Monday, December 23, 2019

10 Developments of hope for Baltimore

In a time when the bad news seem to be piling up relentlessly and in breathtaking speed, it is easy to compile a list of 10 embarrassments in Baltimore's development universe.  Its harder, but not impossible, to find 10 encouraging events related to urban design, development, planning and transportation. The following list is subjective, influenced on what I can see, and where my interests are.
10 developments worth celebrating (Monument Lighting 2019)

Here we go:

1. A New BCDOT Director
As soon as Mayor Pugh had to resign it was pretty clear that her handpicked DOT Director Pourciau would not last. Too much trouble and controversy had amassed in her relatively short time in the position. Mayor Young did not wait long and appointed Steve Sharkey to clean house. He is no transportation expert, but in his previous job as Director of the Department of General Services he has learned to bring a house in order. Sharkey is a breath of fresh air and seems energetically resolved to getting a handle on this important department and build it back. He is working on friendly terms with MTA and with the City Council, a marked departure from the past which was characterized by animosity.

2. MDOT has a new Secretary
This wouldn't belong into a list of good city events if it wouldn't be so evident how much the previous MDOT Secretary Rahn damaged this city. Most famously by nixing the Red Line and taking $3 billion out of Baltimore's economy. The new Secretary Slater moves in from running the State Highway Administration. Not that this promises a bright future for Baltimore transit or MTA, the agency that Slater now oversees, but everyone who knows Slater says that he will be much batter than Rahn, no matter that the Governor will still give out the same car centric transportation directives.

3. Woodberry decided it wanted to be a local historic preservation district.
After developers demolished practically over night two historic stone houses, the community experienced first hand how easily and quickly historic assets can disappear, no matter what had been promised. The decision to apply for CHAP designation is encouraging because it will not only protect historic structures in Woodberry, including Clipper Mill where additional development is expected but also set a signal to similar communities wondering if CHAP designation is worth the hassle. CHAP also considers the use of a "middle designation" for the many Baltimore National Register Districts, a "Community Preservation status that is less restrictive than a CHAP District but still regulates demolition, major additions or the compatibility of larger new construction.
Small alley houses worth saving: Madeira Street in East Baltimore

4. Alley houses show what they can be
Cross Street Partners and others began the rehabilitation of some 50 rowhouses in East Baltimore on Madeira Street. Rehabs of rowhouses happen a lot, this wouldn't be so remarkable if  Madeira Street wouldn't be what only can be called an "alley street". It is located in the EBDI area that gained initially a bad reputation from tearing old rowhouses down. Many in Baltimore believe tat small alley houses are obsolete. The Full gut rehab of an entire block of those small houses will prove that even small rowhouses can be viable and that rehabilitation is better than demolition.

5. Return from the dead on Howard Street
People walking on Howard Street? The revival of the 400 block

Howard Street has long been a part of downtown that could easily be used as evidence on how far Baltimore has fallen. Quietly and without much fanfare the former retail corridor is finally clawing itself back into a state of active use from years of abandonment. A major step in one of the previously most desolate blocks is the now almost complete renovation of five long vacant buildings by the DC, Philadelphia and Baltimore based developer Poverni Sheikh. A sixth address was added in May. The first floor retail spaces are offered in a creative RFP free of rent in the first year. There are many more developments in the pipeline (The Mayfair, the 400 block of Park Avenue) in the area that successfully staged two successful Asian themed night markets.

6. The revival of a neighborhood shopping center
Not much urban design but a much needed grocery store
after many years of languishing in Northeast Baltimore, the Northwood shopping center won't be any longer a drag on the newly expanded Morgan University campus that now site cheek to jowl with the strip center. The $50 million project is longer as as ambitious as it once was, but it will be fully rebuilt and include a Lidl grocery store and a Barnes and Noble bookstore. The housing component has been eliminated. The stabilized shopping center will provide important services to a large swath of Northeast neighborhoods which are considered "Middle Neighborhoods" by the City Planning Department, neighborhoods which to support must be a cornerstone of keeping Baltimore together.

7. Lexington Market come back now on firm schedule
the proposed new Lexington Market

2019 is the year in which the future and funding of Lexington Market was finalized. Construction of a new market building on the parking lot south of the existing east market is supposed to be started early in 2020. Merchants will continue to operate in the old building until the new structure is supposed to open in 20121.

8. Big ideas for the Middle Branch (not from Sagamore)
After decades of thinking about the "second Baltimore waterfront", the Middle Branch was subject to an idea competition which was won by an internationally known Dutch landscape architecture firm. The reason why this needs to be
West 8 suggestion for Middle Branch
celebrated is less the set of expensive ideas the renowned firm had submitted and more the fact that Baltimore overcame its locals first complex and even engaged in an idea competition in which firms from far away were invited. Of course, no implementation money is available and so whatever funds will be used to refine the ideas, not to build stuff. Of course, the impetus for doing anything along the Middle Branch will ultimately depend on how many casino proceeds there will be and how much will be left of Sagamore's Port Covington.

9. The Preakness and Park Heights
Rearranged: Preakness compromise

Who would have thought that there would ever be an agreement on Pimlico or that down to earth Mayor Young would sway the Stronach heir? But there it was, a hot potato that had been bounced from one entity to another for years with nobody seriously believing that the Preakness could really be retained in Baltimore,all of a sudden germinating what looked like a solution. While I don't believe that horse racing has much of a future, let alone that it can save Park Heights, the agreement has enough positive and constructive elements that it belongs in the list of hope inspiring 2019 development results.

10. Deutsch in Baltimore
Space for artists, one project at a time

Finally a quirky little fact which represents a symbolic push back against the prevailing current Baltimore narrative. The move of the Deutsch foundation's headquarters from Towson to Baltimore's Old Goucher neighborhood at the former offices of the Afro is a light in the darkness. It came to shine in the same year as founder Robert Deutsch died. The Deutsch Foundation has been an engine for the arts by giving creatives their own places, mostly in Station North (Motor House, Open Werks). The quirky renovation at 2519 N. Charles Street will no doubt add vitality to this section of Baltimore's Main Street.

Happy Holidays, Baltimore!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Ten Baltimore embarrassments that should have been fixed a long time ago

Its the time of year-end musings. Local TV likes to present Baltimore as "a city in crisis". Wishing it weren't so doesn't help. In fact, everybody can come with examples of dysfunction and disrepair that wouldn't be acceptable in a well functioning city.

In the domain of development, urban design and transportation I assembled 10 instances of such procrastination and inaction that are staring me straight in they eye on a regular base. It is understood, that examples in the fields of crime and justice and education, to name but two, are vastly more important. It is also understood that for each of these examples of inaction, one could find one of good follow through and improvement. (Maybe another year end list?) Still, tangible physical neglect is contagious. It illustrates well to which extent area residents have become numb to the lack of urgency and follow up that is all too pervasive.

How much of an embarrassment to the city each examples is one can illustrate by the trouble even the most ardent promoter of this city would have to explain to a friend visiting from a more functional place, how it is possible that these examples have been allowed to persist for so many years. Each deficiency is high profile and should have been addressed a long time ago. Readers of by blog will recognize that each topic has been addressed in this space at least once in more detail.

The list isn't complete, of course. Everyone is invited to add to it via comments below. Looking forward, all of these items definitely need to be checked off in 2020.

1. The Mechanic's Theater rubble site
The downtown rubble field where the Mechanic Theater
once stood. (Photo Philipsen)

The once proudly celebrated Baltimore landmark was destroyed with fanfare in 2015. The site has now sat since 2015 as a ruin landscape of destruction without that any work towards redevelopment has been done. This is the heart of downtown, literally its 100% corner. That the developer Howard Brown has been allowed to get by with leaving this eyesore for four full years using a litany of excuses as explanation is an embarrassment for the City and is living proof that the powerful can get away with anything in this city. (On this blog)

2. The Baltimore Street rubble site
Howard Brown's second rubble field on Baltimore Street just three blocks to the west of the former Mechanic must be mentioned as well because the excuses used for the Mechanic site hardly apply here.

3. The McKeldin Plaza
A massive large sculptural and walkable fountain has been
replaced with a bunch of nothingness and grass.
No money and no ideas are around for anything better
(Photo Philipsen)

An elaborate, large and once celebrated walkable fountain was demolished with millions of dollars without replacing it with anything but grass and a few gimmicks. As a result it is less used today than it was before. The promise of making McKeldin Plaza part of HarborPlace by connecting it and rerouting the 5 lane road connection was never fulfilled, nor was the construction of a new fountain. This act of wasting resources led by the private sector is proof that private organizations have gained too much power over the City owned public domain. That McKeldin Plaza is considered the free speech site of the Inner Harbor area is an added irony. (on this blog)

4. Harborplace
HarborPlace has deriliction in the pavilions and in the
Constellation building
The matter is a bit more complicated with  in the rapid decline of HarborPlace, once Baltimore's symbol of its rebirth. For the period of decline which lasted at least six years, the City relegated itself to passive observer status even though it owns the land and Ashekenazy, the owner did not pay ground-rent for years.

It is here instead of at the McKeldin Plaza where a private organization created to promote downtown business and retail should have cut their teeth. Here it was part of their core competency to assist the City and the owner to keep the pavilions attractive as a destination and in line with their original intent which, irony over irony, was very similar to today's trendy food halls. (On this blog)

5. The seasonal water taxi
Baltimore's waterfront, the engine of its tourism and its iconic status in the American line up of cities benefits from an attractive way to get around on the water. When Kevin Plank
Waiting for Godot. This water taxi won't come
before April. (Photo Philipsen)
engaged in the water taxi business, bought the then existing company and launched is own vintage skipjack inspired boats, robust year round water transportation was the promise.

Since then service has shrunk and not expanded. Now water taxi service is entirely shut down from November to March and only runs on weekends in October and April with exception of the City funded Connector commuter service. Not running boats for an entire season is a violation of the contract and the license the private operator has with the city. Probably because of this, the revamped website of the Water Taxi is extremely circumspect in telling visitors about the "schedule". (On this blog)
The Baltimore Water Taxi is a seasonal service. Service may be added throughout the fall/winter months. If you'd like to request private service, contact our Groups Department (
The Harbor Connector is operating on the normal schedule. (website)

6. The Circulator with its black "limo buses"
No buses to run the service (Photo Philipsen)
Another breach of contract is the fact that over six months after the City signed a 3-year contract with RMA, and more than a full year after RMA was selected to follow Transdev as the operator of the free City bus service, the service is still limping. It is only partly run with accessible transit buses, the rest consists of loaner buses or "limo" style "cut-aways" not suitable for transit use. The City explains this with Transdev having run the City owned buses into the ground   to a point when they were in such bad shape that they shouldn't have been on the road at all. Butthe Transdev deal was also mired by the fact that the original City purchased electric buses with small gas turbines for charging did not hold up. Transdev had to provide additional standard buses which seems to be in part at the bottom of the legal dispute with the City that is now in arbitration. It isn't plausibly explained why those not even 10 year old full size Dutch transit buses need to be replaced already. (On this blog)

7. The broken Baltimore traffic signal system
Old and not working reliably (Photo Philipsen)

Everyone out and about on Baltimore's streets, whether as a pedestrian, a bicyclist, a driver or a transit user, can observe that Baltimore's signal system doesn't work as it should. Many pedestrian signals are out, bicyclists riding on bike lanes against the one-way flow have no signals at all. Buses and cars on many routes stumble from one red signal to the next, creating gridlock in the process. The reason is an antiquated and only partly computerized system and likely less than competent management of it. This has been going on for years and continues to steal time from thousands of commuters. It contributes significantly for MTA's struggle with running its fleet of buses on time and represents a failure on a most basic level. (On this blog)

8. The half developed Uplands
The frequent City housing policy of vacating and demolishing entire neighborhoods under the promise of miraculous rebirth with all new construction is on full display in the large area of what used to be called the Uplands. Only partly developed, more than half of the entire cleared area sits fallow for years. A wasteland without any use, not for housing, as an urban farm, not as as a park and not as a temporary village for the homeless. If the last 10 boom years did not yield any market for additional development, it is time for the City to look at how this valuable land could be used otherwise, either temporarily or permanently.  (On this blog)

9. The dereliction around Mondawmin Mall
An inward looking mall surrounded by a sea of asphalt:
An obsolete model (photo: BBJ)

At the latest when Target left the mall, it has become obvious that the locus where the unrest of 2015 originated is in trouble to remain a viable mall. As in the case of HarborPlace, the City hasn't done anything other than wringing hands, attending expensive shows in Las Vegas and occasional talks with the mall owner. While the City can probably not tell them how to run the mall, they could assist in making it less isolated from surrounding areas and suggesting better and higher uses for the vastly overbuilt parking lots all around it. How to reinvent struggling urban malls has been successfully demonstrated in cities around the nation, even in places that were not blessed with a transit hub dropping shoppers right at the doorsteps. Positioning this important retail center a a resilient player in a time of mounting retail challenges should be one of the highest priorities of the City. In the interest of stabilizing and reviving all surrounding communities and in the interest of making best use of the existing subway station. (on this blog)

10. The fire ruin at 320 North Eutaw Street
Burnt out and sitting untouched for 3 years!

To some known under the name of its most recent use as a nightclub (the Tunnel) and to some under its historic name the Gomprecht building, this historic landmark building which covers the land right north of the Lexington Market and extends from Eutaw all the way to Paca Street went up in flames in Jan of 2017.

The ruin has been sitting ever since untouched. No real cleanup, no stabilization. It isn't even boarded up. The elements do their thing through the open roof and vagrants hang out around the chainlink fence which doesn't prevent access or protection from what could fall off the violated building at any moment. In fact, vagrants warming themselves are blamed for the fire.

That the city has not been able to force the owner to secure the building, come up with a viable repair and redevelopment plans or take the property over in receivership is yet another embarrassment, proving a lack of attention and a lack of coordinated action on the stated goal of revitalizing the area. 2020 is supposed to be the start of the rebuild of Lexington Market. It must be also the year when this complex is being repaired and re-used. On this blog.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Preservation in Baltimore: A new tier between "all or nothing"?

Baltimore has a rich history of architecture and, maybe inevitably, extensive experience with historic landmarks being destroyed. A review whether the right tools are in place is warranted.

Protection under current rules is only granted to "contributing" structures located in one of the 36 locally designated CHAP historic districts or the 200 individually designated historic landmarks. In those cases protection consists in a careful staff review of building, rehabilitation or demolition applications and hearings in front of the historic commission (the specific rules are set forth here).  Any structure not located inside a CHAP district or designated as a landmark has no protection whatsoever, even if the structure has been recognized as historic and may be listed in the National Register District.

Historic district designation doesn't mean no demolition: For example, in the case of Eddies in Mt Vernon, where after full CHAP hearings the majority of commissioners recognized demolition as appropriate to avoid "hardship" on the developer. Or the case of the 32,400-square-foot former St. Vincent's Infant Asylum at 1401-1411 Division Street in historic Upton which was turned into a pile of rubble by a rogue contractor almost two years ago.

What was once the historic infant asylum building on Division Street
As a result of missing or circumvented protections whole sections of the City's "main street" (Baltimore Street) are missing between Calvert and President Streets and west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, the Rochembeau on Charles Street disappeared, so did the Royal Theater, the Southern Hotel, the News American building, the McCormick Spice company building, the Mechanic Theatre and any number of other structures. The historic City Jail, and the Cab Calloway house will be next, to name just a few.  In each case the buildings sit or sat outside the locally designated "CHAP districts" and, therefore, are not afforded the protection of CHAP hearings and review. 

Once in a while CHAP ventures outside its designated districts and landmarks, especially when the Commission is presented with information during public debate which could lead to landmarking a building. This was the case for the Read's Drugstore located in the Westside's Superblock when it came to light that it had been the place of early civil rights activities at the lunch-counter there. It may be once again the case for the Cab Calloway house in Druid Heights after CHAP director Eric Holcomb has brought potential civil rights connections to this address to the attention of CHAP. For the moment CHAP commissioners asked for a 90 day delay in demolition in order to study the matter.

Often decision makers and community leaders agree that demolition is progress and necessary and that a city must allow change to prosper. In most cases CHAP has no say. What is to do?

The seemingly easy solution to protect more areas and buildings through CHAP designation or landmarking is not politically easy. District designation can only become effective after the City Council passes an ordinance and the Mayor signs off.
New life in historic shells: Meadowmill in the Jones Falls Valley

Many owners and developers argue that the requirements that come with a landmark or historic district designation are so onerous and costly that they effectively prevent rehabilitation, repairs or development, certainly an outcome that Baltimore cannot afford since too many valuable buildings already crumble from neglect. Historic district designation also affect different areas in different ways. The restrictions that limit what one can be done in renovations or repairs far beyond standard zoning regulations or building codes can be quite appropriate in pristine settings with high property values; the same restrictions can quickly become prohibitive and unaffordable in places like Druid Heights, Sandtown or Harlem Park, all part of the Historic West Baltimore National Register District which provides tax incentives for investors but no protections of any kind.  Historic tax credits can only offset these impacts when funds are available. Thanks to the large amount of nationally or locally designated areas, the funds do not nearly cover the demand. Even the most preservation friendly governor could not elevate the available tax credit money to the levels needed.
The large eternal downtown rubble field that once was the Mechanic Theater

Sometimes regret changes minds after the fact. So in the case of Woodberry, where historic mill buildings were demolished in spite of promises to keep them (see my article How not to erase history, one building at a time). The trauma from this demolition has shifted opinion of many property owners. Now the Woodberry community is the latest to very likely become a locally designated district after a positive CHAP vote this week.

Once a beloved building is gone and there is either no replacement at all (The Mechanic Theatre, the News American come to mind), or the replacement is mundane, banal and boring (like the many city garages that took the place of historic buildings on Baltimore, Charles and Lombard Streets) the realization sets in that new structures are often no match for the visual quality of the old ones. Even though Baltimore has fared much better with historic preservation than Denver, Hartford or Buffalo, where entire districts were torn down for highways, urban renewal or both, the question is how much better would Baltimore be without the gaping holes left by demolitions that never brought the promised improvements?
Destruction in downtown's Westside:
At Lexington and Liberty in 2010

Contrary to the notion that demolition is a price for progress and economic development, historic districts typically score much better in terms of economic vitality than urban renewal areas ransacked by demolition. This has been shown in detailed studies conducted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in six major cities in the US.

It surely holds true in Baltimore: The residential preservation districts of Federal Hill, Bolton Hill, Mt Vernon and Fells Point outperform non designated areas in almost every category, from building value to vitality and resident retention. Creative reuse of old buildings for commercial or mixed use is one of Baltimore's strongest traits, almost all have been spectacularly successful from Clipper Mill to the American Can, from Tide Point to Meadow Mill, from Tindeco to Silo Point and from the Everyman to the Hippodrome.

All this points to the conclusion that the current "all or nothing choice" in preservation in a city with tens of thousands of vacant structures is just not prudent, even buildings in disinvested areas are no less beautiful and just as deserving of preservation.
All that's left of the Royal Theater is a fake

A solution would be the creation of a "middle district designation". Instead of a full set of requirements or none,  there should be a designation that covers the middle ground. This alternative approach is nationally know as the designation of conservation districts. New Orleans has applied this tactic over large parts of their city to complement their rather few historic districts. The matter hotly debated under previous mayor Landrieu who found demolition restrictions too onerous. Nevertheless, a host of other cities such as Detroit. are considering it. According to CHAP chair Tom Liebel, CHAP is also looking into this option for Baltimore.

One way to achieve a middle level protection would be through a zoning overlay district that could be applied to existing currently unprotected National Register Districts and would focus on the big stuff, such as demolition, major additions or alterations and compatibility of new infill.

If anyone inside a National Register District undertakes a subsidized historic renovation, the compliance with the full set of rules would still apply. But anyone not using tax credits would be subjected to a much more lenient set of rules which would govern much less detail.

Historic architecture is one of Baltimore's biggest assets. Its protection is economic development. One can hope that the new Baltimore mayor will throw his or her weight behind expanded protections.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Thursday, December 5, 2019

From steel making to windmills: The transformation of Sparrows Point

On a grey and rainy Monday afternoon a large group of entrepreneurs, engineers, attorneys and small business people filed into a conference room at TradePoint Atlantic (TPA) to hear about a brandnew industry taking root on the former steel mill site.
Sparrows Point today. Deep water access, berths, piers, docks and
lots of space.

OSW where the magic words that radiated enough promise to draw almost a hundred people out to listen representatives of  TPA and the wind-industry making a pitch for off-shore wind. What was once Deepwater has been bought by Danish wind giant Orsted which runs the world's oldest off shore windfarm (Vindeby in Denmark) and the largest one (Hornesea in the UK). Orsted's representative showed on a map how well Sparrows Point is located along the Atlantic coast, a place with large wind potential and large energy consumption at the same time, an ideal combination, especially when combined with a large sea shelf offering water depths under 60m. It was less clear what Orsted will actually do on the old steel site in Maryland, obviously more assembly then production, at least initially. The generators will come from GE and the parts for the piles will be shipped from Germany. The representative was a bit circumspect about the blades and controllers. In general, the new jobs would be for shipping, transport and assembly, not quite on par with the high end jobs the steel mill once offered but potentially better than those offered in the large distribution warehouses of Amazon, Under Armor and Floor and Decor which already dot the peninsula. Branded as a "modern intermodal logistics hub" the site is increasingly showing diverse uses, including an organic hydroponic farm and automobile import from large ro-ro ferries that can dock here.
Plenty of interest in wind-power and related jobs and
business opportunities

The last version of the steel making plant that used to be Bethlehem Steel had about 3000 employees. According TradePoint Atlantic there are now about 5000 jobs on site with a planning horizon of 10-15,000 jobs.

The Orsted decision to invest here will add manufacturing and make TradePoint an important hub for the "Skipjack" windfarm project planned off the shores of Ocean City. The project recently ran in unwanted headwinds with the disclosure that the blades would reach higher than originally envisioned, stoking afresh the fears that they would mar the ocean vistas. Skipjack and the MarWin Wind Farm by Baltimore-based U.S. Wind, a subsidiary of the Italian renewable energy company Renexia, are being reviewed in response to concerns raised by Ocean City officials about the farms' impact on tourism to the famous vacation spot. Both submitted updates for taller, more powerful turbines in their offshore leasing areas. Recent wind turbine research shows that capturing wind at higher altitudes yields higher energy returns. However, the ever larger turbines also pose previously unmet challenges for foundations, kinetic energy on the towers and forces the gears of the turbines.
The Skipjack farm is located about 23 miles away from the shore is proposed to use the largest turbines currently on the market, each producing 12 megawatts of power. The 850-foot turbines are about as tall as the New York Rockefeller Center RCA Building, a 70-story skyscraper). The now proposed version is 50% larger than the 8-megawatt turbines originally proposed. Whatever the components, they will be very large. The sites to handle them are currently under construction on the southern end of 4000 acre TPA site.
Deepwater access: Competition or collaboration with the Port of Baltimore?

Sparrows Point and its surroundings offer large scale opportunities for a new economy, but also for sustainability, resilience against climate change and future waterfront recreation. While the world went gaga over new Amazon headquarters what happens at TPA has to date spurred far less public attention than it deserves but may have ultimately a larger impact on this entire region.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The location of the Orsted investment

The eastern seaboard: High energy demand (left), high wind zones (center) and large sea shelves (right)

There are many activities occurring now on TPA (storage, distribution)

Little of the old structures is left. 

A model of the old steel plant is all that left of this particular past

Other articles about TPA on this blog:

The miraculous transformation of 3,250 acres of industrial wasteland

Arugula instead of steel - the next level of innovation?