Saturday, November 21, 2020

Grow the City!

People have been city attraction #1 (Danish architect Jan Gehl)

With Brandon Scott now elected Mayor and his first term imminent, good advice is pouring in from all sides. Priorities galore: Fix the schools, crime, equity, the justice system, the property taxes, vacant properties, potholes and transit. Create more jobs. The list is as long as it is daunting. Not to mention that the ongoing pandemic threatens to erase much of the recent progress in filling retail and restaurants places and making Baltimore's neighborhood streets lively.

Baltimore, a beautiful city awaiting to live up to its full potential
(Photo: Philipsen)

Wouldn't it be nice if there were one thing that could fix all those problems? Well, there is. There is one strategy that addresses all the above ailments. 

That one thing that can make a dent in everything listed above is growing Baltimore's population. While many have mentioned something to this effect over the years, it never became an official data based hard strategy. Only Stephany Rawlings Blake (SRB) established a specific growth goal (20,000 households), but her goal was more or less drawn from thin air. What residents Baltimore is losing, what people the city is gaining was never analyzed in detai. What are the reasons for those gains and losses and what are the implications for Baltimore's fiscal base, its services and the vitality of its neighborhoods? Speculation why people leave replaced analysis with everyone having their own favorite guess: Is it because of crime, bad schools, trash, lack of jobs? Or something different entirely? One known fact is that current flight is a reversal from the flight of the white middle class of the past. Today the majority of people leaving is black, and the majority of those coming in is white. Another fact is that Baltimore's tax base remained relatively stable in spite of the population loss because incoming people are wealthier, younger, more educated and pay more taxes than those who left.

Rawlings Blake and her administration never did the analysis and without it there couldn't be a systematic growth strategy. Even her growth target of 20,000 households had nothing to do with the carrying capacity of the City or a goal that address the massive housing vacancies. In spite of the general fuzziness of SRB's goal, her administration managed to keep the City from losing more people for some time. Mayor Young did not keep even the goal alive. Now the slide has become precipitous again. Time to revisit growth as a policy.

Abandonment through shrinkage (Photo: Philipsen)

Growing the City is not a universally accepted goal. There are those who say (I suspect Mayor Young is one of them) "take care of the people who are already here first". And then there are those who are afraid of change of any kind. Usually their concern is expressed in terms of gentrification, displacement and cultural shifts. The subtext: The likely influx of wealthier white people. 

“We have spent a lot of time and energy attempting to lure other people into our city without always prioritizing the population that lives here already” (Zeke Cohen, June 2019 to the Baltimore SUN) 

Taking care of existing residents and attracting new ones are not mutually exclusive goals, though. When existing residents flee to a higher degree than what in-migration can make up, there is a problem. Any growth strategy must include taking care of existing residents. The hole in the bucket needs to be plugged before filling it again can truly be successful. 

Births and migration in Baltimore's population (SUN)

Obviously, the matter isn't solely about numbers. Income, culture and jobs play a major role in the DNA of a city and therefore, those topics dominate the discussion. But, to say it again, growing the City is not a zero sum proposition. Besides, in a city that is 2/3 African American and where every fifth person lives in poverty, more diversity and more wealth is not only exactly what is needed, such increased diversity benefits everybody. 

Even the equity narrative which correctly assigns blame for the current conditions to systemic racism cannot undo a simple economic truth: A city can't fix its schools, its crime its housing or its transit without changing the sky high poverty rates and the total segregation of underserved, overburdened neighborhoods. It is necessary to fill a good portion of the vacant housing that reaches in some areas almost 50% of the building stock. It is necessary to add students of other income and education strata to lift the lowest achievement schools. To right this City takes lots of resources. Additional tax revenue from additional residents is a much more likely source for those resources than giant federal reparation payments, no matter how justified those would be. To gain additional residents, the City can take advantage of its unused capacity and infrastructure that was once gauged on nearly a million residents. 

More residents using housing, transit, better schools and quality services, be it grocery stores,  playgrounds, well kept parks, or better maintained streets is key for even maintaining existing services, let alone improving them. The burden needs to be placed on more shoulders, it is as simple as that. Only more people wanting to live in Baltimore and the added demand that comes from that will make grocery stores, employers, qualified teachers and police come to Baltimore. 

Critics will immediately jump on the suggestion that disinvested neighborhoods should get investment in order to attract new residents instead of simply serving the existing ones. But investments also serve current residents. The  fear of "gentrification" needs to be parsed out. What should be avoided is displacement not a better neighborhood.  Clearly, there will be a legitimate discussion about what exactly a better neighborhood is, but it should be obvious that it will be different from what we see today in the underserved and overburdened communities of our City.

Jobs in Baltimore: Scarce (Photo: Philipsen)

Baltimore's urban development discussions are mired in false alternatives and in an unproductive race confrontation that declares everything to be a zero sum game. As if every investment can only serve one purpose and one group and as if anything that benefits one group has to be to the detriment of the other. While there is no doubt that systemic racism has a history of actually creating those zero sum games, whether it was redlining, blockbusting or lopsided public investments, or ignoring cultural preferences of minority communities, these patterns cannot be assumed as the subtext of every initiative that brings investment to communities. Not if investments are done right. If done right, added value doesn't just mean higher taxes and rents, it also means more wealth in the hands of low income communities, i.e. wealth creation in the hands of previously disenfranchised groups. Higher costs such as rents and property taxes can be and must offset by building additional supply of housing in the lower price ranges, more vouchers, co-ops, land trusts and other measures that prevent low income renters being priced out of their neighborhoods. One can label this as a neoliberal approach because it is an approach within the mechanisms of the current economy, but Baltimore cannot create an all new economy all by itself, no matter how much some people argue for just such an isolationist approach.

The reality, of course, is complicated. Investment tends to go where returns are high and easy to get. Very few potential residents are eager to relocate to areas that would need investment the most. Very few investors consider investing there. Even public investments didn't go there with the result that the areas with the most needs received the least. This pattern prevails in spite of the federal Reinvestment Act. Other actions such as better off people sending their kids to private schools (which in turn receive public funds ) exacerbated the bifurcation: There was population growth in downtown and some come-back neighborhoods while poorer middle and low income neighborhoods saw increased urban flight, joined by previously stable neighborhoods which"tipped" into decline. 

But the once highly attractive investment areas are locally and nationally becoming less attractive when they are getting too expensive or run out of opportunities. Social Impact Investment has become a thing now. Public investment is scrutinized for implicit bias. New federal tax incentives are designed to reduce risk. Minority entrepreneurs and start up increasingly direct their attention to the needs of communities.

The good news is: Houses on the Baltimore real estate market are being snatched up at a record pace, in record time and at record prizes all across rich and poor neighborhoods. Many big cities have become unaffordable, additionally, some areas are now so impacted by fires, hurricanes that the beginning of "climate migration" seems to take shape. People look for affordable but attractive cities that are safe from hurricanes and fires. Baltimore is on the map as one of those places. 

Decline and growth of white population in Baltimore

The perennial critique has been that Mayors focus on downtown, while neighborhoods suffer, even though Mayor after Mayor swore to pay more attention to neighborhoods. But there is good news as well. Baltimore's uneven capital investments are getting flatter. Baltimore City has recognized the lopsided way in which capital investments have been made in the past, i.e. chiefly in what is known as the "white L", the areas where middle class people live. The New Baltimore Sustainability Plan, for example, has a very strong equity lens and investments are now continually checked for hidden bias.

Not only is investment now better distributed, most of the neighborhoods in the "white L" are no longer pure white either. The story isn't black and white, nor is it strictly binary. The up and coming neighborhoods are actually diverse, of course, those in the "black butterfly" are not. It is now widely recognized that it isn't acceptable that the majority of past funding benefitted the minority of people most. Baltimore has already engaged in investment in the Black Butterfly neighborhoods, whether it is school renovation, parks, playgrounds or road paving or bike lanes and scooter deployment. Anybody who wants to visit the once forgotten neighborhoods can see traces of these efforts, even if they often look like a drop in the bucket. Mayor Scott will continue and accelerate this trend.

As a result Baltimore, like other cities, is trending towards a polycentric urban model, away from the downtown centric model of the past. I have written about this in more detail in an article titled "A drastically realigned Baltimore".  In many ways, Baltimore has always remained a poly centric city and a new emphasis on neighborhood centers should come easy to our DNA.

Physically Baltimore has all that is needed to grow the city back.
(Photo Philipsen)

Another aspect to consider is COVID. In many respects the pandemic sets the country and the world back. But it must be understood, that the pandemic does not condemn cities to fail because of density. Density is not a driver of the pandemic. This has become now abundantly clear when rural areas surpass cities in terms of infection rates and mortality. In many ways, the pandemic highlights the need for quality gathering spaces and human contact. 

Taking advantage of Baltimore's low housing cost, record low mortgage and lending costs, as well as the existing interest in Baltimore as place to invest, presents a unique opportunity for the new Mayor to finally complete a sound analysis about Baltimore's population dynamics (who comes, who leaves and why), prepare a data-based strategy for retaining existing and attracting  new residents and build a massive campaign that aims to fill the many vacant houses and return them to a productive status. 

With the right framework that prevents displacement and with a possible federal recovery investment growing Baltimore is the most promising policy to reverse the many issues that ail this city. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Thursday, November 5, 2020

UDAAP: BIG designed Hopkins Student Center project does not recognize its surroundings

Johns Hopkins University doesn't waste any time in progressing with its new student center on the Baltimore Homewood campus. An Internal non public invited design competition was announced at the beginning of this year, a winner selected and announced on November 2nd, and a design review happened on November 5. That is truly a break neck pace for a project that was reported to cost as much as $250 million. 

Model of the proposed Hopkins Student Center at
33rd Street (Screenshot BIG presentation)

As reported on this blog, the winner of the design competition is the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a Danish architecture firm lead by a young architect who truly thinks big. His firm grew in only 15 years to 300 architects with projects worldwide, including the Google headquarter in the US. Some describe Bjarke Ingels as one of the most influential architects of our time.

Alas, the four appointed UDAP panelists were not overly impressed. The 150,000 sf Student Center was virtually presented by architect Leon Rost, a partner of  the BIG office in New York, and landscape architect Matthew Urbanski, partner at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, NYC. Rost described the design as a "radial scheme" which was derived from "literally cobbling the program together" and "assemble it in the most architecturally rational and contextually sensitive way without taking too much space". The major challenge was described as a complex program and opening the campus up to Charles Street  over a 48' grade difference. Rost stated that the design presents a "dynamic appearance towards Charles Street" and "is "providing accessibility by drawing people in" which then pass through and passing by "extremely engaging, airy, dynamic, cozy spaces". Interior stairs and elevators provide the route across the height difference.

Location plan and landscaping  (Screenshot BIG presentation)

When asked by panelist  Osborne Anthony about sustainability, BIG architect Rost explained that the team is "leaving no stone unturned to achieve sustainability, starting with site placement." As examples for green design approaches he mentioned  "south facing clear-stories which block out the summer sun and let in winter sun, the building's mass timber building construction with laminated timber slabs as well as photovoltaic cells on the many flat roofs, natural ventilation is being explored. 

Explaining the various outdoor plazas all around the building, the designers clarified that the "New Plaza" would be the most welcoming with the adjacent food-court and related outdoor seating. The "entry plaza" is intended more for going through. "The Grove" is intended as "a green space with picnic tables in the landscape" whereas the "The New Commons" is seen as "a new campus space". Design team member and landscape architect Urbanski described the relationship of the building complex and its site to Charles Street as a "balance between containment and visual penetration".

After the basic issues of massing, orientation and circulation had been explained and clarified, UDAAP members were not shy to express their misgivings, no matter how famous this architect. The initial poetic descriptions of the radial building shape as a "rose petal" (Osborne Anthony), "a 360 degree experience" and a "pinwheel" (Pavlina Ilieva), reviewers quickly descended into much more prosaic terms such as "spaceship", "glass bubble" and "aggregated boxes" (Ilieva). Reviewer Anthony said about the rose petal: "I am not seeing the merits of that" and a little bit later, "I am not seeing that it needs that radial concept". He described the circulation as "not very intuitive" and reminded the designers that circulation "is the most important aspect of a campus". He found that "the footprint seems to bee too large for the site" and added that "the fundamental flaw, or maybe not flaw, but challenge, is the entry plaza at 33rd street". He wondered what those would do who may not want to get into the building. He summarized: "What I am not seeing translated is hierarchy in terms of circulation and volumes" 

 (Screenshot BIG presentation)

Panelist Sharon Bradley commented that "the massing works well with the existing topography" but added: "Where I am concerned is the horizontal massing and the relation to the other buildings around it." She noted that "in campus planning, that's one of the most important aspects." She said that the building site is "a key parcel on the site" but bemoaned that the building fills the [entire] site, "walking around it is not as well articulated" and "forcing people through the building" would be not the right way to provide a gateway to the campus." She also critiqued that the "monument [on 33rd Street] has been reduced to a sidebar".

Reviewer Cheryl O'Neill echoed some of the comments of her colleagues: This design is "entirely program driven" she said, with. "no recognition of all of the surroundings". She didn't like that the building doesn't align with Charles Street. "I would challenge the rotation of the building which disengages it from Charles Street and the surrounding buildings and gives you too many residual spaces. It sticks an elbow out to Charles street." She found that "there is only a one way conversation, it needs to be a two way conversation". "Maybe there could be more differentiation of those spaces"  and suggested the designers review their design again "more from a site perspective and not from a building perspective".

Rendering provided by Hopkins (BIG)

Ilieva told the architect, "you used the word "welcoming" a lot", and then asked "can you describe how each side of the 360-experience accomplishes that other than having glass? She also criticized the need to pass through the building for campus access. Ilieva, also on the faculty of Morgan State University, lectured: 'There are two approaches ...formal...and informal" and noted that the proposed design is the informal approach. She continued "this [design] is clearly an inside-out program-driven approach. If you take this approach, then all the resulting conditions need to be carefully resolved". She lauded that "the village idea is really strong" but "the problem is the entire diagram becomes ...this spaceship that landed there. This is where the scheme falls flat" she judged and critiqued the "forced sense of sameness when you go around the building". Adding, "there is an opportunity that is less a foreign object"  and suggested to "recover some of the big ideas with which you started", suggesting that "the way to get there is a sense of hierarchy." "There is more to porosity than 'there is a glass door there' and suggested "other opportunities to creating welcoming spaces". "Make the campus welcoming other than [just saying] there is a brand-new building."

North South section of the four-story Building  (Screenshot BIG presentation)

At UDAAP reviews, architects get little chance to defend their design beyond explaining  in the beginning of their presentation how the design came about. They are expected to reflect the comments in the next more detailed review round of the project. According to Laurie Feinberg who manages the UDAAP sessions, zoning in this location makes a UDAAP presentation odor large new construction projects mandatory.

Lower floor plans (UDAAP screenshot)

It remains to be seen what BIG will make of the fairly drastic critique. The criticism was fundamental and challenged the DNA of the design. Taking the comments to heart would require a full redesign. Lee Coyle Sr., Director of Planning & Architecture at Hopkins facilities, who briefly introduced the project, did not lift the secrecy around the competition that preceded the selection of BIG and did not elaborate on whether the competition was more design or more qualifications based. A design-based selection would mean that Hopkins is vested into the design concept as presented.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

BIG's da Vinci code of architecture comes to Hopkins

BIG is the name of the Bjarke Ingels Danish architecture Group that made it big with projects like the Hyperloop design for the United Emirates, Google headquarters a new tower at the World Trade Center site in New York (construction has started), the "courtscraper" Via 57 West in New York and the Lego House in Denmark, the home of LEGO.

The proposed 150,000 sf new JHU Student Center (Image: BIG)

Now a version of the Lego house will come to Baltimore in form of the new student design center for the Johns Hopkins University. 

"The Da Vinci code of architecture is somehow rooted in the proportions of LEGO bricks.” (Ingels)

JHU announced Monday that they had selected the design of the brash Dane as the winner of its design competition that had been announced in January of this year. 

The new landmark will will serve as a gateway to the Homewood campus at the intersection of 33rd and Charles streets. Currently the Mattin Center sits in the same space, a 2001 attempt of creating a gateway landmark with well known architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and their modern architecture. Its design was also the result of a competition. 

Planning for a new student center goes back to a 2012 study, the subsequent creation of a task force and the later feasibility study by Ann Beha architects. All identified the site of design award winning Mattin Center as the ideal nexus between town and gown. That sealed the fate of the not even 20 year old buildings. The three brick clad volumes of the Mattin Arts Center comprise only 50,000 sf, too small for Hopkins big dreams of a $250 million 150,000 sf student center. The Mattin and its complicated wayfinding through the mini-campus has also been seen as unsuccessful as a welcoming gateway building. According to a Hopkins Provost the Baltimore office of Gensler was tasked with finding replacement space for functions currently in the Mattin complex.
"As the needs of our student body have evolved, so has the desire for a different and dedicated student center taken hold.This will be a new kind of space for us—one that is not academically focused, but entirely social by design…It will be a site to which everyone lays equal claim and from which everyone benefits.” Ron Daniels, President Johns Hopkins University
Campus view of the new Student Center (Image: BIG)

If one follows Hopkins' read of the process, the selection of BIG's design was a democratic process that involved all stakeholders of the university. 
With more than 8,000 comments provided over the course of 25 feedback events—including focus groups, drop-in feedback sessions, and input-gathering during the Student Involvement Fair and the Welcome Back Block Party—JHU identified six key elements that the student body wanted to be part of the student center. (The Hub)
But nothing is reported about the three other design competition contenders or how their design looked. An inquiry with Hopkins did not yield an answer beyond the public Hub articles. Apparently who else competed with what design is intended to remain under wraps.  With that the jury and selection certainly didn't follow standard international architecture competition standards in which transparency is key. 

With the selection of a Bjarke Ingels design Hopkins follows the path of hiring highly regarded architects to create signature buildings on campus which has brought about memorable buildings on university campuses in America. In 2018 JHU selected the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to design the a new interdisciplinary center called the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute.

The student center design, however has none of the BIG daring gestures that put the Danish Group on the map around the world. But the building will do what the Mattin center didn't do: Provide a inviting and open gesture at the seam between campus and city. After the recent total transformation of 33rd street east of Charles Street, a building in this location is less a gate to the campus and more of a transition to the city. The glass facades and modernist stacked rectangular blocks are a stark departure from Hopkins mostly traditional campus architecture of brick and stone. BIG as well as Piano would continue a pattern in which Baltimore selects a famous architect but gets a re-cast rather than an original breakthrough. The architecture repeats gestures already practiced elsewhere, in Ingels' case, it appears to be the LEGO house in Billund, Denmark. This pattern was also apparent in Mies van der Rohe's One Charles Center and Highfield House, Pei's World Trade Center, and Safdie's Cold Spring houses.
The 110,000 sf  LEGO House, Billund Denmark: "Guggenheim of 
white cubes" (Ingels)

Bjarke Ingels (born 1974) is different in that he is still an impetuous  young man when he comes to Baltimore. The BIG's history goes only back to 2005. Impressively, the list of projects is longer than what most architects can achieve in a lifetime. It can be expected that he or his staff will mix things up here. 
The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) seems to have an outsized impact in all it does. The Copenhagen-based design firm turns conventions and assumptions upside down and combines contrasting possibilities in outrageously bold, imaginative and playful ways. Projects like Via at West 57th Street in New York City and the Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant in Copenhagen are prime examples: the first a pyramid-shaped apartment building that defies the forest of rectangular towers around it, and the second a power plant that doubles as a smoke ring-blowing ski slope.(ArchDaily)

The 2001 Mattin Art Center to be demolished (Google)

Hopkins and Ingels, it should be an interesting mix, especially if it is true that the architect "has an outsized impact in all he does". Baltimore could use it.

The new Hopkins Student Center is scheduled to open in 2024. Its funding is said to be secured according to President Daniels. The Design will be reviewed by the City design review panel UDAAP this week.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA 

The Hopkins Student Center as seen from the east across Charles Street at 33rd Street
(Image: BIG)

Yeah. I mean, I think whenever you are making a new project, you are of course imagining and solving and building a fragment of the future. So whenever you're doing that, you have the possibility to push this little part of society, this little part of the city one step closer towards the kind of city we would want to live in.(Ingels)

Via 57 West "courtscraper" New York City (Photo: Kirsten Bucher)