Thursday, September 24, 2020

Rethinking planning in Baltimore County Part 2: The great opportunity

 This is part 2 about re-thinking Baltimore County Planning. Part 1 can be found here

A courageous zoning decision 

In spite of defining the future of 308 parcels on nearly 5,000 acres all over the County for the next four years, the legislative Tuesday session of the Baltimore County Council on August 25 was as tedious and obtuse as it can get.

Baltimore County CMZP dashboard 2020

And yet: About 180 citizens had clicked themselves into the WebEx conference call to listen for two hours and 20 minutes council-members read out numbers. Those were the zoning case numbers, district by district called up and bundled first into the group of those in which the councilperson agrees with the recommendations of the Planning  Board followed by the group where they wanted to deviate from the recommendations. Each time a roll call. Each time unanimous approval.

No debate, no questions. Some of the cases represented years of local debate, but one wouldn't know that. When it comes to zoning, no council person will ever question another one's decision in their district. To decode what was going on, participants needed the "log" of zoning issues, online maps and a good knowledge of their community. Such is the County's quadrennial CZMP, a sacred and unique cow of this county's planning since 1969. One can safely say, that the arcane process does not lead transparency, even though a new dashboard made the overview a bit easier this year. The process also doesn't lead to a more comprehensive picture in which the composite impact of individual decisions would be a decisive factor in any way, even though the dashboard does provide this aggregate view.

Without all those documents nobody could tell the importance of what happened an hour and fifty three minutes into the meeting: Current Council Chair Cathy Bevins came to her own district six. She delegated the read out of the cases to the Council's Secretary Thomas Bostwick, the only participant who actually sat in the Council chambers in Towson. At 1:54.30 issue 6-004 was called up, Bevin's first case where she recommended something different than the Planning Board for no less than 430.45 acres in Middle River, about 60% of the entire land area she had to consider for zoning changes. At  exactly 1:54:30 into the meeting the roll call and another unanimous affirmation, this land owned by a global conglomerate had changed from "industrial" to "Resource Conservation" zoning, RC8, limiting use to very low density residential (See Citizen Zoning Guide). 

Baltimore County and the URDL

This year, when Baltimore County has to start a new 10-year plan for the entire County, I will use this decision as an illustration for how Baltimore County's Planning could advance from incremental, piecemeal, reactive and extremely local thinking towards a more comprehensive, audacious, forward looking and sustainable approach. In other words, towards a comprehensive masterplan that deserves the name that really can be used to guide the next ten years.  

Nowhere is a bigger need to look at the larger context

Here was not only a large swath of land but also a case where a council member mustered the courage to stand up to economical interest, and decide against the interest of the property owner, the recommendations of the County Planning Department, and the  Planning Board; instead she opted for the wishes of  a community initiative

The MD 43 corridor and the LaFarge site

This decision is also big for the strategic location of the land: Located just inside the growth boundary URDL and between the Bird River and the Saltpeter Creek the land is is important for its environmental potential. But it is also located near the MD 43 growth corridor, which includes the following elements
  • Baltimore Crossroads, a 1,000 acre masterplanned, mixed-use community which includes the 200 acre, 1700 unit Greenleigh residences.
  • a MARC commuter train station, 
  • a 747 acres large State run airport,  
  • the 50 acre former Middle River Depot site where Glenn Martin once produced bombers B-26 bombers in the State's largest industrial building (2 million sf)and 
  • the 338 acres site of the shuttered Lockheed Martin company.  
A history of sand and gravel

Mining was once an important industry in Maryland and sand and gravel mining still is. In 2017 there were still 361 mines active in the state, many surface mine sand and gravel, ingredients necessary for road construction and concrete. Genstar alone owned over 3000 acres in Maryland in 1995. Since then the company has been bought by Lafarge, a French company with headquarters in Paris which in 2015 merged with Holcim, a company with 70,000 employees in 70 countries. Today LaFargeHolcim still lists 20 active sites in Maryland which make cement, concrete, asphalt, or aggregates. Crushed stone and sand are still in high demand, even if many Maryland mines are exhausted, have been filled, paved over and have reclaimed for new uses such as the Greenspring Quarry that is now a new gated development with a lake. In 2019 Maryland still produced 32 million metric tons of crushed stone alone, valued at $411 million. Sand and gravel operations enabled White Marsh town center, the Honeygo Reclamation Center and is the former use of the former Chase Plant at the rezoned Middle River site.
View into the LaFarge/Glenstar Chase site
(Photo: Philipsen)

