Monday, September 16, 2019

The new Camden Station - something the MTA got right

Baltimore's Camden Station and its adjacent B&O warehouse have a storied history. The fame of the adjacent Oriole Park, taking advantage of the history, is legendary. The construction of a new intermodal station building for the MARC commuters and the Light Rail passengers arriving here for ballgames, transferring between the two rail services,  disembarking for their daily work or boarding for the trip home is, therefore, a risky endeavor.  One can debate if  the now completed project is a "home run" as MDOT declares in its own press release, but it certainly close to it.

In 1992 when the intermodal station first opened alongside the stadium, there had been plans floated by Baltimore concrete mogul Swirnow to build medical trade mart above the tracks, back then dubbed "MedMart". Parkway/Swirnow held exclusive development rights for the interior of the historic Camden Station, the south end of the B&O; warehouse, and the air rights above a 6.5-acre tract east of the B&O warehouse. That project died after the 1992 deadline passed. MTA subsequently deferred building a permanent station structure in favor of a low cost temporary space-frame and modular building that should be kept in service for 27 years.
The new station building blends in and also holds its own. (Photo: Philipsen)

It is worth noting, that constructing a new station  for rail service right next to the historic train station  for which no sustainable permanent use  has to been found, is in itself not a very convincing idea. The need arose because of vehicle egress requirements for the new ballpark necessitated moving the MARC and Light rail boarding functions around 300' south away from the historic station. Now Conway Street could cross the tracks and serve as a vehicular entry and exit.

The duplication of a station building in a historic setting because of car egress is a typical win of cars over pedestrians and transit. Yet, nobody seems to have found a better solution in all those years, and so, in 2017 a memorandum of agreement between the Stadium Authority (MSA) and MDOT outlined a new building with MSA carrying the project management cost of the project.

A new station in front of the historic station (Photo: Philipsen)
In 2017 the Board of Public Works awarded $30,000 for "pre-construction management services" to the Barton Marlow Company and the design work and construction management to AECOM, the world's largest architecture and engineering firm with a specialty in transportation and transit. The company has a Baltimore office. In 2018 a new station design was unveiled by MTA and AECOM and ground was broken. The light rail station was closed and bypassed for the duration of construction. MSA acted as the client and MTA as the owner. It was a very fast paced, “Construction Manager at-risk” project, according to project manager Paul Diez of AECOM. The firm also performed the civil and structural design services.

The completed design mercifully deviates from the concept sketches that MTA had developed before selecting a design team. The final design is simple and creates a pleasant mix of contextual and contextual design respecting the historic environment.. The contemporary elements give the building the "confidence" presence in needs in the large scale environment of the warehouse, the beginning freeway and the trains. Additionally, the station building has to be presentable from all four sides and even from above when seen from the upper floors of the warehouse. This isn't an easy task, given that the structure has to conceal an electrical substation, bathrooms and MTA staff service areas. The finished station succeeds in meeting these demands.

The hipped roof and clear-story is limited to the waiting area
(Photo: Kevin Lynch)
One can quibble with the fact that the double hipped roof with a clear-story band of windows (which provide additional daylight for the waiting room) has not been extended across the entire building. Now the building has a flat roof portion and a sloped metal roof, as well as the canopy roofs; too much for such a small structure. However, the massing and functionality of the low clear-story roof and the cantilevering  roof canopy without the earlier row of columns and the stilted clear-story is far more convincing than the original concepts.

With $7,2 million construction cost the building is quite expensive for not being much bigger than a large single family home. The much larger Greyhound bus terminal costed only $8 million, however, it also looks cheaper. Investing in making an attractive and durable transit station is money well spent. We certainly don't see enough of it.

One can only wish that MTA's sister agency would consider turning the end of I-395 along Ca,den Yards into an urban boulevard that is an appropriate gateway into the City and pays due respect to the famous ballpark.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

MTA Press Release

Related on this blog:

Design team selected for new Camden Station

The possibly least attractive side is facing the warehouse

Give historic Camden Station purpose again!

Early rendering of the station (MSA/MTA)

The temporary structure that lasted 27 years (Photo Philipsen)

MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn and MDOT Secreatry Rahn  cut the ribbon
(Photo: Kevin Lynch)

Monday, September 9, 2019

MTA to businesses: You need change how you do land use!

