Tuesday, March 31, 2020

How Collaboration beats "Go-it-alone" in the National Capital Region and everywhere

A crisis sometimes produces insight and opportunity that didn't emerge during normal times. Some call this forced opportunity. An example of insight and opportunity arising from an emergency is the recently stepped up regional collaboration between Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland.
Coordinated executive order: Governor Hogan on 3/3/0/20

An executive order to "stay at home" has been announced in a coordinated fashion by Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland on the same day. Maryland's Governor refers to this in his 3/30 press conference as the "the national capital [metropolitan] region", an apt description of Maryland's geography and the connections which are our regions lifeblood.

In all three jurisdictions, “essential” businesses remain open. This includes grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, laundromats and dry cleaners, pet shops and animal services, medical facilities, banks and other financial service providers, gas stations, auto repair shops, bike shops, wireless stores, and , as has been widely mocked, liquor stores.
Baltimore Washington CSA (Census map)

This concerted effort avoids counterproductive effects, such as residents rushing across the nearest border to escape the restrictions.

Coordination also gives the area more standing with the federal government, which, of course, operates within the area.

Last week, the three leaders Larry Hogan, Ralph Northam and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser jointly asked President Trump to “provide additional financial support to help our jurisdictions maintain the health and safety of the region and the federal workers who serve the American people.”

Hogan explicitly mentioned the importance of keeping this region healthy and strong, a warning that would also apply in regular times:
The Washington region is where national leaders are actually fighting this battle for the nation, and this region is about to be hit with the virus in the same way that some other major metropolitan areas have been.
We are home to more than 404,000 federal workers in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. The NIH and FDA are headquartered in Maryland, and these agencies are on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus. (Governor Hogan)
Governor Northam announces "stay at Home" order on 3/3/0/20
Indeed, Baltimore must be seen in the context of our neighbors, not only when it comes to the emergency response to a pandemic of epic proportions, but also when it comes to travel, work and jobs in everyday life.

The Census has long recognized this and given the area a clunky acronym:   Washington–Baltimore–Arlington, DC–MD–VA–WV–PA Combined Statistical Area (CSA). The 2017 Census estimate puts the Greater Washington CSA's population at 9,764,315, right after Chicagoland's population, below the Los Angeles CSA, and that of the now so heavily stricken New York metro area. It is widely expected that the 2020 census would put our region in the #3 spot nationally.
Mayor Muriel Bowser announces "Stay at Home" order 3/30

The boundaries of CSAs are constantly changing, and are largely determined by commuter flows. Areas are combined into a CSA if they have connections to neighboring areas exceeding 15% of an area’s workforce

Transportation is an apt metric to measure interconnection and interdependence. Transportation inherently knows no borders, a fact reflected in the Interstate Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

Some of the regional transportation connectivity is already obvious in normal conditions: For example, Maryland pays a good portion of WMATA's transit operations due to the many routes they service in Maryland. For the most part, though, Baltimore and DC are governed as two completely different universes and so are Virginia and Maryland, a few collaborative efforts of saving the Chesapeake notwithstanding.
Motorway back-up of 40 miles at Polish border
due to COVID 19 border closing 

"Balkanization" is particularly obvious when traveling the region's commuter rails: Virginia rails take the VRE trains from the South to Union Station in DC, Maryland's take MARC trains to the same station from the north. Both systems wind up on different sections of Union Station The rolling stock of those two trains systems is not compatible. Transfer from one to the other is possible but not coordinated by design, there is no easy time coordinated transfer as it is common in Europe's ICE train system where connecting trains usually wait on the other side of the same platform with a coordinated departure time. Of course, both rail systems also need different tickets, have different franchise agreements with the track owning railroads, are maintained in different facilities and governed by different agencies. In short, VRE is from Venus and MARC is from Mars.

In a future collaboration the VRE and the MARC service should be integrated, share rolling stock and maintenance, MARC should extend its trains into downtown DC to the current VRE station at L'Enfant Plaza (a bill to study this passed in the MD Legislature this session).  A focus on improving Amtrak and commuter rail should replace distractions such as Maglev and Hyperloop. Express buses should connect the two metro areas beyond the single WMATA bus which currently serves BWI. The entire region should introduce a single integrated fare card that can be used on all systems in the entire CSA.

The situation is not much better on the CSA's roads: The BW Parkway is a lifeline between the DC area and the Baltimore area, just as the name implies, but management of this lifeline resides in four different hands: in the departments of transportation of DC, the federal government, the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore. One can tell by the condition of the pavement, the design standards and the appearance of the artery. The CSA's roadways are managed by the DOTs  of Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, the City of Baltimore and 37 counties. Complete street standards should be coordinated among the jurisdictions and Maryland's road heavy investment strategy should be balanced by a metro-wide more transit friendly transportation plan.

The region's population will continue to grow. This in itself should be a strong motivation for collaboration. Not only DC is bursting at the seams, the suburban areas are also rapidly running out of developable land which doesn't run afoul of sustainability and smart growth goals. Meanwhile the City of Baltimore continues to loose population and has a surplus of land, roadways and buildings. It is patently obvious that regional collaboration represents a win-win compared to a competition of each jurisdiction against the other.
French patient readied for airlift across the border to Germany

The COVID19 crisis also demonstrates what has been already evident in the climate crisis: Where the federal government wobbles, the States and local government can and will pick up the slack, especially if they work together. In the case of climate change, a compact of 12 states on the east coast have initiated carbon trading for power plants and will soon initiate carbon trading for the transportation sector (TCI).

The corona crisis shows that the initial instinct of walling yourself off is short-sighted and eventually not only ineffective but even counter-productive, wether it is for an individual person, a jurisdiction, a state, or a country.

COVID19 teaches with brutal urgency that competing over scarce protective gear in the marketplace is not the way to go. It kills people instead. The Darwinian approach of "my jurisdiction first" is not a practical and even less a sustainable answer in an age where everyone depends on many others.  US governors now routinely coordinate their response to the health crisis. Health professionals from many states have jumped to the aid of New York hospitals.