Before the zoning decision the giant former gravel and sand mining area had been largely zoned Manufacturing (M), either designated as H for heavy or L for Light with some tiny areas of RC3 and RC20 zoning. It is safe to assume that the County's development boundary was drawn around the gravel mine. One of the flaws of Baltimore County's zoning in regard to mining is that the zoning persists, even when a mine is closed. This is a big problem since mines are usually not located where other industrial uses would make sense. It shouldn't be a foregone conclusion that mining companies should eventually turn into big land developers. Instead, it would make a lot of sense to revert mines into the public domain with strict oversight of the mitigation of environmental damage and eventual reclamation plans. The zoning category Cathy Bevins voted into effect is RC 8, which means Resource Conservation designated for Environmental Enhancement.

What "real planning" could mean

The Planning Departments review of a "concept plan" submitted by LaFarge this summer suggesting industrial warehousing on the precious land is not reflective of a department that looks at the bigger context. Granted, Lafarge utilized the County's zoning loophole to consider the proposed use as "by right" under the ten still applicable zoning. Still, while the County Planning Department gave that idea a tepid review, it didn't say outright that it was bad, even though lack of water and sewer, lack of transportation access and the location in an environmentally sensitive area should make it obvious that warehouses are a bad idea. The current fill with operation with an endless convoy of dump trucks navigating a circuitous route to and from the site makes the lack of road access obvious. The fill operation creates substantial revenue through tipping fees for the site owner, so its not that they have a site with no revenue. 

What was also clearly missing from the concept plan review, is the larger view that the Essex Middle Ricer Civic Council (EMRCC), an umbrella group representing over 20 Community Associations, when they applied for the RC 8 zoning. At a minimum Planning should have tabled the concept plan review until after the zoning decision. The broader view is well represented in an article in the Avenue News. referring back to the current 10 old Masterplan they write: 

In 2010, Route 43 was not completed, the Federal Depot’s (2,000,000 Sq.Ft. building on 56 acres of developable land) future use was undetermined, and the mixed use development along Route 43 was not envisioned. Since that time, Crossroads at 95 and Greenleigh have surfaced with major integrated mixed use and intense development is in the works for the Depot Building and its surrounding 56 acres. 
Additionally, the Lockheed Martin property, with several large structures, sizable open space, and vast waterfront has been environmentally rehabilitated in preparation for redevelopment. These developments are more than sufficient to meet the areas current and future [development] needs. (The Avenue News)
Crossroads and Greenleigh plan (Design Collective)

In the context of how the County can reposition itself in the post-industrial reality of a location between Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard Counties the east side of the county holds enormous promise. 
"Essex and Middle River are the most important areas in the County" (Bob Bendler, President EMRCC) :

This optimistic outlook is only justified if the growth and development nodes from Greenleigh to Lockheed and from LaFarge to the MARC station are  looked at comprehensively and not one by one as has been the case so far. 

The loss of development area on the LaFarge site should not been viewed as a loss of economic development opportunity but as a lever that can add value to every development in the vicinity. In the post industrial world environmental amenities, available recreation and good planning are prerequisite that a highly mobile workforce is looking for. That means that even the owners and developers of the Lockheed site, the Depot site and of the still growing Greenleigh "new town" would benefit if a strong environmental and recreational corridor would emerge all the way from the Bird River to the Middle River and Saltpeter Creek. The COVID pandemic has highlighted the importance of parks and open spaces more than any other event before. Climate change will make sound environmental planning ever more important, especially in the low lying waterfront areas like those in Middle River. The LaFarge rezoning allows the application of sustainability principles both in environmental  protection and economic development.

In a letter that I wrote to the Planning Director on behalf of NeighborSpace in this matter I pointed out that"

The site is near the White Marsh Boulevard area which was initially conceived as an important connector with vast opportunities for industrial development and uses that would benefit from easy access to I-95. As we know, the development
along White Marsh Boulevard has taken a very different turn. The corridor increasingly features mixed use and residential development, some arranged using some New Urbanist features. The proximity of a growth corridor next to a
resource conservation area creates conflicts and opportunities. To date, developments in the MD 43 growth corridor occur piecemeal, remain isolated from each other, and don’t add up to a larger pattern that would ultimately create a real community or optimal value. In that, they are a far cry from how Columbia or Maple Lawn were or are being developed. (NeighborSpace in a letter to the Planning Director)
Lockheed Martin and Martin Airport site map

So how can the decision for Resource Conservation zoning help in repositioning Baltimore County?
  • Open space, recreation and access to water have been value creating elements around the country. Nearby Gunpowder State Park and the existing Marshy Point County Park could be significantly enhanced by a connection to the Bird River and a much enlarged protected watershed
  • If properly connected, a regional environmental protection and recreation zone can bring additional value to the developments that have sprung up without a bigger connective plan. Here is a unique opportunity to make new greenfield developments such as the Arbors and the quite large Crossroads/Greenleigh development more meaningful. 
  • With a proper circulation network a small attractive new town could emerge here that has a train station, an airport, new neighborhoods and precious waterfront access. 
A warning example of how not to operate is the missed opportunity at Owings Mills. The so far less than convincing new town had another shot at becoming truly spectacular when three huge development opportunities presented themselves all generally within a similar timeframe: 
  • The Owings Mills Metro Town Center transit oriented development, 
  • the redevelopment of the failed Owings Mills Mall and 
  • the redevelopment of the former Solo Cup industrial site 
But these three sites where never seen in context or as a single challenge and opportunity that would define the future of Owings Mills and present the maybe last chance for Owings Mills to ever become the true new town it aspired to be. Instead of creating synergy, the sites were each developed without consideration of the other (let alone proper connections). As a result that all three sites are competing for the same shrinking user pool of occupying retail and office spaces. Even individually, none of the three sites is exceptional, not a trace of the creative spirit that guided Jim Rouse when he developed Columbia and had the California architect Frank Gehry design the Rouse headquarters at lake Kittamaqundi.  
The MD 43 growth corridor cannot be discussed without recognizing that it terminates at Eastern Avenue at the current MARC station. This makes the terminus an ideal transit oriented development site (TOD). No such plan exists, however, and won’t come about without a clear vision that gradually eliminates some of the barriers that current industrial uses present. Existing large historic factory buildings [the Depot] present an excellent opportunity for future connective and attractive mixed use. Past problems with the reuse of this site show that a desirable future will not come about without incentives and the guiding hand of County Planning. (From the NeighborSpace letter to the Planning Director)
The new 2030 Masterplan that will be initiated this year and a from the ground up review of the 13 year old Middle River Community Plan need to take this bigger perspective. 
Environmental corridors and growth areas (Klaus Philipsen)

The synergy potential between the thousands of acres of development areas at stake in Essex/Middle River is huge. A well organized umbrella organization for community participation exists and so does a Roundtable for the MD 43 corridor which brings together the various stakeholders, including LaFarge. It will take now the County to step up with "real planning" to realize it. 

Real planning is proactive, comprehensive, data and community based and integrates small area plans within a larger vision for the County. And, as I laid out in part 1 of this article, it also considers how watersheds, roads and other natural and manmade infrastructure work beyond council districts, planning area boundaries and even jurisdictional boundaries such as those between City and County. 

As the URDL of the 1970s, the County Masterplan of 1989 and various community and open space plans of that period, such as the Open Space Plan for Owings Mills of 1995, prove, "real planning" and community participation is not new to the County. It just has been abandoned somewhere along the way. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

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