Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The State of Transit in the Region: From Bad to Worse?

This year has been extremely rough for transit and has heightened the need to think about the  future of transit. In Baltimore, transit and transportation, once a geeky topic, have become the focus of public interest. 
Event poster of the Baltimore Transit
Equity Coalition 

Various bills are anticipated to address the region's transit future in the State's legislative session starting in January: Foremost the Transit Safety and Investment Act still pending from last year. Another bill is expected to require tracking transit equity. It has not yet been published. Mayor Scott has officially declared December 21 as Baltimore Transit Equity Solidarity Day and has already shown more interest in support for transit than previous Mayors.

At least three documents are trying to map the transit future in the greater Baltimore Washington region.

More bus lanes to accelerate the bus

Finally, there is the Transportation & Climate initiative, a compact between 13 states of the eastern US (including Maryland) which will introduce carbon pricing and trading into transportation. While not a Baltimore region initiative, TCI has enormous potential to shift transportation priorities and open up new funding streams, especially for transit. 

A D-grade for transit

Meanwhile, the latest CMTA Report Card gave Baltimore area transit once again a D grade, mostly because of poor job access based on the annual analysis performed by the University of Minnesota. The depressing thing about that is that the LINK bus reform promoted by the current Governor has not lifted the poor grade, worse job access is supposed tohave slipped compared to 2018, the basis of the previous report. In short, the state of transit in the Baltimore region hasn't been stellar for a long time and COVID has made it much worse. 
The Transportation Report Card by CMTA

A typical Baltimorean can only get to 9% of the region’s jobs in under an hour using public transportation. (Report Card)

According to data collected by the Federal Transit Administration, MTA’s bus and rail systems have the highest breakdown rates compared to its peer agencies (2018 data, cited in CMTA Report Card_
 Would the three plans and the proposed bills improve area transit? 

The Transit Investment Act

Since the biggest problem for transit is the lack of money, the Investment Act would make a difference since this governor consistently prioritized roadway spending over transit ever since he took office. With COVID having drastically decreased the dollars flowing into the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund, which fuels all matters and modes of transportation in Maryland, the Governor announced especially drastic cuts for MTA. The proposed bill squarely aims at funding MTA for a "good state of repair", if need be, by reallocating other transportation funds towards transit. 

Requiring the Governor to include certain appropriations in the State budget from the Transportation Trust Fund to the Maryland Transit Administration for certain operating and capital needs of the Administration in certain fiscal years; (Bill description)
To make financial matters worse, the single large transit project that the Governor let happen, the DC area Purple Line, hit a big snag when the lead contractor walked off the job frustrated by the many delays that the project organized as a public private partnership has experienced. In a settlement, designed to rescue the partially constructed project, the State will have to pay at least $100 million to get the project moving again. Although it isn't clear yet what the total tally of this major hick-up will be, nor from where the funds will come, there is little doubt that the Transportation Trust Fund will pay this settlement which was celebrated as a success, both by MDOT and by transit advocates. 

The Regional Transit Plan

The Regional Transit Plan was finished under COVID but was commenced much earlier. It, too originated from a bill sponsored by Delegate Lierman. Titled "Connecting Our Future" the 25 year plan was completed in October 2020. In its introductory letter MTA Administrator Quinn says:

Over the past two years, MDOT MTA has worked collaboratively with the Central  Maryland Regional Transit Plan Commission, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, and the public to develop a comprehensive twenty-five-year vision for transit in the Central Maryland Region: Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, and Howard Counties.
The Central Maryland Regional Transit Plan presents goals, objectives, and initiatives to enhance transit service, support the economy, and reduce our environmental impact. Through coordinated planning and investment from the region’s transit agencies and the local jurisdictions, we have an opportunity to create an interconnected transit network that is more reliable, convenient, and efficient.
Goals and Initiatives (Regional Transit Plan)

The Regional Plan, initiated long before anybody remotely thought about a virus, addresses several of the typical issues that plagued our transit all along, namely lack of reliability, not enough destinations to reach within a reasonable time, long trip times, a poor state of repair and poor communication. Addressing these issues will be good, no matter what. The plan also identifies various priority corridors that should be studied for expanded service without suggesting a mode (bus, light rail, subway etc). All metrics and goals in the plan are based on improvements above pre-COVID services. Since the pandemic resulted in service cuts rather than improvements, all metrics are already off to some extent. 

Really drastic cuts almost happened this fall when MTA proposed massive cuts only to avert most of them last minute. A public outcry caused MTA to alter their plans and slash only rail and commuter bus service where ridership losses were the highest. How long will this truce last is not known, no further cuts are proposed at this time, a significant advantage over many other systems in the nation. As is well known, the current pandemic landscape has turned the economy of many industries upside down to such an extreme amount that it is entirely unclear how a "new normal" after COVID will look like, whether in office, hospitality, culture, or entertainment. All affecting transportation. Especially work from home could reduce the commute numbers for a long time to come. 

The regional transit authority

When things don't go so well, there is always the possibility that they are not well organized. The MD Transportation Trust Fund has been long a point of Maryland pride, but the status of Baltimore transit as a function of a State Agency with no local participation (or funding contribution) is fairly unique. After the cancellation of the Baltimore Red Line a movement to limit the Governor's power over local transit gained momentum. The report by the transportation think tank ENO in Washington DC suggests three models for how the Baltimore region could get additional say over how transit is run in the metro area. The most drastic option would be the creation of a regional transportation authority similar to what is common in most metro regions across the country, including DC's WMATA
Ridership loss on buses: MTA has the third smallest loss
in the nation (Source: MTA)

The governance of public transit in Greater Baltimore limits its ability to address those regional transportation needs. Of the 50 largest transit agencies in the country, Baltimore’s is the only one that is governed and operated by a state agency without a board of directors.[...] The local governments in the Baltimore region do not directly contribute funding to the transit services the state provides.
Unfortunately, under this governance structure, metropolitan Baltimore’s public transportation system has not kept pace with repair and service needs nor has seen a new rapid transit line in more than two decades.

ENO points out that Baltimore does not contribute to the area transit cost. In that it is unique, since the surrounding jurisdictions such as Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford Counties get operational aid from MTA but contribute to their capital and operational expenses to varying degrees. Baltimore, of course, runs its own Circulator bus, largely funded out of City funds. ENO suggest that the hodge-podge of local systems should be integrate into one system if a regional authority would run it. 

While funding of a regional authority would still come mostly from the State Trust Fund, the aspect of increased local contributions may very well lower Baltimore's excitement about this model. 

The Capital Rail Vision

Finally the rail vision plan which isn't strictly a Baltimore area plan. It proposes to integrate Maryland's MARC commuter trains and Virginia's VRE trains which current each terminate at Union Station in DC. MTA's MARC trains were the agency's flagship service with rising ridership and the fastest commuter trains in the country (top speeds above 100mph). It is tempting to look at how this service could penetrate the nation's capital better and potentially even reach up to the Philadelphia commter rail system as well.

The Capital Region Rail Vision seizes on recent wins for the region’s rail network and charts a course for a transformed rail system that offers seamless, all day connections that span the Potomac River and rail operators to connect Maryland, the District, and Virginia and deliver a globally competitive system that takes the Capital Region to new heights.

But oh, have things changed! A recent presentation by MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn cast a light on the current conditions. Like in transit across the country, MTA lost riders in droves, nearly 90% for rail services and commuter buses and about 50% for local buses. With such devastation in the commuter rail ridership, it isn't likely that this vision will get much traction any time soon, even though a State bill introduced last year, already asked to study how MARC service could be extended to DC's L'Enfant Plaza, currently only served by VRE. 

The Capital Region Commuter Rail system

The high ridership losses on MARC come from our region's high dependency on government work, especially for commuters riding MARC to DC. Almost all this work is now done virtually and it is quite unclear to what extent in person work will return even once COVID is in the rear view mirror.

Commuter rail is hugely important for the well being of the Baltimore region, which is dependent on participating in the much healthier capital economy. In spite of the cratering passenger numbers, it is the time to fully appreciate the importance of high capacity trains that connect our region. They should be more than a conduit for federal workers. Instead of wasting energy on far fetched boondoggles such as MagLev and Hyperloop, the focus of our regions must now be how to replace the missing federal commuters with everyday riders that currently clog the streets. 

The "captive ridership" trap 

Common wisdom has it that the pandemic accelerates and magnifies trends that were detectable long before the pandemic. Certainly true for transit: The increase in ridership that had followed the financial crisis of 2008 has long reverted back to the steady loss of transit's share that has been underway for as long as mass motorization. The future of transit depends on reverting this trend in the name of climate change and a better quality of life in our road congested and air polluted region. 

In spite of  the pandemic and the associated fear of sharing a space with others, in spite of work from home, closed schools and closed government offices, nearly 100,000 people still use the buses every day! This means, tons of "front line" or "essential" workers depend on transit for getting to work! If these employees, nurses, sanitation workers, shop clerks, check-out personnel, construction workers, delivery drivers, or warehouse workers couldn't get to their jobs, our society wouldn't function anymore and all those who get by without touching transit would have a rude awakening. 

Zurich trams: Not spectacular but reliable (Photo: Philipsen)

In fact, Baltimore's transit dependent population is higher and the 50% ridership in loss is smaller than that of many other cities. This points to Baltimore's high poverty rates and the large inequality and inequity in this city. Protecting these riders has become a clarion call for those who demand more equity. The observation that transit is a necessity is not new, though. However, in the past it was seen as a trap if agencies would simply rely on "captive riders" for whom transit is a last resort. 

As a result transit agencies have tried to attract "choice riders" (meaning riders that have a choice), often by building rail service which had a higher acceptance than buses. This approach has come into the cross hairs of the equity discussion. Posh new suburban light rail systems were increasingly derided as "white rail" and as an inequitable shift of resources away from overburdened and underserved communities where transit is truly needed. Attracting choice riders was criticised as some type of trickle down approach in which the new attractive services should eventually improve bus service as well. On the other hand, it is probably true that transit won't excel unless broader segments of the population have some "skin in the game", best by being transit users themselves.  

Who can tele-work? Source: MTA

The master precedent for attracting "choice riders" had been Zurich, Switzerland, interestingly Zurich was successful after it rejected very expensive new underground lines that would have done away with its narrow gauge trams in the streets and opted for making those trams an investment priority instead. Only after the transit agency resolved that it wanted to improve its existing system but didn't want to be just a service of last resort, did the service really improve. Making existing trams and buses more reliable, cleaner and operating them with use of state of the art technology and giving transit priority in the narrow streets of the city made it one of the best systems worldwide. That approach had been very successful and today, all segments of the population rub shoulders in the many tram lines around the city. 

What needs to be done?

Considering COVID, equity and the Zurich experience  raises many questions for Baltimore's transit future beyond the noted transit plans.  

  1. How can the region respond effectively to climate change? What role must transit play in that?
  2. How can transit help to reduce the inequities in the region by providing much better job access without breaking the bank?
  3. How can transit service respond to continued migration of jobs away from the traditional job centers? 
  4. How can transit become attractive beyond the existing "insider" circle of those who are familar with the system and all its indignities? Good transit has to be attractive to transit dependent riders and choice riders alike. 

MTA and the City of Baltimore have started many good initiatives: 

  • a fairer distribution of the existing street space through miles of bus only lanes and many cases of signal priority which have broken with the tradition of traffic planning that always prioritized the car over everything else. 
    The new MTA Nova Bus being rolled out now

  • MTA's buses have become "smarter" and MTA's dispatch folks as well as riders can usually find where any bus is at any given moment. 
  • The bus fleet is in the process of being renewed and MARC, light rail and Metro also have seen upgrades for their rolling stock (or will see it in 2021, in the case of Metro). 
  • MTA is preparing for a regional fare system where riders could use a single ticket on various transit providers in the region. 
Problems remain:
  • Service remains slow and unreliable and trips too time consuming as CMTA's transit report card shows. The other deficits contribute to this: 
  • A poor state of repair for tracks, signals and stations, slowing things down. 
  • Insufficient number of buses, especially when break downs are frequent
  • Insufficient number of operators, especially when COVID increases the sick rates

Only money can alleviate these deficiencies, no matter who runs the system or how ridership will develop after COVID.  Severe service cuts taking out essential lifelines for underserved and overburdened communities must remain off the table. The Maryland Transit Safety and Investment Act will be key to the needed funding as well as the second COVID aid package that Congress just stitched together. It is anticipated to contain about $120 for Maryland Transit.

The Efficiency solutions: Better land use and demand based transit service

There are perspectives beyond money, namely how land use and transit service can be brought into better alignment. Better land use by the local jurisdictions  via zoning and land management around the existing transit stations (rail) and bus lines would be the kind of support any transit agency needs to flourish. Although the connection between land use and transportation has been understood for decades, there has been little or no action in the Baltimore region to do anything about the fact that the land around rail stations is usually not at all "transit oriented" but is characterized by abandonment, disinvestment, low density and auto centric uses that don't bring any riders to transit. Masterplans and development plans need to recognize the presence of a transit station as an asset. The fact that in our region state money has funded transit and the stations has enabled local government to pretty much ignore those assets. 

Typical suburban land use pattern (Graphic: Kittelson)

A case in point is the Lutherville Light Rail station in which vicinity a shopping center has seen four different big box users since the station was built. None presented "transit oriented development", all failed one way or another. Recently the site was bought by developers just before it would have been auctioned off. What will happen now? There is no adopted local plan that would mandate a transit friendly use. 

The same is pretty much true up and down all stations of MARC, Metro and Light Rail.  The famed exceptions are Owings Mills for Metro, Symphony Center and Clipper Mill for Light Rail and the Dorsey Road and Odenton Stations for MARC, all examples which deviate in many respects from optimal TOD.

With better land use and a broader service menu, efficiency could be achieved, ideally without much new capital. This requires action on both sides:

  • Intensified use around existing rail stations all across the map can bring additional riders to transit and out of cars. Putting development and jobs in areas that are well served by transit rather than out where transit is impractical is by far the most cost effective option for sustainable economic development
  • A further diversified transit service menu must be considered by MTA to serve the many lower density areas in our region to to provide service during "slow" hours. The menu must include services that are not the traditional fixed-route, fixed-service model that is the base of all existing MTA service except Paratransit/Mobility. 
  • The operational service alternative is a demand-based system that runs when and where needed, replacing costly mostly empty buses circulating on routes with low ridership. Mobility-Paratransit is already a "demand-based" service that adjusts for demand and moves off fixed routes to the doors of users and their destinations.
  • A cash free integrated fare payment system across all modes and the entire region which would allow buses to be faster since operators would not have to wait until everybody paid on board.
A demand based system doesn't have to be a train or bus and it doesn't have to be owned by MTA. It could be cars that would operate like taxis or ride share with pick up of additional riders along the way. It could be a van type demand responsive service as it is popular in South America and Turkey. Eventually, once regulations are adjusted, it could even be a broader use of the existing Mobility/Paratransit fleet. Covering "last mile" service, late night and weekend hours on low density routes could bring riders to the transit system who haven't used the system to date. 

The State of transit may not be good. But with the most progressive MTA team in generations in place, a new Mayor, and progressive Executives in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel Counties a breakthrough towards a better future could be possible, in spite of the rough year behind us. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Miracle on Lexington Street?

Just when the handwringing over failing urban retail and deserted office towers and what it all could mean for the future of cities becomes ever more desperate, news reach us that the most dormant urban block in all of downtown Baltimore could have finally found a prince that kisses it back to life.

The "superblock" sitting dormant since 2003 (Photo: Philipsen)
Jay Brodie was still heading the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the Mayor was O'Malley and today's high school graduates were just being born. The year was 2003 and BDC thought that the renaissance of Baltimore's once premier retail center that BDC had dubbed the "Westside" would be best served with another one of those heavy-handed big-on-government procedures that had been popular in the previous century under the name of urban renewal. In that top-down approach government obtains all the properties in a large area, sometimes through condemnation ("eminent domain"), vacates them and then comes up with a big redevelopment scheme. Those redevelopments often eliminated the fine-grained urban fabric in favor of so called superblocks which were considered more efficient. 

Superblock corner Howard and Fayette Street (Photo: Philipsen)
Originally eminent domain power had been only used for public projects such as railroads and highways, but eventually it had become common practice that government would take the land and sell it right away to a private developer. ("land disposition"). The public interest to justify that approach had become couched in the terms of "slum and blight removal" and eventually simply as "economic development". In this manner BDC offered the entire land between Lexington Street and Fayette Street from Park Avenue to Howard Street up in a "request for proposals" in 2003.  Some merchants who were still active in many mostly marginal stores were not happy, but didn't have much of a voice. Even the famed Hippodrome hatters in the earlier developed superblock called "CenterPoint" had not succeeded in saving their historic hat store. (They got relocated into a new store in the rebuilt block, operated it a few years and then gave up. Other retailers in the block still struggle in maintaining viability.) 

Today, with systemic racism in planning much on our mind, most have a very dim view of urban renewal; too often it had meant removal of the poor, of blacks and of small businesses in favor of a restructured city in which developers and chain stores would benefit while the poor would go empty. 
Jay Brodie on Jan 10 when demolition began at the Weinberg block 
(Photo: Philipsen) 

Not that in 2003 old-style urban renewal was still all the rage either; this method had already run its course in the 1960s and 70s. That is why BDC's use of the term "superblock" was so puzzling. So was their approach which was in so many ways reminiscent of past failures. Even in a reflection that the long retired Jay Brodie wrote in the BBJ this July, his critique didn't touch on his own decision to go the superblock route, but focused on Mayor Rawlings-Blake instead. She  eventually followed the advice of the national ULI Advisory Team in 2013 and pulled the plug on the development team which had not produced any progress in 10 years of having had the exclusive rights to the site. Brodie wrote: 

Seven years later, reflecting on those events, I believe that was the City of Baltimore's worst-ever urban redevelopment decision. It was legal, but it was immoral. (Brodie)

Demolition of the Weinberg block
(Photo: Philipsen)
There is not much point in re-litigating the past in this manner, except for finding a suitable way forward. In their RFP from 2019 the superblock had been split in half, both halves being offered at the same time. The project was still couched in terms of economic development:

The City of Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), on behalf of the Mayor of Baltimore (the “City”), through this Request for Proposals (RFP), is seeking written proposals from developers experienced with adaptive reuse and new construction in historic districts for the purchase and redevelopment of City-owned property located in the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District (“Bromo Arts District”). The intent of this RFP is to promote redevelopment of these parcels (herein referred to as “the Site”) in a fashion that will achieve the City’s objectives including job generation, tax generation and mixed-use development that fits within the context of the Bromo Arts District – an emerging neighborhood with active storefronts and other ground-level uses.

The properties have been bundled into three assemblages (See diagram in Section III, Site Description). Developers can bid on one, two or all three assemblages. The Site is within the Market Center National Register Historic District and the Five and Dime Baltimore City Historic District. Reasonable effort should be made to preserve and repurpose historically contributing buildings.(BDC RFP in 2019)

Restored buildings 400 block of Howard Street (Photo: Philipsen)

The selection of another development team 17 years later will only truly become a "miracle on Lexington Street" if the new approach (still containing 19 properties) is somehow a less heavy lift with a higher likelihood of finding community support and the necessary funding to turn the plans into reality. Kimberly Clarke, Deputy at BDC, is optimistic. She told the SUN: 

“It’s so exciting, for me, to see something significant happening here. We’re solidifying the fact that this can be considered a true neighborhood.”(SUN)

The glacial pace of moving such a large project in Baltimore cannot only be seen in the 17 year history since the first request for proposals in 2003, but also in this latest RFP: Issued in March 2019 and splitting the site into two halves, it took over 1.5 years to whittle proposals down to six proposals and then select the winning team! By comparison, Denver built a full and vibrant new city quarter around its Union Station in less than 15 years. 

A new Lexington Market rising (Photo: Philipsen)

The selected development team consists of two partner firms, Landmark of Baltimore and Vitruvius of Pittsburgh. Chris Janian, the founder of Vitruvius was a Development Executive at H&S Properties Development in Baltimore. The development team proposes to develop the entire block. Gensler is to be the architect; a rendering of the project showing the former Read's Drug store in the foreground had been prepared by SM&P Architects in Baltimore. The project is said to cost more than a $100 million and supposed to be realized in phases. BDC hasn't put a press release on their website in years and there is nothing about this selection. 

Sparse info can be found on the agenda for the Board of Estimates.  It has to approve the "Land Disposition Agreement" states that  "The concept includes market-rate rental housing, retail, office, co-working, artist live/work-space, an entertainment venue, and a hotel."  The local Landmark team is currently redeveloping the former Grand Central club in Mt Vernon and slated to develop the currently vacant site with the saved former Martick's building on Mulberry Street. Neither firm appears to have developed any project on the same scale before, not counting the H&S projects. 

The team calls their project Compass and says this on their own website:

The Compass will bridge the divide between the Central Business District, Mt. Vernon, and the Westside, jump-starting more creative development in the once thriving area. More than that, the impact-driven development, dynamic programming, incorporation of the arts, and local tenant mix will respect the buildings’ and neighborhood’s historic fabric, interspersing history with modern, timeless design. (Vitruvius Website)
Luckily the Westside, as a whole, has not stagnated in the same way as the Superblock area in those last 17 years. As Jay Brodie notes in his BBJ reminiscence, there have been at least 2,500 apartments completed, such as Center Point, the Atrium, the old BGE Headquarters, the Abell building, Camden Court, the L on Liberty and now the Four Ten Lofts on Mulberry Street and the University Lofts on Paca Street, both still under construction.
Four Ten lofts at Eutaw and Mulberry nearing completion (Photo: Philipsen)

The old Hippodrome movie theater was transformed into the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center and there are plans to do something behind the fa├žade of the old Mayfair theatre. The area is now one of Baltimore's five Arts and Entertainment Districts. Dubbed "the Bromo", it features the Everyman Theater, the Mondo event space, various galleries and will soon have a brand-new Lexington Market. Almost the entire east side of the 400 block of Howard Street has been renovated, more construction is underway on the west side of the same block. The Mount Vernon Market and the Park Avenue Apartments are technically located in Mt Vernon, but they sure had a revitalizing effect on the Market Center District to the south (the "Westside").

Should the construction and rehabilitation of the Superblock really begin in 2022, it would fill a giant void and potentially be the project that really moves the former retail district over the hump for good.  Then it would also become finally time for the Weinberg Foundation to act on the land they cleared on the north side of Lexington Street in 2010. Their promise was always: "We will go after the superblock".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Other articles about the Westside and the Superblock on this blog:

Board of Estimates meeting 12-2-20 for approval of land
disposition. Last meeting of Comptroller Joan Pratt

The Superblock - new hope after 11 years of waiting (2015)

390 feet tall in the historic Westside (2015) still only a hole

Big Government, Big Retail, Big Renewal – How Big is Too Big? (2012)

Westside Stories 2 (2011)

Westside Stories 1 (2010)

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Grow the City!

People have been city attraction #1 (Danish architect Jan Gehl)

With Brandon Scott now elected Mayor and his first term imminent, good advice is pouring in from all sides. Priorities galore: Fix the schools, crime, equity, the justice system, the property taxes, vacant properties, potholes and transit. Create more jobs. The list is as long as it is daunting. Not to mention that the ongoing pandemic threatens to erase much of the recent progress in filling retail and restaurants places and making Baltimore's neighborhood streets lively.

Baltimore, a beautiful city awaiting to live up to its full potential
(Photo: Philipsen)

Wouldn't it be nice if there were one thing that could fix all those problems? Well, there is. There is one strategy that addresses all the above ailments. 

That one thing that can make a dent in everything listed above is growing Baltimore's population. While many have mentioned something to this effect over the years, it never became an official data based hard strategy. Only Stephany Rawlings Blake (SRB) established a specific growth goal (20,000 households), but her goal was more or less drawn from thin air. What residents Baltimore is losing, what people the city is gaining was never analyzed in detai. What are the reasons for those gains and losses and what are the implications for Baltimore's fiscal base, its services and the vitality of its neighborhoods? Speculation why people leave replaced analysis with everyone having their own favorite guess: Is it because of crime, bad schools, trash, lack of jobs? Or something different entirely? One known fact is that current flight is a reversal from the flight of the white middle class of the past. Today the majority of people leaving is black, and the majority of those coming in is white. Another fact is that Baltimore's tax base remained relatively stable in spite of the population loss because incoming people are wealthier, younger, more educated and pay more taxes than those who left.

Rawlings Blake and her administration never did the analysis and without it there couldn't be a systematic growth strategy. Even her growth target of 20,000 households had nothing to do with the carrying capacity of the City or a goal that address the massive housing vacancies. In spite of the general fuzziness of SRB's goal, her administration managed to keep the City from losing more people for some time. Mayor Young did not keep even the goal alive. Now the slide has become precipitous again. Time to revisit growth as a policy.

Abandonment through shrinkage (Photo: Philipsen)

Growing the City is not a universally accepted goal. There are those who say (I suspect Mayor Young is one of them) "take care of the people who are already here first". And then there are those who are afraid of change of any kind. Usually their concern is expressed in terms of gentrification, displacement and cultural shifts. The subtext: The likely influx of wealthier white people. 

“We have spent a lot of time and energy attempting to lure other people into our city without always prioritizing the population that lives here already” (Zeke Cohen, June 2019 to the Baltimore SUN) 

Taking care of existing residents and attracting new ones are not mutually exclusive goals, though. When existing residents flee to a higher degree than what in-migration can make up, there is a problem. Any growth strategy must include taking care of existing residents. The hole in the bucket needs to be plugged before filling it again can truly be successful. 

Births and migration in Baltimore's population (SUN)

Obviously, the matter isn't solely about numbers. Income, culture and jobs play a major role in the DNA of a city and therefore, those topics dominate the discussion. But, to say it again, growing the City is not a zero sum proposition. Besides, in a city that is 2/3 African American and where every fifth person lives in poverty, more diversity and more wealth is not only exactly what is needed, such increased diversity benefits everybody. 

Even the equity narrative which correctly assigns blame for the current conditions to systemic racism cannot undo a simple economic truth: A city can't fix its schools, its crime its housing or its transit without changing the sky high poverty rates and the total segregation of underserved, overburdened neighborhoods. It is necessary to fill a good portion of the vacant housing that reaches in some areas almost 50% of the building stock. It is necessary to add students of other income and education strata to lift the lowest achievement schools. To right this City takes lots of resources. Additional tax revenue from additional residents is a much more likely source for those resources than giant federal reparation payments, no matter how justified those would be. To gain additional residents, the City can take advantage of its unused capacity and infrastructure that was once gauged on nearly a million residents. 

More residents using housing, transit, better schools and quality services, be it grocery stores,  playgrounds, well kept parks, or better maintained streets is key for even maintaining existing services, let alone improving them. The burden needs to be placed on more shoulders, it is as simple as that. Only more people wanting to live in Baltimore and the added demand that comes from that will make grocery stores, employers, qualified teachers and police come to Baltimore. 

Critics will immediately jump on the suggestion that disinvested neighborhoods should get investment in order to attract new residents instead of simply serving the existing ones. But investments also serve current residents. The  fear of "gentrification" needs to be parsed out. What should be avoided is displacement not a better neighborhood.  Clearly, there will be a legitimate discussion about what exactly a better neighborhood is, but it should be obvious that it will be different from what we see today in the underserved and overburdened communities of our City.

Jobs in Baltimore: Scarce (Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore's urban development discussions are mired in false alternatives and in an unproductive race confrontation that declares everything to be a zero sum game. As if every investment can only serve one purpose and one group and as if anything that benefits one group has to be to the detriment of the other. While there is no doubt that systemic racism has a history of actually creating those zero sum games, whether it was redlining, blockbusting or lopsided public investments, or ignoring cultural preferences of minority communities, these patterns cannot be assumed as the subtext of every initiative that brings investment to communities. Not if investments are done right. If done right, added value doesn't just mean higher taxes and rents, it also means more wealth in the hands of low income communities, i.e. wealth creation in the hands of previously disenfranchised groups. Higher costs such as rents and property taxes can be and must offset by building additional supply of housing in the lower price ranges, more vouchers, co-ops, land trusts and other measures that prevent low income renters being priced out of their neighborhoods. One can label this as a neoliberal approach because it is an approach within the mechanisms of the current economy, but Baltimore cannot create an all new economy all by itself, no matter how much some people argue for just such an isolationist approach.

The reality, of course, is complicated. Investment tends to go where returns are high and easy to get. Very few potential residents are eager to relocate to areas that would need investment the most. Very few investors consider investing there. Even public investments didn't go there with the result that the areas with the most needs received the least. This pattern prevails in spite of the federal Reinvestment Act. Other actions such as better off people sending their kids to private schools (which in turn receive public funds ) exacerbated the bifurcation: There was population growth in downtown and some come-back neighborhoods while poorer middle and low income neighborhoods saw increased urban flight, joined by previously stable neighborhoods which"tipped" into decline. 

But the once highly attractive investment areas are locally and nationally becoming less attractive when they are getting too expensive or run out of opportunities. Social Impact Investment has become a thing now. Public investment is scrutinized for implicit bias. New federal tax incentives are designed to reduce risk. Minority entrepreneurs and start up increasingly direct their attention to the needs of communities.

The good news is: Houses on the Baltimore real estate market are being snatched up at a record pace, in record time and at record prizes all across rich and poor neighborhoods. Many big cities have become unaffordable, additionally, some areas are now so impacted by fires, hurricanes that the beginning of "climate migration" seems to take shape. People look for affordable but attractive cities that are safe from hurricanes and fires. Baltimore is on the map as one of those places. 

Decline and growth of white population in Baltimore

The perennial critique has been that Mayors focus on downtown, while neighborhoods suffer, even though Mayor after Mayor swore to pay more attention to neighborhoods. But there is good news as well. Baltimore's uneven capital investments are getting flatter. Baltimore City has recognized the lopsided way in which capital investments have been made in the past, i.e. chiefly in what is known as the "white L", the areas where middle class people live. The New Baltimore Sustainability Plan, for example, has a very strong equity lens and investments are now continually checked for hidden bias.

Not only is investment now better distributed, most of the neighborhoods in the "white L" are no longer pure white either. The story isn't black and white, nor is it strictly binary. The up and coming neighborhoods are actually diverse, of course, those in the "black butterfly" are not. It is now widely recognized that it isn't acceptable that the majority of past funding benefitted the minority of people most. Baltimore has already engaged in investment in the Black Butterfly neighborhoods, whether it is school renovation, parks, playgrounds or road paving or bike lanes and scooter deployment. Anybody who wants to visit the once forgotten neighborhoods can see traces of these efforts, even if they often look like a drop in the bucket. Mayor Scott will continue and accelerate this trend.

As a result Baltimore, like other cities, is trending towards a polycentric urban model, away from the downtown centric model of the past. I have written about this in more detail in an article titled "A drastically realigned Baltimore".  In many ways, Baltimore has always remained a poly centric city and a new emphasis on neighborhood centers should come easy to our DNA.

Physically Baltimore has all that is needed to grow the city back.
(Photo Philipsen)

Another aspect to consider is COVID. In many respects the pandemic sets the country and the world back. But it must be understood, that the pandemic does not condemn cities to fail because of density. Density is not a driver of the pandemic. This has become now abundantly clear when rural areas surpass cities in terms of infection rates and mortality. In many ways, the pandemic highlights the need for quality gathering spaces and human contact. 

Taking advantage of Baltimore's low housing cost, record low mortgage and lending costs, as well as the existing interest in Baltimore as place to invest, presents a unique opportunity for the new Mayor to finally complete a sound analysis about Baltimore's population dynamics (who comes, who leaves and why), prepare a data-based strategy for retaining existing and attracting  new residents and build a massive campaign that aims to fill the many vacant houses and return them to a productive status. 

With the right framework that prevents displacement and with a possible federal recovery investment growing Baltimore is the most promising policy to reverse the many issues that ail this city. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Thursday, November 5, 2020

UDAAP: BIG designed Hopkins Student Center project does not recognize its surroundings

Johns Hopkins University doesn't waste any time in progressing with its new student center on the Baltimore Homewood campus. An Internal non public invited design competition was announced at the beginning of this year, a winner selected and announced on November 2nd, and a design review happened on November 5. That is truly a break neck pace for a project that was reported to cost as much as $250 million. 

Model of the proposed Hopkins Student Center at
33rd Street (Screenshot BIG presentation)

As reported on this blog, the winner of the design competition is the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a Danish architecture firm lead by a young architect who truly thinks big. His firm grew in only 15 years to 300 architects with projects worldwide, including the Google headquarter in the US. Some describe Bjarke Ingels as one of the most influential architects of our time.

Alas, the four appointed UDAP panelists were not overly impressed. The 150,000 sf Student Center was virtually presented by architect Leon Rost, a partner of  the BIG office in New York, and landscape architect Matthew Urbanski, partner at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, NYC. Rost described the design as a "radial scheme" which was derived from "literally cobbling the program together" and "assemble it in the most architecturally rational and contextually sensitive way without taking too much space". The major challenge was described as a complex program and opening the campus up to Charles Street  over a 48' grade difference. Rost stated that the design presents a "dynamic appearance towards Charles Street" and "is "providing accessibility by drawing people in" which then pass through and passing by "extremely engaging, airy, dynamic, cozy spaces". Interior stairs and elevators provide the route across the height difference.

Location plan and landscaping  (Screenshot BIG presentation)

When asked by panelist  Osborne Anthony about sustainability, BIG architect Rost explained that the team is "leaving no stone unturned to achieve sustainability, starting with site placement." As examples for green design approaches he mentioned  "south facing clear-stories which block out the summer sun and let in winter sun, the building's mass timber building construction with laminated timber slabs as well as photovoltaic cells on the many flat roofs, natural ventilation is being explored. 

Explaining the various outdoor plazas all around the building, the designers clarified that the "New Plaza" would be the most welcoming with the adjacent food-court and related outdoor seating. The "entry plaza" is intended more for going through. "The Grove" is intended as "a green space with picnic tables in the landscape" whereas the "The New Commons" is seen as "a new campus space". Design team member and landscape architect Urbanski described the relationship of the building complex and its site to Charles Street as a "balance between containment and visual penetration".

After the basic issues of massing, orientation and circulation had been explained and clarified, UDAAP members were not shy to express their misgivings, no matter how famous this architect. The initial poetic descriptions of the radial building shape as a "rose petal" (Osborne Anthony), "a 360 degree experience" and a "pinwheel" (Pavlina Ilieva), reviewers quickly descended into much more prosaic terms such as "spaceship", "glass bubble" and "aggregated boxes" (Ilieva). Reviewer Anthony said about the rose petal: "I am not seeing the merits of that" and a little bit later, "I am not seeing that it needs that radial concept". He described the circulation as "not very intuitive" and reminded the designers that circulation "is the most important aspect of a campus". He found that "the footprint seems to bee too large for the site" and added that "the fundamental flaw, or maybe not flaw, but challenge, is the entry plaza at 33rd street". He wondered what those would do who may not want to get into the building. He summarized: "What I am not seeing translated is hierarchy in terms of circulation and volumes" 

 (Screenshot BIG presentation)

Panelist Sharon Bradley commented that "the massing works well with the existing topography" but added: "Where I am concerned is the horizontal massing and the relation to the other buildings around it." She noted that "in campus planning, that's one of the most important aspects." She said that the building site is "a key parcel on the site" but bemoaned that the building fills the [entire] site, "walking around it is not as well articulated" and "forcing people through the building" would be not the right way to provide a gateway to the campus." She also critiqued that the "monument [on 33rd Street] has been reduced to a sidebar".

Reviewer Cheryl O'Neill echoed some of the comments of her colleagues: This design is "entirely program driven" she said, with. "no recognition of all of the surroundings". She didn't like that the building doesn't align with Charles Street. "I would challenge the rotation of the building which disengages it from Charles Street and the surrounding buildings and gives you too many residual spaces. It sticks an elbow out to Charles street." She found that "there is only a one way conversation, it needs to be a two way conversation". "Maybe there could be more differentiation of those spaces"  and suggested the designers review their design again "more from a site perspective and not from a building perspective".

Rendering provided by Hopkins (BIG)

Ilieva told the architect, "you used the word "welcoming" a lot", and then asked "can you describe how each side of the 360-experience accomplishes that other than having glass? She also criticized the need to pass through the building for campus access. Ilieva, also on the faculty of Morgan State University, lectured: 'There are two approaches ...formal...and informal" and noted that the proposed design is the informal approach. She continued "this [design] is clearly an inside-out program-driven approach. If you take this approach, then all the resulting conditions need to be carefully resolved". She lauded that "the village idea is really strong" but "the problem is the entire diagram becomes ...this spaceship that landed there. This is where the scheme falls flat" she judged and critiqued the "forced sense of sameness when you go around the building". Adding, "there is an opportunity that is less a foreign object"  and suggested to "recover some of the big ideas with which you started", suggesting that "the way to get there is a sense of hierarchy." "There is more to porosity than 'there is a glass door there' and suggested "other opportunities to creating welcoming spaces". "Make the campus welcoming other than [just saying] there is a brand-new building."

North South section of the four-story Building  (Screenshot BIG presentation)

At UDAAP reviews, architects get little chance to defend their design beyond explaining  in the beginning of their presentation how the design came about. They are expected to reflect the comments in the next more detailed review round of the project. According to Laurie Feinberg who manages the UDAAP sessions, zoning in this location makes a UDAAP presentation odor large new construction projects mandatory.

Lower floor plans (UDAAP screenshot)

It remains to be seen what BIG will make of the fairly drastic critique. The criticism was fundamental and challenged the DNA of the design. Taking the comments to heart would require a full redesign. Lee Coyle Sr., Director of Planning & Architecture at Hopkins facilities, who briefly introduced the project, did not lift the secrecy around the competition that preceded the selection of BIG and did not elaborate on whether the competition was more design or more qualifications based. A design-based selection would mean that Hopkins is vested into the design concept as presented.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

BIG's da Vinci code of architecture comes to Hopkins

BIG is the name of the Bjarke Ingels Danish architecture Group that made it big with projects like the Hyperloop design for the United Emirates, Google headquarters a new tower at the World Trade Center site in New York (construction has started), the "courtscraper" Via 57 West in New York and the Lego House in Denmark, the home of LEGO.

The proposed 150,000 sf new JHU Student Center (Image: BIG)

Now a version of the Lego house will come to Baltimore in form of the new student design center for the Johns Hopkins University. 

"The Da Vinci code of architecture is somehow rooted in the proportions of LEGO bricks.” (Ingels)

JHU announced Monday that they had selected the design of the brash Dane as the winner of its design competition that had been announced in January of this year. 

The new landmark will will serve as a gateway to the Homewood campus at the intersection of 33rd and Charles streets. Currently the Mattin Center sits in the same space, a 2001 attempt of creating a gateway landmark with well known architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and their modern architecture. Its design was also the result of a competition. 

Planning for a new student center goes back to a 2012 study, the subsequent creation of a task force and the later feasibility study by Ann Beha architects. All identified the site of design award winning Mattin Center as the ideal nexus between town and gown. That sealed the fate of the not even 20 year old buildings. The three brick clad volumes of the Mattin Arts Center comprise only 50,000 sf, too small for Hopkins big dreams of a $250 million 150,000 sf student center. The Mattin and its complicated wayfinding through the mini-campus has also been seen as unsuccessful as a welcoming gateway building. According to a Hopkins Provost the Baltimore office of Gensler was tasked with finding replacement space for functions currently in the Mattin complex.
"As the needs of our student body have evolved, so has the desire for a different and dedicated student center taken hold.This will be a new kind of space for us—one that is not academically focused, but entirely social by design…It will be a site to which everyone lays equal claim and from which everyone benefits.” Ron Daniels, President Johns Hopkins University
Campus view of the new Student Center (Image: BIG)

If one follows Hopkins' read of the process, the selection of BIG's design was a democratic process that involved all stakeholders of the university. 
With more than 8,000 comments provided over the course of 25 feedback events—including focus groups, drop-in feedback sessions, and input-gathering during the Student Involvement Fair and the Welcome Back Block Party—JHU identified six key elements that the student body wanted to be part of the student center. (The Hub)
But nothing is reported about the three other design competition contenders or how their design looked. An inquiry with Hopkins did not yield an answer beyond the public Hub articles. Apparently who else competed with what design is intended to remain under wraps.  With that the jury and selection certainly didn't follow standard international architecture competition standards in which transparency is key. 

With the selection of a Bjarke Ingels design Hopkins follows the path of hiring highly regarded architects to create signature buildings on campus which has brought about memorable buildings on university campuses in America. In 2018 JHU selected the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to design the a new interdisciplinary center called the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute.

The student center design, however has none of the BIG daring gestures that put the Danish Group on the map around the world. But the building will do what the Mattin center didn't do: Provide a inviting and open gesture at the seam between campus and city. After the recent total transformation of 33rd street east of Charles Street, a building in this location is less a gate to the campus and more of a transition to the city. The glass facades and modernist stacked rectangular blocks are a stark departure from Hopkins mostly traditional campus architecture of brick and stone. BIG as well as Piano would continue a pattern in which Baltimore selects a famous architect but gets a re-cast rather than an original breakthrough. The architecture repeats gestures already practiced elsewhere, in Ingels' case, it appears to be the LEGO house in Billund, Denmark. This pattern was also apparent in Mies van der Rohe's One Charles Center and Highfield House, Pei's World Trade Center, and Safdie's Cold Spring houses.
The 110,000 sf  LEGO House, Billund Denmark: "Guggenheim of 
white cubes" (Ingels)

Bjarke Ingels (born 1974) is different in that he is still an impetuous  young man when he comes to Baltimore. The BIG's history goes only back to 2005. Impressively, the list of projects is longer than what most architects can achieve in a lifetime. It can be expected that he or his staff will mix things up here. 
The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) seems to have an outsized impact in all it does. The Copenhagen-based design firm turns conventions and assumptions upside down and combines contrasting possibilities in outrageously bold, imaginative and playful ways. Projects like Via at West 57th Street in New York City and the Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant in Copenhagen are prime examples: the first a pyramid-shaped apartment building that defies the forest of rectangular towers around it, and the second a power plant that doubles as a smoke ring-blowing ski slope.(ArchDaily)

The 2001 Mattin Art Center to be demolished (Google)

Hopkins and Ingels, it should be an interesting mix, especially if it is true that the architect "has an outsized impact in all he does". Baltimore could use it.

The new Hopkins Student Center is scheduled to open in 2024. Its funding is said to be secured according to President Daniels. The Design will be reviewed by the City design review panel UDAAP this week.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

The Hopkins Student Center as seen from the east across Charles Street at 33rd Street
(Image: BIG)

Yeah. I mean, I think whenever you are making a new project, you are of course imagining and solving and building a fragment of the future. So whenever you're doing that, you have the possibility to push this little part of society, this little part of the city one step closer towards the kind of city we would want to live in.(Ingels)

Via 57 West "courtscraper" New York City (Photo: Kirsten Bucher)