Friday, July 31, 2020

Discoveries in Baltimore

A little bike ride to discover what has changed in recent months of mostly isolation and little unrestricted roaming is a refreshing activity. Here a few things I found on a not quite so hot Friday evening along Baltimore's waterfront:
Little Italy which clamored first for closed streets in favor of outdoor dining still doesn't have this. But they keep their Christmas decoration (I know, the Italian flag colors!) all year, as consolation.

A few isolated diners populate the terraces at the Inner Harbor pavilions, which were largely deserted even before the pandemic
The foot of the awful HarborPoint bridge has been enhanced by this outdoor dining arrangement

Mostly no water taxi service, just as during the winter and early spring, another thing that didn't work well even before COVID

A few new features at the McKeldin Plaza, an attempt to make the desolate situation after the demolition of the original more palatable. The mister is a weak substitute, but its better than nothing

A display celebrates "community based design" that "replaces concrete with green". Oh the chutzpah! If there ever was a top down planning decision, the demolition of the old fountain was one.

Slow Streets cover now miles of city streets. What would have taken years of debate became doable in weeks. This a great step towards "complete streets" or "livable streets as Delegate Robbyn Lewis prefers to say.
In the back the Perkins Homes slated for demolition for a new mixed income housing development with TIF

Intrepid travelers arriving at the Pendry Hotel where life seems to go on. 
Thames Street is largely closed to traffic so the row of restaurants can expand into the street, a much more pleasant solution than the angled parking that was there before, but why all those ugly Jersey barriers?

What is known as "parklets", small wooden terraces on what used to be parking spaces, has now been implemented on a bigger scale in Baltimore: Long overdue, but very welcome! (Broadway at Shakespeare Street)

Street performers have to do with less audience, as well but at least they play, whereas the Symphony is not.

The Avalon, once proposed as an all glass extravaganza, is now almost complete in a much more modest outfit. It will interesting to see if the influx of millennials to downtown Baltimore continues

The good old Circulator bus is still doing its rounds, now with masked operators and riders, and yes, should I mention it had troubles before COVID?

The posh restaurants in Harbor East protect their glass with progressive slogans, a too transparent approach to go with current sentiment

Extra many traffic lanes with quite a good number of cars are still the norm in downtown, Light Street is an extreme example

Space enough for some vending activities at corners that may not always be licensed but have a long tradition in Baltimore 

The always ugly Mario Shack building that once sat next to the Constellation is now gone. In its place a new water taxi terminal will rise in hopes of tourists to come back one day

Central Avenue is finally open again, but the sea of asphalt is unimaginative and crazy, given that the road dead-ends on HarborPoint. What a stark counter example to the good stuff going on in Fells Point and elsewhere. The good news: The spanking new very large Whole Foods is open now. Here, too is the question: Will the apartments fill?

Black Olive streetside eating on Bond Street

Those party barges in front of the Power Plant come in handy now, when only outdoor dining is permitted. 

Kids can run, even with a mask on!

I just can't get enough of those new parklets!

Strolling through the city, a nice form of entertainment in normal times, has become a rare luxury in a time when we have to stay away from each other, hide behind masks and are advised to avoid any unnecessary outings. How right this advice is, shows everywhere where it has been disregarded. And yet, from time it is necessary to go out, carefully, that is, and see that even under these extreme circumstances life is going on, even if it is on a much lower level.  It is also good to see that this crisis is an opportunity to fix a lot of the things that didn't work well before. Each catastrophe also includes an opportunity. 

Stay well everybody!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Friday, July 10, 2020

Moving out of Baltimore's Westside

The last 32 years I spent hoping for the renaissance of Baltimore's Market Center District which was eventually dubbed "Westside". But aside from receiving one of the dumbest booster slogans of the many that were tried out in Baltimore ("The West has Zest"),  the results were far from remarkable.
Howard Street, perpetually failing to thrive
(PHoto: Philipsen)
Now it is time for me to move on.

The slogan was bestowed in the proud tradition of developers who name their projects after what is no longer there. Indeed, the Westside was once Baltimore's retail core and had all the zest a city at the time could muster.