Solidarity has also replaced the "me first" approach of  in Europe after initially closing the borders within the Euro (Shengen) zone in a misguided  survival of the fittest instinct which was followed by chaos with 18 hour waits at check-points threatening the vital supply lines. Openness defines the EU, and is a matter of survival in this crisis. In a complete reversal, some less hard hit countries now airlift ICU patients from struggling countries with air force hospital planes and helicopters for treatment in their own not yet overloaded facilities.
Flying intensive care unit ready to airlift corona patients out of Bergmo

Slowly it becomes clear: Against our first instincts, what this crisis teaches is that we don't need to close our borders and make everything ourselves but that we need to continue openness and collaboration, even when we need to keep personal distance from each other.

Collaboration, compassion and offering what our place can do best to others while importing what others can do best from others continues to be the better way to go.

Transferred to the greater Baltimore-Washington area, this insight means that everyone has to realize that collaboration is a win-win now and in the future when social tension will rise, especially in Baltimore with its many pre-existing conditions.

Baltimore tends to think of itself as a special case, as an island that needs to heal and provide equity "from within". The "Baltimoreans first" instinct is strong, even among those who otherwise would never use the same language as the President. This notion expresses itself in the demand that all department heads need to not only live within the city but should also be recruited from within. Same for police officers, construction companies, and, according to some, any company that receives any tax dollar support. Some go as far as suggesting that bringing wealthier people in as new residents would be unwanted gentrification, no matter how much it may strengthen the tax base. The more Baltimore shrinks in size and in terms of its own local economy, the less such an approach will be successful, as well intended as it may be. This insight will be especially urgent in the economic fall-out that will follow the virus.

The collaboration in regulation, transportation, resources and trade which we see now, needs to be continued and institutionalized for the future. On any scale, collaboration is the most effective way to conquer challenges. Many challenges remain if and when this particular virus will have subsided, many new challenges will emerge. The current "forced opportunity" of learning how to overcome the "go it alone" impulse is too big to pass.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Do executive emergency powers threaten democracy?

“The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”
― James Madison

In a time of crisis even "free" democratic societies err on the side of decisive executive action in order to control the situation. This is inevitable and comes with the territory.

But the extent in which essential pillars of a democratic society have been knocked off their foundations through the most draconian measures imaginable, all decreed from a single executive office is unprecedented. Moreover, it has been on display in democracies around the world.
Governance in a time of emergency

But if Madison is right, even in an unprecedented emergency some checks and balances need to remain in place, on the federal, state and local levels for democracy to survive.
“While we recognise the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind states that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory” (UN experts, quoted in the Independent)

The federal level 

This is currently especially evident on the federal level, not only because the less than sure footed demeanor of the Commander in Chief during this crisis,  but because it is in the Oval Office where the most power resides even in normal times. The State of Emergency declarations concentrate even more power in one hand. That this is an election year adds urgency to the democracy question for our country in particular.

The concern for democracy should not be confused with introducing even more politics into the crisis than there is already. Politics certainly can have adverse effects to the well being of people: In the flu epidemic of 1918 quarantine rules were relaxed shortly before the November election. The result was an increase in infections and deaths. Isolation measures had to be brought back and were less efficient afterwards. (NYT)

But politics in the original meaning of the word can also be good: It is a good thing, that the $2 trillion relief deal was not pushed through without discussion. This type of expenditure will define our nation's future for some time to come. It can't be taken lightly, no matter how urgent the situation. It is a clear case where expediency needs to be paired with prudence. Luckily House and senate are still functioning and could negotiate a package the way it is intended by the constitution. But how much longer?
Governance by disaster team: Conflicting messages
The average age of the U.S. Senate is 61, and Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives is between the ages of 79 and 80, well within the ranges most vulnerable to Covid-19. Experts fear that the virus could incapacitate Congress when legislative oversight of the executive branch is needed most. (The Intercept)

The State level

The situation is even more dire  in our State of Maryland where the legislature has only a 90 days session which was even shorter this year. While the Governor deserves high marks for his decisive action and clear messaging, it is of concern that our peculiar way of running the State legislature is providing an imbalance and essentially the lack of deliberation beyond an executive crisis team.
State governance by decree: MD Governor Hogan widely praised for
a decisive even handed tone

There is no easy answer to this but is is disconcerting that all of our delegates and senators are limited to sending out newsletters via email which are limited to repeating whatever the State has decided as the current action.

There is currently no provision on how the legislature can convene other than in person, something that was rightly deemed as too risky in the confined chambers in the historic State House. So the already short session was cut even shorter. It doesn't appear that any alternative, creative way of utilizing the many delegates and senators as an additional resource in managing this crisis is actively discussed or investigated in Maryland. An inquiry to senate President Ferguson remained unanswered to date.

All things considered, given the leadership we currently see in the State, living in Maryland is a better option than in many other states. Still, given that this crisis is not short and geographically limited like a hurricane or flood, efforts should be made to maintain as many checks and balances as possible. With an Assembly hibernating until the next season, there is no balance.

The local level

On the local level, Baltimore City Council and the Mayor have closed City Hall to public access and increased broadcasts instead. This, too is prudent but potentially in conflict with open meeting laws. Deliberations without public input is problematic. But technology isn't always a savior. Secure and reliable access is by no means a given. Following the deliberations via Baltimore's Charm TV is now hit and miss, probably due to the high number of using this tool which, of course, doesn't allow public participation.
Mayor Young declares State of Emergency

Technology solutions

Would it be possible to meet in different quarters where seating could accommodate social distancing? The German Parliament with over 600 seats adjusted temporarily their charter to allow for a vote on their $800 billion relief package this week with two seats left open between members. The European Parliament will  will hold an extraordinary plenary on 26.03 using a distant voting system.
The crisis is not just a threat to the lives and livelihoods of people across the globe but serves also a severe stress test for democracy. (The Brussels Times)
Utah and Pennsylvania are establishing remote or proxy voting now. Could there be public committee deliberations via internet platforms?
“As lawmakers fall sick, legislative sessions across the country are being cut short out of legitimate fear of the pandemic. This crisis will only worsen. It’s naive to assume that it will be possible to reconvene in a few weeks, so legislatures must make necessary changes to procedures now.” ,” David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress and a former Rhode Island state representative. Demand Progress is a a non profit seeking to protect the democratic character of the internet — and wield it to make government accountable and contest concentrated corporate power.
On Tuesday this week Congress held a a mock remote hearing via Zoom as Marci Harris, a co-organizer reported on Medium, "kicking the tires of available technology" she says. An official report will be issued to Congress shortly. Harris is CEO of PopVox, an online platform for legislative information and former congressional staffer.

Online voting or transmission of sensitive information in committee meetings is considered by many experts as risky and open to the danger of hacking. As far as voting goes, voting by mail appears to be the best option, as long as isolation is required. Maryland may have to go that route for the already postponed primaries. 

Regardless of the various technical solutions, a true democracy cannot hand over all power without being able to make the balancing elements of democracy work.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Coronavirus could be used by authoritarian leaders as excuse to undermine democracy, experts warn (The Independent, UK)

Monday, March 23, 2020

What is essential?

Governor Hogan expanded the list of businesses which have to close. The deadline for these additional closures is  this Monday 5pm; a long list for essential businesses that are exempted. This and the general shut down of the international economy begs the question, what is essential?
MTA bus on Tuesday 3/23/20

My neighbor got a new roof on his house this Sunday right when everybody was asked to stay at home. The grocery stores are open. The Construction site next to my office is humming with backhoes and earth-movers, a steady line of trucks is hauling the spoils away. Amazon and UPS vans ply the neighborhoods, ambulances race through city streets, police cruisers patrol the streets and respond to shootings that never seems to end. On trash day the truck shows up like clock-work, and recycling is picked up as well. The mail is delivered every day, an army of food delivery gig workers has joined the army of Uber and Lyft drivers, and the print edition of the daily paper still arrives as well. Parking lots are full in front of Panera bread because people now pick up their sandwiches, lines form at drive through restaurant windows. Many planes still ply the skies.

In an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, PLEASE USE TRANSIT FOR ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ONLY. Essential travel means taking trips to work, hospitals, health care providers, pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, food distribution centers, schools, to provide care for family members, and other similar destinations. By reducing unnecessary travel, transit becomes safer for those who depend on it, especially essential healthcare workers, and for those who operate it. MDOT MTA encourages all employers to consider telework options where possible (MTA Website)
In short, no, the world hasn't shut down. Instead, the US, Australia and Europe have divided society neatly into three factions:
  • Those who are essential workers and who keep on working, often harder than before. Certainly doctors, nurses, nursing home care workers, police, fire and grocery clerks come to mind.
  • Those who can't afford not to work. They keep working until their supplies will run out, their companies shut down or their tools break and can't be fixed or replaced. Construction workers, home repair trades and fast food come to mind. This group is especially large in the US where there is no guaranteed sick leave and people can be fired at will and on short notice. Of course some of those workers have been forced out of work by now.  
  • Those who can afford to work from home or shelter in place because the first two groups keep doing what they are doing. This is mostly the large group of office workers, some doing essential work, others less so. (Banking, insurances, teachers, and some government work comes to mind)
The late response, the lack of tracking and testing and the large second group will make the medical need curve here quite steep. 
Additionally, a set up like the the three groups above can only work for a few weeks, but not very long.
Essential and non-essential is a matter of definition, and over a longer period a lot of work that looks non-essential will become essential. If a roof starts to leak above the shelter-in-place family, a roofer becomes quickly essential. When the delivery truck breaks down and needs repair auto-parts become essential. More so if the vehicle is an ambulance. 

To be clear, before one can address the long term supply problems, the current supply disaster in the front line medical sector needs to be resolved. What happens when supplies run dry and the the tension between needs and supplies becomes too big is already on full display. 
  • Those masks, gowns, shields and ventilators are missing because they were primarily made in China and the industrial center of that country has been largely shut down for months. 
  • Domestic production of medications and medical equipment seems to be weak. The notion that car companies can begin to make ventilators or masks sounds very heroic and nice, but that transformation is likely quite difficult in a highly specialized economy 
  • In a demand and supply driven market economy, there is no structure in place to direct where products should go if need and not highest price is the new criterion. The recent competition between the federal and state governments over existing supplies is telling. A New York doctor, desperate for supplies, found a box of the urgently needed masks at Target. He was shocked.
Online photos on a Baltimore NextDoor post show what happens when those supply lines break: Volunteer community members making protective gears in a large warehouse with plexiglass and glue guns, reportedly for Johns Hopkins (An online sign-up on signupgenius.com seems to confirm this).  A furniture company is already making N95 masks and put the method online. Possibly some things can be made with 3-D printers and production codes be shared to rural or non industrialized ares. These are promising quick responses. It remains to be seen if they are sufficient. 

All this shows that the line of products that are deemed essential will quickly grow larger and larger. In a modern economy everything is connected with everything and only a few sectors can be safely shut down without others being negatively affected over time. (Casinos come to mind). 

While architects, for example, can mostly work from home-offices and still be productive, their chain of production ends in construction which cannot be done remotely at all. It is obvious, that in the end the final link in this chain will bring the entire chain down. At the latest, when construction runs out of supplies or, earlier, when job sites can't get the necessary inspections and permits because government workers issuing those do not show up in the field.

To keep the currently non essential supply lines flowing, the medical supply lines need to be seriously ramped up. Only if a society tests and protects on a broad scale can it keep supplies coming for the items that are needed to keep even sheltered people safe. Any discussion to relax the stay home orders for all who who are not essential is irresponsible as long as the medical supplies are not working. There is no way to neatly divide populations that quarantine and those who don't. 

The second huge quagmire is the ability of people to survive without a paycheck, affecting all those working in the sectors that have shut down or where gig work has dried up. An economy can only be geared up again, if companies still have their workers. That is what Congress is debating and what Maryland started to address as well. Governor Hogan announced a roughly $175 million to assist small businesses and workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. More information and resources about these programs is available here.
The problem of aiding the economy is greatly increased by the fact that we are a country that lives hand-to mouth with vast amounts of private and public debt and no rainy day funds to speak of. Under those circumstance it is entirely reasonable that Congress wouldn't simply rubber-stamp a $2 trillion relief package, especially if it contains many openings for corporate bail outs.

While it is true that employees need employers to be employed, the Republican argument that, therefore, employers need to be bailed out, seems logical but is faulty, nevertheless. Given the experiences of the financial crash, where corporate bail out resulted in a further tilt in the already lopsided income distribution, another push towards inequity cannot be afforded. There is much to be said for trying a different approach this time. 

Germany came through the financial crash fairly strong by protecting their workers from being laid off through "Kurzarbeit", i.e. part-time employment below the regular 40 hr workweek. They also used the boom years to pay down public debt and the private savings rate remained high in spite of the zero interest rates. 

Imagine a system where larger employers cover their ongoing cost obligations by borrowing money at the current incredibly low rates and take advantage of the unprecedented steps the Fed is taking  while employees cover their obligations by augmenting reduced income with a federal guaranteed basic income. That seems like a promising approach in this crisis.

The guaranteed basic income has been discussed for years. It is time to employ it now. Whoever doesn't like the name can call it unemployment payments, it doesn't matter. But these payments have to come, and they have to come fast. They are an investment into the economy of this summer. 

While we are still a couple of weeks away from the peak in the medical crisis, it is now high time to plan ahead and address the supply crisis and the disruptions from a crashing economy that will come next. 

The experiences of the financial crash of 2008 should not be the blueprint this time without the necessary corrections. Regardless which path economists and politicians ultimately take, it should be clear that this current crisis presents an opportunity to correct past mistakes and existing systemic flaws. 

Once this medical crisis subsides and the economy sputters back to life, society should have set the switches in such a manner that we are better equipped to stare down the huge income disparities, the climate crisis and the next wave of whatever pandemic, which may very well be another wave of COVID19.

1.5 trillion dollars can't be spent repeatedly. It is important to get it right the first time around. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
updated 3/23/20

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Baltimore on the other side of the tunnel

The long lasting boom period of the last 10 or so years has given many cities a leg up. Construction boomed, population grew, crime rates and unemployment sank, taxes flowed and cash reserves were built or used to make the cities shine. The age of cities was certain and welcome.

As we all know, Baltimore was different, an outlier really. Sure, our poverty rate also decreased somewhat , and construction was booming  as well, albeit to a lesser extent; but population continued to decrease, trash was piling up and crime keeps going up. We tumbled from one leadership calamity to another (Mayor, police Commissioner, DOT Director, IT Director and more). As a result trust in our local government is at an all time low. To make things worse, one cannot really say that the State has our back, even though one has to give the Governor credit for his current handling of the corona crisis. Now we are caught flatfooted. 
West Baltimore food desert

Overall, the pandemic of unprecedented dimensions as far as anybody alive can remember hits us largely unprepared, all the way down to the level of an inexplicably absent emergency response director. An economic storm of yet unknown proportions will follow.

To recognize this particular Baltimore condition doesn't add comfort but it allows for a realistic perspective when we are trying to peer through the long tunnel ahead.

In spite of the high level of uncertainty that comes with a situation that is unique, attempts must be made to decipher what may lie ahead on the other side of the tunnel and prepare for it. In the case of Baltimore, it should be clear that the instinctive desire to return back to the status quo ante is not desirable and would be a great mistake. The crisis must be used as an opportunity for a major reset. That it coincides with elections makes a reset more possible and provides also a political dimension.

To be sure, the world is facing a global problem and Baltimore is only a tiny speck in this larger picture.  What makes Baltimore's seemingly unique and exceptional status interesting is the fact that on a national scale it isn't all that exceptional upon closer inspection. Baltimore exhibits all the flaws that weaken the country as a whole, in some cases just more so. That is true for the mistrust in leadership, the general unwillingness to prepare for difficult times, the failure to use the boom to build reserves and the lack of a cohesive and commonly shared vision of where the journey should go. Even on an international scale, Baltimore is everywhere.

Applied to the corona crisis, precisely what makes our country more vulnerable than some others in this pandemic is in full display in Baltimore: namely that the country is divided, that government has been diminished for decades, that rich and poor have drifted way too far apart and that too many people have been left behind without health insurance, good care, good education, good qualification, good transportation or good access to the internet. Too many guns, too many people in prison. A volatile mix of deficiencies. In all this Baltimore is a petri dish for the country, for what may lie ahead and for what the challenges will be in the recovery . In short, Baltimore presents a great case study for where and why our society is so vulnerable to threats, whether it is an actual or a virtual virus pandemic or climate change. No longer is it enough to rest on past glory, neither in Baltimore nor in the nation. Yes, Baltimore has one of the bests hospitals in the world, yes Baltimore was a pioneer in railroads and streetcars but this is of no use when the poor don't have access to health care or when we let our transit infrastructure crumble. Yes, the US has the strongest and best equipped military and is a leader in IT, but it is of no help when modern wars are no longer fought with jets and tanks or when IT is beginning to hollow out our democracy or worse, is open to being hijacked by those who want to weaken us.

I am not trying to make this about politics or the campaign and its candidates, but I will mention  Bernie Sanders, nevertheless, to make a bigger point. He has been speaking of our societal challenges and systemic shortcomings in all his speeches. Lately voters have flocked to safer shores, the disruptions that Sander's policies would bring seemed just too large. Taking on oil, pharma, hospitals, the car industry and the oligarchs of all ilks all at once in a "revolution", is seen by very many as too risky, as something that "the economy" could not survive. It is hard not to observe that the disruptions we now face in light of corona crisis are bigger than anything that Sanders has ever considered. While this crisis may not have been predictable (many did just that, though), the next big crisis, climate change is and was entirely predictable and here, too, we have to admit that the US is ill prepared.

Baltimore is so mired in basic survival questions, that climate change barely registers. Who can grouse over beef consumption when one lives in a food desert, who about recycling when trash is piling up all around, who about eroded streams and floods when some neighborhoods drown in blood, who about CO2 emissions of SUVs when the bus is routinely late?

We know that economic justice and environmental justice are not mutually exclusive but dependent on each other as Mr Sanders says or also Baltimore's local zero waste initiative. But in the daily grind of Baltimore politics, it still comes down to an either or. Unfortunately similar mechanics are now at work in the epidemic as well. Many just don't have the luxury to shelter in place. Sticking with usual patterns, it is predictable that those on the bottom rungs of the economy will fare not only worse in the epidemic but also in the recovery afterwards. A special emphasis has to be placed on not sticking with the usual patterns: Not to bail out the largest corporations first, not to give in to the best paid lobbyists and not to build future demand on hand-outs to those who already have.
Construction of affordable housing on Eutaw Street
How much longer can they work?

Some say that if the money to dampen the financial crisis would have gone to local businesses and local banks as well as the consumers directly damaged by these financial institutions instead of going to exactly those banks who caused the collapse in the first place, we would have a much more robust economy now. Iceland comes to mind, a tiny country for sure, but a big player in the financial melt-down of 2008, now a country much stronger and more resilient then before 2008.

When planning the medicine for this economic meltdown we witness now, the lessons from 2008 must be heeded.  What is happening now is bigger than what happened then. Everything everyone in almost every country has to do now for health and life, is the opposite of what makes capitalism thrive:
Shrinkage instead of growth , restraint instead of consumption, shelter-in-place instead of hyper-mobility, local checkpoints instead of global connectivity. Factories, stores and offices are shutting down in rapid order across the world. Not for two weeks, some probably indefinitely. The nose dive of the stock market is just a a visible gauge for that.

Seen positively: This calculated shut down of the economy in favor of human life is a choice most countries have made by now. It is a unique achievement of global civilization over barbarism. Of course, there will soon come a point where the two lines of approach will intersect, i.e. when the supply chain will  be so disrupted that shortages of essential goods will occur. In the area of medical supplies made in China this is already the case in some places. Baltimore's still existent manufacturing and the many new maker start-ups and edible community gardens and farms haven't reached a scale yet to offset the need for long distance travel of goods, but they point into the right direction. So does Baltimore Planning's identification of local resilience hubs in a Resilience Plan. (In a sign of lack of resilience, the website for the new Disaster Preparedness Plan of 2018 is shut down)

The shutdown of  General Motors, Boeing, Volkswagen or Apple may look most impressive, but they won't be hit hardest. It will be the millions of small businesses that are threatened in their existence and with them their employees  who can't recover when their workplace will never re-open. "Too big to fail" cannot be the guideline again. Instead it should be, how does a future resilient economy need to be structured? Already the government is in using federal resources to prop up the oil price in support of the more expensive domestic oil production from unsustainable shale. Instead, this should be the time to assist the many small businesses including start-ups of the future green economy and also transfer money directly to vulnerable affected populations. This is one point in the federal discussion right now that goes in the right direction. Stopping all evictions in Baltimore was a good step in the right direction.

Crisis can bring people together, if not physically, then at least mentally. But that isn't always what happens. Italians applauding their first responders and singing local songs on their balconies appears to be unattainable to us, not only for our lack of balconies. Baltimore can't even stop shooting in this emergency. This week, in the midst of our collective anxieties, a bus driver was shot by an irate rider. Yesterday someone shot with a semi automatic into a group of people in central Baltimore. We like to think of ourselves as coming together in crisis and often we do. But Baltimore is an indication that there is no guarantee for that.

A population that was sharply divided in "good" times can become even more sharply divided during an extended lock-down when real hardship will set in for many. How to support the large vulnerable populations in Baltimore's infamous "black butterfly" during this shut-down has to be carefully planned right now. Many do just that, but the lack of a basic social safety net to catch everyone makes this much more difficult here than in, say, Norway or, yes, China.

Without drastic measures, the divide will be even bigger on the other side of the epidemic when the battle will be about the economy, supplies and education. Politicians like to say that we are "all in this together." While this may be generally true for our bodies and their defenselessness against a new virus,  it is certainly not true in the way the crisis affects different populations.

Where more affluent citizens will hunker down in their single family homes with yards, poorer renters often live in cramped quarters with shared stairways, hallways, elevators and some shared air conditioning vents. Where those who own a car can avoid close contact and still travel a distance to get to work, relatives, the grocery store or even medical testing, those who don't have a car need to use transit which will be increasingly sparse and even less reliable. Where better educated white collar workers may be able to work from home, others will pay the closure of workplaces with a total loss of income. Where more affluent households have broadband and plenty of computers and smart phones to stay in touch, vulnerable communities on the other side of the digital divide will remain cut off from online education and vital information. Where the insured can count on their doctors giving advice, the uninsured will continue to try to go to the always crowded emergency rooms. Where well paying jobs provide sick-leave, those in fast food or many other service professions will be tempted to go to work anyway since their employers dock their pay when they are sick. (An issue that Congress supposedly addressed, but details are still murky).

When everything that used to be true becomes unglued in a matter of days, social cohesion becomes a lifeline, a common set of values, essential. In the absence of it, even facts are in dispute, conspiracy theories thrive, and eventually even social unrest must be considered, should we get into a situation where health care will be overburdened and rationed even more than it already. Vulnerable populations then won't have access to the resources to protect themselves. The local and presidential elections could give the situation additional volatility.

Many in the always struggling vulnerable communities live day by day, "one day at a time", unable to think beyond the challenges further ahead, often in debt, mostly without savings. This understandable take on the world can't be a guide when it comes to "social distancing" over the long haul, i.e actual survival.

This seems to be the overall predicament, laden with risk but also with another chance for getting it right. This time! I will try to use this space as a place for a look ahead beyond what the daily news discuss, carried together from many sources around the world. There won't be easy answers. Yet, trying to decipher what the future will hold several months from now and what steps could be taken to make society more resilient is absolutely essential to master the many additional challenges that, no doubt, will lie ahead. The long view should also inform the elections from Mayor of Baltimore to President. We owe a better course to ourselves and even more to our children and grandchildren.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Behave in such a way that a reasonable generalization of your action to a universal rule will lead to a benefit to a generic person under this universal rule. Always treat others as ends and not means. (Immanuel Kant, the Categorical Imperative)

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Market Center: "The quality of the public realm impacts how people perceive and treat a community"

The less government gets the job done, the more non-profits have to step in and have to step up. Baltimore is a prime example of this.

The The Market Center organizations – the Market Center Community Development Corporation (MCCDC) and Market Center Merchants Association (MCMA) are created to revitalize Market Center, Baltimore’s 27-block historic retail core, to many simply known as "Howard Street".
Howard Street is better than its reputation. And no, light
rail did not kill it. (Photo: Philipsen)

The steep decline of this once thriving center of urban shopping with its signature department stores which drew shoppers from far and wide is representative of Baltimore's transformation from a industrial legacy city to a knowledge city. Instead of Bethlehem Steel  employing 30,000 area residents, Johns Hopkins  now has the largest number of jobs and employs just as many.  Shopping has largely left the city, leaving behind conditions that local government has failed to repair, in spite of decades of debate and efforts. The department stores became housing (Hechts), the headquarters of non-profits (Stewart's) or a place of switch gear for the information highways (Hutzler's) but many other beautiful former stores remain vacant and subject to decay.

The transformation is not without its successes, but, just like in the rest of the city, it didn't go smoothly, nor is it complete. In the case of Baltimore's former shopping hub, one of the big bumps were the large holdings of the Weinberg Foundation once amassed by real estate mogul Harry Weinberg ("Honolulu Harry"). At the time he bought many buildings for speculative purposes, many have not seen any change since he had bequeathed that they couldn't be sold. The Weinberg Foundation, today known as one of Baltimore's great philanthropic organisations,  finally broke through this last will and some of the buildings have been sold and now seen investment.

The bumpy story of Baltimore's Westside has been told many times. A few years back, the Urban Land Institute brought in a national panel including former Pittsburgh Mayor Murphy. The recommendation was that Baltimore should use Cincinnati's successfully revived Over the Rhine neighborhood as a model and that the City and the University of Maryland should form a close partnership for a joint revitalization effort. A concise concerted effort as in the case of Cleveland can not be found, though, just baby steps.
The new L on Liberty apartments. Fillat Architects (Photo: website)

Another player is the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPoB). It derived from an initial focus on Charles Street and keeping it a vital retail spine of downtown. The mission gradually expanded, some say too far: The less city agencies had a real road map for Baltimore's downtown, the more DPoB stepped in. They did marketing, planning, promotion and big picture thinking, including providing the concept of a downtown bus shuttle (now the DOT run Charm City Circulator), a green space plan and the renovation of Center Plaza.

The Market Center Merchant Association exists since 1983 as a 501c6 organization to deal with the core of the downtown retail district. The organization was in some ways a subset to DPoD and also represented the merchants towards the Baltimore Development Corporation which on and off became visible as a strong leader for the revitalization of the "Westside" (a term they coined along with silly slogans like "the west has zest"),. Some of BDC's actions (the "superblock") dragged the area further down by vacating large areas for large scale urban renewal type rehabilitation, an approach that largely failed. Today BDC is employing nimbler tactics, but the triumvirate of DPoB, BDC and Market Center has still not yet become the smooth collaborative team effort it should be, nor is the university involved at all steps. 
Kristin Mitchell at a recent meeting in Lexington Market
(Photo: Philipsen)

Nevertheless, the last 10 plus years of a booming economy have brought lots of progress to the Market Center area to which the City and the various non-profits contributed in various forms. Progree measured by cranes and construction includes:

  • Chiefly the new Lexington Market is of note (a ground breaking took place last month), 
  • new affordable units on Liberty Street were just completed, 
  • a new apartment and a hotel highrise are going up right south of the new market, 
  • an entire row of buildings is nearly complete on the westside of Paca Street (Volunteers of America across from where the new market will be), 
  • new uses and even an infill structure happen right now on the 400 block of Howard Street, 
  • developers were chosen for the area behind Howard Street towards Park Avenue and 
  • new apartments are being built at the corner of Mulberry and Eutaw Street.  (For a full list and project details see here).

Kristen Forsyth Mitchell took over the helm of the Market Center Merchant organisation in 2016 and presided over the creation of the CDC. I got to know her when she had changed from the Valley's Planning Council to become Program Director at the 1000 Friends of Maryland. She also worked for the State Planning Office, the Baltimore Development Corporation and was Director of Smart Growth at the state.

In her new capacity as executive director of the Market center organisations she is a big fish in a small pond, a fish that at times goes out with rubber gloves, a broom and a trash bag to collect trash in the district which is not entirely covered by DPoB's clean and safe program. She oversees all kinds of outreach programs ("mingles", newsletters, Facebook) that are supposed to bring merchants, downtown residents, the artists of the Bromo art district and the new investors together.  The organization produced a long-term revitalization plan for the area that is based on member responses and ideas.

Kristen Mitchell's perspective on the ground level is a valuable voice in the group of stakeholders I have asked questions about Baltimore in the context of this election season. Her district, Market Center reflects many problems that are typical for Baltimore. Her public answers are a bit more careful than they would be in private conversation.

Kristen Forsyth Mitchell

1.    Are you overall optimistic about Baltimore or pessimistic? Why? 

Optimistic – I meet people every day who inspire me, from artists working with young people on creative forms of expression or small business owners who, on top of providing goods, services and jobs for Baltimoreans, go above and beyond by doing things like mentoring others, hosting community events, and contributing to charitable causes.  I am not na├»ve – I know that Baltimore has some deeply rooted obstacles, but I have faith in the people of Baltimore.  
Construction east of Paca for new student housing and
hotel (Photo Philipsen)

2.    What can the new Mayor do for Market Center and the west-side of downtown?  

Invest in the public infrastructure of Market Center, so that it is well-lit, and the sidewalks, curbs, gutters, crosswalks, and streets are in a state of good repair, and ensure top-notch public services such as trash collection and street sweeping.  The quality of the public realm impacts how people perceive and treat a community, and while we know all parties can and must do a better job of maintenance, we hope that the city will lead the charge and inspire property and business owners to also make new investments.  I know that public safety is a big concern in Market Center, so I hope the mayor will support and direct resources to a holistic approach, one that helps people in need of healthcare, addiction services, housing, and employment for example, while also making it clear that violence is not acceptable in this community.  From a bigger picture perspective, we also need to ensure access to quality public education and public transit across the board – everyone deserves access to solid education and jobs, and without that, our people and communities will continue to struggle.

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

I don’t know if “depresses me” is the right term, but the thing that breaks my heart the most is knowing that there are people, especially children, in Baltimore who do not feel safe in or valued by their community.  
4.    Do you support a particular candidate for Mayor and for City Council?  

As the lead staff for a nonprofit organization, I am going to choose to keep this to myself.
"The quality of the public realm impacts how
people perceive and treat a community"
(Photo: Philipsen)

5.    What personal contribution to planning or development in Baltimore or the Market Center area are you most proud of?  

The Market Center Community Development Corporation spearheaded the creation of the Market Center Strategic Revitalization Plan (Phase I), which we did in four months on a shoestring budget – and we still managed to engage 95 unique individuals in the process.  The plan, which the Maryland Department of Housing & Community Development approved in November 2019, establishing Market Center as a designated Baltimore Regional Neighborhoods (BRNI) partner and thus making the community eligible for BRNI grants, addresses housing, economy, transportation, quality of life, environment, and community engagement.  We have just begun Phase II, which will include conversations with and learning from people we did not adequately connect with in Phase I, as well as diving more deeply into complex issues like affordable housing, human services, and traffic patterns.  Access to these grants should make it easier for nonprofits and others to pursue projects like affordable housing, vacant building stabilization, and workforce development and entrepreneurship programs, to cite several possibilities.
The block where the abandoned Martick's restaurant sits
awaits redevelopment. A developer has been selected.
(Photo: Philipsen)

6.    The Market Center Area has seen many ups and downs. Where do you think we stand right now? 

We are definitely on the upswing, as evidenced by the $132+ million in development activity underway as we speak, including but not limited to Lexington Market. The Lexington Market redevelopment is a big deal for the community – I talk to residents, business owners, and property owners daily who never thought this would happen – because it has the potential to serve residents of all income levels, from all over the city, and attract tourists as well (the first and foremost goal is to serve residents, of course). The goal now is to match this development activity with investment in the public infrastructure of the community, in small and homegrown businesses, and the people of Market Center, to do our part – as the Market Center Community Development Corporation and Market Center Merchants Association – to ensure that Market Center is a community in which all Baltimoreans know they are welcome, and a place where people with different backgrounds, education and income levels can find jobs and homes. 

7.    Can you describe in a couple of specific attributes that could and should set Market Center aside from any other area in Baltimore and should become the main draw for people of this region to go there?  
Market Center map

Market Center is in a unique position in Baltimore.  As the community in Baltimore with the most robust public transit and a lot of vacant and underused buildings, we can increase the number of jobs and residents in Market Center without displacement, and in a location readily accessible to most Baltimoreans.  Thus, investment in Market Center can help communities and people throughout Baltimore.  On top of that, Market Center has a tremendous stock of cool historic buildings, the building blocks for a super-pedestrian-friendly community, a base of culturally diverse small businesses and interests, and amazing institutions, arts venues, the city’s biggest public market, and its central library.  We are incredibly unique.  Let’s build on that.

8.    Any final thought?  

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Charlie Duff: I have never known the machinery of city government to work so poorly

This mayoral campaign season is full of drama and full of uncertainty, not entirely unlike the presidential one. Still, it remains Baltimore's privilege to see a former Mayor convicted and sentenced midway through the campaign for her successor which includes a previously convicted Mayor. Not entirely predictable Pugh announced her comeback already before she has started her prison term. Dixon waited at least until the probation period had expired.
Charlie Duff (SUN photo)

Another big player in the offing may be public health, at least if the Corona virus continues its march towards becoming a global pandemic. Baltimore with its top notch hospitals should be a good place to be in that case, but that may not be true for all. Disasters only look like equal opportunity destructors, but in reality they hit the poor way harder than the wealthy who have many more choices for prevention, avoidance, treatment and mitigation of whatever economic damage. As a starkly divided city Baltimore would need extra diligent governance, should the epidemic strike here. In spite of a string of exceptional health comissioners good governance hasn't been Baltimore's strength for quite some time. Charlie Duff's statement that "I have never known the machinery of city government to work so poorly" is already a pivotal issue in the campaign (think crime, police overtime abuse, water meters) and could become all deciding should the city bungle its response in the case of an actual Coronavirus threat.

Meanwhile we will continue the series of interviews with Baltimore stakeholders and opinion leaders from various walks of life. As emphasized before, this series is not intended to be representative, even though efforts have been made to offer this forum to a wide spectrum of representatives.

This time Charles Duff is responding to our questions about the City and the election. Charlie Duff is known to many in Baltimore through his numerous lectures about all kinds of things Baltimore. Most recently he wrote a book titled "The North Atlantic Cities" in which he explores the question why Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston are rowhouse cities while other cities are not.
What do Amsterdam, London, Dublin, and Baltimore have in common? They are part of the great family of the world’s rowhouse cities, of course! (Duff lecture announcement)
Duff is someone who defies the silos of special expertise that often prevent people to see the bigger picture. Not Charlie. He always looks for the bigger explanations, even if he has to invent them himself at times. His experience as developer, training as planner and careful student of Baltimore’s architecture and development, has made him a vessel of vast amounts of practical and theoretical knowledge, a rarity in modern times. In nineteen years as Jubilee’s President, Charlie has initiated and overseen the rehabilitation or construction of houses and apartments for thousands of Baltimoreans. Charlie is a great story teller and has given many lectures on architectural history at the Walters Art Museum, the Johns Hopkins University and, on occasion of his recent book, in places far outside of Baltimore.
Book cover

Duff graduated from Amherst College and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Charlie Duff

Are you overall optimistic about Baltimore or pessimistic? Why?

I’m optimistic about Baltimore.  It has a good location and a successful economy, and it has dozens of great parts, both city and suburban.  Above all, Baltimore is now full of young people who love it and care about it – and love it and care about it without illusions.  Boston was like that when I was 25, a run-down old city that smart young people were beginning to love.  Now, 40 years later, those smart young people have made run-down Boston a great city.  That’s happening to us right now.
It’s easy to be pessimistic now, not just because we have been ludicrously violent for ludicrously long, but because we seem to be responding to the city’s violence with a sense of powerlessness, like deer in the headlights.   If I’m optimistic, that’s at least partly because I know enough about Baltimore’s history to know that we’ve had problems of this scale before and eventually figured out how to get out of them.  It wasn’t easy then and won’t be now, but great cities are resilient.  I also know enough about Baltimore’s history to be immune to the pervasive belief that Baltimore used to be a lot greater than it is.  It didn’t.  We were a mid-sized city when we invented the railroad and the clipper ship, a mid-sized city when we created the first modern university and turned medicine into a science, a mid-sized city when we created America’s first great urban waterfront. 

What three issues do you suggest should be the top priority of the new Mayor?
1.     Making the people safe – from each other and from the police.
2.     Delivering public services efficiently and intelligently – I have never known       the machinery of city government to work so poorly
3.     Beginning to grow the city to 800,000 people – if we set a goal that is lofty but attainable, we will amaze ourselves with our own creativity in finding ways to meet that goal

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

Pursue strategies of growth and equity at the same time.  It’s amazing how many people think it’s enough to aim for one of these or the other.  That’s a false choice.  If we don’t seek to grow, we won’t have the ability to be equitable.   If we don’t seek to be equitable, we won’t have the safety, the labor force, or the quality of life necessary for growth. 
Rowhouse City Baltimore (Photo: Philipsen)
As I listen to Baltimoreans, what I hear, first of all, is that everyone wants to be safe.  After that, however, there’s a divergence between middle-class people and poor people.  What middle-class people want is good neighborhoods, and what poor people want is living-wage jobs.  Those two desires don’t conflict, and it should be easy for a good politician to make good politics out of meeting both of them.

What should the next US President should do for cities?

Cities are the best antidote to global climate change, and climate change is the most important issue over which we have a lot of control.  The next President should tax carbon and invest in public transportation.  The rest will take care of itself.

What recent local fact has given you hope for Baltimore?

The continuing increase in the number of people who are choosing to live in Baltimore City even though they can afford to live in the suburbs.  We are recapturing the middle-class people we lost in the car-centered twentieth century.  We allowed our city to become far too poor to take care of itself, and we relied on the federal and state governments to take care of us; but the federal government has long since given up on this, and the state is losing interest.  If we want to have good schools and safe streets, parks and clean water, and a growing economy that works for all of us, we are going to have to think of it with our own brains and pay for it out of our own pockets. 
What recent local fact has depressed you the most?

Our persistent inability to face the crisis of public safety.

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

No.  Jubilee Baltimore is a non-profit organization that works for the people of Baltimore.  We work with elected officials, whoever they are.

What personal contribution to Baltimore are you most proud of?
Duff/Jubilee project: The Centre Theatre on
North Ave (Photo: Philipsen)

The revival of Mount Vernon.  Mount Vernon is one of the greatest places in the United States, one of the three or four big reasons to care about Baltimore.  It has block after block of splendid and harmonious buildings, not to mention dozens of interesting things to do and a fabulous location.  Yet Mount Vernon declined for most of the 20th century, and it was in such bad shape by the 1990s that it needed the kind of community development work we do at Jubilee.  We worked in Mount Vernon for about a decade, and we helped to rally some wonderful people to turn the neighborhood around.  The population has grown by 33% on our watch, and good things happen every year. 
I only wish the work were complete.  The neighborhood is about halfway to where it should be.  It needs three things: less traffic on the main residential streets, more buildings and stores along Charles Street, and more homeowners in the neighborhood’s row houses.

Any final thought?

 Baltimore is a beautiful city with a wide range of buildings and neighborhoods.  It has something for everybody.  What it needs is everybody.  First, Baltimore should simply have more people than it has.  If our population were, say, 800,000 people, we would have fully-occupied neighborhoods, vibrant neighborhood shopping streets, and a good mass transit system.  And Maryland is growing fast enough to make this possible.  But Baltimore should also have more kinds of people than it has.  Too many of us are black or white, and nobody buys black-and-white tvs nowadays.  We need a technicolor mix.  Finally, Baltimore should have more people who are skilled and prosperous.  We need to be able to shape our own future, and that will take money and brains.    

Charles Duff bio:

Charles Duff is a planner, teacher, developer, and historian. Since 1987, as President of Jubilee Baltimore, he has led the revival of several dozen Baltimore neighborhoods and built or rebuilt more than 300 buildings. Known as an expert in historic architecture and urban history, he has also pioneered in the development of residential and commercial buildings for artists and arts organizations.

A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard University, he studied at St. Andrews University in Scotland and has walked every city and neighborhood to which he refers. He is a past President of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation and has served on the boards of many community and professional organizations. He lectures widely and has taught at Johns Hopkins and Morgan State Universities.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Previous Interviews on this blog: