Friday, September 18, 2020

Rethinking how to plan Baltimore County

The city versus suburb cliché is obsolete

The scare of the "Democrats taking your suburbs away", is a recast of the past using a binary that isn't accurate any longer. What worked in 1948 when the majority voted for in referendum for a law by that blocked the City from further annexations and growth was based on fear of the "other". The original result that Baltimore County flourished and Baltimore City was hobbled and wilting isn't the whole story any longer either. Yes, Baltimore County came out ahead:
  • County Living (Photo: Philipsen)

    With over 827,000 residents the County is now 200,000, or 35% larger, than the City it surrounds.  
  • The County is still growing in population while the City continues to shrink  
City Living (Photo: Philipsen)

But the County is no longer just a bedroom community, and the County has long incorporated "the other". It has become a place of employment (370,000 jobs,about the same number as the City), a place of shopping (to such an extent that many surplus shopping centers sit abandoned) and a place of ethnic and cultural diversity.
In recent years the benefits haven't been so clearly lopsided any longer:
  • While the City loses poorer minority residents and gains affluent, young white residents, trends in the County's population have been the inverse.
  • While the City clearly has large areas of neglect, it can boast big swaths of glitzy new apartment buildings of a quality and rent level unmatched by the County. All the while the County's aging inner ring suburbs are exhibiting some of the same issues as  poor city neighborhoods: sinking property values, sinking school performance, rising poverty and rising crime. 
  • The County is no longer the place of single family homes. Of the nearly 1400 housing units constructed in the County in 2019, nearly 1400 over 60% were apartments and townhomes, only 39% were detached single family homes. 
  • Gone are the times when there were endless forests and pastures just waiting for their last crop: development. For a long time green field development boosted County coffers, but the land area doesn't grow while the need for open space grows with the population, particularly during a pandemic
  • Suburban offices parks and endless run of the mill subdivisions are no longer what people aspire to. Highly mobile employees and residents want urban amenities, active lifestyle options, arts and culture, authentic communities and attractive housing.  In national comparisons iBaltimore County has little development to offer that meets those criteria.
All this is important to consider when Baltimore County begins its new masterplan this year.  The 10 year old Masterplan 2020 "expires" this year. Other aspects to consider:

Baltimore City is now a partner for the County, not an adversary

The first innovation is to look at City and County as partners and not as competing adversaries. The new County Executive has begun that approach already, realizing that infrastructure systems such as water, sewer, electric, roads as well as natural systems such as watersheds and rivers don't recognize the artificial boundaries between jurisdictions.  City and County share the water, electric and transit systems, they share a trash incinerator and many amenities such as parks, museums, theaters and performance venues. Most cities and their counties are long managed together, Baltimore's unique position as a city without county must be mitigated through collaboration. I wrote about this partnership here.

Baltimore County's regulations are obtuse and often antiquated

Baltimore County just finished the quadrennial rezoning bonanza known by land planning geeks under the klutzy acronym of CZMP, which stands for "comprehensive zoning map process".  Unlike other jurisdictions who allow an application for rezoning at any time (usually after masterplans are completed) the CZMP allows rezoning only every four years. The promise is that this allows a more rational and comprehensive process. But that is theory. The reality is different. The all at once approach overwhelms citizens, elected officials and land owners alike. Back scratching, returned favors, convenience and falling for those who make the most noise is common. Thanks to "councilmanic courtesy" which de facto gives each council person the sole say in  their district,  zoning decisions are made with no regard of the cumulative effects beyond a
Urban rural demarcation line (URDL)
(Photo: Philipsen)

district.  The system makes council people a great target for "buying" their decision through campaign contributions and the like. Many Baltimore County residents have lost confidence that land use and zoning decisions are made in a fair, equitable and transparent way or in the best interest of the common good. The development community is rather small and the playing field is tilted towards those who know how to play the dense and arcane regulations that are hard to follow even by experts.

The cheap money no longer flows

Suburbs in general relied for too long on the money stream derived from paving over fields and forests, an approach which some call a Ponzi scheme in which old obligations would always be paid by adding new stuff. Any Ponzi scheme is doomed to collapse once the stream of new money ends. For funding through sprawl, this means when when cheap development ends because land runs out or someone pulls the  plug on sprawl, the party is over.

To be clear, Baltimore County recognized the pitfalls of sprawl earlier than most anybody in the country when it decided in 1967 to protect large swaths of its rural lands mostly in the "North County" by enacting a rural-urban development boundary (URDL). It also designated designated growth areas where development should go, namely the "town centers of Owings Mills and White Marsh. Today almost 90% of all residents live inside the growth boundary, on about one third of the County's total area, a fundamentally sound result, but obviously the well of cheap land runs dry earlier with such a boundary. 

Focus on the inside of the growth envelope

The reflex should certainly not be to relax the boundary so the non sustainable pattern of paving over more and more land can be continued for a while longer. This would not solve the problem just make it worse, especially since discerning residents cherish protected natural resources and open spaces more than ever.  The economic problem the County faces isn't caused by the URDL but by the fact that the idea of "town-centers" was watered down from the beginning. In fact, the County never managed to create anything even deserving that name. Neither White Marsh nor Owings Mills look any different than most ordinary subdivisions, both neither have an identifiable center nor would anybody call them a town.  (I wrote about the problems of planning around Owings Mills here).

Moving forward, the new masterplan for Baltimore County must focus on how development is organized inside the growth envelope. This is not a new idea. Several administrations ago Revitalization Districts were designated and supported. Several of these areas are recognizable older communities and have turned the corner. Still, folks who live inside the development envelope continue to resist what they consider "jamming" more folks into the same areas. Crowded schools, demographic changes, flooding and increasing traffic are easily pinned on new development, when, in reality, the patterns of sprawl are the real culprits. It is thoughtless growth and neglect of  obsolete older commercial development that makes areas unattractive and depletes the tax coffers without creating much new actual value. 
Owings Mills town center (Photo: Philipsen)

For a long time the County was caught in the idea of low taxes and austerity, but austerity rarely is a path towards prosperity. Austerity policies lack the bigger picture investments that are needed to keep older areas attractive. Baltimore County not only lacks the lovely intact historic districts, parks and institutions of the City, it also failed to make the the bigger renewal moves which the City engaged in, such as the Inner Harbor, or the many attractive adaptive reuse projects that converted old industrial areas into attractive mixed use communities (Example Clipper Mill). To this day, the County also lacks creative, innovative housing such as the suburban deck townhomes that the internationally architect Moshe Safdie designed for Baltimore's Cold Spring in 1976. All of new development in Baltimore County  seems to know only one single "style": Neo Colonial, be it for single family homes or for the ubiquitous townhomes that are spread all over the landscape as if someone had broken up city streets and thrown them over the fields and forests of the County.

There was no lack of attempts of creating something like the Inner Harbor in Baltimore County. At the Lockheed Martin Site in Middle River, and also at Sparrows Point or Fort Howard. But each time pragmatism  gained the upper hand in the face of recessions and small doable incrementalism got the upper hand. This is not to say that these opportunities don't still exist, just to point out, that in neither case exists an inspiring masterplan that would ensure that the full potential of tehse wonderful sites would be truly realized. 
Inner Harbor (Photo: Philipsen)

Timidity can't be a sustainable long-term strategy for a County that is hemmed in between the City and the thriving Counties of Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford which boast nationally known historic towns such as Annapolis, or innovative new towns such as Columbia. Unlike Owings Mills, Columbia continues a course towards becoming a real town. Baltimore County also lacks or trail blazing masterplanned new communities such as Maple Lawn or transit oriented development nodes such as Odenton.  The new County Executive already has abandoned the strict austerity course and laid the groundwork for strong investment in schools and education. The COVID-19 pandemic may give the suburbs a momentary leg up compared to the large cities, but sound future planning needs more innovation than "not being the city".

What can be done? This article will be followed by an example of opportunities that are available now  and would allow the County to catch up in placemaking, innovation and sustainable development inside the URDL. The sequel will begin with a courageous decision of a County Council member who mustered the courage to stand up to established economical interest, powerful donors and decided against the interest of a property owner and the recommendations of the County Planning Department to go with the request of  a community organisation and vote for a sustainable future of 450 acres of land.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The date noted for the creation of URDL was corrected to 1967 on 9/23/20

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