Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Mayor Young: Veto this misguided give-away!

Some things are small and sail under the radar until somebody raises a red flag. This is the case with bill 19-0469 which Councilman Costello introduced in November of last year and that somehow passed City Council in the third reader on February 10 without anybody raising any concerns except for Planning Director Chris Ryer.

Thankfully the BBJ picked the matter up in an online article today headlined "City Crescent redevelopment could hamper Howard St. access, city official says". As the BBJ points out, only the Mayor can stop the bill now.

The bill would eliminate the public right of way that has been carried underneath the Crescent building on Howard Street. The building design and the Central Light Rail Line to Camden Yards were carefully coordinated some 28 years ago. Allowing access to the train station under the Crescent building was an important issue for this LRT stop in front of the Arena. It was a compromise that permitted the Crescent building to span over the City's public right of way and still recognize the historic axis of Redwood Street.

Councilman Costello's bill would give this public right of way away for nothing by falsely stating in his bill that the easement "is no longer needed for public use".
The Crescent Building emphasizes the Redwood passageway in its
facade design.

This statement is not only incorrect, because nothing has changed in terms of the needed access to the light rail station, it is also willfully ignorant of the principles of transit oriented development, good urban planning and the needs of pedestrians and transit users. It blatantly puts the perceived interest of a real estate developer ahead of everything else.
"By releasing the easement, the City will aid and promote the development of the propject on the property, which will inure to the benefit of the City" (Recitals of bill 19-0469)
Planning Director Ryer begs to differ in a letter sent to the City Council on January 23, 2020. He correctly wonders how it could be possible to suggest that such a mayor building would turn away from transit and from a major downtown artery such as Howard Street.
The elimination of easement access and creation of the buildings main entrance on the Redwood Street and alley side of the building turns its back to a major Baltimore Street and disconnects the activity of the building away from the public environment. The department of Planning respectfully recommends disapproval [of the bill]. (Chris Ryer)
1904 view of Redwood Street (looking west from Guilford Ave)
Ryer is exactly right: Turning a building and its entrance away from a transit stop right there flies in the face of the principles of transit oriented development. The original Crescent, the Center Development up the street and the development of Symphony Center were touted as TOD and were the only examples of intensified land use along the new light rail line. It would be ironic to come back 28 years later where the need for TOD is much better understood and eradicate one of the few early transit friendly development initiatives city planners had at the time. 
The Crescent Building and the Arena at Howard Street (Photo BBJ)

At stake is also Redwood Street, or better what is left of what was once one of the most important streets in Baltimore's downtown. The street, once named German Street has become the victim of urban renewal with its idea of "superblocks" which is long considered obsolete. Redwood Street ends on the west at Martin Luther King Boulevard and on the east at South Street. Where it exists it is lovely and lined by historic buildings. But it has been wiped out in three segments by the University of Maryland, the Arena, and Center Plaza, all three interventions not exactly known for architectural beauty or urban design sensibilities.

The 315,000 sf Crescent Building was originally designed as a hub of federal offices and been developed by Theo Rogers and Otis Warren. It was the first time a black owned team developed a showcase project downtown. Last year the flagship project was fully vacant and auctioned off for less than its cost in 1990. The new owner wants to redevelop it into a mixed used project.
The passage which recognizes Redwood Street is protected by a
public right of way which Councilman Costello wants to give away
(photo BBJ)

As someone who was involved with the design of the light rail line on Howard Street and the Arena Station station specifically, I recall how the station pylon was placed on the axis of Redwood Street and how access from the west was seen as a vital issue that also found its representation in the design of the facade of the Crescent Building. The Sun's architectural writer, Ed Gunts wrote in 1990" "The arrival of the new federal building (the Crescent) should lead to a frank evaluation of the Baltimore Arena."

My office later investigated options for the redevelopment of the Arena site, should a new Arena be built at a different location as it was once proposed. A central idea was a reconstruction of the street grid with a reopened Redwood Street west of Howard Street.