The "Transit Summits" of the Greater Baltimore Committee have become routine and so have GBC executive Don Fry's admonitions that transit is important to economic development.
Transit Oriented Development at Denver Union Station

GBC couldn't get MDOT Secretary Rahn to explain his transit cutting transportation budget, let alone Trump's transportation secretary Elaine Chao to explain why the Trump administration is so averse to rail.  Instead former Clinton DOT Secretary Rodney Slater talked about how many ants can move a large piece of bread, making vague allusions to Baltimore's Red Line and the possibility of moving this mountain if there would just be enough "ants".

Absent major highlights the most newsworthy item became MTA Administrator Quinn's appeal to the business community to think about transit when they do developments. "I can't serve your business when your parking lot doesn't even allow a bus to turn" or "if it sits way off an existing transit line, forcing all riders to do a lengthy sidetrip", Quinn scolded. "Its 50/50" he said, and meant land use and transportation and by extension the division of responsibilities for job access through transit and those who put the stuff where transit is impossible. He noted that half of the regionally projected additional 440,000 jobs would not be accessible to transit under the "business as usual" scenario that is expected.
Michael Kelly addressing the GBC summit 2019

The half and half assumptions is probably an understatement. Land use is the key driver for successful transportation. The last time developers thought about this connections was when they built streetcars so they could develop suburbs such as Catonsville, the so streetcar villages that came before the automobile became the mode of choice. Then the densities were tailored just right for rail transit. Ever since the development patterns have made effective transit more and more impossible, allowing auto-centric politicians to poo-poo how poorly transit works and at the same time complain about congested roadways.

Michael Kelly of the Baltimore Metro Council illuminated the point inadvertently when he spoke after Quinn. He showed graphs that showed population growth of 330,000 people for the region in the next 25 years. The jurisdiction with the greatest growth rate: Queen Anne's County! Exactly where growth shouldn't go (no transit to speak of) and where certainly no public dollars should be spent to encourage growth. (For example through another Bay Bridge).

Kelly topped his statistics off with another inadvertent headline. "We will probably never become an attainment area under the Clean Air Act" he said in passing, a statement that caught the attention of a WYPR producer who just had reported about Baltimore's transit woes. Kelly pointed to Pennsylvania and Ohio as the culprits for the bad air, but didn't say that Maryland's transportation is the largest greenhouse gas emitter and largely responsible for the many smog days Baltimore registers.
Impossible to serve with transit: The usual sprawl

Quinn also spoke about the large investment gap in keeping transit in a state of good repair, totaling over $2 billion in the next 10 years. Much of the massive needs for investment in transportation have to do with sprawl, in other words with land use.

Quinn's reminder that land use is at least half of the transit equation can't be urgent enough. Its high time to put development where transit is on the ground, along the existing metro, MARC and light rail lines, all having stations that are large holes in a development doughnut with parked cars frequently closest to the stations. If Hogan is against further expansion of the transportation network then he must also be against further enlarging the development footprint and must be for Smart Growth (which he isn't).

Instead of new highway lines we need dense development around all rail stations, capturing the bulk of the expected growth in a sustainable manner. State Center is a case in point. Instead of scuttling the development the Governor should promote it as the only logical consequence of his killing the Red Line. (The "logic" being to make best use of existing assets before building new ones). But it isn't reason that governs his transportation thinking. Nor is reason governing land use. And that is why Quinn is facing the impossible task of chasing ever more sprawl with transit and a ever shrinking transit budget.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Saturday, September 7, 2019

One way to have fewer vacant rowhouses

It is a heavy lift to fill the 24,000 or so vacant Baltimore rowhouses. At $200,000 a piece this would cost $4.8 billion, a figure that exceeds the entire Baltimore City capital and operating budget. In spite of all efforts of turning vacants to value and in spite of tearing thousands of those buildings down, the number of vacants has remained stubbornly stagnant. The reason is simple: For every demolition and for every rehab a new property became vacant.
Vacant homes: Demolition can't be the answers (SUN photo)

Staving off the pipeline of those buildings that were occupied one day and vacant the next seems to be an important and strategic measure. Like turning the gas off after a leaky gas line fuels a raging fire. For the strategy to work, one has to understand how buildings become vacant. Unlike for the status of structures, there isn't an abundance of data about the process that leads to vacancy. Studying how buildings become abandoned and vacant brings the entire complicated history of Baltimore into focus. Heer a few ways how it could happen:

