Friday, October 23, 2020

Baltimore's now has its own Architecture & Design Center

To some (good) design is in the eye of the beholder. To others design is like magic that can solve the most intricate problems. To most, design is not a pressing issue, especially not in a city like Baltimore with so many fundamental needs. 

Mies van der Rohe: One Charles Center
is the home of the AIA  Center (Photo Philipsen)

Architects are among the design professionals who suffer from this weak and vague societal stature of design. Reflective of this fuzzy state, architects variably consider themselves artists, designers, peers to engineers or master-builders. 

A former employee of mine was amused when his mother had asked him once again what architects really do. She is not alone in that uncertainty. 

The brand-new Baltimore Center for Architecture and Design will help to showcase what architects and designers do. It will be shedding a bright light on architecture, design and the built environment and all its challenges. It will provide a space for encounter, conversation, exhibits and dialogue. 

The Center will convene timely and vital conversations about the architecture and the built environment in Baltimore, and the role of design in creating equitable, just, healthy, sustainable and resilient communities. It will include flexible program and gallery exhibitions space. Programs will include lectures, tours, workshops, and activities for the design community, students, and the general public (AIA press release).

On the practical side, the space in the plinth under the tower of One Charles Center, Mies van der Rohe's 1962 office contribution to Baltimore, will be the new home of AIA Baltimore and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. 

Home of several organizations in the area of design,
real estate and preservation (Photo: Philipsen)

As a direct expression of the collaboration that is central to the architect's work, the Center will also provide administrative and program space for several other organizations operating in the field of the built environment:

  • The Baltimore Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (Bmore NOMA), 
  • Baltimore Heritage, Inc.,
  •  the Baltimore Chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI Baltimore), 
  • The Maryland Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA Maryland), and
  • The Charles Street Development Corporation. 
This array of organizations will ensure that design and architecture will be seen in the comprehensive, multidisciplinary manner that "design thinking" envisions. 

The current AIA Baltimore Chapter President expresses the Center's aspiration this way:

“The Baltimore Center for Architecture and Design was conceived to scale the influence of architecture and design. The Center will be where neighbors, civic leaders, institutions, and all design professions come together to collaborate, inspire, learn, listen, and most importantly, to act. Here we hope to find common values and work towards shared goals. The Center will celebrate Baltimore’s architectural treasures and will be a platform for discussing the future of design and the profession.” Scott Walters, AIA Baltimore Chapter President, and Principal at Hord Caplan Macht)

This closely mimics the concept that stands behind design and architecture centers and hubs in major cities around the world. 

An earlier effort was trying to create a design center outside the established organizations, when architects, engineers, museum directors and educators

Center logo by Ashton Design 

founded D:Center,  a non-profit that operated for about 8 years with support from AIA before it folded in 2018 into the Neighborhood Design Center NDC, located at the Motor House on North Avenue. 

D:Center co-founder writer and architecture journalist Elisabeth Evitt-Dickinson expressed back in 2013 her take on a design center in Baltimore in words that still resonate today and could as well be applied to the new Center that now actually materialized.

 We are at an interesting juncture for American cities, and Baltimore, in particular, represents a special challenge. We are a shrinking, post-industrial town with entrenched conflicts and disputed territories. We live in a city that is, in places, aesthetically impoverished and inhumane. But we also have an inventive spirit, and, I believe, a renewing sense of self, that can be seen in pockets of creative energy throughout the city.  

How the Center opens up to Center Plaza (Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore has often been called a city of silos: individuals working within their own sealed space. To address our built environment, we must rise above our fragmented past and knit together our disparate efforts around design and planning. 
A Design Center in Baltimore could galvanize creative energies and foster new conversations. It can be a place for germinating what our city could and should be in the future, making Baltimore a playground of design, a Petri dish for cultivating new ideas about urban living. (Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson)

Back in 2013 an equally adept perception of what a design center can do, came from the then chair of the Architecture Department at Morgan State University, 

The sustainable city is elemental to the health and well-being of her inhabitants.  An urban design center that fosters communication, discourse and education on all aspects of the urban environment will support the dream of a sustainable Baltimore. (Ruth Connell, AIA, MSU).

Recovered lobby marble for table tops (Photo: Philipsen)
Eventually it was the Baltimore Chapter of AIA that realized the concept, not unlike AIA and related sister organizations did it in Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York and Chicago, the last one also located in a Mies building, but on a much grander scale. 

Baltimore's 3,600 square foot space has a quite mundane past as a Burger King, an Office Depot store, followed by standing vacant for 15 years. 

The Baltimore Chapter of AIA came to the rescue with a 25 year lease from One Charles Center owner Peter Angelos. 

The move required the chapter to create a one million dollar fund, most of it for construction and new equipment. This is a heavy lift for a professional organization largely funded by membership fees. some 30 years back the local chapter had been in pretty dire financial straits, before longtime Executive Director Karen Lewand brought the organization not only into safer financial waters but out of a status that some critics described as an "elite old boys club". By buying its own chapter house on West Chase Street, and immersing itself more in all kinds of pressing urban affairs, AIA has grown stronger and well respected as a problem solver in the built environment. The late Ms. Lewand's legacy is honored by naming the new conference room after her. 

In spite of much more financial stability, the Center fund is still short by about 25% after AIA seeded it with $500,000 from reserves and the sale of the old chapter house, a $75,000 Capital Projects grant from the Maryland Heritage Authority, and $5000 from a Storefront Improvement Grant from the Baltimore Development Corporation. AIA received various member donations; the drive is ongoing and donations can be made here.  

The old chapter house had once saved AIA by creating a viable asset, but it was cramped, not easily made ADA compliant and not suitable to accommodate exhibits, larger gatherings or any of the interdisciplinary aspirations for collaboration. The new space is large, bright and accessible, sharing space is easy. The Urban Land Institute is now at home in the same space; ULI is a powerful organization representing the full spectrum of participants in land development and real estate. This collaboration and shared space should be especially fruitful to both sides by creating synergy instead of competition.

Lacy steel curtains in the color of the curtain wall (Photo: AIA)

The design of the new space comes from Quinn Evans Architects which has its Baltimore offices in the Mies van der Rohe tower. The firm won a design competition in August 2019 that AIA had held to find the most creative approach with a design that is "reaching out and drawing in". At the time Executive Director Kathleen Lane hoped to complete the Center for less money and in less time. Both didn't quite work out, in part attributable to one of the craziest years we have seen in a while, affecting schedule and cost  

Quinn Evans Principal Mark Nook says that for this project they used the simplicity of  Miesian modernism as their guide, emphasizing openness, lightness and flexibility. The most impressive element of the bright and friendly, largely open space are movable maple wood walls, modeled after library stacks, that can be cranked across the room on tracks. The other flexibility element are steel "lace" curtains that mimic the color of the building curtain wall and provide visual division, while still allowing the view across the space. The relation to the Mies building is also maintained through marble table tops that sat in storage from work on the elevator core of the tower. It is clad in the same marble. 

Large doors opening to Center Plaza will allow receptions to spill outside in the park-like setting and emphasize the them of "reaching out and drawing in". With additional funds the headhouse leading to the parking garage under the plaza, will be clad in a large electronic signboard allowing to project design images across the entire plaza. Project architect and associate Allison McElheny emphasizes that firms young designers played a large role in picking critical elements for the design of the center through several in-house design charrettes.  All graphics related to the center are designed clean and modern as well by Ashton Design

Reaching out and drawing in: Ashton window graphics
(Photo: Philipsen)

The former retail space never looked better and finally offers an appropriate base to the modernist icon that is representative of what Mies stood for. 

To celebrate this new design hub and the Chapter's upcoming 150th anniversary next year, AIA  has planned an innovative line-up of public programs that will be hosted in the new space, including the Say It Loud exhibition (referring to James Brown's song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud") that will feature projects by Black and minority design professionals and amplifies the presence of Black architects within the profession. Black architects still represent only 1.8% of all licensed architects in the United States. The exhibition will be online and in the gallery and will recognize the important contributions of  designers of color in Baltimore and Maryland. 

A virtual opening ceremony will be held on Friday, October 30, 2020 at 2pm. (Invite).

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author was a founding member of d:center and is a member of AIA.

One of the two moveable divider elements on tracks 
(Photo: AIA/Lane)

Birch wood, screens and pin boards: ready for exhibits (Photo: Philipsen)

Working side by side: AIA, BAF, ULI, ASLA and others
(Photo: Philipsen)

hanging out around the water cooler (Photo: Philipsen)

The base of One Charles Center houses the new AIA Center: It has a green roof
(Photo: AIA)

Friday, October 16, 2020

An overly complicated approach of reinventing Penn Station

Penn Station in Baltimore is an untapped and undervalued asset as I noted before. It is a big deal for Baltimore that it sits on the only high speed rail corridor in the US and connects the center of the city with Manhattan, Philadelphia, DC and the entire Atlantic region.  It is an asset that is not nearly mentioned enough, nor is it reflected in local planning. 

To this day, Amtrak is left to his own land holdings and investment without any supporting local strategies that would elevate the effort and put the Amtrak investment into the proper context. This is in stark contrast to other cities, for example Denver, which has revived an entire city quarter around an Amtrak station that has only two long distance trains per day; or to DC, where also a brand-new development district sprang up around Union Station. Striking in DC, for example: A giant bus terminal on top of the train tracks and a tiny, but very elegant bike parking station that adorned design magazines around the world. More transit oriented development over the tracks is in the planning stage.

Penn Station sits within a sea of nothingness (Photo: Philipsen)

This isn't the situation in Baltimore. While the decades long talk about sprucing up the station and its environs is finally ramping up to become real action, yesterday's presentation to the City design review panel UDAAP proved how hard it is to reinvent the Penn Station area with just Amtrak land, given that the area is currently characterized by vacant lots, parking lots, a sunken expressway, billboards and the small scale efforts of the reviving Station North neighborhood. The only larger investment in sight is the new Nelson Kohl apartment building north of Lanvale Street. The new UB Law School sits south of the JFX canyon. 

The design team of Gensler Baltimore and Mahan Rykiel, selected by developers Beatty Development and Cross Street Partners, presented on Thursday the design of an addition to the station that is proposed for the north side on the Amtrak land at Lanvale Street that is currently a surface parking lot. But when a developer builds a station, then one doesn't just get a public transportation structure, but also a lot of stuff that generates income and makes the pro-forma work. And this presents only the first of a trifecta a problems that make this project so difficult. 

Gensler design proposal for station addition as seen from the southeast
(Screenshot from UDAAP presentation)

Geometry is the second. The tracks don't conform to Baltimore's Street grid but run in an angle. The historic Penn Station is a solitary landmark sitting  diagonally in the urban landscape. The designers decided to get back to the street grid and reconcile the angles in a variety of shapes. A train station also needs visibility and not disappear in a mundane building like the much hated "new" Penn Station in New York that is mostly visible through a large canopy. 

Lastly there is the issue of any bifurcated transportation facility: Where is what? Where is the main entrance, where is the ticket counter, where is my bus, my taxi or my pick up? Today any arriving or departing passenger has only one logical direction to go, the building is super obvious, except maybe for finding the light rail. With an addition which easily doubles the footprint of the station, there are always two ways to go and finding one's way will have to depend largely on signs. 

This diagram shows the geometric and functional
problems of this site (Screenshot)

The design team is savvy enough to understand these problems and covered UDAAP with a flurry of diagrams showing circulation, access points, multi-modal connections and opportunities for creating memorable spaces. There was talk of opportunity for "moving and lingering", there is a "stoop" and a "mixing bowl" and the idea of "trains as theater". The "material palette" of the old station is picked up and also contrasted. All in all there was plenty of that particular lingo that architects apply when things are too complicated to speak for themselves. And that is, in a nutshell, the problem with the design.

UDAAP's reception of the design was friendly but unenthusiastic. Architect Pavlina Ilieva, who chaired the review session, said that the form language of the north [addition] is too confusing vis a vis the clarity of the old main building. She summarized her concerns this way: “What I’m worried about is that, in the end, this train station will feel like .. an extension of the podium of the commercial building and it would never read like a train station". The two commercial towers, jammed onto the same lot as the station addition, and proposed for offices and apartments, were only outlined in the renderings.Their design and construction is supposed to come later. Certainly a dilemma for the review panel which also included architect Anthony Osborne and planner Cheryl O'Neill. 

The view of the historic station how it would present itself from the 
new train hall. (Photo: Philipsen)

O'Neill applauded the "train as a theater" concept and the large glass facade of the north addition which allows a full view of the historic building and the tracks below. Telling an architect that the view of the old building is the best thing his new building has to offer, is probably a double edged compliment. 

Anthony Osborne wasn't convinced about "the handshake" between the old and the new as it manifests itself where the historic concourse gets extended to cover an additional track and lead into the new train hall. His suggestion regarding the "complex juxtaposition of volumes" was to "simplify and not amplify" the complexity. Wise words, however it is a question what the designers can do with this advice, as long has they have to jam that much profitable volume into this limited site. 

Maybe it would be more successful to complement the station solitaire with another modern solitaire on the north lot that can be tall and slender, but does not conform to the edges of the street grid. In such an approach the north station hall would be little more than a connecting element between two solitaires, allowing rear access to the station but leaving all the main functions in the historic building. 

A swooping roof, a large picture window and an unsuccesful concourse 
"handshake" (Screenshot)

The even bigger challenge, though, goes to the City: What will Baltimore do to leverage this significant Amtrak investment so that high speed rail really creates transit oriented development on underutilized lots all around? 

A bigger masterplan also has to tackle the canyon of the JFX that separates the Station from Mount Vernon. Some type of lid seems to be in order. Baltimore's Amtrak station is too valuable to not leverage the opportunity. A new generation Acela trains will whisk passengers north and south in half hour intervalls. That's more often than the light rail that connects the station. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Pedestrian areas diagram (Screenshot)

Points of arrival diagram (Screenshot)

the historic concourse (Photo Philipsen)

the historic train hall (Photo Philipsen)

Friday, October 9, 2020

A drastically realigned Baltimore

 While Harbor Place announces one closure after another, Seawall reported that 250 vendors have applied for 55 stalls in the new Lexington Market. Does this stand for a new trend?

Indeed, there is also new energy around the refurbished Cross Street and Broadway Markets with people enjoying pop-up outdoor seating on rededicated parking and street spaces. These days, if one wants to meet people in the City one needs to go to the neighborhood "main streets" from Highlandtown to Canton, and from Middle East to Pennsylvania Avenue.  Downtown Baltimore remains deserted.

Seawall says that the want to be Lexington Market merchants are 60% local, 60% women owned

Downtown on Baltimore Street near Charles: 100% corner
(Photo Philipsen)
and 60% black owned, 35% are Asian. Oviously, some are several of those at once. Most of the businesses in the Inner Harbor , by contrast, are national chains. 

Pennsylvania Avenue and other local commercial strips are populated by nearby residents and essential workers getting around by transit. Downtown streets are empty because office workers now work from home and are stuck in the neighborhoods or suburbs. Tourists and conventioneers don't exist anymore, home-bound they, too are now zoomers. 

As in other cases, the pandemic has not created these conditions entirely from scratch but simply accelerated trends that have been in the making for years. 

Haven't people said for a long time that the Inner Harbor was too dominated by national chains to be even considered genuine Baltimore? Hasn't the auto dominance of Key Highway, Pratt and Light Streets created all kinds of proposals to end the grip of those streets that like a vice choke the life out of Harborplace? The mini malls at the harbor have been on the fritz long before COVID.

The internationally renowned Senior Fellow of the Urban Land Institute, Ed McMahon, a friend of Baltimore, told the Baltimore SUN: 

“T-shirts and mugs and crab memorabilia aren’t going to cut it anymore; you have to offer something unique that appeals to both tourists and locals,” Ed McMahon

The gap between relatively strong life in neighborhood centers and the lifeless downtown (and Inner Harbor) has been growing for a while, COVID only put it on steroids.  Office demand in downtown has been slow for years. Downtown residents which have filled many apartments on converted former office floors have never filled the streets as imagined, they can't replace the lunch-time crowds of office glory days, and in the evening downtown has still only little to offer. 

The slow conversion of downtown from work-center
to neighborhood (Photo Philipsen)
Should the accelerated trends persist beyond the acute pandemic, it would spell a new urban concept for Baltimore, always known as the "city of neighborhoods". 

It would be a  multi-nodal constellation with many neighborhood stars and downtown as a black hole, heavy and big, but without lights. In a less stark and more likely scenario, downtown would become just a regular, but centrally located neighborhood. Parts of Charles and Saratoga Streets could act as small-scale commercial hubs, but would not have a regional pull like Baltimore's downtown of the past. 

Such a constellation poses not only brand identity issues for downtown, but also severe economic questions. The old certainty that all neighborhood folks would naturally want to flock to  downtown as the "commons" of the entire region meets would be rendered a memory of a past. The downtown magnet had lost some attraction ever since the grand department stores closed. It was the Inner Harbor witch its tourists and conventioneers that allowed downtown boosters to hang on to the old idea a while longer.  Downtown as a financial and business hub has also faded for some time, with one business headquarters after another leaving. More and more office space became obsolete. 

The uncomfortable truth is that fewer and fewer people have good reasons to come downtown or even to HarborPlace. The notion of the central city as the sun in a galaxy with downtown as its hottest place, has been deeply ingrained in the minds of planners and politicians the world over. Time to replace it with the multi-nodal urban concept which has been present in the minds of regular people ever since they began flocking to the peripheral malls in lieu of the downtown department stores. 

Today only very few US downtowns live up to the image of Times Square in New York or Market Street in San Francisco. Baltimore hasn't had this vitality in a long time and all the heroic efforts have not changed a steady pace of declining importance, neither Charles Center, nor Center Plaza, the Arena, the Convention Center or the downtown sports stadia. The many new boutique hotels have added choices for tourists and conventioneers but their future is in question. The so-called Westside Renaissance ("The west has zest") has never been very zesty, even though large investments were actually made and the area was declared an arts district to boot. What works there is new housing and maybe, the brand-new Lexington Market. 

Nothing to do at the Inner Harbor?
"Urban planning is managing coexistence in shared space, the question is less what a city becomes but who in the city belongs" Julian Agyeman. Professor of Urban Planning, Tuft University

What are the lessons? To whom belongs downtown? What can downtown, the Inner Harbor and the Westside learn from Highlandtown, Remington, Canton, Federal Hill, Pigtown and Pennsylvania Avenue?

  • The central notion of Harborplace as Baltimore's "living room" was to reinvent the waterfront from  a rat infested stinking liability into an asset that neighborhoods could share. It was not to provide a playground for tourists. The initial stores were local and the concept was a marketplace not entirely unlike today's food halls. That original notion is still good, even though revitalized waterfronts have become a dime a dozen. But instead of trending towards homogeneity, Baltimore's uniqueness needs to be brought to the fore. Instead of Cheesecake Factory, Dicks, Ripley's and the awful pirate drinking ship, emphasize Domino Sugar, the view of the Key Bridge, the historic buildings such as the Sugar House and Recreation Pier, fishing and tugboats and the sale of fish fresh from a boat. 
  • The new design for Rash Field, the still attractive five-mile waterfront promenade and improved water taxi landings are amenities foremost for residents of the adjacent communities. This all will be great amenities for some time to come, no doubt. 
  • Let go of the pavilions and concentrate urban retail, restaurants and services around the outer edge of the harbor, across from Pratt and Light Streets. This would visually and functionally expand the sense of place of "HarborPlace" and open vistas of the water.
  • The neighborhood lesson of local retail and restaurants needs to be paired with the other lesson that COVID teaches us: Streets are for more than cars. The take-out food, sidewalk browsing, and the outdoor eating culture need to be brought into downtown streets as well.  
Los Angeles" Transportation manager Seleta Reynolds told National Public Radio's Marketplace host Kai Rhyssdal that in a crisis people have to reposition their assets. She meant LA's Streets, which like Baltimore's, have frequently been re-purposed for outdoor dining, walking, biking and quiet and safe outdoor space in front of residences. 

"Streets are actually public space. They’re just like parks or anything else. We who live in a city, we own them. And when we have a huge moment, like the one we’re living through now, where, you know, small businesses … we could see that they were all struggling. So we decided it was time to think differently about how we use that public space, and instead of using it to store cars, could we use it for restaurants to set up tables, for stores to sell to customers?" (Seleta Reynolds, Transportation Manager LA)

Thus, the freeway style five and six-lane speedways around the harbor would become single loaded urban boulevards with largely unimpeded views of the water. Downtown streets could expand their skinny sidewalks through "parklets" and sidewalk dining. 

To whom belongs the street? Outdoor dining in Fells Point 
(Photo Philipsen)
But the blueprint for a reimagined new spatial concept for Baltimore still needs an economic base. Residences, food markets and sidewalk dining alone are not enough to keep the city afloat. 

What will replace the conventioneers, the tourists and the ballgame crowds? Or even more urgent, what will replace the once dominant feature of downtown, the office? Even if 90% workers would slowly come back, a 10% permanent loss requires creative new ideas for replacement uses. Not to mention the restaurants and hotels which can't survive this coming winter.

Making parts of the old Market Center district an arts district was one of the promising ideas, especially if the downtown arts district would be the one, where all cultures can co-mingle and belong. Downtown can be the place for those ethnic festivals that haven't found a home in the neighborhoods. City Fair once functioned as such. The night market in the former Chinatown area was a big success. Many more sustainable solutions need still to be invented: New retail concepts that, like Apple stores, mix up the concept of sale and museum. Pop up work spaces that allow the type of mingling that some modern creative work requires could replace some corporate headquarters. Co-working spaces are here to stay.

To whom belongs the city?  Becoming vs belonging
(Photo Philipsen)

Maybe some types of clean manufacturing can return to downtown which once was also a center of the garment industry. Modern types of production can be clean, interactive and need no longer be hidden in ugly industrial zones without good access. 

Theaters, movie houses, museums, concert halls and show spaces are already in or near downtown, hopefully they can slowly be nursed back to life as truly regional magnets, possibly combined with temporary or permanent outdoor spaces where art can unfold safely, even in a pandemic. 

There are still more questions than answers. We can be pretty certain, though, that "the good old days" won't return. Given how segregated the city has been to date, a realignment was a necessity anyway.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Trash: The moral high-ground vs reality

 Of course, it would be better to recycle than to burn. Of course, dioxins are a devilish pollutant; of course is it reprehensible that incinerators, chemical facilities and polluters are concentrated near communities of low income, that cities are designed so that the poor live downwind from flu-stacks and the rich in the healthier air upwind. Of course, Baltimore is a non attainment area under the federal Clean Air Act and the trash incinerator known as the BRESCO plant (now owned by Wheelabrator) is the biggest stationary pollution source. And yes, air pollution adds complications to other diseases.

Incinerator (Baltimore Brew)

In light of this the Baltimore City Council created its own Baltimore City Clean Air Act that set such strict emission standards for the incinerator that it would have been forced to shut down. The alternative waste concept that the Council created is the Zero Waste Plan, an idealistic goal that is a bit a bit like God stating on the eighth day: "there shall be no trash". It would assume trashy Baltimore to become cleaner than tidy Zurich, Switzerland.

When this attempt failed in court for overreach and Mayor Young began to negotiate with Wheelabrator instead, outgoing councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke's came up with an even more god-like idea. She introduced the “Ban the Burn at Every Turn Act” (bill 20-0615) which would prohibit the City to even negotiate with any incinerator operator. This would prohibit Wheelabrator to entertain a settlement with Baltimore City which would allow some continued use of its incinerator. This bill would lift Baltimore to the loftiest moral high grounds possible. But inevitably, the dank and stinky valleys of the reality of trash. have not gotten any better.  The heroic theater is deeply impractical if one considers these stark realities:

  • the international system of recycling is on its knees, not least since American laziness fed it an unusably polluted mix of stuff resulting from single stream recycling so that China, the main recipient finally said, no more. 
  • the pandemic has put the use of plastic through packaging, online shopping and the use of disposable protective gear on steroids
  • which increased domestic garbage by as much as 30% in cities around the world
  • this, in turn brought Baltimore City's trash collection on its knees for months. DPW has abandoned curbside recycling and is not managing to pick up trash on time once a week in some neighborhoods 
  • trash has now an even more distinct presence in Baltimore alleys and neighborhoods that even in normal times are more trash strewn than those in most cities
Zero Waste is an admirable goal and Baltimore is not the only city to aspire to it. But even for the first steps such a plan needs many pieces to work, even in the beginning when low hanging fruit can be collected. San Francisco which aimed for Zero Waste in the first decade of this century managed to reduce trash by 50% in the first 5 years of its program and has become the Mecca of the US Zero Waste movement. San Francisco didn't believe in magic. Instead it made big investments and created a trash reducing regulatory framework. It bought an enormous sorting machine for recyclables, it banned plastic bags, styrofoam containers, introduced an elaborate composting system and made recycling mandatory. It has a fleet of trucks which collects trash in presorted categories. It all started a dozen years ago. This year should have been the end date to reach the final goal of the 12 year strategy: zero waste. What happened was not linear progress. After the first 4 year success (a 50% trash reduction) San Francisco's trash volume increased again. In 2020 it is bigger than it had been in 2012. The goal of Zero Waste has now been abandoned and a new target has been set for 2030, a 50% reduction of today's waste. 

Most would agree that Baltimore isn't San Francisco, and that goes both ways. It doesn't have to contend with a giant growth wave but it also doesn't have nearly the same resources.

In the short term, incineration or landfilling are the alternative for the trash that has not yet been avoided or recycled. Baltimore's Zero Waste plan recognizes that. Since its only own landfill on Quarantine Road will soon run out of space, the plan wants it expanded. Ironically the landfill sits in the center of the disadvantaged communities that the clean air activists claim are most impacted by the incinerator pollution. A landfill is an environmentally very undesirable way of taking care of trash, even though, it is probably the oldest method. In landfilling heat from the decomposing trash is wasted and methane, the gas that is created when organic matter decomposes, escapes into the air all over the landfill as long it isn't capped, and contributes to global warming. Methane is a many times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. But exact measurements of the pollution caused by landfills from trucks, methane and fluids that seep into groundwater or the Bay are hard to come by due to the nature of an ongoing spread-out operation.

By comparison, it is relatively easy to determine what comes out at the top of the incinerator flue stack. 
Friends and foes of incineration and cogeneration use incompatible arguments to make their points. 

Wheelabrator says incineration is more environmentally friendly than landfills. The Energy Justice advocates maintain that incineration is the dirtiest way of waste disposal. Hotly disputed is especially the slogan "waste to energy", the practice of using some of the heat from incineration for steam heating or electricity production, a process known as cogeneration. Energy Justice says on its website:
Incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste - far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy - far more polluting than coal burning.
The Energy Justice folks make fairly free wheeling assertions, as in their talk about waste and water vapor in this paragraph from their website:
Waste-to-Energy is a PR term. Trash-to-steam is also a lie (there is more in trash than water, thus more in incinerator pollution than water vapor). The reality is that incinerators waste 3-5 times more energy than they recover
Sure, now doubt that producing heat or energy by burning fuel is neither particularly efficient nor is it clean. Incineration creates more toxic emissions than fossil fuel (even coal) power plants, it shouldn't be recognized as a renewable energy, for example. But nobody sees incinerators as great powerplants.
Co-generation diagram

Cogeneration, simply means recouping some of the energy that gets set free when burning trash, either for electricity or for steam. 
Of course, the steam isn't generated from the waste itself! It gets created in a heat exchanger. The idea is to get something useful out of the trash, in this case steam that runs in a district heating system that warms downtown buildings, or runs a turbine to generate electricity. This side benefit can't be all bad. Wheelabrator states that about 65MW of electricity are generated that way, with about 1 MW feeding about 600 homes, this amount could serve up to 36,000 or so homes.  In total the 80 plus incinerators in the US provide only a tiny contribution to power generation. 

One can certainly call "waste to energy" a PR term. However, if waste has to be disposed of anyway, it is probably better to get something out of it than not. 

The opponents of incineration correctly state that most items that make up municipal waste, have too much value to be incinerated. Much could, indeed, be recycled, and much could be composted. But to discuss the matter in extreme terms doesn't lead to a solution.

That is why even countries that recycle a lot more than most States in the US, use incineration for the remainder of their refuse. Sweden burns about 50%. They use better incinerators than Baltimore's aging plant. The City would be well advised to keep negotiating with Wheelabrator about what they can contribute towards recycling, waste reduction, and fewer emissions through the installation of better scrubbers. This wouldn't negate the objective of waste reduction at the source. 

Klaus Phlipsen, FAIA

CityLab article about increased trash
Pro Wheelabrator commentary SUN
Brew article about Clarke bill
Anti Incinerator commentary SUN
Energy Justice website
West Palm Beach modern incinerator

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