Since the Arena question remains unresolved, this option should be maintained so that in the long run east west circulation through the westside of downtown can be improved for easier walking and getting around. Superblocks need to be broken up and not cemented into the future, as this misguided bill would do it.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, February 21, 2020

Taffy Gwitira: For the most part we do not feel represented

Today's take on Baltimore and the upcoming elections comes from an immigrant perspective with a clear focus on Baltimore. A view that is sharpened by decades of work in the health and human services sector. Many know Tafadzwa Gwitiri from the Impact Hub on North Avenue.  Others from her work at the Farm Based Education Network or in her capacity as a Board member of the University of Maryland School of Social Work or her position at the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board Public Advisory Committee.  Most call her Taffy because it's hard to pronounce her first name.
Taffy Gwitira

Taffy combines a global perspective (she speaks five languages) with the local on the ground view of an activist.

Taffy Gwitira

·  Are you overall optimistic about Baltimore or pessimistic? Why?
I am optimistic about Baltimore, because we have some of the most hard-working, talented and innovative people on earth.  Most people in Baltimore, believe in the worth and depth and breadth of their community and family, and friends.

·  What three issues do you suggest should be the top priority of the new Mayor?
Education, Housing and Transportation.

·  If you were to advise a candidate for Mayor what would be your best suggestion?
To hire the best people to work for city government, and have accountability and transparency at all levels of city government.

·  Do you think the Mayor has too much power or not enough?
Currently too much power.

·  What should the next US President should do for cities?
Heavily invest in them, particularly in infrastructure.  Encourage them to be connected to and use global frameworks like the sustainable development goals and human rights instruments, so that they are globally competitive.
Baltimore, similar rowhouses everywhere but
so much difference their value (Photo: Philipsen)
·  What recent local fact has given you hope for Baltimore?
The opening of new schools, connected to the community.

·  What recent local fact has depressed you the most?
The number of shootings, fatal and non-fatal in the city.

·  Do you think the people of Baltimore feel represented by the Mayor and the City Council? Do you support any particular candidates?
I think the term people of of Baltimore is such a broad term.  I am what indigenous people would call a settler. Baltimore has been my adopted home for almost twenty years, and I love it.  The "real" people of Baltimore are those who were born and raised here. The reason I mention this, is because often times we center and elevate the voices of everyone else other than those people.  To answer this question I will include all of us including transplants who love Baltimore as home, not as a pit stop, and not just the inner harbor or tourist attractions.  No, for the most part we do not feel represented by the mayor and some members of the city council.  Priority, resources, capacity is celebrated, allowed, and given to philanthropy, businesses, religious affiliations and institutions, so-called anchor institutions, and basically anyone other than actual people who live and work in community.  It oftentimes seems like the city is working for the aforementioned organizations, and not the people pf Baltimore. I would be lying if I said that I have a favorite for mayor, but I am unequivocally an unashamed Ryan Dorsey supporter, always.
Mural on Open Works on Greenmount Ave
(Photo Philipsen)
·  What personal contribution to Baltimore are you most proud of?
Consistently fighting for access for black, brown and immigrant voices in all facets of transportation advocacy, and place making.

·  Any final thought?
I was born and raised in the Global South. I am so proud to be from Zimbabwe and Tanzania. These are both places that have incredible disparity and disinvestment. There are however extraordinary resources , often times untapped and misappropriated, but even in places where we think there is scarcity, the abundance is always in the people. This is true for Baltimore as well.  


Tafadzwa Gwitira has worked in various health and human service sectors for twenty years. These include child care, family literacy, teaching ESOL, healthcare, managing three assisted living facilities and public policy. Born in Tanzania, and raised in Zimbabwe, she speaks five languages. She is passionate about communities being involved and supported to reach their highest potential. She is committed to social change that is intersectional, inclusive, innovative and just. She is certified in community building strategies and is a Certified Public Manager. Tafadzwa was an Opportunity Collaborative Fellow, a member of Cohort IX of Associated Black Charities , Board Professional Training, and was also awarded an Annie E Casey training in Results Based Accountability.
Baltimore transportation: Upton subway station,
one line doesn't make a network. (Photo: Philipsen)

She attended the White House Opportunity Project in March 2016 as a community advocate, and also the inaugural Every Place Counts Leadership Academy, hosted by the US Department of Transportation, as one of a cohort of national community transportation leaders, to review and give input on the first ever National Transportation Toolkit. She also participated in the United Nation’s Association’s Maryland Consultation on the Post 2015 Millennium Development goals. Her advocacy has also included the creation of a pilot program for prepartum and postpartum African immigrant women in Baltimore city in 2015, and speaking on behalf of African Immigrants , at the United Nations Special Inquiry into Human Rights abuses in Baltimore.

She believes that local issues mirror global issues and has had training with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in governance in urban sanitation, international roles in public finance and debt management, gender and humanitarian action, and humanitarian action and peace-building.

She serves on the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board Public Advisory Committee and the board of the University of Maryland School of Social Work Community Outreach Services. She is part of Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, Beginner Farmer Training Program,and a senior fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program of the Chesapeake Region.At home she loves to read, cook, garden and go fishing.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Antero Pietila: The corrosive overtime fraud has to end!

Washington's birthday is a good day to give this space to Antero Pietila, the man with the hard to remember Finnish name who in all his years never took on the US Citizenship but managed to write two seminal books which dissect Baltimore's history of exclusion like no other. Pietila practiced his detective skills and exact observations in 35 years as a journalist for the Baltimore SUN at a time when the paper could still afford foreign correspondents. A year ago Pietila told the Baltimore Magazine how he sees the functions of his two books:
Antero Pietila, author and Baltimore observer
We are at a very peculiar intersection of history in Baltimore. The names William Donald Schaefer and James Rouse mean less and less. Fewer people remember these individuals who had made a profound impact. These books are sort of designed as introductory assignments for those new to Baltimore. Like David Simon’s The Wire. (Pietila in Baltimore Magazine 01/19)
Pietila decided to spend his life in this city with his Baltimore native wife of 36 years, an accomplished African American quilt artist,who  passed away earlier this month. While Baltimore is mired in never ending leadership scandals, Pietila's native Finland his governed by a young woman who is fascinating the world. By most accounts, Finland excels in most everything, from the happiness of its residents, to education and efforts of creating a more sustainable future. 

The idea of these interviews is to widen the perspective of the pre-election debate through the voices of a number of prominent Baltimore stakeholders who express their views about the state of Baltimore, the candidates, their preferences, sentiments, recommendations and suggestions for what should be done.
A beautiful but divided city: Baltimo

The responses will be published in random order over the coming months of this election campaign. The interviews are not in any way intended to be representative.

Antero Pietila
  1. Are you overall optimistic about Baltimore or pessimistic? Why?
         I am a fan of Baltimore. But it is hard to be optimistic when the current political leadership denies it bears any responsibility for the city's abysmal violence and overall dysfunction. Just think about it. We are in the midst of a never-ending police scandal, the city was held hostage when the IT system was compromised under the reign of the highest paid city employee, water bills are out of whack. Yet the current Mayor claims no responsibility.  Baltimore now increasingly exists in the nation's capital's shadows, no longer the economic and commercial powerhouse it used to be. The explosive national debt, due to Trump's reckless borrowing, makes it impossible to expect that federal largess to cities will continue even at the current level. 

    2. What three issues do you suggest should be the top priority of the new Mayor? 

        (A) Radically overhaul the police department. The corrosive overtime fraud has to end; it is bankrupting the city.  Also needed is a total remaking of the criminal justice system that postpones cases so long that witnesses flake away and prosecutions die. It's a game that benefits only trial lawyers and criminals. These are tough issues because they also critically involve the state. But this chaos has to be rectified.
       (B) Rethink and reconfigure the public transit system. The transit system is the primary way of commuting for those who cannot afford a car, including ex-offenders hoping for a new life. What good is a job offer, if you cannot get there. The current system is unreliable and vehicles do not run at convenient intervals. When Amazon came to Baltimore, set up its own bus system to get employees to its Southeast Baltimore facilities. The Johns Hopkins institutions also operate shuttles, including a link from Amtrak's and MARC's Pennsylvania Station to the Broadway medical campus. Meanwhile, the next mayor must get started on the long-delayed widening of the antiquated and insufficient Howard Street railroad tunnel.

      (C) Address the lead paint crisis. The liabilities are such that they strangle the whole rental market sector and make many aging rowhouses impossible to sell.

      3.   If you you were to advise a candidate for Mayor what would be your best suggestion?

(A) Rethink the PILOT arrangement under which nonprofits like Hopkins and religious organizations may pay the city for services in lieu of taxes. Some 40 percent of the real-estate base belongs for such organizations. (B) End unwarranted subsides  to  private developers. Such subsidies have become to be regarded as automatic sweeteners regardless of whether they are needed or not.

      4.  What should the next US President should do for cities?

      As the astronomical national debt takes us to a fiscal crunch, be a leader, because various budget measures require the approval of Congress. The next POTUS should improve mass transit and increase immigration, which in many cases is key to spurring economic activity that revitalizes neighborhoods. 
MTA buses stuck in traffic: In effective transit

4             5.  What recent local fact has given you hope for Baltimore? 

The gradual revitalization along Greenmount Avenue is a confidence-builder, particularly when it establishes stronger links to the renewal going on around the Hopkins Broadway medical campus.  It is among several slow but hopeful signs of regeneration. 

     6. What recent local fact has depressed you the most?

 The lawlessness of the Gun Trace Task Force and what it reveals about the dysfunction of the police department. Vigilant law enforcement is a key reason we  tolerate the high property tax rate. 

      7. Do you support a particular candidate for Mayor and for City Council?

This should be the year of an outsider. As a registered alien I have no voting right. 

8       8.      What personal contribution to Baltimore are you most proud of?

My reporting during a 35-year career at The Sun and the two books I authored afterward: Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City and The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City. 

      9. Any final thought?

With print newspapers downsizing and dying, municipal activities are not covered the way they used to be. At the same time, the League of Women Voters no longer monitors meetings and hearings. As a result the public increasingly operates in darkness. We need new strategies to keep the citizenry informed.
Beauty and abandonment on Franklin Street

Antero Pietila spent thirty-five years as a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, most of it covering the city's neighborhoods, politics, and government. A native of Finland, he became a student of racial change during his first visit to the United States in 1964. He lives in Baltimore.
Pietila book title: Baltimore's history

He came to America’s shores in May 1964 from the deck of the M/S Finntrader as a twenty-year-old aspiring journalist from Finland wanting to spend a summer in the United States -- the summer of Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election campaign, civil rights strife and of the New York World’s Fair . At that time  eye and hair color marked the chief differences among Finland's four and a half million people.

In 1969, after receiving a M.A. degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Pietlia found an urban observatory in Baltimore, a declining but still-great city trying to recover from the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The city and many of its residents were in a defeatist funk. Racial tensions flared, white flight to the suburbs continued; smokestack industries kept shutting down. Yet even among the gloom and doom there was a sense of excitement among those who saw the potential.

In 1980 the SUN chose Pietila to establish a bureau for The Sun in Johannesburg, South Africa. He arrived on a public holiday marking the defeat of Zulus by the Boers in the 1838 Battle of Blood River. His first report, printed on the front page, described how the ruling white supremacists felt that they had their covenant with God renewed for another year, when a ray of light from a slit in the ceiling fell at noon on a sacred monument declaring Ons vir Jou, Suid Afrika (“We are for thee, South Africa”). From South Africa Pietila was transferred to the Soviet Union.

Pietila retired from the SUN in 2004. Since then he wrote "Not in my Neighborhood", a seminal book about redlining, block busting and other methods of exclusion and "The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins": The Life and Legacy that Shaped an American City in which he examines the life and legacy of Johns Hopkins and his institutions on the racial patchwork of Baltimore City.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Here the previous interviews in this series:

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Delegate Lewis: "Someone young and energetic"

The fifth in the series of interviews with Baltimore Stakeholders features Baltimore State Delegate, part of "Team 46", Robbyn Lewis, Member of the House of Delegates since January 2017, first by appointment and then a sound election victory. Lewis' wide set of interest and involvement can be seen in her many past and current committee assignments, the Health and Government Operations Committee, Environment and Transportation Committee. She is also a member of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland,  the Women Legislators of Maryland, and the Maryland Legislative Transit Caucus.
Robbyn Lewis at the State House
This is an important moment in Baltimore’s history. We can choose how we respond to the challenges that face us: accept the default setting of fear and pessimism, or act from our highest values. Let’s aim high, and work to build a healthy, just, and prosperous city with opportunity for all. (Lewis website)

The idea of these interviews is to widen the perspective of the pre-election debate through the voices of a number of prominent Baltimore stakeholders who express their views about the state of Baltimore, the candidates, their preferences, sentiments, recommendations  and suggestions for what should be done.

The responses will be published in random order over the coming months of this election campaign. The interviews are not in any way intended to be representative.
Baltimore City boasts the world’s greatest medical institutions, but we aren’t even in the running for healthiest American cities. Our rates of preventable illness and chronic disease are unacceptable. We can become a model of well-being for all when we make public health a priority.  
It is time to build modern transit and quality, equitable housing in Baltimore. These are not costs, they are investments that will deliver demonstrable returns in the form of good jobs, social vibrancy, economic vitality and human health for decades to come. Our future as a sustainable home for all depends on this. (Lewis website)

Robbyn Lewis Interview
Baltimore demonstrates (Photo: Philipsen)
  1. Are you overall optimistic about Baltimore or pessimistic?
Why? I’m optimistic, because I know so many smart, caring, competent, dedicated people who live in Baltimore and are working across every dimension to improve life for everyone
  1. What three issues do you suggest should be the top priority of the new Mayor?
Top three: first get the basics right, city services need to serve the people with efficiency and respect, meaning sanitation education transit and public safety must function at a high level
  1. If you were to advise a candidate for Mayor what would be your best suggestion?
Hire the best people to run city agencies then get the heck out of their way, after having impressed on them that the new operating principle is respect for all people.
  1. What should the next US President should do for cities?
Stop funding wars and take that money to invest in 21st century sustainable, equitable climate adaptive infrastructure, stop subsidizing highways and fossil fuels 
  1. What recent local fact has given you hope for Baltimore?
    Red Line community participation (Photo: Philipsen)
The construction of about 10 new school buildings, fist in two generations and more new buildings on the way
  1. What recent local fact has depressed you the most?
Shootings of working women in front of their children (both bear Patterson Park around Christmas)
  1. Do you support a particular candidate for Mayor and for City Council?
For Mayor someone young and energetic!
  1. What personal contribution to Baltimore are you most proud of?
My contribution to neighborhood sustainability by creating the greening movement in my neighborhood, involved starting a tree planting movement that put over 400 street trees in the ground, increasing household energy conservation and beautification thru planters and artwork, was featured in a documentary called "Earth - The Operators Manual"

Robbyn Lewis is a public health professional, sustainability advocate, and community leader. Her efforts have contributed to advances in human health and environmental sustainability at both local and international levels.
Before joining the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange as Special Assistant in 2014, Ms. Lewis spent two decades working in the field of international public health. In nearly a dozen countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, she conducted research and implemented programs designed to prevent infectious disease and improve reproductive health. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, where she was stationed in a remote, rural village. At Johns Hopkins University and other NGOs, she worked on international programs and studies to prevent Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. She also participated in a consultative process that led the World Health Organization to revise its global recommendations on cervical cancer prevention. 

Robbyn Lewis

Ms. Lewis currently works as the Civic Data and Engagement Fellow for the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA).

In 2011, she received Parks & People Foundation’s Best Greening Project Award, and also the Maryland Governor’s Service Award. More recently, she conceived and led the transformation of her alley using art, a project that received accolades from neighbors as well as the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

Ms. Lewis also spearheaded legislative advocacy for improved transit in Baltimore. She founded and ran Red Line Now PAC, the first and only grassroots political action committee in Baltimore to focus on transit infrastructure investment. She is a founder of the Patterson Park Public Charter School.
Currently, she sits on the board of Bikemore, Southeast Community Development Corporation, and Creative Alliance. She served on the board of the Friends of Patterson Park, and was a longtime leader of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association.

Ms. Lewis, is conversant in four languages, was born in the suburbs of Gary, Indiana and raised in Chicago. Ms. Lewis holds a BA in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, and a Master of Public Health (MPH) from Columbia University School of Public Health in New York. She is also a member of the Alpha Delta Omega Honorary Society in Public Health.

Here the previous interview in this series:

Matt Gallagher: Baltimore’s people, neighborhoods, and institutions should be doing much better than we are.

Alvin Hathaway: A Marshall Plan for Cities!

David Troy: Joan Pratt should be fully investigated