  • The part about the decline of industry and the shrinking population is most frequently told. Once your city shrinks by a third of the population it makes sense that buildings would stand unused, even though Baltimore didn't lose nearly as many households as residents thanks to ever fewer people making up a household in modern times. 
  • The story gets more complicated when one considers the infamous "redlining". What do lending practices that date 60-80 years back have to do with today's vacants? It turns out: a lot. Take Eutaw Place where the same large opulent rowhouses on one side are worth half a million or more and on the other only $160,000, at times as little as $28,000? Bolton Hill wasn't redlined, but Marble Hill was, Bolton Hill is a largely white neighborhood, Marble Hill is majority black. The stark difference in home values is directly related to the risk of a house becoming vacant.  
  • Low cost run-down large rowhouses are sometimes run by "slumlords" who rent them out to several parties until the building falls apart and becomes uninhabitable. At that point a unscrupulous landlord may walk away with the profit and leave the building to rot. 
  • But there are much less nefarious ways how a low value building could end up vacant, no matter how beautiful its bones are. The landlord him or herself could be a low income homeowner who tried to supplement his own meager income with the rents of a cheaply acquired second home. 
  • Or a an elderly low income homeowner could have  fallen into ill health and moved to  a retirement home without anybody to take care of the home with the assessed value too low to attract much attention. Often the poor conditions of the homes the,selves are the cause of the poor health of owners and their children thanks to mold from leaky roofs or wet basements. Leaky windows, poorly insulated walls rack up high utility costs that the owner may not be able to pay until BGE turns off the power and the house becomes entirely uninhabitable. Lead paint poising young children may lead owners to leave unable to pay the cost of ridding the house of lead. 
  • Or a low income resident would have fallen prey to mortgage gauging and his home goes into foreclosure. Often the banks then rather let it sit than fix it up for sale. 
  • Or a resident without means to do the necessary repairs gets written up for a code violation and has no money to pay the fine, let alone rectify the violation. Either the fines add up to a lien and eventually taking or the building may be condemned for being unsafe. Once again, it would wind up standing empty.

New construction or rehab at $200,000 a piece can't be the answer
Someone may object that the homeownership rates in Baltimore's disinvested neighborhoods (which is often only half or less than the national average) are too low to really fuel a pipeline of vacants. It is hard to say, exactly how many vacants go on account of owners leaving or being pushed out due to one of the described causes, but it is certain that of the remaining homeowners quite a few live on the brink of disaster. Nor is there any question that a higher homeownership rate is a good way to stabilize a neighborhood.

There are a few programs out there to assist low income homeowners to keep their house in shape, but they are far too small to cover the huge needs. This is why the City of Baltimore is on the right track with the HUBS program to help to keep their house in shape. Problem is only, that HUBS is so popular that it ran out of funds very quickly.
The Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors (HUBS) program serves residents of Baltimore. Social Workers based at six HUBS sites will provide application assistance to older adults to determine home improvements that will make their houses healthier and more secure.(HUBS website)
The Upton Community Planning Committee ("Upton Power") is HUBS with their new homeowner support program announced this Friday which is not age restricted. The program will support owners with between $5,000 to $15,000 for the most urgent repairs. The program just received its initial $100,000 seed money from Wells Fargo which is investing in Upton as part of the federal Community Reinvestment Act and possibly in a kind of  "reparations" mode to make up for the bank's role in the foreclosure crisis.

The Housing Committee of the Social Determinants of Health Task Force created by the MD legislature with a focus on health wants to tie the issue of vulnerable homeowners to health. Similar to the Healthy Rowhouse program in Philadelphia, the group imagines that relatively small incentive payments assisting needy homeowners to fix their homes will markedly help improve their health and safety.
Substandard housing conditions due to deferred maintenance are literally making the people who live in these rowhouses sick. Substandard conditions like mold, mildew, lead paint, and pests create and perpetuate health conditions like asthma and lead poisoning in our most vulnerable populations.
40% of asthma episodes are due to asthma triggers in the home, representing $5 billion lost annually in preventable medical costs. (Healthy Rowhouse, Philadelphia)
The group now discusses to link a house repair program not only to health but also to workforce development. The attempt of linking health, housing and job skills into one virtuous cycle is also an attempt to avoid the pitfall of scattered interventions that never add up to anything. The more comprehensive concept is still in its infancy and in search of legislative support. Funding is key, of course. The Healthy Rowhouse non-profit in Philadelphia is currently trying to build such a larger fund with the help of private investment funds.

Trying to stave off the steady flow of vacant houses is an strategic move, even if it is addressing only a small segment of the Baltimore housing problem: According to data from Baltimore's Neighborhood Indicators Alliance the biggest single predictor for the rise or fall of a neighborhood is to have more than 4% vacant homes. Especially in neighborhoods on the edge, a few houses not becoming vacant can make all the difference.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA