One of the great surprises of the digital age is that quality of place remains such a key factor in where people choose to live and businesses choose to open their doors. Only 10 or 20 years ago, futurists and technologists promised us that place would become irrelevant: We would all live and work and connect with the world via the internet, free to roam anywhere we chose. But millions of years of evolution are tough to shake; we remain social creatures and continue to seek connection, delight, and fulfillment in real, physical space. (CityLab 2-8-2019)
Especially in the current difficult situation in which Baltimore finds itself, the city's history and its rich architecture are very valuable assets which everyone should cherish.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Mechanic Theater demolition  (Matthew Carbone)

Related articles on this blog:

Tearing down Eddies in Mt Vernon? (Eddies in Mount Vernon)
Demolition gone astray (Rowhouses in South Baltimore)
Old Baltimore on fire (The Gombrecht Building on 320 N. Eutaw Street)
Bombing downtown (The Mechanic Theatre)
Why "tearing it all down" is not an option (former Elementary School PS 103)
House that was demolished
(Preservation MD)
Chambers Building on Charles Street: Demolition and then what?

A similar house on the same side of Clipper Mill Road that has been restored
(Photo: Philipsen)

Demolition of theWoodberry stone houses (Photo: Fred Scharmen)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Is Baltimore resilient enough?

Resilient, of course, means to be able to bounce back from adversity and bad impacts. One could easily imagine that Baltimore should be, by now, extra resilient, given all the adverse conditions which beat the city back, time and again.

This is particularly painful in a time when other cities build reserves and get fat and strong from years of economic boom. Their getting fat could mean they are getting complacent, not something we could afford here in many years. Even in the most affluent places such as San Francisco, strength isn't flowing evenly. People with service jobs can't afford to live there anymore, no matter how liberal and well meaning the local government. Baltimore largely has staid affordable.

This, then, becomes one of Baltimore's consolations: We have avoided some of the pitfalls of success. Still, when it comes to inequity, we are a frontline community, and know what we are talking about, what with having invented the racist restrictive covenants and zoning codes that laid the groundwork for systemic inequity?

But are we resilient? Is it is resilient if people in neighborhoods that are under fire every night get up in the morning, go to the bus stop for the long journey to a job that doesn't pay enough? To add insult to injury, those very same people learn just now that their bus ticket will soon cost 10 cents more. Yes, that is less than the single ride ticket in most other cities, but many of those places have ambitious transit plans like the $billion Red Line that was taken off Baltimore's docket. Meanwhile, our system, stuck in its current size, is slowly improving its performance. Resilience?
Baltimore IT Director Frank Jones at ransomware press conference

Is it resilient when dozens of non-profits have to address re-entry of formerly imprisoned citizens because our criminal justice system has "correction" only in its name and not in its practice?

Is it resilience when dozens of non-profits such as  Turnaround Tuesday or Barclay Corps have to do workforce development because our schools churn out students that cannot get any jobs for lack of skills? Is it resilience when citizens have to patrol their own streets because the trust to the Baltimore Police is so broken that collaboration looks like treason to some? Is it resilience for Cease Fire to stand tall while some Federal Hill restaurateur calls them "village idiots". (He has apologized, maybe another sign of resilience?).

Baltimore wasn't and isn't resilient against the Robin Hood Ransom Ware, even when the meter maids recovered first and retreated back to pen and paper pads to write parking tickets. But the Finance people didn't find such a work-around yet and so all home sales came to a screeching halt, the exact opposite of what this city needs. Even if we can bounce back from this sooner than later, I can already hear the words, "this happened when our servers were down", as an explanation for anything that is missing in the chain of necessary information.
Baltimore disaster preparedness and resilience

Most people who are not IT experts can't say, how well other cities or organizations are armed against such an attack. Many places have been hacked, apparently it is not easy to say if a City like Baltimore can have a fully effective defense against such software attacks. We know, though, the Pugh was Mayor she wasn't very complimentary about the City's IT prowess. Resilience means, we can bounce back. If the agencies have all their data and files safely squirreled away somewhere else than on the main servers and the IT Department knows what to do, it may be possible to get everything back together rather quickly. We don't know, what our IT department can do, and once again we are relying on the FBI being involved. This seems to become our trademark, not a sign of autonomy. Doesn't resilience also mean autonomy to some extent?

Possibly transparency isn't what one should expect in a case of ransomware attack, but the amount of non-communication about the topic is not heart warming or comforting. It probably means things are even worse than we think. There isn't an easy to find place where means and methods are published about how citizens can interact with the various agencies when they have to on alternative channels. After a week door stickers that say "our servers are down" are getting old. Does the City maintain a paper trail on all those transactions and records? Wouldn't that be part of resilience?
The Greater Baltimore Board of Real estate on Wednesday afternoon:
“We’ve just been informed by Baltimore City officials that I.T. technicians have determined the root of the problem in the data system compromised by the ransomware attack. Each facet of the system is being evaluated to ensure there are no glitches and that it can be relaunched fully functional and integrate with parallel systems. This process is anticipated to take between four and five business days, which would mean that the citywide system should be online and operational by the end of next week. 
As a word of caution, there are no guarantees for this time frame because the application of this remediation is truly untested waters.
Ellicott City plans to spend $150 million on getting more resilient. What would be the equivalent amount for Baltimore City, just to arm ourselves against stormwater that wreaks havoc in our valleys as well, not to mention with our aged and rotten stormwater lines? And that isn't even mentioning resilience against seawater rise that makes itself felt in Fells Point and elsewhere.
Russell D'acampo, Wind-Up Sapce

Baltimore did a good thing against air pollution which hits disadvantaged communities so much harder than the affluent ones which usually sit upwind from polluters like the Baltimore Wheelabrator Incinerator. It legislated less pollution. But are we resilient enough to bounce back when the incinerator really closes and all our trash has to go into landfills or are we just moving the problem around? That trash energy can heat hundreds of downtown properties seems resilient, somehow, if just the exhaust could be filtered to be less polluting.
Marvin Hayes, Baltimore Compost Collective, Sept 2018
 Photo by Brandon Block.

Is it resilience when a successful arts and entertainment district far away from the waterfront can continue to thrive even though its early adapters and promoters fall like flies, from Liam Flynn to red Emma's and now Russell Dacampo's Wind-Up Space? The visitor numbers of the Film Festival ending this week will tell, among other things. The arts are needed in crisis, for comfort, as a guide and for meaning. Artists may be the most resilient folks around.

Most agree, Baltimore has grit, a term often bandied around to describe the rough edges and the authenticity that comes from unique circumstances.  If being battle-worn makes people resilient, Baltimore is the epitome of resiliency. But there is a breaking point when challenges become too numerous and too big and instead of making them stronger they break people. A point when bystanders  become cynical, disillusioned and give up.

Of course, in most parts of Baltimore life goes on, ransomware or not, and regardless who is mayor. As a place with low cost real estate, so close to Washington, there are enough investors who wonder if they couldn't get something going here. But our very own Cordish company rather invests near a $1 billion in Kansas City (Cordish COO Zed Smith) than here. One shouldn't discount the possibility, that cities can actually fail.

Klaus Phlipsen, FAIA

Friday, May 3, 2019

Should Baltimore's Next Mayor be weaker?

With the latest Baltimore quagmire the phrase "moving the city forward", a favorite cliche for decades, has received new currency. It conjures up shoulders to a wagon stuck in the mud on the way  towards freedom, exploration and riches. In that image forward is clearly defined. It had one direction: West.
Shoulder to the wheel: Baltimore moving forward

Unfortunately, neither the country as a whole nor the city of Baltimore have this type of consensus about where "forward" should take us.  The articles on this blog have tried for a long time to sort out what "forward" could mean, from , planning, urban design to transportation, governance and "smartness".

Example: Should the Baltimore mayor have less power? Be paired with a City Administrator? Be subjected to recalls by the City Council? All ideas floated by council members in various bills submitted for debate. Instead of offering my own assessment, I will reprint here with his permission a
little essay by Dan Sparaco which I found in my inbox yesterday.  Dan Sparaco was a Deputy Mayor under Stephanie Rawlings Blake, so he knows the Office of Mayor from the inside.

I put his arguments against curtailing mayoral power up here as a guest contribution and for discussion. It is one of a series of essays Dan wrote under the title B'more Now:

Bmore Now: Who's in charge here?

By Dan Sparaco
Dan Sparaco
Can you imagine Martin O’Malley or Sheila Dixon not wanting responsibility for “day-to-day operations of the City?”
I can’t.
Say what you will about either one of them, but when they were mayor, we knew who was in charge.
Yet days ago, a City Council bill was introduced that would: 
delete the language that says the mayor “shall have general supervision over all municipal officers and agencies,”take away the mayor’s power “to remove at pleasure all municipal officers,” andgive executive power to a City Administrator who would control the budget, get paid more money than the mayor, and who the mayor couldn’t remove without a majority vote from the City Council.
A less accountable mayor is not the answer to our problems.
In fact, this sounds like we’ve given up on having a good mayor ever again.
With a mayor on the verge of resignation it’s hard not to feel that way.
But adding another box to the org chart does not create a better government, or answer the question of leadership.
We have a Board of Estimates that approved the Healthy Holly contracts. We have a Comptroller who is supposed to be responsible for fiscal audits who forced out the city auditor. We have a part-time City Council. And we have an Office of the Council President designed mostly for someone to inherit the top job – as three of the last four mayors have done.
Sure, other counties have a Chief Administrative Officer, but there’s a big difference – they don’t have any filler:

In Montgomery and Prince George’s, there’s no doubt who’s in charge – the CAO works at the pleasure of the County Executive, who doesn’t need Council permission to replace them.
Meanwhile, Baltimore County shows the downside to a “non-political” administrative officer. Their new County Executive created a commission that just released a report, finding that their budget process is “highly centralized and has traditionally vested disproportionate power in the hands of the County’s administrative officer and a small staff in the budget office,” creating a system that “lacks transparency, stifles innovation, and discourages accountability.”
Baltimore City once had similar problems, when its own budget process was driven by finance directors like Charles Benton or Ed Gallagher, who drafted the city’s budget like the man behind the curtain in Oz.
The problem the city has today isn’t an all-powerful mayor, but a system that begins and ends with a Board of Estimates created in the 19th Century. All of our peers seem capable of running a government without one.
Real change starts with looking to places like PG and MoCo, and looking to the reforms already made by cities like Detroit and Seattle and New York.
Adding a “city administrator” to a broken system isn’t real change, and tinkering with the budget process within that broken system isn’t either.
There’s nothing wrong with giving our City Council more say in the budget process, as is the case in MoCo or Prince George’s.
But there’s no point in making the changes introduced this week to our City Council while leaving the rest of the dysfunction in place. Those changes give our City Council more power over the budget than other County Councils have, but then take away the mayor’s line item veto, for no good reason. 
There’s no need to get even deeper into the weeds. What we need to do is stop tinkering with something that needs a total overhaul.
Sure, “Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in the region that does not have a chief administrator.” But look around. Is that the real difference?
The real difference between the city and its peer jurisdictions is a pointless Office of the Comptroller, an unaccountable Office of the Council President, and a Board of Estimates that encourages corruption.
And there’s one more difference. Some of our peers have a full time Council that not only picks its own chairperson or speaker, but has at-large members:

What we need is a fresh start. A reset.
The reprint here isn't an endorsement of the person (whatever his plans are) nor of his assessment of all aspects of Baltimore. For example,  "the fresh start" and "the reset" are cliches as much as "moving forward". Baltimore has been in "reset" mode for pretty much the entire time I have been here. On my iphone "reset" means that all customization, would be lost and the phone would be like fresh from the factory. We can't afford this for an entire city, whatever it means. 
Catherine Pugh talking about the removal of the Confederate monuments

Too many good things are happening, including

  • significant investments in the neighborhoods, including the disinvested communities of the Black Butterfly. 
  • The consent decree with the Justice Department regarding the police department  is in its third year, a promising Commissioner is in place, 
  • Baltimore's monumental school construction program is in its seventh year. (9 schools have been completed, six are under construction and another 13 are in various stages of design). 
  • We have a reinvestment fund, an affordable housing funds, a complete streets bill 
  •  the Vacants to Value program that other cities cite for its innovative approaches. 
  • The City Council came rejuvenated and re-energized out of the last election and has passed many progressive bills.  
This is only a partial list. Still, clearly the City hasn't accomplished its main goals:
Less crime and more residents. Crime remains sky-high and residents continue to flee. The reasons are less the absence of good initiatives but a lack of coordination and synergy. City agencies frequently trip themselves or each other. The actions on Baltimore's traffic signals or its bike-lanes are just two small examples. 

I will continue to use this space to promote ideas on how to pay attention to the details and still keep the big picture in mind. Weakening the next Baltimore mayor because of what happened is a response which doesn't take in account how much Baltimore's past successes depended on strong mayors in the past. Don't forget, Mayor Pugh's best moment was when she was strong and took the monuments down. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA