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

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