I arrived in time to witness the last vestiges wither: I saw the last two department stores close at Lexington and Howard and the ailing pedestrian zone ripped out in favor of an equally dead Lexington street with two way traffic and a few parking spaces. I saw an ill conceived bus mall on Howard Street be replaced by a mixed-traffic light rail/ cars street that remains lined with shuttered stores. A lot were refurbished though after Honolulu Harry's Weinberg real estate empire, finally let go of them. I saw two busy and popular intercity bus stations close and be relocated adjacent to the city incinerator, the low income bus riders were considered unwelcome downtown. I saw the city expelling a bunch of businesses so an entire block could be offered up to a real estate developer full of empty promises and a whole series of plans for the Lexington Market generated and nixed again. I saw a prominent developer demolish a bunch of buildings waving glorious reconstruction plans, only to leave to big holes west of Charles Street, still no change in sight.

The Incomplete list shows, that not so brilliant city decisions and lack of of oversight plays a role in the absence of really amazing progress, even though Camden Yards, the Convention Center expansion, the Hilton Convention Center Hotel, CenterPoint and the Hippodrome Theatre were built, all projects which were anticipated to give the old retail area a shot in the arm. The late developer David Hillman tried his luck with the adaptive reuse of  the former Hechts department store on one end and the old BGE headquarters on the other, both remarkable projects in themselves, but separated by the ill fated "superblock" which dragged them both down. Whatever investments, no matter how large, remained islands in a sea of unabated disinvestment. 
Weinberg properties on Lexington Street: Demo everything
(Photo: Philipsen)

When my employer, the architecture firm of Cho, Wilks and Benn left Charles Street for West Saratoga Street for what is now known as the MAP building, there was hope and optimism in the air. Kurt Schmoke had just been elected Mayor and hopes were high that Baltimore would amplify its newly gained Inner Harbor luster and also turn around the moribound retail district.

Alas, it didn't happen. One crisis chased the other, some were home-made (Schmoke never really gained the traction everyone had expected), some were national, chiefly with Ronald Reagan beginning a long period in which the government was seen as the problem and not the solution.

Those things are not inevitable. In the same time the Westside largely languished, Cincinnati, another city hard hit by de-industrialization, turned its similarly structured, and possibly even more decayed, historic Over the Rhine area into a stunning success story.

Why did it work in Cincinnati and not here? Baltimore never mustered the urgency with which the mayor and the business community there came together after their own civil unrest; it, too caused by the death of a black man killed by police. There they didn't just talk, but they also acted and assembled the funds needed to turn an entire part of the city around. Their streetcar was never seen as the thing that killed the street but as a train that brought in new energy. There they were very clear what they wanted: Revitalization with equity. Not demolition but restoration, not gentrification but affordable housing, not national chain stores but local mom and pop retail. They wanted a vibrant mixed use community with parks and pools, restaurants and shopping and plenty of housing for all income levels, especially low incomes.
Four Ten Lofts: New Apartments on Eutaw and Mulberry
(Photo: Philipsen)

By contrast, Baltimore could never come up with a cohesive vision and funding plan for the Westside. Was it supposed to be a new residential neighborhood, a restaurant district, a collection of unique mom and pop storefronts, an arts and entertainment district  or a big transit and event center? Leaders usually opted for "all of the above".

The Weinberg Foundation dreamed of Harlem USA as a model and envisioned lots of demolition, a multi-plex movie theater and large national brand stores. Preservationists were rightly outraged, the area is full of beautiful historic architecture. BDC then developed its own masterplan that can best be described as middle of the road. Some demolition, some big stores, some small stores and plenty of new dwelling units. The squabbles over preservation or demolition continued. though, so did the different aspirations regarding the type of retail that should be here. Those in charge seemed to agree usually that the retail that thrived in the area, beauty and nail salons, barbershops and stores that sell luggage and cellphone plans, was inferior or undesirable. That always seem racist in a not too subtle way.

Developers were supposed to introduce their own visions, further exacerbating the dissonant cacophony. Urban renewal plan amendments, big renewal development projects and projects billed as catalytic came down the pike in regular intervals. Some dubbed a success, such as CenterPoint, a full block sized urban infill with some restored old buildings and many bland new ones. The project was supposed to bracket the new Hippodrome. At the time State Senator Barbara Hoffman had skillfully forced some preservation by linking Hippodrome funds to an now defunct "memorandum of Agreement" that classified the many historic buildings as "must be preserved", should be preserved" and "are dispensable". Weinberg's properties north of Lexington Street and east of Stewart's were exempted from the three part classification and subsequently all demolished. To this day nothing replaced the grassy lots. The Westside is still a child that is "failing to thrive".
The Mayfair: decay from neglect always leads to demolition

The hopes and dashed hopes, the three steps forward and two back (sometimes it was the reverse) are legion. many were chronicled in my blogs. A debacle of epic proportion was the so-called Superblock, the failed attempt of the City to play big by redeveloping a really large block all at once, clinging to a developer long after it was clear that his puppy would never hunt. The buildings remaining in this block remain mostly shuttered to this day.

Of course, in Baltimore, hope springs eternal, and local grit realized renovations bit by bit. Finally, even a new Lexington Market has been started, once again a lift based more on demolition and new construction than character preservation.

All the while existing stores continued to fail, vacant buildings burned, crumbled or get demolished (sometimes all three). An example of the utter inability of getting the departments coordinated and on the tail of a lackluster building owner, is the former Tunnel Nightclub building on Eutaw Street, once known as the Gomprecht Building. Nothing was touched after the gigantic fire years back, a fire that was likely caused by squatters because the building stood vacant. The now burnt out shell, untouched and precarious is a disgrace on Eutaw Street to this day. The best prospect seems to be another demolition and another weedy empty lot.
Lexington Market: Arcade now demolished, no use for the old market
(Photo: Philipsen)

All those years I walked and biked the streets, dodged the pan handlers, the sleeping homeless and ad hoc vendors of all kinds of ware. My base was first the office on Saratoga Street and then my own place at the corner of Eutaw and Franklin.

My cousin who had grown up in Johannesburg went to the market with me on a visit.  "Reminds me of home", she said when seeing the midday scene around the Lexington Market . She told me that she "has never seen something that looks so African outside Africa". She truly liked the lively street-scene and the impromptu character of it all. Yes, the Westside with its many transit stops had more people on the sidewalks than the rest of downtown combined.

Westside Night Market, a small success
(Photo: Philipsen)
Now I moved to Pigtown after I had lost my lease. It was time to downsize and get rid of 25 years of paperwork. Looking through all the files I found not only projects that my firm completed in the Westside (The first new retail in decades, the stores in the 300 block of Eutaw Street wrapping the Comfort Link district cooling plant, some assist to small retailers) but also notes from the many years I participated in the advisory committee arguing with BDC about the best way forward, mostly without success.

For me an era comes to an end. 2020 is the year of the end of eras, globally, nationally and locally. Globally thanks to the virus, nationally due to the end of white supremacy (hopefully crowned by an election that reflects that), and locally, with a young progressive mayor taking over.

The future is far from certain. In tthe fog lurks opportunity and risk, on every level.

Baltimore's Westside, just as the entire city, could slide back even further, or it could make the leap forward that is needed to pull it all together.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

My previous articles about Market Center? Westside (from most recent to oldest):

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

The Gombrecht Building, neglected, burnt and now slated for demolition.

Connecting the dots: Working from strength in West Baltimore

The city convention hotel, failing to deliver in several respects

Westside Stories

Westside Stories (2)

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Is Baltimore transit doomed?

Bus operator under COVID
The Regional Transit Plan is nearing its completion deadline in October. It was legislated when expanding Baltimore region transit was a viable option in principle, except that only Maryland's Governor had thwarted it throughout his time in office. Now with COVID still upon us, transit's perspective looks even more difficult. 

Critiquing a recent article in CityLab I am making the point that this is even less a time to cut transit funding or services. 
When even a progressive voice such as CityLab questions transit's future because of the pandemic, one has to wonder. This article takes a critical look at some of the predictions expressed in a CityLab article dubbed a A Post-Pandemic Reality Check for Transit Boosters.

Already the title choice is dubious. The the urban news and opinion service, which was formerly published under the flag of the Atlantic now sails under Bloomberg with Hyundai as one of its main sponsors. The title implies that those who promote transit somehow miss reality. This is an assumption usually found among conservatives who think that transit is a lost cause anyway.  Laura Bliss, who has written many well informed and illuminating articles about transportation in CityLab, assembled a number of expert opinions which culminated in the suggestion that the future of transit is to be a "social service" focusing on essential workers and a few routes with high frequency reliable service.
“For many years we have a lot of aspirations for transit: We want it to beat traffic, fight climate change, and revitalize communities. But the two things it has demonstrably done in last half century is provide mobility for those without — whether that’s due to age, income, or disability — and allow highly agglomerated places function. My educated guess is that we will see the rise of transit as a social service.” (Brian Taylor, an urban planning professor and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles)

London bus in front of St Paul Cathedral  March 2020: Cashless and fully
enclosed operators were typical for London buses for years
The piece has more problems than just the headline.
It appropriately begins with a historic reference to the Spanish Flu which occurred during the hey days of transit, especially streetcars. But it concedes that transit recovered pretty quickly which does little to support the notion that transit boosters need a reality check because of COVID 19.
In 1918, streetcars were the top urban transportation mode in the United States. And they were packed: Americans made about 140 trips per capita, about 15 billion trips total, that year. [...]Still, the popularity of mass transit did not suffer dramatically in the succeeding years (Laura Bliss)
To get to the period when transit really declined drastically from its 1918 peak, the author has to throw in the Great Depression, the rise of the automobile and World War II, all three not related to the Spanish flu and thus, telling us little about transit after COVID-19. But the limping historic precedent is just the beginning. Much more concerning is what follows couched in the opinions of experts.  The arguments either don't add up or they are alarming for their implications on social equity and climate change.
Transit (blue) takes a beating in cities around the world (Apple Mobility)

The article states correctly that transit ridership after a boom during the 2008 financial crisis decreased again in recent years. As the main reason Laura Bliss  and her her transit experts indicate that data show that formerly "transit dependent" riders were lost in greater numbers than "choice riders". Here this important section of the article:
Explanations for ridership’s downward slide during these years abound. Cheap gas and easy credit for auto loans increased the appeal of car use, while service quality deteriorated on the older parts of transit systems. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft emerged, and a housing affordability crisis pushed many people outside the range of reliable transit.

In Southern California, Taylor and his colleagues have found that the largest drops in ridership have come from groups that were traditionally the heaviest, most economically dependent users of transit. Lower-income immigrants in particular have abandoned buses as car ownership among those communities has increased. While the share of discretionary riders has increased slightly, thanks to increased investment into rail and rapid bus service geared toward more affluent commuters, “their added trips are still overwhelmed by lost trips from others,” Taylor said.

Bus with front portion temporarily blocked for driver safety

If this analysis would hold for major transit systems across the country, it would seem curious why the article recommends to focus on the the very group that left transit in droves and to ignore the riders that seem to have come to transit more recently. But this is exactly what is suggested in the article:
But the best indication of the future face of transit may be the people on board right now.
In other words, focus on those super dependent riders that can't let go of transit, even in the midst of a pandemic. That would be a stunning reversal of the past efforts of attracting the so called choice riders and increase the pool of transit riders beyond those who have no other option. The article isn't subtle about who the "captive" riders are:
Transit, an urban mobility navigation app, has found that 68% of the people using it to plan bus and metro trips right now are women, most of them black and Latinx.
To be sure, the desire to attract "choice riders" has been rightly criticized by folks who bemoan the lack of equity in transit systems where the fancy rail lines and commuter buses serve the wealthier populations while poor neighboorhoods have to take the unreliable and slow bus. On closer inspection, though, achieving equity is more complicated than not providing service for wealthier folks any longer. It is no solution to eliminate the better services and leave poor riders with the crappy service. One has to remember that the desire to cut services and concentrate investments on buses instead of rail has always come from those who use equity only as a smoke screen to defund larger transit investments, just like Hogan did.

Transit is always about the network. Cutting services and routes will hit the riders hardest who have no other choice of mobility: Transit limited to the poorest neighborhoods and the low paying job centers would essentially not only lock those essential workers (those "on board right now) into the geographic areas of concentrated poverty which currently have the longest commute times but also deprive them to make any other "non essential") trips.

In the neighborhoods in which these workers live and work, most everything is seen as a "social service", from substandard public housing to substandard schools. It is precisely this attitude of seeing basic functions such as mobility, housing or education as something that should be delivered differently for the rich and the poor, that is one of the the causes of inequity in the first place. 
Airport bus, Dulles International: The problem of safe
transit under Corona is universal 

Social scientists, educators, architects and transit professionals have long realized, that improvements on those services can only be achieved if  they are provided to a economically diverse clientele. In other words, only if transit providers need to worry about "choice riders" going elsewhere, precisely because they have a choice, will they provide an acceptable service. Not, if riders consist exclusively of those who have no other choice but to accept whatever crappy service they get.

The article concedes that service reduction would cause even more ridership reduction. This is, in effect, cutting the legs off its own argument.
“There’s an elasticity that shows if you cut service by 10%, you can generally expect ridership goes down 3-6%,” Greg Erhardt, civil engineering professor at the University of Kentucky, specialist in travel behavior and transportation planning.
Admittedly, as long as the risk of catching a potentially deadly virus exists, transit will not be the most attractive form of transportation for those who can alternatively hop into their own car in which no virus threat exists. But the article also concedes, that the car is not an option for large cities.
Who will ride in the wake of coronavirus? Passengers will inevitably return in dense cities with extensive systems, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, where transit is critical for thriving urban economies to function (Taylor)
If transit can't be substituted in those large cities, it has to be made functional and safe during a pandemic. That is where the real challenge resides. If transit can be made safe in large cities, it can work even better in smaller ones. The solution is not service reduction and giving up on transit as a solution to congestion, bad air and climate change, just as the pandemic cannot be the excuse for giving up on education.

As widely understood now,  the pandemic enlarges existing problems and accelerates existing trends. In the case of transit, it means that transit experts and agencies have to solve the long standing issues of unreliable, crowded and unhygienic bus transportation by making buses more pleasant and comfortable, offer faster and more reliable service and by supplementing fixed route, fixed schedule service with flexible on-demand type services that seamlessly integrate with existing transit. This is exactly what the buzz word transit as a service  means which had become popular before the pandemic. COVID-19 has shown that transit is essential to keep this society going. But one can't just  put this insight on its head by saying it needs to function only for essential workers. That is as deeply flawed as  to say water is needed for survival so one can cut food. It makes much more sense to say: if transit can be fixed and made safe, reliable and even enjoyable for essential workers, it can be that also for everybody else.

This is my no means a small challenge. As the action group Dream Corps - Green for ALL notes in the its current "issue paper":
Transit agencies must now tackle a host of new questions: How do we protect transit workers and riders from the virus? How can we innovate service delivery to prioritize essential workers and those dependent on transit to meet basic needs? How do we fund public transit operations in the short and long term? And, how do we fund other ongoing and critical projects such as transitioning fleets to cleaner fuel technologies and zero-emission vehicles — actions necessary to combat climate change and protect public health — in the midst of uncertain budgets? (DreamCorps)
Many Issues that have been debated for decades. They must now be implemented. That means investing in transit instead of further disinvestment.  Measures that merit investment include:
Report by DreamCorps
  •  fully integrated regional fare compacts in which one single ticket is valid among all forms of transit mobility in the entire region. 
  • cashless and contact free forms of payment that accelerate service and provide increased operator safety
  • "last mile" services that integrate services known as ride-sharing, bike sharing and scooters
  • Express or commuter direct service routes with limited stops that originate not only in posh suburbs and go to choice employment centers but also originate in poor neighborhoods and go to low paying jobs.  
  • Emission free vehicles that improve air quality and reduce carbon emission. The impact would be especially useful in poor neighborhoods where parks are scarce and emissions from incinerators, factories and diesel trucks are concentrated.
There is no way that the pandemic should be accepted as an excuse to open up another round of anti-urban policies, defunding transit or given the single occupant automobile another lease on life since those exact repeats would throw us back decades in the fight against climate change and wasteful use of limited resources such as open space, challenges that will ultimately prove much more difficult and dangerous than COVID-19.

 Klaus Philipsen, FAIA